While defending their freedom in public life, Catholics must also renew the Church spiritually, starting in their own lives, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said in a June 20 address to journalists.
“Politics and the courts are important. But our religious freedom ultimately depends on the vividness of our own Christian faith; in other words, how deeply we believe it and how honestly we live it,” the archbishop told attendees of the 2012 Catholic Media Conference in downtown Indianapolis.
In his remarks to reporters and other Catholic media professionals, the Philadelphia Church leader observed that religious freedom “is an empty shell if the spiritual core of a people is weak.”
“The worst enemies of religious freedom aren’t 'out there' among the legion of critics who hate Christ or the Gospel or the Church or all three. The worst enemies are in here, with us, all of us, clergy, religious and lay, when we live our faith with tepidness, routine and hypocrisy.”
Archbishop Chaput delivered his address on the eve of the U.S. bishops' “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign of prayer and advocacy, inspired by the Health and Human Services contraception mandate and other threats to the free exercise of religion.
His remarks touched on the mandate, along with related areas of concern, including efforts to drive the Church out of adoption and foster care and the government's attempt to control a religious school's self-governance in the Hosanna-Tabor Supreme Court case.
Such threats, he warned, could push the U.S. in the direction of Canada and Britain, where the Church's freedom of speech and action is already compromised.
The U.S. Constitution would prove to be nothing more than “an elegant piece of paper” if Catholics and other citizens were not willing to stand up for their rights, he said.
But the Church's most serious challenges, the Philadelphia archbishop observed, are internal and spiritual in nature. He urged the faithful to “look honestly at the arc of Catholic history” in the U.S. as a guide to the deeper problems facing the Church at present.
“American Catholics began as an unwelcome minority,” he recalled. “The Church built her credibility by defending and serving her people. She developed her influence with the resources her people entrusted to her. A vast amount of good was done in the process.
“But two other things also happened. The Church in the United States became powerful and secure. And Catholics became less and less invested in the Church that their own parents and grandparents helped to build.”
Success and stability allowed many clergy to fall “out of touch with reality,” while some lay Catholics grew eager “to lose themselves in America’s culture of consumerism and success.”
“These problems kill a Christian love of poverty and zeal. They choke off a real life of faith. They create the shadows that hide institutional and personal sins. And they encourage a paralysis that can burrow itself into every heart and every layer of the Church,” the archbishop reflected.
It is partly due to these problems, he suggested, that his own Archdiocese of Philadelphia “is now really mission territory, again, for the second time.” And so, too, is “much of the Church in the rest of our country.”
The way forward, meanwhile, lies in the rediscovery of Jesus' true person and message as the basis for a faith that can stand against assaults, both from outside and from within.
“We live in a world of illusions when we lose sight of who Jesus Christ really is and what he asks from each of us as disciples,” the archbishop said, pointing out that the “real Jesus” continues to call the faithful to a “life of honesty, heroism and sacrifice.”
Only by obeying this call will Catholics “become people worthy of” the religious freedom they are called to defend.
“We work best for religious freedom by first opening our hearts to God’s will instead of our own, and loving our country and our Church, and renewing the witness of the Church with the zeal and purity and obedience of our own lives,” Archbishop Chaput said.
“That freedom, that joy, no one can ever take from us.”