The following homily, reprinted with permission, was delivered by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese on October 10.  Delivered at the annual Mass celebrated for members of the legal profession, the Red Mass, the homily was met both a short burst of spontaneous applause and the departure of some members of the congregation.

The Gospel we just heard is from the famous farewell discourse of Jesus, His teaching to the Apostles at the Last Supper, which is contained in five chapters of Saint John’s Gospel.  These chapters are a rich source for prayerful reflection.  The passage from Chapter 15, which we just heard, is one that can give us much consolation and strength when we experience criticism, rejection, or even persecution for standing up for our faith and witnessing to Christ in our increasingly secularized culture.  “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first,” Jesus says to the disciples and to us.  “No slave is greater than his master.  If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”

When we consider these words of Jesus, we may think of the life of the early Church during the centuries of Roman persecution.  We think of the many martyrs whom we honor as saints.  We may think of the persecutions carried out by ruthless totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century and the many who suffered or died for the faith under Nazism and Communism.  Or we may think of persecuted Christians in the world today.

Unfortunately, this suffering is often ignored by the American media:  Christian communities suffering from persecution, discrimination, violence and intolerance, particularly in parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and even in the Holy Land.   How often Blessed John Paul II and now Pope Benedict XVI have spoken to the world on their behalf and have asked those in authority to end the injustices against Christians.

At the same time, the popes have encouraged the disciples of Jesus in lands where religious freedom is denied not to lose heart, to continue to witness to the Gospel.  Besides the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel, it is good to recall the last of the eight Beatitudes of Jesus:  “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”

When we think of religious persecution, hostility and prejudice against Christians, we should also remember our own history, the history of the Catholic Church here in the United States.  Anti-Catholicism has been called “the persistent prejudice” in our nation.  There was great hostility and prejudice against Catholics, particularly in the nineteenth century, with the activities of the Know-Nothing Party and its nativist bigotry.  And right here in our diocese and here at the University of Notre Dame, in the early twentieth century, our Catholic forebears experienced and fought the hatred of the powerful Indiana Ku Klux Klan.  The widespread prejudice against Catholics is a part of our American history, though I doubt that it is included very often in American history textbooks that are used in schools today.

Why do I speak of these things today?  Catholics are rarely victims of violence in our nation because of their religious beliefs.  (In Spain this past August, with 120 young people from our diocese, I experienced hateful protests against Catholics that I have never experienced here in the United States.)

As Americans, we enjoy the guarantee of freedom of religion, enshrined as the first Amendment to our nation’s constitution.  Religious freedom is something we Americans cherish.  It is something that we as Catholics hold to be a fundamental human right, a right rooted in the very dignity of the human person.  It is rooted in human nature, part of the natural law.  The right to religious freedom, like the right to life, is an essential element of human dignity.

In his address to the United Nations in 2008, Pope Benedict spoke about religious freedom and about the need for recognition of the religious and the social dimensions of the human person.  He said: “it is inconceivable that believers should have to suppress a part of themselves – their faith – in order to be active citizens.  It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights.”

I am speaking about these things at this Red Mass this evening because of the current situation the Catholic Church is facing here in the United States.  There is a subtle, and increasingly not so subtle, effort by some in our society to restrict our religious liberty.  And they are enjoying some success.  We see an increasing number of federal government programs and policies, and also programs and policies in some states, that infringe upon our rights of conscience and violate our religious liberty rights as individuals and as an institution.  Assaults on our religious freedom appear to be growing in ways that perhaps we may never have imagined even a few years ago.  The problem is such that a few weeks ago our United States Conference of Catholic Bishops established an Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.   I ask you, as members of the legal profession, as judges, lawyers, as law students and professors, and also those who serve in public office, to join us in the defense of our religious freedom and our rights of conscience.

I would like to give you just a few examples from recent months of the threats to religious liberty in our nation:

1. The US Department of Health and Human Services has proposed regulations that would mandate the coverage of contraception, including abortifacient drugs, and also surgical sterilization in all private health insurance plans.  Now there is a religious exemption in this mandate, but it is so narrow that it is actually quite ridiculous.  In order to qualify for this exemption, to be considered a religious employer, you can serve only those who are members of your church, hire employees based on religion, and restrict charitable and missionary purposes to the inculcation of religious values.  Such criteria mean that Catholic schools, colleges, and universities, Catholic hospitals and health care institutions, Catholic Charities and other social services do not qualify for the exemption.

Why?  Because we do not hire only Catholics and because we do not serve only Catholics.  Jesus, the apostles, and the early Church would not have qualified for this exemption!  We serve all those who are in need, regardless of their religious faith.  We employ non-Catholics who embrace our mission in our educational, health care, and social service institutions.  The General Counsel for our Bishops’ Conference has called this mandate “an unprecedented attack on religious liberty.”

Some wish to force us to violate our moral and religious beliefs or to put us in a position in which are forced, in conscience, to discontinue our good works or close down.  The mandate, by the way, considers contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization as part of preventive health care services for women.  Of course, they are not.  Pregnancy is not a disease!  “Mandating such coverage shows neither respect for women’s health or freedom nor respect for the consciences of those who do want to take part in such problematic initiatives” (Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Chair of USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities).  Planned Parenthood, which actively campaigned for this HHS mandate, also supports mandated coverage of surgical as well as chemical abortion.

2. Another example from the same government department.  HHS also seeks to require that our USCCB Migration and Refugee Services provide the “full range of reproductive services” to victims of human trafficking as well as to unaccompanied minors, whom we serve with much dedication.

3. Catholic Relief Services is very concerned that USAID, under the Department of State, is increasingly requiring condom distribution in HIV prevention activities.

4. The Department of Justice, no longer defending the Defense of Marriage Act, is now saying that supporting the law is an act of bigotry.  Because of our teaching the truth that marriage by its nature, according to God’s plan, is a union between one man and one woman, many accuse us of bigotry.  This too has ramifications in the area of our religious liberty.  Already Catholic Charities in some states have had to close down their adoption and foster care services because of not placing children with unmarried, cohabitating couples (e.g., just last week, the Diocese of Peoria discontinued these services because of the new law in Illinois).  I suspect that some are happy that we have done so, happy to see the Catholic Church less involved in the public arena, even if it is in the area of social service.

    These are just a few examples of the increasing infringements on our religious freedom.   Some want to silence our voice in the public square.  Their radical secularism is in reality a new form of totalitarianism, one that seeks to marginalize the role of religious bodies, the Catholic Church being the biggest target.   Religious liberty becomes increasingly reduced to freedom of worship.  This marginalization of the Church refuses to recognize that religion is a positive driving force for the building of civil and political society and ignores the Church’s contribution to society, to justice, and to the common good.  Violations of religious freedom, whether arising from religious fundamentalists or radical secularists, are violations of human dignity.

    I ask you, my brothers and sisters in the legal profession, to join in the Church’s efforts to protect our right to bring our principles and moral convictions into the public arena, to protect our constitutional freedoms against those who seek to mute our voice or limit our freedom.  “The Church through its institutions must be free to carry out its mission and contribute to the common good without being pressured to sacrifice (our) fundamental teachings and moral principles” (Introductory Note to Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship).  We must resist efforts to force our Catholic ministries – in health care, education, and social services – to violate their consciences or stop serving those in need.  Inspired by our faith in God, let us be united in our defense of religious liberty!

    Remember the words of promise that Jesus spoke to the disciples before His Ascension into heaven:  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

    This is our calling, yours and mine, to bear witness in word and deed, in the world, to Christ and His love.  May the Holy Spirit fill you with His gifts of wisdom and courage to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel, to the transcendent dignity of the human person, which includes the right to religious liberty!