Bishop Lori Addresses General Assembly on Religious Liberty
Let us make no mistake. Aggressive secularism is also a system of belief
How do we, as pastors and citizens, bring into focus our teaching on religious liberty? What should we be looking for and what do we see? And how should we respond to what we see? In short, religious liberty pertains to the whole person - it is not simply the freedom to believe and to worship but to shape our very lives around those beliefs and that worship, both as individuals and as a community, and to share our lives, thus transformed, with the world around us.
Watchmen for the Church In a homily which we read on his feast day, Gregory the Great comments on the Word of the Lord addressed to Ezekiel: "Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel" (Ez. 33:7). The saintly pontiff adds: "Note that a man whom the Lord sends forth as a preacher is called a watchman. A watchman always stands on a height so that he can see from afar what is coming. Anyone appointed to be a watchman for the people must stand on a height, for all his life, to help them by his foresight" (Pope St. Gregory the Great, Homily on Ezekiel, Bk. 1, 11).
Gregory compared his ministry to that of a watchman. So too, we bishops are called to be vigilant heralds of the Word and overseers of the household of God.
For some time now, we have viewed with growing alarm the ongoing erosion of religious liberty in our country. During our last plenary meeting, we decided to make the defense of religious liberty a Conference priority and embraced our responsibility to address head-on threats to this precious freedom.
In consultation with the Administrative Committee, Archbishop Dolan established an Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty now comprised of ten bishops, ably assisted by excellent consultants, and skillfully supported by our new Associate General Secretary, Anthony Picarello, with two additional staff - a lawyer and a lobbyist In addition, we will rely on the collaboration of an extraordinary number of bishops and the expertise of our Conference staff.
So now, brothers, let us ask ourselves: How do we, as pastors and citizens, bring into focus our teaching on religious liberty? What should we be looking for and what do we see? And how should we respond to what we see?
II. Bringing Our Teaching into Focus
The Second Vatican Council calls us "to read the signs of the times" and to do so, as it were, through binoculars equipped with the two lenses.
First is the lens of the Church's teaching on human dignity and religious liberty, a dignity and freedom inscribed on the human heart and revealed fully in Christ.
Second is the lens of that heritage bequeathed by the Founding Fathers: a bold Declaration of Independence that recognizes inherent human rights, "endowed by their Creator"; and the Constitution with its Bill of Rights that accords a certain primacy to our freedom to respond to that Creator, in every aspect of our lives, without undue government interference, along with the indispensable adjuncts of freedom of speech and assembly.
Our experience tells us that it takes a lot of work to keep our binoculars in focus, that is to say, to maintain a critical and accurate understanding of how the vision of our Founding Fathers and the vision of the Church's teaching on religious liberty fit together. As historians in this room know so well, the relationship of the Church and the American experiment came into focus only gradually and will always need careful re-focusing. Nonetheless, both lenses, when allowed to function as intended, offer a remarkably clear vision of human dignity and freedom.
This remarkably clear vision includes the following:
- An understanding that basic human freedoms are inherent to human dignity coupled with an understanding that our freedoms are granted not by the State but rather are given to us by our Creator. As President John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, the rights for which our forebears fought "come not from the generosity of the State but rather from the hand of God" . . even as the Church teaches that "the ultimate source of human rights is not found in the mere will of human beings, but in man himself, and in God his Creator."
- If religious liberty is prior to the state and not a privilege the government grants and so may take away at will, then we rightfully look to our government to fulfill its duty to protect religious liberty, to promote tolerance among various religious faiths and those who profess no faith, and broadly to accommodate the place of religion in American life.
- In the vision of our Founding Fathers, religious liberty occupied pride of place. The Bill of Rights ranks it first in the "honor roll of superior rights", (to use the phrase of Henry Abraham, a noted constitutional scholar). So too, Pope Benedict XVI recently stated that "[Religious liberty] is the first of human rights, not only because it was the first to be recognized but also because it touches the constitutive dimension of man, (viz.,) his relationship with his Creator" (Pope Benedict XVI, ...
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