Bishop Matano dressed in liturgical robes raises his hand in greeting. Bishop Salvatore R. Matano processes into Sacred Heart Cathedral for the 2022 Respect Life and White Mass. (EMC file photo)

Rochester bishop: ‘Are we free to live our faith?’

Dear brothers and
sisters in Christ Jesus:

On July 4, we celebrated a very popular holiday in the United States of America: a federal holiday commemorating the Declaration of Independence, which was ratified by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, establishing the United States of America. From the very beginning of our history, we have cherished our freedom that guarantees our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The last observance of this Fourth of July holiday causes us to reconsider how the unalienable rights named in the Declaration of Independence and those enshrined in the Constitution of the United States are active in today’s society, especially the Freedom of Religion, the right to freely exercise one’s faith as protected in the First Amendment of the Constitution. One has only to follow the media to understand that the Catholic Church faces enormous challenges in this area. Our defense of the child in the womb has created an aggressive campaign against human life in its most vulnerable stages, viewing promoting a culture of life as a grave injustice and threat to individual freedom. Those who dare to speak on behalf of God’s gift of life at all its stages risk recriminations and are characterized as prejudicial and discriminatory — even in some instances, when the defense of all human life is proclaimed within the Church.

On June 24, 2023, the one-year anniversary of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling by the United States Supreme Court, thirty-one Catholic members of the United States Congress authored a Renewed Statement of Principles, erroneously invoking specific teachings of the Catholic Church to defend their support of a legal right to abortion, claiming to promote the “common good” and acting upon an “informed conscience.” In response, the following statement was issued under the auspices of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops by the Conference’s leadership to dispel confusion and to clarify the teachings of the Church:

“Members of Congress who recently invoked teachings of the Catholic faith itself as justifying abortion or supporting a supposed right to abortion grievously distort the faith. It is wrong and incoherent to claim that the taking of innocent human life at its most vulnerable stage can ever be consistent with the values of supporting the dignity and wellbeing of those in need. ‘Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception,’ including through the civil law [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2270, 2273]. Abortion violates this with respect to preborn children and brings untold suffering to countless women.

“Conscience rightly enjoys a special regard both in Church teaching and in the public sphere. And policymakers should support the freedom of Catholics and of others to serve the common good in accord with their beliefs in a wide range of areas – from services and assistance to recently arrived migrants, to offering health care and social services.

“Nevertheless, conscience is not a license to commit evil and take innocent lives. Conscience cannot and does not justify the act or support of abortion. In fact, conscience ‘must be informed and moral judgment enlightened’ with the Word of God in faith and prayer, and ‘guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church’[CCC 1783, 1785]. Moreover, the reality that the preborn are our living sisters and brothers is not only a matter of faith, but is attested to by science and sound reason.

“We once again implore and pray for Congress to join us in working toward the true common good by prioritizing authentic, uplifting support for the vulnerable and marginalized, including mothers and families in need” (June 28, 2023).

It is particularly disturbing when reference is made by the signers of the Renewed Statement of Principles to the Apostolic Exhortation of St. John Paul II entitled Christifideles Laici in order to rationalize their support for the termination of life in the womb, claiming they “embrace the vocation and mission of the laity as expressed by the late Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici” and are “called to be a moral force in the broadest sense.” A complete reading of the Apostolic Exhortation clearly notes the Holy Father’s constant proclamation of the defense of all human life. Deeply saddened by a growing culture of death, Pope John Paul II wrote: “Who is able to count the number of babies unborn because they have been killed in their mothers’ wombs, children abandoned and abused by their own parents, children who grow without affection and education?” (No. 5). In that same Exhortation, he wrote: “The Church has never yielded in the face of all the violations that the right to life of every human being has received, and continues to receive, both from individuals and from those in authority. The human being is entitled to such rights, in every phase of development, from conception until natural death; and in every condition, whether healthy or sick, whole or handicapped, rich or poor” (Christifideles Laici, No. 38; cf. Nos. 37-38).

Try as one might, it is inconceivable that some would make reference to an Apostolic Exhortation founded upon the dignity of all human life from the moment of conception until natural death in order to support terminating innocent life in the womb. One can only hope and pray earnestly that the members of Congress who signed their statement will re-read this Exhortation, ponder its words and have a change of heart. For this same Exhortation contains these words: “The lay faithful given a charge in public life certainly ought to respect the autonomy of earthly realities properly understood, as we read in the Constitution Gaudium et Spes: ‘It is of great importance, especially in a pluralistic society, to work out a proper vision of the relationship between the political community and the Church, and to distinguish clearly between the activities of Christians, acting individually or collectively, in their own name as citizens guided by the dictates of a Christian conscience, and their activity in communion with their Pastors in the name of the Church’” (Christifideles Laici, No. 42). Could there be a greater cause than defending the right to life, which then gives birth to the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, a cause which transcends all political affiliations.

When God’s people follow faithfully the path outlined by St. John Paul II in Christifideles Laici in the service of all human life, they now are subjected to ridicule, unjust criticism and aggressive pro-abortion legislation threatening the rights of Catholics, including those serving in the Church’s many apostolates who extend their hearts and hands to the poor, the immigrant, the outcast and the forgotten, who only wish to follow their consciences properly informed by the Holy Gospels and the Church’s teachings. The question often asked by many is: “Are we free to live our faith?”

In that same Apostolic Exhortation, John Paul II wrote: “Religious freedom, an essential requirement of the dignity of every person, is a cornerstone of the structure of human rights, and for this reason an irreplaceable factor in the good of individuals and of the whole of society, as well as of the personal fulfillment of each individual. It follows that the freedom of individuals and of communities to profess and practice their religion is an essential element for peaceful human coexistence … The civil and social right to religious freedom, inasmuch as it touches the most intimate sphere of the spirit, is a point of reference for the other fundamental rights and in some way becomes a measure of them” (Christifideles Laici, No. 39; cf. John Paul II, Message for the Twenty-first World Day of Peace, “Religious Freedom: Condition for Peace,” December 8, 1987).

The rights of the Church to exercise her ministry in other areas of pastoral life also are threatened, and opposition continues to increase. Our celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony between man and woman, the Church’s Magisterium on human anthropology and that we are created male and female in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:27; Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 355), proclaiming the universal call to holiness as given to us by Christ and revealed in Sacred Scripture, and supporting the right of parents to fulfill their responsibility of raising and educating their children in the faith (Order of Baptism of Children, no. 75) are at times cast in a very negative light. Yet, in accordance with the pastoral guidance, instructions and example of Pope Francis, we wish to accompany all people in their struggles, always doing so with empathy, compassion and understanding, with the hope that they find Christ and deepen their union with Him. Accompaniment must lead to a wholesome and holy destination, which is life in Christ, which is not dictated by purely human, secular or political agendas, but finds its origin in the Word made Flesh, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. In the words of Pope Francis’ January 10, 2021, address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See, we must avoid “cancelling all sense of identity while claiming to defend diversity.” At the same time, the Holy Father warned: “A kind of ‘one-track thinking’ – dangerous – is taking shape, one constrained to deny history or, worse yet, to rewrite it in terms of present day categories, whereas any historical situation must be interpreted in accordance with the hermeneutics of that particular time – not the hermeneutics of today.”

In his Encyclical Letter, Laudato Sí, Pope Francis, reminding us that “A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings” (no. 91), goes on to write clearly about the creation of the human person according to the mind of our Creator:

“It is enough to recognize that our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings. The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek ‘to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it’” (Laudato Sí, No. 155).

The Church is not a forum for political agendas, aligned with any one political party or platform, but rather it has Christ as its cornerstone and must fulfill the very mandate Jesus gave to His first Apostles: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

As citizens, we rightfully can expect that those charged with the governance of people according to the Constitution will protect the rights of the Church and her members to profess our Catholic faith freely, without attack and avoiding hostile and volatile language that only fans the flames of division, undermines the unity among people and distorts the path to truth, again the Truth who is Christ the Lord. Let us pray for all in public office, on both sides of the aisle, that they will seek God’s guidance, put aside personal agendas and understand that God indeed has the ultimate “plans for (our) welfare and not for evil, to give (us) a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

Invoking the intercession of our Diocesan Patron, St. John Fisher, who wedded himself to the Truth, lived by his well-formed conscience and shed his blood for Christ, I remain, with an assurance of my prayers,

Sincerely yours in Christ,

The Most Reverend
Salvatore R. Matano
Bishop of Rochester

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