A Fourth of July reflection on Religious Liberty

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The following is the text of Bishop Rhoades’ homily at Mass on July 4, 2015, in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Fort Wayne:

On July 4, 1776, in the midst of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia courageously declared the thirteen colonies independent from Great Britain. Today, 239 years later, we celebrate this Declaration. With all our fellow Americans, we celebrate our freedom on this Independence Day, the Fourth of July. As Catholics, we especially pray for religious liberty as we conclude the 2015 Fortnight for Freedom.

Many of the colonists who came to America in the 17th and 18th centuries were fleeing religious persecution. Like the Puritans and Quakers, Catholics came to America to escape persecution. English and Irish Catholics first settled in Maryland since the first Baron of Baltimore, George Calvert, and his brother Leonard, who were Catholics, had founded Maryland as a haven for persecuted Christians. Catholics and Protestants lived peacefully side by side in Maryland. The famous Act of Toleration of 1649 guaranteed religious liberty. But in 1654, when Puritans took over the governance of Maryland, the Act of Toleration was repealed and Catholics were outlawed. Maryland joined the other colonies in enacting the English penal laws that restricted the freedom of Catholics: the denial of the right to vote or to hold public office, the prohibition of public worship, and even the imprisonment of priests. The penal laws against Catholics were in force with different levels of severity in the colonies for over a century. Pennsylvania was somewhat an exception, thanks to the religious tolerance of William Penn and the Quakers.

By the time of the American Revolution, the number of Catholics in the thirteen colonies was rather small: about 25,000 among 2 ½ million colonists. For over a century, the small body of Catholics in the thirteen colonies had clung to their religious faith despite active persecution and denial of their civil rights. They supported the American Revolution with the hope that independence from Britain would bring them greater religious liberty in the new republic.

American Catholics, including Father John Carroll, who in 1790 would become the first Catholic bishop in the United States, the first bishop of Baltimore, received with great satisfaction the Constitution in 1787 and the Bill of Rights a couple years later, especially the First Amendment and its definition of our first freedom: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The First Amendment allowed Catholics the freedom to practice their faith, yet it did not eradicate the cultural anti-Catholicism that persisted in sometimes vigorous form during the following century. Sadly, this persistent prejudice is still alive today, especially among certain elites in academia, Hollywood, the media, and other influential molders of public opinion.

Our concerns about religious liberty today are especially focused on a more general anti-religious cultural movement, rooted in secularism and relativism, which seeks to limit the role of religion in public life. This was certainly not the intent of our founding fathers who recognized the essential role of religion and the virtues it inspires in providing the foundation for the success of a democratic society. They believed in God and the divine law. In the Declaration of Independence, they specifically referred to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” They were not secularists and they were not moral relativists. They declared: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” At the end of the Declaration, they affirmed their “firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence” as they pledged to each other “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.”

Our founding fathers believed