The word “fortnight” is not a word in American English, at least not yet. In British English it means “two weeks”, the
“fort-” coming from and being a kind of version of “fourteen.”
So amongst the mysteries of the Church, it is one of the minor mysteries why the American Catholic bishops, speaking to an audience of American Catholics, chose a purely British English word to highlight what they clearly hope will become one of their major, annual campaigns.
That mystery aside, the point of the campaign is an important one, and the need for the campaign at this moment in the nation’s history is pretty obvious. The freedom of greatest concern to the bishops is also the first freedom mentioned in the Bill of Rights, the freedom of religion. At first hearing, that might seem odd. Obviously, Christians are not being rounded up an sentenced to prison terms, they are not being executed in the public square, their property is not being seized, and they are not being driven into exile. All of those things, and even much worse things, are happening to Christians in other countries, in other parts of the world, but here in the United States these things are not happening, nor do most of us think that they ever will.
And yet, following the thinking of the bishops, we can see that it would be foolish to take our religious freedom for granted, or to assume that it can take care of itself without any work or effort on our part. The problem that has appeared over the past decade or so is the development and growth of certain ways of seeing and talking about religious freedom that tend to shrink it, to restrict it, and to leave it open to the kinds of abridgment that the First Amendment was intended to protect against.
We have all read in the papers and heard on the TV news the stories that make it clear that the bishops are not crying “Wolf!” or manufacturing a crisis out of nothing. The Affordable Health Care Act was passed, and the Little Sisters of the Poor and the University of Notre Dame sue in federal court, claiming that they cannot practice their Catholicism or fulfil their religious mission if they obey that law’s requirement to provide their employees with certain kinds of birth control or to pay for certain types of procedures. Catholic Charities in several states, including Illinois, is forced out of providing adoption and foster care services because it refuses, on religious principle, to place children with same-sex couples. Hospitals that used to honor the conscience objections of healthcare workers opposed to abortion are making it clear that their “patience” in this area is wearing thin. We have heard all this, and much more.
So there is something to think about here, and the bishops have chosen the summer, the two weeks before the 4th of July, to urge parishes and priests and people to reflect on freedom of religion as the first, most basic freedom, and on where we stand in the United States with regard to that freedom’s protection and exercise. And if the oddity of the word “fortnight” helps us to do that, then perhaps its use in the campaign’s title was not a completely inept, unapt choice.
Fr. Bob Sprott, O.F.M.