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Religious Liberty

By Carrie Handy, respect life coordinator for the Diocese of Burlington
 
“Religious freedom is not only that of private thought or worship. It is the liberty to live, both privately and publicly, according to the ethical principles resulting from found truth.”
     --Pope Francis, Conference on International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values, June 2014
 

Imagine being a high-ranking public official with the respect of your peers, renown throughout the nation; your esteemed career has made you a trusted adviser to your country’s leaders.
 
And then, imagine having these very people force you to choose between your principles and your alliances, at the cost of your life.
 
Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII, faced just such a choice and was beheaded for holding to his principles.
 
Fortunately, no one in this country today is at risk of execution for refusing to obey laws they consider immoral. Our Founding Fathers saw fit to protect religious freedom as a fundamental right—not only the right to practice religion according to one’s conscience but also to be protected from coercion into acting against conscience.
 
Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean conscience protections are without threats. Beliefs about the sanctity of life and the meaning of human sexuality are particularly vulnerable, as Catholic principles about these topics, once considered mainstream in American society, gradually are being marginalized.
 
Abortion on demand, same sex marriage and legal assisted suicide are the most prominent examples of this here in Vermont. But it’s no longer just about moral objections to these practices; in some instances, individuals and organizations face the possibility of having to choose between obeying the law or their consciences.
 
For example:
 
 Doctors in Vermont are legally required to supply patients with information on assisted suicide when asked or refer them to those who will. There is no clean “opt out” for health care providers who morally object to this practice, although a recent court decision clarified that doctors do not have to volunteer this information unless asked. Unfortunately, even referring to another provider can be construed as legitimizing a practice deemed morally wrong.
 
 Last year the Vermont legislature refused to allow a conscience exemption clause in a law mandating employers to fund insurance coverage of contraception (some forms of which may act as abortifacients) and sterilization. As the law stands, Catholic churches and schools in Vermont must fund these practices in their health care plans.
 
 In the neighboring State of New York, a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City was forced to take part in the abortion of a 22-week- old unborn child in 2009, and saw no resolution of her complaint to the HHS Office of Civil Rights until 2013, despite the existence of a law intended to protect against this type of coercion. Hers is not an isolated case.
 
Nurses have been told by Vanderbilt University and by a state-run medical center in New York that they must assist in abortions against their consciences. The Conscience Protection Act of 2017 was introduced in Congress in January in response to these and similar violations.
 
While we can expect the freedom to act according to conscience in 2017 without facing martyrdom as St. Thomas More did, it will likely take a sustained and united effort to ensure universal protections of conscience and religious liberty. In order to shine a light on the many issues related to religious liberty and conscience protections both here and abroad, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops again this year will sponsor Fortnight for Freedom, a prayer and public education initiative which takes place beginning on June 21—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More— and ending on July 4, Independence Day.
 
Learn more.
 
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A reflection on “A Man for All Seasons”

On Dec. 12, 1966, the film “A Man for All Seasons” was released. And if it’s impossible to imagine such a picture on such a theme winning Oscars today, then let’s be grateful that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got it right by giving Fred Zinnemann’s splendid movie six of its awards in 1967 – when, reputedly, Audrey Hepburn lifted her eyes to heaven before announcing with obvious pleasure that this cinematic celebration of the witness and martyrdom of Sir Thomas More had beaten “The Sand Pebbles,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Alfie” and T”he Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” for Best Picture.
           
Intriguingly, though, “A Man for All Seasons” is a magnificent religious film – perhaps the best ever – despite its author’s stated intentions.
           
Robert Bolt’s introduction to his play, which led to the movie, makes it rather clear that author Bolt saw More less as a Catholic martyr than as an existential hero, an approach befitting the hot philosophical movement of the day (which was, of course, the Sixties). As Bolt put it:
           
“Thomas More…became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off, what areas of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. It was a substantial area in both cases, for he had a proper sense of fear and was a busy lover. Since he was a clever man and a great lawyer he was able to retire from those areas in wonderfully good order, but at last he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self.  And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigor, and could no more be budged than a cliff….
           
“What attracted me was a person who could not be accused of any incapacity for life, who indeed seized life in great variety and almost greedy quantities, who nevertheless found something in himself without which life was valueless and when that was denied him was able to grasp his death.”
           
Yet this portrait of Thomas-More-as-Tudor-era-existentialist doesn’t quite convince, because Bolt, perhaps in spite of himself, gave us a different More in his drama and later in his screenplay – a More who “grasps” his death, not as an existential stalwart, a courageously autonomous “Self,” but as a Catholic willing to die for the truth, which has grasped him as the love of God in Christ.  Thus when More’s intellectually gifted daughter Margaret, having failed to argue him out of his refusal to countenance Henry VIII’s divorce and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, plays her final card and cries, “But in reason! Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?”, More replies, haltingly, “Well…finally…it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.”
           
And not love of self, but love of God and love of the truth. For the God who is truth all the way through is also, St. John the Evangelist teaches us, love itself. And to be transformed by that love is to live in the truth – the truth that sets us free in the deepest and noblest meaning of human liberation.
           
There was something worthy and inspiring about certain aspects of existentialism: not the soured existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, which quickly decomposed into nihilism, but the heroic existentialism of a Albert Camus, who could not abide the anti-clerical Catholic progressives of his day and who sought a world in which we could be, as he put it, “neither victims nor executioners.” But it was Sartrean existentialism that won the day, at least insofar as one can trace a line from Sartre to contemporary narcissism, displayed today in everything from temper tantrums on university campuses by over-privileged and under-educated barbarians to voters across the Western world who seek relief from their grievances – some quite legitimate – in adherence to some pretty dreadful characters.
           
In this unhappy situation, we need the real Thomas More: the Thomas More who bore witness and ultimately “grasped his death,” not to vindicate his sense of self, but as the final and ultimate act of thanks for his having been grasped, and saved, by Truth itself, the Thrice-Holy God.   
 
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