Yesterday, across the United States, Catholic bishops began the Fortnight for Freedom. Initially, the name of this initiative struck me as something that seemed universal and unifying in its focus and effort. What could be more important than standing up for individual liberties? However, upon further examination it's quite clear that this initiative is yet another departure from the love that defines the Catholic faith I know.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) describes the Fortnight for Freedom as a response to what the bishops perceive to be infringements on religious liberty. In an April 2012 statement the bishops outlined what they viewed as "concrete examples" of religious liberty being "placed in jeopardy," including the federal government's mandate regarding the coverage of contraception, and state-level adoption laws permitting same-sex couples to adopt children. In addition, Church leaders, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, have cited civil marriage equality for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples as being among these "infringements" on religious freedom. As a response to these issues, the bishops have asked parishes and dioceses throughout the country to use Fortnight for Freedom as a means for mobilizing Catholics to defend religious freedom. In light of this, some parishes and dioceses have launched a series of events associated with the effort, while others have quietly refused to participate.
Amid this call to action, sitting in the pew of my parish a few weeks ago, I listened to my pastor proclaim during a homily, "Uniformity is not unity, and conformity is not community." Sadly, with the Fortnight for Freedom and other recent actions, the bishops appear to be working toward a Church that is defined by unquestionable adherence to proclamations from Church leaders that lack moral and ethical clarity. In Dogma and Preaching, Pope Benedict XVI writes that the Church is called "to be in reality the milieu or 'living space' and not the 'dying space' of the Word." In order to truly be the living Church and honestly embrace the living God, the Church must witness the presence of the Spirit that is evident in our world today.
As bishops argue that their religious freedom is "at risk" because of a federal government working to be just, I'm left wondering why the religious principles of a single faith tradition's leaders should define public policy for an entire nation. If the Church argues that the word lives today through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and that such inspiration is manifested through the spoken and written word of men and women, then why would such a Spirit stop at the doors of Congress and countless legislative halls throughout the country? In short, I don't think the Spirit has stopped; instead it seems rather evident that men and women who have been chosen to lead and govern America are discerning great questions of our time and are deliberating in a way that calls to mind the great debates of the Second Vatican Council.
Just as we live in a Church that is called to be a "living space," so too do we live in a society that must evolve so as to remain not only viable but relevant.
In fact, the Church itself has entered a period of history in which it's willing to seek reconciliation with the Lefebvrists, a schismatic group that broke away due to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, but simultaneously unwilling to enter into meaningful dialogue with devout lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Catholics and allies. As a gay Catholic, it saddens me that some leaders in the Church have avoided hearing the Gospel message of inclusion with regard to LGBT people. In addition, in April, the Church's leaders in Rome issued a "Doctrinal Assessment" attacking the prophetic work of America's women religious, arguing that there is "[a] prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith." This is symptomatic of a Church in crisis and of a leadership unsure of the tradition's future. At the start of the Fortnight for Freedom, I stand with so many LGBT Catholics as well as friends and family in kneeling and praying for a Church that does not need to admit error but deafness.
The time has come for the Church to listen and to hear the cries of those in need. As Christ walked through the villages of ancient Israel, he encountered the people where they were, knelt with them, prayed with them, and witnessed in them the goodness that defines humanity. The time has come for the Church's leaders to stand at the threshold of the doorway and welcome the sons and daughters who so desire a place to call home. It is in this moment of welcome when the Church will truly affirm the identity and dignity of people who have been created in the image and likeness of God.
As Fortnight for Freedom begins and bells toll in cities across the country, we can only hope that this great period of prayer and reflection will lead the Church to see that this quest for "religious freedom" should be a call for the Church itself to examine its own understanding of human liberty and dignity. As some of the Church's leaders challenge the rights of women, fail to fully welcome and affirm LGBT people, and question the incredible contributions of women religious, I hope that the leaders witness the great illness of judgment that has come to define the actions of some in the hierarchy in recent years.
I fear that the American bishops' Fortnight for Freedom campaign will only act to further codify the external view that the Church is a "club" reserved only for the few rather than pro multis (for many). As the bishops begin their fortnight, I would encourage Catholics and all people of faith to share in that time of prayer; may our prayers for truth, love, and hope guide the Church toward truly becoming a "living space" for all without exception.
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