Thursday, November 22, 2007

Religious Liberty: Something To Be Thankful For!

(Thanksgiving 2007: This homily was given on November 22, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Sirach 50: 22-24; 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9; Luke 17: 11-19.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thanksgiving 2007]

My favorite brain surgeon, Dr. Martin Bednar, gets to travel all over the world in his present job. Recently he was in China for several days. From there, he sent me the following email:

Dear Fr. Ray,

Hello from Shanghai! My trip to China so far has been (thankfully) uneventful. There was a “super” typhoon named “Krosa” that hit here today—the worst for this time of year in decades. Areas south of here had 40 inches of rain!

The Chinese culture and their medical treatment have been fascinating. However, [as far as religion is concerned], the state has essentially banned Chinese nationals from attending Christian services, so in order to get into the churches you need a passport as proof you are a foreigner! I was not specifically asked for my passport, probably for obvious reasons. It was quite the challenge though. My friend ran printed-out information on some churches obtained on the internet, and it was only when I arrived there that I realized it was a Protestant service (wrong address!). Then I went back to the hotel, where I was left with either a Korean or Mandarin service on Sunday evening. The Korean service was just fine. Having never sat through even 5 minutes of a service other than a Catholic one, I can’t tell you how much comfort I found with the Catholic Mass. I guess I was first struck by the lack of a shepherd: it was essentially a collection of lay people organizing everything. It’s only when you don’t have it that you realize how important it is. I can only hope it is better when I go to Beijing before returning home late Sunday.

On Thanksgiving Day believers frequently express their gratitude to God for the people in their lives and for the things they have: “I thank you, Lord, for my family, for my friends, for the people I’m blessed to live with and work with and socialize with on a daily basis.” “I thank you, Lord, for my job and my possessions; I thank you, Lord, for supplying my material needs.”

People will even thank the Lord for their faith.

All of that, of course, is good. But after reading Dr. Bednar’s letter I realize that it’s also important for us to thank God explicitly today for the freedom that we have to worship him according to the dictates of our consciences. And George Washington would agree! In fact, our first president, when he instituted this holiday back in 1789, said that on Thanksgiving Day we should express our gratitude to God for “the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.”

So let’s resolve today to thank God for the religious freedom we currently enjoy as American citizens; and just as importantly, let’s resolve not lose it! Because there’s a very good chance we might, given some of the things that are going on in our nation at the present time.

There are groups in the United States right now, for example, who are trying to change our conscience laws. In doing so, they are attacking our freedom of religion (although they would never admit that publicly). Their intention is to enact laws that will force Catholic and other pro-life doctors to refer women for abortions. Under our present laws, a pro-life doctor can refuse to give a woman the phone number of an abortionist by appealing to his conscience: “I believe abortion is the killing of an innocent human being; therefore I don’t refer anyone for abortions.”

However in the near future, if certain activist groups have their way, a doctor could be put in jail for saying that.

As some of you know, in Connecticut they’ve already forced Catholic hospitals to give out plan B contraception to rape victims without a prior ovulation test. That’s a clear violation of religious freedom! In commenting on this new law, the National Catholic Bioethics Center said, “[We object] strongly to state mandates [like this] that do not allow health care professionals and facilities to exercise their best medical judgment and which do not protect the consciences of all parties.”

Last year a Swedish pastor was arrested and prosecuted by his government for preaching against homosexual activity. With the gay lobby as strong as it is here in the United States, I wonder how long it will be before our government tries to tell me what I can and cannot preach from this pulpit.

And of course, every year in December our public school children have their freedom of religion—and their freedom of speech—violated by being told they can’t say, “Merry Christmas!” to their teachers and friends on school grounds during school hours!

Those are just a few of the many contemporary threats to religious freedom that we’re facing right here, right now, on our own soil! Sad to say, but in this area it seems like we’re becoming more and more like Communist China, instead of China becoming more and more like us!

In Dignitatis Humanae, one of the documents of Vatican II, it says this: “Religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.”

Most of our Founding Fathers would have said “Amen!” to those words of Vatican II—if they had been able to read them back in the late 1780s. That’s obvious because in 1789 they added an amendment to our country’s Constitution, part of which explicitly stated, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”

They believed in religious freedom—passionately! Today, unfortunately—as I’ve indicated in this homily—not every United States citizen does. As Catholics who love our country and its Constitution, we need to know this! We need to be aware of the attacks on our religious freedom that are currently taking place, so that we can take appropriate action to counter them!

And that includes countering them with our votes! We need to vote men and women into public office who will recognize—and work to uphold—the God-given right of every American citizen to practice his or her religious faith. That’s so important!

Heavenly Father, on this Thanksgiving morning we thank you for all your many blessings, including, as George Washington said, our “civil and religious liberty.” And we pray that the right to religious freedom will always be recognized—and honored—in the United States of America, so that Christian visitors to our country will never, ever have to deal with the kind of situation that Dr. Martin Bednar had to face a couple of weeks ago when he visited Communist China. This we ask through Christ our Lord. Amen.