June 6, 2014


Stewards of freedom, servants of God

Something especially powerful is expressed in the famous saying of St. Thomas More, “I die the king’s faithful servant, but God’s first.”

Most of us know the story of St. Thomas’ martyrdom. He was executed because he opposed King Henry VIII’s decision to divorce his wife and, in the process, declare himself head of the Church in England. Thomas More opposed this double divorce, and paid dearly for it.

The memory of this one man’s act of civil disobedience is recalled at this time of year—along with the witness of other great religious figures who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power—because the Church in the United States is once again observing “The Fortnight for Freedom” from June 21 to July 4.

The Fortnight for Freedom, which this year focuses on the freedom to serve the poor and vulnerable in accord with human dignity and the Church’s teaching, should be an opportunity to pray, learn and speak out. It should be a time when we grow in our awareness of the stewardship responsibility we have for the gift of freedom.

We believe that every human person has been endowed by the Creator God with an inalienable right to freedom. No government or external power has the right to restrict or remove the basic human right to freedom of thought, religious belief or expression. The limits placed on us by the authorities that govern our society are intended to preserve and defend our God-given freedom, not to impair or abolish it.

As in the days of England’s Henry VIII, political forces here at home and throughout the world have attempted to sweep aside, or effectively ignore, the religious dimension of human freedom.

For many, personal freedom is no longer rooted in religious convictions or in an objective criteria for moral conduct. Too often today, freedom is seen as the right to do as we please regardless of the consequences.

Even more, freedom is recognized as the right to “go with the flow,” to do whatever everyone else is doing, and to embrace what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism.”

Pope Francis has challenged this view—not by using the Church’s moral teaching as a club to drive people away, but by giving strong personal witness to the virtues of humility, charity and the freedom to serve (rather than be served).

“Real power is found in service,” the Holy Father says. “It’s with this path that the Church moves forward. For the Christian, getting ahead, progress, means humbling oneself. If we do not learn this Christian rule, we will never, ever, be able to understand Jesus’ true message on power.”

Through the ages, religious leaders and civil authorities have both abused their power, forgetting that the possession of authority exists for the sake of human freedom. As Pope Francis says, “When exercised correctly, authority implies creating a space to grow. … It does not mean to order and impose; it means to serve.”

Jesus clearly taught his disciples to be stewards of the gift of freedom, to use it wisely as a form of humble service, and to return this precious gift to God with increase by building up human society and making it better.

This year’s observance of the Fortnight for Freedom features an open letter signed by Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptists Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and more than 100 prominent national religious leaders and scholars. This open letter, “Standing Together for Religious Freedom,” calls on the Obama administration and Congress to respect conscience rights and religious freedom.

While the particular focus of concern remains the government mandate that compels employers to cover contraception, sterilization and drugs that cause abortion in their health plans, the signers make it clear that freedom of religion goes beyond the freedom of worship—as essential as this is—and extends to each person’s freedom to live his or her religious principles as ordinary citizens and as employers and workers.

Responsible stewardship requires that we nurture, protect and care for the gifts God has given us. As stewards of the gift of freedom, we are challenged to live simply and with integrity and to prize humble service more than “doing whatever we please” or “following the crowd.”

During this Fortnight for Freedom, let’s pray for the grace of Christ who humbled himself taking the form of a servant so that each and every one of us might be free to serve others as he did. Let’s remember to be faithful servants of our nation and society—but God’s first.

—Daniel Conway

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