Begging for Our Freedom

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The website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) introduces the annual Fortnight for Freedom: “Each year dioceses around the country arrange special events to highlight the importance of defending religious freedom. The Fortnight for Freedom is from June 21 – the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More – to July 4, Independence Day.”   As top-down bureaucratic initiatives go, it’s a worthy endeavor. Prayer in common for an important purpose is generally a good idea.

But there’s something unsettling about the idea of shepherds sending the sheep to beg in prayer for basic human rights hard-wired in our nation’s laws without offering any commensurate religious action by the bishops themselves.

Our Declaration of Independence affirmed a definite idea of liberty: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Many conservative commentators are advocating a return to an originalist reading and understanding of the U.S. Constitution as a remedy to widespread ignorance of American civics. It is a noble effort but it is not enough. I wonder to what extent farmers, the pioneers, the shopkeepers – ordinary folks of the 19th century – were schooled in detail on the Constitution. Yet the common man, in the main, lived without objection to the norms of laws deriving from the Constitution. I suspect most of the laws based on the Constitution were received as “common sense.” And I think there’s a good reason for this.

Historians and Constitutional lawyers are able to trace the influences of the founding documents to the nation’s Judeo-Christian roots (including Catholic England’s Magna Carta). But any believing Christian with even the most basic familiarity with the Gospel would not be surprised by the almost seamless connection of the writings of the Founding Fathers to the Bible.

The Founding Fathers were quite familiar with the Scriptural themes of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness from their King James Bible: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full (John 15:10-11). It’s arguable that the compatibility of the nation’s founding documents with the teachings of Christ “trickled down” to ordinary men because they recognized in them the “common sense” law of the Gospel.

Excommunication of Emperor Frederick II by Innocent IV [14th c.]
Excommunication of Emperor Frederick II by Innocent IV [14th c.]

Of course, the Civil War underscored some of the points of contention – the Federal government’s power to tax, slavery and states’ rights – but as important as these issues proved to be, the Constitution remained a remarkably sound, and (arguably) a Christian charter for a nation.

Today with the rise of militant secularism, we cannot take for granted a Constitution and culture framed by Christian sensibilities. Even our elites (as President Obama has demonstrated time and again) are not informed by the Gospel beyond a few malleable platitudes.

The denial of the Judeo-Christian roots of the Constitution provides the reason alleged and never-ending anti-Christian “rights” (e.g., abortion and “gay marriage”) are found in the mysterious “emanations of the penumbra” of the Constitution. Consequently we can no longer take for granted that the Constitution will be read within the framework of its Christian roots and influences. Instead, it will continue to be read under the influence of competing modern ideologies: utilitarianism, Hegelian Marxism, pragmatism, and so on.

Promoting an “originalist” reading of the Constitution certainly has its merits, but churchmen (Catholic and Protestant) must increasingly encourage a return to the Gospels to inculcate and re-establish a common “sense of the faith” that must undergird a correct “sense of Western Civilization.”  In short, it’s time to get back to the basics.

The European Union’s neglect and even rejection of its Christian roots (despite the warnings of figures like Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger) is beginning to reap bitter fruits. For the sake of our country, we must resist the continued denial of our Christian heritage lest we suffer the same fate as a completely secularized and – coming very soon – an Islamized Europe. Some may say it’s too late even for us, so why bother?  But it’s never too late while we can still punch back.

Hence, the annual “Fortnight for Freedom” should not only be a time for prayer by the faithful; it should also be a time of action – by the shepherds. The prayer of the faithful should include an intention that our shepherds behave like true shepherds. Why not pray that the bishops have the courage to excommunicate “pro-choice” – i.e., pro-abortion – Catholic politicians for starters? (At the moment the bishops have nothing to lose but their reputation in polite company, and maybe some government grants.)

A “Fortnight of Excommunication” would demonstrate – with true Christian charity – how seriously the bishops take Christian life, liberty, and the pursuit of everlasting happiness. Back in the 1950s, Archbishop Joseph Rummel served the commonweal well by excommunicating segregationist Louisiana Catholics. Excommunicating pro-abortion Catholic politicians would be an even greater act of good citizenship.

In the meantime, it remains disproportionate and even degrading for the laity to be seen begging for religious freedom without their shepherds sharing somehow in the pain. But then again, the Crucifixion is about as degrading as it gets. And He promised that His servants would not be greater than the Master.


Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.