religious liberty

As I looked around the standing-room only board room filled with serious, somewhat anxious fellow faculty members, I could not help the surreal feeling that we were actors at the beginning of a movie about a persecution. Those who know the end will see all the little signs of the inevitable disaster as they watch vain discussions about whether to fight or to appease an overwhelmingly powerful tyrannical force in the hope of not losing everything.

Of course, Catholic faculty members like us are not being threatened with the loss of everything, but that has been true of other groups at the beginning of a persecution. We do face the loss of health insurance for ourselves and our families together with a significant monetary fine unless we twist or ignore our conscientious objection to artificial contraception, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs.

Could this be only the beginning? In this age of radical tolerance could any group suffer from a culturally-encouraged governmental persecution? And could that happen in a particular way to Catholics?  I find it hard to believe, but I am not a cradle Catholic, having been baptized in the mainest of mainstream churches, the Episcopalian Church. Cradle Catholics, especially those of Irish, Italian, German or French descent might have a different generational memory. They wouldn’t have to reach too far back to recall the very strong, anti-Catholic bias that was the tradition in this country. The 19th century waves of poor immigrants that swelled urban centers were largely Catholic and generated tremendous suspicion in the dominant Protestant culture. The Know Nothing Party of the 1850s gained national prominence because of national fear of Irish Catholics; the 1920’s incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan directed its violent bigotry as much against Catholics and Jews as against African-Americans.

Americans come by anti-Catholic sentiment naturally. Walking the streets of old-town Philadelphia, I saw a reproduction map from the 1770s that labeled, among the notable sites around town, the “Popish Chapel”. Old St. Joseph’s had been established quietly by Jesuits in the 1730s, yet when word got out that the “publick scandal of the Mass” was being offered, it became a matter for the colonial assembly and governor. Thankfully, as much as they wanted to drive out the Catholics, William Penn’s Charter of Privileges caused them enough hesitation that they finally tolerated the chapel (which continues to serve Catholics in Philadelphia):

BECAUSE no People can be truly happy, though under the greatest Enjoyment of Civil Liberties, if abridged of the Freedom of their Consciences, as to their Religious Profession and Worship…I do hereby grant and declare, That no Person or Persons…shall…be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious Worship, Place or Ministry, contrary to his or their Mind, or to do or suffer any other Act or Thing, contrary to their religious Persuasion.

George Washington did a great deal to foster tolerance for Catholics by forbidding the practice among his troops of burning the Pope in effigy to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Day. He encouraged a deeper commitment to religious tolerance, recognizing the role played by Maryland Catholics during the revolution. He even attended Mass upon several occasions while President.

Because of its principled if grudging commitment to religious liberty, America has always been a beacon of hope for Catholics suffering persecution and impoverishment, from the early days of Irish and German immigrants to the wave of Hispanic immigrants in our times. Yet Catholics, like other groups outside of the WASPish hegemony, have experienced a tremendous difference between the ideal and the real. For well over a century, American Catholics, struggling to maintain their religious practices, also longed for the day when they would be accepted as full members of American society. John Kennedy’s election as President was as symbolically momentous to American Catholics as our current President’s was to African-Americans.

As is often the case with xenophobia, anti-Catholic bias had some basis in fact, arising as it did out of the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, during which Catholics were far from guiltless. Catholic countries never had a robust sense of religious liberty, rather treating it with fear and suspicion, connected as it was to a secular atheism hostile to religion of any kind,. But the Church has learned from her experience in America, where a lived religious commitment grounds religious liberty, and where over the years Americans have learned to welcome even Catholics. That experience translated into one of the Second Vatican Council’s most important documents, “The Decree on Religious Liberty”.

Can it be that we are returning to days of yore, when Catholics are only welcomed into society if we check our consciences at the door? If so, we will not be alone this time. For the bigotry that cannot tolerate Catholic objections is no longer based in a Protestant conviction about the true way to worship Jesus Christ. This time, the bigotry is anti-Christian, and permeates the bulk of the mainstream centers of cultural influence, where Christian consciences have no doubt long been the subject of private mockery and bitter condemnation. Has four decades of lumping Bible believers with Archie Bunker made many believe that we are dangerous?

The meeting ended after several hours exploring what we could do, what we could not do, what we might do, and what might happen to us and our families. We were united in opposing the mandate and in recognizing that the College likely will not be able to continue to offer health insurance as it has unless the mandate is overturned. Will our nation reaffirm its commitment to religious liberty? Can Catholics still rely on an ideal that has lasted so long?  I hope it may be the case.

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