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Dozens of lawmakers press Trump for religious freedom protection

Mon, 05/01/2017 - 18:30

Washington D.C., May 1, 2017 / 04:30 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- More than 50 members of Congress have written President Donald Trump asking for a broad executive order that protects religious freedom.

“Freedom to follow one’s conscience, faith and deeply held moral convictions is at the heart of our country’s identity,” said Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.), one of the letter’s signatories.

House Republicans recently sent a letter to President Trump asking for an executive order that could protect the religious freedom of various entities, USA Today reported.

“We write to express our encouragement and support for prompt executive action ensuring religious liberty protections for all Americans and look forward to working with you on complementary legislation,” the letter stated.

Religious freedom advocates have warned that, due to various mandates and rules issued during the Obama administration, religious institutions that uphold traditional marriage or do not cooperate with abortions and contraceptive use could soon face federal action if no executive order is issued to protect them.

A draft of such an executive order was leaked earlier this year, but was reportedly scuttled due to the efforts of Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner.

“Americans don’t give up those freedoms when they open a family business or enter the workplace or provide health coverage for their employees,” Hultgren stated. “The federal government has recently handed down more and more mandates on Americans – it’s time to reverse this trend. Protecting individual liberty is crucial to ensuring a free society.”

One example the lawmakers cited for where such an order could be effective was a repeal of the HHS birth control mandate, which caused hundreds of religious non-profits and other employers to sue the federal government claiming the mandate forced them to violate their consciences.

The Trump administration has not yet stopped defending the mandate in court, although White House advisor Leonard Leo told Axios recently that the administration was not planning to defend the mandate indefinitely, but was rather still considering the best “litigation proof” route for lifting the mandate’s burden on religious employers.

Another reason for an executive order would be the protection of health care providers and crisis pregnancy centers from mandates that they perform abortions or cover them in employee health plans, the letter claimed.

“Despite clear federal statutes to the contrary, medical professionals have been forced by their employing hospitals to assist in abortions and state governments such as California have required religious organizations to cover abortion in their health plans,” the members of Congress stated.

Currently, the Weldon Amendments bars federal funding of states that force employers to provide abortion coverage for employees. But after California ruled that health care plans – including those of churches and religious organizations – had to include coverage for elective abortions, the head of the Office of Civil Rights at the federal Department of Health and Human Services decided last summer that the state had not violated the Weldon Amendment.

An executive order, the Congressmen claim, could fix this violation of the freedoms of churches and religious employers.

Also at stake is the tax-exempt status of schools and other religious institutions which teach that marriage is one man and one woman, the letter claimed.

For this, the signatories cited President Obama’s solicitor general Donald Verrilli, who said in 2015 oral arguments in the same-sex marriage case Obergefell v. Hodges, that the ability of these colleges to retain their tax-exempt status if same-sex marriage is the law of the land is “certainly going to be an issue.”

The Trump administration, the members of Congress said, “need not and should not wait for Congress to act before ordering the federal government to stop discriminating against individuals and institutions because of their reasonable beliefs on issues of deep concern to people of faith and good will.”

Another way an executive order could protect religious freedom would be to protect federal contractors, and dioceses and churches that provide military chaplains, from having to comply with mandates that they support same-sex marriage.

The Russell Amendment had upheld this freedom and was included in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that passed the House, but was removed by Senate Republicans so the bill could pass the Senate.

“Any Executive Order should make it clear that religious freedom entails more than the freedom to worship but also includes the ability to act on one's beliefs,” the U.S. Bishops’ Conference stated earlier this year on the need for an executive order.

“It should also protect individuals and families who run closely-held businesses in accordance with their faith to the greatest extent possible.”


Catholics call survival 'miraculous' after tornado hits church

Mon, 05/01/2017 - 16:57

Tyler, Texas, May 1, 2017 / 02:57 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- On Saturday night, parishioners of St. John the Evangelist church in Emory, Texas received the horrifying news that a tornado was heading in the direction of their church.

Immediately, the parishioners found the safest spot they could – the hallway in between their parish hall and the main church.

“About 30 seconds after we went into the hallway, it hit,” said youth minister Monica Hughes, according to CNN. “Everybody dropped to the floor and protected one another.”

The hallway was the refuge for about 45 parishioners, which included toddlers and students of St. John the Evangelist. Hughes and her husband fought against the strong wind to hold the hallway doors shut before the tornado hit – all while watching their church being torn apart by the storm.

“We could see the beams bending and the aluminum roof being ripped away,” Hughes recalled.

Throughout the terrifying experience, Hughes said that “everyone was perfectly calm and felt like it was going to be OK.” When the tornado seemed like it was over, they began to sing to keep the children calm and continued to pray for their safety.

The parishioners remained in the hallway for about two hours until EMS arrived, but they were removed from the location because of a gas leak and destroyed power lines.

“Both ends of the building were blown out,” stated Peyton Low, the director of public affairs for the Diocese of Tyler, Texas.

“People are using the term ‘miraculous’ to describe what happened on Saturday night – the same night that at least three tornadoes killed four people in east Texas,” Low said.

All of parishioners at the church were unharmed, although most of the church was destroyed.

Despite conditions, the parish gave thanks for their safety during the tornado, and celebrated Mass outside of the church on Sunday.

“By the grace of God and the protection of Our Lady, no one was injured,” Low stated, saying “they gave thanks that the people inside survived.”

Five deaths and 45 injuries have been confirmed across east Texas from the multiple tornadoes on Saturday night, and displacement centers have been set up at local churches in the area.

St. John's is a small parish of about 150 families in Rains County, just outside of Dallas. The parish damage estimates and relief effort updates will be posted to their website as more information is gathered.

“Please keep the parishioners of St. John and all affected by the storm in your prayers,” the Diocese of Tyler said in a statement on its website.

Photo Credit: Ben Fisher, Catholic East Texas Magazine, Diocese of Tyler.

Watch Blake Lively's powerful speech against child pornography

Mon, 05/01/2017 - 12:59

New York City, N.Y., May 1, 2017 / 10:59 am (CNA).- Editor’s note: Some readers may find the content of this article and video disturbing.

In a deeply emotional speech in New York, award winning actress Blake Lively shone a spotlight on the crisis of child pornography, calling for greater awareness and resources to fight the epidemic.

“Sexual exploitation of children is something that isn’t happening rarely, it’s not happening worlds away,” she said. “It’s happening right here and right now.”

Lively was among Variety's 2017 Power of Women: New York honorees. She used her April 21 speech to draw attention to the Child Rescue Coalition, a group that helps identify IP addresses that are trading child pornography, and gives that information to law enforcement.

Police can then use that information to find the people who are engaged in trading child pornography, which is a felony.

Lively began her speech by saying that her deep concern for the topic of child pornography arose from the fact that she is a mother with two young children.

“I would do anything to protect them. I would literally die for them, without a moment’s thought,” she said.

From a mother’s perspective, she said that she was devastated upon realizing how common child pornography is, and that the children who are victims are often too young to speak up for themselves or report the crimes being committed against them.

What’s even more disturbing, she said, is that as viewers of child pornography become desensitized, they start looking for younger and younger children.

Just how young? Lively said that a law enforcement officer who has worked in child pornography prevention told her that he found pornographic videos of infants, with their umbilical cord still attached.

And the acts that these children are enduring are unspeakable, she said, including rape, torture, bondage and bestiality, among other acts.

“Anything you can think of, it’s out there and it’s being traded. And it’s 30-50 million files a day being traded, that we know of.”

Also alarming – the statistics indicate that the majority of child porn viewers are or will become abusers themselves.

“This is so prevalent, and I want you guys to know this, and I want it to resonate with you,” Lively said.

She stressed the importance of proactive groups like the Child Rescue Coalition, which in just three years has helped find 9,000 predators and has save 2,000 children.

Noting that her audience consisted of many wealthy, well-connected people, she asked for help in connecting Child Rescue Coalition to big companies for the purpose of forming partnerships, as well as for donations so that the group can continue offering its free services to law enforcement.


In Trump's first 100 days, Catholics find a mixed bag

Sat, 04/29/2017 - 07:27

Washington D.C., Apr 29, 2017 / 05:27 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Catholic leaders have found cause for both praise and concern after the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency.

“Catholics have reason for optimism. But like the first 100 days, the road ahead remains difficult,” Brian Burch, president of, said on the organization’s scorecard for the first 100 days of the Trump presidency.


Pro-life leaders have found a lot to like from the Trump administration so far.

“President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have been game changers for the pro-life movement,” Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser stated. “Not only have there been several pro-life victories within the first 100 days of their administration, we are confident that pro-life progress will continue. This is a new era.”

A week after Trump was inaugurated, Vice President Mike Pence addressed the 44th annual March for Life on the National Mall, the first time a sitting vice president has done so. Senior advisor Kellyanne Conway also addressed the pro-life rally.

“Life is winning in America,” Pence insisted to cheering attendees, as he exhorted them to “let this movement be known for love, not anger” and “let it be known for compassion, not confrontation.”

On Jan. 23, Trump reinstated the Mexico City Policy which bans U.S. funding of international non-government organizations that promote or perform abortions.

This is traditionally one of the first policy decisions a new president makes and serves as a signal of the administration’s policy on abortion. President Reagan first introduced the policy in 1984. It was repealed by President Clinton when he took office, reinstated by President Bush in 2001, and repealed again by President Obama in 2009.

In April, the Trump administration pulled its funding of the UNFPA over its involvement in China’s infamous two-child policy, formerly a one-child policy, which has resulted in mass forced sterilizations and abortions. Funding was redirected to USAID for family planning purposes.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, chair of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee, called the funding withdrawal a “victory for women and children across the globe.”

Shortly afterward, the administration signed a joint resolution passed by Congress that nullified an Obama administration rule that pro-life leaders had called a “parting gift to Planned Parenthood.”

That rule forbade states from withholding federal Title X funds to health providers simply because they performed abortions. Now with the rule nullified, states can once again block Planned Parenthood and other abortion groups from Title X funding. Cardinal Dolan also approved of that rule change, calling it a reversal of “very bad public policy.”

In addition to signing bills into law, “personnel is policy,” Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life, insisted to reporters on a Thursday conference call on Trump’s first 100 days.

She pointed to the picks of Vice President Mike Pence and senior advisor Kellyanne Conway as two examples of President Trump surrounding himself with persons with strong pro-life records.

Burch agreed that “President Trump has assembled a great Cabinet.”

He pointed to the pro-life appointments at the Department of Health and Human Services as examples of this. Former pro-life congressman Dr. Tom Price was tapped to be Secretary of Health and Human Services; Dr. Charmaine Yoest, former CEO of the pro-life group Americans United for Life, has been named to be assistant secretary of public affairs at HHS; and lawyer Matt Bowman, formerly of Alliance Defending Freedom, was also picked to join HHS.

“The Trump administration is staffed with thousands of high-caliber individuals like this,” Burch said.

Mancini also pointed to Trump’s nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as another positive sign for the pro-life movement.

“Justice Gorsuch is a constitutionalist, committed to respecting the text and intent of lawmakers rather than legislating from the bench,” Burch stated, giving Trump an “A+” grade for the Supreme Court nomination.

CatholicVote provided a report card for Trump’s first 100 days. They gave Trump an “A” grade on the “sanctity of life” issues, noting that other achievements like the defunding of Planned Parenthood are still expected.

Although Gorsuch had not ruled specifically on an abortion case as judge, pro-life leaders have noted his dissent in a Tenth Circuit decision that overturned Utah’s defunding of Planned Parenthood.

Additionally, in his confirmation hearings, when asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) if a “super-precedent” existed for the Court’s Roe decision that legalized abortion, Gorsuch would not say that one existed, only saying that the Roe decision had “precedent,” according to EWTN’s Dr. Matthew Bunson.

Gorsuch was confirmed by the Senate on April 7 after Democrats threatened a filibuster. Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) invoked the “nuclear option” to end the filibuster threat, whereby Gorsuch could then be confirmed with a simple majority vote. He was confirmed by the Senate 54-45.

Religious Freedom

Gorsuch’s appointment is expected to impact religious freedom cases for years to come. One of the first major cases he heard from the Supreme Court bench was the religious freedom case of Trinity Lutheran, a preschool in Columbia, Mo. operated by Trinity Lutheran Church. That case is expected to be the premier religious freedom case of the Spring 2017 term.

Gorsuch sat over high-profile HHS mandate cases while he was on the Tenth Circuit, ruling both times with plaintiffs – Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor – in favor of their religious freedom to not comply with the birth control mandate and the supposed “accommodation” offered by the government to objecting non-profits.

Another significant move by Trump administration was to stop fighting in court for the Obama administration’s “transgender mandate.” That policy had directed schools to let students use the bathroom of their current gender identity and not their birth gender.

Leading U.S. bishops had criticized the mandate as infringing on the “privacy concerns” of young students and said it “contradicts a basic understanding of human formation so well expressed by Pope Francis: that ‘the young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created’.”

After the administration announced it would drop its appeal for the policy in court, the Supreme Court sent a Virginia transgender bathroom case back to the lower courts.

However, the administration’s accomplishments in upholding religious freedom have ultimately been mixed, advocates argue, and one large reason why is that Trump has not issued a broad executive order upholding religious freedom and the rights of conscience as expected.

This is vital, Dr. Jay Richards of the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America said, because for any entity contracting with the government – or institutions receiving federal funding like Christian schools that provide federal student loans – they could be subject to actions from the government stemming from Obama-era orders on LGBT status.

Thus, charities or schools that uphold traditional marriage as part of their mission could be subject to actions from the government, unless a new executive order protects them.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops tried to get support for such an executive order, insisting that “any Executive Order should make it clear that religious freedom entails more than the freedom to worship but also includes the ability to act on one's beliefs. It should also protect individuals and families who run closely-held businesses in accordance with their faith to the greatest extent possible.”

CatholicVote gave Trump a “C-“ grade on religious freedom issues, noting that “a leaked draft of an excellent Executive Order” on religious freedom “was stymied, according to reports, by Jared and Ivanka Trump along with outside left-wing groups.”

“Catholics are patient, but want action on religious liberty. And soon,” Burch said.

Refugees and Immigration

Early in his first 100 days, Trump issued an executive order to temporarily halt refugee admissions into the U.S. for four months and indefinitely suspend the admission of Syrian refugees. The order also halted visa admissions for most persons from seven countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.

The order was ultimately halted from going into effect by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court. A revised executive order that was released later left out the indefinite ban on Syrian refugees and left Iraq off the list of countries from which most nationals would be barred from entering the U.S. It still halted refugee admissions for four months and capped the overall intake for FY 2017 at 50,000 refugees.

Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, Tex., the chair of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee, was “deeply troubled” at the revised order and said that the refugee admissions program was already well-vetted and secure. Catholic Relief Services said that since global forced displacement is at its highest levels ever recorded, the U.S. must not shut off its refugee admissions program.

The order was ultimately halted from going into effect by federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland.

Trump also signed an executive order in January that would bar federal funding of “sanctuary cities,” or cities that publicly did not follow through with federal laws on deportation of undocumented immigrants. The chair of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee, Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, Tex., stated that the move “would force all jurisdictions to accept a one-size-fits-all regime that might not be best for their particular jurisdictions.”

In February, the Department of Homeland Security, enforcing the immigration orders, released new rules that did away with protections for unaccompanied children and asylum seekers coming to the border, created new detention centers, sped up the deportation process, and increased the punishments for undocumented parents who have their children smuggled into the U.S.

Bishop Vasquez warned that the new rules “greatly expand the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.”

CatholicVote, meanwhile, rated Trump’s immigration policies so far a “B,” saying that “his poorly drafted and delivered order on restricting refugees from dangerous countries was revised and continues to face legal opposition,” but “his stepped-up enforcement has rightly focused on hardened criminals while moderating on those who immigrated illegally as children (Dreamers).”

“Illegal immigration has plummeted, even without a wall,” Burch stated.

Health Care

Another major priority for Trump’s first 100 days was health care. A replacement for the Affordable Care Act was introduced in March with the goal of passing it on March 23, the seven-year anniversary of the ACA being signed into law.

The proposed American Health Care Act attempted to keep in place some policies of the original health care law like a ban on insurers denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, and young people being able to stay on their parents’ health plans until the age of 26.

However, it sought to replace other major parts of the law. The individual mandate – enforced by fines for people not having health insurance – would be replaced with a fine of up to 30 percent of one’s new premium for a significant gap in coverage. Federal subsidies would be replaced with tax credits for purchasing insurance.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had ultimately opposed the Affordable Care Act under Obama because of provisions they said allowed for abortion funding in health plans. They praised the original health care law’s expansion of coverage for low-income and sick groups, although they opposed its lack of coverage for immigrants.

With the new proposal, leading bishops praised its protections against federal funding of elective abortions, but expressed serious concerns with its lack of conscience protections for doctors and other health care providers against government mandates like the transgender mandate.

Additionally, Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Fla., chair of the bishops’ domestic justice committee, worried that the new legislation could result in less affordable coverage for groups that need it the most: the elderly, the chronically ill, and the poor. For instance, the tax credits replacing subsidies were not favorably written for the elderly, he said. The 30 percent fine for a gap in coverage could act as a deterrent for someone to purchase health coverage.

Groups like the Catholic health care ministry (CMF) CURO, however, supported passage of the new bill as a step in the direction of more patient-centered health care reform, as well as a law that would help reduce abortion funding in health care.

Ultimately, the American Health Care Act failed to even make it to the House floor for a vote, but has been amended and brought back to consideration in the House. Among the new additions is an amendment that allows states to do away with “essential health benefits” like coverage for maternity care and hospitalizations that were mandated under the Affordable Care Act.

Bishop Dewane issued a strong statement this week criticizing the revised health care bill for similar reasons as he opposed the original AHCA. Members of Congress should not vote for the revised bill, he said on Thursday.

Foreign Policy

On foreign policy, Trump ordered missile strikes earlier this month on a Syrian airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack in Idlib that killed around 100 and hospitalized hundreds. After the Syrian air force had bombed a neighborhood in the Idlib province, hundreds of civilians either died or were hospitalized with symptoms of exposure to sarin, a deadly nerve agent.

The U.S. said that forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad were responsible for the attack, and a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against the airbase that was used by Syrian forces for the bombing.

Moral theologian Joseph Capizzi of The Catholic University of America told CNA that the response was “judicious” and was needed to uphold international agreements against the use of chemical weapons. Dr. Tom Farr of Georgetown University said “the strikes were fully justified, both as a means of punishing the evil acts that took place - especially (but not only) the slow torture and execution of babies by means of Sarin gas - and as a means of deterring the regime from further acts of evil like this.”

Meanwhile, Syrian clerics decried the attack, saying that an investigation should have been first conducted to prove who the perpetrators of the chemical attack were. Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo told CNA he hoped the U.S. “would have done something toward peace and reconciliation and a political solution” in Syria.


Major pro-life advocate Charmaine Yoest appointed to key HHS role

Fri, 04/28/2017 - 17:23

Washington D.C., Apr 28, 2017 / 03:23 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- On Friday, President Donald Trump announced his intention to appoint prominent pro-life legislative activist Charmaine Yoest as the new assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Yoest served for years as president and CEO of Americans United for Life, a pro-life law organization that works to coordinate and support the advance of pro-life legislation, particularly at the state level. She is currently a senior fellow at American Values in Washington, D.C.

With a Ph.D. in American Government from the University of Virginia, Yoest also served as project director of a national study on paid parental leave in academia. She worked in the White House under Ronald Reagan in the Office of Presidential Personnel.

In taking the position at Health and Human Service, Yoest will replace Kevin Griffis, who was recently named the new vice president of communications for Planned Parenthood.

During his campaign for president, Trump made several promises to run a pro-life administration. He pledged to nominate pro-life Supreme Court justices; sign into law a ban on late-term abortions; defund Planned Parenthood and reallocate funding to community health centers that do not perform abortions; and make permanent a ban taxpayer funding of abortion.

Upon entering office, he reinstated the Mexico City Policy, which states that foreign non-governmental organizations may not receive federal funding if they perform or promote abortions as a method of family planning.


White House advisor reiterates Trump's commitment to religious freedom

Fri, 04/28/2017 - 14:10

Washington D.C., Apr 28, 2017 / 12:10 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A White House advisor rejected recent concerns that the Trump administration supports the controversial HHS mandate, saying it is simply a matter of timing in finding a “litigation-proof” alternative.

“The administration is not stepping back. It's doing precisely what it should be doing here... because of the way people are attacking Trump executive orders, it's very important that this thing gets done right and be as litigation-proof as possible, knowing full well they're going to get sued anyway,” said White House advisor Leonard Leo, according to Axios.

His comments came amid concerns by religious groups after the Washington Post on Tuesday reported that the Justice Department had asked a federal appeals court for 60 extra days to negotiate an agreement with East Texas Baptist University and several other plaintiffs challenging the controversial HHS mandate. The Supreme Court last year had instructed the Obama administration to negotiate with the plaintiffs as the next step in the litigation process.

During his presidential campaign, Trump had promised Catholics relief from the HHS mandate, which requires employers to offer health insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and some early abortion drugs. In a letter to the Catholic Leadership Conference last October, he pointed to his opponent Hillary Clinton’s support for the mandate, and said “that is a hostility to religious liberty you will never see in a Trump Administration.”

After Trump’s election, the plaintiffs challenging the mandate widely expected that the new administration would drop the government’s appeal of the lawsuits, which federal circuit courts may re-examine in the coming months.

Instead of dropping the cases, however, the administration had indicated earlier this week that it intends to take the next step in the litigation process.

According to Axios, “The Trump administration is considering a range of options, from providing blanket exemptions to allowing schemes that would let insurance companies deal directly with employees.”

The HHS mandate was formed under the Affordable Care Act, which required preventive coverage in employer health plans. Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services interpreted this to include coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and drugs that can cause abortions.

After a wave of criticism from religious employers to the original mandate, the Obama administration announced an “accommodation” whereby objecting non-profits would tell the government of their opposition, and their insurer or the third party administrator for the plans would be notified separately to include the coverage.

Many non-profits – including Catholic dioceses and the Little Sisters of the Poor – said that the process still forced them to cooperate in immoral behavior against their consciences. Some critics voiced concern that the cost of coverage would still end up getting passed along to the objecting employers in the form of higher premiums.

Hundreds of non-profits and other plaintiffs filed lawsuits over the mandate, even with the accommodation. Among these plaintiffs is EWTN Global Catholic Network. CNA is part of the EWTN family.

A number of those cases made their way to the Supreme Court in Zubik v. Burwell. Plaintiffs in the case include East Texas Baptist University, the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Archdiocese of Washington, and other dioceses, schools, and charities.

In March of 2016, the Court asked both the plaintiffs and the government to submit briefs explaining whether a compromise could be reached that provided for cost-free contraceptive coverage for employees and yet still respected the religious freedom of the objecting non-profits.

That request, which came after oral arguments and in the middle of the case, was almost unprecedented in its timing.

After both parties outlined ways where they believed both goals could be achieved, the Supreme Court last May sent the cases back to the federal circuit court level, vacated the previous decisions of those courts, ordered the government not to enforce the fines against plaintiffs for not complying with their demands, and instructed the courts to give the parties time to find a solution on which they could agree.


Arkansas executions damage 'our whole society,' Catholic group says

Fri, 04/28/2017 - 13:33

Little Rock, Ark., Apr 28, 2017 / 11:33 am (CNA/EWTN News).- As Arkansas executed its fourth inmate in eight days, Catholics offered prayers for the prisoners, the victims, and their families, saying the executions have diminished the whole society.

“Catholic Mobilizing Network is deeply saddened by the events in Arkansas last night,” Karen Clifton, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, said on Friday. “Our prayers are with all the victims’ families and all those involved in carrying out these four executions.” Catholic Mobilizing Network fights for an end to the death penalty.

Arkansas carried out its fourth execution in eight days late on Thursday night. The state had originally planned to conduct eight executions in 11 days, which would have been the largest number of executions in so short a span of time since the death penalty was re-instated there in 1976.

Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock wrote the state’s Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) on March 1, asking him to commute the sentences of the eight men to life in prison without parole.

“Since the penal system of our state is well equipped to keep them incarcerated for the rest of their life (and thus protect society), we should limit ourselves to non-lethal means,” Bishop Taylor stated.

One of the eight inmates, Ledell Lee, was put to death on April 20. Two others, Jack Jones and Marcel Williams, were executed on Monday in the first double-execution in the U.S. since 2000. The lawyers for Williams tried unsuccessfully to win a last-minute stay of his execution with claims that Jones’s execution by lethal injection “appeared to be torturous and inhumane.”

The inmate executed on Thursday, Kenneth Williams, 38, had been convicted of a 1998 killing of Dominique Hurd, but after he escaped from prison he was convicted again in 1999 on capital murder charges for the killing of Cecil Boren.

Williams reportedly scored a 70 on an IQ test, “squarely within the intellectual disability range” which would make him ineligible for the death penalty, the Fair Sentencing Project claimed. His lawyers requested a last-minute stay of his execution but were denied by the state Supreme Court, the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Four of the eight planned executions were halted by courts for various reasons – one for a hearing for DNA evidence, another for a 30-day public comment period after the state’s parole board had recommended clemency, and two others tied to the U.S. Supreme Court’s current consideration of a case about the rights of inmates to access an independent mental health professional to determine their competency for execution.

The four executions in eight days, Clifton said, showed “the brokenness of the death penalty system.”

“These four men represented all who are on death row: the intellectually disabled, the mentally ill, those who are too poor to afford proper counsel, those who have experienced abuse and severe trauma as children, and even some who maintained their innocence,” she stated.

Jones and Williams, executed on Monday, had both reportedly been sexually abused as children, according to the Fair Sentencing Project. Jones had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before he committed his capital crime, while Williams had been pimped out by his mother for sex as a minor, in exchange for benefits like lodging and food stamps.

In addition, three of the four black inmates originally scheduled for execution were killed, Clifton said, while three of the four white inmates originally slated for execution received stays by the courts.

An AP reporter present at Williams’ death reported that he “lurched and convulsed on the gurney” as the drugs for his lethal injection were administered. According to the state’s three-drug protocol, midazolam – a sedative – is given first, followed by vecuronium bromide to paralyze the subject, completed with potassium chloride which is mean to stop the heart.

Williams was heard “speaking in tongues,” according to the AP’s Kelly Kissel, and as the drugs were administered through an IV he was then seen lurching on the gurney coughing, with his chest “pumping” according to one witness.

His attorney noted the reports of Williams’ reactions to the injection and called for an investigation to see if the execution was “botched.” Other recent lethal injection executions have been allegedly “botched,” most notably the 2015 execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma where the inmate was seen writhing on the gurney for nearly 45 minutes after the drugs were administered.

Clifton maintained that Williams’ death, as well as the double-execution on Monday, “have raised concerns of possible complications related to the use of controversial drugs.”

“Our whole society has been diminished by these four executions,” she concluded.



Utah bishop exhorts faithful to evangelization, renewal

Fri, 04/28/2017 - 02:08

Salt Lake City, Utah, Apr 28, 2017 / 12:08 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The Bishop of Salt Lake city has urged Utah's Catholics to be steeped in Catholic identity and to sow the Gospel’s seed within the community, leaving their comfort zone behind.

“Our Church needs more witnesses who can manifest the presence of God in our world,” Bishop Oscar Solis wrote in his April 21 pastoral letter A Springtime of the New Evangelization.

“It begins in our own conversion through personal encounter with Christ in our life. The love of God we experience compels us to go and share the joy of the Gospel and the beauty of our faith with others.”

Bishop Solis was installed as Bishop of Salt Lake City on March 7, and he is the first Philippines-born man to become a bishop in the United States.

Comparing the newness of spring to Christ's Resurrection, the bishops challenged his diocese to spiritual rebirth and renewed commitment during the Easter season.

“The resurrection of Christ from the dead brings about new beginnings, offering an opportunity to see and experience things with our minds and hearts renewed.”

“Society today mocks our efforts to uphold the dignity of life,” said the bishop, acknowledging the “daunting task” ahead.

“I do not know, exactly, where this path will lead us,” he confessed, but said that “the mission of the Church today remains the same – to bring people closer to God in order to help them encounter Christ and rediscover the presence of God in their lives.”

Bishop Oscar Solis included an outline of priorities for the diocese to focus on, listing faith formation, Catholic identity, religious vocations, social justice, and ecumenism as necessary for the spiritual growth of the Salt Lake City diocese.

“For seeds of evangelization to grow and bear fruit, they must be planted and take root in the good soil of our parishes. Parishioners must be given the opportunity to receive the necessary formation to know, live and share their Christian faith,” he said.

Because “the present culture poses a serious challenge to the practice of our beliefs ... it is necessary for every Catholic to learn more about the essential teachings of Christ and our Church,” he said. “Catechetical formation of our young children and teenagers is so important in this regard. It should bring about transformation of hearts and minds, so that they may fully live and share their faith confidently with great ardor, joy and enthusiasm.”

He explained that “we find our Catholic identity in the celebration of the Holy Mass and other Sacraments,” and these “channels of God’s graces” lead to “nourishment, forgiveness and other spiritual gifts.” He said then there must be a renewed call “for vibrant and uplifting Sunday liturgical celebrations and other forms of worship.”

“The scarcity of priests and religious is a serious concern,” he reflected, encouraging everyone to “generate greater enthusiasm in promoting vocations to the priesthood and religious life in order to attend adequately to the spiritual needs of the people. Let us cultivate vocations within the family and in schools accompanied by constant prayers of petition, invitation and witness of our life so that more men and women may be inspired to pursue this path of life.”

He said that “beyond knowing Christ and learning about God’s commandments and the teachings of the Church,” we must establish “a right personal relationship with God and with one another.”

“Justice and charity are the other important components of our mission of evangelization. Love for our neighbors and little ones reveals our love for God. Justice sets the right relationship among people that allows us to see in others, in the poor, the unemployed, the addicts, the sick, the least in our society, the undocumented and the refugees, the very face of Christ.”

Turning to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, Bishop Solis encouraged a fostesring of “dialogue and encounter,” saying that “Courage and fidelity to our mission come along with mutual respect, understanding and harmony among diverse people and leaders of different faith denominations. Commitment to ecumenism, dialogue and unity is our big contribution to the world and humanity.”

The bishop identified the hatred within the world occurring between differences in “race or cultural traditions, religion or politics, gender and color of skin.” As an antidote, he proposed “dialogue tempered with charity that allows us to recognize” the dignity of life in refugees, unborn babies, the poor, and the suffering.

Bishop Oscar Solis emphasized that the Church’s very purpose is “to proclaim the Gospel by the way we believe, love and serve one another,”

“Therefore, we must not make the mistake of trying to hoard the fullness of God’s goodness within the walls of our Church. But be missionaries of mercy with compassionate hearts and the ability to heal wounds, to warm the hearts of others and be a brother or sister to one another.”

Revised health care bill still has 'serious flaws', US bishops maintain

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 19:01

Washington D.C., Apr 27, 2017 / 05:01 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A leading U.S. bishop expressed grave concerns Thursday about a revised health care bill which the House may vote on within days.

The bill is an effort replace the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

“It is deeply disappointing to many Americans that, in modifying the American Health Care Act to again attempt a vote, proponents of the bill left in place its serious flaws, including unacceptable modifications to Medicaid that will endanger coverage and affordability for millions of people, according to reports,” Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, chair of the U.S. bishops’ domestic justice and human development committee, stated April 27.

Although the American Health Care Act was scuttled in March before a planned floor vote due to lack of support, an amended version of the bill was introduced in Congress this week, garnering the support of members of the House Freedom Caucus – which was instrumental in blocking AHCA last month.

The amended version includes allowing states to drop Affordable Care Act mandates that insurers cover “essential health benefits” such as maternity care, emergency services, and mental health and substance abuse services.

Bishop Dewane, who had serious concerns about the AHCA, said the new bill does not fix those concerns, especially regarding ensuring access to affordable health care for vulnerable populations.

“The House must not pass the legislation as it is. Members should insist on changes, especially for the sake of those who are struggling in our communities,” he said.

“Sadly, some of the recently proposed amendments – especially those designed to give states flexibility – lack apparent safeguards to ensure quality of care,” he said. “These additions could severely impact many people with pre-existing conditions while risking for others the loss of access to various essential coverages.”

The Christ Medicus Foundation (CMF) CURO, a Catholic health care ministry, called on Congress on Thursday to pass a bill that would honor conscience protections, respect the “sanctity of life”, and provide more “access to medical care for all, especially for the poor and single mothers,” as well as “empowering health sharing ministries as an affordable health care option for lower-income Americans.”

“We want to see an American health care system where people have access to care but where doctors and patients are making decisions consistent with their conscience and religious freedom,” Louis Brown, Esq., director of (CMF) CURO, stated, noting that premium increases and a decrease in the number of available health plans meant that “too many impoverished families do not have access to the quality medical care they deserve.”

In an earlier, March 17 letter to Congress, Bishop Dewane had outlined his chief concerns about the AHCA while praising certain aspects of it, including its barring of funding of abortions in tax credits and health plans and stripping funding from abortion providers.

However, the bill lacked sufficient conscience protections for doctors and health care providers, he said.

Additionally, the replacement of federal subsidies for purchasing health insurance with tax credits could disproportionately benefit the younger and wealthier while making affordability an issue for sicker and older populations, he said. Premiums for many elderly persons could rise significantly, he warned.

A 30 percent premium fine for a significant gap in health coverage could also persuade some not to purchase health insurance at all, he added.

Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who chairs the House Pro-Life Caucus, was also among the opponents of AHCA in March.  He said he could not support the bill, despite its pro-life protections, because of how other provisions would “likely hurt disabled persons, the elderly and the working poor.”

Remembering two anniversaries

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 18:07

Denver, Colo., Apr 27, 2017 / 04:07 pm (CNA).- "The recent pledge by the Democratic National Committee chair to support only candidates who embrace the radical unrestricted abortion license is very disturbing. The Democratic Party platform already endorses abortion throughout the nine months of pregnancy, even forcing taxpayers to fund it; and now the DNC says that to be a Democrat--indeed to be an American--requires supporting that extreme agenda.
True solidarity with pregnant women and their children transcends all party lines. Abortion doesn't empower women. Indeed, women deserve better than abortion.
In the name of diversity and inclusion, pro-life and pro-'choice' Democrats, alike, should challenge their leadership to recant this intolerant position."
--Cardinal Timothy Dolan, chair
U.S. bishops’ Pro-Life Activities Committee, April 26

We mark two forgotten anniversaries in 2017.  Here’s the first.

Exactly 50 years ago this Easter season, Pope Paul VI (now Blessed Paul VI) issued his great encyclical Populorum Progressio (“On the Development of Peoples”).  The text focuses powerfully on global issues of social and economic justice and the need for rich nations to share generously with the poor.  It includes the line – worth remembering today – that we “cannot insist too much on the duty of giving foreigners a hospitable reception.  It is a duty imposed by human solidarity and by Christian charity” (67). 

But Paul’s idea of “development” was much larger than simply providing more and better material goods for the poor, vital though that task is.  As he makes clear in Populorum Progressio, there’s no real progress without a right understanding of man’s spiritual identity.  There’s no real development without a respect for the wholehuman person as a creature of moral purpose. 

Real development, for Paul VI, demands a reverence for human life from conception to natural death.  This is why he reminded the U.N. General Assembly (1965) that “Your task is to ensure that there is enough bread on the tables of mankind, and not . . . to diminish the number of guests at the banquet of life.”  It’s why he forcefully rejected abortion – echoing the words of the Second Vatican Council -- in his other great encyclical, Humanae Vitae, just a year after Populorum Progressio.

To put it another way:  There’s something irrational, something deeply contradictory, in (admirably) arguing for the rights of our nation’s foreign newcomers while (wrongly) allowing – and even sacralizing -- the systematic killing of a different kind of foreigner, the child in the womb, the newcomer to life itself.  Both the immigrant or refugee and the unborn child are human beings, both have inviolable dignity, and both demand our protection.  The difference today is, we don’t recognize and applaud anyone’s right to kill an immigrant.

As of mid-April though, that kind of logic is apparently absent from the national leadership of the Democratic Party.  The Huffington Post noted on April 21 that Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez “[has become] the first head of the party to demand ideological purity on abortion rights, promising . . . to support only Democratic candidates who back a woman’s right to choose.”

Which leads us to a second anniversary.

In 1992, exactly 25 years ago this July, Pennsylvania’s Governor Bob Casey, a prolife Democrat, was refused an opportunity to address the Democratic National Convention that nominated Bill Clinton and Al Gore.  Casey claimed he was barred because of his opposition to abortion.  The Clinton camp claimed otherwise.  But the history of the party in the decades since speaks for itself.

It’s now less and less possible for any genuinely prolife candidate to hope for national office as a Democrat.  Cardinal Dolan’s articulate concerns, noted above and voiced earlier this week, will be repeated and amplified by many others in 2018, an election year.  Party leaders chose this course freely, and they’ve earned whatever bad consequences result in the voting booth.  They have no one to blame but themselves.  In the meantime, they’ve placed state and local Democratic elected officials – many of whom are good and effective public servants – in needlessly difficult circumstances.

None of this absolves the current White House of its own ugly views, or the Republican Party of its own callous policies, or us as Christians of our duty to help women facing the pressures of an unwanted, unplanned pregnancy.  But a key to simple human decency is this:  Don’t intentionally kill the innocent.  One of our national parties is now fully and forcefully committed to tolerating, and even celebrating, the “right” to exactly that kind of killing.  

And no amount of dissembling can excuse it.  None.


Reprinted with permission from

We need to 'shatter' the anonymity of sex purchasers, lawmakers say

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 17:43

Washington D.C., Apr 27, 2017 / 03:43 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The U.S. government needs to be continually equipped to fight the scourge of human trafficking in new and effective ways, said members of Congress introducing an anti-trafficking bill on Thursday.

“We have a huge human trafficking problem in the United States, and it needs to be combated even more robustly than it has,” Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said on Thursday at the capitol, introducing the Frederick R. Douglas Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Act of 2017.

“We must shatter the anonymity of purchasing sex and the violence against our women, our boys, and our young girls,” Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), who joined Smith at the press conference, said.

The bill, introduced by Reps. Smith, Wagner, and Karen Bass (D-Calif.) builds upon the 2000 Victims of Trafficking Protection Act, which was a large new anti-human trafficking bill at the time, a “landmark” bill as Rep. Smith called it.

The new bill has six other original co-sponsors, and enjoys bi-partisan support among the group.

The original TVPA included provisions for sheltering and support for victims, tough punishment of those convicted of trafficking, and introduced actions the U.S. could take against countries which failed to abide by the international trafficking standards set up by the act. The State Department ranks countries in a tier system in its annual Trafficking in Persons report, and actions can be taken against the worst countries.

Last year, the report left China, Cuba, and Malaysia off its worst offenders tier, prompting Rep. Smith to criticize the Obama administration for playing politics with the rankings. In 2015, the report also received criticism for leaving Malaysia off the Tier 3 worst offenders list as the administration was working with Malaysia on the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement.

Now, the new bill is named after Frederick Douglass, a slave who, once he escaped slavery at age 20, became a chief advocate against slavery in the U.S. and against the prejudiced Jim Crow laws of the post-Civil War era.

Douglass insisted that education is freedom, Ken Morris, Douglass’ great-great-great grandson, said on Thursday. Education must be upheld as the “primary prevention” of trafficking, he insisted, saying ““the prevention education era is here.”

“Slavery has plagued humankind for hundreds of generations, perhaps, since the beginning of civilization,” Morris said. “We can reverse the progress of slavery by fortifying individuals and the social structures around them through the application of knowledge.”

The new bill authorizes $130 million in funding over four years to, in the words of Rep. Smith, “prevent human trafficking, to protect victims and prevent them from being further enslaved,” to provide for asylum for international victims who need it, and “beefs up prosecution,” fighting trafficking in the U.S. and abroad.

The bill also funds education to help prevent girls from being trafficking victims, teaching them how to avoid dangerous situations. It provides for job training for victims – “resumption of education” for minors – who have been rescued and need to re-enter society.

Better enforcement of laws is also being called for, as federal agencies like State and Defense cannot grant contracts to entities that have been convicted of human trafficking.

Regarding government employee traveling expenses, “preferential treatment will be given to those individual hotels and airlines that have in place a comprehensive human trafficking initiative,” Smith said.

“Human trafficking is the most profitable criminal enterprise in the world after drugs, and it is able to flourish because predators purchase sex in a supply and a demand market,” Wagner said, adding that the U.S. must more vigorously enforce anti-trafficking laws.

According to the 2016 Trafficking in Persons report, illicit human trafficking and forced labor make up a $150 billion worldwide industry with estimates of 20 million victims. As many as 800,000 trafficking victims are brought through the U.S. annually.

“Our government must vigorously prosecute buyers of sex trafficking and finally end demand for this horrific crime,” Wagner said.

Another major issue for trafficking victims is housing, Rep. Bass insisted. “Eliminating pathways to child sex trafficking inevitably requires the elimination of youth homelessness,” she stated, noting that many victims have “fallen through the cracks” of the foster care system.

“Escaping is not an option without access to safe housing equipped to meet the special needs of victimized youth,” she said. “Our government has an urgent responsibility to shut down pathways for child sex trafficking and to invest in critical housing needs for vulnerable girls and foster youth.”

Big honors for scholar who revitalized Christian philosophy

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 17:22

Philadelphia, Pa., Apr 27, 2017 / 03:22 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has won the prestigious Templeton Award for once again making belief in God “a serious option within academic philosophy,” the Templeton Foundation has said.

“The field of philosophy has transformed over the course of my career,” Plantinga said in response to the honor. “If my work played a role in this transformation, I would be very pleased.”

“I hope the news of the Prize will encourage young philosophers, especially those who bring Christian and theistic perspectives to bear on their work, towards greater creativity, integrity, and boldness,” he said April 25.

The Pennsylvania-based John Templeton Foundation awards the prize to a living individual who has made “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery or practical works.”

“Alvin Plantinga recognized that not only did religious belief not conflict with serious philosophical work, but that it could make crucial contributions to addressing perennial problems in philosophy,” said the foundation’s president Heather Templeton Dill.

Plantinga's 1974 work “God, Freedom and Evil” is now widely regarded as having provided a definitive counter to the logical challenge that the existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of God. His argument rested on the nature of freedom and God’s ability to determine behavior.

His 1984 essay, “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” argued that Christian philosophers should let their religious beliefs influence their academic research and serve the needs of their religious communities.

His other work has considered the basis of knowledge, the nature of justified belief, religious belief as a basis for human reasoning, and arguments for the existence of God.

While some philosophers have argued that evolution is incompatible with belief in God, Plantinga has argued that evolution is incompatible with belief in philosophical naturalism that denies the existence of spiritual reality.

Plantinga's religious background is the Calvinist Dutch Reformed tradition. He currently teaches at Calvin College. He taught at the University of Notre Dame from 1982-2010.

He and his wife, Kathleen, live in Grand Rapids, Mich.

There are now 47 winners of the Templeton Prize, including Mother Teresa, Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, philosopher Charles Taylor, and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

Other winners include Czech priest and philosopher Tomas Halik, South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama.

The prize was established in 1972 by global investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton. The current prize includes a cash award of about $1.4 million. 

Catholic hospital sued for denying sex reassignment surgery

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 14:33

Sacramento, Calif., Apr 27, 2017 / 12:33 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A lawsuit has been filed against a Catholic hospital in California for refusing an elective hysterectomy to a female who identifies as a man and who sought the procedure as part of their sex reassignment.

The suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Evan Minton, who had a hysterectomy scheduled for August 2016 with the Mercy San Juan Medical Center in Carmichael, Calif., in the Sacramento metro area.

Minton claims the procedure was cancelled once the hospital learned that Minton was transgender, and asked to be referred to as “he”. The hospital offered to send Minton to a different medical center.

"We feel very clearly that they discriminated against me because I’m transgender – and that is against the law," Minton told local media.

The ACLU alleges in the suit that the hospital’s actions amount to "sex discrimination in violation of California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act" which prohibits businesses from discriminating against patrons on the basis of one’s gender. The group is seeking a court order that would force the hospital to perform elective hysterectomies in the future.

Dignity Health, the group that owns Mercy San Juan, was able to transfer Minton to one of its Methodist hospitals a few days after the initial procedure was denied.

Following Catholic teaching, Mercy San Juan does not perform elective sterilization procedures on anyone.

Dignity Health said in a statement that it cannot reply to the allegations because they have not yet been served with the complaint.

"What we can share is that at Dignity Health Mercy San Juan Medical Center, the services we provide are available to all members of the communities we serve without discrimination. We understand how important this surgery is for transgender individuals, and were happy to provide Mr. Minton and his surgeon the use of another Dignity Health hospital for his surgery within a few days.”

"We do not provide elective sterilizations at Dignity Health’s Catholic facilities in accordance with the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (ERDs) and the medical staff bylaws."

The ACLU has long opposed Catholic hospitals operating according to Catholic teaching.

The ACLU and the group the MergerWatch Project co-authored a 2013 report that claimed the growth of Catholic hospitals was a “miscarriage of medicine.”

In 2015, the ACLU sued the Detroit area's Trinity Health Corporations, one of the largest Catholic health care operations in the United States, for their refusal to perform abortions and tubal ligations. The lawsuit was dismissed.

In 2016, an ACLU report alleged that Catholic hospitals put women at risk for following Catholic teaching regarding abortion and reproductive health.

Also in 2016, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against a Catholic hospital in Chicago, claiming it had denied IUD removal to Melanie Jones. However, a representative from Mercy Hospital told CNA that the doctors at Mercy Hospital had offered to remove the woman’s IUD — the removal is an entirely ethical procedure from the Catholic moral standpoint — but Jones declined.

All Catholic hospitals in the United States operate under the U.S. Bishops' Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which ban abortion, sterilization, emergency contraception, and tubal ligations.

Never tire of fighting for human rights, religious liberty advocate insists

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 18:09

Washington D.C., Apr 26, 2017 / 04:09 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Amid a rising tide of violence, imprisonment, and harassment on account of people’s religious beliefs, the United States cannot grow weary of defending religious freedom, a leading advocate insisted Wednesday.

“It’s kind of a fatigue that people get on these kinds of issues, that ‘they’re happening everywhere and what can you do’,” Fr. Thomas Reese, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told reporters on a conference call April 26. “And we think that’s really a tragedy.”

Any violation of freedom of religion “is something that impacts people on a very fundamental level,” he continued. “It’s human beings that are in jail, it’s human beings that are being tortured and persecuted. Religious beliefs are at the core of who we are and our identity as persons.”

USCIRF, a bipartisan commission which, in the words of its chair, “monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad” and makes policy recommendations to Congress, the State Department, and the White House, released its annual report on international religious freedom on Wednesday.

In 1998, the International Religious Freedom Act created the commission and mandated that both it and the State Department release annual reports on the state of religious freedom.

It also created the office of Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom. That office has been vacant since President Donald Trump assumed office.

“In order to help protect and preserve this right [religious freedom] for all, our American government should do more, and as a first step, nominate and confirm an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said.

“As a nation, we cannot ensure that the fundamental right of religious freedom is protected for all people if we do not actively address the egregious violations being committed by nations with whom the United States interacts, including our own allies,” he continued.

In the last year, the situation for global religious freedom grew worse, the USCIRF report said, “in both the depth and breadth of violations.”

For instance, the Islamic State perpetrated genocide against ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, which in March of 2016 then-Secretary of State John Kerry declared was taking place, the first time the U.S had declared genocide as it was occurring since 2004.

Egregious abuses like “attempted genocide” and “wholesale destruction of places of worship” have overshadowed countless other abuses like anti-blasphemy laws, restrictive laws on association, registration laws for religious minorities, and government harassment of religious minorities in the name of national security, the report said.

One of the key aspects of the report is the commission’s recommendations for the Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list. The State Department designates certain countries as CPCs to draw public attention to the areas where the worst violations of religious freedom are taking place.

The CPC designation carries with it legal “tools” that the president and Congress can use to pressure these countries to improve the respect for freedom of religion there, like imposing sanctions or negotiating a binding agreement when necessary after previous consultations with the government in question, the report said.

Currently China, Burma, Eritrea, North Korea, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan occupy the CPC list.

In Burma, a whole class of persons, the Rohingya Muslims, are not recognized as citizens, thus remaining stateless and vulnerable to displacement and violations of their human rights. Christian minorities “are restricted from public worship and subjected to coerced conversion to Buddhism,” the report said.

North Korea features “one of the world’s most repressive regimes” where religious freedom is “profoundly repressed,” with people imprisoned, tortured, and killed because of their religious belief.

However, USCIRF also recommends that Russia, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, and Vietnam be on the CPC list.

Vietnam was previously designated a CPC by the State Department, but was removed from the list in 2006 despite USCIRF’s insistence that it remain.

“For the first time, we call out Russia as a CPC,” Fr. Reese stated on Wednesday at a teleconference introducing the report. “Vladimir Putin and the Russian government have shown themselves to be some of the worst and most serious violators of religious freedom in the world.”

He cited the recent ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses from operating in the country by Russia’s supreme court as only the latest example of a troubling trend of violations, especially those related to the country’s use of an anti-extremism law. That law is used to crack down on religious minorities in the name of national security, USCIRF explained.

“The Russian government’s premeditated attack [on Jehovah’s Witnesses] demonstrates that it does not consider itself bound by internationally-recognized norms or conventions,” Fr. Reese said. “A Russian justice minister official reportedly described Jehovah’s Witnesses as a threat to public order and public security. Given that the witnesses are known globally for their pacifism and avoidance of politics, that statement is as absurd on its face as it seems.”

In the Caucasus region, the country’s anti-extremism law has been abused for years, Fr. Reese noted. “Anyone with a beard is considered an extremist and can be arrested,” he said.

He also noted that in Crimea, a Ukrainian region annexed by Russia in 2014, the nation is “imposing its very tough registration laws on the religions in the Crimea,” as well as the arrest of Muslim Tatar leaders and persecution of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

In December 2016 another law passed the United States Congress to make major upgrades to the existing International Religious Freedom Act. Among other things, it called for the designation of “EPCs,” or “entities of particular concern” for non-state actors which perpetrate serious abuses of religious freedom, such as the Islamic State, which “can at times be the most egregious violators of religious freedom,” Fr. Reese noted.

USCIRF recommended that the State Department use the EPC label for three groups: the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and al-Shabaab in Somalia.

The reason why groups like al-Qaeda and Boko Haram were not recommended for EPCs is because they lost territory and “political power” that other groups like the Islamic State had, Fr. Reese explained.

Additionally, the commission had previously recommended a CPC status for Egypt and Iraq, but decided not to do so in 2017.

In Egypt “we see positive steps,” Fr. Reese said, pointing to the government’s “engagement with minority religious communities” like the embattled Coptic Christians. However, these minorities are still subject to serious attacks by Islamic State affiliates, he maintained, and the country has “a dismal overall human rights situation.”

In Iraq, Islamic State “continues to commit genocide and ruthlessly targets anyone who does not adhere to its barbaric worldview,” Fr. Reese said, yet “the central government has tried to decrease sectarian tensions.”

“Tier 2” countries are not the worst violators of religious freedom, but serious abuses still took place in these areas. USCIRF listed Afghanistan, Azerbajan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Pakistan, Laos, Malaysia, and Turkey as Tier 2 countries.

Bahrain was listed as a Tier 2 country for the first time, Fr. Reese explained. “That government’s campaign against its majority-Shia Muslim population intensified during the year, particularly a significant increase in the number of arrests and unfounded charges against Shia clerics,” he said.

The report also made recommendations for U.S. refugee policy, including the reauthorization of the Lautenberg Amendment which would help with the resettlement of persecuted religious and ethnic minorities fleeing Iran. “We have supported that as a way of facilitating the resettlement of people who have suffered religious persecution,” Fr. Reese said.

These persons “are very vulnerable,” he said of those fleeing persecution, and they should “get a priority in terms of refugee status” which is “based on their vulnerability.”

President Trump, in a revised executive order in March, temporarily halted refugee resettlement and ultimately called for a cap to refugee admissions in FY 2017 at 50,000, down from the 85,000 the U.S. accepted the previous fiscal year and the planned number of 110,000 in FY 2017.

“In response, USCIRF urged the Trump Administration to continue refugee resettlement,” the report said. “While resettlement to a third country is only possible for less than one percent of the world’s refugees, it is a vital protection for the most vulnerable, especially at a time of appalling mass atrocities and unprecedented forced displacement.”

The number of those forcibly displaced from their homes is at its highest ever recorded, over 65 million as of 2016, according to the UN.

USCIRF also monitored abuses of religious freedom in Western Europe, including an increase of anti-Semitic incidents and Islamophobia.

Laws restricting religious dress and the “ability to wear symbols” like France’s ban on burqas “are causing more unrest and problems,” Fr. Reese insisted. “I think it’s something that we want our friends in Europe to take a second look at.”

Another recommendation the report made was for the U.S. to not refer to freedom of religion as “freedom of worship.”

Such a reference, it said, “does not convey all aspects of the internationally protected right to freedom of religion or belief, which includes choosing, changing, and sharing one’s beliefs, as well as holding no religious beliefs.”

Archbishop Aquila allows Boy Scout troops under Catholic guidelines

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 17:04

Denver, Colo., Apr 26, 2017 / 03:04 pm (CNA).- Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver has announced that parishes in his diocese may continue to charter Boy Scout troops, as long as they follow requirements to ensure that Catholic identity and teaching are upheld.

In his latest column in the Denver Catholic, the archbishop said that individual pastors may continue allowing their parishes to charter a scouting troop, as long as they meet the guidelines laid out by the archdiocese’s code of conduct. Leaders and members should support the Catholic Church and her teachings; refrain from approving or engaging in conduct that contradicts Catholic doctrine or morals; and promote and respect the dignity of the human person and human sexuality according to natural law and Catholic teaching.

The archbishop’s column came in response to the Boy Scouts of America’s decision in January to allow transgender scouts – biological girls who identify as boys – as well as the organization’s decisions in 2013 and 2015 to allow openly gay members and leaders, respectively.

“These decisions are social experiments that are rationalized away without accounting for the impact on the clear majority of boys who do not have gender dysphoria or same-sex attraction,” the archbishop said. “Indeed, it is not hard to see that there will be lasting consequences for current and future generations of American boys as they try to understand their own sexuality in their formative years.”

Despite these unfortunate decisions, he said, the Boy Scouts insist that they will allow Church-sponsored troops to operate in accordance with their faith and will defend these troops if lawsuits arise.

Archbishop Aquila recognized that “the core elements of Boy Scouting remain praiseworthy,” and that many men for more than a century have received meaningful formation from the organization. And since non-Catholic members and leaders who accept the troops’ Catholic character can also participate, parish troops are a chance to witness and evangelize.

After consulting with leaders of diocesan troops, he said that he had made the decision to continuing allowing both Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, while calling for all parish-sponsored troops to “reinforce their commitment to forming boys and girls into virtuous Christian young adults.”

For those who would like an alternative to Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, he recommended American Heritage Girls, Little Flowers’ Girls Clubs, the Federation of North American Explorers, Columbian Squires, Trail Life USA, and Fraternus. He also encouraged prayer for “the strengthening of the moral foundations of our society, especially those institutions that provide formation to youth.”

The Denver archbishop’s decision echoes that of several other bishops in responding to the Boy Scouts of America.

When the Boy Scouts first admitted openly gay members in 2013, the Diocese of Lincoln said that it would continue allowing parish-chartered troops, but would continue to evaluate the situation.

After the July 2015 decision to allow openly gay leaders, Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville announced that his diocese would continue to charter scouting troops but would carefully monitor them to ensure that no ideology contrary to the Catholic faith was present.

Similarly, Bishop Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Illinois said that his diocese would continue to charter scouting troops, but stressed the need to be vigilant in upholding Catholic values.

Bishop Robert Guglielmone of Charleston, S.C., who serves as the episcopal liaison for the National Catholic Committee on Scouting told CNA that the committee was “cautiously optimistic” that Catholic organizations could still be involved with Boy Scouts, but said that great care was needed.

After the January announcement this year, the Archdiocese of St. Louis said that it would remain in dialogue with the Boy Scouts, but noted its concern that “the latest in a troubling pattern of behavior” by the organization suggested that it is “becoming increasingly incompatible with our Catholic values.”

The National Catholic Committee on Scouting has stressed on several occasions that according to the charter rules under which the Boy Scouts operate, “A Catholic parish can establish a membership guideline that follows Catholic teaching.” The Diocese of Phoenix and the Archdiocese of New Orleans have also voiced an intention to maintain Catholic troops that present models of Church teaching.

One prelate, Bishop David Kagan of Bismarck, North Dakota, said that his diocese would disaffiliate from the Boy Scouts after their 2015 decision to allow openly gay leaders.  

In his column, Archbishop Aquila stressed Catholic principles of committing to “the dignity of the human person, the understanding of man and woman as made for each other, the virtue of chastity and the protection of children, especially from different forms of abuse, which includes enabling and/or encouraging gender dysphoria.”

He recognized the importance of not leading others – especially children – into scandal, and reiterated that “discussions about sexual attraction, orientation, and lifestyle choices have no place in scouting” but should be addressed by parents instead.


What pro-life Democrats have to say after being majorly shunned

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 05:02

Washington D.C., Apr 26, 2017 / 03:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- When the leader of the Democratic party pulled an about-face this week, claiming that support for abortion was a non-negotiable part of the platform, pro-life Democrats were utterly dismayed.  

“It was just stunning to see,” Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, told CNA.

Day was referring to DNC chair Tom Perez supporting a Democratic mayoral candidate in Nebraska who had in the past embraced pro-life positions – and then the next day saying there was no room in the Democratic party for pro-life politicians.

“Pro-life Democrats are deeply concerned about this extreme position that the Democratic Party has taken and this non-negotiable position,” she said.

Last week, former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and DNC chair Tom Perez publicly supported the Democratic candidate for mayor of Omaha, Neb., Heath Mello.

Mello had supported abortion restrictions in the past as a state senator. According to The Nation, Mello co-sponsored a bill in 2009 that mandated doctors to inform pregnant women of their option to view an ultrasound, and also voted for a 20-week abortion ban, a ban on abortion funding in health plans on the exchanges of the Affordable Care Act, and a law requiring the consent of one parent for minors to have abortions.

Mello was previously endorsed by the group Nebraska Right to Life in 2012, but he had also received a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood Voters of Nebraska in 2015, his campaign manager pointed out to the Huffington Post.

A Catholic, Mello said in a statement to the Huffington Post that “while my faith guides my personal views, as Mayor I would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive health care.”

Saint John Paul II's encyclical Evangelium Vitae states that “laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual; they thus deny the equality of everyone before the law.”

The encyclical continues, “abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection.”

Yet the abortion rights advocacy group NARAL harshly criticized Perez and Sanders for their “politically stupid” show of support for a candidate who had supported abortion restrictions in the past.

“It's not possible to have an authentic conversation about economic security for women that does not include our ability to decide when and how we have children,” NARAL said.

On Friday, Perez said that there was no place for pro-life politicians in the party. “Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health,” he said. “This is not negotiable and should not chance city by city or state by state.”

NARAL then issued a statement praising him for his defense of the “core values” of the Democratic Party.

“It was stunning,” Day said of Perez’s about-face. “He goes out, and the DNC is behind this pro-life candidate, which is necessary to be a big tent party if we’re going to win. So they rally behind this guy (Mello), and then less than 24 hours later he (Perez) puts a statement out saying 'just kidding. We don't want you in the party at all.'”

Perez made the abortion issue “non-negotiable” for Democrats, Day continued, and was “strong-arming” party members “to step away from their conscience and not support the pro-life position anymore.”

Democratic political leaders had mixed reactions to Perez's comments. On NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was asked if she thought there was room in the Democratic Party for pro-life politicians, she answered “of course.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), meanwhile, said on CNN on Sunday that he and the party were committed “to reproductive rights,” and added that “I know within the ranks of the Democratic Party there are those who see that differently on a personal basis, but when it comes to the policy position, I think we need to be clear and unequivocal.”

The 2016 Democratic Party platform featured a strong pro-abortion plank, calling not only for abortion access but also for the overturning of decades-old policies that prohibited direct taxpayer funding of abortions both at home and abroad – the Hyde Amendment and the Helms Amendment.

“We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion – regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured,” the platform stated.

“We will continue to oppose – and seek to overturn – federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman’s access to abortion, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment.”

Pro-lifers, meanwhile, have countered that NARAL's pro-abortion strategy alienates millions of Democratic voters.

“Pro-life Democrats have been leaving in droves,” Day said of recent elections. Perez’s total support for abortion rights “may be popular in California or New York,” she said, but “these values don’t play well in the heartland.”

“There is an enormous disconnect between Democrat and Independent rank and file voters and national leaders like DNC Chairman Tom Perez and Senator Dick Durbin on the issue of abortion,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List.

Dannenfelser was one of the pro-life advisors to the Trump campaign in the 2016 election, heading the campaign’s pro-life task coalition.

Perez “drew a line in the sand” with his comments on Friday said Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life, adding that he was “decisively alienating the 23 percent of Democrat voters who identify as pro-life and 44 percent of Democrats oppose taxpayer funding of abortion.”

“The March for Life has a 44-year track record of uniting people of all backgrounds in defense of the inherent dignity of all human life,” she said.

“We have welcomed and will continue to welcome pro-life Democrats like Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) to speak at the March, and will continue to support all whom fight for the right to life until the culture of abortion is unthinkable to every person and party alike.”

Fifty years ago, Colorado became the first state to legalize abortion

Tue, 04/25/2017 - 17:38

Denver, Colo., Apr 25, 2017 / 03:38 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- April 25 marks 50 years since Colorado became the first state in the U.S. to legalize abortion. In a statement released Tuesday, the bishops of Colorado called for continued prayers and efforts to build up a culture of life in the state.

“Amid celebrating the joy of Christ’s resurrection, we pause to remember the dark shadow cast over Colorado 50 years ago,” said a statement from the Colorado Catholic Conference.

“As we reflect on the fiftieth anniversary of the legalization of abortion in Colorado, we express immense sympathy for the victims of this horrific assault on human dignity.”

Colorado was the first state in the nation to decriminalize abortion. The initial legislation, signed into law April 25, 1967, allowed abortion in certain limited cases: rape, incest, or a prediction of permanent mental or physical disability of either the child or mother.

Sponsored by legislator Dick Lamm, the abortion bill was signed by Governor John Love, who stressed at the time that no medical facility or professional would ever be required to participate in an abortion.

“I am certain that the operation provided for will occur only in hospitals, subject to a severe test of accreditation, which will successfully prevent anything approaching abortion clinics,” he added at the time, according to the Associated Press.

Six years later, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade would declare abortion to be a constitutional right nationwide. The Colorado ruling also paved the way for other states, such as California, Oregon and North Carolina, to follow suit.

What began as a limited law in Colorado is now a much broader legalization, which allows for abortion throughout an entire pregnancy.

While the Colorado bishops lamented the past 50 years of legalized abortion within the state, they also highlighted the numerous pro-life efforts that are aiding pregnant women.

“We owe an incredible debt of gratitude to those throughout Colorado who serve the pro-life cause in immeasurable ways,” the bishops said.

“We are encouraged and uplifted by the great number of young people that have taken up the cause of protecting and defending life with passion and enthusiasm. We honor the incredible work of pregnancy centers and agencies that provide vital counseling, pre- and post-natal care, housing and material support to those women in need of such care.”

The bishops also underscored the importance of offering support to women without condemnation, while at the same time remaining firm in the “denunciation of abortion.” They encouraged the faithful to become active supporters of life by helping pregnant women or pro-life organizations.

“During this Easter season, we are called to be men and women of the Resurrection – messengers of hope and life to a world often filled with affliction and suffering,” they said.

“May God give us strength to continue our efforts in Colorado to promote a culture that recognizes the dignity and beauty of every human life from conception to natural death.”


Trump administration will continue defending HHS mandate in court

Tue, 04/25/2017 - 14:21

Washington D.C., Apr 25, 2017 / 12:21 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- With President Donald Trump’s administration signaling that it is not dropping the HHS mandate cases against religious non-profits, plaintiffs are concerned that the action does not reflect promises made during the presidential campaign.

“The government has a chance to do the right thing here. It got it wrong for five years in these cases, almost six years,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents many non-profits in HHS mandate cases.

“And they can do the right thing by dropping their appeals that are in favor of the mandate, and admitting that they were wrong on the issue of the contraceptive mandate, as applied to religious non-profits,” Rassbach told CNA Tuesday.

During his presidential campaign, Trump had promised Catholics relief from the HHS mandate, which requires employers to offer health insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and some early abortion drugs. In a letter to the Catholic Leadership Conference last October, he pointed to his opponent Hillary Clinton’s support for the mandate, and said “that is a hostility to religious liberty you will never see in a Trump Administration.”

After Trump’s election, the plaintiffs challenging the mandate widely expected that the new administration would drop the government’s appeal of the lawsuits, which federal circuit courts may re-examine in the coming months.

Instead of dropping the cases, however, the administration indicated that it intends to take the next step in the litigation process. On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that the Justice Department had asked a federal appeals court for 60 extra days to negotiate an agreement with East Texas Baptist University and several other plaintiffs challenging the mandate. The Supreme Court last year had instructed the Obama administration to negotiate with the plaintiffs as the next step in the litigation process.

The Becket Fund said that the same lawyers that litigated the cases on behalf of the Obama administration are still on the mandate cases now under the Trump administration.

The HHS mandate was formed under the Affordable Care Act, which required preventive coverage in employer health plans. Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services interpreted this to include coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and drugs that can cause abortions.

After a wave of criticism from religious employers to the original mandate, the Obama administration announced an “accommodation” whereby objecting non-profits would tell the government of their opposition, and their insurer or the third party administrator for the plans would be notified separately to include the coverage.

Many non-profits – including Catholic dioceses and the Little Sisters of the Poor – said that the process still forced them to cooperate in immoral behavior against their consciences. Some critics voiced concern that the cost of coverage would still end up getting passed along to the objecting employers in the form of higher premiums.

Hundreds of non-profits and other plaintiffs filed lawsuits over the mandate, even with the accommodation. Among these plaintiffs is EWTN Global Catholic Network. CNA is part of the EWTN family.

A number of those cases made their way to the Supreme Court in Zubik v. Burwell. Plaintiffs in the case include East Texas Baptist University, the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Archdiocese of Washington, and other dioceses, schools, and charities.

In March of 2016, the Court asked both the plaintiffs and the government to submit briefs explaining whether a compromise could be reached that provided for cost-free contraceptive coverage for employees and yet still respected the religious freedom of the objecting non-profits.

That request, which came after oral arguments and in the middle of the case, was almost unprecedented in its timing.

After both parties outlined ways where they believed both goals could be achieved, the Supreme Court last May sent the cases back to the federal circuit court level, vacated the previous decisions of those courts, ordered the government not to enforce the fines against plaintiffs for not complying with their demands, and instructed the courts to give the parties time to find a solution they could agree on.

“Given the gravity of the dispute and the substantial clarification and refinement in the positions of the parties, the parties on remand should be afforded an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners’ religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners’ health plans ‘receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage’,” the Court stated.

“We anticipate that the Courts of Appeals will allow the parties sufficient time to resolve any outstanding issues between them.”

Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, one of the plaintiffs in the cases, said in August that the federal government had “an extremely aggressive interpretation” of the Supreme Court’s instructions and was “apparently trying to take over” the diocese’s health plans.


What your local parish and the new hipster bar have in common

Tue, 04/25/2017 - 05:16

Washington D.C., Apr 25, 2017 / 03:16 am (CNA).- It’s a story seen across the nation – a neighborhood formerly known for rundown houses, empty shops and limited resources now finds flocks of millennials coming to the area’s trellised cafes and bars for brunch and drinks on weekends.

What formerly made the neighborhood “sketchy” or caused outsiders to steer clear is now marketed as a selling point of its “character” to new investors and residents.  

It’s a change called “development” by many of the investors seeking to move in, and called “gentrification” by some who are skeptical of the impact that the rapid inflow of money has on longtime residents of a neighborhood.

Yet, many of these conversations about the challenges – and opportunities – of gentrification have left out the institutions at the heart of many of these neighborhoods: the churches.

“It’s been a mixed blessing,” said Fr. Michael Kelley of St. Martin’s Catholic Church in Washington, D.C.

Established in 1901, St. Martin’s is located in the middle of the Bloomingdale neighborhood of D.C. In recent years, the predominantly African-American neighborhood has experienced rapid economic change, as investors have started paying higher prices for land in the area, and new shops, bars and other amenities have sprung up in the middle of what used to be a major drug market.

In the midst of these changes, St. Martin’s has remained committed to its mission of hospitality and outreach to the larger community – both new residents and old residents. “We work hard to be a good neighbor,” Fr. Kelley said.

Their efforts to help their neighbors have actually been a factor in making the area enticing for the investors now moving into Bloomingdale. Local Christian pastors, working together and with the city, helped to diminish the drug trade and offer aid to those with addictions, the priest explained. In a way, the churches began a process that gentrification finished.

However, new residents don’t always give credit to the vital role the parishes have historically played in the communities – and still do to this day.  

“You all just really need to move your church, you’re getting in the way of what we’re doing here,” new residents have told Fr. Kelley and other Bloomingdale pastors. The priest recalled one interaction with a new homeowner who criticized the churches’ presence in the area. “I remember saying to someone, ‘How long have you been here?’”

“Oh I moved in about six months ago,” the man responded.

“I’ve been here for 24 years,” Fr. Kelley told the new resident. “I remember when people were shooting up heroin in my backyard, breaking into my house and stealing our TVs and computers. I remember when there were drive-by shootings every night and I almost got hit once. I lived here when it was a very dangerous place to be.”

“If it wasn’t for the churches being here as the anchors of the community, you wouldn’t have the community to move into that you have today.”

“Development” by any other name

Gentrification is a broad term for the movement of wealthier residents into an existing urban area, a demographic shift which changes a district’s character and culture, often affecting neighborhoods that have previously been home to ethnic minorities or immigrants.

The result: historically working-class neighborhoods are transformed into up-and-coming “hipster” or “arts” districts, and eventually, to high-demand – and usually high-rent – neighborhoods.  

The gentrification process can be characterized by an increase in median income and housing prices, as well as a decrease in the neighborhood’s proportion of racial minorities. Crime rates often drop, while investments in high-end businesses and infrastructure often soar.

Sociologists argue over the root causes of this phenomenon and the ways in which it is different, historically, from other kinds of demographic changes in cities. What is undeniable, however, is that the shift from primarily minority, lower-class neighborhoods to majority white, upper-class districts brings challenges for long-term residents as well as the benefits of increased resources and new businesses.

As an integral part of many developing neighborhoods, local parishes are also feeling the strain of these changes.

New Mission Territory

Fr. Mark Doherty is an associate pastor at St. Peter’s in the Mission District, San Francisco's oldest neighborhood, and an area of the city that has been predominantly Hispanic for decades.

He told CNA about the changes the Mission District is facing as millennial tech moguls like Mark Zuckerberg and programmers for startups like Dropbox and Airbnb have bought up properties in the neighborhood.

“The young tech professionals, they want to live in the city, and a certain number of them – the more hipster type – want to live in the Mission District” because of its “grungier” feel, Fr. Doherty explained.

But the stark economic divide is making life, and parish ministry, more challenging for the Latin American immigrants who have called the neighborhood home for generations.  

Many members of St. Peter’s are facing housing issues due in part to the arrival of wealthy property-owners and tenants looking for luxury accommodations, Fr. Doherty explained.

“You have a fair number of first-generation arrivals who are having to move because property owners are either selling the buildings or redesigning them to make them more appealing to the younger set of professionals that are coming in.”

Parish ministry has also been impacted as the changing neighborhood demographics have, in a sense, turned St. Peter’s back into mission territory.

Most of the parishioners at St. Peter’s are Mexican-American and speak Spanish as their first language. “Our time is mostly dedicated to meeting the sacramental needs of theses first-generation immigrants who live in the neighborhood,” Fr. Doherty said, citing Masses, weddings, baptisms, quinceaneras and funerals as among the focuses of parish resources.

“That means that the other folks who are moving in – the young tech professionals who now make a substantial part of the neighborhood – it means we don’t have nearly the kind of time available or the resources at hand to try to engage that population.”

“These young professionals who have moved into the neighborhood generally have no connection to the Church whatsoever, and more generally seem to have none or very little religious experience or background to speak of,” Fr. Doherty continued.  “It means that engaging them is very, very challenging and it comes down to one-on-one encounters more than anything else.” 

While these personal encounters “have the opportunity to become significant and deep,” the priest said, they take a significant amount of time and effort – a difficulty in a large parish with an already-established community and many sacramental needs.

This place would be a very different community if it wasn’t for the churches. -Fr. Michael Kelley

One parish that has seen some degree of success at merging different communities is St. Dominic’s in the Highland neighborhood of Denver, Colorado.

The old Victorian houses in the area had long been home to a large Vietnamese and Hispanic population, many of whom were parishioners at St. Dominic’s. But as housing prices have risen with the influx of technology companies, startups and other incoming industries, some long-time residents have had to move to other neighborhoods while a new young adult population moves in.

“The families who have been pushed out – they come back,” said Fr. Luke Barder O.P., parochial vicar for St. Dominic’s. He told CNA that some parishioners will “drive 30-40 mins to come to Mass.”

Since many of the longtime parishioners have remained engaged in the parish despite moving to new neighborhoods, St. Dominic’s has refocused its efforts on integrating and welcoming new residents into its existing parish ministries.

To refocus on its changing role in community, the parish has updated its mission statement, Fr. Barder said, and started targeting some ministries to the young adults in the area, including an Octoberfest beer festival and the Frassati Society, a group for fellowship and prayer.

“Families and homes go together”

The limited availability of affordable housing is an issue that the U.S. bishops have aimed to address for decades, said Dr. Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development for U.S. bishops’ conference.

Reyes told CNA that within the Catholic Church, “for the last 10 years, housing has actually been one of the top three issues for community concerns and engagement, from the neighborhoods themselves.”

“The way the Church has always framed it is that families have the right to decent housing,” he continued. This drive to protect families – and to defend parishes as spaces in a community – has led the bishops’ conference to be explicitly involved in affordable housing initiatives since 1975.

In the document “The Right to a Decent Home,” the U.S. bishops lay out guidelines for Catholics on how to think about the need to ensure affordable housing. This concept was reinforced this past year in Pope Francis’ letter, “Amoris Laetitia,” in which the Pope asserted that “Families and homes go together,” and warned that housing difficulties may lead couples to delay starting a family.

Reyes pointed to efforts by the U.S. bishops’ conference to help ensure fair rents, promote the building of good housing and prevent homelessness.

In particular, he highlighted several initiatives by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, an anti-poverty program of the bishops’ conference which has set up land trusts enabling local communities to own and control land in their neighborhood to keep it affordable for future generations.

Helping people – old and new

In Washington, D.C., St. Martin’s parish is still working hard to meet the needs of the predominantly African American community and its “very clear Black Catholic identity,” while also reaching out to the influx of white young adults.

“Our philosophy is: everyone is welcome; all gifts are needed; everyone can help build up the Church,” Fr. Kelley explained.

All parishioners are welcomed and encouraged to serve in all areas of parish life, from the gospel choir to the parish council. St. Martin’s is also looking at expanding childcare services and other ministries to accommodate the increasing population of young families.

At the same time, the parish has been careful not to stall its current ministries, particularly its role as the D.C. meeting location for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. In addition to hosting the meetings, St. Martin’s also subsidizes the cost of utilities and operations.

“Even though the neighborhood is changing, people are coming from all over to come to the meetings,” Fr. Kelley said, emphasizing their importance both as a ministry and as a catalyst for change in Bloomingdale.

The influx of new residents has brought some benefits to the community. With the help of new parishioners, the parish been able to help secure housing protections for current residents against rapidly skyrocketing rental and property prices. In the 1990s, Fr. Kelley recalled, a row house in Bloomingdale could be bought for less than 10,000 dollars. Today, the same house could go for nearly 1 million dollars.

New residents in the neighborhood have also helped to attract attention to Bloomingdale’s longstanding issue with sewage flooding during heavy rains.

“For a long time, no one responded to the problem and plight of poor black folks complaining that we’re getting sewage in our basement when it rains,” Fr. Kelley said. New residents, though, had the resources and know-how to place enough political pressure on the city to jump-start repairs on the aging sewer and waste system in the neighborhood.

Still, challenges do remain for the community, with some new residents failing to understand the history of the area, and some older residents feeling like they are not respected and do not have a voice in the neighborhood as it evolves.

In the midst of these continuing tensions, Fr. Kelley said the parish must resist the narrative of “us against them.”

“I want us as a Church to continue to be involved, to share the Good News of Jesus, to continue to welcome everyone who comes and to try to meet people’s needs as best we can with our resources,” he said. “Our basic principles are hospitality, generosity, using God’s abundance to make a difference in the neighborhood locally and in the larger community.”

“It’s not like I’m trying to keep anyone out,” Fr. Kelley said of St. Martin’s role among the neighborhood’s many changes. “If anything, I’m trying to connect people more.”

This article was originally published July 13, 2016.

Catholics speak out against execution of two more Arkansas inmates

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 18:33

Little Rock, Ark., Apr 24, 2017 / 04:33 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- As Arkansas prepares to conduct the first double execution in the U.S. since 2000, Catholics prayed for all involved in the execution and the victims of the capital crimes.

“All of the actions around these executions in Arkansas display the flaws of the death penalty,” said Catholic Mobilizing Network in a statement to CNA April 24.  

“Both Jack Jones and Marcel Williams are in poor health, raising the risk of complications likely to occur with the lethal injection protocol. Kenneth Williams, set to be executed on Thursday, has an outstanding intellectual disability case as well,” the organization said.

Voicing prayers for both the victims and those involved in the scheduled executions, the group noted that both “Jones and Williams have taken responsibility for their crimes,” and said that this action “should be met with mercy.”

“This forces you to ask the question, why so much energy, expense and focus on vengeance? This is an opportunity to stand for the dignity of all life,” the group said.

Arkansas is set to execute two men – Jack Jones and Marcel Williams – on Monday evening, after a federal district judge on Friday denied their request to have their executions stopped and the state Supreme Court on Monday afternoon denied them a stay of execution.

Jones and Williams, scheduled to be executed on Monday evening, claimed that the state’s use of the sedative Midazolam could fail to achieve the intended effect of rendering them unconscious before the next two drugs, vecuronium bromide and potassium chloride, were administered. If this happened, the inmates said they could experience excruciating pain during their death.

The state had originally planned to execute eight inmates in 10 days before their supply of the drug Midazolam – used in their three-step lethal injection protocol – expired, but several of the executions have been stayed.

Inmates challenged the state’s use of Midazolam, claiming that there was a significant risk that the drug would not work as intended, but the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed their claim.

Meanwhile, a Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffin had halted the state’s use of vecuronium bromide in executions, after the medical supplier of vecuronium claimed that the state bought the drug from them and was deceptive about its planned use. The manufacturer of vecuronium had opposed its use in executions.

The state Supreme Court vacated Griffin’s ruling, however, and commissioned an investigation into whether he had violated the code of conduct for judges after he had participated in a rally against the planned executions on the same day he issued his decision. Griffin was also barred from hearing future death penalty cases.

One of the inmates, Ledell Lee, was executed on Thursday, April 20 after the Supreme Court refused to grant a stay of execution.

Of the two set to be executed on Monday evening, Jones was convicted for the 1995 murder of Mary Phillips and the attempted killing of her daughter, while Williams was convicted for the 1994 killing of Stacey Errickson.

A report by the Fair Punishment Project claimed that Jones was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, had been physically abused by his father as a child, had been sexually abused by strangers, and had twice attempted suicide before the 1995 killing. Marcel Williams, the report claimed, had been physically and sexually abused as a child, and had been pimped out by his mother to strangers for lodging and food stamps.

Kenneth Williams is also scheduled to be executed by Arkansas on Thursday. He has asked the state Supreme Court to halt his execution based on his claim of intellectual disability. He reportedly has an IQ score of 70, “squarely within the intellectual disability range,” according to the Fair Punishment Project.

Other inmates have had their executions halted. After the state’s parole board recommended clemency for Jason McGehee, convicted in the 1996 killing of John Melbourne, Jr., his execution was suspended by a federal district court because of a 30-day period for public comment before the board officially made its recommendation to the governor. McGehee’s scheduled execution fell within that 30-day period.

Two other inmates, Bruce Ward and Don Davis, saw their executions halted by the state Supreme Court as the U.S. Supreme Court considers another case, McWilliams v. Dunn, involving a prisoner’s request for a mental competency evaluation by an expert not selected by the state. The Court held oral arguments in the case on Monday.

Stacey Johnson was granted a stay of execution by the state Supreme Court for a hearing on DNA evidence in his case.

Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock has already spoken out against the scheduled executions. He wrote Governor Asa Hutchinson (R) on March 1 to ask for the eight death sentences to be commuted to life without parole.

“Though guilty of heinous crimes, these men nevertheless retain the God-given dignity of any human life, which must be respected and defended from conception to natural death,” Bishop Taylor wrote. “Since the penal system of our state is well equipped to keep them incarcerated for the rest of their life (and thus protect society), we should limit ourselves to non-lethal means.”

Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, chair of the U.S. bishops’ domestic justice committee, also called for the sentences to be commuted to life imprisonment.

“Indeed, serious criminal activity must be met with appropriate punishment,” he wrote. He cited Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae which said that death sentences should not be served for punishment “except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.”

The U.S. has “maximum security prisons” which “can neutralize an incarcerated person’s threat to the general public,” he added.

The planned executions follow a commutation of a Virginia inmate’s death sentence to life without parole by Governor Terry McAuliffe (D), who said that false information had been presented against Ivan Teleguz, 38, during the sentencing for a 2001 murder. The state’s bishops had praised the commutation “because we have a profound respect for the sanctity of every human life, from its very beginning until natural death.”