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Panel Discusses Threats to Religious Freedom
Photo: Religious Freedom PanelIn conjunction with the Office of the President, the University of St. Thomas Center for Faith and Culture hosted a panel discussion on April 12, about religious freedom – it’s place within our Constitution, current threats to it and how best to respond to these threats within a Catholic context.

The panelists were R. Randall Rainey, scholar of constitutional law and public policy, the Most Rev. Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, and Francis Rooney, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. Around 130 people gathered to listen to and interact with the three panelists.

The discussion commenced with a 10-15 minute opening statement from each panelist. Afterwards, the panelists dialogued with each other before responding to questions from the audience.

R. Randall Rainey

Photo: Randall RaineyRainey is a well-published scholar of constitutional law and public policy. He earned his Juris Doctor degree from Loyola University School of Law (New Orleans) and a Master of Laws from Yale Law School. Rainey also holds two graduate degrees in theology.

In his opening statement Rainey said religious freedom is deeply woven into the fabric of our society because the framers of the Constitution were well-aware of the importance of religion in public life.

“In the Constitution, religious freedom is enshrined in the first amendment,” Rainey said, calling it a constitutional peer to free speech and the right to assembly.

Rainey emphasized, however, that the source of these liberties is not the Constitution.

“These are rights that are natural rights that are rooted in the dignity of the human person,” he said. “Because we have the power of free will, we are morally accountable for our actions.”

Rainey discussed the federal Health and Human Services mandate, which would require all employer health plans to provide free contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs, regardless of any moral or religious objections.

“That we are told to violate our religious conscience is an egregious violation of natural law and human law” he said.

The HHS Mandate does contain a religious exemption for religious organizations that meet certain criteria, yet Rainey pointed out that the scope of the exemption within the HHS Mandate is so narrowly drawn that most Catholic-affiliated institutions like the University of St. Thomas, Catholic Charities, and Catholic hospitals will not qualify for an exemption. Furthermore, because the exemption is discretionary, even the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston would have to petition for permission to be exempt, which may or may not be granted.

“They knew exactly what they were doing,” Rainey said of the drafters. “I do not recall a case that is more clearly a violation of the first amendment.”

Furthermore, Rainey said that the human person, as such, has the right to religious freedom, and expression of religion is not simply worship, but includes physical acts like abstaining from foods, modes of transportation and work on the Sabbath.

“All men and women are to be immune from coercion,” he said. “No one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his or her own beliefs.”

Daniel Cardinal DiNardo

Photo: Cardinal DiNardoFollowing Rainey, Cardinal DiNardo addressed the audience in a spirited manner. As the first Roman Catholic cardinal in Texas and the American South, Cardinal DiNardo reemphasized his opposition to the HHS Mandate and other recent threats to religious freedom.

He specified the singular problem as the government’s efforts to define what constitutes a religious institution, relegating Catholic universities and Catholic organizations such as Catholic Charities to second tier. Cardinal DiNardo emphasized that the government cannot define the mission of the Church.

“It’s the Lord Jesus and our Church that defines our mission,” he said. “The University of St. Thomas as a Catholic institution is not outside the total mission of what it means to be Catholic... It’s like saying you’re nothing but a hobby.”

The Cardinal concluded his opening statement with a call to action declaring clear, focused, relentless letters to Congress and the White House as the necessary Catholic response to current threats to religious freedom.

Ambassador Francis Rooney

Photo: Amb. Francis RooneyThe final opening statement was given by Rooney. Having served from 2005-2008 as the United States ambassador to the Holy See, Rooney offered insights into the Holy See’s position on religious freedom in addition to his own views on the subject.

Referring to papal initiatives, Rooney said that there’s no doubt where the Holy See stands on attacks on religious freedom.

“The goal of the Holy See is to nurture freedom, protect the weak and powerless and safeguard the human condition,” Rooney said.

Turning to his own analysis of the topic at hand, Rooney warned that secular materialism is a source for gradual decline in religious freedom. He said that people are being asked to sacrifice freedom to get something that they seem to want. He cautioned that our children and grandchildren may not enjoy freedoms as we do today if we continue along this current path.

“Once [religious] freedom is sacrificed away, it isn’t readily gotten back,” he said continuing on to emphasize secularism as our greatest enemy. “We’re talking about a global trend. Then how do you fight it? We can fight it by speaking up and writing those letters, and by helping good politicians.”

Audience Questions

Members of the audience responded to the panelists’ discussion with questions that showcased the current state of religious freedom’s varying impact on different constituencies.

A private Catholic employer inquired how he should respond to the mandate. He asked whether complying with the demands of the mandate constituted a sin. While sympathizing with the employer’s position, Cardinal DiNardo stated that moral culpability relates to the individual’s level of cooperation.

“From our point of view, you’d be directly involved because you’re paying the bill,” Cardinal DiNardo said. “You’re between a rock and a hard place.”

Ultimately, Cardinal DiNardo encouraged the man to fight for the individual conscience exemption.

A woman, a director of religious education at a Catholic parish, touched upon another topic. She expressed concern about how few professional Catholic women are speaking out against the mandate.

“There are many of us who want to speak to this culture about our experience as faithful Catholic women who support the Church and its teachings,” she said.

The Cardinal responded emphasizing how important it is for people to get involved in adult faith formation at the parish level. By entering deeply into a reflection on their faith, they can prepare themselves to enter into the public dialogue on moral questions facing our culture. Some ways this could manifest itself would be expressing their opinions through the media. Rainey added that young people can have a strong impact on shaping public opinion.

Another question was raised by a seminarian who expressed his concern about bias in the media’s coverage of religious freedom. He inquired how a pastor might best address this issue.

Cardinal DiNardo encouraged the seminarian to acquire a solid theological and philosophical base, which would enliven his religious imagination in ways that would enhance and communicate effectively the Church’s teachings.

Rainey suggested mastering the art of dialogue. “The art of public discourse is something we should all engage in, in a respectful way.”

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The Donald S. Nesti, CSSp Center for Faith & Culture
The Center seeks to understand and affect the relationship between and among the many facets of the American way of life in relation to God’s ongoing, loving encounter with humanity. We educate faith-full citizens to be artisans of dialogue and proclamation in articulating a God-centered vision of the world and how that vision strengthens the institutions that govern us as a people. Through its programmatic offerings the Center serves the local and regional Catholic, ecumenical and interreligious communities, our sister university communities, civic society, and various professional segments of our culture.
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