Pray for Religious Freedom

Aaron Weldon,  Religious Liberty Program Specialist, USCCB

We come to enjoy true freedom when our restless hearts find rest in the truth. The great twentieth century philosopher, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross – or, Edith Stein – discovered truth in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, and sought freedom by entering the Discalced Carmelites.  The convent didn’t stop her from reaching out.  During the rise of Nazism, Stein spoke up. She wrote to Pope Pius XI asking the Church to speak up on behalf of persecuted Jews, and she wrote her autobiography, Life in a Jewish Family, “as a way to combat racial hatred.”  She was captured in 1942 and taken to Auschwitz, where she died in the gas chamber shortly after arrival.  Stein was executed primarily because she was Jewish, and the Catholic Church considers her a Christian martyr, because she bore witness to her faith in Jesus before her executioners.

Having spent much of my life in the university, I admire Edith Stein. Her intellectual vocation led her to faith, her relationship with God led her to prayer, and her life of prayer was bound up with her outreach to others.  She enjoyed an interior freedom that opened out to service.

We can grow in both interior freedom and solidarity with others through prayer. In prayer, we express our dependence on God, and we take on the burdens of those for whom we pray.  During this Fortnight, here is how I will be praying:

  • For Bishops and all Catholic leaders. Many Christians may not realize religious liberty is an issue, because they don’t experience an infringement on their own freedom. But the issue is real for medical professionals like Cathy Decarlo, a nurse who was forced to participate in an abortion, or for ministries that serve immigrants in states prohibiting the “harboring” of undocumented persons. Pastors and leaders face serious challenges, and they need the wisdom and courage of the Holy Spirit. We can pray for them.
  • For Christians facing violent persecution. In the West, we are dealing with what Pope Francis calls “polite persecution.” Polite persecution is real, but it pales in comparison to the struggles of Christians in Pakistan, Syria, and other places. In the face of this suffering, it can be difficult for most of us to know what we can do. Certainly, we can support organizations, like Aid to the Church in Need, that work to assist Christians under extreme duress in places like Iraq. We can also pray for our brothers and sisters, as well as for the conversion of the persecutors.
  • For non-Christian fellow Americans. Religious freedom is a fundamental freedom, rooted in the nature of the human person. So all people must be immune from coercion, free to pursue the truth and live the truth as best as they understand it. Many Americans are impeded in their search. For example, Muslims have faced challenges in recent years. Several states have passed anti-Sharia laws, local governments have tried to use zoning laws to prevent the construction of houses of worship, and the White House has imposed a travel ban that courts have found is aimed at preventing Muslims from entering the country. These actions give rise to a culture in which Muslims are treated as second-class citizens. As Catholics, we should be aware of these challenges, as we ourselves have been the target anti-Catholic bigotry. That bigotry gave us Blaine Amendments that we are still fighting today. Religious freedom for all does not mean we are resigned to relativism; it simply means that governments do not get to coerce people in matters of faith. It means that the state recognizes a space for non-state institutions, and this is the same space we Christians enjoy to propose the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Please join me in praying for our neighbors, co-workers, and fellow Americans, that we all will be free to seek and live out religious truth.

Aaron Matthew Weldon is Religious Liberty Program Specialist for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Integral Ecology and Respect for Human Life

“Everything is connected.”  This phrase echoes throughout the recent encyclical from the Holy Father, Laudato Si.  Pope Francis presents a comprehensive vision.  Our attitude toward our common home is inseparable from our attitude toward the unborn, poor, and all who are vulnerable.  The crises of our age have arisen because we refuse to receive created things in humility, simple joy, and awe at the work of God.

Francis proposes an “integral ecology” – an approach to creation care rooted in the Christian conviction that the earth, and everything in it, is a gift from our gracious Father.  Everything is connected, and so we must resist the temptation to see the problems that we face today as piecemeal. We can’t build a culture of life and trash the planet at the same time. We can’t clean up the mess left by a consumer society if we disregard the preciousness of human life.

Care for creation flows naturally from our commitment to protect all human life.  For example, polluted drinking water causes birth defects.  We who march for life ought also to do our part to make sure that families have clean water for their children.  In our different places in life, we can build up a human ecology by taking account of how our actions affect the lives of the most vulnerable.

Most fundamental is our need to examine ourselves and how we receive God’s good world.  We are immersed in a throwaway culture, which exerts its force on us. In our consumer society, we are prone to think of our surroundings, and even the people in them, as objects to help us fulfill our selfish desires.  The habits formed in the throwaway culture need to be reformed and redirected.  We must tend to our interior life and learn to receive created things as gifts, always remembering the unique dignity of each human being.

Pope Francis reminds us that everything comes from God and can point to God.  A fish or a grasshopper, a prairie or a canyon, each thing has its own loveliness and is to be admired as a creation of our Creator – not only for what benefit it brings us.  When we can behold created things in their own particular glory, we move closer to an integral ecology.  In the throwaway culture, land is only good as an energy resource. In a culture of life, it is seen as an integral ecosystem, pointing to a loving God who delights in making a world filled with diverse creatures and landscapes.

The Pope offers simple suggestions for developing gratitude and reverence.  He suggests that praying before and after meals might help inspire thankfulness for the food we receive.  He notes the importance of resting on the Sabbath.  In this spirit I offer a possible exercise.  Choose some seemingly simple object, and consider the complexity and grandeur of it. Consider doing this with a different piece of creation each day.  Let us take time to cultivate a spirit of gratitude and awe at the beauty of the earth, which reaches its pinnacle in that most marvelous of creatures, the human person. Such an attitude animates a culture of life.

Aaron Matthew Weldon is a staff assistant for the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Dependent.

Aaron Weldon of the USCCB.

Aaron Weldon of the USCCB.

Shortly after my wife had given birth to our first son, I held my little boy and was immediately struck by his helplessness. Before that moment, I may have had some idea of how dependent a child is on others, but it became very real when my wife handed him to me on that sweltering summer day in Washington, D.C. Those moments at the beginning of life, as well as at its end, show us in a vivid way one of the deepest truths about being human: we are radically dependent on others.

We know that “no man is an island.” We are all interdependent, and our actions affect others. But in much of our culture, we glorify the idea of total independence and self-sufficiency. Dr. Seuss’s character from the The Lorax, the Once-ler, puts it well when he says, “I have my rights, sir, and I’m telling you, I intend to go on doing just what I do.” The independent woman. The self-made man. The myth of the self-sufficient individual can be seductive, but it is false.

This individualistic idea of the human person comes to the fore in debates about assisted suicide. Proponents talk as if the suffering patient were the only person involved. To be sure, in these discussions, we want to focus on people who are suffering. At the same time, we cannot forget that a suicide is a death in a family, a wound to a community. It leaves others behind who must pick up the pieces. In fact, a recent study in Switzerland, where this practice is legal, found that one out of six friends or family members who are present at an assisted suicide suffer afterward from clinical depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. It seems assisted suicide doesn’t end suffering. Rather, it transfers suffering to others. This is a profoundly communal issue, and we must see it as such.

We tend to hear about the family, friends, and community who surround the elderly or terminally ill when the one contemplating suicide says that she doesn’t want to be a burden on those she loves. In a culture formed from the myth of the autonomous individual, we struggle with the thought of being a burden. We feel that our dignity is eroded when we depend on others to care for us. This is cause for lament. Receiving the gift of support from loved ones as we approach the end of life is part of being human. Indeed, the truth of the matter is this: we are all, at all times, dependent on others.

The myth of the self-made, independent individual clouds our vision, leading all too many of us to view society as divided between those who are strong and those who can be cast aside. However, our dependency is one of the beautiful aspects of human life. We depend on mothers and fathers to nurture us. We depend on family and friends to put up with our imperfections. A successful community requires the cooperation of everyone. The story of a human life is replete with acts of giving and receiving care. These acts are seeds of a culture of life, a culture that flourishes when we, dependent creatures that we are, allow ourselves to rest in our humanness.

Aaron Matthew Weldon is a staff assistant for the USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. He is also a Ph.D. Candidate in Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America and a former intern for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. For more on promoting a culture of life, visit the Secretariat’s Life Issues Forum.

Living Subsidiarity, Serving the Common Good

Aaron Weldon of the USCCB.

Aaron Weldon of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities.

The USCCB collection to support the Catholic Campaign for Human Development will be taken up in parishes nationwide on the weekend of November 22-23. Please give generously.

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development plays an important part in the Church’s mission to address poverty. One dimension of this work that may go unnoticed is the contribution CCHD makes to the life of the body politic. CCHD supports organizations working locally to get people involved in the issues that affect them. These groups bring people together to take responsibility for the wellbeing of their cities and neighborhoods. By supporting these groups, CCHD makes an invaluable contribution to the common good.

When we think politics, we often think about government and the state. We think of judges and elected officials who develop, enforce and interpret laws. But a healthy body politic requires more than good governance by state officials. A healthy society requires institutions and associations that make up civil society. In fact, this is the basic meaning of subsidiarity. In order to take responsibility for the social issues they face at the local level, communities need strong institutions. The state, as well as large or multi-national corporations, develops an oversized and unhealthy place in society when local institutions diminish and community voices go unheard.

The human person is social. She needs opportunities to work with others at a human level. Certainly, the first institution in which persons learn to work with others is the family. Other small-scale institutions – such as unions, small associations, community organizations, and even recreational clubs – provide venues for people to work with their neighbors on common projects. They serve as places for citizens to encounter one another and to cooperate on particular tasks, such as beautifying the neighborhood, raising money for charitable works, or providing forums to talk about issues of common concern. The whole community benefits from the vitality of these groups.

Western Colorado Congress is supported by CCHD.

Western Colorado Congress is supported by CCHD.

CCHD supports these kinds of institutions. For example, Western Colorado Congress works with rural residents, farmers and ranchers in Colorado. Many of these women and men have contended with the abuse of eminent domain, as well as pollution of their water supplies. These people should be able to speak up in defense of their land. WCC has helped to organize local stakeholders, so that large companies cannot simply impose their will on people in the rural areas. A functioning democracy requires engaged citizens who seek the common good. A CCHD-funded group like WCC provides the institutional structure necessary to help citizens become engaged.

The prevalence of poverty in the wealthiest nation in history is a scandal. It is certainly imperative that we who are Christians confront this scandal. The work of CCHD breaks the cycle of poverty by building up the local-level institutions required by a healthy society. CCHD contributes to the body politic. Through this ministry, the Church is a leaven in the world, promoting subsidiarity and serving the common good.

Aaron Matthew Weldon is a staff assistant in the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. He is a former intern for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and a PhD candidate in systematic theology at The Catholic University of America.

Go deeper:
Visit PovertyUSA and PobrezaUSA to learn more about the work of CCHD supported organizations and follow CCHD on Twitter.

Solidarity and Vision

October is Respect Life Month.

Each of us is a masterpiece of God’s creation. This is a fact of Christian belief. At the center of Catholic social teaching stands the conviction that each person is a beautiful work of the Creator, a masterpiece that elicits wonder and affection from those with eyes to see. Such a teaching is what Pope Benedict XVI calls a performative truth. It is not a truth “out there” but one that makes a claim on us. It challenges us to see the world in a particular way. How can we deepen our vision, that we might see and help others to see?

In his 2014 Respect Life Month statement, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, states that “solidarity is the antidote” to “the culture of death that flows from the extreme individualism of our age.” Solidarity heals this wound in our age, in part, because it opens our eyes to the beauty in all persons. Solidarity enables us to proclaim that each of us is a masterpiece.

Solidarity means that we act with a common purpose. It is not merely an attitude. To faintly echo St. James, if I feel badly for poor persons in my community, but contribute to a culture that ensures their invisibility, what good is my attitude? Solidarity requires that the concerns of my neighbors become my own concerns. It requires that I act with a view toward the good of others. It requires that I encounter others.

When I begin to take up the aims and struggles of my neighbors, all my neighbors, as my own, then my vision expands. My experience of the world is inseparable from the practices and rituals that make up my life. Through the actions that I repeat day after day, I develop habits of thought and affection. When I act in solidarity, when I share a common life with others, a particular vision develops. The “issues” are no longer abstractions. Solidarity with vulnerable persons – immigrants, the poor, the oppressed – opens my eyes and enlarges my understanding of the beauty of human life.

Many people are invisible to our society. The poor and the disabled, the elderly and the unborn – these persons are simply irrelevant in the moral calculus of powerful segments of our culture. Pope Francis rightly refers to this culture of exclusion as a throw away culture. Through our acts of solidarity, we who are disciples of Jesus Christ form a habit of seeing the handiwork of God in all people, and this habit enables us to make the audacious claim that those whom our utilitarian society regards as disposable are, not only persons with rights, but masterpieces of creation.

The 2014 Respect Life Program presents a beautiful truth that reaches to the core of our Christian faith. We are loved. This truth that makes a demand on us. It demands that the Church build bonds of community and friendship with those that the world would rather not see. When our work, worship, and lives break out of the “extreme individualism of our age,” out of the “throw away culture,” then we become liberated to see each person as a masterpiece of God’s creation.
Weldon headshot
Aaron Matthew Weldon is a staff assistant for the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. He is also a Ph.D. Candidate in Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America and a former intern for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Go deeper:
Learn about the USCCB’s pro-life advocacy.