On Jan. 20, 1961 -- 51 years ago -- John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as the first and, so far, only Catholic president of our country. At the time many people worried that he and other Catholic politicians would not be able to keep their religious faith from influencing the decisions they would make once in office. Subsequent history shows that, unfortunately, they needn't have worried.
Even so, Kennedy asserted one Catholic truth in his inaugural address when he said that the principle for which our founding fathers fought was the idea that our rights "come not from the generosity of the state but rather from the hand of God." And of these rights, religious liberty is mentioned first in the Bill of Rights, a priority which is not accidental.
Why do I bring up this higher law now as we mark the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade? Because our religious liberty to follow our conscience, to live according to that higher law, is under attack and some in our government and in our society seek to impose their will on us in ways that quite intentionally violate or undermine our belief in the sacredness of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death, and every stage of life in between.
For instance: Last year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued rules requiring all health care plans to cover sterilization and contraception, including abortifacients. The only Catholics who would qualify for the so-called "religious exemption" allowed under these rules would be only those Catholic employers who hire mainly Catholics, serve mainly Catholics and exist mainly to inculcate religious values. All these conditions would have to be met in order to qualify for the exemption.
So for instance, Catholic hospitals would not qualify, not to mention ordinary businesses owned by Catholics.
Now just two days ago, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that they will not broaden this narrow exemption at all and that instead there will just be a one-year delay in enforcement against non-compliant employers -- what Archbishop Dolan of New York describes as "a year to figure out how to violate our consciences."
Moreover, there is no conscience protection whatsoever for insurers or individuals with religious or moral objections to being forced to help pay the cost of these abortions and sterilizations.
This is a direct attack on religion and our First Amendment rights.
Underlying this change is an attempt by some to redefine "freedom of religion" as merely "freedom of worship" divorced from what we do out in the public square. But for us Catholics, religion is a way of life that pertains to our whole person and everything we do, and it empowers us -- and indeed, obligates us -- to bring into the public square truths and values that flow from faith and reason, often expressed in works of education, health care, social services, charity and advocacy -- as for example, the March for Life that follows this Mass.
At last November's meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops we recognized that governmental and societal attacks on our freedom of religion and freedom of conscience had become so strident -- especially in the areas of abortion, sterilization, embryonic stem-cell research, contraception and same-sex marriage -- that we voted overwhelmingly to undertake a new initiative to defend and promote religious liberty in our country.
But we bishops and priests cannot do this alone. We need you, the laity of the Church, to put your gifts and expertise on the line in order to invite us as a nation to open our hearts to welcome that true freedom that comes only from living according to that higher law that God has imprinted not only in the laws of nature, but also in the depths of every human heart.
The call to repentance -- challenging us to open our eyes to see and reject the evil that blinds us and destroys us -- is central to the message of the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. John the Baptist not only called people to personal repentance, he also condemned the evils of society in general and the government -- the king -- in particular, for which he eventually was executed.
In today's Gospel Jesus begins his public ministry and not only does he continue John's work of calling people and society to repentance, he also calls his first four disciples and invites them to be "fishers of men," sharing his mission of condemning evil and calling people to repentance because the Kingdom of God was at hand.
That Kingdom of God is still at hand, and we sure have our work cut out for us in our task of calling people -- indeed our entire nation -- to repentance today. And we have not only the God-given right, but more importantly, the God-given obligation, to do so.
Audio from Bishop Taylor's homilies are regularly posted in English and Spanish on the diocesan website. Listen to them at www.dolr.org/audio/index.php.