Below is the full text of my homily at St. Agnes Catholic Church for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 29/30, 2013. That Sunday fell in the middle of the Fortnight for Freedom declared by the Catholic bishops of the United States. To listen to a podcast of the homily, visit this link. For that Sunday’s readings, visit here.
When the first permanent European settlers came to what is now the United States, most of them made the voyage to escape religious persecution. But in their new homeland, what they really wanted was a place where they could practice their own faith on their own terms – not a place where all religious faiths would be tolerated. When the Puritans settled in New England in the 1620s, they wanted religious freedom for themselves alone – they were intolerant of anyone who was not a Puritan, hanging a woman for preaching Quaker thought, and passing a law in Massachusetts in 1647 that any Catholic priest in the territory would be killed. When William Penn and the Quakers founded Pennsylvania, they famously designed it to be a place of freedom of worship, but there was a limit to what that meant – written into the statutes of the colony was the stipulation that only Protestants could be elected to public office. The first attempt at true religious liberty in the American colonies came in Maryland, which had been settled by a mix of Catholics and Protestants. Maryland enacted an Act of Toleration in 1649 in which all people were allowed freedom of worship and the ability to participate in public life. But that religious toleration lasted only 5 years before it was repealed. Catholic priests were expelled from Maryland and Catholics were unable to worship in public, to hold public office, or even to vote until the American Revolution.
But the founders of our country charted a new path. When the Bill of Rights was passed in 1789, religious freedom became enshrined as our first, most cherished freedom – before even freedom of speech. It’s a two-pronged freedom that’s in the First Amendment: the freedom of worship and the freedom to contribute to the good of society without violating religious belief. But what does freedom mean?
For most Americans, it seems, freedom is the ability to make choices, however we want. As long as no one gets hurt in the process, I can choose to do whatever I think is best. The greatest value in this way of thinking is to be able to say, in the end, “I did it my way.” The idea that some choices are incompatible with our human nature seems nonsense. That’s the general American understanding of freedom. But the Christian understanding is different. From the Christian perspective, freedom is not the right to choose to do things my way, but rather “the right to do what we ought.” A Christian understanding of freedom presupposes a belief in objective truth and goodness – that there are some decisions in which there is a right and a wrong way to act, and the more we freely choose what is good, then the more we become free from slavery to ourselves, from slavery to sin. This is a freedom for excellence, a freedom to become good – a freedom to order our lives according to the way God has created us. This is how St. Paul understood freedom, as we heard in his Letter to the Galatians. It is a freedom that’s not about satisfying my own desires, but rather a freedom to “serve one another through love.” It’s from this context that we see religious freedom as the right to make a positive contribution to society – to choose what is good – without having to compromise our faith. That’s the understanding of freedom that is in the 1st Amendment – freedom to do good and to act according to conscience, not freedom to do whatever I want. And that’s the understanding of freedom that is under attack.
Take just one example. Catholic Charities have long provided adoption and foster care services, often taking on the most difficult placements, including older and abused children and those with special needs. But now, Catholic adoption agencies in many cities, including Boston and Washington, DC, have been forced to shut down because they refused to place children with same-sex couples. The American concept of freedom as choice – that I am free to do whatever I want – is in great tension with the Christian, and First Amendment, understanding of religious freedom: the right to contribute to the common good of society without violating our most deeply held beliefs. And since Americans like their understanding of freedom, it is religious freedom that is under attack.
The path of religious freedom has been a rocky one in this country – and while it is enshrined in the First Amendment, vastly different understandings of freedom threaten to dismantle the very foundation on which our country is built – so much that it’s hard for us to even talk with one another. St. Paul speaks so clearly to our situation today: “if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another.” How much biting and devouring is done by politicians and citizens in our country! But we are called for freedom, as St. Paul says: not a freedom that serves ourselves – that gratifies the desires of the flesh – but a freedom to serve one another through love, a freedom to contribute to the good of society without violating our religious beliefs. That’s the freedom that is under attack. That’s the freedom that we must work tirelessly to preserve.