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How one Cambodian refugee found Catholicism through her mother

Tue, 07/30/2019 - 05:17

Silver Spring, Md., Jul 30, 2019 / 03:17 am (CNA).- Phally Budock owes a lot to her mother.

Not only did her mother’s steadfast faith in God save the life of her family several times during a brutal war, it also led Phally to discover and convert to the Catholic faith.

Phally was born in Cambodia in 1970, the youngest in a family of 10 children, with a father of moderate influence and a mother who stayed home with the children. When Phally was still a young child, the Khmer Rouge gained control of the country in 1975.

During the Khmer Rouge’s four-year rule of the country, 2 million people died in the regime’s attempt to create a master race, in what has been called the Cambodian Genocide.

Phally’s father was the governor of a province under the US-backed Khmer Republic, and then became president of an agricultural bank, so when war broke out, he was seen as a threat to the communist regime. When she was just 5 years old, soldiers invaded Phally’s home and forced the family out at gunpoint. Her father, two of her brothers, and her brother in-law were taken away. Phally would not see them, save for one brother, again.

Dep Long (Phally’s mother), Phally, and her remaining siblings were marched to a concentration camp in the jungle. Dep built the family a shack to live in out of whatever materials she could find. As a mother, she was not sent to the fields, but forced into labor in a garden in front of her house, from which she was ordered to not take any food for herself or her family.

“If we even dared pick anything at all to eat they would shoot us, so my mother was obedient to that,” Phally said.

Phally recalled the conditions at the concentration camp - and the experience of watching her 8 year-old brother die there.

“We all were on the verge of dying, and then he became very exhausted just from starvation,” Phally said. “And I remember watching him just resting there, and him asking me, ‘Can you find me some water to drink?’”

“And I said sure...and I gave him some water. And that was the last thing he had, and all of a sudden he just passed before my eyes. And my job was to go and tell mom, ‘he’s gone,’” she recalled.

Phally watched four more family members die at the camp - one of her brothers who escaped captivity, two of her sisters, and one of her sister’s babies. The rest of the family was finally freed by the Vietnamese in 1978. By then, only Phally, her mother, and two of Phally’s sisters had survived.

These cruel and inhumane atrocities committed by the communist regime would be enough to turn many a human heart bitter and faithless.

And yet, because of her mother, Phally never doubted the existence of God.

“I always believed in God, despite my experience through the war and everything that I went through,” she told CNA.

“What really kept me believing that there’s a God is my mother. She never gave up, she constantly prayed, and she would preach to us growing up. So it never left my mind and it never left my heart.”

Before the regime, Phally’s family was quietly Christian. It was dangerous to stray too far from the norm of Buddhism in the country, so Phally’s mother, though Catholic, did not go to Mass. But she spoke about Jesus at home and prayed regularly. For Christmas, the family strung up colorful lights, exchanged presents, and told the story of the Nativity.

During and after the rule of the Khmer Rouge, Phally’s mother’s faith became a lifeline for the rest of the family.

Phally said she could regularly hear her mom having serious conversations with God, as if he were a person sitting next to her in the room.

“I just used to think, ‘Why is mom talking to herself?’ But she was communicating with God, she was so faithful to that.”

The outcomes of those conversations were of serious consequence. They gave Dep the strength to keep going in such dark times. They also, on several occasions, saved her life and the lives of her children, Phally said.

“If it wasn’t for her, getting these revelations (through prayer), I think we would’ve been dead a long time ago,” she said.

Phally recalled a time when, after the war, her family escaped to a Thai refugee camp. They had survived thus far by trading their mother’s jewelry, which she had buried and hidden from the Khmer Rouge and dug up again once the family was free. Now, the family was trying to get to the United States, where Phally’s brother was attending college.

But they were in the wrong camp, and would have to make a forbidden and dangerous crossing to a different refugee camp that could grant them the sponsorship. There were landmines, robbers, and murderers along the way - as well as Thai soldiers, who were authorized to shoot first and ask questions later.

“When we were planning to leave the first camp, a voice said to my mother, ‘Don’t leave on Friday, leave on Saturday.’”

“She told us, ‘We’re not going to leave on Friday, I’ve had a direction from God,’” Phally said. “And at the time I was thinking, ‘What is mom talking about?’”

But the family went along with their mother’s instructions - after all, she had kept them alive until that point. When they arrived at the second camp on Saturday, they heard that those who made the crossing on Friday were shot down by Thai soldiers.

“That’s when I started to become more in tune to what my mother was telling us,” Phally said. “Everytime she was telling us ‘Ok, I hear a voice,’ it didn’t sound so strange to me anymore.”

That wasn’t the only time that happened.

“There were other moments where she would just make the call, she would say ‘Ok, we’re going to do this at this time,’ and sure enough we would find out if we had done it the other way, we wouldn’t have made it. Her decision was so life-saving for us, and her prayer was never ceasing,” Budock said.

“It was like God was with her and she would just consult with him.”

After a year in the second refugee camp, the family was approved to come to the United States to live with Phally’s brother in November 1980. He “was a saint” and took care of the family almost as if he were their father, Phally recalled.

“Coming (to the U.S.), you know, I thought was just heaven, heaven on earth,” Phally said.

“(My brother) took care of us,” Phally added. “He took care of my mother, he told her not to work, he was just making sure that she’s well taken care of, because after all she went through, that’s the least that we all could do for her. And we all became a very happy family, the very few of us that were left.”

Phally’s mother still played her role as a caretaker too, but she was also “very heartbroken,” Phally said.

“Imagine yourself in a person’s shoes, having lost so many family members and through murder and starvations,” Phally said. “I reflected back many times, like wow, this woman is strong.”

Phally’s mother continued to pray, crying out to God at night in her grief. After a few years, though, her grief transformed through her prayer. She had newfound hope, and a desire to help those who were still struggling in Cambodia.

Phally and her siblings were hesitant at first. They weren’t sure if they wanted to reinvolve themselves in a still-unstable country in which they had almost lost their lives, and in which much of their family had died.

“When we came here I just wanted to forget about everything, because to me, I didn’t want to be involved in a culture full of death,” Phally said.

It wasn’t until several years later, in 2004, that Phally would return to Cambodia for the first time with one of her cousins. What she saw shocked her.

“Everything just came rushing to my memories, the emotions, everything,” Phally said. “Stepping out of the airport you see poverty, beggars, elderly, just with missing limbs, just trying to get by, and my heart was just broken.”

“I tried not to look down, so I wouldn’t see all these poor people around me. I tried to sneak some money to them discreetly - you don’t want everyone to see because everyone will crowd around you. I tried to give whatever I could to the elderly, those who were just homeless,” she recalled.

“But I wanted to see that. I wanted to confront my emotions, I wanted to show myself what Cambodia is really like, I didn’t want to just go there and see a nice area. I wanted to see the worst of the worst and I saw it. And I came back and I was like ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to do something about this.’”

Phally went back in 2005 and 2006, and attempted to lay the groundwork for a non-profit that would help lift Cambodians out of poverty.

But God had other plans. Back home in the United States, Phally’s aging mother needed additional care and support. Phally and her siblings did everything they could to care for their mother - they felt it was the least they could do for her.

In 2010, further hardships struck the family. One of Phally’s sisters was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 48. Phally was in charge of handling her sister’s medical affairs, but despite treatment, her sister died a few months after the diagnosis. That was one of the first times Phally really started thinking about God.

“I was like, where is (God) in all of this? We survived the war, we made it here, she didn’t die there, why does she have to die now and of cancer? All of these questions started to play in my head,” Phally recalled.

She said her sister’s death affected her emotionally much more than the deaths she witnessed during the war, in large part because the trauma of the war was delayed by their own stress and exhaustion.

“But for my sister, I was caring for her, I was overseeing her medical matters...and when she died, my hope just dropped. That’s when I was struggling with faith. I was like ok, where do I go?” she said.

Phally fell into a depression. She didn’t realize at the time that she needed to turn to God. A few years later, those same kinds of questions flew through her mind and heart again, when her brother, the one who sponsored the family to the United States, was diagnosed with liver cancer and died in 2013 at the age of 58.

“My journey of faith, it fluctuated,” she said. “I know my mother never lost faith and she’d constantly pray and all, but I said to myself, ‘How could this happen?’”

But it wasn’t until two years later, in 2015, that Phally would have an encounter with God that would prompt her to start going to church.

Phally was caring for her elderly mother, and they were watching a television series entitled “A.D.: The Bible Continues.” Though her mother had fallen asleep, Phally continued to watch, when the man playing Jesus caught her eyes during a scene during the Stations of the Cross.

“Jesus lifted his head up and my eyes just locked onto him, and it was strange, as if I was asleep, dreaming or something, my body just froze into one place,” she said. “I felt this heaviness on my back and my heart just started to feel like it was crushing, and tears just started flowing down my face, I couldn’t stop, it was as if I was transcended into his position.”

She said it was as if Jesus was telling her: “This is what I’m doing to carry your sins and everyone else’s.”

When the moment passed, Phally started to pray on her own as she had never prayed before - it was a “long conversation,” she said. Afterwards, she told her Catholic husband and her sister about the encounter.

While they didn’t fully understand what she had gone through, she said she told her sister: “Let’s start going to church.”

Phally and her remaining sister started what she called “church hopping” with their mother. They went to all kinds of different Christian denominations, but Phally noticed that her mother seemed the happiest when they took her to Catholic Mass.

“I noticed the difference in the way she worshiped in the Catholic Church than in other churches that we took her to,” Phally said. Phally had been to Catholic Mass “here and there” with her husband before, but now she started to notice the differences between Catholicism and other communities.

“And my mother, she was looking forward to it. She would count the days, two or three times a week, she would ask what day it is, just waiting for Sunday to come.”

And as she started receiving the Eucharist more often, Phally saw a “profound change” in her mother. “It was like there was no sadness, she was just happy all the time.”

It was also at this time that Phally’s mother started to talk more openly about her faith. Pope Francis was also coming to visit the United States at that time, which added to the family’s new excitement about faith. Phally’s mother talked about Pope Francis’ visit “as if Jesus had returned to earth, and so we got excited too,” Phally recalled.

Even after all of the trauma and death she had gone through in her life, Phally said she was not angry with God, in large part because of the respect she had for her mother.

“I respected my mother so much, the way she cared for us, and because she respected God, I wouldn’t dare to be angry at God in any way at all. My feelings were more like toward people, those that did things to harm others, particularly the Khmer Rouge, and other people that I encountered in my life.”

She started attending Mass frequently, and praying and reading Scripture on her own. The many questions about the suffering she endured during the war and throughout her life started to make more sense to her in light of the word of God.

“When I started to study (the Bible) I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is how the world works. Atrocities are not the work of God, it’s the work of man.’ And I became very in touch with the Lord and just prayed to him and just immersed myself in his presence.”

“One thing that I’m so happy about is that I did not turn away. The more hardship that I experienced, that’s what led me to seek God because I knew I couldn’t get my answer anywhere else, so he must be the one who could give it to me. Because looking at my mother, after what she went through, and she’s full of joy, always happy, so I’m thinking well, God must have done something for her, it must be an internal thing,” Phally added.

“And when I started to seek him, and I’m telling you it’s like instantaneous, he is so gracious. It’s like your heart changes, he comforts you.”

When Phally’s mother died in September 2018, it was already a “sure thing” that Phally and her sister would become Catholic. After finishing RCIA classes, Phally entered the Catholic Church on Easter this year at St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland.

“It just came down to Catholicism for me,” Phally said. “It seemed like everything which is rich and full was in that faith. Not only was my mother raised Catholic, but I felt like I needed to learn for myself why there were so many denominations out there, and it always referred me back to Catholicism,” she said.

“This faith is very full and very rich and I don’t need to go anywhere else because it seemed anywhere else I went...there’s just bits and pieces of that fullness.”

“I prayed to the Lord about it I said, Lord, I need to belong to a Church, I need to be baptized, and dedicate my whole self to you, help me to find that Church and that denomination, and it was just so easy,” she added.

Phally still thinks about her dream to start a nonprofit to help Cambodians in need, but she wants to do everything in God’s timing.

“I think looking back now that was not God’s intention for me,” she said. “He knew my good intentions, but he didn’t want me to approach it that way yet. He wanted me to get to know him first. You know how it says in the Bible, ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and everything else will be given to you?’...You need a partnership with the Lord,” she said.

She’s also planning on writing a book about her life, to help tell the story of the Cambodian genocide to the world, and to tell Cambodians how the mercy and forgiveness that she found in the Catholic Church can transform their hearts and the country of Cambodia.

“My hope is that the book is going to be the open door to them knowing about Christianity, about Christ, about Catholicism. The Catholic faith is the rich faith that the Cambodian people need, because it has everything. It has that fullness of God’s goodness…that self-effort is not going to help them. They need Jesus,” she said.

“If I hadn’t had that encounter with Jesus, I would have taken a lot of things into my own hands, but that wouldn’t be effective. I’m just a human, very limited capabilities, so I need the divine help, and Jesus is the only one who can provide that.”

And she says she is forever grateful for her mother’s example and witness of faith.

“Her faith, that’s the core of my transformation to come to the Lord,” she said.

Her mother’s faith gave her a powerful example of how to respond to suffering and violence - instead of turning to self-pity and anger, she turned to the Lord, Phally said.

“I would just go back to her experience, and that was what saved me from my own self-affliction.”


Kate Veik contributed to the reporting of this story.

Poor and vulnerable most hurt by budget cuts, say Alaska's bishops

Mon, 07/29/2019 - 17:41

Juneau, Alaska, Jul 29, 2019 / 03:41 pm (CNA).- Recent budget cuts resulting from the governor's budget vetoes are having a “direct negative impact” on the homeless, poor, and vulnerable in Alaska, the state's bishops said Thursday.

“Our Catholic social services agencies, along with other faith-based denominations and private nonprofits, can barely keep up with the current needs of people who live on the margins,” the July 25 statement reads.

“Across Alaska, thousands of low-income families now face new struggles through funding cuts to agencies that operate food pantries, shelter programs, and early childhood education. The millions of dollars cut statewide to homeless services will force the most vulnerable onto the streets. Cuts to senior housing grants and to the senior benefits program adversely affect our elders,” it adds.

The statement, published by the Alaska Catholic Conference, was signed by Bishop Andrew Bellisario, C.M, of Juneau and Apostolic Administrator of Anchorage; Bishop Chad Zielinsk of Fairbanks; and Bishop Roger L. Schwietz, OMI, Archbishop Emeritus of Anchorage.

It follows budget cuts made this month by Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

According to Anchorage Daily News, the governor cut $444 million from a proposed $8.7 billion state operating budget. The cuts will affect multiple education initiatives and Medicaid services, including adult dental coverage. A senior benefits program which paid cash to elders in need was cut from the budget, and millions were cut from services that aid the poor, blind, special-needs, or homeless populations, Anchorage Daily News reported.

The cuts were part of a plan to rebalance the budget without raising taxes or cutting the Permanent Fund dividend, an annual payout to permanent citizens of Alaska, funded by oil revenues.

The cuts will end daytime shelter at multiple Catholic homeless shelters and will drastically reduce the number of beds available, the bishops said.

“In Anchorage, Brother Francis Shelter will be forced to reduce its capacity from 240 beds to 100. Where will the other 140+ homeless go? The Shelter has now closed during the day to cut costs, forcing more people to wander the streets,” the bishops said.

“Clare House, which provides shelter to 90 at-risk women with children and to expectant mothers, 24/7, will be forced to reduce services to nighttime only. Where will these moms and their children go? Currently the shelter also provides day-care for their children allowing these women to work.”

The bishops also expressed their concerns for the livelihoods of the employees at these shelters, who face layoffs after the budget cuts. Anchorage Daily News reported that 14 people could be laid off from the Brother Francis shelter alone due to the cuts.

“We need to support these dedicated servants of the poor, not penalize them by laying them off from their jobs. After all, they work on our behalf. They assist those who are clinging to the last rung of the ladder in our society, many of whom, without assistance, have only to look forward to destitution and despair,” the bishops said.

“As the Catholic Bishops of Alaska, we are called to advocate and defend or speak against government policies and programs that directly affect the lives and dignity of the poor and vulnerable,” they said.

“We call upon all our elected officials to restore funds to agencies and services that provide for the needs of our children, our elders, the poor, the vulnerable, and the homeless. We ask Alaskans to reach out and contact their elected officials in support of restoring funds for services to the poor and vulnerable in our State,” the bishops added.

“We will continue to do our part to fund our agencies as best we can with our resources, our time and our talent, together with all those willing to support us. We will continue to collaborate with our local and state governments because we realize it is all of us, working together, who contribute to the solution of taking care of the most vulnerable in our State.”

Dunleavy's vetoes met with strong opposition, and the Alaska House of Representatives voted July 29 to restore some of the vetoed funding.

In a 31-7 vote, the House voted to restore funds for college scholarships and infrastructure projects, among other things. The funds will come from the state's Constitutional Budget Reserve.

The House bill will now go to Dunleavy.

NIH issues new guidelines for funding research on aborted fetal tissue

Mon, 07/29/2019 - 17:16

Washington D.C., Jul 29, 2019 / 03:16 pm (CNA).- The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have issued new guidelines with restrictions for scientists seeking federal grants to use tissue from aborted babies for research.

The NIH said in a July 26 notice that ethics advisory boards will be involved in the review of applications to use human fetal tissue (HFT) obtained from elective abortions, and will be composed of “scientists, bio-ethicists and others.”

The new NIH guidelines require grant applicants wishing to make use of the tissue from aborted babies to provide “a justification of the use of HFT, details regarding procurement and costs, and information about how the applicant/contract offeror will use HFT,” or their application will not be reviewed. This section of the grant application has a 12-page limit.

The Trump administration announced in June that it would limit funding for research using tissue from aborted babies.

On June 5, the Trump administration announced that it declined to renew a contract with the University of California that funded a research program which used fetal tissue obtained from abortions, following a “comprehensive review” by the Department of Health and Human Services, announced in September 2018, into any research involving fetal tissue.

That non-renewal means that the National Institutes for Health does not currently fund any research that involves aborted remains.

According to the NIH, future grant applicants must indicate why their research goals “cannot be accomplished using an alternative to HFT” and what methods they have used to determine that no alternatives can be used.

In addition, applicants must describe what they plan to do with the human fetal tissue and how they will dispose of it when research is complete. They must describe a planned written, voluntary, informed consent process for cell/tissue donation, or a description and documentation of the process if cells or tissue were already obtained.

The informed consent to allow tissue from an aborted baby to be used for research, given by the mother, must be obtained by someone other than the person who obtained consent to perform the abortion, the NIH states.

In addition, consent for use of human fetal tissue must be given after the informed consent for abortion, in order that it will not affect the method of abortion. The researcher must certify that there were no “enticements, benefits, or financial incentives” used to incentivize abortion or the donation of the aborted baby’s tissue.

For the first time, the rules forbid graduate and postdoctoral students who receive NIH training funds from proposing fetal tissue research, The Washington Post reports.

The rules will apply to new grants submitted after Sept. 25.

Archbishop Lori defends Baltimore after Trump tweets

Mon, 07/29/2019 - 13:35

Baltimore, Md., Jul 29, 2019 / 11:35 am (CNA).- Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore issued a statement Saturday rebutting a tweet from President Donald Trump that claimed that the city is infested with both crime and rats.

“It saddens me to see Baltimore severely denigrated by President Trump. Baltimore is near and dear to my heart” said Lori. “It is hometown to more than half a million people.”

Lori acknowledged that “Baltimore has its tragedies and challenges” in addition to its “strengths and opportunities.”

“Many good people are working together to address Baltimore’s challenges and to build on its strengths. They deserve the support of elected officials and their fellow citizens,” he said.

On Saturday, Trump tweeted that he believed Rep. Elijiah Cummings (D-MD) is a “brutal bully,” and that his district, Maryland’s 7th, is “FAR WORSE and more dangerous” than the southern border. Cummings and Trump had butted heads regarding policy at the border.

“Cumming District [sic] is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” said Trump. “If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place.”

Trump tweeted to defend his comments throughout Saturday and into Sunday. On Saturday, Trump asked why “so much money” was being sent to Maryland’s 7th Congressional District “when it is considered the worst run and most dangerous anywhere in the United States.”

“No human being would want to live there,” said Trump. “Where is all this money going? How much is stolen? Investigate this corrupt mess immediately!”

Trump also shared videos showing lawns in West Baltimore covered in trash.

In response to Trump’s tweets, the hashtag #WeAreBaltimore emerged to defend the city. People used the hashtag to share pictures and pleasant experiences about Baltimore.

Not all members of the clergy agreed with the entirety of Lori’s sentiment.

Fr. Leo Patalinghug, a resident of Baltimore and the host of EWTN’s Savouring Our Faith, tweeted that while there are “awesome parts” to the city, there are also “some very broken, sad, almost ‘3rd World’ parts to it.” Patalinghug also believes that the local government in Baltimore is “definitely corrupt.”

“I love my city,” said Patalinghug, “but we need stronger leaders - Mr. Cummings is not one of them. He’s had his time.”

Baltimore’s homicide rate in 2017 was 10 times the national average, making it the second-highest homicide rate in the country. In 2018, the homicide rate in the city was just under nine times the national average. According to the Baltimore Sun, there have been 100 homicides in the city between the dates of April 30, 2019 and July 28, 2019.

Baltimore was the first Catholic diocese in the United States, and has played a pivotal role in the development of the country’s Catholic culture.

Why one expert says communism is 'anathema to religion'

Fri, 07/26/2019 - 19:05

Washington D.C., Jul 26, 2019 / 05:05 pm (CNA).- The Catholic Church’s teachings on economics and government have a tendency to frustrate anyone committed to a political ideology. The Church has condemned both unrestrained capitalism, as well as communism, socialism, and totalitarianism.

But a column recently published in America Magazine, entitled “The Catholic Case for Communism”, by Dean Dettloff, has resurrected questions about whether it is permissible for a Catholic to be a communist.

“Christianity and communism have obviously had a complicated relationship,” Detloff wrote, arguing that even though “communist states and movements have indeed persecuted religious people at different moments in history,” Christians have been “passionately represented” in communist movements.

“These Christians, like their atheist comrades, are communists not because they misunderstand the final goals of communism but [sic] because they authentically understand the communist ambition of a classless society,” he wrote.

Kristina Olney, director of government relations at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, said that description is an unreasonable way of presenting the situation.

“It is just simply false,” she said. “The fact is, that every time what [communists] will point to is that the ideas just haven't being implemented correctly, not the fact that the results are a direct product of the ideology itself,” explained Olney.

Olney believes that communism’s very nature makes it impossible for a Catholic to be a communist.

“There can be no Catholic case for communism, because the dignity of the human person is at the root of the Catholics faith, and communism is an ideology that is anathema to religion,” she said to CNA.

Since modern communism was first developed as a theory in the mid-19th century, popes have condemned the practice and taught the right of private ownership of property. In 1846, Blessed Pius IX wrote that “that infamous doctrine of so-called Communism which is absolutely contrary to the natural law itself” would eventually “utterly destroy the rights, property and possessions of all men, and even society itself.”

His successor, Pope Leo XIII, called communism “the fatal plague which insinuates itself into the very marrow of human society only to bring about its ruin” in his encyclical Quod Apostolici muneris. Pope Pius XI wrote the encyclical Divini Redemptoris, where he also condemned communism. In 1949, Venerable Pius XII issued the Decree Against Communism, which excommunicated all Catholics who professed to be communists.

St. John Paul II made opposition to communism a hallmark of his papacy, and his pastoral visit to his homeland of Poland is credited with jump-starting the Solidarity movement there and the eventual fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

Christians have faced persecution in several countries that transitioned to communist governments.

In 2001, St. John Paul II beatified Nicholas Charnetsky and 24 companions, Byzantine Catholics martyred by communists in Eastern Europe between 1935 and 1973.

The “Red Terror” of the Spanish Civil War saw nearly 7,000 members of the clergy and religious sisters killed for their faith. Nearly 2,000 martyrs of the Spanish Civil War have already been beatified.

Today, the situation for Catholics in communist countries is still difficult.

In China, the Communist Party is involved in the selection of bishops in the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, and the state exercises significant oversight of Church activities.

Olney expressed concern that the situation would continue to worsen under present leadership.

“You have a cult of personality that is reminiscent of the Mao era that is reappearing with Xi Jinping,” said Olney. The government is “forcing people to sing songs in praise of the Communist Party, and putting up communist banners in places of worship.” 

In the U.S., communism and socialism have grown in popularity in recent years. A majority of young people today say they reject capitalism.

A “real sense of disenfranchisement” could be why Americans are embracing socialism and communism, explained Olney, which is a feeling that she empathizes with, but also chalks up to naivete.

“People saying that socialism can be a solution to the problems that they’re facing, but, you know, the fact is, although socialism is gaining in popularity, people can’t describe what it is,” she said.

Olney said she hopes the Church must “speak the truth about and stand for the dignity of the human person,” as these concepts are the root of the Catholic faith.

“I think that the Church needs to speak out against the regimes that are still committing gross violations of human rights and human dignity in the name of communist ideology today,” she added.



Why do priests study philosophy?

Fri, 07/26/2019 - 13:38

Denver, Colo., Jul 26, 2019 / 11:38 am (CNA).- Philosophy does not teach its students the Bible. It does not teach one how to minister to a congregation. It does not teach one how to distribute the sacraments.

Despite this, seminarians are required to study between two and four years of philosophy, depending on their diocese and seminary, before they transfer to a major seminary to study exclusively theology, taking up time during which they could study pastoral ministry or theology.

This study, which might seem impractical, is fundamental to seminarians’ understanding their future education and the people with whom they will interact as pastors, according to the Congregation for Catholic Education.

The congregation, in its 2011 decree on the reform of ecclesiastical studies of philosophy, wrote that “philosophy is indispensable for theological formation.”

Modern-day priests are not the first Catholics to have studied philosophy along with theology. A plethora of the saints have done the same, and many of them are renowned philosophers themselves.

St. Thomas Aquinas is an example of these influential theologian-philosophers. They have taken advantage of the advanced logic and specialized vocabulary of philosophy, and used it to clarify and deepen their understanding of theology, Notre Dame Seminary rector Fr. James Wehner believes.

“St. Thomas Aquinas was the best; he bridged both disciplines”, Fr. Wehner said. “He was a philosopher and a theologian, and I think today you can't study either without studying him – the perfect example of how both were bridged together. “

Philosophy has helped theologians better to understand problems such as the existence of evil, free will, and the existence of the soul, and then to apply their findings to theology, as can be seen through their writings.

Philosophy already dealt with issues such as those, requiring deep thought and logic in order to make conclusions, as seen within their papers, and so the transition from philosophy to theology was smooth, Fr. Harrison Ayre, a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, believes.

These philosopher-priests then brought their logic into the faith, many of their ideas helping to develop dogma, Fr. Ayre said, referring to the ecumenical councils.

The study of philosophy helps theologians better understand the specifics of what ancient theologians mean by their use of philosophical terms, as they often described theological thoughts with philosophical terms capable of capturing the depth necessary in order to discuss theology, Fr. Aye believes.

This is important as many conclusions of the Church were made through ecclesial councils during the early part of the Church during which most scholars relied heavily on philosophy, and the writings stemming from these are not fully understandable without an understanding of the use of terms and ideas during the time of their writing.

Philosophy helped many early theologians better understand their faith through logic and come to natural conclusions rather than resting entirely on faith, and it continues to do so, Fr. Ayre believes.

The Congregation for Catholic Education wrote that “philosophical wisdom forms the summit that reason can reach.”

“Philosophy trains the mind to do the work of theology,” Fr. Wehner explained.

Fr. Ayre recalled: "One of my professors in seminary said that Jesus redeems the whole man, including the man, so use it. We sometimes tend to eschew the reasonableness of faith thinking it's not important, 'I just believe and that's enough.'”

“Now not everyone's gonna be philosophers, and not everyone's gonna seek those deep questions of life, but we also ought not to have an attitude that looks negatively at rational thought and life of the Church because it's these rational things that ultimately are the underpinning of the life of the Church,” he continued.

Catholicism is not fideistic, so in order to be able to understand its teachings reason is necessary, and this is why the Church has so long encouraged the study of philosophy, Fr. Ayre told CNA.

There are some truths the Church believes, inspired by divine revelation, that could not be arrived at through reason alone, but this is why it is important to have a combination of faith and reason, Fr. Wehner believes.

“I think one could make a statement that everything the Catholic Church teaches is ‘reasonable.’ People might not believe the teachings, but one can't say that they violate reason,” Fr. Wehner continued.

Although not all truths can be reasoned to, they all are reasonable, so reason can help us understand revealed truths, he believes.

“Faith and reason are the two ways which God has allowed has allowed human beings to know the truth,” Fr. Wehner said.

For a priest who will be in charge of teaching congregations about the faith, a deeper understanding past baseless faith-statements is necessary so that he can better explain it and help people understand why, not just what we believe, Fr. Ayre believes.

“That's going to take shape in homilies, that's going to take shape in the classroom, that's going to take shape with a couple who's preparing to get married,” Fr. Wehner said. “So we're not all going to be theologians and philosophers, but we have to be trained to understand the mysteries of the faith, the way God chose to reveal them to us.”

Philosophy also helps priests understand their parishioners when they come for help with problems. Having studied philosophy, a priest can better understand the “underpinning of problems”, as Fr. Ayre says.

As counsel is a major part of the priest’s role, it is essential that he is able to enter into these counseling opportunities with understanding and a broader view, Fr. Ayre has found through his priesthood.

“Philosophy actually gives you these critical tools to get to the root of the problem,” Fr. Ayre said. “It gives you those critical and rational tools to be able to do that with people, so it's very helpful in that regard.”

“It helps you to be able to address the deep concerns in peoples' lives in a rational way because the faith is not something irrational. It is something rational. And so you want to be able to give a rational basis for that, so philosophy is definitely something incredibly helpful,” he continued.

Fr. Ayre also credits philosophy with helping him understand the beliefs of those who are not Catholic.

“It allows you to be able to understand things from the natural realm much more clearly, to understand opposing positions, and it's the underpinning of doing theology,” he said. “You can't really do theology without philosophy.”

Oregon removes assisted suicide waiting period for some of the terminally ill

Thu, 07/25/2019 - 18:17

Salem, Ore., Jul 25, 2019 / 04:17 pm (CNA).- New legislation in Oregon shortens an initial waiting period for some persons seeking assisted suicide, allowing them to receive quicker access to life-ending drugs.

Governor Kate Brown signed SB 579 into law July 23. The bill had passed the Senate in May and the House of Representatives in June.

If the terminally ill patient has fewer than 15 days to live, the legislation will bypass a 15-day delay required under the Death with Dignity Act. The waiting period usually takes place between the first verbal request and second written request for assisted suicide.

“By signing this bill, Governor Kate Brown shirked her duty to protect Oregon's citizens," Oregon Right to Life executive director Lois Anderson said July 25. “Oregon's 'Death with Dignity' law already lacks important safeguards to protect vulnerable Oregonians. Removing one of the only safeguards that does exist is both unnecessary and incredibly ill-advised.”

The legislation was sponsored by members of the Democratic Party, including Senator Floyd Prozanski, Representative Mitch Greenlick, and Senator Elizabeth Hayward.

During the floor debate last month, Republican Representative Duane Stark expressed concern over the new law. He said it will remove a safeguard designed to ensure the patients confidence in their decision.

"I don't want to make it any easier for any individual in any circumstance to take their life prematurely," said Stark, according to the AP.

The bill was also opposed by two Democrat Senators - Peter Courtney and Sara Gelser.

Anderson had applauded their decision, noting that the problem extends beyond the lines of political parties.

“It is dangerous to assume that the political party someone belongs to is universally right or universally wrong,” said Anderson in May. “Senators Peter Courtney and Sara Gelser avoided group-think today and voted with their constituents’ safety in mind.”

“Every person has a right to be valued and treated ethically, especially during their last days of life,” she said. “Persons near death deserve the same protections under the law. Even more, they deserve proper care, compassion and confirmation of their inherent value, not a deadly prescription.”

In 1997 Oregon was the first US state to pass an assisted suicide law, which was later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006. Since its enactment, 1,500 people in the sate have died by assisted suicide.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on medically assisted dying in 2011. It stated that palliative care is better suited for the dignity of the human person.

“Catholics should be leaders in the effort to defend and uphold the principle that each of us has a right to live with dignity through every day of our lives. As disciples of one who is Lord of the living, we need to be messengers of the Gospel of Life,” the statement reads.

“We deserve to grow old in a society that views our cares and needs with a compassion grounded in respect, offering genuine support in our final days. The choices we make together now will decide whether this is the kind of caring society we will leave to future generations. We can help build a world in which love is stronger than death.”

Federal judge temporarily blocks Trump admin’s new asylum rules

Thu, 07/25/2019 - 17:04

Washington D.C., Jul 25, 2019 / 03:04 pm (CNA).- A federal judge in California has issued a temporary injunction against the Trump administration’s new rule limiting asylum eligibility on the southern U.S. border.

The injunction will halt the rule from being enforced while legal challenges against it are heard in the courts. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights and other groups are arguing against the law.

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar said the policy is “inconsistent with existing asylum laws.”

“Under our laws, the right to determine whether a particular group of applicants is categorically barred from eligibility for asylum is conferred on Congress,” he said.

“While the public has a weighty interest in the efficient administration of the immigration laws at the border, it also has a substantial interest in ensuring that the statutes enacted by its representatives are not imperiled by executive fiat.”

Tigar’s nationwide injunction overrules a previous decision by a federal judge in Washington, D.C., to allow the rule to move forward while it faced court challenges.

The Trump administration has said that its policy, which had gone into effect July 16, aims to crack down on false asylum claims, as the number of people seeking asylum in the U.S. has risen drastically in the last decade.

The new policy establishes that claimants are ineligible to apply for asylum in the United States if they failed to first apply for asylum in any third country they passed through after departing their country of origin.

For many asylum seekers traveling from Central of South America, this means first applying for asylum in Mexico before being eligible to claim asylum in the U.S.

The rule contains a number of exceptions. Those who arrive at an American port of entry having passed through a country that has not signed up to certain refugee agreements are exempt, as are survivors of human trafficking.  Those who apply for asylum in a pass-through country and are denied there may still claim asylum in the United States.

A similar policy is in place along the northern border of the U.S. A 2014 agreement between the U.S. and Canada requires a person to claim asylum in either the U.S. or Canada, depending on which country they arrived in first. However, critics of the Trump administration’s new policy argue that Mexico does not have the same capacity as Canada and the U.S. to ensure the safety of those seeking asylum.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, condemned the asylum rule shortly after it was announced, saying that it “adds further barriers to asylum-seekers’ ability to access life-saving protection, shirks our moral duty, and will prevent the United States from taking its usual leading role in the international community as a provider of asylum protection.”

The number of asylum claims has dramatically increased over the last decade, with very few asylees being allowed to stay. In 2009, there were 35,811 people who applied for asylum in the United States, and 8,384 were granted. In 2018, that number had more than quadrupled to 162,060 claims, with 13,168 actually granted.


Why some Catholic women say an NFP-shaming article was ‘off the charts’

Thu, 07/25/2019 - 16:35

Denver, Colo., Jul 25, 2019 / 02:35 pm (CNA).- NFP, or Natural Family Planning, is an oft misunderstood thing.

So much so that, to kick off NFP Awareness Week, one user joked in the “Catholic NFP TTA” Facebook group on Tuesday that she was celebrating the week with a drinking game.

“Take a shot every time a commenter opines about grave reasons. Another shot for when someone jokes that they’re bad at NFP. What would you take a shot for?” she asked. The joke struck a chord, and other group members chimed in with more than 100 additional comments.

“‘How far is too far when you’re abstaining?’ EVERYONE DRINKS” one commenter proposed. “Take a shot whenever someone claims Marquette is the perfect method for postpartum/everyone. Take another when someone argues with that person,” suggested another.

This post, and its comments, illustrate not that NFP users are proponents of binge drinking, but rather that they are accustomed to being misunderstood - even, sometimes, by their fellow users of NFP - and that they’ve developed a sense of humor about it.

NFP is the umbrella term for a host of natural methods used to plan and space children that rely on charting a woman’s menstrual cycle and related symptoms, including basal (resting) temperature, cervical mucus and hormone levels, among other things. The methods can be used to either achieve or avoid pregnancy, and are considered the only moral method of family planning by the Catholic Church; thus, many NFP users are Catholic.

So when The Outline, a secular, online publication, published last week an NFP article entitled “The Facebook groups where Catholic women shame each other about sex,” women who use NFP were disappointed, but not surprised, they told CNA.

“Women join these groups to find support as they navigate the complicated and sometimes conflicting rules around family planning as Catholics, only to be met with judgment or contempt when they admit they may be struggling,” wrote Mary Meisenzahl, the author of The Outline piece. 

“NFP groups, as you might imagine, are also where women go to police each other’s bodies and sexual lives.”

The article included no interviews with NFP users, instructors or Facebook group administrators, and proffered a handful of posts from only one NFP Facebook group - a secret, private group entitled “NFP: Catholic Style” - as proof that the culture of Catholic NFP is one of shame and judgment.

It concludes with a recommendation that the Catholic Church change its teaching on sexuality and contraception, “as many members of these groups are getting their feelings of shame directly from the church.”

CNA spoke with multiple Catholic women and users of NFP who felt differently.

The only place where NFP is talked about freely

“These Facebook groups, as flawed as they may be, are the only places we may feel safe and open enough to simply talk about all things NFP in respect to our faith,” Virginia Pride, an administrator for “Catholic NFP TTA” Facebook group, told CNA.

“TTA” is an abbreviation in NFP for “Trying To Avoid”, and refers to couples abstaining from sex to avoid a pregnancy during the fertile windows of a woman’s cycle.

Pride told CNA that since the article was published, some women have been afraid to post openly in groups they had previously assumed were friendly to NFP and all that it entails.

“Many women in our groups now are afraid to share information with other members and admins; this in turn affects how much help they receive. Knowing how little support NFP users already receive in the real world, and you have a serious case of isolation on our hands,” Pride said.

“Perhaps Ms. Meisenzahl felt that she is doing Catholic women a favor by attempting to ‘liberate’ us from our own beliefs on sexuality and family planning, by way of intruding our communities for nefarious reasons, and using our stories and experiences without our consent for her biased articles,” Pride added.

“Whatever the case, her blind acceptance of anti-NFP and anti-Catholicism has only furthered the difficulties that Catholic women face, rather than help alleviate the issue,” she said.

A grain of salt and a sense of community

Laura Golden is a registered nurse and mother who lives in northern Minnesota. Golden has practiced the Creighton model of NFP for several years, and is training to become a Creighton NFP instructor. She told CNA that she credits the method for helping her achieve two pregnancies after experiencing difficulties.

While Golden is not an administrator of any NFP Facebook group, she said she is a member of two - one that is Creighton-specific, and the larger, more general Catholic NFP group referenced in Meisenzahl’s article. Golden currently instructs 13 couples in their use of the Creighton model - some Catholic, some not.

Golden said that she relies more on the Creighton-specific Facebook group; each NFP method comes with it’s own “jargon”, she said, and it can be easy to confuse the different terminology.

She also cautions those she instructs to take what is said in the Facebook groups with a grain of salt.

“I tell them, if this is causing you anxiety, then delete it. If you need to turn off the notifications because it's just too much in your face, do that,” Golden told CNA. She said that for couples trying to achieve pregnancy, these groups can be overwhelming, since waiting each month to find out whether a pregnancy has been achieved can already lead to stress.

However, she added, these groups can also offer an important sense of community to NFP users who live in remote areas, or who do not personally know other NFP users.

“I live in a really small town and there's probably three couples in our parish that are of childbearing years and are using a fertility method that I'm aware of at least,” Golden said. “So if you're having an issue, you do feel really isolated because maybe you don't know anyone else that has that issue or is even using a method that's remotely familiar to you. And so when you are a part of this group, it does give you a lot of community.”

The article also missed the mark when describing the accuracy of NFP methods, Golden said. It cited a statistic from the Department of Health and Human Services, which states that NFP carries with it about a 25 percent chance of getting pregnant. However, it does not state the efficacy rates of each method of NFP, and it does not list the sympto-hormonal method of NFP (used in the Marquette Method, for example), on its list of method types.

In a study published by the National Institutes of Health, researchers tracked 204 women of childbearing years using the Marquette method of NFP over the course of a year. There were 12 pregnancies total in that year. The study found that the efficacy of the Marquette Method of NFP for avoiding pregnancy was 99.4% effective with “correct use”, and that it was 89.4% effective with “typical use” per 100 users.

To compare, birth control pills are about 93% effective with typical use, while condoms are about 87% effective with typical use, according to the CDC.

The “contraceptive mentality” and “just reasons” to avoid pregnancy

Mikayla Dalton is a Boston Cross Check method instructor and an admin for the Clearblue Monitor Methods (MM) NFP group on Facebook. She told CNA that her group has commenting guidelines that caution users against certain kinds of comments - those disparaging of others, those that attempt to start theological debates, those that are off topic, or those that encourage other users to go against the prescribed protocols of the Marquette Method, among other things.

The group tells members that any comments that go against the guidelines may be deleted, and that users may be muted or blocked if they are found to be hostile to the group. Dalton added that they also include a warning, telling women that while the group is closed, members are only lightly vetted, and that they should proceed with caution sharing personal sexual or intimate information in such a context.

“This warning strikes me as poignant now, after a person joined a group with the intent of surveilling its membership, to report on "the other," having concealed - or not been upfront about - their identity and purpose in gathering information,” Dalton told CNA.

“Having a woman break the trust people had put in each other in the group, to get some kind of journalistic ‘scoop’ is disheartening. Accusing women of shaming other women... while shaming swathes of women... is ironic,” she added.

One kind of “shaming” comment in NFP groups that Meisenzahl mentioned in her article are those that accuse NFP users of using the methods with a “contraceptive mentality” - in other words, that they are using NFP to avoid having children for selfish or unserious reasons.

The term is incorrectly applied against users of NFP, Dalton said, and when she sees such comments in her group, she and many other members are quick to offer corrections.

“This particular phrase was used by Pope John Paul II in Evangelium vitae to refer specifically to a mentality arising from the use of contraception,” Dalton said, and he uses it in contrast to those who are following God’s plan for marriage and sexuality, under which the use of NFP falls.

Meisenzahl added in her article that: "Humanae vitae refers to 'serious reasons' and 'just causes,' for avoiding pregnancy, but the preferred translation among the more extreme members of the Facebook group is 'grave reason.'"

"The Church doesn’t give a list of specific circumstances that are valid for avoiding pregnancy. For some Catholics, this means, as one user put it, 'God understands your reasons. It's up to Him to judge. What is in your heart?', so each couple can make the choice that they feel is right for their specific situation. For others, though, a lack of concrete reasons means an opportunity to police and shame women who are actively trying to avoid children."

Humanae vitae is an encyclical written by Pope Paul VI and published in 1968. The document was written to explain Church teaching regarding sexuality, contraception and marriage, and upheld NFP at a time when many within the Church were calling for the Church to change its teaching and accept contraception.

Dr. Janet Smith is a Catholic professor who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and has written and spoken extensively on Humanae vitae. She has written about many different aspects about NFP, including the “contraceptive mentality” and the reasons Catholic couples may legitimately use NFP to avoid pregnancy.

“The best description for the kind of reasons needed is ‘just reasons’ and the best understanding is that the couple needs to take into account their current and foreseeable duties and obligations. Succinctly stated, the reasons must not be selfish,” Smith told CNA.

“Having another child is such a great good on so many levels, to seek to avoid pregnancy cannot be made for trivial reasons and should be made only after careful, prayerful discernment. The Church does identify categories of reasons - the couple should take into account the economic, physical, psychological and social conditions in which they live,” she added. 

Those reasons could include, for example, “experiencing fatigue and anxiety that predictably impedes one's ability to function at a reasonable level,” Smith noted.

“Decisions made on such a basis should be revisited regularly. People should be very hesitant to criticize the decisions couples make about their family size; the factors that need to be taken into account are not always accessible to outsiders,” she said.

The beauty of NFP

You Me and NFP: Joy-filled living” is a website founded and run by four Catholic mothers, one of whom is a Marquette Method instructor. The intent for their website, and their social media groups, was to bring a more modern look and approach to the practice of NFP, some of the founders told CNA.

“We were researching NFP resources and they kind of have like a 1980s, 1990s kind of look to it,” Valerie Kelly, one of the founders, told CNA. “And we wanted to really brand it in a modern way while staying with traditional Church teaching. But we are really sharing it and evangelizing with it. We meet people where they are and are taking them where the Lord wants them to be.”

Their website is clean and pretty, with plenty of millennial pink sprinkled with gold accents. It includes written and video testimonials from women who share why they use NFP, a “FAQ” segment on NFP, and instruction in the Marquette Method through Sarah Tramonte, one of the co-founders.

The group has a Facebook page, but comments are closed. The four women, who are also mothers, said they worried about having enough time to regulate comments in the way they would like, so they decided not to allow them.

Their Instagram page does have comments though, and while they get the occasional naysayer or negative comment, it is by and large positive comments from women seeking advice or understanding, they told CNA.

However, they added, sometimes sharing the truth about the Church’s teaching may make people uncomfortable, even when it is done in a loving way.

“It's never right to speak uncharitably, but it's always right to charitably speak the truth,” Anneli Schraufnagel, one of the cofounders of You Me and NFP (YMNFP), told CNA.

“So a lot of these conversations that women are having, I think (they) are trying to, as sisters, come to the truth of their Catholic faith because the truth of their Catholic faith ultimately will bring them joy.”

That is something that can be easy to miss for an NFP outsider looking in - that practicing NFP, as a part of the Catholic faith, is something that brings many women and families peace and joy - even if they complain about some nitty gritty details along the way.

“Sometimes the Catholic Church's teachings are hard, but sometimes hard things bring us happiness,” Schraufnagel said. “And...the ‘why's’ behind the Catholic teaching, we need to talk about them.”

Besides some of the physical benefits of NFP, which include avoiding putting additional hormones or medical devices in one’s body, the “Why NFP” section of the YMNFP website includes women talking about the “joy” that NFP brings because of the sacrifices it requires, such as periodic abstinence. They also mention feeling at peace because they are able to plan their families according to what they believe is God’s plan for sexuality and marriage.

“I don't want to sugarcoat NFP and say that it is all sunshine and daisies because it requires sacrifice and sacrifice is never easy!  But the joy that grows out of selfless love, expressed through NFP, is one of the greatest blessings you can give to yourself and to your spouse,” reads one post from Ellen on YMNFP.

"I adore my husband, and by eliminating the pill I’m now so much more able to show him that. We are living, and loving each other, authentically,” reads another quote from Jen, an NFP user.

Couples who practice NFP also experience lower divorce rates, YMNFP notes. According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health, “among the women who ever used NFP only 9.6 percent were currently divorced compared with the 14.4 percent who were currently divorced among the women who never used NFP.” The study noted that the religiosity of the couples who practice NFP may be a contributing factor to the lower divorce rates.

Schraufnagel said the numerous benefits of NFP that she and her cofounders have experienced are the main reasons they started YMNFP.

“That’s a huge aspect of our team at You Me and NFP; we are really passionate because we see how beautiful the Catholic Church's teachings are and how much joy is brought into our lives because of it, including, our family lives as well. And part of that is our sexuality,” she added.

“So I think it needs to be brought up and talked about in the culture that these truths are beautiful.”


CDC confirms US fertility rate fell to 'all-time low' in 2018

Thu, 07/25/2019 - 13:23

Washington D.C., Jul 25, 2019 / 11:23 am (CNA).- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Wednesday that the US fertility rate continued to fall in 2018, to an all-time low. The report confirms provisional figures released in May.

“The 2018 general fertility rate fell to another all-time low for the United States,” researchers with the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics wrote in a July 24 report.

The fertility rate among women age 15 to 44 dropped 2% between 2017 and 2018, from 60.3 births per 1,000 women aged 15-44, to 59.1.

The percentage of children delivered at less than 39 weeks increased, from 9.93% in 2017 to 10.02% in 2018. The percentage of births preterm and early term increased, while full-, late- and post-term deliveries declined.

According to the early statistical release from the NCHS in May, the total fertility rate, or average number of children born per woman, stands at 1.7, well below the demographic replacement bar of 2.1.

In 2018, fewer than 3.8 million children were born in the country. Since a peak in 2007, birth rates have fallen in all but one of the last 11 years. The results also show a continued trend of lower fertility among younger women over the last decade.

The data comes amid warnings from experts about the economic and social consequences of the continued decline. At the same time, the same experts say that the complicated causes of ever-lower fertility mean there are no clear or easy ways of reversing the trend.

While the statistics underline a stark trend, experts emphasize that there is no single root cause behind the general decline.

In the past, women in their 20s have had the highest birth rate. But since 1968, the average age of a first-time mother has increased by more than five years, from 21.4 to 26.8.

Last year, childbirth rates among women aged 20-24 dropped 4%, and 3% among women aged 25-29. In 2018, women aged 30-34 had a higher birthrate than those aged 25-29 – marking the first time women in their early thirties were the leading age demographic for the number of children born.

Johnathan V. Last, author of the book “What to Expect When No One is Expecting,” points to a complex of social factors which, he says, contribute to the numbers of women having fewer children later in life.

“Many of the reasons people are having children later are good and reasonable. Look at the drop in fertility among 20-24 year-olds: that’s in large part down to the number of people now attending college, and people just don’t tend to get married and start families while they are in college,” Last told CNA when the provisional data were released in May.

Dr. Catherine Pakaluk, Assistant Professor of Social Research and Economic thought at the Catholic University of America, told CNA that changes in the use of contraception could also be a factor.

Since 2002, use of the contraceptive pill has declined in favor of implanted contraceptive devices. In 2002, 19% of women aged 15-44 reported using the pill, while only 1.3% used IUDs. By 2017, pill usage had dropped to less than 14%, and 8.6% of women were using IUDs.

This, Pakaluk said, could be contributing to the sharp drop in unplanned pregnancies.

“These long-acting contraceptives tend to be much more immune to behavioral screw-ups. Even with the pill people are prone to contracepting badly and have a higher error rate leading to accidental but not necessarily unwelcome births, and these are disappearing.”

“It’s not a negligible percent, I don’t think it is the whole story but I do think it could be enough to be dragging us down to the historic lows we are seeing.”

Pakaluk said that while it is difficult to study, a shift in the way women approach pregnancy and contraceptives means that birth rates are increasingly subject to the expectations and experiences of generations raised in smaller families.

“One thing that should give us pause, and which I am really interested in examining more closely, is the effect of being around babies on adolescent wellbeing and mental health,” Pakaluk said.

“If you live in a society in which the typical family has three or four children, the older children will be experiencing a young child into their teenage years. But if you move to an average of 1.5-2, no teenagers on average will live with babies – think what that means for their own likely fertility choices.”

Experts have long warned about the wider societal and economic problems associated with declining birth rates, especially below the population replacement rate.

Last told CNA that the wider aspirations of society and politics to sustain and grow social welfare programmes depends on a demographic model opposite to current trends.

“The things we take for granted, let alone the things we aspire to do, in welfare, healthcare and so on, just do not work when you have an inversion of the population growth” Last told CNA.

Pakaluk agreed that there is widespread consensus on the economic and social problems associated with the long-term trend of lower fertility.

“We see immediately that it is not socially optimal from any rational social planning perspective because you know you cannot support the generous social programs that we like to think are good for society,” Pakaluk said. “Things like a decent social security system, MediCare, MedicAid, you just cannot sustain them in the long run with a total fertility rate of 1.7.”

But if the wider problems associated with dropping fertility rates are well known, both Pakaluk and Last highlight widespread dissatisfaction at the personal level.

“While the wider societal problems are well known,” Pakaluk said, “what is fascinating is that is seems that it isn’t individually optimal either.”

“What we do know, which is not often raised in media coverage, is that over the last several decades every survey in a Western country that asks women to describe their ideal family size – every single one everywhere – gives you a number about one child more than women end up having.”

Last told CNA that these numbers need to be considered as a factor in the state of our society.

“What we are seeing is the constant ‘fertility gap’ between people’s stated desire to have more than two kids and the reality that they tend to have less,” Last said. “For a whole host of reasons, people aren’t meeting their own expectations, and that has wider societal impact.”

Pakaluk said that the connection between parenthood and individual happiness is well known but rarely considered in relation to the fertility gap.

“We are living in a fascinating paradox. In the post-feminist age of women’s right and control of reproduction they are not getting what it is that they say they want.”

According to Last, there is a level or irreducible complexity to changes in the fertility rate, intended or otherwise.

“The causes of lower fertility are incredibly complicated, and there is no obvious or simple mechanism for moving those numbers in the other direction,” he said. “It isn’t a matter of simply pushing button A and pulling lever X, it’s everything.”

“Of course,” Last noted, “ consistently the single greatest tracker of higher fertility is church attendance: across all faith communities, people who regularly show up for religious services have more kids.”

“I think a big part of this is looking at your life as part of a linear continuum, understanding your place between what has come before and what will come after helps condition you to understanding the greater good of starting a family and having children,” said Last.

“If your worldview is primarily formed around personal fulfillment and self-actualization, where is the incentive to have a family? You might have one child for the experience, but not two or three or four.”

Countries around the world are experiencing similarly falling fertility rates.

In South Korea in 2017, there were 7 births per 1,000 people, a number which has since fallen.

In February, the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban announced that women with four children or more will be exempt from paying income tax for life, in an effort to encourage births. The Hungarian fertility rate is currently 1.45 children per woman.

A study published in The Lancet in November 2018 found that nearly half of countries have fertility rates below replacement level.

US bishops decry policy of expedited removal of undocumented migrants

Thu, 07/25/2019 - 12:32

Washington D.C., Jul 25, 2019 / 10:32 am (CNA).- The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops spoke out Thursday against new Department of Homeland Security policies that includes the expedited removal of undocumented migrants who cannot prove to an immigration officer they have lived in the United States for two continuous years.

“This action is yet another escalation of this Administration’s enforcement-only immigration approach, and it will have terrible human consequences,” Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, Texas, Chair of the of the US bishops' migration committee, said in a July 25 statement.

The DHS said in a July 19 notice that the new policy is meant to harmonize existing policies that treated migrants arriving by land and by sea differently. Expedited removal has existed in US immigration law since 1996.

Previously, the DHS could designate illegal aliens for expedited removal “within 100 air miles of the border and within 14 days of their date of entry regardless of the alien’s method of arrival.” The new policy allows DHS to expedite the removal of any undocumented immigrant anywhere in the United States, provided they are unable to prove they have been in the country less than two years.

The bishops called the new policy “unjust” and said it will stoke “fear in our communities.”

“The new policy will allow for the deportation of many more individuals without providing them an opportunity to seek legal counsel and have a hearing before an immigration judge,” he argued.

The DHS notice stated that undocumented immigrants can apply for asylum when they are apprehended, potentially delaying an immediate deportation until a credible-fear hearing and a determination is made, NPR reports.

“Even those migrants who have long-standing ties to the U.S. and have been in the country for more than the requisite two years required under the new policy may now be subjected to expedited removal if they are unable to prove such to the satisfaction of an individual immigration officer,” the bishop said.

The DHS is seeking public comment on the new policy.


After nearly 20 years, federal government will resume executions

Thu, 07/25/2019 - 11:41

Washington D.C., Jul 25, 2019 / 09:41 am (CNA).- The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) will resume executions after an almost two-decade lapse, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on Thursday.

“Under Administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding,” Attorney General William Barr said in a written statement on Thursday.

The Bureau of Prisons, adopting a proposed addendum to the Federal Execution Protocol, has scheduled five executions for the first time since the last federal execution in 2003. Five death-row inmates, convicted of the murders of children and adults and in some cases torture, are to be executed on dates in December 2019 and January 2020, and the DOJ said that the scheduling of “additional executions” will occur in the future.

The new federal lethal injection process will utilize one drug, pentobarbital, instead of the old three-drug process used in previous federal executions. It is similar to protocol in Missouri, Georgia, and Texas, a DOJ press release said.

The five death-row inmates are Daniel Lewis Lee, Lezmond Mitchell, Wesley Ira Purkey, Dustin Lee Honken, and Alfred Bourgeois.

Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2267 on the death penalty was updated in 2018 with a statement from Pope Francis, calling the death penalty “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

“Congress has expressly authorized the death penalty through legislation adopted by the people’s representatives in both houses of Congress and signed by the President,” Barr, a practicing Catholic and member of the Knights of Columbus, stated on Thursday.

Federal death penalty statues were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1972 in Furman v. Georgia; in 1988 revised federal death penalty statutes were instituted, and the number of eligible offenses was expanded under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). There are currently 62 federal death-row inmates, according to DPIC.

For Christians in the Holy Land, churches are more than just pilgrimage sites

Thu, 07/25/2019 - 05:15

Washington D.C., Jul 25, 2019 / 03:15 am (CNA).- Churches, shrines, and monasteries in the Middle East are not only pilgrimage destinations, but also places of sanctuary, identity, and hope for local Christians who are suffering existential threats, local religious leaders said.

“Christ dwelt among us in Bethlehem, in Egypt, in Galilee, and, of course, in Jerusalem. And by His Holy Spirit, he has continued to be present down the ages in Jerusalem, the Middle East, and to the very ends of the earth,” Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem said. “Our holy sites tell the stories of God’s history with us.”

“Few can deny that this region, the place of divine-human encounter in sacred history, is in fact the center of the earth,” the patriarch stated of the Holy Land at a side event of a global religious freedom gathering in Washington, D.C. last week.

Patriarch Theophilus III addressed an audience of priests and civic and religious leaders at an event on “Christian Holy Sites and Holy Places in the Middle East” on the side of the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, hosted by the U.S. State Department from July 15-19 in Washington, D.C.

The Ministerial was attended by religious and civic leaders from around the world, including delegations from 106 countries, meeting to discuss religious persecution and strategies to advance religious freedom.

Thursday’s event on the “Holy Sites” was sponsored by the International Community of the Holy Sepulchre and the Hudson Institute's Working Group on Christians and Religious Pluralism in the Middle East.

Speakers focused not only on the spiritual significance of pilgrimage sites throughout the Middle East, but on their central importance to the Christians who live there.

Patriarch Theophilus is the 141st patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, the most senior Christian leader in the Holy Land. At last week’s event, he warned that “attacks from radicals on Church properties in Jerusalem continue,” and that the groups “know only too well that every attack against a holy site poses another threat to our Christian identity.”

The holy sites are threatened on multiple fronts, he said, including vandalism, “intimidation from radical settlers,” and hostile policies in Israel’s Knesset legislature.

These policies would allow the municipal taxation of church-owned property in Jerusalem like hospitals and schools, which could “bankrupt” the churches, the patriarch said; another bill would have allowed the state to confiscate land sold by churches to private groups supposedly for the defense of the tenants.

These policies were at the heart of the decision by Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian leaders to temporarily close the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in February of 2018.

“Enough was enough, and it was time to draw the line,” the Patriarch said of the closure. “Forces beyond our control threatened the sanctity and integrity of our holy sites.”

“To keep just one pilgrim” out of the church “is a tragedy,” he said, but he added that the solidarity of millions around the world with the churches was heartening.

The church was reopened after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intervened in the efforts to impose the tax policy, and the city backed off on the proposals. When the “solution was found,” the patriarch said, “the light of the Resurrection shone bright.”

The Patriarch stated his gratitude to Netanyahu and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin for their efforts to protect the Holy Sites, as well as “the continued and faithful custodianship over the holy sites” of King Abdullah II of Jordan, and legislators in the U.S. and the UK for their support.

He drew attention to the July 11 prayer vigil attended by other patriarchs and heads of churches at Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate, in the wake of the Israeli supreme court ruling against the Greek Orthodox Church in a controversial land deal that dates back to 2005.

The deal involved the sale by the Church, later disputed, of hotels just inside the Christian Quarter of the city to Israeli settlers, a transfer of property that the patriarch said could affect the “integrity” of the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem, and possibly impede access of pilgrims to the holy sites.

A joint statement of the patriarchs and heads of local churches in Jerusalem called the deal “underhanded” and said it threatened the Status Quo agreement of the city.

Patriarch Theophilos said he has asked local officials to join in support of Netanyahu and his work “to keep the pilgrim route open to all, and to maintain the historic, multiethnic, multicultural and mutireligious fabric of our great city Jerusalem.”

Preservation of holy sites in the Holy Land as well as Syria, Iraq and Egypt was discussed at last week’s event.

Fr. Alexi Chehadeh of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, told of how holy sites “all over Syria” have been destroyed during the country’s ongoing civil war. Hundreds of churches and monasteries have been fully or partially destroyed, with billions of dollars needed to rehabilitate or reconstruct them.

The symbolic importance of the reconstruction of holy sites cannot be ignored, he and other Christian leaders insisted.

Many holy sites of the Patriarchate are churches dating back to the second or third century, he said. To rebuild them is “caring for the roots of Christianity,” Fr. Chehadeh said, but it would also be “a sign of a peaceful environment” for Christians to return to Syria. Around half of Syria’s Christian communities left Syria during the civil war.

Cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, gave orders to start the rebuilding process in Iraq’s Nineveh region by focusing on the homes of the Christian genocide survivors, Fr. Salar Kajo, a priest in Teleskov, Iraq, said.

Yet “the people insisted to start with the holy places, the churches and the monasteries,” Fr. Salar said. “This is the only sign of hope that we have, and we will return because of these places.”

In Egypt, after the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood: “came after the churches,” Nermien Riad, founder of the group Coptic Orphans, said.

Why did they target the churches? “We recognize that there’s a gradual shrinking of public space for Christians in Egypt,” Riad said, as extremists want to remove public icons and statues; the exclusion of Christians from public spaces has reportedly even reached sports, as Christians have reported discrimination in joining soccer clubs and in making the national soccer team.

Thus, “churches have become the nucleus of the Christian community,” she said, and “serve as a vital support center” for Christians and a “place of refuge” for them “from the insidious messaging” of them as “second-class citizens.”

“Most importantly,” she said, “it is the last remaining vestige that we exist.”


New York law bans revenge porn

Thu, 07/25/2019 - 02:30

New York City, N.Y., Jul 25, 2019 / 12:30 am (CNA).- New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has signed a bill criminalizing revenge pornography - the distribution of sexual or nude images without the subject’s consent.

Cuomo signed the bill into law on Tuesday. It will go into effect in 60 days.

“Our laws have not kept pace with technology and how abusers can use it to harass, intimidate and humiliate intimate partners,” he said after the bill’s signing, the Hill reported.

“By criminalizing the publication of revenge porn, we are empowering victims of this heinous act to take action against their abusers and showing them a path to justice.”

The legislation makes it a Class A misdemeanor to disseminate revenge porn. Convictions may result in one year of jail time, and victims may seek additional civil recourse. The law also permits a court order to remove all of the victim’s intimate images from the web.

Under the law, revenge porn is defined as “the criminal act of unlawful dissemination or publication of an intimate image when done with the intent to cause harm to the emotional, financial, or physical welfare of another person and when the image was taken with a reasonable expectation that the image would remain private.”

According to the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, Washington D.C. and 46 states have criminalized revenge porn. New York legislators had attempted to pass the law last year, but it failed in the state Senate because social media brands and other internet companies could have been held responsible for unknowingly publicizing these images. The content of the bill was revised before it passed in February.

Kathy Hochul, Lieutenant Governor of New York, said the goal of the law is to promote justice and fight violence against women.

“This legislation ensures New Yorkers are not victims of nonconsensual release of intimate images, empowering them to take action to remove images from the Internet and subject abusers to jail time,” she said in a recent statement.

Judge blocks Arkansas abortion regulations

Wed, 07/24/2019 - 21:01

Little Rock, Ark., Jul 24, 2019 / 07:01 pm (CNA).- A federal judge in Arkansas on Tuesday temporarily blocked several new regulations on abortion clinics, which otherwise might have led to the closure of the state’s last abortion clinic.

District Court Judge Kristine Baker of the Eastern District of Arkansas issued a 14-day injunction July 23 concluding that the laws "cause ongoing and imminent irreparable harm" to patients.

The court’s ruling will allow Little Rock Family Planning Services, the abortion clinic in question, to remain open to provide medical abortions up to 10 weeks, NPR reports.

At issue are a number of abortion regulations in Arkansas, one of which is a ban on abortions after 18 weeks of pregnancy, which passed in March. Another is a law that bans abortions based solely on a Down syndrome diagnosis. The new regulations were set to go into effect July 24.

The injunction blocks the laws’ enforcement while legal challenges play out in court.

A Planned Parenthood-affiliated abortion doctor from New York City testified to the court that there is "no relationship" between board certification and the ability of a physician to perform a safe abortion, according to local station KATV.

If it stands up to judicial scrutiny, the 18-week abortion ban would be one of the strictest abortion limits in the U.S. Arkansas already has a 20-week abortion ban, enacted in 2013, which has yet to be challenged in court.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison signed a “trigger law” in February which would ban most abortions in the event the Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade court decision that recognized abortion as a constitutional right in the United States. Eight states have a law to ban abortion if Roe is overturned.

Nominee grilled over Knights of Columbus membership confirmed as federal judge

Wed, 07/24/2019 - 18:15

Washington D.C., Jul 24, 2019 / 04:15 pm (CNA).- The Senate on Wednesday voted to confirm Brian Buescher, a judicial nominee grilled by two senators last year over his membership in the Knights of Columbus. Buescher will now become a U.S. District Judge in Nebraska.
“I can’t believe I need to repeat it here in the U.S. Capitol, but there is nothing about living out one’s faith that is disqualifying for public service. To the contrary, what the Constitution does forbid is imposing any kind of religious test for public office,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kent.) stated on the Senate Floor on Wednesday before the vote.
The Senate on Wednesday voted 51-40 to confirm Buescher, with nine senators not voting. The vote fell along party lines, with Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) voting No.
Several presidential candidates, Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) did not vote.
During his confirmation hearings, Buescher faced pointed questions over his membership in the Knights of Columbus, and over the organization’s “extreme” opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, by U.S. Senators Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Kamala Harris.
A series of written questions sent by Sen. Hirono to Buescher in December stated that the Knights taken “extreme” positions including supporting California’s Proposition 8 in 2008, a successful ballot initiative to overturn same-sex marriage.
Sen. Hirono asked Buescher if he would end his membership in the Knights “to avoid any appearance of bias,” and if he would “recuse” himself “from all cases in which the Knights of Columbus has taken a position”.
Sen. Harris said the Knights opposed a woman’s “right to choose” and asked Buescher if he knew about that stance when he joined, calling the Knights “an all-male society comprised primarily of Catholic men.” She also asked the nominee if he agreed with Supreme Knight Carl Anderson’s previous statements that abortion is “the killing of the innocent on a massive scale” which has “resulted in more than 40 million deaths”.
A spokesperson for the Knights said the hostile questions hearkened back to a “sad history of anti-Catholic bigotry” in the U.S.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia also rebuked the questioning in his weekly column on Jan. 9, writing that that “[t]he sheer ignorance, not to mention injustice, in the senators’ describing the Knights as “extreme” would be baffling – if it weren’t part of pattern of bigoted thinking already sanctified by other senators like Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in her vulgar 2017 grilling of now-Judge Amy Coney Barrett (“The dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s a concern”).”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) also defended Buescher in a July 18 statement, saying that “[t]his has been a long process and we’ve had to fight everything from political smears to outright anti-Catholic bigotry.” On Wednesday, he called the opposition to Buescher’s confirmation, along with the questioning of the religious beliefs of other nominees, a “weird rebirth of McCarthyism,” according to Jason Calvi of EWTN News Nightly.

In the Senate on Wednesday, Sen. McConnell noted, tongue-in-cheek, that the “negative bombshell” on the nominee was that he “is a practicing Catholic.”

“My goodness. Imagine that, in the United States of America: a person of faith, serving in government,” McConnell said.

The Knights of Columbus are “known among other things for their love of their Catholic faith, their unparalleled commitment to charitable work, and for hosting barbecues and pancake breakfasts,” he said, in response to claims of the Knights’ “extreme” views.

Amid global Christian persecution, this Coptic archbishop urges unity

Wed, 07/24/2019 - 17:00

Washington D.C., Jul 24, 2019 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- A leading Coptic archbishop said that Christians must “walk in the shoes” of those facing global Christian persecution, while overcoming a “false” divide between churches of the East and the West.

“As Christians, we believe in the example of Christ, who came and walked in our shoes, the humanity, to be our advocate.”

“And if we’re going to advocate for others, we’re going to need to walk in their shoes as well, whether they be in the Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia or anywhere else,” Archbishop Angaelos, Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London and an international religious freedom advocate, told CNA in an interview last week.
“I think one of the false barriers we have is this ‘Christians of the East and Christians of the West’ mentality. A Christian is a Christian. The Body of Christ is the Body of Christ,” he added.

Archbishop Angaelos talked with CNA at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, hosted by the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. from July 15-19. The meeting - the second of its kind - featured religious and civic leaders from around the world, as well as delegations from 106 countries, meeting to discuss religious persecution and strategies to promote and defend religious freedom.
The archbishop, who spoke at the Ministerial, is the first Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London, appointed to the role in 2017 after having served as General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom since 1999. He has also been recognized by Queen Elizabeth II as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his “Services to International Religious Freedom.”

The beheading of 20 Coptic Christians and one Ghanaian Christian by ISIS militants on the shores of Libya in February of 2015, filmed for global distribution by ISIS, was a “turning point” in global consciousness of Christian persecution, the archbishop said.

“I think they captured the imagination of people. I think it was one red line too many that was crossed,” he said. “They saw that these men were brutally killed for no other reason than they were Christians, and the grace with which they reacted was iconic.”

Also, he said, the refugee crisis used to be a “distant” phenomenon, he said, but now “Western countries have had to deal with the situation, and so it’s become more prevalent, more understood.” He also credited Pope Francis with helping bring international attention to the refugee crisis.
Christians are persecuted in more countries than any other religious group, according to the Pew Research Center, being harassed, detained, imprisoned, tortured, or killed for their faith in 144 different countries.
Christians in the West must actively “engage with” their persecuted brethren elsewhere, “speak with the people on the ground, see what they need, see how they want to be helped rather than how we think they should be helped,” he said.
“We’ve got to make sure this isn’t about us and our conscience, that we just feel like we’ve done something well. It’s actually about standing with people who are facing existential challenges,” he said.
Coptic Christians in Egypt continue to face harassment and acts of violence by their neighbors, but also face a quiet persecution of marginalization in the country with only “a few token appointments” to government positions, and “no significant appointments.”
This persecution is not a recent phenomenon, he said; the modern persecution dates back to the revolution in the 1950s with the revolution and the gradual radicalization of Egypt.
“We’ve started to see a change in Egypt, but it’s going to take a long time, it’s going to have to be intentional and programmatic,” he said.
The archbishop praised Pope Francis’ work to draw attention to the plight of persecuted Christians.
In 2013, Pope Francis referenced an “ecumenism of blood” that can unite Christians. Archbishop Angaelos noted that heard Pope Francis say that “before any of the major attacks had happened.”
“I think if you look at our history and our tradition, we have shared a history of martyrdom, a history of people dying for their faith,” he said.
“And so I am very thankful to His Holiness Pope Francis for having been a wonderful and clear and courageous and gracious voice, and I am thankful for the relationship he has with Pope Tawadros.”

For Christians in Northern Iraq, rebuilding is still a daunting challenge

Wed, 07/24/2019 - 15:21

Washington D.C., Jul 24, 2019 / 01:21 pm (CNA).- As some Christian genocide victims rebuild their homes in Northern Iraq, a tenuous security situation still threatens their future in the region.

“Every week we have two, three families leaving,” Father Salar Kajo, a priest of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Teleskov, Iraq and member of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, told CNA last week at an international religious freedom gathering in Washington, D.C.

However, he added, “we will not lose our hope and our faith.”

Fr. Salar spoke with CNA at the Second Annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, held at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. from July 15-19. The ministerial was attended by religious and civic leaders from all over the world, including representatives of 106 countries; it was held to draw attention to religious persecution and to promote freedom of religion.

A major discussion topic at the ministerial was the role of U.S. assistance in Northern Iraq to help Christian and Yazidi survivors of the ISIS genocide rebuild for the future.

ISIS was driven from Mosul in 2017, and the last remaining town of the original caliphate in Syria fell earlier this year. Yet many Christians who fled the ISIS onslaught in 2014 have not returned to their homes in Mosul and the Nineveh region, and an estimated 360,000 Yazidis are still displaced in Kurdistan and have not returned to Sinjar.

The primary obstacle to their safe return is a lack of security, said Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, in an interview with CNA at the ministerial.

Although the territorial ISIS caliphate is gone, the security threats to Christians and Yazidis in the region are two-fold: ISIS splinter cells that continue to operate, and Iran-backed militias that commit abuses with impunity.

There are up to 15,000 ISIS fighters estimated to have remained in Iraq, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

Meanwhile, militias that are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have committed abuses against Christians, Yazidis and other minorities, and Iran’s influence in the PMF has grown. Militias are harassing Christians, extorting them and stealing plumbing and wiring materials from their homes as part of Iran’s “colonization” effort in the area, Anderson wrote in an April op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

Despite the abuses, the Iraqi central government has failed to hold the militias accountable, allowing them to operate with “impunity,” panel members at last week’s ministerial said in agreement.

The security situation in Teleskov is “okay,” Fr. Salar told CNA, but other towns are far less secure; residents of Batnaya and Tall Kayf, for instance, will not return until the militias there are gone, he said. The tension in the area has only been exacerbated by the threat of a U.S.-Iran regional conflict.

The U.S. had a direct hand in sparing the town of Teleskov from a conflict between militias and the Peshmerga around the time of the Kurdish referendum in 2017, Fr. Salar said. Most families had fled the town, but Fr. Salar remained with around a dozen young people despite orders to leave from the militias. He contacted the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad for help. “They supported us, and they stopped everything,” he said.

One long-term solution to the security problem is “more community policing,” Anderson told CNA. Officers in the police forces need to come from the communities they serve, so that local religious and ethnic minorities can have “confidence” in law enforcement and enjoy more security, he said.

Aid to genocide survivors requires a level of security to be effective, yet it also cannot simply be short-term food, clothing, and shelter. To build for the future, families need the goods to live a normal life—education, infrastructure, and jobs—made possible through economic investment and international assistance.

Countries like Hungary and Poland have already been helping with resettlement efforts; the Hungarian government donated $2 million in 2017 to help rebuild the town Teleskov in Nineveh. The Knights of Columbus delivered $2 million for the town of Karamles in just over 12 months in 2017-18, and Aid to the Church in Need has also been instrumental in helping Christians in the area recover and resettle.

However, leaders on the ground have insisted for years that substantial U.S. assistance is necessary for the long-term stabilization of the region; charitable groups can only bring so many resources to the table. For years, displaced Christian families reportedly were almost entirely dependent upon groups like the Knights of Columbus and the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil for humanitarian assistance. They claimed that little to no assistance reached them from the U.S. and the United Nations.

Then, at the annual In Defense of Christians Solidarity Dinner in October of 2017 in Washington, D.C., Vice President Mike Pence promised that the U.S. would begin directly funding aid groups working on the ground in the region, rather than sending assistance through the United Nations.

Members in Congress also worked to establish a policy change like this one. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) introduced the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act to authorize and direct the U.S. to fund aid groups working with persecuted religious and ethnic minorities. The legislation passed the U.S. Congress in November of 2018 and was signed into law in December of 2018.

Pence’s announcement represented a sea-change in U.S. policy; persecuted communities would have a hand in determining the assistance they would receive, explained Mark Green, the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to CNA at last week’s ministerial.

Pence “gave us the mandate, basically, and the space to, community-by-community, reach out to local faith leaders and say, ‘Look, we want to work with you. What are your needs?’ Not us telling them what their needs are, but instead them telling us what their needs are,” Green told CNA.

And now the U.S. has someone in Iraq dedicated to working with the local minority communities—USAID’s Special Representative for Minority Assistance Programs in Iraq, Max Primorac. He “spends his time every day going to communities,” Green said. “I’ve met with Archbishop [Bashar] Warda a number of times, and our team does all the time.”

Yet in the months after Pence’s announcement, Iraq’s Christians said the promised assistance was slow in arriving. Multiple proposals to USAID by local aid groups were rejected, prompting Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil to tell the National Catholic Register in June of 2018 that Pence’s announcement had backfired in a sense—it had encouraged some donors to move on to other charitable causes with the assumption that Iraq’s Christians now had a secure backing from the U.S., which they apparently did not.

Green promised that help was on the way. On Wednesday, a USAID official told CNA that the U.S. has provided approximately $367 million for the Vice President’s initiative to support persecuted ethnic and religious minorities in Northern Iraq; USAID contributed $308 million, and the State Department has contributed $57 million, the official said.

Green told CNA that the overall process of providing the needed assistance is encouraging but much work remains to be done. “In some ways, it’s turning an aircraft carrier around in a canal,” he said.

Anderson agreed that the agency “is working very hard” but is dealing with a regulatory process that will slow the delivery of aid.

There has been “an incredible change in the bureaucratic orientation” in the past year, Primorac said last week at a ministerial side event on the Holy Sites in the Middle East. The Chaldean Catholic Church, Syriac Orthodox Church, and Syriac Catholic Church are now seeing “equal treatment” by the U.S. with other non-religious civic organizations in how assistance is distributed.

The U.S. has funded efforts to restore or rehabilitate holy sites in the area, such as projects at St. Matthew’s monastery, or Mar Mattai, of the Syriac Orthodox Church and damage assessments at St. George’s Monastery in Mosul, Primorac said; the U.S. is also the largest donor for demining operations in Iraq.

Local priests also attested to the U.S. help in the region. Fr. Thabet Habib Youssef, a priest from Karamles, told attendees at the ministerial that the U.S. has provided useful construction equipment and trucks to help clear out rubble, and helped bring water and electricity back to the town.

He begged the U.S. not to create a “culture of dependency” with aid, but to honor the “dignity of work” through public-private projects that create “honest economic growth.”

Creating local jobs will be critical to keeping the youth from leaving and securing the future, Fr. Salar said, “because without youth in these places, in 10 or 15 years we will lose everything.”

Fr. Salar still keeps contact with families who have left Iraq for nearby countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Some are “ready to return back,” he said, but “we can’t give them a sign of hope” at the moment. Their return may be dependent on whether the Iraqi government in Baghdad is “working with us,” he said.

The rebuilding of churches is also critical to the future of the Iraqi Christians, as they join their very identity to the local churches and monasteries. In the rebuilding of Karamles, Anderson said, it was “very important to have a church, very important to have cultural centers restored.”

However, in addition to security and international assistance, Christians in Iraq need to have the law on their side. Specifically, they need legal accountability for the perpetrators of genocide, and equality under the law in Iraq so that they are not treated as second-class citizens.

The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crime of Genocide was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948 as a “Never Again” response to the horrors of the Holocaust.

“If that is to mean anything,” said Lord David Alton of Liverpool, a member of the UK House of Lords, in an interview with CNA at a ministerial side event, “we have a duty according to the Convention to prevent genocides from happening, to protect those who are going to be subject to genocide, and then to punish those who are responsible. And we have been failing on all three counts.”

If the ISIS perpetrators of genocide are not held accountable for their atrocities, “it’s like giving a green light” to despots and military leaders around the world to commit abuses with “impunity,” Lord Alton said.

While the International Criminal Court is not recognized by many countries, “we should be creating an ad hoc tribunal” to try the ISIS perpetrators of atrocities, he said, “not unlike the one that operated at Nuremburg after the Second World War.”

Changes to the Iraqi constitution are also needed to recognize the rights of Christians, Fr. Salar said, because they are currently treated as second-class citizens. Christians have acted as peacemakers between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Arabs and Kurds, and other minorities, he said.

“Believe me, we are working hard with them because we consider ourselves the life in these places, and the salt, also. Without the salt, there is no taste,” Fr. Salar said.

Catholic groups installing 5,000 solar panels in DC

Tue, 07/23/2019 - 18:32

Washington D.C., Jul 23, 2019 / 04:32 pm (CNA).- Catholic organizations are installing 5,000 solar panels in a five-acre space in Washington, D.C., in what will become the largest ground array of solar panels in the city.

The project is being led by Catholic Energies, which is a nonprofit organization that is part of the Catholic Climate Covenant. Catholic Energies is working with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington to design and create the solar panel field. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington owns the field, which is next to a retirement home and convent.

“Catholic Energies was born as a way of providing the time, the expertise, and probably more importantly, the resources,” for creating renewable energy projects in Catholic-owned-and-operated buildings, Page Gravely, the executive vice president for client services at Catholic Energies, told CNA.

These resources are primarily financial, as energy efficiency projects are typically expensive. Catholic Energies will team up with renewable energy companies, who act as investors and work with contractors to make the projects come to life. In return, the investors receive a federal tax credit, and other financial incentives. In this project, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington will not pay anything for the solar panels.

In this project, IGS Solar is the investing company. Washington, D.C., has the highest solar tax credit in the country.

Gravely explained that Catholic Energies’ COO Dan Last kept being asked, “How do we actually put into action...Laudato Si? What can we do here at a parish or at a church?”

Initially, the group worked with LED retrofitting. LED lights are more energy-efficient than traditional incandescent light bulbs. The company shifted focus to solar after receiving numerous inquiries from potential clients about solar panels.

“I think really from the standpoint that there was familiarity with it,” said Gravely. “Folks that both could use it at home, or they just knew about solar and you know the growth in the solar market has been well-publicized, but also it was a larger impact,” he said.

Compared to an LED retrofit, solar panels are also far more visible and tangible.

“So we pivoted,” he said. The field in D.C. is Catholic Energies’ second project in the area. In June, they coordinated the installation of 440 solar panels at Immaculate Conception Church in Hampton, VA. The panels will account for the entirety of the parish’s energy usage.

The project in Washington received some concerns and pushback from those who live near the site, who were concerned about the environmental impact of the panel installation.

Gravely told CNA that these concerns were considered, and there will be 100 trees planted in the field to create a screening effect for the panels, as well as to help beautify the area. Additionally, there will be flowers planted to help rebuild the bee, bird, and butterfly populations. Catholic Energies worked with the city to ensure that stormwater runoff would not be impacted.

“There’s still gonna always be a handful of the neighbors not happy with it, but we can only do so much. And we've done a lot,” said Gravely.

The panels are scheduled to be operating by March of 2020. The energy produced by the solar panels will be returned to the D.C. power grid, and the energy credits will be enough to cover the energy cost of 12 buildings owned by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Christian baker asks for dismissal of lawsuit over cake signifying gender transition

Tue, 07/23/2019 - 16:01

Denver, Colo., Jul 23, 2019 / 02:01 pm (CNA).- Attorneys for Denver-area cake artist Jack Phillips filed a motion Monday to dismiss a third lawsuit seeking to force him to create a cake that expresses a message contrary to his religious beliefs.

Colorado lawyer Autumn Scardina, who filed an unsuccessful complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission in 2017, is seeking $100,000 in monetary damages plus legal fees in the third lawsuit Phillips has faced in seven years.

Phillips, a Christian, is the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, a Denver suburb. He has operated his shop since 1993 and has focused his talents on artistic cakes.

“Phillips wants to peacefully live out his faith as a cake artist by serving all people while declining to express messages that violate his beliefs,” the July 22 motion to dismiss, filed by attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom, reads.

“After losing in court, the state [of Colorado] was content to leave Phillips alone to do just that. But Scardina won’t allow it.”

“Phillips requests that the court dismiss the complaint so that he can return to the life he had before the state and Scardina targeted him for his faith,” the motion concludes.

Phillips has said in the past that he not only has declined same-sex union cakes, but he also declines other types of cakes that go against his beliefs, including cakes for Halloween, bachelor parties, divorce, cakes with alcohol in the ingredients, and cakes with atheist messages.

Phillips in 2018 won a six year legal battle that led all the way up to the Supreme Court, whose ruling upheld Phillips’ religious freedom and freedom of expression in his declining to make a cake in 2012 that would have celebrated a same-sex union. Phillips said that particular kind of cake would violate his religious beliefs, but that he would create other kinds of cakes for the couple. Colorado law did not recognize same-sex unions as marriages at the time.

Three months after winning the Supreme Court case, Scardina, who identifies as a transgender woman, sued Phillips for his refusal to make Scardina a gender transition cake – pink on the inside and blue on the outside.

Phillips then countersued the state of Colorado, claiming that he was being persecuted for his religious beliefs. The case was dropped in March 2019 “after the discovery phase demonstrated that the state was displaying ‘anti-religious hostility’ by continuing to pursue Phillips,’” the National Review reported.

Scardina on June 5 of this year sued Phillips for a second time, claiming that he refused to make Scardina a birthday cake.

According to the complaint, filed with the District Court for the city and county of Denver, Scardina called Masterpiece Cakeshop to order a “birthday cake – one in a simple design that Defendants admit they would make for any other customer.”

The complaint noted that Phillips has said previously that he would be happy to make other kinds of cakes for LGBT individuals, as long as they expressed messages that did not violate his religious beliefs.

In the call, Scardina requested from Masterpiece Cakeshop a birthday cake for 6-8 people, with pink cake and blue frosting. A Masterpiece Cakeshop employee confirmed to Scardina that they could make such a cake.

“Ms. Scardina then informed Masterpiece Cakeshop that the requested design had personal significance for her because it reflects her status as a transgender female,” the complaint states.

It was at this point that Masterpiece Cakeshop told Scardina that they “did not make cakes for ‘sex changes.’” Scardina reconfirmed that it was a birthday cake, but Masterpiece Cakeshop declined to take the order and ended the call, according to the complaint.

Scardina called Masterpiece Cakeshop again, in case the previous call had been unintentionally disconnected, the complaint states. Scardina spoke to a different Masterpiece Cakeshop employee about the same order, and that employee also declined the order, saying that making such a cake would violate their religious beliefs.

“Masterpiece Cakeshop, at the direction of Phillips, refused to sell a birthday cake to Ms. Scardina because of her status as a transgender woman,” the complaint states.

The cake Scardina mentions in the new complaint is notably similar to the gender transition cake Scardina requested from Masterpiece Cakeshop in 2017, which was also requested to be made with pink cake and blue frosting.

ADF reported that Scardina had also asked Phillips to create a custom cake depicting satanic themes and images.