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The loss of freedom in a culture of radical individualism

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli

Basic to the American dream is the search for freedom. In the 17th century, Europeans facing persecution for their beliefs fled to America. Since World War II, millions of people have come to the shores of this country. Wars, persecutions, economic distress and political unrest have driven them from their homes to seek a better life. Recent statistics show that there are more than 43.7 million immigrants residing in the United States. They make up 13.5 percent of the total population.

As Americans, we take great pride that we are a nation where our government protects the freedom of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The word “freedom” belongs to our political discourse, our national debates and our everyday language. From our country’s initial War of Independence until the present moment, America has gone into battle to secure and to defend the freedom of the enslaved and oppressed.

However high this country has flown the flag of freedom in the past, not everyone has enjoyed the same freedoms. In the early days of our republic, only white male property owners were free to vote. Women could not vote. In New Jersey, they did not gain the right to vote until 1807. It took the bloodbath of the Civil War to abolish slavery. Then it took the civil rights movement of the 1960s to begin to establish equality for African Americans as a matter of fact. And, the struggle still continues.

In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution. Its purpose was to ensure that freedom in America meant that every citizen enjoy equal protection under the law for life, liberty and property. The Fourteenth Amendment literally changed the battleground in the struggle to ensure equal freedom for all. It “made the Constitution what it had never been before – a vehicle through which aggrieved groups can take their claims that they lack equality and freedom to court” (Eric Foner, “The Contested History of American Freedom,” Historical Society of Pennsylvania).

Perhaps it is time for us to examine how truly free we are and to discern the underlying reason why our freedom as Americans seems to be diminishing. This great nation has always held out the promise that good hard-working individuals were free to move up the social scale. But, recent economic factors are actually limiting this freedom.

Some employers are now choosing to hire individuals only on a part-time basis. This limits their access to health benefits. Employers now claim the right to examine company computers to read the correspondence of their employees, thus limiting their privacy. Is an employee free at work to express his or her religious or political beliefs without facing censure?

In the world of medicine, insurance companies have so many procedures and necessary approvals that it is becoming increasingly difficult to have access at times to needed and timely treatment. Even the move to change Medicare promises to provide less coverage for the elderly. As a result, the life span of the elderly will diminish.

Furthermore, the rising cost of education is limiting the freedom of families to choose private education. Especially in states like New Jersey where there are no school vouchers, low income families are forced to send their children to a state-run school. Is this true freedom for every taxpayer? Since the 1980s, families have been bearing a greater burden in sending their children to our colleges and universities. College tuition and ancillary fees have tripled in the last 30 years. Access to higher education is not equal for all. (Richard Eskow, “Ten ways Americans have lost their freedom,” Alternet, Aug. 31, 2012).

In commenting on Patrick J. Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed (Politics and Culture), Jonathan Leeman gets to the heart of the matter of why we are facing a lessening of our freedoms. Paradoxically, once we make individual freedom the basic value of our society, we yield more and more areas of our lives to the state. In order to ensure every individual’s right to choose and act as they please, the state must make more and more rules and, ultimately, those rules diminish the freedom of some.

For example, to ensure the right of all individuals to marry as they deem fit, the rights of those who hold to marriage as a union of one man and one woman are now lessened. Those who propose the definition of marriage as a union of one man and one woman are now seeing their freedom of speech curtailed. The state’s guaranteeing the freedom of a woman to abort her child takes away the freedom of the child to live. In either the case of same-sex marriage or that of abortion, the basis for the state’s position is a radical individualism where the freedom of every person must be safeguarded by the government.

But, the basis of a sound society cannot be radical individualism. Individuals are not autonomous. We are born into a family. We form part of the wider community. “Once a people view themselves as their own highest authority, whatever they most value becomes their god. And that god will rule their nation. Indeed, such a nation will even take good, God-given gifts and turn them into tyrannical idols. Communism did this with equality. Liberalism does this with liberty” (Jonathan Leeman, “How Freedom Became an American Idol,” April 17, 2018).

The ultimate basis for guaranteeing freedom is justice. “By justice a king builds up the land” (Prov 29:4). By justice, a government recognizes itself as subject to a higher rule than itself or its citizens. It seeks to give to each person their rights as determined by God. Once God is removed from the equation and individual freedom replaces justice that promotes the common good, the road is set in the direction of diminishing freedoms. A culture of radical individualism ultimately erodes true freedom.

Looking Forward to Religious Freedom Week

By Andrea Picciotti-Bayer

The plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East is shocking to American sensibilities. Because we are only occasionally reminded by the press of the daily horrors Christians in Iraq and Syria face, our attentiveness in prayer and charitable-giving wanes. This coming week, American Catholics are called to renew our concern for those who suffer because of their commitment to their faith here at home and abroad. This is an invitation we shouldn’t ignore.

Starting June 22, the feast of saints Thomas More and John Fisher, the Catholic Church in the United States will celebrate Religious Freedom Week. The theme of the week – “Serving Others in God’s Love” – is a two-fold call to live faith “as a mission of service and mercy” here at home and “pray for our brothers and sisters who face intense persecution in other parts of the world.”

Experts like Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, have noted that with respect to the global state of international religious freedom “things have gotten worse, not better.” Hints of the suffering of Iraqi Christians can be found in the State Department’s annual report on International Religious Freedom. According to the report, “Christians reported harassment and abuse at numerous [government-operated] checkpoints” that impeded movement in and around Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain. Even more disconcerting are the reports from Fr. Benedict Kiely, founder of the Nasarean organization. He notes the growing despair among the few remaining Christian families there as promises from U.S. officials have gone unfulfilled.

In October of last year, Vice President Pence announced that the United States would shift aid to help save Christian and Yazidi communities decimated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria from ineffective U.N. relief efforts to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Earlier this month, Pence rebuked the agency for falling far short in their efforts – going so far as to demand the agency’s head travel to Iraq to assess issues that could be responsible for delay and report back. Hopefully USAID’s feet will continue to be held to the fire so that effective, on-the-ground, humanitarian efforts can successfully access these important funds.

In addition to America’s commitment to offer effective humanitarian aid to persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East, we must be vigilant in our prayer for the persecuted. These prayers should be directed both to the physical well-being and safety of our brothers and sisters persecuted because of their faith and so that they do not lose faith. The fortitude of those who remain in the very birthplace of Christianity is tested daily and they need our spiritual support.

Earlier this month, at the Church of St. Michael the Archangel in the heart of Manhattan, an image of Our Lady of Aradin was dedicated. The image is the first of its kind in the U.S. specifically dedicated to the plight of the persecuted. The image comes to America thanks to the Aradin Chartible Trust and Father Kiely’s Nazarean organization.

The icon depicts Mary in the traditional dress of an Iraqi bride carrying the child Jesus. The border is written in Aramaic, a language still spoken in Qaraqosh, the home of Mouthsna Butres, the Iraqi Christian artist who "wrote" the icon. Butres was driven from his home, along with other Christians, in August 2015 and he resides with his family now as refugees in Lebanon.

The icon of Our Lady of Aradin is Marian consolation to those who have fled their home countries due to religious persecution. The image also inspires thanksgiving among those blessed with freedom to believe and practice our faith. A pilgrimage to visit this image should be at the top of the list for any Catholic living in or visiting New York City. But a visit to the Big Apple is not a requisite for devotion. Seeking her maternal care for our brothers and sisters experiencing persecution can be done even from our own homes.

Religious Freedom Week offers a renewed opportunity for prayer, sacrifice and financial contributions from U.S. Catholics on behalf of Christians persecuted in the Middle East.

Anti-Catholic prejudice: a warning and challenge to all

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli

Alfred E. Smith, a devout Catholic, was elected four times as governor of New York. However, the announcement of his candidacy for president immediately unleashed a storm of anti-Catholicism in 1928. A Protestant minister in Oklahoma City warned his large congregation, “If you vote for Al Smith, you’re voting against Christ and you’ll all be damned.” The Daytona Beach, Florida school board predicted that, if Smith were elected, students would not be allowed to have or read a Bible. Around the country, pamphlets appeared attacking the Catholic Smith. More than 100 anti-Catholic newspapers poisoned the well with their propaganda against Smith for his religion. The anti-Catholic hate was so strong that, within just eight weeks, Smith’s campaign for the presidency ended.

Some people today look back on the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy as the end of such anti-Catholicism. But, the facts seem to contradict such an optimistic view. Kennedy understood the opposition that he faced because of his religion. When he spoke in Morgantown, West Virginia, a state that at that time was 95 percent Protestant, he addressed the issue head on. He said, “Nobody asked me if I was a Catholic when I joined the United States Navy… and nobody asked my brother if he was a Catholic or Protestant before he climbed into an American bomber plane to fly his last mission.” His bold words stunned the crowd when he asked if 40 million Americans lose their right to run for presidency on the day they are baptized Catholics.

On Sept.12, 1960, Kennedy addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Standing before 300 Protestant ministers and 300 spectators, he announced that the real issues in the presidential campaign were being sidelined by the anti- Catholic polemic. He provided his opponents with his political credo by announcing, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be a Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote. . . .” Kennedy lost votes because he was Catholic. He won the election in spite of his Catholicism. To think that his election ended anti-Catholic prejudice in America is not accurate.

Rudy Giuliani campaigned as a candidate in the 2008 presidential campaign. During a town-hall meeting in Iowa, he was questioned on his Catholic faith. Someone asked him if he was a practicing Catholic. Another person asked him how his Catholic faith would influence his political decisions. Giuliani responded by saying, “My religious affiliation, my religious practices and the degree to which I am a good or not so good Catholic, I prefer to leave to the priests.” When Giuliani said, “I don't think there should be a religious test for public office,” the man questioning him was not satisfied. Clearly, the Catholic faith is, in the mind of some, an impediment to public office.

In 2017, in the hearings of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, the ugly specter of anti-Catholicism appeared again. In examining Notre Dame law professor, Amy Coney Barrett for the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, senators brought into question her Catholic faith. They again and again demanded assurances that her faith would not influence her legal decisions. California Senator Diane Feinstein was quite concerned that Barrett would allow her pro-life beliefs make her act against abortion. Like an oracle from on high, Feinstein pronounced against Barret the damning judgment, “The dogma lives loudly within you and that’s of concern when you come to big issues…” Barrett was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. But, not with a single Democratic Senator voting for her. Not without an underlying anti-Catholic prejudice coming into play.

Richard John Neuhaus once observed that it is not simply being Catholic that is the problem for someone running for public office. Rather, it is being a Catholic who holds to the truths as taught by the Church. Neuhaus said, “Indeed, one of the most acceptable things is to be a bad Catholic, and in the view of many people, the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic.” As Catholics, we should lament any time the vast wisdom of our faith and tradition is summarily dismissed from the national debate or when we ourselves are marginalized. 

The anti-Catholic prejudice that surfaces in our process of selecting people for public office should be a warning and a challenge to all. People of every faith need to question where to draw the line on what qualifies or disqualifies a person from public office. Have we come to a point in our country where certain issues no longer admit discussion or diversity of opinion? Are we moving toward a situation where moral values will be dictated by the state and religion will be seen as an enemy? Would we want to disqualify from public office individuals with principles that prod us to re-examine some of our decisions just because we disagree with them? The end result will be a very bad form of government.
 

New men for this new moment

By Archbishop José H. Gomez

This weekend I will ordain nine fine men to the priesthood.

For these past eight years, God has been blessing the family of God here in Los Angeles with growing numbers of men who are answering the call of Jesus to follow and serve him as his priests. Thanks be to God!

Our St. John’s Seminary is full with good men and so is our Queen of Angels Center for Priestly Formation. Every day we are meeting even more who are searching for their path, praying and trying to discern God’s calling in their lives. 

In this society, where so much of life is “programmed” and where there are so many mindsets and messages that promise happiness but cannot deliver it, it is beautiful to see people, especially our young people, looking for a life that is true and real. 

All around I see signs of a new openness to God and to the values that make for human transcendence. There is a new resistance to the “false ceiling” imposed by a society that seeks to close itself off from God. People seem no longer willing to settle for the substitutes and idols, “the more of the same” being offered by a consumer way of life. 

The priests of this new millennium are a part of this new movement toward God and an authentic humanity.

As we see with the priests we have been ordaining here in Los Angeles, these new priests are called from many different cultures and backgrounds.

They have “backstories” that are really interesting, they are fun to talk to and spend time with. You want to be their friends and most important, you want to know what makes them “tick,” what fills them with such enthusiasm and joy.

There is something going on here. Beneath all the statistics and reports that we read about millennials and young adults, the Spirit is moving – and we need to keep praying and asking what he is trying to say to us.

I have been thinking that for all their diversity, all of our new priests share a basic understanding that our life in this world is a journey – a journey that for them, and for each one of us, begins with the call of God.

Every life is a vocation, a response to the voice of God who calls each one of us into being. 

I know I say this all the time. But we need to hear this message again and again – like water dripping on the stones of our hearts, until finally a way breaks through and the simple and beautiful truth of our existence begins to take root and grow in us.

In the beginning of creation, we hear God’s voice calling, “Let there be!” God speaks into being in succession – first light, and then heaven and earth; then the sun, the moon and the stars; and then all the living creatures in the waters and in the sky and on land. 

Finally, God says, “Let us make human beings in our own image, after our likeness.” 

This is the story of your creation. You are here, you exist and have being, because God wants you here. When you were conceived in your mother’s womb it was because God said, “Let there be you.” He knew your name, even before your parents were born.

This is the amazing reality that we need to appreciate. It is even more urgent now in this time where God is being made to disappear and the human being is on the verge of being forgotten, too – where more and more people are treated as objects that can be replaced or tools to be used to further the ambitions of others.  

Our new priests know they are being ordained to evangelize in these troubled times.

Our new priests are men who know that God is alive, our maker and our redeemer, and that he has sent his Son Jesus Christ to make us right with God, to reconcile us and show us the truth of our lives and to gather us into one family to serve and live as a new humanity.

And they have a deep desire and passion to get started and to proclaim this good news to the people of our time. 

Pray for me this week and I will be praying for you. And let us pray for our new priests. May they always seek to grow in their relationship with Jesus and their desire to call others to that encounter with him. 

And let us ask our Blessed Mother Mary to intercede for us and help us to be a family of God that continues to bring more men and women to hear the calling of God to the priesthood and the consecrated life. 

Political engagement and the Holy Spirit

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli

Since 2010, world leaders, movie stars, CEOs, artists, and political activists have been meeting annually in New York for the Women in the World Summit. This gathering has become one of America’s most famous forums to foster women’s rights. In 2015, on the eve of launching her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton gave the keynote address. Her remarks sparked an immediate firestorm of comments and controversy over the endangered right of religious freedom.

Ms. Clinton proclaimed rather apodictically that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.” To be fair, it must be said that she was speaking directly about abortion. Nonetheless, she was introducing into the political discussion her thesis that government decisions trump individual conscience. Whether she intended it or not, Ms. Clinton’s words amounted to an effort to marginalize all those who do not accept the absolute right of government to dictate religious beliefs and to punish those who refuse to accept its decisions.

If the government can mandate abortion and demand that everyone conforms, then why can it not demand other things? It logically follows that the government would be able to dictate euthanasia for the terminally ill and the elderly and then punish those who refuse to commit these acts on the basis of their religious conviction. With the legalization of same-sex marriages, the government has already changed its definition of marriage and those who refuse to conform by changing their beliefs are already being dragged into our courts.

Our country has been able to survive a number of leaders whose personal lives were less than exemplary. We have had at least seven presidents who have had extramarital affairs while in office.

But, they were not strident in changing the moral values of the country. They simply gave in to human weakness. This is quite different from a leader announcing that religion itself must change according to the beliefs of the leader of the nation. No free nation can survive if that becomes the accepted philosophy of governing.

An individual who proposes that people must change their beliefs to be in line with government policies never rises to political prominence unless there are others who support such a view. Obviously, there are many others who either aggressively support or tacitly accept Ms. Clinton’s proposal. She is not alone. And this is even more disturbing.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States prohibits the establishment of a religion as the official religion of the nation. But, it also protects the free exercise of religion on the part of individuals. In no way did our Founding Fathers intend to push religious beliefs from the public forum. The separation of church and state, so important to the well-functioning of our society, was never intended to secularize the public debate.

Wilfred McClay, a distinguished professor of intellectual history at the University of Oklahoma, makes a valid distinction between political secularism and philosophical secularism. On the one hand, philosophical secularism is antagonistic to religion. It seeks to remove it completely from any political discussion and replace religion with unbelief. On the other hand, political secularism is what the Founding Fathers envisioned for our Republic. It does not favor one religion over another. But, it does accept the role of religion within society.

Religion is never merely a personal matter. One’s beliefs shape one’s behavior and actions that affect others. Certainly, Christians have known this from the very beginning. When the Holy Spirit came down on the first disciples on Pentecost, he came to draw believers into a deeper communion with God through the Risen Lord. He came to unite all believers in the Church which Jesus himself founded. And, he came to impel Christians into the world to change the world.

Faith in Jesus can never be individualized so as to exclude any involvement in the affairs of one’s nation. Perhaps, this is one of the unspoken sins of many believers. They are willing to profess to be Christian while leaving their beliefs out of their political choices.

By not bringing the morality of the gospel into politics, we are allowing philosophical secularism and relativism to sink their roots deep within our soil and choke the consciences of many. No wonder we are now confronted with those who say that religious people should keep their values to themselves. The results are obvious and disastrous. Pornography. Abortion. Euthanasia. Dishonesty at the highest levels of government. The plague of poverty and violence, especially in our cities. In a word, the more religious values are driven from society, the more blatant is the disregard for the dignity of the human person.

In a pluralistic society, the political spirit of any age tries to form alliances among people of divergent opinions and beliefs. It looks to impose a conformity through the strategy of compromise. But neither truth nor morality can be sacrificed on the gibbet of expediency. In a representative democracy, every citizen is responsible for the choice of leaders who are honest, upright and steadfast in promoting policies that are moral. Every believer who professes the Lordship of Jesus, therefore, can never remove himself or herself from the politics of the nation. In fact, it is when committed Christians hand their future over not to the political spirit, but to the Holy Spirit that society changes for the better.