WASHINGTON — The striking confluence of the beginning of the Year of Faith and the annual recognition of Respect Life Month, set amidst the backdrop of a contentious election season, deepened both the sense of urgency and hope at the Oct. 14 Mass and Pilgrimage for Life and Liberty in Washington.
“For some time now, both life and liberty have been under assault by an overarching, Godless secularism, replete with power and money, but sadly lacking in wisdom, both human and divine: a secularism that relentlessly seeks to marginalize the place of faith in our society,” said Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore in his homily to the thousands gathered at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Archbishop Lori, the chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty for the U.S. bishops' conference, offered a walking tour of the slippery slope of a culture that, he said, denies God as the source of rights and as the one in whose image and likeness all human persons are created.
“When man and woman are no longer perceived to be created in the image of God, then, sooner or later, their lives and their liberties become dispensable,” he said.
This repudiation of God, Archbishop Lori suggested, has fueled a cascade of attacks on the inalienable dignity of the human person, from abortion and euthanasia to the “dismantling of the most fundamental unit of society, the family, by seeking to upend marriage as a God-given institution that is unique for a reason.”
These policies have been advanced in the name of “freedom of choice,” said the archbishop, also pointing out that their advocates reveal little concern for the rights of those who conscientiously oppose them. Instead, Archbishop Lori said, “Our ‘right to choose’ — our right to choose to practice the faith we profess — a right guaranteed by the First Amendment — seems to mean little or nothing to many who wield power.”
The archbishop’s homily underscored Church leaders’ strong concern about the threat that the federal contraception mandate poses to the free exercise religion by Catholic social agencies, universities and hospitals.
The Obama administration has repeatedly sought to dismiss the significance of the controversy generated by the Health and Human Services' mandate, despite the fact that about 100 plaintiffs have filed legal challenges against the federal law.
Bishops Repudiate Biden
The issue exploded to the surface during the vice-presidential debate just three days before the Mass and Pilgrimage for Life and Liberty.
Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., squared off in a historic debate between two Catholics running for the office.
Both candidates were asked to explain their personal views on abortion, and Ryan used that opportunity to signal his commitment to life and the defense of religious liberty.
“Look at what they're doing through Obamacare, with respect to assaulting the religious liberties of this country, ” he said. “They're infringing upon our first freedom, the freedom of religion, by infringing on Catholic charities, Catholic churches, Catholic hospitals. Our Church should not have to sue our federal government to maintain their religious liberties.”
Vice President Biden responded, “With regard to the assault on the Catholic Church, let me make it absolutely clear: No religious institution — Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic Social Services, Georgetown Hospital, Mercy Hospital, any hospital — none has to either refer contraception; none has to pay for contraception; none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact.”
The morning after the debate, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released a blunt statement that challenged Biden’s assertion. “This is not a fact,” stated the bishops’ conference in direct repudiation to Biden’s implication that Catholic concerns about the mandate had been effectively resolved.
During his homily, Archbishop Lori underscored the threat posed by the HHS mandate, briefly explaining that the law “will require most religious and private employers to fund and facilitate abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations and contraception against their convictions if they engage in hiring or offering services deemed by the government to be ‘secular.’”
Archbishop Lori also appeared to address another moment of the vice-presidential debate, when Biden stated, “Life begins at conception in the Church's judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others.”
Archbishop Lori cited the “personally opposed” formulation as further evidence of secularism’s devastating “inroads” in the conscience of believers and in the broader culture.
“Dear friends, secularism is able to make such inroads against life and liberty primarily because so many people have set aside their religious faith by ceasing to practice their faith or by compartmentalizing it in their lives, like elected officials who say they are personally opposed to intrinsic evils, such as abortion, while doing everything in their power to promote them,” said the archbishop.
The Bigger Picture
But the Mass and pilgrimage at the National Shrine was not first and foremost about the election.
Deirdre McQuade, assistant director of policy and communications for the U.S. bishops' Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, said after the Mass, “It’s completely within the Church’s rights […] to speak to the issues, day in and day out, whether an election’s coming up or not.” She noted that the Church has the powerful capacity to “shape minds and hearts.”
Hillary Byrnes, assistant general counsel and staff attorney to the USCCB's Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, said that the dangers facing the nation’s free exercise of religion are many and originate from various levels of government, dealing with an array of policies on immigration, same-sex "marriage," the redefinition of marriage and abortion.
The afternoon of prayer for religious liberty — including a Mass, a Rosary and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament — offered an opportunity to return to the heart of the issues affecting the nation.
“To come back to basics when we’re receiving challenges and attacks from various sides is to ground ourselves in truth,” said McQuade. “That truth then informs us as we work to defend the dignity of the human person from womb to tomb.”
As Archbishop Lori noted in a reflection given after the Rosary was prayed, “If we want religious liberty to be preserved, if we want life to be protected, then we have to pray for it.”
An estimated congregation of 6,000 people did just that, spilling into the aisles and side chapels of the National Shrine and standing outside because there was no longer room in the vast church. The afternoon of prayer was also broadcast live on EWTN.
A USCCB-organized Rosary novena, which began at the conclusion of the Mass, will continue to encourage prayer for the protection of life and liberty. Archbishop Lori encouraged families to pray the Rosary together and asked all Catholics in the country to join the novena, adding, “How we could transform this culture!”
Byrnes said that apathy and incredulity pose a problem in activating Catholics to see religious liberty as an imperative mission.
“It’s a serious issue with real consequences,” she said. “We’ve had to shut down services in the past because of threats to religious liberties. It is a real threat. If we are not allowed to abide by our religious faith, then we may have to get out of the business of providing charitable services to others. And that’s just not a choice we want to be forced to make.”
On the first Sunday of the Year of Faith, just days after a Pew Research Center poll found that one in five adult Americans is religiously unaffiliated, Archbishop Lori challenged Catholics to embrace a life of renewed faith.
“If we want to turn back the powerful incursions of secularism against the dignity of human life and the freedom to practice our faith,” he said, “then we must heed the call of Pope Benedict XVI to engage in the New Evangelization, to stand with Christ, to know our faith, to love our faith, to share our faith, inviting those who have stopped practicing the faith to return home to the Church and reaching out in truth and love to those who are looking for the true meaning of their existence.”
Emily Macke writes from Washington.