February 3, 2012


Needed: An engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity

When Pope Benedict XVI learned from the American bishops who were making their ad limina visits to the Vatican that there is a threat to religious freedom here in the United States, he said, in effect if not in so many words, “Where are the committed Catholic laypeople?”

His exact words were, “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.”

Later in his talk to the bishops from the Mid-Atlantic states, with whom he was meeting, the Holy Father said, “The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.”

There have been other examples where the Church has been denied its freedom lately, but the pope was speaking specifically about the rules laid down by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). They will require that health care plans include sterilizations and the distribution of contraceptives, including abortifacients, at no charge, including health care plans at Catholic universities, hospitals and social service agencies.

After complaints from a wide range of Catholic organizations, HHS has delayed for one year the implementation of the rules for those organizations. As New York Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan said, “In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.”

The cardinal-designate went on to say, “The Obama administration has now drawn an unprecedented line in the sand. The Catholic bishops are committed to working with our fellow Americans to reform the law and change this unjust regulation.”

As the pope made clear, though, it is not only the Catholic bishops who must do that, although it is expected that they will take the lead. The pope said, “It’s imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres.”

We have seen many Catholics other than the bishops try to change that regulation—Catholic university presidents, the CEO of the Catholic Health Association, the president of Catholic Charities and many others. But where are those holding political office? They seem to be silent on this issue.

That is not how it should be. Pope Benedict told the bishops that Catholics involved in political life must “understand their personal responsibility to offer public witness to their faith, especially with regard to the great moral issues of our time—respect for God’s gift of life, the protection of human dignity and the promotion of authentic human rights.”

And there was this hint of criticism: “There can be no doubt that a more consistent witness on the part of America’s Catholics to their deepest convictions would make a major contribution to the renewal of society as a whole.”

In other words, we laypeople aren’t doing all we could be doing to counteract the secularism that has overtaken our country. Secularism is making a mockery of that “free exercise of religion,” words in the First Amendment that are supposed to be one of our most fundamental principles.

The free exercise of religion has come to mean mere freedom of worship—without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience. Even the communist states of the former Soviet Union permitted freedom of worship.

President Barack Obama has reneged on his promise to Catholic leaders that he would preserve freedom of conscience.

Changing the regulation and, perhaps, the law that permitted it will obviously become a political fight. The bishops do their best to stay out of political fights, only teaching the principles that should be part of political life. Therefore, it is up to the laity to take up the fight.

The pope told the bishops, “The preparation of committed lay leaders and the presentation of a convincing articulation of the Christian vision of man and society remain a primary task of the Church in your country.”

—John F. Fink

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