SCOTTSDALE — Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore brought his message of religious liberty to a group yearning to hear it: Catholic business leaders and their spouses.
His Feb. 8 address brought a whirlwind history lesson from the late 18th century and the role the Church played in the American scene to 17th century philosophers to the country’s founders to the contemporary discussion of human rights and the “frontier of liberty” termed by Pope Benedict XVI.
Archbishop Lori was among a powerful lineup of well-known Catholics who addressed Legatus members during its three-day summit at the Phoenician Feb. 7-9. The crowd had already heard about being Catholic in the political realm from Ken Cuccinelli, attorney general of Virginia, and got George Weigel’s take on converting a culture in crisis.
The archbishop repeatedly affirmed the need to have principles grounded in natural law and invited Legatus members to use personal influence to convert the hearts of others.
“We are once again at a crossroads in how religious freedom is understood and exercised in our country,” he said. “We remain a nation where most people still value some form of religious faith.”
The Church, thanks to immigration from Central and South America, continues to grow in the United States. The country, the archbishop said, remains what Abraham Lincoln described it to be: “the last, best hope on earth.”
But the place of religion is slipping.
“While a solid majority of Americans still believe in God and describe themselves as Christians, fewer people in almost all denominations practice their faith,” he said. “This is true especially among the young. It is estimated than only 27 percent of Catholics attend Mass regularly while the number of sacramental marriages has declined steadily in recent decades.”
These challenges are part of the New Evangelization, to which Pope Benedict XVI challenged the Church during the Year of Faith. It also relates to the threats on religious liberty, the archbishop said.
“If throughout the country our churches were filled to capacity and all Catholics were vibrantly evangelized and systematically catechized, religious freedom would not be challenged so readily by bad laws, judicial decisions and administrative regulations,” he said.
Lack of religious practice leads to a lack of belief in moral truths. And understanding natural law, which is indispensable in a democratic form of government, is also lacking.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate of contraceptives and abortifacients limit religious freedom by not exempting Catholic universities, hospitals and social service agencies. The adjusted rules “remain problematic, especially because they give no relief to conscientious private for-profit employers.”
“That we are even engaging in this long struggle over the HHS mandate goes to the larger points that we are losing our freedom to create a workplace rooted in Catholic values, such as respect for human life from conception until natural death,” Archbishop Lori said, “and that religion is increasingly regarded almost as a foreign element in an open society where there are no fixed truths or values to guide the journey.”
That many fellow Catholics and citizens do not see that religious liberty is threatened means the Church must do a better job evangelizing and catechizing, he said, noting marriage and family life as areas of emphasis. Schools, charities and healthcare institutions must not be “Catholic in name only.”
In his hour-long address, Archbishop Lori noted that the ideas of the Founding Fathers of the United States were rooted in natural law, albeit not directly connected to St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas. They were also “far from hostile to religion.”
“Rather, they saw religious toleration and freedom as a great achievement and the separation of church and state was meant to protect that freedom,” the archbishop said, “not hem it in or to eliminate it.”
The Founding Fathers saw a relationship between rights and moral obligations and understood the value for democracy of virtue, morality and religion, he said.
The modern civil rights movement, the archbishop pointed out, was rooted “in deep convictions about the dignity of the human person whose rights and freedom are to be recognized and guaranteed by law.” Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of this in biblical terms, making explicit connection to natural law as discussed by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
“A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God,” King wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” “An unjust law is a code that is out harmony with the moral law. To put it in terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.”
If the objective is to expand human rights to include “behaviors heretofore deemed immoral,” then the documents of the founding of the United States must be stripped of “any reference to the Creator and His will or words and distinctions that define reality,” the archbishop explained.
“They have their reasons for excising from these documents any notion of a common morality discoverable by human reason,” he said, “or any reference to values that flow from human dignity and human nature.”
“This unhinged and ever expansive world of human rights does not merely hamper religious freedom; it imperils it,” Archbishop Lori said. “Conscientious individuals and religious institutions are now more and more finding themselves in the crosshairs of a hardened secular culture dominated by the views of a powerful few.”
First, religious and moral teachings are scrutinized and public opinion is shifted away from them. Second, laws contrary to these teachings are enacted. Third, “allowances are made for such teachings through exemptions and carve outs.” These “allowances” shrink over time and “some religious and moral teachings are branded as a form of intolerable bigotry.”
The archbishop called on Legatus members to engage their network of family, colleagues and friends to understand how profoundly religious liberty is being threatened today.
“Let us and those around us allow the Holy Spirit to light our minds with Christ’s truth and to warm our hearts with his love,” he said. Christ can make a generation of believers and citizens that will restore the United States to its founding ideals.