Monday, October 26, 2020

Our First Freedom

Promoting religious liberty and Catholic schools


Today we arrive at our last but not least political topic prior to the election on November 3 – thanks be to God! Literally “thanks be to God” because we end with the twin topics of “religious liberty” and “Catholic schools,” two subjects soaked through and through with the sacred. The United States Catholic bishops, in their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” wrote: “US policy should promote religious liberty vigorously, both at home and abroad: our first and most cherished freedom is rooted in the very dignity of the human person, a fundamental human right that knows no geographical boundaries.” In other words, even more “unalienable” than the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is the right to worship God according to one’s conscience. Religious liberty is our first freedom.

But not everyone cares that much about religious liberty or for that matter about religion itself. I heard about one scientist from an Ivy League university who decided to put God to the test recently. He said sarcastically: “Listen God – if you even exist – we have decided we don’t need you anymore. What you did in the past we can do better in the present. These days we can clone people, transplant organs, travel to other planets and many other things people previously thought were miracles.” To his shock and surprise, a booming voice came from the clouds: “If you believe you do not need me, let’s put your theory to the test. Let’s have a competition to see who can create a human being.” The stunned scientist quickly collected himself and agreed to the test. God declared they should do it like he did in the old days when he created Adam in the book of Genesis. “Fine,” said the scientist with a scoff. He bent down to scoop up a handful of dirt. But God said suddenly: “Stop! Get your own dirt.”

Sometimes you have to do a little digging in the dirt before you discover how much you need God. Paul Tillich, the 20th century philosopher of religion called God “the ground of being,” that is, God is the Ground we stand on, indeed, the Ground everything stands on. But just like we easily ignore the dirt and ground we walk on – sometimes even shaking the dust from our feet like modern science – so we can take God and religion for granted. As a consequence, we miss how religious liberty is “our first freedom.”

The Catholic bishops explain the importance of protecting religious liberty using these terms: “In the United States, religious freedom generally enjoys strong protection in our law and culture, but these protections are now in doubt.” The bishops give a concrete example, adding: “The long-standing tax-exemption of the Church has been explicitly called into question at the highest levels of government precisely because of her teaching on marriage.” Now, I agree that losing our tax-exempt status presents a real risk. But I believe a bigger risk is when we “exempt God” from daily life; when we think like the Ivy League scientist who scoffs he no longer needs God. In other words, we should protect religious liberty not because it is being attacked by atheists from the outside, but because it is being attacked by apathy from the inside. As the Pogo cartoon strip said: “We have met the enemy and the enemy is us.” The real enemy of religious liberty is not atheism but apathy.

Have you heard of the analogy of the frog in boiling water? If you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will naturally jump out. The water is too hot. But, if you put a frog into a pot of lukewarm water, and slowly raise the temperature very incrementally, the frog will not notice the gradually rising heat and will happily boil to death. I am convinced that modern-day Christians are like that frog and our modern culture is turning up the heat, one degree at a time, We don’t notice how our priorities are slowly changing so that God is no longer our greatest concern. We passionately protect our “freedom of speech,” our “freedom of the press,” our “freedom of assembly,” and ignore our “freedom of religion.” For many Americans Christians, religious liberty is not our first freedom; it is our last freedom.

When we see that the true threat to religious liberty emerges from the inside and not from the outside, we can also catch why Catholic schools are so critical, and also why they struggle to stay open, like St. Boniface here in Fort Smith that closed two years ago. It is not atheism that closes Catholic schools, but apathy. The bishops insisted: “Parents – the first and most important educators – have a fundamental right to choose the education best suited to the needs of their children, including public, private and religious schools.” In other words, schools are an extension of the educational responsibility that rests on the shoulders of parents; hence they should have the freedom of school choice. The real reason Catholic schools are critical is because when religion is rooted in the school curriculum, it eventually blossoms in the culture of future generations of Americans.

I will forever be grateful to Catholic schools for my priestly vocation. Through countless Masses – yes, I slept through many homilies – uncomfortable confessions, rosaries and May Crowning’s, Lenten Stations of the Cross, Friday fish sticks and cheese pizza, and the example of humble, holy priests, something finally clicked in me. What clicked? Catholic schools taught me there is more to life than meets the eye, because ultimately there is more to me than meets the eye. Catholic schools taught me I have a soul, a spiritual wellspring from which the rest of me is watered and grows. And that soul was a gift from God. When I realized that, I wanted to give that soul – and the rest of me – as a gift back to God, and so I became a priest. That is how Catholic schools taught me that religion is relevant and how religious liberty is our first freedom. That soul is something the scientist cannot see.

We have now touched on eight topics that every Catholic Christian should ponder before the presidential election. They are: (1) abortion and prolife, (2) racism, (3) marriage and LGBTQ community, (4) immigration, (5) the environment, (6) healthcare, (7) global solidarity, and last but not least, (8) religious liberty and Catholic schools. My homilies were not intended to unravel the tight knots of these issues, but only to help your conscience to see them under a spiritual light, the light of faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church beautifully describes “conscience,” stating: “For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God…His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” In other words, first form your conscience by prayer and study, and then obey the voice of your conscience when you vote. By the way, do you know which paragraph number describes conscience in the Catechism? It is number 1776, the year the United States became a nation. How blessed we are to live in a country that lets us live by our conscience. That is not a co-incidence; that is a God-incidence. And the scientist might have missed that, too.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

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