By Aaron Matthew Weldon
October 23, 2015
In his recent address inPhiladelphia,
Pope Francis noted that "various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or […] try
to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square." Powerful political and cultural leaders often
do not oppose religious freedom outright.
Rather, they seek to relegate religion to a private sphere. They claim that religious freedom permits us
to worship, but people of faith must shed their religious convictions when they
leave the sanctuary and serve the public.
This is a severely restrictive understanding of freedom.
notion of religion as a purely private affair has fueled a spate of threats to
Catholic hospitals' freedom to care for people according to the moral teaching
of the Church. In recent years, several Catholic
healthcare entities and medical professionals have been punished by people who
seek to require that they provide abortions and sterilizations. The notion seems to be that religion (or, for
that matter, morality) should not interfere with the practice of medicine. It's fine to have a little chapel and
pictures of Jesus and Mary, but an increasingly influential segment of the
population argues that Catholic hospitals and healthcare workers are no
different from others. Opponents of truly Catholic healthcare demand that our
faith not be reflected in how we practice medicine and serve others.
from people who have never run healthcare entities is rather odd, since the
Church invented the hospital. While clinics and early medical practices existed
in the pre-Christian world, an institution dedicated to medicine and in-patient
care developed from monasticism. In the
fourth century, St. Basil the Great took the institutionalized system of care
that existed within the monastery and combined it with the public work of charity
that lay Christians had been doing, and the hospital was born. One great accomplishment of this institution
was that persons previously thought to be untouchable, like lepers, were given
care rather than treated as animals.
Illness was destigmatized. Christian
hospitals sought in tangible ways to promote human dignity, an effort which has
been at the heart of the Gospel from the beginning.
hospital was an institution dedicated to what Catholics call the corporal works of mercy,
because in addition
to providing care for the sick, it also cared for the elderly, the poor,
migrants, and orphans. In her earliest days, the Church embraced the best
medical practices of the day and performed charitable works out of fidelity to
Jesus Christ, the Great Physician, who commands his followers to care for the vulnerable. Our Christian identity
is not tangential to our healing ministries.
Discipleship to Jesus animates the whole healing enterprise.
Francis has said, "Religious freedom certainly
means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our
consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of
worship and the private sphere of individuals and families." The Holy Father has repeatedly reminded the public that religious freedom is not merely private. It is a freedom to
serve in public, and indeed, in the healthcare setting, a freedom to care. Faith
in the Lord who calls us to service forms the bedrock on which many of the
Church's greatest contributions to the world have been built. We serve the poor, the vulnerable, and the
sick because of our religion, not in spite of it. We cannot compromise the principles on which
our institutions are based.
Aaron Matthew Weldon is a
Program Specialist for the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. Learn more about the U.S. bishops' religious
liberty efforts at www.usccb.org/freedom