Bishop's Column

The ancient fight for religious freedom goes on

Nihil sub sole novum,” says the book of Ecclesiastes—”There is nothing new under the sun.”

As we conclude the Fortnight for Freedom, I’ve been thinking a lot about how little is new in the history of the Church.  From age to age, and generation to generation, we seem to encounter many of the same challenges to proclaiming Jesus Christ.  For example, the fight for the free exercise of religion has been a part of Christian history from the very beginning of the Church.

One story from our history, in particular, stands out to me.

In 257 A.D., Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, faced a religious persecution which seems disturbingly familiar.

Carthage was a province of the Roman Empire, and the Roman government had determined that Christians were a threat to the unity of the state.  Christians were ordered to pay tribute to the state and to make sacrifices to the pagan Roman gods of mythology.

Cyprian refused.  He instead professed his freedom to worship Jesus Christ.  In response, he was banished to the wilderness of Tunisia.  One year later, Cyprian was examined by the government. He was given the opportunity to recant and to sacrifice to the Roman gods.  When he refused, he was beheaded.  Following the witness of his execution, the Church in Carthage began to grow, and through his witness and the witness of others, the Roman Empire herself was converted to Christianity.

Cyprian was called by God to be a martyr—and when he followed that call, he became a saint.

The Greek word “martyr” simply means “witness.”  Like St. Cyprian, we are called today to be martyrs for Jesus Christ. Our martyrdom is not beheading, I hope, but the martyrdom of witness.

To be a martyr for Jesus Christ is to witness to him and to the impact of our Catholic faith in our lives.

As many of you know, the Supreme Court decided last week that the health care plan known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act fits within the framework of the Constitution. Therefore, the HHS mandate we have been fighting is still a threat to the Catholic Church and to Catholic business professionals.

Because the Affordable Care Act remains law, the HHS mandate is still in force and Catholic institutions and business owners are still required, by law, to provide for the contraceptive health care their employees desire.  Because we are unwilling to violate our moral precepts, the Church faces a grave threat to the free exercise of religion.

In response to this threat, we are now called by God to continue to serve as witnesses—as martyrs—to the beauty, goodness and truth of the teachings of the Catholic Church regarding freedom.

The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty states that the Catholic “demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit.”  It is, as the council says wisely, proper to the human spirit that the freedom to exercise religion not be impeded by civil coercion.

We witness to this by standing boldly for our faith—by knowing our history and bringing our faith to the public square.  We witness to our faith by choosing civil governments which respect religious practice.

We also witness to Jesus Christ by suffering well.  The Church now faces persecution in the United States.  If we bear that persecution with the grace of Jesus Christ—in love, and in unity with Christ—our suffering will effect change just as St. Cyprian’s did.

The most important kind of witness to which we are called is the witness of evangelization.  John Paul II called Catholics to build a “civilization of love” and we do this through evangelization—which is the most effective means of changing a culture that persecutes the Church.  Evangelization transforms persecutors into disciples—which is exactly what will make real change in the United States.

There is nothing new under the sun.  The Church always faces challenges, and she is always called to respond to them in truth with love, and through evangelization.  The Fortnight for Freedom is one application of that universal call.  Our task is to respond as heroic witnesses—knowing that as we make disciples, Jesus Christ will be with us, and will work through us.

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