Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

American freedom and the Catholic Church

Saturday, June 28, 2014

On June 20, Pope Francis spoke to a conference in Rome on international religious liberty and the global clash of values. “Religious freedom,” the pope said, “is not just a matter of thought or private devotion. It is the freedom to live — both privately and publicly — according to the ethical principles that are a consequence of the truth found.”

Pope Francis’ statement explains why the U.S. bishops are again asking Catholics and others to mark a “Fortnight for Freedom,” two weeks between June 21 and July 4. June 21 is the feast of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, who were martyred under King Henry VIII when he usurped the right to govern the church in his kingdom, replacing the pope, the authentic vicar of Christ. The fortnight ends on July 4, the holiday that commemorates our national independence. Independence from foreign government does not necessarily mean that people will be free under their own government. People can freely create a state that destroys a free society.

The headlines these days speak of civil war in Iraq and Syria, but the stories from the Middle East seldom mention the Christian minorities who have lived there for centuries. These communities, our brothers and sisters in faith, are now disappearing, living in fear of being kidnapped and even killed, as many have been. Pope Francis himself has pointed out that religious persecution is more widespread today than it was 1,700 years ago.

In this country, we do not fear being killed for our faith. What, then, are we afraid of? We are afraid that the institutions that perform the works of mercy that have been integral to the church’s mission for centuries will be forced to become, effectively, government institutions, given permission to exist only if they do not act as Catholic. At stake are Catholic hospitals, Catholic universities and Catholic social services, precisely as Catholic. At stake also is a society that once permitted many different voices and faiths to contribute to the common good without compromising their collective conscience.

The issue has clustered around the HHS mandate that insists that any institution serving the public must treat women’s fertility as an enemy to be suppressed for the sake of women’s freedom. In fact, the government has made many exceptions to this rule, but has steadfastly refused to exempt Catholic institutions. The issue is therefore in the courts.

The imposition of a definition of marriage that destroys the natural meaning of marital union is becoming another test case for religious liberty. The law now holds that men and women are interchangeable in marriage, as if children did not need both a mother and a father to be born and raised with some security. These are laws that mark societies in decline, demographically as well as morally.

What has happened to our vaunted American liberties? Except for property rights, they are all being traded off in favor of freedom of sexual expression. That “freedom” has become the trump card in almost every social dispute. While the public conversation plays the game of liberal versus conservative, there is really only one issue: freedom versus tyranny, a tyranny masquerading as compassion and suppressing legally differences that seem to threaten abstract “equality.”

Americans are concerned about the economy, and rightly so. We are concerned with the loss of our place in the world, and rightly so. We should also be concerned that we are on the wrong side of what nature teaches us and therefore, at least over the long run, headed for historical failure as a society.

We are being asked to pray for our country and its liberties, and many parishes will be remembering this intention as we prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July. What gives us every reason to hope is the many good people who ask God to bless themselves, their families and our country. That is our prayer during this “Fortnight for Freedom.” This Fourth of July, let us extend our prayer to include Christians around the world who are living in fear because of their faith in Christ, and let us also keep before the Lord those who are a threat to religious freedom, here and abroad. God bless them and you.


  • pope francis
  • middle east