During the Fortnight for Freedom the bishops are asking us to pray and act for religious freedom, mindful of the looming challenges to religious liberty—in particular, the August 1 deadline for compliance with the HHS mandate, and the dangers posed by legal redefinitions of marriage. On June 22, we commemorated the example of John Fisher and Thomas More. These two men, who died rather than deny the faith, testified by their actions that it is better to suffer evil than to commit a moral evil. What does this reveal about the dignity of the human person, and the moral life?
Perhaps it reveals first the dignity of the human person as a center of moral agency.
Atoms crashing together and birds building nests can both be called “agents.” Their actions pass out from themselves into the world. But the human person stands above all of these as a moral agent. The primary effect of our actions is not exterior, but interior, because as moral agents our actions cause and form our own character. If we do good, we become good. But if we do evil, we become evil.
The refusal of the martyrs to cooperate with very small acts, such as dropping a few pieces of incense on a fire, or signing consent to a law, testifies to this. While the exterior effect is almost nothing, the moral effect is huge.
As we pray and reflect during the Fortnight for Freedom, we should ponder this as Catholics. Why is it so important for us to resist encroachment on our religious freedom? Consider the HHS mandate, which would force many Catholic institutions to provide abortion and contraception. It is not that the new health care regulations merely provide that there be abortion and contraception, although this is not desirable. It is that it further forces our cooperation in providing abortion and contraception. It makes us complicit as moral agents.
This also shows the silliness of such a narrow “religious exemption.” Catholics don’t have to operate “Catholic” or “religious” businesses to be morally responsible for their actions. The Catholic who owns a hardware store is just as morally responsible as a Catholic who owns a religious goods store, because all of our actions are moral actions. There is never a time when a human being enters a neutral, non-moral zone.
The point of the Fortnight is not to impose Catholic morality on the United States. What we want is the freedom not to cooperate in and give moral approval to many acts that run contrary to our faith and the natural law. During the Fortnight for Freedom, we engage in two weeks of prayer and action so that we can be free to be Catholics in the public square.
Image: Edwin Lord Weeks, Market Square in Front of the Sacristy and Doorway of the Cathedral, Granada