Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
The English philosopher John Stuart Mill once quipped that “the Battle of Marathon, even as an event in British history, is more important than the Battle of Hastings.” And, he was right. Though the Battle of Marathon was fought centuries before Europe was born, the fate of Western Civilization hung on the outcome of that famous battle.
In September of 490 B.C., 10,000 Athenians left their city to face the invading Persians at Marathon. If the Persians had won the battle, their manner of governing would have extinguished the beginnings of democracy in the West. But they did not win. Instead, the Greeks, by their decisive victory, ensured that Greek influence would spread across the Mediterranean to Rome and, through her, to the entire West. Thus, the Battle of Marathon was the crossroads where two ideas of civilization met and where history took the road to freedom and democracy.
Today, we stand at a decisive point in our history. In our day, religious freedom and government control stand at the crossroads. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees us the right to practice our own religion or no religion at all. But, there are increasingly loud voices in the highest levels of government that are demanding that religion conform to the political agenda of the ruling class.
On Sept. 8, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued its 306-page report, “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties.” In a few words, the report asserts that the government should not grant religious exemptions to nondiscrimination laws. The report maintains that such exemptions “significantly infringe” on the civil rights of those who claim protection from the government on the basis of “race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity.”
Such a unilateral emphasis on civil rights over religious liberty provides the rationale for the government’s demand that Catholic schools hire teachers who are opposed to Catholic teaching. It allows the government to penalize those Catholics and others, who, on the basis of their religious beliefs, withhold their services for celebrations of same-sex unions. It opens the way for insisting that church-sponsored hospitals provide contraception, perform sex change operations and abortions and engage in euthanasia. All of these are actually now happening.
As part of the report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, its chairman, Martin R. Castro, made an alarming statement. He said, “The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.” In effect, he totally dismisses as irrelevant the religious beliefs of many, while making a special point of targeting Christians.
Castro’s statement places Catholics along with orthodox Jews, Mormons and Muslims in the category of the intolerant. In his stated opinion, those who accept the understanding of marriage as a union of a man and a woman, uphold the sanctity of life or adhere to the natural law are not to be taken seriously. They are simply ill-informed and prejudiced. This way of thinking leads to the wholesale dismissal of religious freedom and the rights of conscience.
Sadly, Martin Castro is not a lone voice calling for religious people to abandon their beliefs in favor of the political trends of the day. In his article “Bigotry, the Bible and the Lessons of Indiana,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni agrees with Mitchell Gold, a prominent philanthropist, who said, “Church leaders must be made to take homosexuality off the sin list.” Both Bruni and Gold are advocating that the Church must be compelled to change her centuries-old teachings. So much for freedom of religion!
One very prominent politician recently proposed in a keynote address that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.” When applied to the God-given right to life, this means, in effect, that the ill-conceived legal right for a woman to procure an abortion trumps the religious liberty of those who refuse to perform abortions. “Religious beliefs…have to be changed.” For some, it is as simple as that!
No state, no politician, has the right to dictate what the Church teaches. The Church’s mandate is divine. Jesus handed on to the apostles the truth about God and about human life. In fidelity to the Lord himself, the Church speaks that truth, both when popular and unpopular. The Venerable Fulton Sheen once said, “[The Church] holds that just as the truth is one in geography, in chemistry, and mathematics, so too there is one truth in religion… The Church cannot change, because her principles are God-made. Religion is not a sum of beliefs that we would like, but the sum of beliefs God has given.”
In his first address to the United Nations in 1979, St. John Paul II defended religious liberty as a safeguard against the intrusion of the State into areas where Caesar does not belong. He said, “religious freedom, affirmed in law and cherished in the consciences of a people, creates essential limits to the power of the state and sets boundaries to the capacity of the state to intrude into the convictions and conscientious practices of individuals, families, and communities” (George Weigel, “The First Human Right,” National Review, May 5, 2014). Where there is no religious freedom, there is the tyranny of the elite.
Furthermore, our rights are not disconnected. Where there is no longer the right to life for the unborn, all other rights are meaningless. St. Teresa of Calcutta had her priorities right. She said, “The greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion, which is war against the child. The mother doesn’t learn to love, but kills to solve her own problems. Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want.”
As faithful Catholics, we always exercise charity to those who disagree with Church teaching. However, we do not let any false characterizations of us as bigots diminish our fidelity to the truth the Church teaches. With all Americans, we stand at the crossroads. In the days and months and years ahead, will we choose the road that leads to an increasing loss of religious liberty and the destruction of human life or the road that leads to life and true freedom? The choice is ours.