Social Balance: Religious liberty not a Catholic issue but an American issue

June 12, 2012

In April of this year, the Ad Hoc Committee of the Committee on Religious Liberty of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.” The statement expressed the bishops’ concerns over the threats to religious freedom and called for a Fortnight for Freedom from June 21 to July 4. The fortnight period is designated as a time of prayer and reflection, education and action to promote and protect religious liberty.

As is so often the case with such teaching documents, the statement is well-written, well-conceived and measured in tone. It is also a wide reaching statement. 

The controversy that currently resounds throughout our nation over the recent Health and Human Services mandating of a provision covering such measures as contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs is of grave moral concern. This controversy no doubt helped inspire the document, but I would encourage Catholics to read the statement in its entirety. 

The bishops begin by offering some historical context, placing at the very beginning of our nation’s history the Catholic leadership in the forefront of the fight for religious liberty. Thus, what is happening today is not a new battle for the Catholic Church, but one that emerges from the foundational teachings of our social doctrine.

Further, the bishops also cite a number of examples where religious liberty is being threatened, even eroded in our day, by current public policy.
In addition to the serious matter of the HHS mandate, the bishops list immigration policy as passed by such states as Alabama that makes illegal the harboring of undocumented immigrants and criminalizes the provision of pastoral and charitable care. This policy the bishops label as “egregious.”

The bishops also cite among several examples the forced exclusion of Catholic Charities in such cities as Boston, San Francisco and the state of Illinois, from providing foster care because of Catholic Charities refusal to place children with same sex couples or with unmarried same-sex couples.

The list of such threats to religious liberty is impressive — or frightening, depending on one’s perspective. However, the bishops do not reserve their concerns for Catholic institutions but also are ecumenical in the range of their criticism of the contemporary political milieu. They ally themselves with many and diverse religious leaders, recognizing that it isn’t on the Catholic Church that is being challenged.
Further, the bishops emphasize that religious freedom is not only about the freedom to worship but also whether we as a people of faith are free to contribute to the common good. They assert that much is at stake, “…whether America will continue to have a free, creative and robust civil society…”

And as Catholics, we believe that our moral and social teachings, our experiences in such fields as health and pastoral care to the poor, and our overall regard for the needs of others can, does and should continue to make such a contribution to the common good.

The statement frankly, and emphatically, challenges policy makers to cease efforts that frustrate the role of service providers from religiously oriented institutions as we — and here they quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — serve as the “conscience of the state.”

In their call for a “Fortnight for Freedom,” the bishops ask the faithful to pray, educate, reflect and act on this very trying issue in a very trying time in our nation’s history. I encourage everyone to read the document thoroughly. It can be found in its entirety at the U.S. bishops’ website, Also, please visit our archdiocesan website at for access to valuable resources that can be employed in parishes.

Finally, I am more than happy to visit with parish groups, CCE classes, adult faith formation classes or on weekends as a homilist to address this matter in the light of the teachings of the bishops and our social and moral doctrine. I can be reached at 713-741-8731 or at

This is a critical moment in our time. We are all challenged as Catholics to preserve and to protect the freedom of all people of faith and to assure our continued ability to contribute in love, charity and justice to the common good. But as the bishops underscore, “This is not a Catholic issue. This is not a Jewish issue. This is not an Orthodox, Mormon or Muslim issue. This is an American issue.”

Deacon Sam Dunning is the Director of the Archdiocesan Office of Justice and Peace.