The public prayer for freedom in the United States continues this fall, with a Catholic prayer rich in catechesis: The “Novena to the Mother of God for the Nation,” written by Father Frederick L. Miller, chair of the Department of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, begins this Saturday morning at 8 A.M. (ET) after Mass celebrated by Bishop James D. Conley.
In “2012 we turn to Our Lady for help,” at a “time of need,” the introduction of the prayer, hosted and distributed by EWTN, the global Catholic channel, explains. “Many of the values that shaped our Country from the beginning seem to be at risk. Pope Benedict XVI and the American Bishops have noted the erosion of religious freedom in the United States, the first value guaranteed by the Constitution,” it continues. “The proximity of the Novena to the 2012 Presidential Election will also offer an opportunity to pray for all of our government officials and seek Divine Assistance in the elections.”
Bishop Conley, a Kansas native who was raised Presbyterian, is the incoming bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska; he talks about the reason for the prayers, and other Church and state matters with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Regarding the new “Novena to the Mother of God for the Nation”: What does Mary have to do with the upcoming elections?
BISHOP JAMES D. CONLEY: As Father Fred Miller reminds us in the introduction to our novena, “Catholics have always turned instinctively for help to Mary, Mother of God in times of need.” We are certainly in a time of great need in our nation, particularly as we prepare for the general elections in November. From the very beginning of our history in the United States, our Catholic bishops have turned to the Blessed Virgin Mary as a powerful intercessor. For example, in 1792, Bishop John Carroll, America’s first Roman Catholic bishop, chose Mary as the Patroness of the United States and entrusted our young nation to her maternal care. Mary is our life, our sweetness, and our hope — particularly in times of need.
LOPEZ: Is this presidential election in particular more important than others? Are prayers more necessary?
BISHOP CONLEY: It seems to me that a lot is at stake in these particular elections. Many of the foundational values that shaped our country from the very beginning seem to be at risk. Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI and the American bishops have recently noted the erosion of religious freedom and the protection of conscience rights in the U.S., the first of our freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. Other fundamental values seem to be in danger: the God-given right to life of every unborn child, the value of virginity for our young people and the virtue of chastity for all vocations, the very definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman who are open to receive life from God, and the responsibility we have to care for the disabled and the elderly until God calls them to Himself. There are many other issues, but these alone demand a certain urgency of prayer and concern.
LOPEZ: What are you finding as you discuss religious freedom from the pulpit? Is it welcome? Are there misunderstandings?
BISHOP CONLEY: Actually, I have found that people are very interested in the topic of religious freedom and are generally receptive to hearing about it from the pulpit. In some ways, it is new territory. But, at the same time, the topic has a long and venerated history in American culture. What are new are the particular threats to religious freedom and the protection of conscience rights we face today, like the HHS mandate. Another interesting distinction that has to be made is that religious freedom implies much more than merely freedom of worship. Many people are under the false impression that religious freedom begins and ends at the door of a church. This has not been our history in America. The fundamental values and truths upon which this great country was formed, were the fruit of the ideas of men and women of deep religious conviction.
LOPEZ: The HHS mandate requiring the coverage of abortion drugs, sterilization, and contraception is an issue of religious freedom, but what about the drive behind it: the treatment of fertility as a disease? Should we be addressing this in a deeper and more public way?
BISHOP CONLEY: This is, indeed, a sad irony. The aforementioned treatments and surgical procedures that are mandated to be covered by the new national health-care plan certainly seem to treat the beautiful gift of fertility as a disease. Noted population experts have been warning us for years now that we are on the verge of a demographic winter, a population implosion. If we don’t change our attitude about the gift of our fertility, I don’t know how we are going to survive into the future. I’m not being an alarmist here. Simply do the math.
LOPEZ: Do you worry we are just too foregone on all these related matters? That we don’t have a deep enough appreciation for religious liberty and that we are too immersed in the “culture of death”?
BISHOP CONLEY: There is always hope. This is why we need to turn to Mary now, more than ever. As I said, she is our life, our sweetness, and our hope. She has a great track record in history. Two miraculous interventions come to mind: the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico during a time when human sacrifice and pagan worship were the norm; and the intervention of Mary and her Holy Rosary at the battle of Lepanto when Christendom itself was on the brink of destruction at the hands of Turks. She stemmed the tide on both occasion, and she can do the same in our own day.
LOPEZ: As you know, Catholic bishops have been accused of using prayer during the Fortnight for Freedom as a cover for political activism. How do you respond and perhaps grapple with that concern?
BISHOP CONLEY: I go back to American history. When John Quincy Adams argued the Amistad case before the Supreme Court that led to the freedom of a group of African slaves (which was the beginning of the end of slavery), he pointed to a copy of the Declaration of Independence and appealed to the laws of nature and nature’s God. We are in good company when we appeal to our religious principles and values in promoting the common good.
LOPEZ: There’s also the complaint from both Catholics and others that the leadership of the Catholic Church is in no small way to blame for the current state of affairs, because it didn’t make clear during the last presidential election and during the health-care debate that Barack Obama’s radical views on abortion, in particular, are not acceptable for Catholics to support. How do respond to this, and how can we constructively move forward here?
BISHOP CONLEY: I think the U. S. bishops have spoken clearly and consistently regarding the foundational issues of the sanctity and dignity of human life, traditional marriage, and religious freedom. The bishops have also spoken out against the intrinsic evils of our day that attack these foundational truths. Unfortunately, some other so-called Catholic voices have muddied the waters and have confused Catholics. The bishops, in union with the Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ on earth, constitute the authentic teaching office of the Church on matters of faith and morals. Those dissident voices, who are not in union with the pope and the bishops, do not represent the true teaching of the Catholic Church. Catholics need to know their faith and they need to be able to discern whether or not someone is truly representing Catholic teaching.
LOPEZ: Beyond the Novena, what’s your prayer as we approach the elections? What should every American’s prayer be before we cast our ballots?
BISHOP CONLEY: Whomever is elected in November, we need to continue to pray for our country, through the intercession of our patroness, the Immaculate Conception, that we, as a people and a nation, remain true to “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” and that our sacred rights and freedoms — “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — remain protected and secured.
LOPEZ: As you hinted at, the praying ought not to stop on Election Day. What might be a good morning-after prayer?
BISHOP CONLEY: The Memorare of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.