Bishop: Take your faith into the voting booth

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Bishop David A. Zubik
Bishop of Pittsburgh

Dear Friends in Christ,

Very often over the course of the last several weeks, I’ve gotten the question: “What should I do on Election Day?” My answer is always the same: “VOTE!”

To be sure, some people might be looking for a bit more, even to the point of wanting me to tell them who the best candidate might be from my perspective, or from the perspective of the church.

That, I won’t do. That, the church won’t do. That, neither the church nor I can do. The church is not a political party nor any part of government. Neither am I. The church is not here to gain political power. Nor am I!

What the church does, what I attempt to do over and over again whether in the midst of a campaign for a president, or for a senator, or for a member of Congress, or for a governor, or for a county or a city council member, is to at best teach what we — you and I — believe, and then to encourage that we reflect that belief in the public arena and especially in the voting booth.

If we — you and I — do not bring the perspective of our faith into how we cast our ballots on Election Day, we are failing ourselves, failing our country, failing our church and failing even God! If we buy into a twisted mantra that “separation of church and state” means that the voice of faith is to be silent on public issues, or worse to buy into the schizophrenia that I can espouse one thing in church but another in the voting booth, we have accepted a second-class citizenship never intended by our Constitution, and worse an abdication of our religious freedom given to us by none other than God himself.

As bishop, my responsibility is not to tell you for whom to vote. My responsibility as your bishop is to reflect with you on the Catholic principles that must inform our political voice, our political action, our “faithful citizenship.”

The most basic principle is a commitment to uphold the sacredness and dignity of human life from conception until natural death. That principle is the primary (not a secondary, not a compromised) moral obligation to respect the dignity of every life, of every person as a unique creation of God. To do less is to give license to evil, intrinsic evil, for which we, as members of the church, bear no small responsibility.

Under this umbrella of respecting human life are these egregious attacks on human life: (1) abortion; (2) euthanasia; (3) embryonic stem-cell research; (4) human cloning. To support any of these practices and to vote for any candidate for the deliberate purpose of adding support for these attacks on human life is a denial of the sacredness of human life, and worse, an act that cooperates with evil.

At the very core of all Catholic social teaching — whether that teaching concerns issues of poverty, justice, economics, religious freedom or human rights — is the sacredness and dignity of every human life.

The church has the obligation to help build a culture where the dignity and sacredness of every person — particularly the innocent, the poor and the vulnerable — is recognized as a paramount virtue.

The Gospel does not accept silent witness to the truth because Jesus was outspoken about the truth! The church, as the body of Christ, is required:

• To speak out for innocent human life, particularly the right to life of the unborn;

• To speak out for and with the sick and the dying;

• To speak out for marriage between husband and wife, between one man and one woman, and the sacredness of the family;

• To speak out for the poor, the unemployed and the underemployed;

• To speak out for the immigrant and the imprisoned;

• To speak out for victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation;

• To speak out for all who are vulnerable, hurting or suffering;

• To speak out for peace and for justice.

And, finally, and certainly not the least of it all, the church must speak out for religious freedom, whenever and wherever it is threatened, for freedom is the cornerstone of all our liberties given to us as human beings created in the image and likeness of God. Religious freedom is far more than just the right to worship. It is the right to live our faith freely in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, in our country, in our world, and especially to give voice to our beliefs in the voting booth. No one has the right to take away that right, the right of religious liberty, even if they think they have the power to do so.

Over these last few weeks, I have tried to share with you the perspective of faith as we approach Election Day. My recent columns in the Pittsburgh Catholic, all five of them beginning with the Oct. 5 issue and ending with this week’s, looked at the many issues that describe what it means to be pro-life in a month focused on pro-life. I hope you found them helpful. (If you didn’t see them, they are available on our diocesan website at

And so again — on this Election Day: “VOTE!” And when you enter the voting booth, don’t leave your faith, don’t leave your Catholic principles and beliefs, outside. Vote with a clear understanding that you have not only the right, but the absolute duty to do so as a responsible citizen of this country and as a cherished member of this church.

What will serve our nation, no matter what the outcome of the elections, is if you and I do the best to exercise our power to vote with the power of the truth.

Godspeed! God bless you as the faithful of the Church of Pittsburgh! God bless me as shepherd of the Church of Pittsburgh! God bless the United States of America!

Grateful for our belief that “Nothing is Impossible with God,” I am

Your brother in Christ,





Most Reverend David A. Zubik

Bishop of Pittsburgh


November 1, 2012

Solemnity of All Saints


At the age of 7 in 1956, I discovered a love for civics. When most of my friends could care less about the Democratic and Republican conventions that summer, I was glued to the tube. Would Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon be re-elected? Or would Adlai Stevenson II and Estes Kefauver win?

 That election season began my coming of age in civics. It was a preoccupation that grew deeper over the years. Perhaps it was the seed that grew my interest in becoming an attorney (until God let me know otherwise).
 In my naivete that year, I really did believe that all people were treated with equal respect, including Catholics. As a youngster, I was already in love with Jesus and his church. I was so proud to be Catholic. And I thought all people respected us of the Catholic faith.
 Four years later, I had my first lesson that not all is as it seemed (at least to me). For the second time in the history of our country, someone of my Catholic faith was running for president. I was caught off guard that, for some people, that would become cause for alarm. Some would even suggest that, if the Catholic were elected, he would take orders from the pope.
 In a recent issue of The New York Times, Doug Sanders, international journalist, reminded readers that, in the face of the recent riots and deaths at our overseas embassies, we must beware of applying broad stereotypes about Muslim Americans. He described some unsavory and false caricatures of Muslims in the United States.
 Sanders then pointed out that such caricatures are nearly identical to the stereotypes of Catholics that have been popular and persistent throughout American history. He warned that "American Muslims are falling victim to the same misunderstandings and fallacies" that threatened Catholic immigrants. Sanders has a timely and important message.
Caricatured beliefs
 I was struck by a reference Sanders made to a book, "American Freedom and Catholic Power."
 When it was released in 1949, the book plowed through six printings in a matter of months. "American Freedom and Catholic Power" made The New York Times bestseller list. And it was a blistering anti-Catholic tome (that is still in print).
 The author, Paul Blanshard, made the basic argument that the Catholic faith was an "ideology of conquest" and a form of "medieval authoritarianism that has no rightful place in the democratic American environment." Growing Catholic influence in America, particularly in matters of morality in the culture, according to Blanshard, could only mean an erosion of American freedoms.
 The author's particular concern was Catholic moral teaching. But the general idea was the same wherever he looked — he saw Catholic values as morality imposed, rather than lived. And he saw these Catholic values as dangerous to America.
 In our own time, we know that there are so many areas where Catholic moral teaching spells out a different example, a different set of criteria, a different approach to how we live our lives. The culture today often does not agree, and our teachings and our beliefs are caricatured in national news media, or bandied about in nighttime entertainment, or even debated in U.S. politics, or glaringly ignored, without any understanding of exactly what it is that we teach, what it is that we believe and, most important, what it is that we live.
 In one sense, Blanshard was right. Our Catholic values and moral beliefs are "dangerous." They are "dangerous" because they demand that we look at ourselves and what we value. They are "dangerous" because they demand conversion. They are "dangerous" because they demand conviction. They are "dangerous" because if we live them in our daily lives, we will fundamentally change the culture — but not through revolution, not through imposing our will, but through the example of what the faith alive can mean in the Church Alive! as a faith lived.
 But what Blanshard refused to understand is that Catholic values do not contradict American freedoms —they fulfill them. Catholic values lived — lived by you and me — are the key to renewal, the key to reconciliation, the key to solve so much that plagues us.
Respect Life Month
 Over the next few weeks in this column, I will try to "bridge the gap" — bridge the gap between the caricature of what we believe that is presented in the public square, and the reality of what we believe and try to live as Catholics.
 In this Respect Life Month, I will invite you to join me as we look at the sacredness of human life and the inherent dignity that comes from this sacredness. It is the fundamental principle of Catholic moral and social teaching, the key to understand how we view the world.
 In this Respect Life Month, I will invite you to join me as we look at our understanding of the social gospel, at our commitment as Catholics to the common good and how our understanding of the inherent dignity of human life encompasses all of our teaching on justice and protecting the most vulnerable among us, the "preferential option for the poor."
 In this Respect Life Month, I will invite you to join me as we look at marriage and how the church understands the bond between husband and wife as a sacrament and the fundamental role of marriage in both a just and good society, and in the welcoming and in the nurturing of human life.
 And in this Respect Life Month, I will invite you to join me as we look at religious liberty as the cornerstone of all our liberties as human beings created in the image and likeness of God. That religious liberty is far more than just the right to worship. It truly is the right to live our faith freely in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our country and in our world, and as guaranteed by our country's Constitution.
 Next week, on Oct. 11, we will begin the Year of Faith called by Pope Benedict XVI. By divine providence, our 160 some Pittsburgh pilgrims and I will be in St. Peter's Square as the Holy Father initiates the Year of Faith with holy Mass.
 On Oct. 20, at 6 p.m., at St. Paul Cathedral, I will have the distinct honor of celebrating the opening Mass for the Year of Faith in our diocese. I hope you will be able to attend.
 I hope as well that you will see this Year of Faith as an opportunity. As the Holy Father wrote in his apostolic letter, "Porta Fidei," calling for this Year of Faith, "the teaching of Jesus still resounds in our own day with the same power. ... Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that Jesus has left us." The Year of Faith "is a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord."
 The Year of Faith is an opportunity for each of us to turn toward Christ, encounter him in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. It is a time to rediscover the faith and the church, and in that rediscovery change our view of the world.
 As Pope Benedict quotes St. Augustine, believers "strengthen themselves by believing." Over the next four weeks, we will examine Catholic beliefs and values so often challenged in today's culture. We will strengthen ourselves together by our beliefs, so that we are more eager to evangelize our faith every day.
 Our vocation as Christians is to live the faith we believe.
 Our vocation as Americans is to be one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.
 May our vocations as both Christians and Americans "strengthen us by believing" in this Year of Faith. 

The parable of the fingernail

There was a movie that came out about five years ago. Like too many movies in our time, it’s difficult to recommend because of a litany of words that are unapologetically offensive. It’s difficult to recommend because of what we have come to expect from popular culture about human sexuality and the cavalier attitude: "If it feels good, do it!"

But it also had one of the best pro-life statements that you could find in a mainstream Hollywood movie.

The movie is called "Juno." It’s the story of a young high school girl —Juno —who gets pregnant. Her first thought is to have an abortion. She describes how she went to the clinic to get it done. A protester out front says that her unborn child has fingernails. Juno thinks nothing of it.

Until she is sitting in that clinic! She notices that everyone —the other patients, her friends who joined her, the receptionist —is biting on a fingernail, polishing a fingernail, studying a fingernail. And it suddenly hits home.

She found her answer in a fingernail. There will be no abortion. What a powerful parable —the parable of a fingernail.

The church believes and teaches that every human life is sacred. And because every human life is sacred, every human life has dignity. The greatest pages in the human story are written when the sacredness of human life is recognized and celebrated; the worst moments in our collective story are when that sacredness is compromised, rejected, violated.

The church believes that every human life is sacred because it believes that every human life belongs to God and is created by God for all eternity: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you" (Jeremiah 1:5).

This belief is grounded in the fundamental sacredness of human life. However, this belief is not confined to Catholics. It is not confined to Christians. It is not confined to believers. It is a shared belief that crosses every culture, every generation, every era in history.

It is a shared belief because the sacredness of human life is fundamental to what we call natural law —the rights, values and beliefs common and universal to humanity. This "natural law" is what we know inherently and instinctively because each of us is an individual, because each of us is a human being, because each of us is alive.

The sacredness of human life

The sacredness of human life is a simple teaching. It doesn’t lend itself to long philosophical or theological analysis. We believe:

•that every human life is sacred from the first moment of conception to the final moment

of natural death, and every moment in between both; •that each human life is sacred because each human life is created by God in His image and in His likeness;

•that this is not a uniquely Catholic proposition, but an inherent understanding of human nature itself.

Yet, I have heard a thousand accusations (as I know you’ve heard them, too) to explain why the church takes the position that it takes on issues surrounding life. People will argue that:

•we call for an end to capital punishment because we are soft on crime;

•we protest embryonic stem-cell research because we hate science;

•we oppose legalized abortion because we want to oppress women;

•we call for an end to unjust war because we are out of touch with national priorities;

•we oppose euthanasia because we are insensitive to human pain and suffering;

•we oppose suicide because we don’t understand desperation.

The essential belief of Catholics

This kind of talk makes for heated debate, but it always dodges or avoids the essential teaching of the church, the essential belief of Catholics:

•The church cannot accept capital punishment because, taking even a guilty murderer’s life when society can be protected by other means, violates the sacredness and dignity of human life (think of the tears of repentence);

•The church cannot accept embryonic stem-cell research because creating life then destroying it —no matter the good intention —violates the sacredness and dignity of human life (think that human life is much, much more than what’s in a test tube);

•The church cannot accept abortion because, by destroying innocent human life, abortion destroys life (think of the parable of the fingernail);

•The church cannot accept war at any cost because unjust war ignores the principles of justice, peace and human dignity (think of the Holocaust);

•The church cannot accept euthanasia because illness, age, human pain, human suffering or a hundred other infirmities do not make a person any less human, no matter how difficult this may seem (think of Christ suffering on the cross);

•The church cannot accept suicide —physician-assisted, or however it is broached —because taking an innocent human life in an act of self-destruction violates the sacredness and dignity of human life (think of hopes hidden in the face of desperation).

The list could go on and on. And in modern culture it usually does. But the sacredness of human life is the fundamental principle —the fundamental starting point —of every human right. At the very core of all Catholic social teaching —whether that teaching concerns issues of poverty, justice, religious freedom or human rights —is the sacredness and dignity of each human life.

History has shown time and time again that once we compromise the sacredness of human life —by limitations based on race, creed, nationality, usefulness or purpose —we have created horror for humanity.

The sacredness of human life is key to understanding ourselves. If an individual human life is not sacred, then there is no foundation —or logic —for any human right, any human duty, any human responsibility for each other. As we view our world and our culture, as we understand what it means in living out our faith in our world and our culture, the sacredness of life is not up for grabs, negotiation or debate!

When Cain killed his brother Abel, the Lord said to him: "What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!" (Genesis 4:9) The earth itself rejects the horror of the sacredness of life violated.

Hunger, slavery, human trafficking, racism, cloning and torture are acts that threaten human life.

Murder, assisted suicide, targeting citizens in wars and conflicts, capital punishment when society has other means to protect itself, are acts that destroy human life.

Abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, infanticide, genocide are acts that destroy innocent human life.

This is not a belief that can be ducked or avoided. This is a belief that needs to be protected and advanced.

In the movie, Juno sits in the clinic waiting her turn. But she is saved —and the child within her is saved —by a simple shared act of humanity and the message that it brings her. In the seeming uselessness of a fingernail, Juno finds the meaning of how sacred is human life. She embraces it. What a parable! 

With this ring ... Part II

A friend said it was my "cringe column." I didn't like the sound of that, so I asked him what he meant. He said that when he read the column, he could see himself doing exactly what I described. The thought of doing so made him cringe.

 He was referring to the column that I wrote just about a year ago for the Pittsburgh Catholic called "With this ring ..." In the column, I wrote about how I had taken my dad's wedding ring — representing 57 years of marriage — for safekeeping as he was preparing for surgery.
 During a flight to Poland for a pilgrimage I was leading, I managed to lose the ring. That's when my friend cringed as he read. The rest of the story was that my dad was wonderful about it and I was able to purchase a new wedding band for him — not to ease my guilt, but as a sign of thanksgiving for all that my mom and dad's love for each other and their marriage of 57 years meant, especially to me.
 This week, I want to address the issue of marriage and what the church believes about marriage, particularly in relation to the issue of gay marriage. As I noted two weeks ago, I will try to "bridge the gap" — bridge the gap between the caricature of what we believe about marriage that is presented in the public square, and the reality of what we believe and try to live as Catholics. 
The deepest of our needs
 The desire to love and be loved is the deepest of our needs. Each and every one of us longs to be known, accepted and cherished by another. We know that only God can give us complete and unconditional love. Yet,God gave us marriage — a holy union — to mirror this supreme love on earth. 
 At the heart of married love is the total gift of self that husband and wife freely offer to each other. Our Catholic faith teaches that marriage is much more than a civil contract; it is intended to mirror the kind of love God has for us. It is a lifelong covenant of love between a man and a woman. It is an intimate partnership in which husbands and wives learn to give and receive love unselfishly, and then teach their children to do so as well. From my parents, I learned the faith. But I first learned the meaning of love.
 As you know, there are many efforts through the courts or legislatures to create a new definition of marriage and undermine marriage as the permanent, faithful and fruitful union of one man and one woman. It is a coordinated effort with a lot of orchestrated campaigns behind it.  
 This is a grave concern for the church and for anyone who cares deeply about where marriage is going in our country and culture. Why? It's not because the church is opposed to "love." It's not because the church somehow hates homosexuals. It's not because the church wants to bar anyone from civil rights. 
 To the contrary, the church takes its position because we are so firmly committed to love, so firmly committed to marriage, so firmly committed to what marriage means not just as a civil right, but as a human right at the very foundation of culture and society. 
 The word "marriage" isn't simply a label that can be attached to different types of relationships. "Marriage" reflects a far deeper reality — the reality of the unique, fruitful, lifelong union that is only possible between a man and a woman and that is at the heart of the human family. 
 The attempt to "redefine" marriage to include two people of the same sex denies the reality of what marriage is. Love and commitment are important for marriage — as they are for many relationships. But marriage is unique because the commitment it calls for is better described as "communion," where "the two become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). Only a man and a woman in marriage can become that "one flesh" communion. 
Two fundamentals of marriage
 In her teachings, the church underscores the two fundamentals of marriage: the deep, intimate, loving union between a man and a woman, between a husband and a wife, and the creation of new life.
 The unity of husband and wife is so intimate that from it can come a "third," the child — a new life to be welcomed and raised in love. No other relationship, no matter how loving or committed, can have this unique form of commitment, this unique form of communion. 
 Nature itself makes it absolutely clear and absolutely real: only from the union of a man and a woman can new life arise. A same-sex relationship can exist for seven years or 70 times seven years. But the one thing that will not result from that physical relationship is a new life. It is as impossible as trying to "redefine" water to include something other than oxygen and hydrogen. Water is hydrogen and oxygen. Marriage is a man and a woman. 
 No one can deny that it is only through the union of one man and one woman that you and I came into this world. This reality of nature cannot be changed by any judicial decision, by any legal system or by any country. 
 Both man and woman are created equal in the image of God. Both have great dignity and worth. But equality does not mean "sameness": a man is not a woman, and a woman is not a man. Sexual difference is unlike any other difference we experience, because it — and only it — allows for the total personal union between husband and wife that is at the heart of marriage. It is what makes the union of spouses possible.
 The Catholic Church cares about marriage. The family is the basic cell of human society. The role, responsibilities and needs of the family should be priorities of every government because marriage affects everyone. 
 The Catholic Church believes, teaches and affirms that every person regardless of sexual orientation has great inviolable dignity and worth. Every life is sacred. Every life has dignity. All people must be treated with respect, sensitivity and love. That is why God, through the church, calls everyone to a life of holiness and chastity. 
 For many, the desire to redefine marriage has its origins in genuine compassion for friends and family members who have experienced bias, unjust discrimination and personal rejection for their sexual orientation. I am sadly aware of and very sensitive to this suffering. 
 But the answer to this bias and rejection is not the erosion and watering down of the meaning of marriage to define any relationship, but embracing the dignity of every human person, embracing the sacredness of every human life, 
 As I wrote in my earlier column, when I finally mustered up the courage to tell my dad that I had lost his ring, he simply said, "Well, that's OK. Don't worry about it! At least I had the chance to wear the ring for 62 years." That's love. That's marriage.
 "But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall be one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh" (Mark 10:6-8).

Who made us?

"God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life."

That's the first sentence of the "Catechism of the Catholic Church," the compendium of Catholic belief released by Blessed Pope John Paul II on Oct. 11, 1992, the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. It's a book that belongs on every Catholic shelf.

For those of us a bit gray on top — or more than a bit — that first sentence of the catechism seems very familiar. We were raised on the Baltimore Catechism, that peerless collection of questions and answers that taught us what we believe as Catholics:

Q: Who made us?

A: God made us.

Q: Why did God make us?

A: God made us to show forth his goodness and to share with us his everlasting happiness in heaven.

There are people who might have drifted away from the faith decades ago, but they can still recite that catechism exchange from their youth in a New York minute. Which is exactly why they should come back home. Like the pop artist Rod Stewart sang in his hit, "You're in My Heart": "You're in my heart, you're in my soul." God is never leaving us, no matter how hard we might try to let him go.

This week, as I continue my reflections with you on pro-life issues in this pro-life month of October, I want to address the issue of the inherent dignity of human life and our understanding of the social gospel — our commitment as Catholics to the common good and how that commitment encompasses all of our teaching on justice and protecting the most vulnerable among us. I will try to "bridge the gap" — bridge the gap between the political culture and political cliches of an election year and the reality of what we believe and try to live as Catholics.

Catholic social teaching

Those lines from the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" and the old Baltimore Catechism clearly describe the fundamental basis of what we call "Catholic social thought." God made us — me, you, every other woman, man, child in this world; and he made us — me, you, every other woman, man, child in this world — so that we can share with him eternal happiness in heaven. We are meant for salvation! It is God's deepest hunger and thirst for us. We are God's creation, meant for him. No ruler, no culture, no class, no boss, no job, no economic system, no "anything else" can supersede or destroy our essential individual human dignity. Because that dignity comes from God.

The foundation of Catholic social teaching is the commitment to the sacredness of human life from conception until natural death. It means that we have a fundamental moral obligation to respect the dignity of every life, of every person as a unique creation of God. That is our moral vision, and we see all issues from that clear focus.

Because of that vision, as I noted two weeks ago, we cannot accept direct attacks on innocent human life — abortion, euthanasia, genocide, cloning or medical experimentation on living human embryos. At the same time, Catholic belief in the dignity of human life leads us to oppose those sins of the culture that attack human life, such as torture, unjust war and the unnecessary death penalty.

In addition, we must fight those things that threaten human life — racism, poverty and human suffering both in its causes and in its results. This is the source of the church's 2,000-year dedication to serving the poor, serving the oppressed, serving the orphan, serving the sick, serving the hungry, serving the immigrant, serving the imprisoned, serving anyone in need.

One of our local authors, Mike Aquilina (a former editor of the Pittsburgh Catholic) has just released a wonderful new book, "Yours is the Church: How Catholicism Shapes Our World" (Servant Books). In it, he outlines the length and breadth of Catholic contributions to the world, contributions motivated solely by faith, solely by service. He speaks of our church that saved civilization, nurtured modern science, inspired great works of art and great literature, and "made women people," rather than the chattel they had been considered in the pagan world.

He also explains how our church is a church of charity — that our church virtually created charity before any government, any organized entity engaged in service to the poorest of the poor. "For most of Western history," Mike writes, "the church has been the main source of help for the poor. It was the same in America: Catholic charity looking after the poor when everyone else was scrambling to make a buck."

The church's social concerns rest not only in direct service, but in creating a society through government, law, economics and policy where the common good and the ability of every person to live out their full potential is recognized. The church hungers and thirsts to create a culture where the dignity of every person — particularly the poor and vulnerable — is recognized as a paramount virtue, and the participation of each and every person is assured.

This is why the church constantly speaks out on a host of issues in the public arena. The Gospel does not accept for the church of Christ a role of silent witness or escape from what goes on in our world. The church is required by our witness to the Gospel to speak out for and with the powerless; the church is required by our witness to the Gospel to speak out for and with whoever is vulnerable, whoever is hurting, whoever is suffering.

That is why the voice of the church is most often heard for those that the rest of society wants to ignore: the immigrant and the imprisoned; the aged and the terminally ill; the disabled and the unborn child. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in"Deus Caritas Est," "love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is essential to the church as the ministry of the sacraments and the preaching of the Gospel."

Fundamental rights

Respect for human rights means respect for human dignity. Human rights are grounded in the fundamental human right — the right to life. Human rights also are grounded in those things that allow us to live out that right to life in dignity and decency — food and shelter, education and employment, health care and housing.

As we will discuss next week, all these rights are protected by the fundamental right to religious freedom given by God and guaranteed by our nation's Constitution. Without freedom of conscience, without the freedom to express and live out our religious beliefs openly, humanity sacrifices its right to think, its right to act, its right to hope.

It all comes back to who we are and why we are.

Who are we? We are children of God.

Why are we, why do we exist, why have we been created? God made us to show forth his goodness and to share with us his everlasting happiness in heaven.

That's why we say everything we say. That's why we teach everything we teach. That's why we believe everything we believe.

Who made us? God made us — and that's the greatest news we can't forget.

‘I’m dead’ 

It is a chilling quote in a New York Times story, something we would have expected to read a half-century in the past. But it wasn’t 50 years ago. It is today. Right now. A woman refugee from North Korea, a Christian, tells the reporter: “If the government finds out I am reading the Bible, I’m dead.”

She wasn’t speaking in metaphors. She wasn’t exaggerating for effect. She was speaking cold, hard fact. “If the government finds out I’m reading the Bible, I’m dead.”

They always go after religious rights, religious liberty, religious freedom. If a government or a society is bent on control, is bent on limiting human rights, they know that religious thought and religious action have to be controlled, dominated and eradicated first.

Because a person with religious liberty — a person with the freedom to know, love and serve God and neighbor by living that faith in the public arena — is a free person. Because a person with religious liberty is a person who knows human dignity, the sacredness of human life and the human rights of all that flow from that knowledge.

This week, as I conclude my reflections with you on pro-life issues for Respect Life Month in October and as we approach Tuesday’s election, I want to address the issue of religious freedom. In doing so, I will try to “bridge the gap” — bridge the gap between the political culture and the popular clichés of an election year and the reality of what we believe and try to live as Catholics.

Hostile popular culture

America was to be a haven that recognized the fundamental right to religious freedom, a freedom exercised without interference from the government. The Founding Fathers of our country confirmed that foundation when they wrote the First Amendment to the Constitution of our country.

But despite their intent, religious freedom hasn’t always been respected. Our sisters and brothers who are Jewish, Muslim, Quaker and Mormon, among others, can well confirm how religious freedom has not always been respected. And we as Catholics can understand that! 

Anti-Catholicism has a long and ugly history in the United States. Fear of our “foreignness” and fear of our religious faith permeated American attitudes toward Catholics and Catholicism throughout much of our history (think about the presidential campaign of 1960), and not just in the past. Anti-Catholicism is certainly still alive and doing all too well in many areas of contemporary American culture.

But what we can never forget is that even in the midst of an often hostile popular culture, all Americans are guaranteed freedom of religion, as it states clearly and absolutely in the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The fundamental right to religious freedom is given by God and guaranteed by our nation’s Constitution. Religious freedom is the first freedom enunciated in the First Amendment because it is the mother of all freedoms. Without freedom of religion, without the freedom to express and live out our religious beliefs openly, humanity sacrifices every freedom. We have seen that so many times in the past. We see it today in too many countries throughout the globe where the act of reading or even possessing a Bible can mean death, a threat known ever so real by the woman whose story is the lead of this column.

Religious freedom has to be lived

The beauty and richness of the American experience of religious freedom is more than just the right to go to church on Sunday, close the doors and privately worship. As Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia has put it so well, “Religious freedom is never just freedom from repression, but also freedom for active discipleship. It includes the right of religious believers, leaders and communities to engage society and to work actively in the public square.”

That’s where the rub often comes in, however. That’s where the threats to religious freedom come within American culture. Few want to “ban” religious worship. But what too many want to do is silence the rights of the faithful to speak in the public arena, silence the rights of the faithful to live out their beliefs in public service and public ministry.

Those are the twin dangers we face today in the United States. We face an aggressive secularism that would turn the meaning of religious freedom on its head, silencing the church’s right to speak effectively to the issues, reducing freedom of religion to a mere right to privately worship within the four walls of any temple, mosque or church. And we face an aggressive secularism that would deny people of religion the right to live out their faith in service unless they denied that very faith that demands service to others.

Religious freedom is not a passive act. Religious freedom is intentionally “action.” Religious freedom has to be expressed. Religious freedom has to be lived. Religious freedom has to be out in the open among the people.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spelled it out in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963 that the civil rights movement was essentially a religious movement, the call to the full measure of freedom. This was an obligation that Christians must make, that Christians cannot ignore.

In his 2011 World Day of Peace message, Pope Benedict XVI called religious freedom the “path to peace.” Since “religious freedom is at the origin of moral freedom,” the pope taught, it should be understood “not merely as immunity from coercion, but even more fundamentally as an ability to order one’s own choices in accordance with truth ... When religious freedom is acknowledged, the dignity of the human person is respected at its root, and the ethos and institutions of peoples are strengthened. On the other hand, whenever religious freedom is denied, and attempts are made to hinder people from professing their religion or faith and living accordingly, human dignity is offended, with a resulting threat to justice and peace.”

In our own times in America, we face threats to religious freedom. And while it is highly unlikely that someone might kill us for reading the Bible, we do face an undercurrent in our own day that means to silence the voice of faith and limit how faith can be lived out in our society.

The issue is simple

As you know, the Diocese of Pittsburgh, the Catholic Cemeteries Association of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Inc. and Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Inc. have together filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the Department of Health and Human Services mandate that requires all individual and group health insurance plans — including self-insured plans — to cover all FDA-approved contraception and sterilization procedures, including drugs that cause abortions.

Under this HHS mandate, our church-sponsored organizations — everything from hospitals for the sick to soup kitchens that feed the hungry — are required to let the federal government be the final arbiter in determining which of our beliefs we can follow and not follow as we carry out our ministries of service to the community.

The issue here is simple. We will not give to the federal government the power to make us choose between our sacred beliefs or shutting our doors because we cannot violate our conscience.

One of our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, explained in the very infancy of our nation that the government has no right to intervene in the life of the church. Religious freedom in America is primary and sacrosanct.

Nothing has changed since then. May it be so forever and always.