Keep religious liberty turned on

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13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: July 1, 2012
Wis 1:13-15, 2:23-24; Ps 30; 2 Cor 8:7, 9, 13-15; Mark 5:21-43

“God did not make death,” we hear in our first reading. And yet, through sin, death and disease and illness and injury entered into the good world that he had made. In our Gospel reading, we see our Lord Jesus fairly surrounded by it, as he so often is: the woman afflicted with hemorrhages for 12 years, who many doctors could not cure but only grew worse; the little daughter of the synagogue official Jairus, at the point of death, and then dead; the crowd, weeping and wailing loudly. All of these suffering people: all seeking health and wholeness from this miracle-working prophet, Jesus, who they hope can give them life.

And he does—but with strange actions and strange delays. What does it all mean? And what does it have to do with the electricity being out?

In the case of the woman with the hemorrhages, she was cured once she touched his cloak. After all those years, her flow of blood dried up! But then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” Why? Because he didn’t know? No. Because he wanted to bring her into conversation with him. Because he wanted her to look into his eyes, and hear his voice, and be heard by him. Because, as much as she needed to be healed physically, she also needed, even more, to enter into relationship with the God who made her.

In the case of Jairus and his wife, they sought out our Lord’s help when their daughter was dangerously ill; and then he delayed until she actually died. Why? Because he didn’t know, or didn’t care? No. Because he valued their faith—their trust in him, their receptiveness to him—and he wanted to stretch it even bigger. With the news of her death just reported, he urged: “Do not fear, but believe.” Because, as much as they needed their daughter to be healed and restored, they also needed, even more, their relationship with the Lord to be strengthened and grown.

For many of us, we have been without electricity since Friday night—and we may have to do without it for a few more days. And what do we lose, without electricity? The power to heat; to cool; to turn on the light and see; to be connected to knowledge and to other people.

And isn’t that like what happens if we lose our connection to God? As human beings, every one of us has been created in the image and likeness of God, with a capacity to know God, unlike any other creature—and with a need to know God, unlike any other creature. It has been said that we all have a “God-shaped vacuum” inside us. And if we are cut off from him, we feel that void—and significantly lose the ability to see, to be connected to his knowledge, and especially to be connected to him. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he drew the woman into conversation, and stretched the faith of that couple.

This human need for God should shape our own personal priorities—but it should shape more than this. It should shape how we relate to other people, being conscious of their need for God; and it should shape the way we build our society. This is why, 50 years ago, the Second Vatican Council strongly affirmed the principle of religious liberty. They rooted it in “the dignity of the human person.” For all human beings, they said, are

impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth… [and] to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth However, human beings cannot discharge these obligations… unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation… in the very nature of the individual person. (Dignitatis humanae, 1-2)

This is part of what motivated early American colonists to come to this unknown continent: to seek religious liberty. The Catholics and Protestants who came to Southern Maryland on the Ark and the Dove in 1634 established religious liberty in this colony, legislated in the Toleration Act. But after a few decades this religious liberty was lost—and during the 1700s Catholics were as severely repressed in Maryland as they were in England: unable to have our own churches, to worship publicly, to hold public office, to vote, and so on. This was the setting in which Charles Carroll of Carrollton grew up. And when he was the only Catholic of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, adopted on July 4, 1776, it was a move not only toward independence from England but toward a restoration of religious liberty for the whole country. And so, when the Constitution was adopted, the first freedom listed in the Bill of Rights—the very first freedom—was religious liberty.

Right now we are in the Fortnight for Freedom: these 14 days leading up to this July 4, in which our bishops have encouraged us to recognize the great value of religious liberty, and to pray and work to protect it in our country.

And I think they are exactly right in fingering this as a root danger in our civil life today. It is the HHS mandate that you have surely read about—but it is also much more than this. There are so many legal prongs that I have watched for the past 12 years advancing in different places:

  • People who want to expand abortion, contraception, and sterilization, and in doing so want to force the cooperation of those who morally object: medical institutions and employees; medical schools and students; insurance companies; employers; nonprofit services.
  • Similarly, people who want to expand privileges for homosexuals and redefine marriage, again forcing those who morally object: employers, insurance, nonprofit services, businesses, government employees, schools, churches.

And there is more than this. In this array of issues, in every one, the question arises of whether religious liberty is valued enough to grant a conscience exception. And so many people don’t think so. In my own family, of my own three brothers, I suspect two of them don’t value religious liberty very highly and would choose to coerce against conscience in most of these cases. Surely you know many like this too.

This is why we need this Fortnight for Freedom. Because it is essential to human nature to seek to know God. Because Jesus reached out to people to make a connection with them, and charged us to do the same. Because we have the chance to foster that connection, and not shut it off. This July 4, let’s keep that electricity, that connection, that religious liberty, turned on.

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