‘We usually assist in Africa and other impoverished areas around the world, just like Red Cross does,” said police sergeant Angelo A. Sedacca, talking about his work with the Knights of Malta, a Catholic charitable organization that operates in over 120 countries throughout the world. “Now we’re needed here in New York City in the aftermath of Sandy,” he told the Catholic News Service.
“There has been loss of life. Loss of home. Loss of everything familiar for so many people,” one TV host said. We’ve all seen it in the news images, if we ourselves are not faced with homes in the dark, homes we can’t go back to, in some cases because they no longer exist.
If you happened to have a roof over your head, and electricity, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy — and could hear above the political noise over whether or not Chris Christie handed an election victory to Barack Obama by letting him survey Garden State wreckage — you saw a snapshot of the beauty of civil society.
Essential to the story of the preparation, rescue, and recovery, of course, were men and women who work for the government — those in elected office, and first responders. But they couldn’t do their job without the assurance of a needed support system of people who live to serve their fellow man.
As happened in the wake of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, the mayor’s office in New York City immediately pointed to the leading role of the faith-based Salvation Army in providing relief. In response to Sandy, there was the parishioner at St. Augustine in Ossining, in upstate New York, “organizing other parishioners in going door to door to check up on their neighbors and the elderly in the town, making sure they have everything they need,” as the president of Catholic Charities told the story. Many similar door-to-door stories may never be chronicled. In the face of devastation, we see with clear consciences the indispensable support religious folk so often give to the flourishing of a society, and our common need for vitality in this space where people who feel a call to serve can.
“Our hearts are broken when you see the loss of life, the grieving families, the devastation, the ruination, people without their cherished possessions and their homes,” New York’s Timothy Cardinal Dolan observed in a television interview. “But throughout all of it too, you begin to see a glimmer of light and hope. . . . Once again, the best, the most noble sentiments of people are coming out as people are heroic and generous in serving those in need. So even in the midst of our tears, there is a smile on our face as we thank God that that beautiful, good, noble side of people seems to be dominating.”
Faith is indispensable to us all, believers and non-believers — all. It’s why the issue of the increasingly narrow view of religious freedom the Obama administration has mandated is an issue of historic import. Even some of the president’s own judicial appointees have indicated it is a secularist step too far, as they joined in a unanimous decision slapping down an administration rule regarding the hiring practices at an Evangelical Lutheran school. This rebuke by the Supreme Court, however, did not make the impression it should have on the White House; the Department of Health and Human Services would go on, during the same month, to issue final regulations in regard to mandated insurance coverage of abortion drugs, sterilization, and contraception. To this day, faith-based social-service entities — including schools, hospitals, and some of the very charities that are serving essential needs of people devastated by Sandy — face an unprovoked attack on their religious liberty, despite a public-relations move by the White House to suggest that these conscience concerns had somehow been addressed. Even one of the administration’s key allies in getting the health-care legislation passed, the president of the Catholic Health Association, had to publicly oppose the mandate. Additionally, the Department of Justice has gone so far as to argue that individuals engaged in commercial ventures — even a Bible publisher who donates the majority of his proceeds to charity — surrender their religious-liberty rights when they enter the business world.
In the wake of disaster, though, we are reminded why it is imperative that we protect the right of these faith-based entities to operate as their consciences guide them — and why protecting religious freedom in America is not just the right thing to do because it is right and just, but also because it is a practical good for the healthy life of a democracy. And we know this without hearing the individual stories of charity. Without hope, without people motivated by something greater than a presidential-election victory or financial gain, we’re a sadly limited lot.
Our hope, even for non-believers, is not in a political savior. It is in this nobility on display, rooted so often in faith in God and His call to individuals to truly love one another. Can we translate this reality — this desire for flourishing, this appreciation of great gifts — into our civic choices, ensuring that we remain a people protecting that which is most precious to us: our first freedom, this religious freedom?