May 11, 2012
Editor’s Note: The following is the beginning of a series of interviews with Bishop Patrick J. Zurek regarding Our First, Most Cherished Liberty—A Statement on Religious Liberty, released April 12 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
Bishop Zurek: I would like to call attention to a very important aspect of our Catholic Christian faith: we are called to be not only good Catholics in faithfully following the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but also to be the very best citizens of the particular country in which we reside. It does not matter if we were born here or if we came as a migrant to the United States—there is an obligation through good citizenship to first learn the issues that are important to the local Church of a given area. Obviously, religious liberty is a very important issue for the entire Church in the United States right now.
Secondly, not only to know the issue, but to be informed about the issue. Through articles such as what I am offering you in The West Texas Catholic or the internet at www.amarillodiocese.org, I try to clarify the issues and explain why they are so important to us and the danger of not defending those freedoms.
Thirdly, to bring it to prayer and most importantly, after all of this, to actually go out and vote. Remember that you, the Faithful of the Church, have an obligation as Christians, and as American citizens, to vote for the Common Good of all peoples—not just one group or another group, but keeping in mind the big picture. I offer a prayer also at the beginning of each portion of this series, a prayer for Religious Liberty (see prayer on the right hand bottom of this page). I ask that you pray it, in whatever language you are comfortable in, but pray for our Church, pray for our government and pray for our country.
The West Texas Catholic: Bishop Zurek, on April 12, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement, Our First, Most Cherished Liberty—A Statement on Religious Liberty. It’s a general statement on religious liberty, but I must ask: why are we so involved with this statement?
Bishop Zurek: I can tell you as Cardinal (Timothy) Dolan said, we have bigger fish than this to fry, but the issue has come to us and now we have to deal with it.
First of all, it’s not our doing. We never wanted to be in this controversy, we did not invite it. As a matter of fact, we never thought there would be a controversy because President Obama explicitly told then-Archbishop Dolan twice—in November and again in January, once on the phone and once in person—that he would not change anything in the law. He said he was proud of all that the Catholic Church did and was doing in regard to Education, Health Care and Charity. However, in mid-January, he called Cardinal Dolan and told him that everything has changed.
Why are we involved? It was forced on us! We would rather be involved with other issues that are more pressing to us in a sense, but this is so foundational that we will deal with it and we will fight against the mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services. We want to protect our constitutional guarantees of the Freedom of Conscience and the Freedom of Religion.
WTC: It’s not directly discussed in the document, but the separation of church and state is addressed…
Bishop Zurek: There’s nothing in the document regarding that, however, as a general principle, we do support the separation of church and state. It is useful and helpful, both to the government and to the church. We only wish that both the Church and the State always realize and acknowledge that they operate within their own competencies; however, with the same goal in mind: the Common Good of all. The church will not try to impose anything on the government, but neither should the State impose anything on the church, especially something that is contrary to its nature. There should not be the subjugation of one against the other. We just want to be free to follow our conscience, we want to be free to adhere to our beliefs of the Catholic Christian faith and for others to be able to do the same. We want to be able to live our faith. We want to guarantee Article One, of the Bill of Rights: Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Conscience.
WTC: The statement begins, “We are Catholics. We are Americans.” Is this a complimentary statement or one in opposition?
Bishop Zurek: No opposition whatsoever. As a matter of fact, I want to go back to one of the first articles I wrote and to my preaching, in regard to the matter.
There’s a letter that was written at the end of the first century, at the beginning of the second century of Christianity, the Letter to Diognetus that speaks about the Christian wanting to be the finest citizen of the land in which he lives. We still adhere to that. We are Catholic and we are proud of it, but we are also Americans and we are also proud of that. We want to be able to live our faith and we want to be the best of citizens, and we don’t see that as being in opposition at all. Rather we see that as being complimentary. Our allegiances are distinct, but again, the mission really is the same: we are constantly working for the Common Good. This is the teaching of our Catholic Faith. It obliges us to work together with other citizens, fellow Catholics, fellow Christians, those who are not Christian, those who have no faith. We are in a sense mandated to work with them for the Common Good of all who live in this land.
This issue that we are speaking of is freedom. We consider that our special heritage in America. We look at the American people and ourselves as Catholic Americans, as stewards of this gift of freedom, but not just for ourselves, but for all nations and all peoples who yearn to be free, and let’s face it: who does not yearn to be free? We see the battles around the world; we see it in the Middle East, and even in other countries.
In 1887, when the Archbishop of Baltimore, Archbishop James Gibbons, was in route to Rome to be made a Cardinal, he defended the American heritage of Religious Liberty during that visit. Speaking of the great progress that the Catholic Church has made in the United States up to that point, he attributed it to this freedom.
He attributed it to “civil liberty that we enjoy in our enlightened republic.” A little later on that same visit, he would say more specifically and maybe more boldly, that in the “genial atmosphere of liberty, the Church blossoms like a rose.” Liberty helps all good things flourish and blossom and makes so many things possible that are for the Common Good of a particular country.
We, the Bishops of this country, see very clearly, as American citizens, the need to address our fellow Catholics and fellow Americans to be on guard for Religious Liberty, to protect it, for it is under attack, not just here in the U.S., though—it is under attack even abroad. It’s been very interesting during this year of our Ad Limina visits to Rome, that Pope Benedict spoke about his concern that “Religious Liberty in the United States is being weakened”. He referred to our experience of religious liberty as “the most cherished of American freedoms.” We believe that! This is why we’re so concerned.
Let me conclude this with an excerpt from Pope Benedict’s address to the American Bishops in regard to Religious Freedom:
“Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the Freedom of Religion. Many of you (American Bishops) have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce Religious Freedom to mere Freedom of Worship without guarantees of respect for Freedom of Conscience.
“Here once more we see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society.”
The Pope is speaking to us, but he’s well aware that what happens in America will have an effect throughout the world. If Religious Freedom is weakened in America, it will be more difficult for other cultures and the Church to defend Religious Freedom elsewhere.
In the May 20 issue of The West Texas Catholic, Bishop Zurek continues his discussion on Our First, Most Cherished Liberty, with concrete examples of religious liberty in the United States under attack.