Fr. John's Letter Archives

Enjoy re-reading Fr. John's weekly bulletin letters for the past year.


A Milleseptuacentennial!

07-07-2013Fr. John LettersFr. John

Dear Friends,

"Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it." —G.K Chesterton (d. 1936)

This year we celebrate the milleseptuacentennial of the Edict of Milan (313 A.D.). That's 1700 years folks. The Edict, which really wasn't an Edict but more a letter written in the name of the eastern Roman Emperor Licinius and the western Roman Emperor Constantine, established what we know as religious freedom. The underlying principle was an understanding that God wishes to be worshipped by people who are free to doso. Hence compulsion or state mandated religious practice was contradictory to this principle. The Edict had the effect of allowing Christians and others to worship freely, for the Church to own property and to conduct it'sown affairs without state interference. The road to how we currently practice religious liberty is filled withstops and starts, often religious liberty was observed more in the breach as monarchs learned quickly how to use religion to their advantage (the prince's religion is the people's religion). After the 16th century Reformation the struggle for religious liberty was often dominated by the hostility between Catholics and Protestants.

The colonial fathers strongly believed that this conflict was not inevitable nor the need for the state to control religion. What the founders of the USA tried to accomplish in the First Amendment was rather daring to say the least. Real religious freedom required a people mature enough to not use religion as a weapon against those with differing beliefs but as an invitation to others to a way of life. Which means each faith is allowed to operate in the market place of ideas and do its best to make a compelling case to others to voluntarily live life according to its tenets. In the meantime our founders made sure that the state would butt out and erect no laws that prohibit or inhibit the free exercise of religion. The cumulative effect of this has been to keep tyranny at bay and create a society teeming with religious belief.

History has shown that we have successfully beaten off Caesar's control of religion but it seems like we are headed back in that direction. Caesar, in this case the government of the United States is increasingly encroaching on matters that previously have been left up to religious groups to define according to their beliefs. The upcoming Healthcare mandate is but one example of governmental coercion. And the recent SupremeCourt ruling in the DOMA and Prop 8 cases goes a step further towards vilifying those who hold a biblical viewof marriage. In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy indicates that those who oppose the ruling (striking down DOMA) are motivated by some kind of malicious hatred towards homosexuals and that defining marriage asbetween one man and one woman serves no legitimate purpose. Or as Justice Scalia wrote in his dissent the majority opinion "adjudges those who oppose (same-sex marriage) as enemies of the human race". What is clear is that we are on a collision course that pits the freedom of the Church against the power of the state. How it is resolved depends on us.

We've just concluded another Fortnight for Religious Freedom in which the US Bishops have asked us to call special attention to the fragile state that religious liberty is currently in. The attacks on our religious liberty threaten to undermine one of the great and unique freedoms that the US has enjoyed. Once religious freedom is compromised so too is freedom of speech, freedom of the press and many others.

Our first freedom, as listed in the Bill of Rights, has enabled us to avoid becoming a completely secular state where faith is driven from the public square or a theocracy in which one faith dominates the state. The question that we presently face is: will the middle hold? Or will we yield to the historically normal type of state that is either one or the other? Will we be able to show that religious liberty is possible in a pluralistic society or that it was merely a historical anomaly? Will our experiment in ordered liberty be a success or failure?

Our friend Chesterton also said that often the Church has been wedded to the powers of this world but more often has been widowed. The American experiment has demonstrated that we can be a friend of the powers that be without being wedded to them. We are at the point that we can either strengthen that friendship or go the way of widowhood once again. Either way the Church endures but what about America?

Love, Fr. John B.

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