Religious Freedom Then and Now

Our country celebrating its independence on Monday gives us a good opportunity to reflect on religious freedom in the United States. Religious freedom is a struggle for Catholics now as it was at the beginning of our nation, unfortunately. Almost 250 years ago, there was much “anti-Roman” sentiment among American Protestants, probably because they felt that American Catholics were more loyal to the Vatican than the U.S. There was even a “Pope’s Day” which mocked the Pope and all Catholics with him. When George Washington ended this atrocity, the first bishop in the U.S., Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore, rejoiced:

“It is wonderful to tell what great civilities have been done to me in this town, where a few years ago a popish priest was thought to be the greatest monster in creation. Many here, even of their principal people, have acknowledged to me that they would have crossed to the opposite side of the street rather than meet a Roman Catholic some time ago. The horror which was associated with the idea of a papist is incredible; and the scandalous misrepresentations by their ministers increased the horror every Sunday.”

Fast forward to the insights and concerns of the current Archbishop of Baltimore, William Lori, regarding the state of religion and religious liberty:

“While the United States remains by and large a believing society, a growing number of people are settling for a style of life that marginalizes God, a way of living in which God and the things of God don’t really count. Some continue a cultural attachment to an organized religion but many others have opted to list themselves as “nones” – those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” and who do not belong to a church and seldom if ever go to church. Indeed, we have seen weekly Mass attendance drop from an all-time high of about 75% of registered parishioners in 1958 to something in the neighborhood of 25% today. When asked why they don’t attend Mass regularly, many rank church attendance lower than other things they deem top priorities, such as sporting events, work and school, and family activities. Others will say it’s because they don’t find Mass meaningful and still others have issues with the Church and its leadership.

Some researchers would classify Catholics on a continuum that includes:

  • Angry and disaffected Catholics
  • Occasional Catholics
  • Conflicted Catholics
  • Comfortable parishioners
  • Missionary disciples…

Let us be clear what religious freedom means. It does not merely mean the freedom to escape cooperation with evil by the skin of one’s teeth – but rather the space necessary to create in our institutions a culture of life, a culture that respects the teachings of the faith that inspires and shapes the charitable, social, and educational services we are providing. The teachings themselves, to repeat, embody the mercy of a Savior who came to bring us a truth that would set us free; the institutions that are under challenge are places of mercy that seek to bring the healing balm of truth, love, and human skill to the spiritual, emotional, and physical wounds of human existence, to be indeed the “field hospital” amid a culture where many are wounded daily. Were we merely to collapse under the weight of the pressure we face and allow our institutions ‘to go along to get along’ … we would not be serving the cause of mercy but quite the opposite.”

Catholics have played an immense role in the freedom of Americans. Our ancestors even helped with the wording of our First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”.

Let us pray for the free exercise of religion in our land so that we may worship the Lord and serve our neighbor.

May you know the peace of Christ,

Fr Greg