As we Americans prepare to celebrate Independence Day less than two weeks from now, we American Catholics are observing the fifth annual Fortnight for Freedom declared by our bishops, a two-week period of prayer, fasting, education, and activism in support of religious liberty that always begins on June 21 and ends on the Fourth of July. Recognizing the increasing frequency and intensity of the attacks on freedom of religion by militant secularists, especially in our government and the courts but also in the media and our educational and cultural institutions, in the spring of 2012 our bishops published an important pastoral letter entitled "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty." In this document, our shepherds recalled America's rich tradition of religious freedom spanning four centuries; listed more than a dozen examples of recent attacks on that freedom; called the faithful to be vigilant in defending their hard-won religious liberties against the ever-mounting assault of radical secularism; and finally announced the first annual Fortnight for Freedom, which was promoted by EWTN and observed by Catholics across the United States.
Of course, the main event that led our bishops to establish this annual observance was the controversial HHS mandate bombshell dropped by the Obama administration in January of 2012, which demanded that health insurance plans across the country include artificial contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients regardless of religious or moral objections to the distribution of such items. Although this mandate--the crucial centerpiece of the massively unpopular Affordable Care Act, generally known as ObamaCare--is still on the books four and a half years later, having been unfortunately upheld by the Supreme Court along with the rest of the ObamaCare travesty as somehow "constitutional" in June of 2012, dozens of lower court rulings against it have provided temporary injunctive relief to scores of Catholic and other Christian religious groups, healthcare providers, charitable organizations, universities, media entities, and other institutions that have rightly refused to comply with this unjust law despite the threat of crushing tax penalties. Furthermore, last year the Supreme Court ruled that most businesses that object to compliance with the mandate on religious grounds should be permanently exempt from it. So while some progress has been made against this particularly egregious and unconstitutional attack on our religious liberties, more remains to be done: it must be completely overturned.
Like the other freedoms we enjoy as Americans such as freedom of speech and of the press, freedom to peaceably assemble, and freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances, freedom of religion is a gift from our Creator that is guaranteed by our Constitution and must accordingly be protected by our government. No one should be forced into providing anti-life products and services that he or she considers immoral, against the dictates of his or her religion and conscience.
However, as Yuval Levin pointed out in an article in First Things magazine several months ago, we should beware of too narrowly individualistic, negative, and subjective an approach to religious liberty. Freedom of religion must not be confined to simply obtaining and retaining exemptions for certain individual persons and organizations that refuse to obey the law because they consider it wrong. Rather than being limited to a condescending exception for certain seemingly fanatical individuals within our society, religious liberty should be the rule for our society as a whole, as it was once upon a time. The idea here, which originated with our nation's founders, is that American society will flourish when all of its members are allowed to freely exercise their religious beliefs together as a community. In addition, it is fundamentally misguided to oppose the HHS mandate simply because we Catholics consider it an unjust law that attacks our religious liberties and moral conscience rights or simply because we Catholics regard contraceptives and abortifacients as immoral drugs. Such arguments are too narrowly focused and too subjective to be really convincing in the long run, and our radically secularist opponents have already seized on those weaknesses to bolster their own position. We must go deeper, building our defense on the bedrock of natural law and objective truth. Ultimately, we seek to rid America of the HHS mandate, not simply because we Catholics consider it an unjust law, but because it is an unjust law--not only for Catholics, but for pro-life Americans of all faiths and even for pro-life atheists. It isn't just an attack on our religious liberties and moral conscience rights; it's an attack on the natural law established by our Creator and upon our sacred right as human beings to act in accordance with that law.
Anchored firmly in the natural law, the concept of ordered liberty was a key founding principle of our nation that unfortunately is largely forgotten today. In a remarkably Catholic view of this concept, the Founders regarded freedom not as the totally unrestricted ability of human beings to do whatever the heck they may want to do, but rather as the ability to do what they ought to do, what they should do. While the freedom our Creator has given us is indeed very broad, it does have certain limits that He has laid down for our own good, and those limits are defined by the natural law, which is accessible to human reason. As long as we obey the natural law and thus act in accord with right reason, we remain truly free as individuals and as a nation. Morally speaking, to violate the natural law is an abuse of freedom, which was once commonly referred to as license or permissiveness. A big part of the problem with America today is that we have largely abandoned this rational concept of ordered liberty rooted in the Creator's natural law in favor of a nebulous, ill-defined sort of "freedom" that is ultimately a product of moral relativism. In the past, our nation had laws prohibiting obscenity, indecency, and pornography in printed material and radio broadcasts; these entirely reasonable laws, which reflected the natural law, benefited our society by discouraging certain forms of immorality, which naturally helped to protect our freedom. No one at the time ever claimed that these laws violated anyone's right to freedom of speech. But if someone today advocates for bringing back such laws, he or she is derided as a crackpot fundamentalist who opposes freedom of speech. That's a shame. We must revive this forgotten concept of ordered liberty based on "the laws of nature and nature's God" in order to re-learn the true meaning of freedom, so that we can preserve this treasure and hand it on to future generations.
This is the first full Fortnight for Freedom since the Supreme Court's infamous ruling last June that overturned dozens of state marriage laws by elevating immoral homosexual relationships to the legal status of marriage throughout the country. As with the Obama administration's HHS mandate, this terribly misguided and wrong decision is not just a major attack on our religious liberties, but constitutes an assault on the Creator's natural law, in which the union of a man and a woman is the primary social institution for the good of the couple, their children, and the whole society. As we fight to defend our religious freedom on this particular front, our well-reasoned arguments must be grounded in the objective truth of the natural law and borne out by the personal witness of our own lives in order to resonate with the widest possible audience and effectively influence public opinion.
Returning to what was said above about the communal aspect of religious freedom, it should be underscored that only a truly religious people will value, fight for, protect, and defend their religious liberty. America's founders and colonists who fought for our independence from Britain and established our nation were deeply religious people of devout Christian faith, and we considered ourselves a Christian country until very recently. As the pseudo-religion of radical secularism increasingly dominates American society and strives to supplant the Judeo-Christian philosophy that made us a great nation, the question naturally arises as to whether we will remain a religious people tenaciously committed to defending our first freedom in an increasingly hostile cultural climate, or whether we will eventually surrender to the forces of militant secularism and allow this cherished freedom to be stolen from us by a handful of godless elitist pirates who have commandeered our Ship of State. It is to be hoped that we the people will retain the courage to stand up and retake control of our nation from the high priests of radical secularism; to recover and proudly reassert our nation's traditional Christian identity; and to consistently and vigorously defend the religious liberties and moral conscience rights of all Americans of good will, so that we can pass this great land on to our children and grandchildren as "one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all".
Mary Immaculate, Patroness of the United States, pray for us!