Religious Liberty: Why Prayer and Fasting?

(By Fr. Thomas Knoblach)

Catholics and members of other faiths have become rightly concerned with threats to the religious liberty and freedom of conscience, freedoms that are among the hallmarks and founding values of theUnited States of America. Long-standing and successful arrangements allowed the Catholic Church and other religious groups to engage in social, educational, and health ministries. These arrangements were beginning to crumble under ideological pressure even before the Health and Human Services mandate involving insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs that has dominated the discussion and crystallized the issues.

So seriously do the Catholic bishops of our country view this erosion of religious liberty that they established an ad hoc committee to study and monitor the issue. More recently, the bishops have called for a “Fortnight for Freedom” to bear public witness to this concern about the right of the Church and other religious groups to define their own identity and mission for the common good, and carry out that mission in accord with their own values and teachings. These are not partisan initiatives to influence the November elections, but a call to awareness and responsibility for all candidates and holders of public office. Protecting the heritage of freedom belongs to the vigilance of everyone.

In their March, 2012 document, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” (complete document can be viewed at the bishops state clearly that this effort is led by the bishops who provide their moral voice to clarify the principles underlying the concern and the response. However, they state that this response in the political sphere belongs properly to “committed and courageous lay Catholics” working in cooperation with other Christians, Jews, and all citizens of good will who share these concerns.

The bishops’ statement cites the definite need for education about the issues at stake; op-eds to help inform the public debate; respectful but persistent communication with elected officials to voice our convictions; visible testimonies that we are aware of these threats and committed to resist them through legitimate and peaceful means, most particularly through the influence of rational argument and the power of the voting booth. The statement also addresses words of responsibility to those holding public office, those leading Catholic institutions and services, and those who help form public opinion. Without a consistent and unified voice upholding the Constitutional guarantees of religious liberty, it might easily seem that sufficient political blustering will drive us to our sanctuaries, abdicating involvement with the currents of the world.

However, the bishops also call with particular clarity for prayer and fasting as the linchpin of the Catholic response. Indeed, unless the political means are motivated by faith and charity, and sustained by prayer and fasting, we have nothing distinctive to offer, and we place our hopes in this world alone.

To some the primacy of prayer and fasting might seem timid at best and completely ineffectual at worst, an over-spiritualized response to a political issue. But there is a much deeper wisdom at work here. If we simply adopt the strategies of the world, we have nothing better to offer than competing for who can shout the loudest and spend the most to get their way. If we abandon the very tools that history has proved are most effective at bringing about lasting change and a genuinely better world, we are, in Paul’s words, “a clashing gong, a clanging cymbal.” If we rely on the same approach as those who differ from the Gospel, we run the serious risk of becoming the very thing we decry.

Prayer not only implores from God the help we think we need; it also works to shape our understanding of what we actually need. AsSt. Augustineput it, prayer does not change God’s mind, which is always set on the good; it changes our capacity to accept what God sends as the good. True fasting is an act of self-denial that involves our bodies as well as our wills. It helps us experience an emptiness that opens us to greater realities than our immediate needs.

As the prophet Jeremiah reminds us:

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord. They are like a tree planted beside the waters, that stretches out its roots to the stream: it fears not the heat when it comes, its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit (Jeremiah 17:7-8).

The statement on religious liberty concludes:

To all our fellow Catholics, we urge an intensification of your prayers and fasting for a new birth of freedom in our beloved country. We invite you to join us in an urgent prayer for religious liberty:

Almighty God, Father of all nations,
For freedom you have set us free in Christ Jesus (Gal. 5:1).
We praise and bless you for the gift of religious liberty,
the foundation of human rights, justice, and the common good.
Grant to our leaders the wisdom to protect and promote our liberties.
By your grace may we have the courage to defend them, for ourselves and for all those
who live in this blessed land.
We ask this through the intercession of Mary Immaculate, our patroness,
and in the name of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
with whom you live and reign, one God, forever and ever. Amen.