When Archbishop William E. Lori gave Ave Maria University’s Academic Convocation earlier this year, he spoke on the vital importance of maintaining our freedom to bear witness to the truth. If the Church’s institutions give up the fight for this freedom, if they comply with government regulations such as those contained in the HHS Mandate, then “their witness to the truth of the life and love of Jesus will be blunted… and it will put us at odds with the martyrs, whose blood is the seed of the Church.”
In America, Lori explained, “We’ve had a free hand in determining how [our institutions] would be organized and operated… We complied with—even exceeded—government standards while we maintained our Catholic identity.” This autonomy was possible because Americans shared a loose consensus on the importance of marriage and the dignity of God-given human life. But over the last fifty years, we’ve seen this consensus crumble.
Lori cited a series of court cases that have chipped away at the consensus: Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Roe v. Wade (1973), and Oregon v. Smith (1990). The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that President Clinton introduced in 1993 can be defeated and repealed, and similar statutes introduced today are met with strong opposition. Today, we have the HHS Mandate, which “represents the turning point…from which there is no turning back in the foreseeable future, unless we resist it.”
Lori asked: “Are we ready for this?”
He went on to state the obvious: the Church’s teachings on human life and its origins are not popular. But he urged us to look to Christ. “Look at the nature of Christ’s witness. Christ was born in a hostile environment and did not shrink from it.” Christ gave us a witness of loving our neighbors, even to the point of shedding blood for them. The Church’s teachings may not be popular, Lori said, but they are true and life giving. “We don’t have to bear witness to teachings that are popular. Rather, we have to bear witness to a Savior whose teachings demand of us a conversion of life.”
And again: “The fact remains we’ll never defend freedom except if we defend our teachings.”
Lori quoted St. Pope John Paul II, who wrote about the martyrs in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor:
This witness makes an extraordinarily valuable contribution to warding off, in civil society and within the ecclesial communities themselves, a headlong plunge into the most dangerous crisis which can afflict man: the confusion between good and evil, which makes it impossible to build up and to preserve the moral order of individuals and communities.
The martyrs are a wake-up call for us to remember the distinction between good and evil, for us to distinguish between what is true and what is false, and in the process, to preserve human freedom. Lori quoted John Paul II, saying: “There is no freedom without truth.”
“Someone might tell me,” Archbishop Lori went on, “to get real; we bump up against evil and we have to deal with it.” It is true that people face real difficulties coming into daily contact with the lies of evil. That is why, Lori explained, we have “principles of cooperation that help us develop sound moral judgment.” We can make distinctions between formal and material cooperation, and between proximate and remote material cooperation. In this way, we can judge our “moral distance” from the evil and avoid what John Paul II called “the confusion between good and evil” which is so fatal to society.
But is mere moral distancing enough? Archbishop Lori went a step further. The Church should also “never give scandal, which is the diametric opposite of bearing witness.” Complying with the HHS mandate, even if only remotely, could be a cause for scandal. The Church is committed to resist complying with evil and to fight the coercive clauses found in the HHS mandate.
We may not be called to martyrdom in the battle over the HHS mandate, but the path is open to us to be witnesses in our everyday life, honoring what the martyrs died for by defending freedom and truth. Lori urged the Ave Maria community to look to the examples of St. Elizabeth Ann Seaton, Blessed Mother Teresa, and the Little Sisters of the Poor, who “began to bear witness to the faith by serving those in need. They didn’t preach sermons, but brought God to bear on human needs.”
Archbishop Lori concluded his convocation address with a call for a “new generation of Catholic leaders, spiritually and intellectually equipped to give witness in a hostile society.” Ave Maria University, with its fidelity to the Church’s teachings while demanding academic excellence from a rapidly growing number of young men and women, is striving to answer that call.
Archbishop William E. Lori spoke at Ave Maria University’s Academic Convocation on September 5, 2014.