The failure of Catholic institutions to demonstrate clear and consistent Catholic identity and fidelity encourages disregard for the Church’s claims of religious freedom and therefore is itself a threat to faithful Catholics, argued Patrick Reilly, president of The Cardinal Newman Society, in Washington, D.C., on Friday.
Reilly was the kickoff speaker at the weekend meeting of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars on threats to religious freedom and the Catholic response. He partnered with Monsignor Stuart Swetland, director of The Cardinal Newman Society’s Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education and vice president for mission at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., to discuss religious freedom threats in higher education.
Reilly noted that not only does weak Catholic identity in Catholic colleges and universities diminish respect for the Church, but also that strong Catholic identity can help significantly when legal action is needed to defend First Amendment rights:
…[L]egal experts say that faithfully Catholic institutions are better positioned to fight religious freedom violations in the courts, first by qualifying as religious employers under the law, and second by being able to demonstrate consistency when claiming that Catholic values are essential to their operations. We have commissioned several advisories from the religious liberty experts at the Becket Fund and Alliance Defending Freedom, explaining that it should be much easier to obtain a religious exemption to an offensive law or regulation, or to claim a substantial burden on religious activity under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, if an institution has a clear religious mission.
Following a review of current threats to Catholic colleges and universities—including the HHS contraceptive mandate, the National Labor Relations Board’s refusal to recognize Catholic colleges as substantially religious, and the EEOC’s demand that a Catholic college include contraceptives in its employee health care plan—Reilly urged attention to Catholic identity concerns:
So while American Catholics vigorously defend our religious freedom under the law, it seems to me the greatest priority and not a distraction from the immediate crisis to turn frank attention to that “elephant in the room”—the weakened Catholic identity and fidelity of our Catholic colleges and universities, and our other Catholic institutions. This is especially clear when we acknowledge that weak Catholic identity and fidelity only invite further threats to religious freedom, whereas strengthened Catholic identity and fidelity can provide some protection.
Christ Jesus said, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” And also, “If you remain in My word, you will truly be My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
The struggle for religious freedom ought to be concerned with more than the liberty protected by law. The Church’s priority is to lead mankind to that greater freedom which comes with knowing Christ and remaining faithful to Him, and it is the distinctive mission of Catholic education to lead young men and women to the truth that frees them from the chains of sin and ignorance. It is for this reason that the Catholic college or university that is firmly rooted in the Church is well worth preserving from every external and internal threat to its integrity.
The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars will be publishing the full proceedings of the conference.
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