Guest Commentary: Who is ready to stand up for religious liberty?
In college I grew in my Catholic faith and had a strong experience of religious pluralism. I was involved in the Newman Center daily but I also had many non-Catholic friends and even frequented Hillel House, the Jewish student center.
Several of my Jewish friends worked in Hillel’s kosher dining room, and since they couldn’t work on the Sabbath or religious holidays, they got me and some other non-Jewish girls jobs there where we served kosher food and did the dishes on Friday evenings and Jewish holidays.
At 19-years-old, I didn’t know much about Jewish traditions. My orthodox friends took their religious obligations seriously and faithfully observed the weekly Sabbath, or Shabbat as I learned to call it. I tried my best to respect their deeply held convictions, even when I didn’t understand them, since I didn’t want to offend either my friends or their faith. I secretly admired the courage of the orthodox Jewish students who unabashedly proclaimed their religious identity through their yarmulkes, their food choices and other observances.
Through these experiences, I learned to approach other faith traditions with reserved curiosity and respectful appreciation. As I learned more about Judaism, while at the same time examining Catholicism in depth, I came to understand that even when we are at a loss to explain the nuances of our faith experiences to skeptics and unbelievers, this does not weaken the sincerity or strength of our convictions.
Things have changed a lot since my college days. As the Little Sisters have spent the last several years in the limelight due to our Supreme Court case over the HHS contraceptive mandate, we have received valuable support and encouragement from many sources. But we have also been the object of mean-spirited hate mails, uninformed critiques and partisan judgments of our supposed hidden motives. The vitriol directed against us has been both disturbing and disheartening.
Remembering the mutual respect I experienced during my college days, I am deeply saddened to see our current culture’s disdain for traditional religious values, and its apparent amnesia in relation to the intentions of our Founding Fathers. For me the most jarring moment occurred last year when a major political candidate proclaimed, referring to pro-lifers, “Deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed!”
We claim to live in a pluralistic society that defends human dignity and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Such a society is committed to making room for everyone, including those whose convictions run counter to the mainstream, but who wish to live peaceably with others and contribute to the common good. This does not mean that every individual will find every job or social situation a perfect fit. Nor does it mean that every employer, organization or service provider will be able to satisfy the desires and aspirations of every person who walks through their doors.
In a pluralistic society, religious organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor will inevitably encounter requests for services that run contrary to our beliefs, but refusing to provide such services does not offend the conscience rights of others. Nor does it constitute discrimination or bigotry. It is, rather, a means of safeguarding our personal integrity and the Catholic identity of our organizations.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl said it well in Being Catholic Today: Catholic Identity in an Age of Challenge: “There are some things that the Church simply will not do, and it is not discriminatory to say, ‘We do not do that.’ … We must remain true to who we are. We cannot be expected to embrace error and give up our identity which inspired us to form ministries of teaching, healing and charity in the first place.”
As we observe the sixth Fortnight for Freedom (June 21 through July 4), let’s pray that religious liberty will once again be respected as the most cherished of American freedoms. Let’s pray for the freedom to serve in harmony with the truths of our Catholic faith.
Finally, let’s pray for the wisdom to know how to contribute to a better understanding of this important issue in a way that respects all people of good will.
Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.