On the farm where I grew up there was a woods, a dense cluster of trees that I often pretended was a jungle in “darkest Africa,” where we brave and heroic missionaries willingly encountered mortal dangers in order to “preach the Gospel to every creature.” It was a thrilling game though I did often wonder what I would do if this were real. Would I, could I, face death for my faith, like Stephen, the first martyr, or like the apostles and many hundreds of missionaries throughout history? I hoped I would face every peril with courage but what if my faith was too weak? Would I run away? (I shuddered to think it!) Would my faith be strong enough to overcome my fear?
The events of the past few months have reminded me of this. The faith can be risky. Fundamental moral and ethical principles, core truths of our Christian faith, have been severely challenged, not only from secular society, but also from within the Church.
The very concept of freedom has become confused. Can one claim freedom to choose an action if it conflicts with other fundamental freedoms? How can one claim that “a woman’s right to choose” abortion is a “fundamental constitutional right,” as President Obama did in his Proclamation on January 22, while also affirming that all human beings “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as our Declaration of Independence states?
And what about religious freedom? Does “religious liberty” mean only that we are free to worship as we choose, but we are not free to live according to our religious beliefs and principles? May our government force its citizens to deny essential teachings of their faith?
The US bishops, in “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” a statement released April 12, put it this way: “We are Catholics. We are Americans. We are proud to be both, grateful for the gift of faith which is ours as Christian disciples, and grateful for the gift of liberty which is ours as American citizens. To be Catholic and American should mean not having to choose one over the other.”
Our bishops also urge Catholics to pray for religious liberty, and announced a Fortnight for Freedom: “the fourteen days from June 21 the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More to July 4, Independence Day, [will] be dedicated to this ‘fortnight for freedom’ a great hymn of prayer for our country.” (usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/our-first-most-cherished-liberty.cfm)
But what if the members of religious bodies themselves do not agree on these vital issues? We have seen recent evidence of the conflict and confusion that result when some Catholics publicly reject the doctrines (that is, teachings) of the Catholic Church. Or when one group within the Church claims to speak for all. For example, one of the two officially recognized groups of superiors of women’s religious orders in the United States, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), has for many years ignored or rejected fundamental elements of Catholic doctrine, while claiming to represent the vast majority of religious communities who run Catholic schools and hospitals and do many charitable works. So many sisters and religious communities very strongly disagreed with this leadership group that they undertook to form another group one that would be faithful to Catholic teaching. Eventually the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) was organized, gaining recognition from the Vatican only in 1994, after more than two decades of effort.
The “Doctrinal Assessment” of the LCWR by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), released April 18, is the most hopeful sign that this nearly forty-year conflict within women’s religious orders, which has affected the faith of at least two generations of Catholics, may yet be resolved.
In his letter explaining the document, Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the CDF, said they “aimed at fostering a patient and collaborative renewal of this conference of major superiors in order to provide a stronger doctrinal foundation for its many laudable initiatives and activities.” He also stressed that the issues at stake in this undertaking to reform the LCWR “involve essential questions faith.”
Cardinal Levada’s letter also quoted Pope Benedict’s Porta Fidei, announcing the Year of Faith that will begin October 13 this year:
The renewal of the Church is also achieved through the witness offered by the lives of believers: by their very existence in the world, Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us. (§6)
Do not be afraid! These were among the first words we heard from Pope John Paul II when he became pope. They are the same words Be not afraid! Fear not! that the Angel spoke to Mary at the Annunciation, and to the shepherds at the birth of Jesus Christ. And we read this encouragement in Hebrews: “Do not throw away your fearless confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God…” (Heb 10:35-36).
Each year at Pentecost we are given renewed insight into the source of our strength in our Christian faith. And we are constantly reminded that the gifts of the Holy Spirit all of them: wisdom and understanding, counsel and fortitude, knowledge, piety and the fear of the Lord are crucial to our Christian life and witness.
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