Sunday, May 08, 2016

’Hard’ and ‘Soft’ Persecution

Some of the "very dangerous" Little Sisters of the Poor

(Seventh Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on May 8, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 7: 55-60.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventh Sunday of Easter 2016]

There are two kinds of persecution that we can experience for our Catholic Faith.  There’s what I would call “hard persecution,” and there’s what I would call “soft persecution”.

“Hard persecution” is the kind that St. Stephen experienced in today’s first reading from Acts, chapter 7, courtesy of the people who stoned him to death, and their accomplice, a young man named Saul of Tarsus (who later had a conversion and who eventually became St. Paul).  This is the kind of persecution that ISIS is into; it’s the kind of persecution that Christians of almost every denomination are experiencing in the world right now, especially in Muslim countries.

It’s open, it’s aggressive, it’s physically violent—and it’s unapologetic.

Persecuted Christians in the world today, for example, should not expect to receive any sympathy cards from the folks at ISIS or Al-Qaeda or Boko Haram.

The other kind of persecution that I mentioned is quite different.  I call it “soft” because it’s not as open and not as physically violent as hard persecution is.

But it’s every bit as real—and every bit as dangerous and destructive.

This is the kind of persecution that the Obama Administration is engaged in right now in taking the Little Sisters of the Poor to the Supreme Court to try to force them to pay for contraception and for abortions in the healthcare plans they offer their employees.

“Ah yes, Mr. President, those Little Sisters of the Poor—those kind, gentle, loving women who take care of the sick, and the downtrodden and the elderly—they’re the real problem, they’re the real enemies of freedom, they’re the ones who are trying to undermine our American way of life!  You go get ‘em, Mr. President.  You show ‘em who’s boss!”

I think it’s disgraceful.

And then we have the florists and bakers who have been put out of business and publicly vilified because they’ve respectfully declined, for religious reasons, to provide flowers or to bake a cake for a “gay wedding”.  Of course, no one would object if they refused, for the same reasons, to provide those services at a Ku Klux Klan event.

And how about the situations that Christian doctors and nurses and pharmacists are finding themselves in more and more frequently these days, as they get pressured by government authorities to violate their consciences in their work?

This stuff is going on all around us, my brothers and sisters, and it seems to be getting worse by the minute.  That’s why we pray so often at Sunday Mass in the prayer of the faithful for religious freedom and the preservation of conscience rights in our nation.  Those two realities—freedom of religion and the rights of conscience—are being intentionally undermined in our country right now by persecutors who cleverly disguise their hatred for Christians as “patriotism,” or as a desire for “fairness” and “justice” and “equality.”

It’s soft persecution, but it’s persecution nonetheless.

Pope Francis has another way to describe it.  He calls it “polite”.  In a homily he gave a couple of weeks ago at a Mass in Rome, he addressed the topic of persecution head-on, because it’s become such a prevalent problem.  It’s not only an issue for us here in the United States.  The Holy Father said that this second, “softer” kind of persecution is “disguised as culture, disguised as modernity, disguised as progress: it is a kind of—I would say somewhat ironically—polite persecution.”  The pope goes on to say that the attitude of those who engage in this kind of persecution is “if you don’t do this [in other words, if you don’t agree with us and act accordingly] you will be punished: you’ll lose your job and many things or you’ll be set aside.”

Pope Francis, I would say, is absolutely correct in his assessment of the situation.

We, as Catholics, need to be aware of all this—especially during this election year.  And we need to take action!  We need to vote people into office this November who will honor our Constitution by respecting—and preserving—the freedom of each and every American to practice his or her religion according to the dictates of his or her conscience.

One footnote here: In the process of doing this, please do not be fooled by those candidates who say that they support freedom of worship.  That’s not enough!  Freedom of religion is what our Constitution guarantees; consequently, THAT’S what we need to demand from our government.  Freedom of religion, you see, is much more than freedom of worship.  Freedom of religion means that you can live your private life—and your public life— according to the dictates of your faith.  Freedom of worship means, “You Christians can pray however you like within the four walls of your church building, but outside in the real world you had better think and act and live like the rest of us—or else!”

Or else what’s happening to the Little Sisters of the Poor, and to Christian florists and bakers and doctors all over this country will happen to YOU!

Let me close now with a word to the mothers on this Mother’s Day.  Normally my entire homily on this weekend is devoted to moms, but I really felt called this week to address the issue of religious freedom, in light of the story we heard in our first reading—this account of the stoning of St. Stephen.

And yet, there is still a definite message here for mothers (fathers too!): For the sake of your children, make religious freedom a central issue in your life, and not just in this upcoming election.  Make it a central issue ALWAYS, because, if we lose religious freedom in this country in the near future, many of our other freedoms will eventually be lost as well—and your children, and your children’s children will be forced to deal with the consequences.

We can still save our nation—and our future.  That’s the good news.  But it won’t happen magically.  We have to take action NOW and make our leaders accountable NOW for what they do—and for what they don’t do—to protect and promote genuine religious freedom.  Because if we don’t stand up in the present moment and fight against the soft persecution we’re currently experiencing, then hard persecution is very, very likely to follow.

St. Stephen, pray for us, that that will never happen.