(By Archbishop John C. Nienstedt)
June 8, 2012
I was asked last year to be a member of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Freedom for the United States bishops’ conference. I have been pleased to serve in this capacity.
The purpose of our committee is to respond to the truly historic challenges being leveled against the religious liberty of Catholic colleges, hospitals and charities by the current federal Department of Health and Human Services.
In its interpretation of the Affordable Care Act legislation passed a year ago by Congress, HHS has now ruled that even private employers who adamantly oppose contraception and abortion must provide to their employees health insurance plans that cover government-approved forms of birth control, including abortifacients and sterilization.
Definition too narrow
In a stunning declaration, HHS has also narrowly defined a religious employer (and thus an employer who is exempt from the mandate), as one who hires employees only from its own faith community and offers services only to people who are official members.
Hence, while we believe our parishes are (probably) covered under the definition of a “religious institution,” our Catholic Charities, hospitals and colleges are not. In other words, they will be compelled, by the force of the state, to support and subsidize practices morally abhorrent to their foundational principles.
The historic struggle against the abhorrent HHS mandate is ultimately not about contraception. Neither is it about health care, nor the rights of women. It is about the intrusion of the state into the fundamental rights of conscience and the right of religious bodies to govern and guide their own institutions. Such an intrusion should greatly alarm all citizens, not simply believers.
On April 12, 2012, the USCCB’s ad hoc committee for Religious Freedom published a document, entitled, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty.” I recommend that you read and study this document.
In “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the bishops suggested the idea of sponsoring a “Fortnight for Freedom,” which would be a two-week period from June 21 until July 4 in which a schedule of prayer, fasting and catechesis could be observed to raise awareness of the present threats to religious freedom and conscience protection.
- What: Vigil Mass with Archbishop John Nienstedt and Bishop Lee Piché celebrating patronal feast day of archdiocese — the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul — and commemorating the Fortnight for Freedom initiative.
- When: 5:15 p.m., June 28
- Where: Cathedral of St. Paul
The members of the committee did not want to impose a new program of activities on our already busy pastors and parish staffs. Rather, the idea was to use the eight feasts/holidays that occur during this period to coordinate homilies and prayer services around the themes of religious liberty and the freedom of conscience. Those feasts/holidays are:
- June 22: SS. John Fisher and Thomas More, martyrs;
- June 23: The Vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist;
- June 24: The Nativity of St. John the Baptist;
- June 28: St. Irenaeus, bishop and martyr;
- June 29: SS. Peter and Paul, apostles and martyrs, which also happens to be our patronal feast day as an archdiocese;
- June 30: The First Martyrs of Rome;
- July 3: St. Thomas, apostle and martyr;
- July 4: Independence Day.
Here in the archdiocese, we are planning an archdiocesan Mass at 5:15 p.m. on June 28 in the Cathedral of St. Paul. I will celebrate the Mass and Bishop Piché will concelebrate. Priests, deacons, religious men and women, and certainly the faithful are invited and encouraged to attend this special Mass.
In addition, parishes and deaneries are encouraged to design their own celebrations on a local level. Materials for liturgical prayers as well as bulletin inserts are available through the USCCB website.
It has also been suggested that bell ringing and the display of American flags can augment these services. The recitation of the rosary, formal Holy Hours, as well as periods of fasting are also recommended.
The Minnesota Catholic Conference, in conjunction with the archdiocese, is sponsoring a series of educational events on topics related to religious liberty. The first event is entitled “Religious Liberty: Our Most Cherished Freedom,” and will be held at Nativity of Our Lord parish in St. Paul on June 21, 2012, at 7 p.m. More information about this and other events can be found at http://www.mncatholic.org/category/resources/events/.
As native Minnesotan Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis has said: “Religious liberty is our first, most cherished freedom. The threat the HHS mandate poses to the Catholic Church is no small matter.”
I believe it is time for Catholics to stand up and be counted!
God bless you!
Archbishop John C. Nienstedt is the 11th Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.