July is three months away, which means it may be a bit premature to start writing about the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” (FFF). However, ongoing events in and outside of Indiana concerning that state’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” have accelerated interest in the topic of religious freedom and its apparent clash with “gay rights.” After writing several posts on the FFF last year (see here, here, here, here, and here), I resigned myself to the dismal fact that the two-week long event was here to stay. Now that the Supreme Court of the United States appears poised to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide and is likely to uphold the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) against the bill’s last credible legal challenge, is there even a point to staging the FFF this year? Some might still opine that there is for the simple fact that things can always get worse. Perhaps we have not yet reached “Persecution Level” when it comes to American secularism’s assault on religion, specifically the Catholic religion, but it’s not hard to imagine further action being taken in the near future. There are interest groups and individuals holding the reins of power who will not rest until Christians are, by law, forced to change both the nature of their beliefs and, more importantly, the manner in which they live out those beliefs. Granted, it’s not inevitable that the radical secularists will win, but there is very little standing in their way at this moment. Another year of the FFF won’t change that.
The FFF, as it has manifested itself thus far, is a pledge of surrender. It is the internalization of the secular-liberal mindset which ostensibly treats religion neutrally, but only because it doesn’t take religion seriously. There is no such thing as the “true religion,” but only a privately held set of beliefs, some of which may attract more adherents than others. If religion has any public role to play it is purely instrumental. Corporal works of mercy, for instance, are acceptable; spiritual works, however, are not. If Christianity has something to say about racism, economic inequality, or the death penalty, then it may speak. If it has anything to mutter about abortion, divorce, or sexual promiscuity, then let it be silent. It is no surprise then that an increasing number of Catholics, many of them in their teens and twenties, are desperate to find a way to make their religion relevant, pointing out to any who will still listen how they’re no longer “just about” pelvic politics. Teenage unemployment and lonely old people matter, too! And just to make sure everyone is listening, social media provides these young Catholics plenty of opportunities to take shots at Ted Cruz while constantly posting about Pope Francis’s latest remarks on capital punishment.
Not all of these young Catholics (or even some older ones) are thrilled about the FFF. To the extent that the FFF seems like just another mainline political project that feeds into the hands of the Republican Party’s typically hollow promises to “persons of faith,” it is anathema. Wishing to be a bit more “radical” in their orientation, a new generation of Catholics is trying to play itself off as being “above” or “beyond” conventional politics despite publicly trading in the jargon of the secular Left when it comes to a host of socio-economic issues. It is understandable that this posturing raises the hackles of more conventionally conservative Catholics who, for various reasons, still believe in the classical liberal principles of the American Founding and its alleged commitment to “ordered liberty.” These conservative Catholics still believe there is a way to wield the First Amendment in their favor while, at the same time, shrinking the power of the federal government in order to provide religious belief more breathing space in a culture that is becoming increasingly hostile toward any and every faith tradition. These Catholics may be naïve, even wrongheaded, but their instincts are in the right place.
Better it would be, I think, if this year’s FFF focused far, far less on the “splendor” of libertas religionis and far more on the truth of libertas ecclesiae. Catholics of all stripes need reminding what the martyrs of earlier ages took the sword, or went into the flames, for. There will be no real resolve to witness against the perversion of society and the corruption of the common good until such a time when Catholics are once again oriented by the Truth rather than conventional, that is passing, norms. If the shepherds of the American Catholic Church aren’t willing to redirect the faithful, then who will? Answering this question means looking once again to the matter of Catholic Action as a proper apostolate for the laity.