Freedom, Faith, and the Future

As many of my readers know the Fortnight For Freedom wrapped up on July 4th, Independence Day here in the United States, in a mass held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington, D.C.  The usual teeny-tiny group of the shrill, formed by the heretical, bitter, and wrinkly, was apparently there, but to be honest I was not even aware of their presence until I saw the news reports later.  This was partially due to the fact that an estimated 4,000+ people attended, which was particularly noteworthy for a scorchingly hot July day, not to mention the mass falling on a mid-week National holiday.  In fact on the way to the event, I fell in with a group of people from Kentucky who were in town for the fireworks, but who wanted to come add their support to the bishops’ efforts.

Of the four bishops who spoke, each had a different role to play.   Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, as the host, was a welcoming figure, thanking everyone for their help in bringing about the event.  He noted the presence of an overflow crowd, with all of the side aisles at standing room only, as well as the piazza and grounds outside the Basilica, and took particular time to thank the priests in attendance.  And well he might, for I have not seen that many priests gathered together in one place here in the Nation’s Capital since the Papal Visit in 2008: the processions alone were so long that we ran out of verses to sing for both the opening and the closing hymns.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Papal Nuncio and therefore the personal representative of the Pope in Washington, brought a letter from the Vatican expressing Pope Benedict’s support for the Fortnight For Freedom as well as his bestowing Apostolic Blessing on those participating in it.  In the letter, the Pope noted that the Fortnight had been a “symphony of prayer for the nation and its leaders,” reminding us that “freedom is not only a gift, but a summons to personal responsibility.”  The Holy Father closed his letter by expressing his hope that those hearing his words would continue to bring the wisdom and insight of the Faith to the work of pursuing America’s highest moral principles.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia was the homilist, and what an excellent, sobering, yet inspirational homily he gave us.  Rather than reproduce the text of it – which you can read here – in piecemeal fashion in this post, I would recommend you read the entire thing yourself, even if you are not a Christian, taking careful note of the delicate thread of reason running through it.  Truthfully, I had been expecting something perhaps a bit more strident, particularly since the Gospel reading chosen for the day was the passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel about payment of the census tax to Caesar.  This same passage provided both the touchstone and the title to Archbishop Chaput’s book “Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life”, which I had the privilege to discuss with him when I met and got to hang out with him a few years ago.

Instead, it became clear as I listened to his sermon that Archbishop Chaput was setting exactly the right tone by calling us to look elsewhere than human ends for our purpose.  For Chaput’s role in this celebration, it seems to me, was to be one of reminding all of us of the big picture.  Freedom comes from God, not from man, and no Caesar has the power to give it or take it away. The reason we must stand up for our religious freedom was not to score political points, but rather to defend our ability as Christians to individually and collectively deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ, as His disciples.  As the Archbishop stated in his homily, we cannot share with others what we do not live joyfully ourselves.

I suspect that like many other people I was simply stunned into silence by the sermon, delivered in a gentle, pastoral way, and yet containing such wisdom and perspective on why we were all there in the first place.  It took a good minute or so after Archbishop Chaput had finished speaking and began to return to his seat that a slow ripple, then a tidal wave, of applause and a standing ovation followed in the wake of what he had said.  In his homily he had reminded us that our goal was eternal, and far more important than political parties or power.  Normally I do not like hearing applause at mass, but in this case I must confess that I got caught up in it, for it was both a moment of witness to the truth, and also a teaching moment for all of us gathered there as to how we must look at our relationship to the world we live in.

At the conclusion of mass, it fell to Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore to provide what some might call the “red meat” of the day.  He noted that he had recently returned from a visit to Rome for the inauguration of a non-partisan organization known as the Observatory on Religious Liberty, founded by the Italian government to look at the state of religious freedom around the world.  And as it turns out, the Observatory has selected the United States as their first case study, noting that if religious liberty can be threatened here, it can be threatened anywhere.

Archbishop Lori pointed out that the preservation of religious liberty needed the assistance of the laity.  “We bishops are prepared to lead,” he affirmed, “but this is much bigger than the bishops.”  He called for those present to carry on their advocacy for the preservation of our right to worship in a spirit of reason and charity.  “The Fortnight For Freedom may be over, but the rigorous and unapologetic defense of our God-given right to our religious liberty is not.”

Of all that was said at this mass, clearly Archbishop Chaput’s words will have the longest and deepest impact on those who heard or read them.  Yet once again what really impressed me, as has been the case with many large-scale Catholic events such as this one over the past decade,  was the large number of people in attendance who grew up during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.  These future leaders of the Church, whether as clergy, laity, or religious, are active, engaged, and all on the same page.  From where I was sitting, the future of the Catholic Church in the United States at least is a younger, more exciting thing than what most pundits in the alleged mainstream media would like you to believe.

My American readers are well-aware of what a great blessing it is not to have our government directly entangled with the running of our religious institutions, as it is in many places of the world, from Saudi Arabia to Great Britain.  That freedom, to practice a faith (or not) as we choose, is one of the foundation stones of our republic.  The U.S. bishops, with the support of many religious leaders of other faiths and denominations, courageously decided to stand up together and draw the nation’s attention to this fact.  In so doing they have not only reminded us where freedom actually comes from, and what the Christian Faith teaches us about our place in the world, but they have also provided an opportunity for us to once again see the future of the Catholic Church: a future which, whatever challenges lie ahead, is marked by the active participation of faith-filled young people, devoted to Christ.

At the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
for the “Fortnight For Freedom” mass on July 4th

No Nation of Whiners

Last evening I attended a going-away event for an academic friend, who is departing the Nation’s Capital for a more pastoral, albeit equally academic, clime.  Afterwards, another friend and I walked to a nearby cafe, where we had just finished dinner and were enjoying some beverages, when a torrential downpour began, looking and sounding something like a hurricane.  The storm seemed to last for hours, though truthfully the worst of it was probably closer to about 20 minutes.

We had to wait some time for the storm to pass, and when I finally managed to return home it was to find the house unscathed. However my neighbors’ tree, the upper part of which has always loomed very high and very menacingly over the back yard, had split.  The leaning part had crashed into the street behind our houses, and as of this writing is still sitting there, entangled in the utility pole and wires that run behind our block.

Fortunately on its way down the tree managed to miss any actual damage to the property and, at least as of this writing, we still have power in this block. Many people are without, in what has been described as the largest non-hurricane-related power outage in this area’s history.  Predictions are that we will be getting some more strong storms in Washington this evening, which makes me think that we may end up losing more power, including here.  Some are predicting that it may take a week to fully restore power in the metropolitan area, and with extremely high temperatures and the 4th of July coming up, things are going to be a mess.

It is not until these sorts of things happen that we realize how very dependent we are in the Western world on a certain set of comforts.  If it is hot, we have air conditioning, or we can go to someplace which has it, to feel relaxed and cool; yet just the other day I heard someone complaining on a city bus that it was too cold, on a day when it was well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37+ Centigrade) outside.  If it is cold, we have central heating to keep us nice and warm – but then we complain that we are hot, or that the re-circulated warm air dries out the house.

The truth is, most of us have nothing to complain about.  As they approached the 4th of July, for example, the founding fathers found themselves in sultry summertime Philadelphia, sweating through layers upon layers of stinking woolen clothing with no real hope of relief.  They worked in conditions which we, their political descendants, would find intolerable, to try to rationally come up with a document to declare their own fundamental beliefs and principles as to why they should form their own government.

Fortunately for them a summer storm broke the heatwave right around the 4th itself. For us, the best that most of us can do is tweet that it is hot and we need some more ice cubes from the freezer but are too lazy to get up and fix ourselves a drink.  This is perhaps a sad commentary on the intellectually and morally flabby state of this country.

The freedoms we enjoy in this country are not free: they were quite literally sweated and bled over.  It is why the Fortnight For Freedom is so important, and it is also why, whatever inconveniences you may be suffering right now in this heat or as a result of a loss of power, you ought to simply do your best to make the best of the circumstances.  In the grand scheme things, the passage of this heatwave and storms across a large swath of the U.S., while dangerous, is for most of us an inconvenience, rather than something whose importance ought to be exaggerated.

My advice is: reach out to your friends and neighbors, if they or you are without power, and get to know one another better by spending time together. Unlike in a blizzard, you are not isolated. And who knows what good may come of your meetings, even if not as portentous as the ones in Philadelphia 200 years ago.

Detail of “Drafting of the Declaration of Independence”
by Jean-Leon Gerome Ferris (1900)
Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virgina

A Bumpy Night Ahead

In the classic party scene in “All About Eve” (1950), which for my money features the best film script ever written, Bette Davis utters her most famous line in cinema, “Fasten your seatbelts: it’s going to be a bumpy night.” Yet in the set-up to that iconic moment, in a conversation between Davis, Gary Merrill, Celeste Holm, and Hugh Marlowe, the last makes a prescient observation that something is looming over the evening’s festivities: “The general atmosphere is very Macbeth-ish. What has, or is about to happen?” For those interested in the outcome of health care reform legislation in the United States, the mood right now could be construed as something rather similar.

This evening I will be attending a discussion featuring Kyle Duncan, General Counsel at Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Peter Augustine Lawler, Professor at Berry College, and Father James Schall of Georgetown University, entitled “After Obamacare”. The panelists will examine the Supreme Court’s review of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, as challenged in two Florida cases: National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius and Florida v. United States Department of Health and Human Services. The timing of this panel discussion is rather good, for it is widely expected that the Supreme Court will issue decisions in these cases tomorrow.

The title of tonight’s event could be understood in different ways. One way is to use the line of thinking taken by a number of pundits, who assume that some or all of Obamacare will be found unconstitutional by a majority of the Court. However another would be to consider what happens if Obamacare is not, in fact, overturned or modified in some way by the Court. If it is legal, then pending some action by subsequent legislation, it will eventually no longer be able carry the admittedly polarizing term “Obamacare”, having stood up to judicial scrutiny.  Even though many believe that the doom is about to fall on this not-very-beloved part of the President’s agenda, the question is whether the forest is coming to Macbeth, or not – and no one really knows.

For Catholics like myself, the real question for us is what will happen with the so-called HHS Mandate, based on what the Court decides tomorrow. We are now in the midst of the Fortnight For Freedom, which I wrote about previously, and many events are taking place across the country to raise awareness of what the enforcement of this particular part of the healthcare law will mean to religious institutions. This includes a huge mass which will be held on the 4th of July here in Washington, which I will be attending, and at noon on that day Catholic churches and other religious communities who are participating with us will be ringing their church bells at noon in solidarity for the right of all to practice their religion free from government interference.

Lawsuits against the present Administration challenging the constitutionality of the HHS mandate are now working their way through the court systems, but have not yet made their way to the Supreme Court. Thus, unless tomorrow’s decision is a complete or substantial rejection of the new health care law, the fight against this aspect of the new law will likely have to go on. While there are many in new and social media who are gleefully anticipating that the Court will rule one way or another tomorrow, the truth is that the Court has surprised us many times before. So even though I am looking forward to tonight’s event, and hearing the opinions of those who have thought long and hard about these matters, the truth is that we simply do not know what we are in for.

In “All About Eve”, the party scene concludes with everyone stumbling off home, after an evening spent bickering viciously with one another while sipping highly potent cocktails – as Bette Davis observes, party guests don’t care what they drink as long as it burns. As a country we have been having such an evening for the past two years now, perhaps not as festive an evening but certainly with a burn to it, as this law has made its way through the court system. What the hangover will be like after tomorrow, no one wants to think about right now, but whatever the outcome, one feels certain that a hangover of some kind there will be.

Celeste Holm and Bette Davis in “All About Eve”