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Updated: 2 hours 16 min ago

Too many people misunderstand the 'vegetative state'

Sat, 12/17/2016 - 21:02

Philadelphia, Pa., Dec 17, 2016 / 07:02 pm (CNA).- Martin Pistorius was a healthy 12-year-old boy living in South Africa with his family in the late 1980s when he was overcome with a mysterious illness.

The doctors weren't sure what had come over Martin, but their best guess was cryptococcal meningitis. Over time, Martin lost his ability to move by himself, his ability to make eye contact, and eventually his ability to speak.

The hospital told Martin's parents, Rodney and Joan Pistorius, that their son was in a vegetative state, and to take him home and make him comfortable.

But approximately two years into this vegetative state, Martin woke up. He was aware of everything going on around him “like a normal person,” he told NPR – he just couldn't communicate. He spent 12 years in this state, most people thinking him a vegetable, until he was able to prove that he was conscious.

Martin now owns his own business and has written a book about his experience. He lives in the United Kingdom with his wife.

Maggie Worthen found herself in a similarly bleak situation in 2006. A senior a week away from graduating from Smith College, Smith suffered a massive stroke, leaving her unconscious and unable to speak or move.

Doctors, assuming Maggie would not recover or regain consciousness, pressured Maggie's mother Nancy to remove the ventilator or withhold food and water to let her daughter die. They asked if they could harvest Maggie’s organs.

But Nancy refused, believing that Maggie was more conscious and capable of recovery than the doctors thought. Maggie soon was able to breath on her own, and was able to communicate through eye movements her last few years of life before succumbing to pneumonia in August 2015 at the age of 31.

The stories of Martin, Maggie and many others like them show a troubling misunderstanding of, or a tendency to misdiagnose, what is called the “permanent vegetative state,” or PVS, in the medical community.

Edward Furton is an ethicist and director of publications with The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The center offers a 24-hour hotline that Catholics can call with questions related to medical ethics, and Furton said they often receive calls from family members whose loved ones have been diagnosed as being in a vegetative state.

“(They) are being told that their loved ones can’t feel anything, they’re completely unaware, that we can take away food and water it won’t bother them, they won’t even notice,” Furton told CNA.

“These things I think are very dangerous views, because we should always presume that the patient has some level of consciousness.”

Typically, medical doctors will assume that a patient is unconscious if there are no outward signs of consciousness, Furton said. But in some cases, such as in the cases of Martin or Maggie, that may not necessarily be true.

Deacon Alan Rastrelli is a licensed physician with expertise in anesthesiology and palliative medicine with the Denver-based Divine Mercy Supportive Care center, where he also serves as a spiritual advisor to the staff. He said another common problem when diagnosing a patient who has suffered brain trauma is a confusion of terms and a tendency to jump to the worst assumption.

“What I've been concerned about for some time, as I've been dealing with palliative care and bioethics and hospice care as a physician, is that sometimes the jump in the ICU is to go right to, ‘Oh this is a vegetative state, they’ll never come out of it.’ Or to say they’re brain dead or are in a comatose state when they haven’t done the right studies,” he said.    

“The terminology has been so confused over the last 10-15 years, that sometimes families are not sure what kind of decisions to make when they’re faced with a neurological insult,” Dr. Rastrelli added.

The term brain-dead, for example, only came into common use when organ donation became possible. A patient has minimal brain stem function if any, and their heartbeat and breathing are able to be sustained only through machines. Over the years, it has become a clearer diagnosis, allowing for safer organ donation, Dr. Rastrelli said, although sometimes there are still misdiagnoses.

New technologies, including brain scans that can detect brain activity in persons who may be outwardly unresponsive, may help doctors better understand and diagnose the level of consciousness of their patients.

“It is making people pause a little bit more to say, well we think there’s nothing there, but wow, some areas of the brain light up when we talk about mom or dad or children, or something that they might remember,” he said.

“With these new studies, maybe we won’t have to guess whether they feel or not, or hear or not, or suffer or not, we might be able to see if there’s still some activity there, and to show the opposite too, if there really isn’t.”

Another issue with over-diagnosis of the permanent vegetative state is a tendency to underestimate a patient’s ability to recover and become aware, which can occur years after the initial incident causing unconsciousness.

Research suggests that 68 percent of severely brain-injured patients who receive rehabilitation eventually regain consciousness, and that 21 percent of those are able to eventually live on their own. Yet unconscious patients are often too quickly dismissed as vegetative, disqualifying them from insurance on further rehabilitation efforts.

“Patients like Maggie are routinely misdiagnosed and placed in what we euphemistically call ‘custodial care’ where they have no access to any treatments that might help them recover or give them a chance of engaging with others,” Dr. Joseph Fins, chief of the division of medical ethics at Weill, told Newsweek.

There are times when additional measures, such as a ventilator or a feeding tube, would be considered extraordinary means of prolonging life and would not be ethically required by the Catholic Church, but each case is complex and unique, Dr. Rastrelli said.

Typically, families are not required to keep their loved ones on ventilators if the person will never again breathe on their own. In the case of a feeding tube, a dying person’s body may reject the nutrients, putting the person at risk for infection or aspiration, but feeding tubes should typically not be withheld or removed unless there are proven adverse effects, Dr. Rastrelli added.

“That person is still a person and we need to see if we can comfortably provide them with at least nutrition and hydration, not to the extreme of breathing machines and dialysis machines, if it’s not going to help, but as a comfort measure almost to allow them to have the nutrition that their body would normally be asking for,” he said.

Dr. Rastrelli said he is also concerned about the over-diagnosis of the vegetative state in an age of increased pushes for legalized assisted suicide in that it could lead to cases of euthanasia, which differs from assisted suicide in that other people make end-of-life decisions for the dying person, including withholding food and water.

“If you would talk to people in Compassion and Choices (the company behind the publicized case of Brittany Maynard), they would say that we don’t need any more disabled, society-dependent people to use up our resources if we’re not going to get them into a more functional, independent state,” he said.

“They would say well they’re just going to be suffering and you’re just wanting to keep them alive, just because of your religious beliefs. So why not just let them die or why not just help them die? They’re going to die anyway so why not just do it now and end their suffering. It sounds very good in sound bites, but it’s very dangerous because other people are making those decisions and presumptions.”

Catholics also have a different understanding of the human person, Furton said, in that they believe people are a union of body and soul, which is different than the prevailing beliefs in the current medical community, and could contribute to the tendency to over-diagnose patients as vegetative.

“One of the main issues here is that the scientific community, which strongly influences the medical community, tends toward materialism,” Furton added. “So they see the human person as an assemblage of matter, and the matter has somehow come together to produce life and then the matter has also produced consciousness. So if there are no material indications of consciousness, they say the person can’t be conscious.”

“We have to recognize that each of us has a soul, and that soul has its own inherent awareness, and it may indeed be completely functioning despite the fact that there are no outward signs of it,” he said.

Pope John Paul II didn’t like the term “vegetative” because of its dehumanizing effect, Dr. Rastrelli noted.

The late pontiff, and now saint, was himself an example of understanding when to let the dying process take its natural course, he added. When Parkinson’s ravaged his body, and he was overwhelmed with complications from pneumonia and various ailments, Pope John Paul II chose to forgo the emergency room and intensive care. Instead, he spent the last of his days in his room, where Mass was said, and he could receive the Eucharist and the anointing of the sick.

“And there’s a chance that he could have been able to fight through that particular episode, but his body would have been another major notch lower in health, then he’d be facing the same thing not much longer from then,” Dr. Rastrelli said. Instead, “he passed away peacefully.”

Receiving the sacraments is an important part of end of life care at Divine Mercy Supportive Care center, which follows the medical ethics of the Catholic Church.

“So the Catholic perspective I think throws the most appropriate light on (end of life issues), in that on the one hand, we dignify life and we take care of people like we’re asked to do, human to human. But we also recognize that the whole reason we’re here in this world is that so we can be with God in eternity,” Dr. Rastrelli said.

“We’re not going to fight tooth and nail to try and eek out every ounce of life, because we have the trust and the faith and the hope of our eternal life. So our church brings us prayer and sacraments and care…so that we can be born into the arms of Christ and have that hope and that comfort and peace.”


This article was originally published on CNA Aug. 23, 2016.

The Catholic Church desperately needs artists.

Sat, 12/17/2016 - 12:02

New York City, N.Y., Dec 17, 2016 / 10:02 am (CNA).- “Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here.”

So wrote Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Demons, one of four of his greatest novels. The Russian Orthodox novelist would find himself in agreement with a Polish Roman Catholic Pope, who more than a century later wrote of the Catholic Church’s need for beauty, and artists who could create that beauty.  

“Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God…” wrote Pope John Paul II in his 1999 Letter to Artists.

Himself an artist as an accomplished actor and poet, Pope John Paul II saw the need to appeal to artists in particular to put their talents to use for the Gospel and the salvation of the world. He desired stronger collaboration between the world of art and the Church, once one of the world’s greatest incubators for the world’s greatest artists like Michelangelo, who created such enduring works as the Sistine Chapel and La Pieta.  

“With this Letter, I turn to you, the artists of the world, to assure you of my esteem and to help consolidate a more constructive partnership between art and the Church. Mine is an invitation to rediscover the depth of the spiritual and religious dimension which has been typical of art in its noblest forms in every age,” John Paul II wrote.

It’s no secret that the Michaelangelos of the Church seem to be few and far between in this age, where some modern churches more closely resemble spaceships than houses of God, church bulletin design seems to be stuck in the 1980s, and some church choirs consist of two people who’ve never taken a music lesson.

However, a slow but sure movement towards rediscovering the importance of art and beauty seems to be afoot in the Catholic Church. Here’s how three different groups are working to put Pope John Paul II’s call for artists into action.

Bringing artists to Christ, and Christ to artists

Emily Martinez loves the arts. In particular, the theater.

She studied acting during her undergraduate years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and she also also fell in love with Jesus, thanks to some missionaries she met through the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).

But while she loved Jesus and acting, she longed to see these two parts of her life intersect more. FOCUS had specific outreaches to Greek students and student athletes - why not artists?

Martinez wanted to change that. Partnering with a FOCUS missionary who had studied graphic design, Martinez created CREATE - Catholics Redefining Everyday Art Through Excellence. Every month, the group hosted different speakers and presenters from a vast array of the arts - dance, music, film, writing, theater - who spoke or performed in front of an audience of 30-50 students each time, and explained how they were using their craft to glorify God.  

“It just made sense to me that we would be reaching out to people who are artists, because they’re going to be creating things their whole lives, things that are going to impact a lot of people,” she said. “And what if Christ was at the center of that? What if the beauty that they were creating pointed us back to God in some way?”

By the end of her senior year, Martinez’s plans to move away and go to grad school for theater had changed. Instead, she felt the Lord calling her to be a FOCUS missionary. Certain she’d be sent to a school without a strong arts program, Martinez mentally prepared herself to temporarily set aside her passion for art.

Until she received her assignment at New York University, one of the best art schools in the country.

“It was a gift, and I got to work with so many artists, because it’s New York City,” she said. “So I kind of just dove right in and started meeting as many artists as possible.”

She invited art students (typically freshman, who were looking for a home anyway) to join her bible study, which in some ways was more like a Christ-centered art class. They’d discuss religious paintings, plays and sacred music.

They read John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, which “just blew their minds” knowing that there was a Pope encouraging artists to create their art to the best of their abilities, she said.

At the end of the year, Martinez had her bible study put on a show. They each created pieces specific to their personal medium of art (acting, dance, fashion), based on the passage from the bible about the woman at the well, about a time that they encountered Christ, perhaps while looking for something different.  

The show was a hit, Martinez said. The girls invited their friends, many of whom were not Catholic, to attend. They told their stories of encountering Christ in a way that was authentic and beautiful.

“It was cool to be able to demonstrate what their art can be outside of this bible study,” Martinez said. “You can do this all the time, you can ask God to be with you in your art.”

The following year, Martinez said she was able to go a little deeper with the young women in her bible study, since they had already bonded over their common passion for art. Now, she’s working on writing up a bible study for all of FOCUS to use, based on what she did with her study at NYU.

“I just did this, I didn’t know if I was allowed,” Martinez said of her artist bible study. “And soon a  bible study will be out for all FOCUS artists.”

Catholic Creatives: Faithful artists come together

Like Martinez, brothers Marcellino and Anthony D’Ambrosio were millennial Catholic artists who longed to see more intersection between the Church and good art.

Both former youth and music ministers turned digital marketers and designers, the two would often meet with another creative friend of theirs Edmund Mitchell, to complain about the state of affairs with art and the Church.

“We’d end up talking about how bad Catholic dating is or how bad Catholic design or media is,” Anthony told CNA. “We’d have these sessions and so we were like well, what if we got more people together and actually tried to do something productive?”

The men started reaching out to other Catholic creative professionals and youth ministers they knew, and they decided to meet for the first time in Dallas, Texas.

The first topic to tackle? Terrible Church bulletin design.

“The invite was come, bring a six-pack of beer and an ugly bulletin, and we’ll solve this,” Marcellino said.

“And it was crazy. People drove from all over the place, they came from Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, people were sending in bulletins from Minnesota... it was like the first time anyone was like, oh my gosh, yes, I’d like to have a voice in this.”

After that initial meetup, the group, Catholic Creatives, was born. A collaboration of Catholic artists and creative professionals from across the United States, the group now has a website, a podcast, and a Facebook group with some 1,000 members, all advocating for better art in the Catholic Church across their respective fields.

One of the biggest obstacles to great art in the Church today, Anthony and Marcellino said, is the defensive posture that the Church has taken in modern times.

“In the last century, Church culture has put an extreme emphasis on truth over goodness and beauty. The orthodox Catholic apologetics movement that’s been so big over the last 50 years or so says we must defend the Church’s teachings. And so we have conferences and events about defending the church’s teachings, how to catechize kids and teach them the truth. It says that we need to make sure that people understand the Mass, if they just understood, they would come more, they would care more,” Marcellino said.

“But if Mass is in a really crappy building, and you have a choir that’s way off-key, and you have really ugly bulletins, and the priest is bored and boring, it doesn’t matter if they understand it. People who understand it are going to stop coming! Because it’s not what it’s supposed to be,” Anthony added.

Beauty, Anthony said, is an easy way to impact people’s hearts for the Gospel. It’s part of the reason Christ became man, he added - men need to encounter truth and beauty in a person, not just to understand it intellectually.

“It’s really hard to argue with a sunset,” Anthony said. “Beauty impacts people in a way that short circuits this whole defense mechanism.”

The goal of the group is “to be able to make change,” Anthony added. Not a change in the Church’s teachings or orthodoxy, but “to return Catholic art to the forefront of the world’s conversation. Not just the church but the world. We need to get the world to recognize the face of Christ again through good art, media and evangelization.”

Making Churches beautiful: The job of a liturgical projects consultant

It’s not just Church bulletins and other by-products of evangelization that need help. Modern Church history has produced some equally displeasing Church buildings and designs.

But Patrick Murray’s job as a projects consultant for Granda Liturgical arts is to bring beauty back to Churches. From projects as simple as finding new saint statues to as large-scale as retrofitting a Church for new windows and interior renovations, Murray works with Churches to create fitting houses for God.

“When it comes to big projects, my job is to go and provide some initial thoughts based on what I know about liturgical norms, and what I know about art history and architecture,” he said.
“Sometimes they want to really get back to traditional styles that are heavily based on traditional church elements, and so we help them figure out a way those can be applied to buildings from the 60s,” he said.

A millennial and art history buff, Murray said that within the world of Church design, there has been a slow but definite movement toward Neoclassicism, which is a return to the more classic and traditional forms of design and architecture such as Greek, Gothic and Romanesque.

“It doesn’t take an art history professor to go into an ugly suburban church and say this place feels like a spa waiting room or something,” Murray said.

“And I think that’s a pretty common experience unfortunately. You can tell when things are ugly and not fitting for sacred worship and when they are, and more than a particular style or movement, it seems to me that we’re slowly but distinctly starting to regain the sense of what is fitting, and I hope it continues, because I’m on board.”

Murray’s personal favorite style is Neoromanesque, a style that several new Churches have adopted very beautifully, he said.

He also loves strong, vibrant colors in a church because “if church is supposed to look like heaven, I’m pretty sure heaven is not beige.”

The importance of beauty in the structure and interior of a Church is something that was impressed upon Murray at an early age. Soon after high school graduation, he was a cradle Catholic lukewarm in his faith when he moved to Chicago with his family. Always someone interested in art history, Murray found himself in awe of the beauty of the art and architecture at his new parish.

“The whole church is based on Christ, but it’s gorgeous, and that was the first time I as a young Catholic person realized that all of this, and by extension all of the Basilicas in Rome and the Cathedrals in Paris, and everything else, belong to me, they’re my birthright as a baptized Catholic, just as much as to Pope John Paul II or St. Peter,” he said.

“So not only did I get interested in this and get a job in sacred art, but it also saved me from a lifetime of lukewarm (apathy) about Catholicism,” he said. “It got me interested in my faith and in how sacred art can lead people to Christ. I believe so strongly that sacred art lifts our hearts and minds, but it also connects us to the traditions that the Church has preserved for so long.”

How the Church can support artists
Because of the power of art to lift people’s minds and hearts to God, good art should be something that the Church is willing to sacrifice for, Murray said.

“We’re doing this for God, we’re building these beautiful churches and making these beautiful statues for God. If this is a worthy goal, it requires sacrifice on our part, and therefore we should make that sacrifice - which these days is usually monetary - to support those artists who are doing this great work and participating in the creative power of God.”

Anthony also said that “artists need to be able to support a family. Good art is not produced by people that do it on the weekends as a part-time thing when they get around to it.”

“Good art, excellent art, Sistine Chapel kind of art, that comes from people who dedicate their lives to their craft,” he said.

Marcellino added that the Church needs to stop operating out of fear, and needs to take a more aggressive approach to evangelization through good art.

“Bishops and priests have to stop operating out of fear, they have to stop putting the decisions of ministry in the hands of lawyers and insurance companies,” he said. “Because when safety is valued over and above good expression and over innovation, it shuts downs artists being able to do their thing.”

Anthony also stressed the need for artists in the Church to not become discouraged, and to continue to hold themselves to the highest of standards.

“Don’t settle for mediocrity,” he said. “There is such a low bar for art in the Christian world that you can get away with being mediocre.”

“The world needs excellence to reach the 90 percent of people that think that Catholicism is totally archaic and meaningless, those are the people your art is supposed to reach.”


This article was originally published on CNA Aug. 3, 2016.

Record-breaking year for the Coming Home Network

Fri, 12/16/2016 - 21:42

Birmingham, Ala., Dec 16, 2016 / 07:42 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Dedicated to serving Catholic converts, the network Coming Home, will meet the closing of the year with record-breaking membership numbers, reporting over 5,000 new members for 2016.

“Protestants and other non-Catholics on the journey to Catholicism need to meet Catholics who themselves are faithful Christians, as well as other converts who know the difficulty of the journey into the Church and beyond,” said JonMarc Grodi, the director of the Coming Home Network.

“Handling these large numbers is a wonderful challenge, because ours is a very personal mission. We work to understand each individual person’s journey and needs, and then help them accordingly,” Grodi continued.

The Coming Home network is an apostolate produced by members of The Journey Home program, which airs on the Catholic network EWTN. The network was founded over 25 years ago, and features apologetic resources, retreats, and catechetical programs to journey with individuals on the road to Catholicism.

The organization began keeping track of their numbers in 1993, and recently reported that the 2016 year will mark the largest count of membership since then.

In order to tackle the growing multitude of members, the Coming Home network has implemented advanced social media strategies and redesigned their website for more efficient production. They have also prepared their staff to “handle the increase in inquiries.”

The members who have joined the Coming Home network throughout 2016 “include non-Catholic clergy, seminarian professors, seminarians, missionaries, lay ministers and even spouses of clergy.” Among the members are also “laypersons seeking to enter the Catholic Church and members who are already Catholic but have experienced a reversion to their faith.”

These members who have converted to Catholicism now serve the Church in various ways: as bishops, priests, deacons and religious, or also as active laypersons within the Church community.

“They’re serving in every imaginable way,” Grodi said of the converts.

Grodi, who is also the founder and president of EWTN’s The Journey Home, expressed excitement and gratitude at the growth in numbers.

“The personal touch of my guests telling their stories has been like the ripple effect from a stone thrown into a pond. A day doesn’t go by when we don’t receive grateful calls, emails, tweets, and texts from viewers and listeners,” Grodi said.

“I think however, that the main reason God is drawing people to the fullness of truth is for the sake of their own spiritual growth, and the graces of the sacraments.”


Can the Catholic Church help an addicted generation?

Fri, 12/16/2016 - 14:02

Greenwich, Connecticut, Dec 16, 2016 / 12:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Young Americans are dying at a rate not seen since the Vietnam War.

But they are not dying in combat - they’re dying of the effects of drug overdoses, alcoholism, mental illness and suicide, at a rate 200 percent higher than the 1980s in much of the United States. 

A recent report from the U.S. surgeon general estimates that more than 27 million Americans have problems with prescription drugs, illegal drugs or alcohol. But just a fraction of those people, only 10 percent, get meaningful help.

And it’s not just substance addictions that are on the rise. Process addictions, related to behaviors, have also seen recent spikes. Pornography addiction in particular has reached what some view as crisis levels.

A 2011 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information estimated that roughly 47 percent of all American adults struggle with at least one of the 11 most common forms of process or substance addictions.

The prevalence of all kinds of addiction likely mean that most people in the pews of a Catholic Church on any given Sunday have experienced addiction in themselves or in a loved one.

So what is the Church doing to address the problem?

Understanding addiction

Dr. Gregory Bottaro is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Catholic Psych Institute in Connecticut. He frequently sees clients who are dealing with either substance or process addictions.

Part of the problem of addiction is a widespread misunderstanding of addiction as a lack of intellectual or spiritual willpower, Dr. Bottaro said.

“You have to recognize that there is an actual brain disease in effect,” he told CNA.

“So as much as you can sit and talk through the issues, you’re dealing with real brain chemicals that are out of balance, and a real disease that has occurred in the brain, so approaching it from a number of different angles is very important.”

Behaviors or substance abuse have to reach certain diagnostic marks to be considered addictions, Dr. Bottaro said. Generally, an addiction is occurring when a person is compulsively dependent on a substance or behavior, and continues to do it despite negative consequences and a desire to stop.

And just like addicted individuals can build up tolerances to substances and require more to achieve the same effect, process addictions also show tolerance buildups, such as when a pornography addict requires more hardcore viewing to achieve the same release.  

Erik Vagenius is the founder of Substance Abuse Ministry Scripts, or SAM Scripts, a faith and scripture based ministry designed to help ease the process from recognition of addiction to seeking professional help.

Vagenius, who has been involved in addiction ministry for decades and is a recovered alcoholic himself, said that the first step to solving the problem is recognizing that there is one.

“I firmly believe so much for this (ministry) to be part of the church,” he told CNA. “(T)o have a church community that recognizes that they’re behind you, just as they would be if somebody had cancer, helps to destigmatize this thing.”

“Unfortunately the reactions I sometimes get are well, this isn’t really a Catholic problem. But I’ll bet everybody in the pew on any given day has had some relationship with the disease of addiction,” he added.  

What does faith have to do with it?

Faith has long been a tenet of many addiction recovery programs. One of the most popular, Alcoholics Anonymous has strong Christian roots because it’s co-founder, Bill Wilson, had a spiritual awakening after he was hospitalized for his drinking in 1934. He joined the Oxford Group, a nondenominational Christian movement popular in the U.S. and Europe at the time, and helped found AA in 1935.

The AA tenets of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects and restitution for harm done to others grew out of Oxford Group teachings.

Today, allegiance to a specific creed is not required for membership, though the group still considers itself a spiritual, though denominationally non-preferential group. Four of the 12 steps in the AA program mention God directly, and the 12th calls for a "spiritual awakening as a result of these steps."

Vagenius also considers addiction a spiritual battle.

“We’re dealing with a spiritual disease, and that’s why the Church needs to be involved with it,” he said.

The website for SAM Scripts recognizes that “addiction is a spiritual illness that disconnects a person: from self, loved ones, and God. SAM's mission is to help these individuals reconnect through education, prevention, referral, and family support.”

Dr. Bottaro said he also incorporates faith in his recovery programs for addicts.

He said he was especially inspired after hearing a talk by Catholic speaker Christopher West, who specializes in Theology of the Body.

“He said basically we have this desire, and our desires are insatiable. So God made us with this desire for more more more, and with that desire we can do one of three things...we can become a stoic, and addict or a mystic.”

A stoic ignores the desire or tries to repress it and pretend it doesn’t exist. An addict tries to fulfill their desires with the things of this world, and a mystic “directs their desires towards God, and that’s where we enter into that mysticism by transcending the finitude of this life,” he said.

That’s still an abstract way of looking at a very real disease, Dr. Bottaro said. However, there are several Catholic programs that offer concrete assistance to struggling addicts of all levels.

Catholic recovery programs

On the less intensive side, Dr. Bottaro has developed an 8-week online program that anyone can access from home called Catholic Mindfulness. It adds the Catholic understanding of abandonment to Divine Providence to a traditional mindfulness approach to healing.

“If you look into what mindfulness is, you’re basically training your brain to know that you’re safe, because the anxiety response is how God made us to react to danger,” he said. “The problem is we overuse that...we activate our anxiety response, but most of the time we’re not actually in danger. So mindfulness is basically paying attention to what’s actually real right now to convince your brain that you’re safe, and that corrects the brain chemistry.”

“The Catholic perspective as to why we’re safe is that we have a Father who loves us and who always keeps us in his hands, and we have a reason to trust that everything is going to be ok.”

Vagenius refers to those in his ministry as “SAM teams” who share their time and talent, typically through talks and meetings, to offering hope, healing and reconciliation to those touched by addiction. SAM teams provide a safe, confidential place for people to seek help and referral at the parish level.

Team members do not have to be in recovery but need to be acquainted with addiction, and must be approved by their pastor.  

The ministry’s exact format varies from parish to parish, depending on those involved and the needs of the faith community. Vagenius’ trainings provide a basic format, and the parish SAM team develops its own dynamic from that outline based on specific needs.

Depending on the person, more intensive work may be necessary, including outpatient psychotherapy and group counseling, or even residential programs.

St. Gregory Retreat Center is a Catholic residential program for adults struggling with substance abuse located in Adair, Iowa.

The program offers separate residential facilities for men and women and offers a “holistic approach that combines the very best research in psychology, health, social support, and other methodologies.”

The program targets addiction behavior in four different aspects of life: biological, psychological, social, and spiritual.

Besides counseling, social activities and physical exercise, daily Mass and regular access to the sacraments are part of the residents’ normal routine.

Natalie Cataldo, Director of Admissions at St. Gregory, told CNA that incorporating spirituality in the recovery process has proven to be very effective.

“Research shows that people are more successful in overcoming addiction when they have an active spirituality in their lives,” she told CNA in an e-mail interview.

“Most people who come to us have had not a great past. With the sacrament of reconciliation, our guests are able to ask for forgiveness... Allowing them to feel like they are getting rid of the past, making new good habits for the future that they can start using and making better choices.  It also allows for self reflection and self evaluation.”

For those in post-recovery, there are programs available to help ease people back into their normal routine.

Dr. Bottaro works at one such facility, Ender’s Island in Connecticut, a residential program for young men “with or without faith” who are recently out of recovery. The program provides a community in which to practice the 12 steps and support for a better transition into regular life, as well as daily Mass and regular access to the sacraments.

The biggest barriers to seeking help for addiction can be denial on the part of the individual and a perceived stigma in seeking help. Increased education and understanding from everyone in the Church can help break these barriers, Dr. Bottaro said.

“It’s important to have support and understanding that there are other ways to fight these battles than just prayer, or just kind of sucking it up and hanging in there and seeing how far you can go before you get help,” he said.

“Once you’re looking for help, there’s a wide spectrum.”

Why pro-lifers are calling this rule a gift to Planned Parenthood

Fri, 12/16/2016 - 08:01

Washington D.C., Dec 16, 2016 / 06:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- States cannot keep federal grants away from Planned Parenthood clinics, the Obama administration ruled on Wednesday in a move that critics say is a “parting gift to Big Abortion.”

“The Obama administration, even in its waning hours, has chosen to put Planned Parenthood’s Big Abortion agenda ahead of women’s health and the right of states to decide how best to prioritize public health funding so that patients and the most comprehensive health providers come first,” Steven H. Aden, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom stated.

The Department of Health and Human Services released final regulations “to increase access to affordable family planning and preventive services” under Title X grants Dec. 14. The new rule takes effect Jan. 18, two days before the inauguration of Donald Trump.

Title X is a federal program that promotes “family planning” through grants to various providers of health care through the states.

In its new rule, the HHS says that states can’t withhold these grants to certain health providers if they provide the “family planning” services that Title X is based on: “no grant recipient making subawards for the provision of services as part of its Title X project may prohibit an entity from participating for reasons other than its ability to provide Title X services.”

Thus, if states felt that community health centers – which do not provide abortions but offer other health care options like breast cancer screenings – should receive grants over Planned Parenthood affiliates – which provide abortions but not breast cancer screenings or health care that is not preventative – they could not favor the health centers if both recipients met the criteria for the Title X grants.

“In the past several years, a number of states have taken actions to restrict participation by certain types of providers as subrecipients in the Title X Program, unrelated to the provider’s ability to provide family planning services,” the HHS stated.

“This has caused limitations in the geographic distribution of services and decreased access to services,” they added, noting that the final rule was meant to “protect access to family planning services.”

States such as New Hampshire and Kansas have tried to limit Planned Parenthood affiliates’ funding under the program, the HHS has claimed, but now they can only do so if they “can prove that they disperse birth control better than Planned Parenthood does.”

“Planned Parenthood isn’t superior to true, publicly-funded health care centers -- which are far more numerous – simply because it claims to focus on dispensing birth control, despite being America’s largest abortion business,” Aden said.

Back in October, ADF, along with the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List and its research arm the Charlotte Lozier Institute, wrote to the HHS asking them “to reject the proposed rule, as it contradicts the letter and spirit of Title X not to subsidize elective abortion.” Planned Parenthood is the nation’s largest abortion provider.

ADF continued, saying the rule blatantly favors Planned Parenthood over public health centers, trampling on the states' legitimate authority to disburse the federal grants to organizations that best align with their declared health policy.

“By defining ‘quality of care’ in a way that strongly favors providers who focus on contraceptive services, HHS asserts that ‘reproductive healthcare providers’ such as Planned Parenthood are superior to the federal government’s own system of public healthcare because they more effectively deliver contraception – a proposition both remarkable and untrue,” the comments stated.

Plus, it is “simply better healthcare policy” to leave federal health funding to centers like community health centers that provide an array of healthcare options and not just contraceptives, ADF added:

“Unlike boutique ‘reproductive healthcare providers’ such as Planned Parenthood affiliates, such primary and preventive care centers provide low-income families with access to not only family planning services, but also vital preventive services, including prenatal and perinatal services, well-child services, immunizations against vaccine-preventable diseases, primary care services, diagnostic laboratory and radiological services, emergency medical services, and pharmaceutical services.”

Courage to host event on pastoral approach to sexual identity

Fri, 12/16/2016 - 02:02

Phoenix, Ariz., Dec 16, 2016 / 12:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Courage International will team with the Phoenix diocese in the new year to host an event addressing same-sex attraction and other sexual identity issues on the forefront of Church discussion today.

“The work of Courage International, helping those with same-sex attraction to build friendships and virtue, and helping the Church to share the Good News of Christ in a challenging area, is essential to our time,” said Bishop Thomas Olmstead of Phoenix, Arizona.

“I encourage all who have pastoral responsibilities to join us at the conference in January in Phoenix. It will help you to grow in knowledge and friendship,” the bishop said.

This year, the “Truth and Love” conference will center around the theme of “Welcoming and accompanying our brothers and sisters with same-sex attraction or confusion regarding sexual identity.”

The event, now in its third year, will offer presentations and practical advice for those in a pastoral or instructive position in the Church, including religious, clergy, lay members, and health and medical professionals.

“So many of the current approaches to homosexuality do not include the fuller perspective of the human person. Rather, they limit themselves to acceptance and to the protection of the right of sexual satisfaction,” Carmel Communications said in a press release for the event.

For this reason, the conference will offer instruction from Catholic experts on how the Catholic community can effectively preach about the fullness of the human person, specifically in reference to same-sex attraction.

The conference will also touch on the topics of Christian anthropology, natural law, the psychology of homosexuality and chastity. Additionally, roundtable discussions and panels will be offered, as well as Mass celebrated by Bishop Olmstead and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, California.

The speaker series at the conference will include Dr. Janet Smith, Jason Evert, Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, Andrew Lichtenwalner, and Courage International's executive director, Fr. Philip Bochanski. The event will also offer testimonials of individuals who have experienced struggles with sexual identity, who will give instructive advice on living chaste lives with authenticity.

Fr. Bochanski, who heads the sexual identity apostolate Courage International, noted that the conference will “share the good news that living chastely and finding our true identity as sons and daughters of God is the way to real happiness and authentic relationships.”

The conference will take place from Jan. 9-11 at St. Paul Parish in Phoenix, AZ. Registration can be found at

Saint John Paul II documentary takes two Emmys

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 21:08

Chicago, Ill., Dec 15, 2016 / 07:08 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Two Emmy Awards have gone to a documentary that shows St. John Paul II’s central role in the end of communism.

Liberating a Continent: John Paul II and the Fall of Communism resulted an Emmy for outstanding achievement for documentary programs in the historical category. The award went to the documentary executive producer and Knights of Columbus CEO Carl Anderson, along with producers Justyna Czyszek, Szymon Czyszek, David Naglieri, and Michele Nuzzo-Naglieri.   

“We are honored to receive these awards and grateful for the recognition it gives to this important film, which tells the story of how Eastern Europe regained its freedom without violence and by calling forth the best in the human spirit,” Anderson said. “The documentary shows how John Paul was the essential leader in making this happen and in such a hopeful, inspiring way.”

Anderson worked with St. John Paul II when he served in the Reagan White House. He is now Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization with 1.9 million members worldwide.

The film focuses on the sainted Pope’s role in ending communist control of Central and Eastern Europe and his spiritual influence on Poland’s Solidarity labor movement, which played a pivotal role leading up to the collapse of Communism that started in 1989.

Another Emmy went to the film's director of photography, George Hosek.

The Emmy Awards, announced Dec. 3, came from the Chicago/Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, one of the academy’s largest chapters.

The 90-minute film, narrated by actor Jim Caviezel, uses rare archival footage and interviews with several heads of state. Other interviewees include papal biographer George Weigel; Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, emeritus Archbishop of Krakow, who served as St. John Paul II’s longtime assistant; and Richard Allen, former national security adviser to Ronald Reagan.

The documentary has been airing on public television across the U.S. in partnership with WTTW Chicago and the National Educational Telecommunications Association.

Threats to tax exemption could ruin Chicago pastor's ministry

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 18:08

Chicago, Ill., Dec 15, 2016 / 04:08 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- As secularists look to abolish a religious tax exemption, a pastor whose life is dedicated to serving those in need fights for what he calls a critical – and constitutional – support for his ministry.

“My church and the community are my lifeblood,” Bishop Ed Peecher of Chicago Embassy Church has stated. “The hungry, the lost, the lonely – they are my family. I spend my days serving them, praying, talking and offering hope and an alternative to violence. This is my job, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

Peecher founded a church in one of the most notorious parts of Chicago for crime. He works with gang members to stop violence and establish peace in the neighborhoods through the Chicago Peace Campaign, but also serves the local homeless population and is a mentor for young residents in the Journeymen program.

“This work is possible because the church supports Bishop Peecher through a small housing allowance, permitting him to focus on and live minutes from his congregation and surrounding communities in need,” explained the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

His allowance is tax-exempt through what is referred to as the “Parsonage Allowance.”

The law actually dates back 100 years, said the Becket Fund, which is representing Bishop Peecher. Basically, if an employee needs to live close to work and this poses an added burden for them, they can receive a tax-exempt housing allowance.

Many types of employees make use of this exemption for secular purposes, Smith explained, like military employees or persons who have to move to other countries for their work. “Ministers who live in the communities they serve shouldn’t be left out in the cold,” Smith said.

While ministers receive a tax-exempt housing allowance for living close to their parish, these instances make up only a small percentage of all housing allowances in the tax code, Smith pointed out.

But the secularist Freedom from Religion Foundation is suing the Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew and the head of the IRS John Koskinen over this exemption, claiming it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

They also challenged the allowance in court in 2011, winning at the district court level but ultimately losing at the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in a case where Becket Fund filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the churches.

“Not only is this explicitly discriminatory against religious groups when so many secular businesses and organizations receive similar tax treatment, but it hurts churches and the communities they serve,” Becket Fund stated of the newest lawsuit.

So Bishop Peecher and other clients like Holy Cross Anglican Church in Wisconsin and the Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia are asking to join the government’s side of the lawsuit as “intervener defenders.”

They want the court not only to hear the government’s case, but the cases of ministers who directly benefit from the exemption.

What is their case? The ministers need the tax-exemption to avoid taking on a second job that would cut into their ministry, and the churches can’t afford to spend more on their pastors without spending less on religious activities.

For instance, regarding Peecher’s situation, he “uses his home to fulfill his pastoral duties,” Becket Fund stated in its request to intervene in the case. “He invites members of the Church into his home for individual spiritual counseling, prayer meetings, and social events. Bishop Ed’s pastoral team meets in his home, and he prepares his sermons in his home office.”

Thus, “the parsonage allowance also allows him to devote himself full-time to the ministry,” they added.

“Without the parsonage allowance, Bishop Ed would likely have to take a part-time job to cover the increased tax burden. Alternatively, if the Church were to increase his pay to compensate for the tax, the Church would need to cut back its vital community ministries.”

Regarding the Orthodox clergy, the Becket Fund stated that “a priest must be present to lead multiple divine services every week, and is called to counsel his flock and visit the sick regardless of the day of the week or the time of day that the need may arise.”

To do this, they “are required by Church regulations to live within the geographic boundaries of that parish.”

“The majority of parishes in the Diocese have budgets of less than $100,000, and most priests are bivocational – meaning they work secular jobs to support their families,” they added.

“Striking down the parsonage allowance would place a severe financial strain on the parishes’ ability to provide for their clergy and would likely force some priests to cut back on their priestly work to take additional secular work.”

This could have a devastating spiritual impact upon a parish, the memorandum explained:

“Priests also have the responsibility to ensure that none of their parishioners ‘dies without a final confession and the Holy Mysteries of Christ.’ Secular employment makes it more difficult for a priest to ‘drop whatever [he] is doing to respond to a parishioner who is ill and at risk of dying.’

“Forcing priests to take on additional secular work would take away even more from the time that they can spend performing their pastoral duties, and magnify the risk of the ‘great spiritual tragedy’ that would occur if the priest ‘did not make it in time and one of [his] parishioners died without a final confession.’ Thus, for the Intervenors, losing the parsonage allowance would restrict, minute for minute, dollar for dollar, the modest resources that they have to carry out their religious missions.”


Did 'Catholic Spring' groups undermine the Catholic bishops?

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 17:20

Washington D.C., Dec 15, 2016 / 03:20 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Groups reputedly founded for a “Catholic Spring” revolt within the Church have a history of criticizing Catholic bishops on LGBT issues and other topics, while taking money from wealthy, strategically minded LGBT activists who have helped reshape American religion, politics and the definition of marriage.

Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good came to prominence in mid-October when WikiLeaks published a 2012 email exchange apparently involving John Podesta, President Bill Clinton’s former chief-of-staff and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager. Podesta appeared to suggest he and his allies had founded the groups to sow religious revolution.

Today, Catholics in Alliance’s Pennsylvania-based advocacy organization is Keystone Catholics. The state director, Stephen Seufert, has held his position since 2014 and has been Catholics in Alliance’s national project manager since 2015. The Keystone Catholics website links to many of his essays published at the Huffington Post and elsewhere.

Seufert’s July 14, 2016 Huffington Post piece, titled “Guidelines without Love,” criticized Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput’s guidelines on Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia and depicted the archbishop as acting contrary to the Pope.

“Catholics like Archbishop Chaput want society to respect their religious beliefs and freedoms while actively engaging in public advocacy that seeks to weaken and/or eliminate civil liberties for LGBT people,” Seufert wrote. “This sort of blatant contradiction does immense damage to the Catholic Church’s credibility.”

According to Seufert, “the more Archbishop Chaput resists civil liberties for non-traditional families, the more likely Catholics will push for internal change within the Church on marriage and the family.” He claimed this is because Catholics like himself are taking the time to “live with and unconditionally love their LGBT brothers and sisters.”

The archbishop was a delegate of the U.S. bishops to the 2015 Synod on the Family and chairs the U.S. bishops’ working group on Amoris Laetitia. The synod voted him to be a member of the council to plan and organize the Catholic Church’s next synod.

Keystone Catholics also criticized Archbishop Chaput in the run-up to the World Meeting of Families when he said the event would not provide a platform for people “to lobby for positions contrary to the life of our Church.” In a June 2015 statement the group said the archbishop’s comments “highlight an unwillingness by some to engage in respectful, open dialogue” with those who identify as LGBT.

Citing the Supreme Court decision mandating legal recognition of same-sex marriages, the group said the Church had to decide whether to “isolate itself from lay Catholics and society at large” or instead “work to love and embrace the entire human person.”

In May 2016, Keystone Catholics claimed that Pope Francis is “quietly shifting the Church’s pastoral stance on LGBT issues.” Seufert charged that U.S. Catholic institutions wrongly fired employees fired for engaging in homosexual relationships or voicing support for such relationships and related political causes.

Christopher Hale, who has served as Catholics in Alliance’s director since late 2013, spoke with CNA about its affiliated groups and their actions.

Asked about Seufert’s expertise to speak on Catholic controversies, Hale said that the commentator had the right from baptism “to engage and participate in the life of the local Church.” He compared it to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s criticism of the Pope.

“There is no theological prerequisite to engage in these conversations,” Hale said. He contended that Seufert’s criticism is “similar” to that of Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the new Prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life. Hale claimed the cardinal thought Archbishop Chaput implemented guidelines for Amoris Laetitia “in a way that was contrary to the vision of Pope Francis.”

“That being said, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good has renewed its relationship with Archbishop Chaput in the past year,” Hale continued, calling the bishop a “strong shepherd” who was trying to lead his flock while showing candor, honesty and a willingness to engage others.

CNA sought comment from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which said Archbishop Chaput declined to comment. In an Oct. 13 column, the archbishop recounted a 2008 encounter with two Catholics United leaders he said “not only equaled but surpassed their Republican cousins in the talents of servile partisan hustling.”

“Thanks to their work, and activists like them, American Catholics helped to elect an administration that has been the most stubbornly unfriendly to religious believers, institutions, concerns and liberty in generations,” the archbishop charged.

In a February 2012 email exchange, leading Democrat John Podesta suggested that he and his allies had founded Catholics in Alliance and Catholics United for moments of controversy involving Catholic bishops, like the religious freedom controversy over federally mandated contraceptive coverage in health plans. Podesta said the two groups lacked leadership for such a role, and suggested involving Kathleen Kennedy Townsend of the famous Kennedy family.

Using a phrase of his interlocutor, progressive leader Sandy Newman, Podesta suggested a “Catholic Spring” could be organized within the Church. The phrase invokes the imagery of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings.

Hale reflected on the “Catholic Spring” moniker.

“If people think that we’re part of a ‘Catholic Spring’ to revolutionize and change the Catholic Church, I want no part of it,” he told CNA. “If people think we’re part of a ‘Catholic Spring’ to transform our nation and the world into a vision that is more consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ, I’m all in.”

Keystone Catholics was founded as a Pennsylvania affiliate to Catholics United, a now-dissolved group that effectively merged with Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good in 2015. Funding records, however, appear to connect the dissolved group to a larger network.

The Catholics United Education Fund had received at least $160,000 from the Gill Foundation, founded by the millionaire businessman and politically savvy LGBT activist Tim Gill. The funding began in 2012, the foundation’s annual reports and tax forms show.

The Arcus Foundation’s 2014 grant listings say it gave $50,000 to the Catholics United Education Fund to provide “one year of support to work with the LGBTQ movement to lift up progressive faith voices.” A $75,000 grant in 2015 aimed to support “an LGBT equality agenda within the Catholic Church, in Pennsylvania and throughout the United States.”

That foundation, founded by billionaire heir Jon Stryker, on its website lists the Catholics United Education Fund among its several dozen partners, along with the Podesta-founded Center for American Progress and Catholics for Choice.

The foundation website outlines its strategy in the global religions section of its social justice program: strategic investment in religious communities “which, while still resistant to LGBT acceptance, still afford opportunities for making limited but significant progress.” It lists Roman Catholic churches as one such community, as well as Evangelical communities and historically black churches.

The foundation says it seeks to build “vibrant networks of clergy and lay advocates who are fully committed to fostering greater LGBT acceptance” and protecting the rights of “people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.”

The Arcus Foundation also partnered with the Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund Fastenopfer to fund a project of the European Forum for LGBT Christian Groups to counter the influence of West African bishops at the 2015 Synod on the Family.

Through its grantee Dignity USA, the foundation funded efforts to “counter the narrative of the Catholic Church” in connection with the Synod on the Family and World Youth Day. It is also funding Dignity USA’s Equally Blessed coalition “to combat the firing of “LGBT staff and allies, who support marriage equality, at Catholic Institutions,” grant listings show.

Hale said that Catholics in Alliance and its entities are not currently sponsored by either Stryker’s or Gill’s foundation. In his view, the past grants tried “to lift up Pope Francis’ vision of a Church that is inclusive to those on the margins.”

“During those grants we did not use it to support same-sex marriage in the public sphere, to try to change the sacramental or the magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church,” he said, claiming the focus “was, and still is in some capacity, to ensure that LGBT Catholic voices are heard and included in the life of the Church.”

He cited as inspiration the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family mid-term report’s section on the welcoming of homosexual persons.

“That language obviously was very controversial but our simple goal was to make sure that LGBT Catholics are heard and included in the life of the Church,” Hale said.

Both Gill and Stryker have been key figures in funding the redefinition of civil marriage. In late 2014, the Inside Philanthropy website ranked Gill as the first and Stryker as the second most influential funder in redefining marriage. The website characterized Gill as the “strategic mastermind” and Stryker as someone who “brought some of the deepest pockets to the marriage equality fight.” Both funders are major political donors, and both are linked to a multi-million dollar effort to end broad religious freedom protections they consider discriminatory.

Hale tried to address concerns about the funders’ influence on Catholics in Alliance and related groups.

“The reality of it is, we work with people who disagree with a lot of the work we do. But they think we are a compelling group and have a compelling message and are somehow worthwhile. I get money from folks who I disagree with intensely on a variety of questions in political and ecclesial spheres,” he said.

He cited an October statement of President John Garvey of Catholic University of America, who was responding to critics of the university’s acceptance of funding from the wealthy libertarian businessmen the Koch brothers. Garvey had said the university would work with the foundations of wealthy financier George Soros if it could still adhere to its own mission.

Catholics in Alliance itself received about $450,000 funding from Soros’ controversial Open Society Foundations from 2006-2010.

Hale said his organization works with a variety of priests and bishops. He reported meeting with 20 bishops and archbishops in the last year to speak about his group’s work and to understand “how we best can fit into the life of the Catholic Church in the United States.” He characterized these as “pastoral conversations that are not fit to publicize.”
“Some bishops have had criticisms of certain aspects of our work, and have communicated that to me directly. Some of those same bishops applaud other areas of our work,” Hale added.

“Sometimes it’s messy, sometimes we make mistakes. But I think that the heart of what we do is clear and overall we are faithful stewards of the gospel.”

Keystone Catholics was not entirely critical of the U.S. bishops. It backed Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik’s support for gun control legislation in response to gun violence. It has opposed drone use and advocated for environmental issues and a “big tent” for pro-life Democrats.

In recent years Catholics in Alliance has voiced criticism of Planned Parenthood’s alleged involvement in the illegal sale of unborn baby parts. Catholics for Choice criticized Hale’s group.

At other times, these related groups have been outspoken against the bishops.

In October 2014 Catholics United tried to rally opposition to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ leasing of land to oil extraction companies, claiming it would harm poor and minority communities and created major risks like pollution and increased risk of earthquakes. Andrea Leon-Grossmann, a California spokesperson for the group, attacked Archbishop Jose Gomez by name, saying “Archbishop Gomez’s actions are in direct violation of Pope Francis’ beliefs in protecting the most vulnerable.”

Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark’s September 2012 pastoral letter on marriage, Catholics United claimed, was an example of the U.S. bishops’ “far right politics” that drive Catholics away from the faith.

Catholics United has a history of challenging some Catholics’ involvement in politics.

Ahead of the 2012 elections, its education fund sent mailings to Florida pastors claiming to have recruited a network of volunteers to monitor for reputed illegal political activity in Catholic churches. State Catholic leaders saw this as an effort to silence the Church.

In October 2012, Catholics United strongly criticized the Knights of Columbus, a popular Catholic fraternity more than a century old, for supporting ballot measures to defend the legal definition of marriage as a union of one man and one woman. Catholics United claimed the Knights of Columbus was funding a “far-right political agenda” and engaging in a “divisive culture war.”

Its criticism was based on a report from the Equally Blessed Coalition, another Arcus Foundation grantee, which includes dissenting Catholic groups like Call to Action, Dignity USA, New Ways Ministry and Fortunate Families.

Another funder of Catholics United suggested strong political connections.

According to a spring 2014 briefing book acquired and published by Politico, Catholics United was listed as one of the 172 groups then supported by the Democracy Alliance. The alliance is a national network of funders of Democratic Party-aligned NGOs and other groups based on the political change model of the Colorado Democracy Alliance, pioneered by Tim Gill and Jon Stryker’s sister, Pat Stryker, among others.

In October 2014, then-executive director of Catholics United James Salt told CNA that the relationship with the Democracy Alliance was not materially beneficial for his group “from 2011 forward.” He said the Gill Foundation grant was independent of the Democracy Alliance and suggested the alliance’s funding for his group was minimal.

Salt himself has been harshly critical of Catholic teaching on homosexuality. In an August 2014 statement, he claimed that the Catholic Church “perpetuates mental illness by referring to gay and transgender people as ‘intrinsically disordered’,” an apparent reference to the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s description of homosexual orientation, not persons.

Salt claimed that the suicide of a self-identified transgender Catholic teen in Pennsylvania underscored a lack of support services for LGBT Catholics. He claimed that Catholic teaching “contributes to lower self-esteem” and “certainly” contributes to a higher suicide rate among LGBT individuals.

As of October 2016, Salt was listed as a board member of Catholics in Alliance. LGBT advocate Arthur Fitzmaurice was also listed as a senior fellow with the group.

More recently, Catholics in Alliance co-sponsored the 2013 and 2014 Catholic Tipping Point speaking tours. The tours publicized Austrian priest Fr. Helmut Schuller and Irish priest Father Tony Flannery, who have voiced dissent on matters like the ordination of women to the priesthood, Catholic teaching on contraception, homosexuality, or giving the sacraments to divorced and remarried Catholics.

Hale said his group hosts “a variety of different voices that have contrary opinions on how the Church should focus or operate.”

“But we don’t endorse those opinions,” he said, rejecting an endorsement of Fr. Schuller’s support for women’s ordination to the priesthood.

“Occasionally we like to engage in conversations on the internal workings of the church. But that’s not the focus of our work.”



Who was that priest praying the rosary at the Army-Navy game?

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 05:05

Washington D.C., Dec 15, 2016 / 03:05 am (CNA/EWTN News).- You might have seen an Army chaplain devoutly praying the rosary on the sideline during Saturday's Army-Navy football game. Who was he and what was he praying for? 

“I always pray for both our teams, for no serious injury on either team. And I pray for the kids on both teams, and just for their holiness and their salvation,” Fr. Matthew Pawlikowski, chaplain of the United States Military Academy at West Point, told CNA. 

“And then I ask for Army's victory,” he added. 

Saturday's Army-Navy game was the 117th meeting between the teams, held at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium. It is an annual tradition attended by Midshipmen and Cadets who will serve in the United States military after college. 

Army won for the first time in 15 years, 21-17.

Fr. Pawlikowski was seen kneeling on the sideline late in the game during its crucial moments praying a rosary. He noted that he always prays a rosary at the academy's football games, but at Saturday's game against Navy he prayed a full rosary, all four sets of mysteries. 

After the game, he admitted that he prayed for the defeated Navy players too. 

Why the West Point chaplain was kneeling with his Rosary during the Army-Navy game... -

— New Advent (@newadvent) December 12, 2016 “I was glad that we won, but I did pray for Navy, and especially for their seniors, their 'Firsties.' They wanted to win just as much as we do,” he said. “So what if they've won 14 years in a row? That senior class, it's important to them to beat Army.”


While he has been the senior chaplain at West Point for two years – the first Catholic to hold the position – Fr. Pawlikowski has actually been serving as an active-duty Army chaplain since 2000.

“I love being a priest. And I love being a priest for soldiers. It is a great life. It's a manly life. It's satisfying,” he told CNA. 

The youngest of seven children, he grew up Catholic and considered the priesthood in high school before attending college at West Point. He served in the Army infantry for six years and entered the seminary for the Diocese of Newark after his time there. 

After three years as a parish priest, he became an active-duty Army chaplain in 2000. His assignments have brought him around the U.S. and to Egypt, Afghanistan, and Germany. 

Now, at West Point, “I supervise the entire religious program for the commanding general of the post,” he said. 

What are some of the unique joys and challenges of being a military chaplain? 

Fr. Pawlikowski likened it to “being a missionary,” given that there is a “military subculture” within society. Just as one can’t fully understand the Catholic Church from an outsider’s perspective, the military is the “same way,” he said.  

“American soldiers are awesome,” he said. “We have these young people that step forward at risk of themselves, at risk of their own safety, their family’s safety, and they do things to protect the rest of the country, to serve the country.”

“They don’t get paid what they’re worth,” he added. “There’s really a sense of service about them, which is absolutely beautiful.”

And it is “pretty much a large young adult ministry,” he noted, as many soldiers are ages 18 to 24. 

At West Point in particular, Fr. Pawlikowski realizes that as senior chaplain, he is forming the future leaders of the country. 

“We’re shaping them who end up shaping our country,” he said. “God can use the United States military for the holiness of our country and even for the salvation of our country. So that’s not a bad job to have.”

However, it is a “missionary” life as many young cadets may not even be practicing their faith. “Most young males are away from the Church. And that’s most of our soldiers,” he said, noting increasing numbers of young people who are Atheists, secularists, or “unchurched” Christians. 

Yet among those who are practicing Catholics, he noted, “I am seeing what Pope Benedict XVI predicted. He said that in our lifetime, we are going to see a smaller and yet more vibrant Church.”

“The folks that are zealous are amazing. They are so far ahead of me and where I was at their age,” he said, describing them as “knowledgeable,” “devout,” “pious,” and “respectful.”

Military chaplains have to minister to soldiers anywhere – at the gym, at work, or out in the field training. They have to be in “good physical shape” and “learn how to operate in a combat environment,” Fr. Pawlikowski said, “so that we can be there for those people when they need it.”

How does he normally evangelize? 

“We give witness to the faith, first and foremost, by who we are,” Fr. Pawlikowski said, noting that “when soldiers see that you’re there with them” in “rotten” conditions in rain, snow, and freezing weather, “then they see that you’re one of them…that’s the beauty of the chaplaincy.”

“A lot of the military chaplaincy is geared specifically to that, that we should never have any of our young Americans who are willing to risk their lives for our safety and our security have to face death, or at least the threat of death, without the presence of the sacraments available to them. And the presence of one of God’s priests available to them,” he said. 

He keeps a picture – on the back of his prayer book and over his altar – of a priest friend of his administering the sacrament of Extreme Unction to a bloody-faced Marine on a table waiting to be operated on. 

It’s like Christ as the Good Samaritan, he said, who “comes into the midst of the messiness” to heal those broken by the world and by sin. 

Who are some of his favorite saints and what are his favorite devotions? 

Fr. Pawlikowski considers his “secondary vocation” to promote the story of Servant of God Fr. Emil Kapaun, who ministered to troops in the U.S. Army Eighth Cavalry Regiment during the war in Korea. He wrote letters home for wounded soldiers to their families.

Fr. Emil was captured by Chinese troops, and as a prisoner of war he administered the sacraments to fellow prisoners. He died in the prisoner of war camp in 1951, and his cause for beatification is under review. 

Other saints who Fr. Pawlikowski promotes are those who had a military background like St. Joan of Arc, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Maurice, and St. Sebastian. He has had a devotion to St. Michael “since before I can remember.”

“I’m consecrated to the Blessed Mother. I love her dearly, I love the rosary,” he added, noting that it’s a “battle prayer” as Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant that we bring with us into spiritual battle.

And what of his praying for an Army victory on Saturday?

“There’s not a thing in the world that God doesn’t care about,” he said. “I don’t think it’s immature to think that God really does care in ways that we can’t begin to understand. So I always tell people you can ask God for anything you want – you can’t ask for evil and He won’t give you evil.”

“But anything that’s important to you is important to God, He’s your father. What father is not concerned about anything his children ask for?” he said. “Now a good father doesn’t give us everything we ask for. And part of growing up is learning to realize ‘hey, if my father gives it to me, it’s good. And if he doesn’t, he’s got his reasons.’”

“But we can certainly ask, and I certainly did ask. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”

Massachusetts churches claim victory in religious freedom lawsuit

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 02:01

Washington D.C., Dec 15, 2016 / 12:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Four Massachusetts churches pulled their lawsuit against the state Monday after they received religious exemptions from the state's transgender law.

“The government can’t encroach on the internal, religious practices of a church. The language revisions that our lawsuit prompted should ensure that doesn’t happen,” Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Steve O’Ban stated on Monday, after the lawsuit was withdrawn.

“The comments of commonwealth officials gave these churches reason for great concern, and so we are pleased wording changes have been made to respect the constitutionally protected freedoms these congregations and pastors have,” he added.

In July, Massachusetts added “gender identity” to its list of classes protected against discrimination.

Then, the state’s attorney general and its anti-discrimination commission interpreted the law to say that everyone had to have access to facilities like bathrooms based upon the gender they presently identify with, and not upon their birth gender.

Church facilities that held any non-religious events like spaghetti dinners would be considered public accommodations and would have to comply, they said, despite their religious beliefs.

Churches also could have faced action by the government if their pastors preached religious views on sexuality that opposed the gender identity anti-discrimination protection, Alliance Defending Freedom noted.

Those not complying with the law could have been punished with $50,000 fines and up to a year in jail.

Four Christian churches challenged the action in a district court, in October. They said the state legislature and anti-discrimination commission “failed to provide an exemption for religious institutions” and did not clearly define the standard they would use to determine if a church would be exempt from the law – “other than the woefully inadequate and confusing ‘spaghetti supper’ test.”

Rather, the commission said they would judge religious exemptions “on a case-by-case-basis,” ADF claimed in its complaint, adding that thus, “a pastor, other church leader, or a court must guess as to which of the church’s activities subject it to the severe sanctions of the Act.”

“All events held at a church on its property have a religious purpose, and the government has no authority to violate the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of religion and speech,” Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, stated.

A move to have a voter referendum on the law in 2018 received enough signatures to be on the ballot, but a poll from May showed a majority of respondents in favor of the law.

Then in a Nov. 7 letter, the state announced that it had changed its guidance on the rule and would not be including “houses of worship” among the “public accommodations” that would be subject to the law.

“Your lawsuit caused us to focus on these issues and to make this revision to our website.  Thank you for bringing the issue to our attention,” the state attorney general’s office said in the letter to ADF.

“No church should fear government punishment simply for serving its community consistently with its faith,” Holcomb stated.

“Massachusetts officials made the right decision to respect these churches’ freedom of religion and speech.”

Muslims and Christians in Burma still face persecution, US officials warn

Wed, 12/14/2016 - 18:50

Washington D.C., Dec 14, 2016 / 04:50 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Rohingya Muslims in Burma, as well as Christians, face continued persecution, destruction of homes and places of worship, and threats to their lives, human rights organizations are warning.

Throughout the country’s history, Burmese officials have maintained control “through a divide and rule strategy, pitting Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims against each other,” said Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in a Dec. 13 discussion in Washington, D.C.

“The plight of both Rohingya Muslims and Christians results from successive governments that have both perpetuated and supported religious violations,” Fr. Reese continued. “It’s time for Burma to defend religious freedom,” he urged.

Two reports by the organization highlight the abuses suffered by religious minorities in Burma, also known as Myanmar, as well as by practitioners of the majority Buddhist religion who dissent from the mainline practice or government positions.

Christians in the country face discrimination, forced conversions, violence and desecration of churches and Christian communities says the USCIRF Report “Hidden Plight: Christian Minorities in Burma.” Meanwhile, according to “Suspended in Time: The Ongoing Persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Burma,” members of the Muslim ethnic group are denied basic human rights like food, shelter, water, citizenship, or the ability to move.

The reports come days after international human rights organization Human Rights Watch released an analysis of images taken of a Rohingya village in Rakhine state, which it says link the Burmese army to the arson of the village.

"Burmese government officials have been caught out by this satellite imagery, and it's time they recognize their continued denials lack credibility,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, in a statement to the BBC. The Burmese government has denied its involvement in the burning down of Rohingya villages, instead suggesting that the Rohingya set their own homes on fire to solicit international sympathy.

The United Nations estimates that since October more than 27,000 Rohingya have crossed the border to seek refuge in Bangladesh.

Since 1999, USCIRF has recommended that the U.S. Department of State designate Burma a “Country of Particular Concern” for its “systematic, egregious, and ongoing violations of religious freedom,” explained the organization. In its reports, the commission offered hope that the new Burmese government would address these ongoing human rights concerns, but urged that the government take action on securing religious freedom promptly.

Rachel Flemming, an independent human rights researcher, detailed the abuses Christians – many of whom also belong to minority ethnic groups – face in the country. Throughout the country, Christians face restrictions in not only buying land for churches or for erecting Christian symbols, but also to assemble for religious worship. Christian churches, cemeteries, and other Christian spaces are frequently desecrated and attacked. Christians themselves are attacked by authorities and civilians alike – and these attacks are often dismissed as false claims.

Meanwhile, while forced conversions at gunpoint are no longer seen in the country, Flemming said, “a more subtle forced conversion” campaign is run through the military school system in some Christian areas.

These schools – run through the military – fill crucial gaps in rural Christian areas for secondary education, offer education free of charge, and promise students in these impoverished areas a guaranteed job within the government after graduation – but only if the student converts to Buddhism. Furthermore, while at these boarding schools, students are prohibited from attending Christian worship services, and are required to be initiated as Buddhist monks or nuns.

Tina Mufford, Senior Policy Analyst for USCIRF, detailed the longstanding discrimination and targeting of the Rohingya Muslims within Burma. Since 1982, Burmese law has defined the Rohingya people as non-citizens, providing cover for a broad array of violence and attacks to be carried out against them with impunity.

“Rohingya Muslims face a difficult day-to-day existence with little ability to honor their past, prosper in the present, or make plans for their future,” Mufford said, citing the USCIRF report.

“Burma’s government can choose to move forward,” she said, “or it can sit behind excuses.”

Major religious freedom law might get a Christmas upgrade

Wed, 12/14/2016 - 18:03

Washington D.C., Dec 14, 2016 / 04:03 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- After almost 20 years, a landmark religious freedom bill may finally be getting a big upgrade.

And it wouldn’t come too soon, said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), co-sponsor of the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act. “From China and Vietnam to Syria and Nigeria, we are witnessing a tragic, global crisis in religious persecution, violence and terrorism, with dire consequences for religious believers and for U.S. national security,” he said.

“Ancient Christian communities in Iraq and Syria are on the verge of extinction, and other religious minorities in the Middle East face a constant assault from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”

The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act passed the House on Tuesday afternoon and will be heading to the president’s desk to be signed. It is bipartisan, with Rep. Smith, chair of the House Global Human Rights subcommittee, and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) as the co-sponsors.

The legislation upgrades the original 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, which helped make promotion of religious freedom a larger part of stated U.S. foreign policy.

Former Congressman Frank Wolf – “a tireless champion for the rights of the poor and the persecuted globally,” Rep. Smith called him – sponsored that bill, and is now honored in the new one.

“18 years ago, he had the foresight to make advancing the right to religious freedom a high U.S. foreign policy priority.  It is largely because of his efforts that religious freedom is taken seriously as a foreign policy issue,” Rep. Smith said.

The original law created the office of Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the State Department to push other countries to honor freedom of religion, and monitor human rights abuses that are related to religious freedom. The new bill ensures that the ambassador reports directly to the Secretary of State.

The State Department since then has also published an annual report on the state of religious freedom by country. It deems certain countries “countries of particular concern,” (CPC) where the worst abuses of religious freedom are perpetrated by the government or without the government stopping them.

The new bill adds to this CPC list, creating a lower-tier “Special Watch List” for countries with poor records on respecting religious freedom.

Also, given that recent reports have emphasized the rise of “non-state actors” like terrorist groups, they get a special designation “Entity of Particular Concern.”

The new bill also mandates creation of a “comprehensive religious prisoners list.”

Globally, the state of religious freedom is dire and deserves special attention by the U.S., Rep. Smith insisted. “The freedom to practice a religion without persecution is a precious right for everyone, of whatever race, sex, or location on earth,” he said.

“This human right is enshrined in our own founding documents, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and has been a bedrock principle of open and democratic societies for centuries.”


Ohio governor signs 20-week abortion ban, vetoes heartbeat bill

Wed, 12/14/2016 - 12:01

Columbus, Ohio, Dec 14, 2016 / 10:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- On Tuesday, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) signed a bill banning abortions performed after five months of pregnancy in most cases, citing evidence that unborn babies can feel pain at this point.

At the same time, he vetoed the “heartbeat bill” passed by the state’s legislature, which would have outlawed abortions once a baby’s heartbeat has been detected.

“By signing S.B. 127, the 20-week ban, Governor Kasich will save hundreds of unborn lives each year and he positioned the state of Ohio to directly challenge Roe v. Wade,” Mike Gonidakis, President of Ohio Right to Life, stated.

The bill “was nationally designed to be the vehicle to end abortion in America,” he added. “It challenges the current national abortion standard and properly moves the legal needle from viability to the baby’s ability to feel pain.”

Gov. Kasich signed the state’s Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act on Dec. 13, making Ohio the 18th state since 2010 to enact a ban on abortions performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Exceptions would exist for cases of babies conceived through rape or incest, or where the life of the mother is deemed to be at stake.

Although some pro-lifers, like the group Susan B. Anthony List, had also supported the heartbeat bill, Ohio Right to Life asked Kasich not to sign it because courts had overturned similar legislation in other states and the Supreme Court had not agreed to hear those cases.

“Legal scholars believe that asking the Court to entertain a third heartbeat law at this time would cause irreparable harm to the pro-life movement,” Gonidakis said.

Susan B. Anthony List has been working to have the Pain-Capable bill passed at the state and federal levels. President-elect Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail that he would sign a 20-week abortion ban into law if it passed through Congress.

Such legislation will “humanize our law,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the group, insisted. She said it was in accord “with public opinion, science, and basic human decency.”

The science shows that these unborn babies can feel pain and can even survive delivery at around 20 weeks after fertilization, the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of Susan B. Anthony List, says.

“Fetal surgeons recognize unborn babies as patients,” they stated in a 2015 fact-sheet. “Perinatal medicine now treats unborn babies as young as 16 weeks post-fertilization (18 weeks gestation). Pain medication for unborn patients is routinely administered as standard medical practice.”

And “the leading textbook on clinical anesthesia” notes that babies as young as 18 weeks gestation can have a physiochemical stress response to noxious stimuli,” they added.

The U.S. House passed a Pain-Capable bill in 2015, but it failed to receive the 60 votes necessary to advance in the Senate.

It’s also popular legislation, Dannenfelser has said. “Americans reject the status quo of abortion on-demand, especially painful late-term abortions,” she stated.

A poll published by Susan B. Anthony List that was conducted on Election Day showed 64 percent of registered voters who participated in the elections supported a ban on abortions after 20 weeks with exceptions for cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother was at stake.

In 2013, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 56 percent of respondents favored legal abortion “without restriction” up to 20 weeks and not 24 weeks. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll revealed later that year that more Americans supported a 20-week ban than opposed it.

A Knights of Columbus/Marist poll released earlier in 2016 showed 80 percent of respondents supporting limiting legal abortion to the first trimester of pregnancy.


Religious leaders: sexual orientation laws threaten freedom

Wed, 12/14/2016 - 11:50

Washington D.C., Dec 14, 2016 / 09:50 am (CNA/EWTN News).- It’s time to end coercion against those who recognize marriage as a union of one man and one woman and see the sexes as male and female, a group of religious and thought leaders has said.

“As Americans, we cherish the freedom to peacefully express and live by our religious, philosophical, and political beliefs – not merely to hold them privately,” said their statement “Preserve Freedom, Reject Coercion.”

“We believe that it is imperative that our nation preserve the freedoms to speak, teach, and live out these truths in public life without fear of lawsuits or government censorship,” they continued.

The statement, released Dec. 14, drew more than 75 signatures from Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and other leaders. Signers included Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, and Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice. They were joined by University of Notre Dame law professor Gerard V. Bradley, Princeton law professor Robert P. George, and writer and Heritage Foundation fellow Ryan T. Anderson.

Their statement affirmed that every individual is “created in the image of God and as such should be treated with love, compassion, and respect.” It also affirmed the belief that people are created male and female, saying that this is the basis of the family and the marital union.

For the statement’s signers, there was concern about laws that establish sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) as protected classes.

“SOGI laws empower the government to use the force of law to silence or punish Americans who seek to exercise their God-given liberty to peacefully live and work consistent with their convictions,” the statement continued.

It charged that such laws treat “reasonable religious and philosophical beliefs” as discriminatory and create special legal preferences for “categories based on morally significant choices that profoundly affect human relations.”

Under expanding laws concerning sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, “people of good will can face personal and professional ruin, fines, and even jail time, and organizations face the loss of accreditation, licensing, grants, contracts, and tax-exemption,” the statement declared.

Potential victims of coercion include those who decline to participate in a same-sex wedding ceremony, like creative professionals, wedding chapels, non-profits, humanitarian ministries, adoption agencies, businesses, religious colleges and churches.

Wedding industry professionals have faced the threat of lawsuits for declining to make wedding cakes or conduct photography for same-sex union ceremonies. Adoption agencies have been required to place children with same-sex couples or to close. Religious colleges have faced pressure to enact policies recognizing same-sex relationships or transgender self-identification even if to do so would contradict the colleges’ mission and beliefs.

“In recent years, we have seen in particular how these laws are used by the government in an attempt to compel citizens to sacrifice their deepest convictions on marriage and what it means to be male and female – people who serve everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, but who cannot promote messages, engage in expression, or participate in events that contradict their beliefs or their organization’s guiding values,” the statement said.

Once-uncontroversial Religious Freedom Restoration Acts have in recent years drawn significant opposition from LGBT activists and their allies in politics and business.

For the statement’s signers, even narrowly crafted SOGI laws threaten “fundamental freedoms” and purported religious liberty protections sometimes included in such laws are “inherently adequate and unstable.” The statement rejected SOGI laws at federal, state, and local levels.

“We represent diverse efforts to contribute to the flourishing of our neighbors, communities, nation, and world. We remain committed to preserving in law and stewarding in action the foundational freedoms that make possible service of the common good, social harmony, and the flourishing of all,” the signers declared.

Also signing the statement were the presidents of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, Aquinas College in Nashville, Franciscan University of Steubenville, and John Paul the Great Catholic University. The university presidents were among professors, theologians, writers, and other leaders like President Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; Allan Sears, president of Alliance Defending Freedom; and Jerry A. Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters.

Redefining marriage doesn't redefine birth certificates, court says

Tue, 12/13/2016 - 07:54

Little Rock, Ark., Dec 13, 2016 / 05:54 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Children’s birth certificates must be linked to biological parentage, the Arkansas Supreme Court has said in a ruling that involved the federal redefinition of marriage to recognize same-sex unions.

“It does not violate equal protection to acknowledge basic biological truths,” Arkansas Supreme Court Associate Judge Jo Hart wrote in the Dec. 8 decision.

The four-member majority ruling reverses a December 2015 ruling of Little Rock Circuit Judge Tim Fox who said that the state requirement to identify both a biological mother and a biological father of a child infringed on the constitutional due process rights of adoptive same-sex couples, Arkansas News reports.

Three female couples in same-sex civil marriages brought the case. Some of the women had conceived using anonymous sperm donors. Insurers denied health insurance to the biological mothers’ children because of requirements that the parent-child relationship be proven by listing a parent on the child’s birth certificate.

“The purpose of the statutes is to truthfully record the nexus of the biological mother and the biological father to the child,” Judge Hart said.

Identifying a biological parent is also an “important governmental objective” to track public health trends and to assist the child in finding genetic information for medical purposes, the judge said.

In a dissent from the majority decision, Arkansas Associate Justice Paul Danielson said the ruling was “simply and demonstrably wrong.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruling that recognized gay marriage, he said, required that a parent’s name be listed on birth certificates “even when biological ties do not exist” as having a parent’s name listed on a birth certificate is a constitutionally guaranteed benefit associated with marriage.

He said state law requires the husband of the mother to be listed on a birth certificate, which should mean the legal parent-child relationship is based on marriage and not biology.


New Catholic thriller takes on proof of soul in DNA

Tue, 12/13/2016 - 01:02

Westchester, N.Y., Dec 12, 2016 / 11:02 pm (CNA).- What if proof for God's existence – and our very souls – could be found within our DNA?

Published in September of this year by Howard Books, Bruce Buff's novel “The Soul of the Matter” is the first in his three-part fictional series that grapples with faith and reason. In an interview with CNA, Buff discussed his reasons and inspirations behind this unique thriller. He reflected on how his faith has affected this novel, the importance behind faith and reason, and the influences which have gone into the creation of his new book.

Below is the full text of the interview:

CNA: What is your faith background, and how does it inform the novel?

Buff: I'm a practicing Catholic whose initial faith formation – grammar school religious ed and two years of Catholic high school – was enough to teach me the basics though without a lot of understanding. I had this view that if I was generally good to others, that was enough. Then my faith changed and deepened dramatically starting in the summer 1994 when I picked up my father-in-law’s copy of C.S. Lewis's “The Problem of Pain.” Reading that was extraordinary, and started a search that continues today. After reading Peter Kreeft’s “Making Sense Out of Suffering,” I saw that he was teaching at BC. Since I was working in eastern Connecticut, I was able to take Kreeft's night course, “The Three Greatest Men Who Lived: Socrates, Buddha and Jesus.” For me, nothing has been the same since. Themes and questions that Lewis and Kreeft discuss, about the seeming incompatibility of a loving, all powerful God with widespread and horrific suffering, and what that means God wants from us, are raised in “The Soul of the Matter” series.

CNA: What does this have to say about the relation between faith and reason, and religion and science?

Buff: That science, properly understood, points clearly to God's existence and our spiritual nature, that rather than being an exception, the supernatural is all around us. Consequently, faith and reason, religion and science, based on a good understanding of God will agree. Now of course there can appear to be significant differences between religion and science, such as the Biblical description of the origin of both the universe and humanity. I think there are good answers to this and other apparent differences but I’ll leave that to others to discuss.

CNA: Who do you hope to reach with this novel?

Buff: Anyone who likes thought-provoking thrillers. Beyond that, I want to reach people open to the idea that God exists. For those who share my Judeo-Christian beliefs, I hope my book helps strengthens some aspect of their thinking about science and faith. For others, I'd like them to understand that every moment of their life is their soul in action, that we are here by intent, and that God’s apparent, but not actual, absence means some important things about Him and His expectations for us that are worth further exploration.

CNA: How did you develop the science behind the book?

Buff: November 1999, sitting in my father-in-law’s office, working on my computer, the question of what connects bits inside a computer into words, or how pixels on the screen are transformed into images in our minds, popped into my mind and got me off and running on consciousness. Eventually, I concluded that if physics exists as scientists believe it does, then the material world alone cannot be the source of perceptions, awareness, cognitive thinking, and feeling. Therefore we have immaterial minds and every moment of our lives is our souls in action. I then realized that the immaterial mind challenges the Darwinian view of a completely naturalistic, unguided process as the complete explanation for human origin. In looking for a plausible sounding way, strictly for purposes of the story, that something could be encoded in DNA, I soon realized that there isn’t enough DNA to direct human development, turn a fertilized egg into an adult human, unless complex processing greatly expands the 3 billion DNA “letters” into a much larger set of information.

CNA: Where did you get the idea for the novel?

Buff: In 1986 or so, I saw a magazine cover that said that all humans have an identical 20 percent of DNA in common. I then thought that the idea that information could be deliberately hidden in DNA, and what that would be, could make for an interesting thriller. It was strictly fictional.

CNA: Which character do you feel like best expresses the message of the book?

Buff: Dan Lawson. He starts off with traditional religious training, becomes a person of today’s secular world, finds himself struggling with his state of mind and happiness, which causes him to choose between an exploration for ultimate truth or acceptance of despair.

CNA: Which authors are some of your major influences?

Buff: C.S. Lewis, Peter Kreeft, Walker Percy, Michael Crichton, and the Bible. I only began studying the latter in recent years, unfortunately. I’ve learned that a good companion guide is invaluable to help with context and meaning. Otherwise, it’s easy to misinterpret.

CNA: What influences did you draw the characters from?

Buff: I wanted them to reflect different worldviews and use their respective journeys and interactions as a way to explore ideas while hoping that readers will care about them. I imagined Dan as someone who has many gifts, everything has always come easy to him, and he’s tried to live the modern version of happiness. In one sense, he was headed towards what many now would consider the “ideal” life. His anger about some of the things he’s experienced has also shaped him sharply. Stephen started from the same place as Dan but is not angry, more open to self-examination, and choose a life that was a hybrid of the traditional and modern worldviews. Consequently, he was at different place. Trish is someone who seems like a naturally good person, who’s never thought about religion, but now is being exposed to ideas that are challenging her as well. Some readers have commented that there is more to Trish than meets the eye and that might be true.

CNA: Does “The Commission” or the “bad guy” Sarastro reflect a certain evil in the world today?

Buff: Absolutely. They are the logical extension of today’s predominant view that science, meaning the material world, is the sole explanation for everything. Once you buy into that, and deny God in the process, anything becomes possible. It’s ironic how much internal inconsistency there is with atheistic beliefs and behaviors. Of course Christians do a poor job of being Christians but that is consistent with being fallen creatures in need of redemption and grace. Few atheists recognize the contradictions inherent in their beliefs because, although they deny its existence and origin, they still possess the nature God gave them.

Our Lady of Guadalupe shows us how to treat immigrants, archbishop says

Mon, 12/12/2016 - 21:12

Detroit, Mich., Dec 12, 2016 / 07:12 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Our Lady of Guadalupe is a model for how Catholics should treat immigrants, said Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit. He called for family unity and a recognition of the good that migrants and refugees bring to society.

“As disciples of Jesus Christ and sons and daughters of Our Lady of Guadalupe, our local Church bears Our Lady’s message of hope to the needy and listens to the cry of the afraid. Under her protection, know that we stand with our immigrant brothers and sisters,” he said Dec. 9.

“In these days it is particularly right to turn our thoughts and prayers to the migrants and refugees, those who find themselves on the margins of our community,” the archbishop added.

U.S. immigration policy is entering a new phase with the election of President-elect Donald Trump after a contentious campaign. The U.S. bishops’ conference has long backed comprehensive immigration reform, but the Republican president-elect campaigned on a strong immigration restrictionist platform.

Many Catholic bishops have spoken out to reassure immigrants of the Church’s support for them. The Archbishop of Detroit was among them.

While public officials’ duty includes protecting national borders and enforcing laws, “it cannot end there,” the archbishop said. This duty must include ensuring the dignity of human persons, protecting families, and showing “a generosity commensurate with the blessings our nation has received.”

“Therefore, our immigration system must treat migrants and refugees with the same dignity as native-born citizens,” he continued. “It must recognize the fundamental wrong of separating families, particularly when children are involved. And it must not be blind to the rich contribution made – in the past and in the present – by men and women who have come to this country as migrants or refugees.”

Archbishop Vigneron said the Detroit metro community is “much richer” from the contributions of people from Mexico, El Salvador, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, China, Korea, Ukraine, Poland, Cameroon and Nigeria.

The archbishop’s statement aimed to mark the Dec. 12 Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, as well as the Dec. 9 feast of St. Juan Diego, the indigenous Catholic convert who saw the famous Marian apparition in early colonial Mexico.

For Archbishop Vigneron, Our Lady of Guadalupe is a “powerful witness to the tender mercy of God.”

“Under the mantle of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we, the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Detroit, commit ourselves to bring compassion and companionship to those who struggle, who are afraid or desperate,” he said. “Having experienced God's love for us in giving us Mary as our Mother, how can we be deaf to their cries?”


Wave of abortion lawsuits may signal panic amid political shift

Sun, 12/11/2016 - 08:43

Washington D.C., Dec 11, 2016 / 06:43 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In a changed political landscape, pro-abortion rights groups have filed lawsuits against three states’ abortion laws.

Jennifer Dalven, director of the ACLU’s reproductive freedom project, told the British newspaper The Independent that the lawsuits were just the “first wave” in their efforts.

But to Marjorie Dannenfelser of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, the lawsuits were a sign of panic among abortion advocates.

“They lost big at the ballot box, so now they’re looking to the courts to undo the will of state legislatures,” said Dannenfelser, who advised the Trump campaign. “They realize the sense of urgency to head to the courts now knowing that the judicial landscape will change under a pro-life President Trump.”

Planned Parenthood chief medical officer Dr. Raegan McDonald-Mosley claimed recent political developments combine to make “the biggest threat we’ve seen” in the abortion provider’s history.

The lawsuits were filed by Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Center for Reproductive Rights. Attorneys from the latter two groups told a Nov. 30 press conference that the lawsuits aim to follow up on a 2016 Supreme Court case that struck down abortion restrictions in Texas.

The Missouri lawsuit challenges rules similar to the rejected Texas law that required abortion clinics to meet physical standards for surgical abortion clinics and to have doctors with admitting privileges in nearby hospitals.

Only one licensed abortion clinic remains in Missouri, in St. Louis, the Associated Press said, crediting the law for some abortion clinic closures.

In Alaska, the pro-abortion rights groups challenged 40-year-old regulations barring abortion in outpatient health centers after the first trimester of pregnancy. They said the rules compel women who want to procure abortions to travel out of state. Planned Parenthood said it sends about 30 of such women out of state each year.

In North Carolina, the law allows doctors to perform abortions after 20 weeks into pregnancy only in cases of immediate medical emergencies. The ACLU objected that this bars abortions for women in high-risk pregnancies from having abortions until death or major health damage is imminent.

As Republicans take control of the House, Senate and presidency, Planned Parenthood could face a renewed push against its more than $500 million in annual federal funding. There are also discussions over whether to make permanent the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds being used directly for most abortions.


Legal group: Federal law can't require sterilizations at Catholic hospitals

Sat, 12/10/2016 - 18:09

Flint, Mich., Dec 10, 2016 / 04:09 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Hospitals run according to Catholic ethics shouldn’t be coerced into performing sterilizations, a legal group has said after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal complaint against a Michigan medical center.

“No one should be forced to perform or participate in a procedure when doing so would violate their conscience,” said Ken Connelly, legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom. “This is especially true of medical workers and health care systems who are in the profession largely because of – and as an extension of – their faith.”

“Furthermore, no law requires religious hospitals and medical personnel to sterilize women, and, in fact, federal law specifically prohibits the government from engaging in any such coercion,” Connelly continued.

The legal group said federal officials should disregard a complaint filed against Genesys Regional Medical Center in the Flint suburb of Grand Blanc, Mich.

The complaint dates back to the hospital’s decision in September 2015 when a woman named Jessica Mann gave birth to her third child at the medical center. She had sought an exemption to its policy to for a post-partum tubal ligation. Her doctors recommended the procedure due to a potentially life-threatening brain tumor, the Michigan news site reports.

The medical center declined the request. Its parent company is Ascension Health, which requires its hospitals to follow the ethical and religious directives of the U.S. bishops’ conference, which recognize intentional direct sterilization as unethical and contrary to Catholic teaching.

Mann had the procedure at a different hospital. The ACLU filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights charging that the decision to not perform a sterilization violated anti-discrimination laws and “caused her significant harm.”

In a statement Mann said the hospital’s policy distracted her from preparations for the arrival of the baby and meant she had to search for a new doctor.

“I don’t want other women to be turned away from hospitals that let their religious views trump their patients’ serious medical needs,” she said.

A Nov. 21 letter from Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys said Catholic health care institutions are motivated a “ministry of healing and compassion” rooted in Church teaching which prefers aiding those at the margins. Federal action that would challenge the roots of Catholic health care could make the benefits of Catholic health care itself disappear, the legal group warned.

Further, any federal action would be barred under the federal Church Amendment and the reiteration of conscience protections in the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Brigitte Amiri, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, defended the complaint.

“Everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs, but those beliefs do not give anyone the right to discriminate against another person,” she said.

Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys countered in their letter: “It is not an act of discrimination to decline, for conscience reasons, to perform a medical procedure – indeed, if that were the case conscience protections would not exist.”