Religious freedom is absolutely necessary to implement the teachings of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Laudato Si, said the U.S. bishops’ domestic justice spokesman on Independence Day. The Pope’s recent encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, demands that Catholics “engage the world and witness to our teachings,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami said in a homily for the closing Mass of the Fortnight for Freedom on July 4. However, he added, this public action can only be accomplished with true religious freedom. “Religious freedom is the human right that guarantees all other rights — peace and creative living together will only be possible if freedom of religion is fully respected,” the archbishop said. Archbishop Wenski is the chair of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. He gave the homily at the July 4 Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. More than 1,000 people were estimated to be in attendance. The Fortnight for Freedom is an initiative started by the U.S. bishops in 2012 to educate Catholics about the importance of religious liberty and to bring awareness to current threats to the practice of religion in the U.S. The first fortnight was held amidst deep concerns about the state of religious freedom relating to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. Other concerns since then have included small business owners being forced to serve same-sex weddings against their religious beliefs, adoption agencies having to close rather than place children with same-sex couples, and churches being prevented by states from ministering to undocumented immigrants. More recently, the bishops expressed serious concerns about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. The majority opinion in Obergefell did not guarantee sufficient protections for the religious liberty of persons and organizations who believe marriage to be the union of one man and one woman, said Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore in a June 26 conference call with reporters following the decision. Archbishop Lori chairs the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty. The theme of the 2015 Fortnight for Freedom was “Freedom to Bear Witness.” Archbishop Lori explained in his homily at the opening Mass for the fortnight, that “we seek the freedom to bear witness to Christ’s love, not just in church but in our service to the wider community through works of justice and charity, education, social services, and health care.” One of the key threats to religious freedom in Western countries is the privatization of religion, Archbishop Wenski said in his homily for the closing Mass, because religion is inherently public in practice. In Western countries, “we see the courts chipping away at the original understanding of religious freedom,” he said. “In order to fit new political agendas, religious freedom is being reinterpreted narrowly to mean merely ‘freedom to worship’ but excluding the freedom to serve and the freedom to witness.” This is already manifested in a “soft despotism,” he explained, where “ridicule, ostracism, and denial of employment opportunities of advancement are being used to marginalize us.” “We see this when butchers, and bakers and candlestick makers are being put into the legal dock for refusing to renounce their religious beliefs,” he added. For example, Christian owners of an Oregon bakery have been forced by the state to pay a lesbian couple $135,000 in damages for refusing to serve their same-sex wedding. In addition, the owners were told not to publicly discuss their faith-based refusal to serve the wedding, as reported by the Daily Signal. The recent encyclical Laudato Si gives Catholics a mandate to practice their faith publicly, Archbishop Wenski said, by promoting an “integral ecology” of both care for the human person and for creation. Yet Catholics can only do this if their freedom to practice their religion publicly is protected, he added. “An integral ecology demands that rain forests be protected — because of what they do potentially and actually for the flourishing of the human species on this earth,” the archbishop explained of the recent encyclical. “Likewise, an integral ecology tells us that marriage, understood for millennia as a union of one man and one woman, ought to be respected and protected.” If Catholic institutions that care for the environment and the human person are shut down because they cannot in good conscience comply with new laws and mandates, then Catholics cannot promote the common good of an “integral ecology.” The Supreme Court’s recent redefinition of marriage has threatened this human ecology, he said, and the “radical autonomy” promoted by this decision was condemned in Laudato Si. “Today, some hold for a radical autonomy by which truth is determined not by the nature of things but by one’s own individual will,” he said, stressing that the court’s redefinition of marriage does not change the nature of marriage no matter how much humans may desire to do so. “As Pope Francis has written so eloquently in Laudato Si, such thinking has also brought about the degradation of both our natural and our human or social ecologies,” he continued. Like freedom of speech, religion is expressed publicly and not just privately, Archbishop Wenski said. Freedom of speech is expressed through public institutions like media outlets, political parties, and libraries, he said, and not only through one individual stating his opinion. Similarly, religion is practiced publicly as well, not just through one’s personal beliefs but “those institutions that nourish the individual’s free exercise of religion,” he said. These institutions include not just churches but Catholic schools, hospitals, adoption agencies, and other charities and ministries. Religious practice holds a proud tradition in the U.S., Archbishop Wenski added, especially when religious leaders marched at the forefront of the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King as they pushed for equal rights for black people. “Some today resent the public advocacy of religious people and communities. They accuse us of trying to impose our views on others,” Archbishop Wenski acknowledged. “Yet, as St. John Paul II explained, the Church does not impose, she proposes. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his movement for racial justice could not impose their views on the American people. They understood this — and, for this reason, they opted for non-violence. But they made a proposition that touched the conscience of a nation.”
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