Martyrs inspire us in battle for religious liberties

fr_palermo    My father has been deceased for several years. I recently ran into one of Dad’s buddies, who with a look of genuine sadness, said, “I can’t believe where our country is headed morally, Father, and the attack on religious liberties is unreal.”
    Indeed it is.
    The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued regulations (effective August 2013) requiring insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and certain abortifacient procedures in all private health care plans, including those of religious institutions which oppose these procedures on religious grounds.  Exemptions in the regulations are so narrowly defined as to be of no real value to most Catholic institutions such as hospitals, schools and social service providers.
    In effect, the federal government is trying to define what Catholics should believe, in clear disregard of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the free exercise of religion. Catholics are being asked to violate their individual and communal consciences.
‘Un-religion’ gets protection
    Archbishop William Lori of the Archdiocese of Baltimore has articulated the underlying issue quite well: “Today the law and culture are establishing un-religion as the religion of the land, and granting it rights and protections that the Founding Fathers of this country never imagined.”
    Government efforts to restrict the influence of religion in the public sphere aren’t new, but this latest attempt seems to have awakened a sleeping giant. As I have preached about this issue of religious liberties at different churches, the consistent feedback I have received has been, “We’re ready to fight.”
Fortnight for Freedom
    The battle for religious liberties is a complex issue, and education will be an important part of the effort to win it.  The U.S. bishops have called for a “Fortnight for Freedom” from June 21-July 4, a time of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom.
    The first night of the fortnight, June 21, is the eve of the feast of two martyrs who died for refusing to deny their faith and violate their consciences. St. John Fisher (1469-1535) was the Bishop of Rochester, England, and St. Thomas More (1478-1535) was an attorney, husband, father and Lord Chancellor of England when King Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church and had himself declared the Supreme Head of the Church in England. This occurred when Henry divorced his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and when Pope Clement VII refused to annul his marriage so he could lawfully marry Anne Boleyn.
    A series of legislative acts were passed formally separating the Church of England from the Church of Rome and requiring loyal citizens to sign an oath acknowledging Henry as the Church’s true head.
Would not cave in
    Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More were regarded as key figures in Henry’s efforts to have his ecclesial authority validated. Bishop Fisher was a popular cleric and renowned preacher who actually had tutored Henry VIII when he was a child and preached at the funerals of both of Henry’s parents. He came out publicly against Henry’s divorce and remarriage.
    Sir Thomas More was one of the most esteemed figures in all of England and a close collaborator and friend of the king. He did not publicly oppose the king’s divorce and remarriage but refused publicly to condone them. Both men supported Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and papal primacy, and both refused to sign the oath of fidelity as a matter of conscience.
A death sentence
    The king had them imprisoned in the Tower of London in the hope that time spent in the deplorable prison conditions and the threat of being killed for treason would cause a change of heart. Numerous government officials and clergy visited the men and pleaded with them to sign the oath, but they steadfastly refused. After Bishop Fisher spent 14 months and More 15 months in prison without recanting, the king’s patience ran out. There were kangaroo trials and sentences of death ensued.
    As the date for his execution neared, Bishop Fisher reaffirmed that he was prepared to die rather than violate his conscience and deny his faith. He recalled the courage of St. John the Baptist, who publicly rebuked King Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, even knowing it could cost him his life.
    Sir Thomas also reaffirmed his willingness to die for the faith when he rejected his wife’s final attempt to have him recant and save his life. He responded, “Do you really want me to exchange eternity for twenty years?” As he went to his execution, he said to those gathered, “I die for the faith of the holy Catholic Church. I die as the king’s true servant, but God’s first.” Fisher was beheaded on June 22 and More on July 6, 1535.
Standing firm
    Our country’s Founding Fathers saw a public value to religion and decided to protect the right to religious freedom in our Constitution. The HHS regulations threaten the freedom of Catholics to practice the faith according to their beliefs. We are being asked to provide insurance coverage for procedures which violate our understanding of the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.
    As we battle to overturn these regulations, we must be determined, united and persistent. We also must be ready to suffer for our beliefs, be it in the media and arena of public opinion, or through actual physical suffering. May the courageous witness of martyrs like St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More inspire us to hold fast to what we believe at this crossroads moment in our nation’s history.
    Father Palermo is an attorney and serves as spiritual director at Notre Dame Seminary and spiritual advisor for the St. Thomas More Catholic Lawyers Association.

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