A Spiritual Reflection on Religious Liberty and the Rights of Conscience

Text of Mother Agnes Mary Donovan’s remarks at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, April 19, in Washington, D.C.

(photo: CatholicPrayerBreakfast.com)

Your Excellencies, dear friends. We face a summons to action in response to a global and national reality which we are reluctant to perceive: Christians as the object of open persecution. It is a persecution reaching close to home for us all. The following was an opening paragraph in a legal brief submitted on behalf of our friends, a religious community of Sisters south of the Mason-Dixon Line, challenging the constitutionality of the HHS [Health and Human Services] mandate:

“In their 151-year history, this congregation has, with the help of God, survived a Civil War on their doorstep, deadly epidemics, devastating floods, economic depression and tumultuous social upheaval. Today, however, they face a new, more insidious threat — their own government. Should HHS persist in implementing the [interim rule and its contraceptive] mandate without major modifications, the congregation will be forced to curtail its mission. What war and disease could not do to the congregation, the government of the United States will do. It will shut them down.”

A crisis such as the one which the Catholic Church, Christians and the faithful people of God of every religion face at this moment in our nation can be a time for unprecedented growth and new life if we respond with grace. In spite of the pain, confusion and difficulties, this moment, which is our moment, contains within it tremendous spiritual potential. This crisis is a summons.

By its nature, a crisis has the power to focus our energies, clarify our vision and to put life in perspective. Our memories are charged, and, suddenly, we remember the answer to the question: “Who am I?” When Christ’s life was born within us at baptism and reborn in us through an adult conversion to the living God in the person of Jesus Christ and in his Church, we were given and given again the fullness of our great dignity as a human person. With dawning awareness, we recognize ourselves as spiritual and bodily beings made in God’s image to grow by grace in God’s likeness, alive to the Transcendent, capable of knowing and loving things “visible and invisible.” Each one of us was literally willed and loved into existence by God and are sustained by the same Love, that we might exercise the sublime human privilege of participating in the perfect, life-giving love of the Trinity. Who we are is not limited to the here and now. Yet every human person is given the capacity for moral greatness in this world for, i.e., the ability to live now with a supra-human power and grace for love. We can only stand in awe before the mystery of the human person.

As memories are stirred, other things we hold precious and sacred come into view: our faith, our freedoms and our citizenship in the great American enterprise.

Our faith. Faith in God gives meaning and purpose to life and also the three possible addresses of my ultimate destiny. Faith makes one capable of being led by the Spirit and of becoming Christ’s co-worker.

Living faith is always a call to solidarity within the human family, a call to champion the greatness in our brothers and sisters, to stand up for what is right and true and just, and to defend the weakest among us. Personal fidelity is the power which underlies and lends authenticity to public witness. Our witness, however, would be hopelessly inadequate if we ourselves had not first “(Let) our gaze be more than ever firmly set on the face of the Lord” (Pope John Paul II, Novo Millennio Ineunte, 16).

Our citizenship in the American endeavor and a summons to radical solidarity. We prize our citizenship in this great land and champion our nation’s founding heritage. Yet, with faith, we see the world and its events with a new, spiritual vision and recognize that in these days we are drawn up (even against our will) in the primordial drama of the battle between good and evil. Let our wills be stirred and our hearts strengthened by the words of the great Christian J.R.R. Tolkien: “Hold your ground! … A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. … This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you, stand!”

Because we are members of a “family,” and even more intimately members of the Mystical Body of Christ, we are called to be “one.” Jesus’ plea to his Father on behalf of his followers [“that they may be one, just as we are one; I in them and you in me, that they may be perfected in unity …” (John 17:22)] is the basis of the call to an open, intelligent, participatory, yet radically surrendered, solidarity within the Church. Anything less is a rending of the Body and a scandal. In the Kingdom of God and the Church of Jesus Christ, love is the measure of power.


How can we be sure that our efforts will be efficacious, that our efforts will bring life and light to the world? Simply, by founding all of the actions of one’s mind, heart and will in the state of God’s grace. Let everything we do, therefore, begin with God’s inspiration, be carried out in his grace; and then let us be consoled by the truth of what we pray in the Church’s liturgy:


Lord, You are glorified in the assembly of your holy ones;

for in crowning their merits, you are crowning your own gifts.

(Roman Missal, Preface of the Saints)


Our freedom. We insist upon the civilly protected freedom for the practice of religion and freedom, for the free exercise of conscience, because they are inherently human freedoms. No person may become the pawn of the state, no matter how small or diminished; no matter how inconvenient. If we lose sight of the dignity of the person, all else will unravel. Peace will not last; for the violation of conscience makes any other human violation and tyranny justifiable.

As inheritors of the Judeo-Christian faith, ours is the “freedom story”: a history of freedoms won and lost, both as a people and individually. It is the story of a people who exercised the freedom to live the great dignity of the human experience becoming who we are; and this same freedom shamelessly surrendered in weakness to the sirens that excite our passions, in fear to oppressors and in faithlessness to the idols of the age.

Freedom is given us by God that we may choose to love and follow the way of transformation in Christ, allowing ourselves to become a total self-gift to another. In the words of the Exultet, “Awake, O sleeper,” for the crisis we face urgently demands that we exercise and grow in this precious freedom by loving others (in the words of Mother Teresa) “until it hurts.”

As we love, we grow in our capacity for love: to love and to be loved and to live out of the truth of who we are. Regrettably, because we cannot see and measure love, we are often immune to the impact which the interior movements of one’s will toward good, or, sadly, toward an embrace of evil, has upon the spiritual and moral climate in our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, congregations and our nation. Evil is a pollutant far worse than carbon leaving craters in the heart and longing emptiness in souls, not just footprints on the earth.

As we gather today, Christians throughout the world in this Easter season celebrate our final and definitive liberation: the freedom of the sons of God! The Church’s celebrations are founded on the reality that, as prophesized by Isaiah, we have been ransomed by a Savior, Jesus Christ who came to “set the captives free.” We rejoice in the freedom won for us by so great and loving a God. This is a freedom whose beauty surpasses all civil freedoms: the freedom to live in Christ; the freedom to live in grace. Seize that freedom! Avail yourselves of the sacrament which frees us from the bondage of sinfulness. Secure that freedom! Receive from the treasury of grace at holy Mass, in times of personal prayer and in the praise and adoration of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Be a witness to the greatest freedom of all: women and men fully alive in the Lord, capable of reflecting the glory of God.

Mother Mary Agnes Donovan is the superior general of the Sisters of Life, founded in 1991 by Cardinal John O’Connor.