CNA News

Subscribe to CNA News feed CNA News
ACI Prensa's latest initiative is the Catholic News Agency (CNA), aimed at serving the English-speaking Catholic audience. ACI Prensa (www.aciprensa.com) is currently the largest provider of Catholic news in Spanish and Portuguese.
Updated: 1 hour 50 min ago

First human embryos edited in the USA. Here's why it's problematic.

Wed, 08/02/2017 - 05:04

Washington D.C., Aug 2, 2017 / 03:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Researchers in Oregon have announced that they have successfully altered genes in a human embryo for the first time in the United States, but Catholic ethicists warn that the procedure was morally objectionable for many reasons.

“Very young humans have been created in vitro and treated not as ends, but as mere means or research fodder to achieve particular investigative goals,” said Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Director of Education for the The National Catholic Bioethics Center, in a statement to CNA.

“Their value as human beings is profoundly denigrated every time they are created, experimented upon, and then killed. Moreover, if such embryos were to grow up, as will doubtless occur in the future, there are likely to be unintended effects from modifying their genes,” Fr. Pacholczyk continued.

A team of scientists led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov at Oregon Health and Science University announced this week that they used a technology known as CRISPR to edit sections of the human genome, performing the procedure on embryonic humans. The technology, which selectively “snips” and trims areas of the genome and replaces it with strands of desired DNA, has previously been used on adult humans and other species.

Researchers in China have also announced that they have used the technology on embryos, but the edited genes were only present in some of the embryonic subject’s cells.

While researchers laud the breakthrough as a step towards the birth of genetically modified humans and the potential ability to treat inherited genetic diseases, the embryonic humans created and tested in both the US and Chinese experiments were all destroyed within a few days of the procedure. If allowed to survive, the subject embryos would have carried the edits they received in their own egg and sperm cells, and thus have the ability to pass those edited genes down to future generations.

CNA also spoke to John DiCamillo, an ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, in February about CRISPR technology more broadly, and the ethics surrounding the technique. He stressed that while Catholics “need to be attentive to where the dangers are” surrounding CRISPR technology generally, he cautioned Catholics not to “automatically consider any kind of gene editing to be automatically a problem.”

He pointed to gene therapy trials for disorders such as sickle cell disease and cancer that show promise for treating difficult disorders. He also noted that there “could be limited situations that could exist where the germ line could be legitimately edited. In other words, making changes to sperm, to eggs, or to early embryos as a way of potentially addressing diseases – inheritable diseases and so forth.”

However, permitting edits to germ line cells - such as embryos, eggs, and sperm – could also be “very dangerous on multiple levels,” DiCamillo warned. Since the technology is so new, patients or their descendants could experience a range of “unintended, perhaps harmful, side effects that can now be transmitted, inherited by other individuals down the line.” An embryo who experiences gene modification could also carry and pass on edited genes.

Echoing similar concerns, Fr. Pacholczyk pointing as well to the guidance from the National Academies of Sciences' 2017 report on human gene editing. In the report, he said, the scientists point out that this kind of gene editing is controversial “precisely because the resulting genetic changes would be inherited by the next generation, and the technology therefore would cross a line many have viewed as ethically inviolable.”

Fr. Pacholczyk  also stressed the importance of limiting gene editing to therapeutic purposes, with the subject's best interests in mind. He stated that human beings should never be subjected to the research without themselves or their guardians being offered informed consent and without the treatment being ordered to the patient’s health and healing.

In the cases in Oregon, however, the parents of the children created were not able to give valid consent because ethical consent “by definition excludes any approval of directly causing their death or otherwise using [subjects] as mere means to an end.”

“These experiments were nontherapeutic, as the goal was ultimately to destroy the embryos,” Fr. Pacholczyk continued. “Consent is particularly important when dealing with very vulnerable research subjects, and human embryos are among the most vulnerable of God’s creatures.”

Currently, Food and Drug Administration regulations require that all embryos who experience gene editing are later destroyed.

Furthermore, to be ethical, any applications or experiments utilizing CRISPR or other gene editing technology cannot use any other methods in its process which are themselves intrinsically immoral, Fr.Pacholczyk said. The Catholic Church forbids immoral methods of removing spermatozoa and ova from the body outside of intercourse and conception of new human beings through in vitro methods because both techniques dissociate procreation from the integrally personal context of the conjugal act.

In August, watch this meteor shower named for a saint

Wed, 08/02/2017 - 02:01

Denver, Colo., Aug 2, 2017 / 12:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Star-gazing might not be the first thing that comes to mind when Catholics think of St. Lawrence, the early Christian martyr who was cooked to death by the Romans on an outdoor grill.

But every August, Catholics have the chance to see a meteor shower named in his honor.

The Perseids meteor shower, also called the “tears of St. Lawrence,” is a meteor shower associated with the comet Swift-Tuttle, which drops dust and debris in Earth’s orbit on its 133-year trip around the Sun. (The comet poses no immediate threat to Earth, at least not for several thousand years.)

As Earth orbits the Sun, it hits pieces of left-behind debris from the comet, causing them to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

This creates a prolific meteor shower that can best be seen in the Northern Hemisphere from late July to early August, usually peaking around Aug. 10, the feast of St. Lawrence.  

During it’s peak, the rate of meteors reaches 60 or more per hour.

The name “Perseids” comes from the constellation Perseus, named for a character in Greek mythology, and the radiant of the shower or the point from which it appears to originate.

The name “tears of St. Lawrence” came from the association with his feast day and from the legends that built up around the Saint after his death.

Saint Lawrence was martyred on Aug. 10, 258 during the persecution of the emperor Valerian along with many other members of the Roman clergy. He was the last of the seven deacons of Rome to die.

After the pope, Sixtus II, was martyred on Aug. 6, Lawrence became the principal authority of the Roman Church, having been the Church's treasurer.

When he was summoned before the executioners, Lawrence was ordered to bring all the wealth of the Church with him. He showed up with a handful of crippled, poor, and sick men, and when questioned, replied that "These are the true wealth of the Church."

He was immediately sent to his death, being cooked alive on a gridiron. Legend has it that one of his last words was a joke about his method of execution, as he quipped to his killers: “Turn me over, I’m done on this side!”

Catholics began calling the meteors the “tears of St. Lawrence,” even though the celestial phenomenon pre-dates the saint.

Some Italian lore also holds that the fiery bits of debris seen during a meteor shower are representative of the coals that killed St. Lawrence, and some traditions hold it that if one waters a basil plant and sets it out on the night of the meteor shower, they will find coal chips underneath the plant next day from St. Lawrence’s tears.

Anyone in the Northern Hemisphere should be able to view the “tears of St. Lawrence” best after midnight on Aug. 11-12 this year. The meteors will shower from various points in the sky rather than from one particular direction.

For the best viewing, it is recommended to go to a rural area away from light pollution.

Judge nixes Alabama abortion law involving parental consent

Tue, 08/01/2017 - 18:43

Montgomery, Ala., Aug 1, 2017 / 04:43 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A federal judge has struck down an Alabama law requiring more scrutiny for minors who seek an abortion without parental consent.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Russ Walker said that the law governing judicial bypass requests unconstitutionally imposes an undue burden on a minor who seeks an abortion. She said the law violates the minor’s confidentiality by possibly bringing other people from her life into the process, the Associated Press reports.

The State of Alabama had argued the law would allow a meaningful inquiry to judge the minor’s maturity while providing a “confidential, and expeditious option for a teenager who seeks an abortion without parental consent.” Other backers of the law said it helped give guidance to the minor.

State law requires minors who can’t secure parental consent for abortion to seek court permission. The 2014 law modified the process to allow a judge to appoint a guardian “for the interests of the unborn child.” The law allows the local district attorney to call witnesses and question the girl to determine her maturity level. If the minor’s parents or guardians learn of the hearing they may also be involved.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama had filed the lawsuit in 2014 on behalf of the Montgomery abortion clinic Reproductive Health Services.

Judge Walker cited the case of a 12-year-old pregnant girl who had been raped by a relative. She was 13 weeks pregnant when she went before a family court judge, who approved the abortion on June 27. The district attorney appealed the decision on the grounds the fifth grader was not mature enough to make an informed decision. On July 12 the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals ruled in the girl’s favor.

The judge said that a minor seeking permission for abortion could face both a lawyer appointed for the unborn baby and the chief prosecutor in her county, who is “empowered by the act to represent the state's public policy to protect unborn life, and backed by substantial state resources.”

The Alabama attorney general’s office said it is reviewing the decision.

Who founded America? Our Lady of Guadalupe, Archbishop Gomez says

Tue, 08/01/2017 - 17:58

Santa Rosa, Calif., Aug 1, 2017 / 03:58 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The impact of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the Americas should encourage Christians in the U.S. to continue to evangelize, even when their country seems headed in the wrong direction, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles has said.

“Guadalupe is the true ‘founding event’ in American history. And that means it is the true founding event in the history of our country — and in the history of all the other countries in North and South America,” Archbishop Gomez said July 27. “We are all children of Guadalupe.”

“In God’s plan, this is one continent. It is meant to begin new civilization. A new world of faith,” he reflected.

“Our Lady did not appear only for the Mexican people. Her intentions were continental and universal,” the archbishop said. He cited the account based on St. Juan Diego’s testimony, in which Mary described herself as “truly your compassionate Mother; your Mother and the Mother to all who dwell in this land and to all other nations and peoples.”

The impact of Our Lady of Guadalupe was immense, he added. Within just a few years of the Marian apparition, millions had been baptized, and missionary efforts like St. Junipero Serra’s fanned out from Mexico.

“A great wave of holiness swept through the continents — raising up saints and heroes of the faith in every country,” Archbishop Gomez said.

He spoke at the Napa Institute Summer Conference in Napa, Calif., about 40 miles southeast of Santa Rosa. The conference aims to consider challenges facing Catholic leaders in contemporary America

“My simple point today is that each one of us is a part of that story — part of the great mission to America that began with the visitation of the Virgin of Guadalupe,” the archbishop continued.
 
“The Church in this country — and every one of us — has the responsibility to continue the task that the Virgin gave to St. Juan Diego. To ‘build a shrine’ with our lives. To build a society that glorifies God and is worthy of the dignity of the human person,” he said.

For the archbishop, Our Lady of Guadalupe can reach a “post-Christian” society and provides “a way to think about our Christian lives and mission in the years ahead.”

Recognizing a common “sense of urgency” about the direction of the country, he suggested, “it is like we all woke up to discover that American society is being progressively ‘de-Christianized’.”

For Archbishop Gomez, American institutions and national self-identity were meant to be shaped by “the vision and values of the gospel.” America promised a commitment to human dignity and freedom under the Creator.

At the same time, he granted, “there are too many ways our nation has never lived up to Christian values.” He named slavery, the mistreatment of native peoples, and ongoing injustices such as racism and abortion.

Even with past influence of Christianity, “all that is changing right now.”

“We face an aggressive, organized agenda by elite groups who want to eliminate the influence of Christianity from our society,” Archbishop Gomez said, noting that Christian beliefs are being labeled as hatred or intolerance. He pointed to lawsuits against Church institutions which believe what Christ  taught and which do not want to cooperate with “practices we find immoral or dehumanizing.”

“My friends, we do not have the luxury to choose the times we live in. These are hard times. There is no denying it,” he said. “But the saints remind us that all times in the Church are dangerous times.”

The archbishop said Christians must ask these questions: “how does God want us to shape our times? What is the path that Jesus Christ would have us follow in this moment in our nation’s history?”

“We need to follow the path that the Virgin sets before us — the path of building a new civilization of love and truth in the Americas,” he said.

Archbishop Gomez reflected on several themes from the story of Guadalupe: vocation, education, life, culture and family. These themes suggest a strategy for Christian living

Just as Our Lady of Guadalupe asked Juan Diego to build a shrine “to show, praise and testify to God” where people could find God’s love, compassion, help and salvation, God is calling Christians “to ‘build a shrine’ with our lives,” the archbishop said.

“Through our work and the way we live. God is calling us to bear witness to his salvation, to the difference that Jesus Christ makes in our lives,” Archbishop Gomez continued. “He is calling us to show his love and compassion to our brothers and sisters.”

St. Juan Diego had objected to the Virgin Mary that he was not strong enough or holy enough to do what she wanted.

Her response was: “Understand that I have many servants and messengers who I could send to deliver my message and do my will. But it is absolutely necessary that you yourself go.”

The Los Angeles archbishop exhorted his audience to evangelize: “We are here to share this beautiful treasure of our relationship with the living God — who became a man for us, who gave his life to save us and to make us into a new humanity. Who is living with us now and walking with us as our Friend.”

Catholic group fighting HHS mandate disappointed exemption still unissued

Tue, 08/01/2017 - 17:02

Denver, Colo., Aug 1, 2017 / 03:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- After the US Department of Justice did not drop its appeal of a contraceptive mandate lawsuit by the Catholic Benefits Association on Monday, the group expressed its disappointment.

“It is disappointing that that process hasn’t moved forward. It does seem to be stalled currently,” Douglas Wilson, CEO of the Catholic Benefits Association, told CNA Tuesday.

Catholic Benefits Association is comprised of over 700 Catholic employers, including dioceses, schools, hospitals, and social service agencies. The group helps the employers provide quality Catholic health care in accordance with Church teaching.

The association had previously asked the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice to drop the government’s appeal of their lawsuit against the HHS contraceptive mandate. The Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals gave the government until July 31 to reply to CBA’s request.

In a July 27 statement, Wilson said that “President Trump took an important first step by instructing these agencies to change their mandate and to protect religious liberty.”

“HHS and DOJ need to follow President Trump's lead by dropping their appeal by July 31,” he said.

CBA had filed a motion in court asking either for “summary affirmance” of its claim that the HHS contraceptive mandate was illegal, or for the administration to drop its appeal of the case.

The Department of Justice was given until July 31 by the Tenth Circuit Court to reply, and said on Monday that it was still working on a final rule on exemptions from the contraceptive mandate.

Wilson said on Tuesday that the CBA wants the administration “to get those interim regulations filed and promulgated as soon as possible.”

The Catholic Benefits Association is one of dozens of non-profit organizations which sued the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration over the contraceptive mandate and its “accommodation” offered to objecting entities.

While the mandate ordered employers to provide cost-free coverage in their employee health plans for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortion-inducing drugs, the government offered an “accommodation” to non-profits that conscientiously objected to complying with the mandate. They would notify the government or the third party administrator of their plan of their objection, and their administrator would then provide the coverage to the employees.

Many non-profits, including the Archdiocese of Washington and the Little Sisters of the Poor, claimed that this “accommodation” still forced them to cooperate with morally-objectionable practices of providing access to contraceptives.

Last year, in the middle of the contraceptive mandate case Zubik v. Burwell, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts and directed both parties to come to an agreement where the interests of the government – providing coverage for contraceptives and the other drugs and procedures – were respected, while the religious liberty of objecting parties was also respected.

However, even under the Trump administration the Department of Justice had not stopped its appeals of the HHS mandate cases. On May 4, however, President Donald Trump announced that, as part of his religious freedom executive order, the objecting religious non-profits would receive relief from the mandate.

He told the non-profits and the nuns present from the Little Sisters of the Poor that “your long ordeal will soon be over” and that “we are ending the attacks on your religious freedom.”

HHS Secretary Tom Price said the agency “will be taking action in short order to follow the President’s instruction to safeguard the deeply held religious beliefs of Americans who provide health insurance to their employees.”

A draft interim final rule from the HHS was leaked in May, which reportedly carved out religious exemptions from the mandate for the objecting non-profits that were more broad than the narrow exemptions determined by the Obama administration, which applied to churches and very few other religious groups.

Becket, a religious freedom law firm defending many of the objectors to the HHS mandate, said the language in the draft would offer sufficient protections from the mandate for the religious groups.

In the draft, the government also admitted in the draft that the contraceptive mandate did not advance a compelling governmental interest, which is one of the necessary qualifications for a law that infringes upon someone’s sincere religious beliefs to succeed the test, under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

However, the administration’s rule has not yet been released. The Catholic Benefits Association finally filed a motion in court asking the government to drop its appeal of the HHS mandate case, and citing the government’s admission in the draft rule that the mandate did not further a “compelling governmental interest.”

The court gave the government a July 31 deadline to reply to the motion. On Monday, the Department of Justice replied that the administration was still in the process of crafting the final rule for religious non-profits and the contraceptive mandate, and asked the court to suspend the motion until the process was finished.

“As we explained in our status report of July 14, 2017, the new Administration has initiated the rulemaking process to amend the regulations at issue here,” the agency said on Monday. “That process has not, however, reached conclusion. This Court has properly maintained abeyances in related cases while the rulemaking process proceeds, and it should do the same here.”

In response, Wilson said that “the Tenth Circuit made clear that it wanted the government’s response to address ‘with specificity’ the arguments in our motion, which of course they have not done to date.”

The agency had initially requested from CBA an extension to reply to the motion, which CBA would have opposed, Wilson said. However, later on Monday, the agency instead filed a short brief in response to the motion.

“We’re disappointed in that all of the facts come to our side of the equation, they favor our argument,” Wilson said. He said that “we’re very heartened that the response that they filed is in our opinion lacking in substance, and we feel hopeful that the court’s going to see it the same way.”

JD Flynn named new editor-in-chief of Catholic News Agency

Tue, 08/01/2017 - 07:01

Irondale, Ala., Aug 1, 2017 / 05:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- J.D. Flynn, a Catholic commentator currently serving the Diocese of Lincoln, has been named the new editor-in-chief of Catholic News Agency, which is part of the EWTN family.

“J.D. is a very talented writer and editor, and has very broad experience with the Church in the United States,” said Alejandro Bermudez, executive director of CNA. “This will be great for CNA and for the Church.”

Michael P. Warsaw, chairman of the board and CEO of EWTN, announced the appointment Aug. 1.

“I'm very glad to have him on board,” Warsaw said. “J.D.'s extensive background in diocesan administration and communications, and his work and training as a canon lawyer, bring a unique perspective to Catholic News Agency.”

EWTN said Flynn will manage CNA’s reporting for its news syndication service and for its social media audience. He will work to advance greater collaboration between CNA and the news coverage of EWTN news outlets the National Catholic Register and EWTN News Nightly.

Flynn will succeed former CNA editor-in-chief Marianne Medlin, who is pursuing her Ph.D., and will move to the role of editor-at-large.

“We're thrilled to have J.D. with us,” Medlin said. “His reputation precedes him, and we are greatly looking forward to our collaboration moving forward.”

Flynn has written for First Things, National Review, the National Catholic Register, Catholic Vote and other publications. He holds a licentiate in canon law from the Catholic University of America as well as a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He will begin his position Aug. 28.

“Both Michael Warsaw and Alejandro Bermudez are remarkable leaders – and CNA's writers and editors are a talented and dynamic team,” Flynn said. “This is a group of people writing and thinking from the heart of the Church, telling important stories through the eyes of faith. I’m humbled to be offered this opportunity.”

He voiced gratitude to Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, whom he presently serves as special assistant and as the Diocese of Lincoln’s communications director. He said it was “a privilege” to serve Bishop Conley in Lincoln. Flynn has previously served as chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver.

CNA has bureaus in the U.S., Europe, and South America. EWTN acquired CNA in 2014.

EWTN Global Catholic Network is the largest religious media network in the world. Its 11 television channels reach 268 million households in over 145 countries and territories. Its radio services includes Sirius/XM, iHeart Radio, and over 500 domestic and international radio affiliates.

Unborn babies can detect different languages, new study says

Mon, 07/31/2017 - 18:20

Kansas City, Kan., Jul 31, 2017 / 04:20 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A new study from researchers at Kansas University has found that unborn babies are able to distinguish between different languages as early a month before they are born.

The study found that unborn children, at an average of 8 months in the womb, are able to distinguish the difference between someone speaking in English and someone speaking Japanese, even if the languages were being spoken by the same person.

Two dozen pregnant American women and their in-utero babies took part in the study conducted by a team from KU’s Department of Linguistics, and published in the journal NeuroReport.  

The study used a non-invasive magnetocardiogram (MCG) - sensing technology that can detect fetal heartbeats, breathing and other body movements.

According to study leaders, previous research had shown that language development began as early as a few days after birth, with babies just a few days old showing sensitivities to different languages, such as sucking pacifiers at different rates when different languages were spoken.

“This early discrimination led us to wonder when children’s sensitivity to the rhythmic properties of language emerges, including whether it may, in fact, emerge before birth,” said Utako Minai, associate professor of linguistics and team leader for the study, according to a press release from Kansas University.

“Fetuses can hear things, including speech, in the womb. It’s muffled, like the adults talking in a ‘Peanuts’ cartoon, but the rhythm of the language should be preserved and available for the fetus to hear, even though the speech is muffled.”

A previous study had also suggested that babies in the womb were sensitive to different languages, but it hadn’t determined whether the babies were reacting to different languages, or just to different speakers.

For this study, Minai had a bilingual speaker make two recordings, one in English and one in Japanese, to play for the babies in utero. English and Japanese are considered to be rhythmically distinct languages.

When the babies heard the familiar English language, their heart rates did not change, even when played a second English recording. However, their heart rates did change when they were first played an English recording, and then a second recording of the unfamiliar language of Japanese.

“These results suggest that language development may indeed start in utero, Minai said. 

“Fetuses are tuning their ears to the language they are going to acquire even before they are born, based on the speech signals available to them in utero. Prenatal sensitivity to the rhythmic properties of language may provide children with one of the very first building blocks in acquiring language.”

Minai said the finding was “extremely exciting” for language development research, and could potentially apply to other fields.

Texas Senate passes bill banning general insurance plans from covering abortion

Sat, 07/29/2017 - 18:01

Austin, Texas, Jul 29, 2017 / 04:01 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- On Wednesday the Texas Senate passed a bill which would ban general insurance policies from covering abortions for private citizens, government employees, and those insured under the Affordable Care Act.

The bill, SB8, would still allow for coverage of abortions that are considered medically necessary to save a woman’s life.

Senate Republicans defeated a series of amendments to the bill July 26 that would have expanded exceptions to include fatal fetal health conditions, serious mental health impairment, and pregnancies resulting from sexual assault or incest.

Women who desire abortion coverage for other reasons would need to purchase a separate, supplemental plan, estimated to cost $12-$80 a year.

“I believe the majority of Texans prefer not to subsidize the elective abortion coverage of others,” said Republican Sen. Brandon Creighton, the bill’s author, according the Statesman.

According to 2016 statistics from the University of Texas at Austin, 42 percent of Texans identify as pro-life, while 40 percent identify as pro-choice, with the remainder identifying as ‘neither’ or ‘unsure’.

The state has passed some of the strongest abortion restrictions in the U.S., and has become a hotbed of abortion controversy in the past few years.

In the 2016 Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision, the US Supreme Court struck down abortion restrictions in the state that required abortion clinics to meet the standards for ambulatory surgical centers and required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

Currently, 25 states ban abortion coverage under the Affordable Care Act, while 10 states prohibit private insurance plans from offering general abortion coverage.

“I believe Texas is behind, where we always lead on pro-life issues,” Creighton said.

Opponents say the bill discriminates against women, noting that the bill doesn’t include vasectomies. Creighton said that vasectomies don’t end a human life, which was his motivation for authoring SB8, according to a local T.V. channel.

Republican Sen. Don Huffines voiced support for the bill, noting the large number of pro-life Texans.

“There are millions and millions of Texans that are pro-life. Should they be compelled to finance the costs of abortions that are essentially socialized by insurance companies in the cost of every consumers’ premium?” he said.

The bill will now head to the Texas House for consideration.

As Senate health care bill fails, pro-lifers vow to continue fighting

Sat, 07/29/2017 - 05:02

Washington D.C., Jul 29, 2017 / 03:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- After attempts to block abortion funding in health care failed with the demise of the Senate’s health care bill early Friday morning, pro-life leaders vowed to keep fighting.

“Despite the Senate’s decision not to pass legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act last night, the task of reforming the healthcare system still remains,” Bishop Frank Dewane, chair of the U.S. bishops’ domestic justice and human development committee, said on Friday.

“The current healthcare system is not financially sustainable, lacks full Hyde protections and conscience rights, and is inaccessible to many immigrants,” he said. “Inaction will result in harm for too many people.”

The Senate’s efforts to pass a bill repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and replacing it met a narrow 51-49 defeat early Friday morning, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) providing the decisive “no” vote.

After the House passed the American Health Care Act, which both repealed and replaced the ACA, the Senate introduced its own replacement proposal, the Better Care Reconciliation Act.

Both bills were determined by the Congressional Budget Office to result in deficit reductions, but also an increase in the number of uninsured persons over 10 years by 22-23 million.

The bills contained pro-life provisions, but pro-life leaders were concerned that a key pro-life provision – prohibiting any tax credits from paying for health plans with abortion coverage – would not survive in the Senate, as the Senate Parliamentarian could determine that it violated the Byrd Rule.

That rule mandates that when a bill is passed through the process of reconciliation, reserved for budgetary measures and only requiring 50 votes rather than the normal 60 for passage, it must not contain “extraneous matter.” Thus, if a provision did not meet the standards for reconciliation, it would require 60 votes, a near impossibility in the closely-divided Senate.  

Any health care vote would be close, as Republicans currently hold a narrow 52-48 majority in the chamber but two of their members, Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) were already opposed to existing Senate health care proposals, along with the defunding of Planned Parenthood.

Thus for any health care measure to succeed without the aid of Democrats, Republicans could suffer no more desertions from party members and would require the vote of Vice President Mike Pence to break a 50-50 tie.

Bishop Dewane had said that the House-passed bill – the American Health Care Act –and the Senate health care proposals included laudable pro-life protections against taxpayer funding of health plans with abortion coverage, but the House bill had “serious flaws,” and the Senate bill was “unacceptable.”

Both bills were flawed because of cuts to Medicaid funding and other provisions that would result in higher health care costs for the poor, the elderly, and the seriously ill, Bishop Dewane said. They also did not offer sufficient conscience protections for health care workers and doctors, he said.

The support of pro-life groups for the health care proposals hinged on two key provisions, Hyde language protecting tax credits from being used to pay for plans with abortion coverage, and stripping Planned Parenthood of federal Medicaid reimbursements for one year.

Efforts to include the provisions in a Senate bill hit a snag on July 21, when the Senate Parliamentarian announced that the protections violated the Byrd Rule and would thus require 60 votes, making their passage all-but-impossible in the closely-divided Senate.

After Senate Republicans were unable to pass their own health care proposals – multiple versions of the Better Care Reconciliation Act – they successfully opened debate on Tuesday to repeal and replace the current health care law, although it was not clear at the time which replacement bill they would ultimately vote on.

Then, the Susan B. Anthony List announced that they would be following the debate closely and working to ensure that the key pro-life provisions were included in a final bill.

“In the coming hours and days, we will be working amendment by amendment to make sure pro-life protections remain in the bill, knowing that all elements of the legislation could be subject to very close votes, as well as decisions by the parliamentarian,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, stated on July 25.

During debate on Wednesday and Thursday, multiple ACA replacement proposals were voted down. On Thursday, Senators quickly drafted what was ultimately the final proposal, called “skinny repeal.”

The “skinny repeal” included stripping Planned Parenthood of Medicaid reimbursements and redirecting over $400 million to “federally-qualified health centers” that do not offer abortions. Planned Parenthood Action fought the proposal, saying in a tweet that it would “block patients…from coming to Planned Parenthood for care.”

That amendment, sponsored by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, repealed the ACA’s individual mandate that everyone purchase health insurance or risk being penalized with heavy fines.

Susan B. Anthony List supported this proposal, saying that Americans would no longer be forced to purchase health insurance “even if their only insurance options cover abortion,” as was previously the case in several states.

According to a 2014 report by the Government Accountability Office, the health exchanges in five states – Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont -- offered only plans with abortion coverage, and none without abortion coverage.

However, Hyde language establishing sufficient safeguards against tax credits being used to pay for abortion coverage still needed to be included in the bill. Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) introduced an amendment on Thursday which he said would survive the Parliamentarian’s standards.

Previously, the Affordable Care Act had actually opened up avenues for taxpayer funding of abortion coverage, through federal subsidies and tax credits being used to pay for plans with abortion coverage offered on the exchanges.

Although an executive order by President Obama forbade the subsidies and credits from being used to pay for abortion coverage – abortions were meant to be billed separately from other coverage in federally-subsidized plans – such promises amounted to only an “accounting gimmick,” former Congressman Joe Pitts explained in a February op-ed in The Hill. They did not constitute real protections against taxpayer funding of abortions, he said.

March for Life Action estimated that, according to numbers from the Guttmacher Institute, 100,000 abortions per year were performed under this ACA “reimbursement plan.” And although the amount of money in available tax credits would shrink under the Senate proposal, the funding of abortions would continue, they said.

Strange’s amendment, the senator explained in a speech on the floor, would protect tax credits from being used to pay for abortion coverage.

It would drop the value of tax credits paying for abortion coverage to 10 percent. “The remaining 90 percent,” he said, would be “made available as Hyde-protected monthly payments to insurers to benefit the same people who relied on those tax credits.”

“For too many, access to healthcare coverage comes only with the restriction of deeply-held personal convictions about the sanctity of human life,” Sen. Strange said on the Senate floor.

“The amendment before us offers us the opportunity to end the flow of taxpayer dollars to abortion procedures, once and for all. It allows Hyde protections to be extended to all funds appropriated through the healthcare legislation we are considering today.”

Finally, the health care bill came to a vote on the Senate floor in the middle of the night on Thursday. Sen. McCain proved to be the deciding vote against the measure, as it failed 51-49. The failure left pro-life groups committed to fighting the funding of abortion coverage under the ACA, which still continues.

“Leaving Capitol. Fight for another day,” Dannenfelser tweeted early on Friday morning.

Later Friday morning, Bishop Dewane said that the current health care system still needs to be reformed, and outlined the principles that must guide future reform.

“A moment has opened for Congress, and indeed all Americans, to set aside party and personal political interest and pursue the common good of our nation and its people, especially the most vulnerable,” he said.

Reform must not include changes to Medicaid and the safety net that would result in reduced coverage or higher costs for “the poor, immigrants, or any others at the margins,” he said.

However, it must include the pro-life protections against taxpayer funding of abortions, as well as conscience protections that were lacking in the House and Senate bills, he said.

And it must “address the real probability of collapsing insurance markets and the corresponding loss of genuine affordability for those with limited means.”

Dannenfelser said that the defeat of the health care bill was only a temporary loss amidst historic pro-life gains.

“With a pro-life House, Senate, and White House, last night we were poised for a big win. It was not the night for that win,” she said.

“This is a set-back in the middle of a succession of tremendous gains. It is emblematic of all successful human rights movements in our nation’s history. The power of the movement which strikes at the human heart and the inexorable march of gains, while interrupted at times, cannot and will not cease until clear and certain victory. Then and only then will we rest.”

The organization will be active in promoting pro-life Senate candidates in next year’s elections, she said, to produce “a bigger, bolder, more courageous pro-life majority” in the Senate.

“SBA List’s field operation – which knocked more than 1.1 million doors in 2016 – has already begun in two 2018 battlegrounds, Florida and Ohio, with an aggressive plan to move into more battlegrounds by the end of the year,” she said.

Judge axes order reducing jail time for sterilized inmates

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 16:54

Nashville, Tenn., Jul 28, 2017 / 02:54 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Tennessee Judge Sam Benningfield has rescinded his controversial order offering reduced sentences to prisoners who would undergo sterilization procedures.

“We are glad to have learned that (the policy) has been canceled,” said Rick Musacchio, director of communications for the diocese of Nashville. He also referred to the policy as “problematic.”

“The Catholic position on birth control is well-known,” he told CNA July 28.

Benningfield had issued the order on May 15 which offered 30 days credit from jail time to men who would undergo a vasectomy or women who would receive a Nexplanon arm implant, which prevents pregnancies for up to four years. Benningfield serves in Sparta, Tennessee, about an hour and a half east of Nashville.

The July 26 order rescinding the previous order, signed by Benningfield and posted on the ACLU website, stated that “(t)hose inmates who have demonstrated to the court their desire to improve their situations and take s rious and considered steps toward their rehabilitation by having the procedures or agreeing to have same will not be denied the credit. You will be awarded the 30 days jail credit promised whether you ultimately receive the procedures or not.”

County officials stated that since the program began, 32 women had received the implant and 38 men were awaiting the surgery, as of July 21.

In a statement given to SpartaLive.com and published on July 21, Benningfield stated that his goal had been to help children whose parents were repeat offenders and prevent the conceptions of drug-addicted infants. He said the order “is in no way a eugenic program” and that all procedures were “reversible.” He also noted that “(n)o male under 21 may participate” and that there was a 30-day waiting period before the procedure.

“It’s unclear to me how the original policy as it was apparently implemented in this small Tennessee county was intended to help children,” Musacchio said.

It is not clear how many, if any, underwent surgery. The American Civil Liberties Union also opposed the measure, calling it unconstitutional. 

What the Holy See told the UN about Middle East Christians

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 08:04

New York City, N.Y., Jul 28, 2017 / 06:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The Middle East needs peace, human rights, and the continued presence of Christians, a Holy See diplomat told the U.N. Security Council Tuesday.

“Christian communities have existed for over two thousand years in that region and have peacefully coexisted with the other communities. The Holy See urges the international community, through the Security Council, not to forget them,” Monsignor Simon Kassas, interim chargé d’affaires of the Holy See’s permanent observer mission to the United Nations, said July 25.

“The Holy See believes that the rule of law, including respect for religious freedom and equality before the law based on the principle of citizenship and regardless of one’s race, ethnic origin or religion, is fundamental toward the achievement and maintenance of the peaceful and fruitful coexistence among individuals, communities and nations in the whole region and beyond,” he continued.

Msgr. Kassas spoke in an intervention during the U.N. Security Council's open debate on “The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question.”

He voiced the Holy See’s regret at the loss of lives and property in wars and conflict in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. In these places “the dramatic humanitarian situation calls for renewed commitment by all to arrive at a political solution to these conflicts.”

The diplomat said Pope Francis “deeply appreciates the tireless efforts of those toiling to find a political solution to the conflict in Syria.”

“He encourages all actors to work toward a Syrian-led political process leading to a peaceful and inclusive transition,” the monsignor said, stressing the benefits of a peaceful settlement that will restore stability, allow for the safe return of refugees and others who are displaced.

Peace in Syria will also create an environment for effective counter-terrorism efforts and maintain “the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian state.”

Turning to the Israeli-Palestine conflict, Msgr. Kassas said the Palestinian question is debated four times a year and this debate sometimes sounds like “broken records,” but this will continue until a solution is found. He added: “notwithstanding the multiple challenges facing the Middle East today, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process cannot be allowed to slip out of the top priorities of the international community and this council.”

The Holy See voiced support for a two-state solution in which both the Israel and a Palestinian state exist side-by-side “in peace within internationally recognized borders.”

“For this process to happen and succeed, Israelis and Palestinians must agree on substantial steps to lower tensions and de-escalate the violence on the ground,” Msgr. Kassas said. This includes refraining from actions, including actions regarding settlements, that contradict their stated commitment to a negotiated solution.

He cited Pope Francis’ exhortation to pray for peace and to promote a culture of non-violence so that everyone can bequeath “a culture capable of devising strategies of life, not death, and of inclusion, not exclusion.”

All Palestinian factions must show “a united political will” and work together to address their people’s needs, Msgr. Kassas told the U.N.

“A united Palestinian front would prove the commitment of the Palestinians to a peacefully negotiated settlement and would be key to the economic prosperity, social cohesion and political stability of a Palestinian State,” he said.

“We must also not forget Jerusalem, a city sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims,” the diplomat continued, adding, “The historical status quo of the holy sites is a matter of profound sensitivities.”

Msgr. Kassas reaffirmed the Holy See’s support for “for a comprehensive, just and lasting solution” regarding Jerusalem and reiterated the importance of internationally guaranteed special status that ensures religious freedom of all its inhabitants and “the secure, free and unhindered access to the Holy Places by the faithful of all religions and nationalities.”

Want to change the world? It starts with joy, Archbishop Chaput says

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 18:40

Napa, Calif., Jul 27, 2017 / 04:40 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- In a world that can sometimes seem disheartening, Christians have a path to the future in lives of joy and love, Archbishop Chaput said Thursday.

While Christians need to see the world’s problems as they are, “we can’t let the weight of the world crush the joy that’s our birthright by our rebirth in Jesus Christ through baptism,” he said.

“If we cling to that joy, if we cling to God, then all things are possible,” he added. “The only way to create new life in a culture is to live our lives joyfully and fruitfully, as individuals ruled by convictions greater than ourselves and shared with people we know and love. It’s a path that’s very simple and very hard at the same time. But it’s the only way to make a revolution that matters.”

Archbishop Chaput spoke July 27 at the Napa Institute conference in Napa, Calif. The institute aims to help Catholic leaders face the challenges of contemporary America.

“When young people ask me how to change the world,” he said, “I tell them to love each other, get married, stay faithful to one another, have lots of children, and raise those children to be men and women of Christian character. Faith is a seed. It doesn’t flower overnight. It takes time and love and effort.”

“The future belongs to people with children, not with things. Things rust and break,” the archbishop continued. “But every child is a universe of possibility that reaches into eternity, connecting our memories and our hopes in a sign of God’s love across the generations. That’s what matters. The soul of a child is forever.”

In the face of the many challenges of today, he pointed to an idea from St. Augustine: “it’s no use whining about the times, because we are the times.”

“It’s through us that God acts in society and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is carried forward. So we need to own that mission. And only when we do, will anything change for the better,” the archbishop said.

“This isn’t a time to retreat from the world. We need to engage the world and convert it,” he added, saying “we have every reason to trust in God and find in him our hope.” The archbishop encouraged his audience to read and pray over Pope Francis’ 2013 apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium.”

Reflecting on the temptation to give up, Archbishop Chaput said this is “always easier than fighting for what we believe and living what we know to be true.”

“Cowardice solves the problem of conflict – at least in the short run. But it abandons the many thousands of great young Catholic lay and clergy leaders who are already part of our landscape,” he said. “I know many of them. And they look to us for example and support.”

While Catholics could react to this situation with “a well-crafted strategic plan,” the archbishop said there is no “quick fix” for cultures, which are more like living organisms than corporations or math problems.

Prayer was also a focus of his remarks. Reflecting on the “hellish” aspect to modern life that people fill with “discord, confusion and noise,” he recommended Cardinal Robert Sarah’s book “The Power of Silence.” He encouraged his audience to “turn off the noise that cocoons us in consumer anxieties and appetites.”

“If we don’t pray, we can’t know and love God,” Archbishop Chaput said.

He endorsed reading the Bible as an antidote to the noise of life. Reading the Bible, as well as history, biography, and great novels, is an antidote to “chronic stupidity and a conditioning by mass media that have no sympathy for the things we believe.”

Archbishop Chaput suggested that the modern world is not much different from the Athens that St. Paul visited. The city was “full of idols,” where everyone “spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” There, St. Paul disputed with Jews, devout persons, philosophers, and other residents.

The Acts of the Apostles show “the perpetual newness of the Gospel,” the archbishop said.

“They’re also a portrait of courage as St. Paul, Christianity’s greatest missionary, preaches the Gospel in the sophisticated heart of Athens,” he continued. Despite mockery and condemnation, St. Paul persists and “understands that his audience has a fundamental hunger for the godly that hasn’t been fed, and he refuses to be quiet or afraid.”

Even after seeming failure, he had planted a seed of faith that would grow into “a Church with deep roots.”

The archbishop cited Jesus’ words from the Gospel of John: “When the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all the truth . . . and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

“The words of the Gospel remind us that the future is God’s, and we should trust in the Holy Spirit who leads us in a spirit of truth. We don’t need to fear the future. We don’t need to know it before its time. What we do need is to have confidence in the Lord and to give our hearts to the Father who loves us. The future is in his hands.”

 

Transgender military ban applauded for respecting biology, the common good

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 18:37

Washington D.C., Jul 27, 2017 / 04:37 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- After President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday that persons identifying as transgender could not serve in the U.S. military, theologians and bioethics experts voiced support for the policy change.

Those who identify as transgender are “people made in God's image, and they deserve our compassion, and they deserve to be treated with dignity, but that doesn't mean that they are fit for combat in the defense of a nation,” said Dr. Chad Pecknold, a theology professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Pecknold told CNA that the policy change was the “right decision” that replaced the previous “very bad policy.”

On Wednesday, President Trump announced that he would revoke a rule from late in President Obama’s second term allowing persons identifying as transgender to serve in the U.S. military. Those wishing to join the military who openly identified as transgender could be accepted provided they were proven “stable” in their gender identity for at least 18 months.

With the new administration, however, new Defense Secretary James Mattis delayed the implementation of that policy until Jan. 1, 2018.

Then on Wednesday, President Trump announced that the policy would be undone. In a series of tweets, he stated that the new government policy would be to disallow “transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” saying that the military “cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail.”

“It is unfortunate that the president did not have the political sense to let this decision be made at the appropriate level, and in the appropriate way, but it is nevertheless the right decision,” Pecknold said.

The estimates of the number of openly transgender persons currently in the U.S. military are unclear. RAND Corporation, in a 2016 assessment of the implications of allowing openly-transgender persons to serve, said that “it is difficult to estimate the number of transgender personnel in the military due to current policies and a lack of empirical data.”

However, using estimates and data from surveys, they reported “a midrange estimate of around 2,450 transgender personnel in the active component (out of a total number of approximately 1.3 million active-component service members) and 1,510 in the Selected Reserve.”

Last August, a report by a psychiatry professor and a biostatistician at Johns Hopkins University published in the New Atlantis found that claims of gender identity being independent of biological sex were not sufficiently supported by scientific evidence, as well as claims giving validity to the feeling of “a man trapped in a woman’s body.”

In addition, the report said, persons identifying as transgender have a suicide rate of 41 percent, versus the rate of 5 percent for the overall population.

Dr. Ryan T. Anderson, who researches and writes about marriage and bioethics at the Heritage Foundation, explained why the new course of action by the Trump administration is a measure protecting a vulnerable population from the challenges of combat.

“People who identify as transgender suffer a host of mental health and social problems – including anxiety, depression, and substance abuse – at higher rates than the general population,” he said in an article for the Daily Signal. It would be “reckless” to put them in a combat situation, he said.

Instead, good policy would respect the human dignity of all persons, which means helping them to accept the body that God gave them and not upholding their belief that they are a member of the opposite sex, Pecknold said.

“Pope Francis is famous for his stress upon dialogue, and his non-judgmental approach with respect to the dignity of every person,” he said. “But the Holy Father has also been crystal clear that ‘gender theory’ represents a burning threat to humanity, starkly describing it as a ‘global ideological war on marriage’.”

“The Holy Father admits that we can distinguish between sex and gender, but we cannot separate them,” Pecknold said, citing the Pope’s ecology encyclical Laudato Si.

“It makes much more therapeutic sense to help the mind conform to biological realities than to deform the body in order to fit a disordered mental picture.”

There are also practical concerns that are addressed by not letting persons identifying as transgender serve in the military, Anderson said.

For instance, “the privacy of service members must not be infringed,” he said, and this privacy could be challenged by persons of one biological sex, who identify as a member of the opposite sex, living in single-sex barracks and using single-sex showers and bathrooms.

“Given the nature of military living quarters, it is unclear where soldiers who identify as transgender could be housed,” he wrote.

Allowing openly-transgender persons into the military could also pose a challenge to the religious freedom and conscience rights of military chaplains, officers, and doctors, Anderson said.

“Unless and until military leaders are able to find a way to respect all of these provisions, there will remain good reasons why the military will be unable to accommodate people who identify as transgender,” he said.

Trump’s announcement was met with much outrage and opposition on Wednesday and Thursday, but this is actually evidence of an almost universal disdain for natural limits set by God, argued William Patenaude, who blogs at CatholicEcology.net.

“Like it or not, the rejection of modern realities like gender theory, with its malleable understanding of the human person, is part of what Pope Francis’s concept of Integral Ecology includes,” he said in an article.

Pope Francis, in his ecology encyclical Laudato Si, wrote that “the acceptance of our bodies as God's gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation.”

“Gender theory” rejects this belief in the natural limits of our bodies, he said, but so does today’s lifestyle of excess and pollution that leads to environmental degradation.

“The laws of nature and natural law are equally fixed and render equally severe consequences when ignoring them,” Patenaude said.

“And so the planet and its people suffer, all because we reject what our first parents learned in Eden. Quite often the word ‘no,’ is meant to protect us,” he said.

 

Ohio Catholic parish hosts camp to empower refugee women

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 18:00

Toledo, Ohio, Jul 27, 2017 / 04:00 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- U.S. Together is partnering with a Toledo Catholic parish to create a summer camp for women and children refugees – providing education, opportunities for networking, and information about American culture.

“The purpose of the summer camp is to educate women and children, to empower women to develop physical and language skills, and to provide cultural education and assimilation to their new country,” Corinne Dehabey from U.S. Together told CNA July 26.

“They also learn about all of the education, cultural, and sports activities available in their new community.”

U.S. Together was established in 2003 in response to the needs of immigrants in the central Ohio area. Teaming up with Christ the King Parish in Toledo and serving two dozen refugee families, the two will launch the summer camp for the first time this year.

Christ the King Parish began working with immigrants after Middle School students heard current pastor Father Bill Rose give a homily about the affects of the war in Syria. In 2015, students collected 20 laundry baskets full of cleaning supplies, food, and the basic necessities for immigrating families.

Both Christ the King Parish and U.S. Together aim to serve anyone regardless of gender, religion, nationality, or ethnicity, but the summer program is limited to refugee children and mothers.

According to Cindy Robert, a volunteer and religion teacher at the parish, many of the women and children from Muslim countries have not experienced the diversity of ethnicities and religions in the U.S. A major aspect of the organization and the camp is getting refugee families to mingle with the community to experience culture outside of their social norm.

“We have been able to see them as individuals, and the longer we have the camp, the more they have come out of their shells, and we see their different personalities.”

Women and children will attend the five week summer camp three days a week for free. The summer camp will include a trip down the Maumee River, swimming lessons, art classes, and a visit to the Toledo Zoo.

Attending activities from 10-3 p.m. each day, refugees are also able to practice English, participate in local leisure activities, given transportation information, and helped with obtaining documents like library cards.

Although policies put in place by the Trump administration have influenced the process for migrants and split some families apart, Cindy said Toledo has experienced an openness to immigrants, noting how unique individuals have been seen and not as “just a 'bloc' of refugees.”

“Personally, I have been able to have some good, long conversations with various refugees and they are able to ask me questions about life here, about grammar, about my children, etc. It's opened my world a great deal!”

Former Senator Sam Brownback tapped for religious freedom ambassador

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 10:45

Washington D.C., Jul 27, 2017 / 08:45 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas (R) on Wednesday was nominated by President Donald Trump to be the next Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom.

Dr. Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, hailed the choice as “excellent.”

Farr explained that “because of his experience,” Brownback “fully meets the two qualifications critical for this position: first, a vigorous understanding of the meaning and value of religious freedom for all, and the ability to communicate that understanding, both as a universal moral value and as a political institution that can serve the interests of every society.”

The religious freedom ambassador position was created through the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. That law established the Office of International Religious Freedom at the State Department, which is tasked with “promoting religious freedom as a core objective of U.S. foreign policy,” as the office states.

The ambassador is charged with monitoring religious freedom abuses worldwide, meeting with religious leaders around the globe, and discussing with foreign governments how they could better respect the freedom of religious minorities to practice their faith publicly without harassment or state action.

Rabbi David Saperstein, the previous ambassador, served during the second term of the Obama administration and was a “model” for the position, former congressman Frank Wolf told CNA recently. Most notably on his watch, the State Department declared that genocide was taking place against Christians, Yazidis, and Shi’a Muslims in Syria and Iraq at the hands of the Islamic State.

The position is vital, religious freedom advocates say, because countries where freedom of religion is respected also see fewer acts of terror and extremism, and enjoy stronger civil and human rights than other countries where religious freedom is not respected.

Now Brownback will look to continue progress made within the State Department in this area. The agency has historically not viewed promoting religious freedom as a priority in U.S. foreign relations, although according to Saperstein the office has made strides in the last two years particularly in advocating for prisoners of conscience.

Brownback “has the experience, gravitas, and bureaucratic skill to sell this understanding” of the importance of religious freedom, Dr. Farr said, “and to build a successful policy, within a resistant bureaucracy at the Department of State and a largely indifferent political class.”

Other religious freedom advocates applauded the selection of Brownback for the position. Maureen Ferguson, senior policy advisor with The Catholic Association, said that Brownback’s record on defending religious freedom during his time in the Senate proves his qualification.

“As a U.S. Senator, Brownback was a passionate defender of the rights of all people to worship freely, and courageously confronted offenses against human dignity in trouble spots such as North Korea, Iraq, China, Sudan, Vietnam, and Egypt,” Ferguson said.

His nomination comes at a crucial time, she said, “given the global instability caused by the severe religious persecution that 77 percent of the world’s population live under.”

Brownback converted to Catholicism in 2002, after years of being a mainline Protestant and then an evangelical.

Before serving as Governor of Kansas, Brownback was a U.S. senator from 1996 until 2010. He served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

When he retired from the Senate in 2010, Brownback was hailed in the chamber as someone “known around the world as a champion of religious freedom.” The senator introduced resolutions or bills defending human rights abroad and shaming human rights abusers.

In 2010, he introduced a measure “condemning the Government of Iran for its state-sponsored persecution of religious minorities” and calling for the release of the “Baha’i Seven,” seven Baha’i leaders held captive by the state for their religious beliefs.

In 2008, Brownback introduced a resolution calling for a Jewish cemetery in Lithuania to be protected against planned construction projects, and insisted that it “should not be further desecrated.”

He also introduced a resolution that year welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to the United States and honoring “the unique insights his moral and spiritual reflections bring to the world stage.”

Brownback spoke out against persecution of religious minorities in Russia in a 2005 resolution that called on “the government of the Russian Federation to ensure full protection of freedoms for all religious communities and end the harassment of unregistered religious groups.”

He also called for a “National Weekend of Prayer and Reflection for the people of Darfur, Sudan” in July of 2005, a year after the U.S. declared genocide was taking place there at the hands of the government and militia groups. Brownback introduced a concurrent resolution in the Senate declaring that genocide was taking place there.

Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.), who wrote the administration in April asking them to nominate an international religious freedom ambassador, emphasized the importance of the ambassador position.

“As anti-religious freedom regimes expand around the world, the United States should clearly speak out for human rights, including religious liberty,” he stated on Wednesday.

 

Ohio bishops: Replace death penalty with mercy, conversion

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 08:07

Columbus, Ohio, Jul 27, 2017 / 06:07 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Catholic leaders in Ohio stressed the need to replace the death penalty with mercy and spiritual conversion, following the execution of convicted child murderer Ronald Phillips.

“The Catholic Church believes that the death penalty is an unnecessary and systemically flawed form of punishment,” the Ohio Catholic Conference said in a statement.

“The Catholic bishops of Ohio sought mercy for Mr. Phillips because of the belief that spiritual conversion is possible and that all life – even that of the worst offender – has value and dignity.”

“May his soul, through the mercy of God, rest in peace,” the conference said.

The July 26 execution was the first in Ohio since a botched 2014 execution. Phillips, 43, was executed by lethal injection at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio, the Associated Press reports. He was convicted for the 1993 rape and killing of three-year-old Sheila Marie Evans, his girlfriend's daughter.

He gave his final statement ten minutes before his death.

“Sheila Marie didn't deserve what I did to her,” Phillips said, telling the girl’s family “I’m sorry you had to live so long with my actions.”

Phillips had spent much of the morning praying, kneeling and reading the Bible. Ohio Gov. John Kasich had rejected clemency in 2016, citing “the extremely brutal nature of the offense committed against an innocent 3-year-old child.”

The Ohio Catholic Conference previously cited Pope Francis' address to Congress in which he had called for an end to the death penalty.

Karen Clifton, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, said her organization was “deeply saddened” by the resumption of the executions.

“Our prayers are with the victim, her family and all those who were asked to participate in Ronald Phillips’ execution,” she said.

“Ronald Phillips committed a horrific crime, but through the grace of God's transformational love became a person who asked for forgiveness and journeyed with others from anger and hate to repentance,” Clifton continued. “Today’s execution highlights the need for mercy and reconciliation in our justice system.”

She called on Ohio to reconsider the 26 other scheduled executions.

Other opponents include the group Ohioans to Stop Executions, which had delivered over 27,500 signatures to Gov. Kasich asking him to postpone the state’s executions, including that of Phillips. The group sought better safeguards to prevent sentencing innocent people to death and endorsed 56 recommendations the Ohio Supreme Court’s death penalty task force made to the state legislature, Cleveland.com reports.

European pharmaceutical companies have barred the sale of their drugs for the purpose of executions, causing difficulties for Ohio state officials in charge of executions. Officials say they have enough of the drugs to carry out three executions.

Executions had been halted following the January 2014 execution of Dennis McGuire, in which he was seen clenching his fists, trying to sit up, gasping for breath and choking as the drugs took a record 26 minutes to kill him.
 
The execution used an untested drug cocktail that included the sedative midazolam and the morphine derivative hydromorphone. In a letter to Gov. Kasich, 17 former corrections officials and administrators had warned of possible errors in the use of midazolam, warning that a disturbing execution could traumatize corrections officials.

McGuire was condemned for the 1989 murder of a woman and her unborn child. In the months before his execution, he had returned to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and was an attendee at the prison’s weekly Masses for inmates. At the Mass before his execution, he was a recipient of the anointing of the sick and dying, and received spiritual direction.

Since capital punishment resumed in Ohio in 1999, 54 people have been executed.

Families of Iran's prisoners beg Congress to advocate for their release

Wed, 07/26/2017 - 18:29

Washington D.C., Jul 26, 2017 / 04:29 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Family members of American citizens imprisoned in Iran pleaded with members of Congress on Tuesday to advocate for their safe release.

“Please help me bring my father and brother home. I am losing my entire family. We are simply running out of time,” Babak Namazi, who has both a brother and a father in Iranian prisons, told members of the House Subcommittee on North Africa and the Middle East in a July 25 hearing.

Family members of four prisoners in Iran testified on Capitol Hill on Tuesday before the subcommittee in the hearing “Held for Ransom: The Families of Iran’s Hostages Speak Out,” pleading for Iran to release their loved ones in custody.

Bob Levinson, who formerly worked for the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, is the longest-missing of the four, and is the “longest-held hostage in American history,” according to his son Douglas who testified on Tuesday.

Three days after his father went missing, an Iranian news outlet reported that he was “in the hands” of state officers. Yet “Iran has repeatedly changed their story,” Douglas Levinson said. “Iran is responsible, and they know exactly where he is.”

On Wednesday, the House passed a resolution, H. Res. 317, which called on Iran to unconditionally release the Americans who are being detained for political reasons. It also calls on President Donald Trump to prioritize their release.

Currently, there are four Americans (three citizens, one legal permanent resident) who are being detained by the state because of alleged spying or working with a hostile foreign government: Siamak and Baquer Namazi, Xiyue Wang, and Nizar Zakka.

Robert Levinson has been missing from Iran’s Kish Island since 2007, and despite its commitment to his safe return to the U.S., “the regime has not remotely fulfilled its commitments to help bring him home,” Rep. Ed Royce, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, stated on Wednesday.

“Iran continues to engage in the despicable practice of detaining foreigners on fabricated criminal charges,” he said, and according to former political prisoners there are reports of “electric shock, forced drug withdrawal, whippings, and solitary confinement.”

“We stand in solidarity with these Americans and their families as we call for their release,” Royce said.

Iran holds many political and religious prisoners, including political dissidents and members of religious minorities. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has labeled Iran a “country of particular concern” as one of the countries with the worst records of protecting religious freedom.

The commission noted in its most recent annual report that the number of religious prisoners has increased since President Hassan Rouhani took office in 2013.

Iran held Pastor Sayeed Abedini in custody from 2012 until January 2016 when he was released in a prisoner exchange with the U.S. A Christian pastor who became an American citizen, Abedini worked with house churches in Iran and was arrested after working at an orphanage for allegedly threatening Iranian national security.

Religious freedom advocates claimed he was arrested by the state because of his Christian faith. During his time in prison there were reports of his torture and abuse suffered at the hands of the regime.

The three witnesses who testified on Tuesday expressed serious concern for their loved ones in Iran.

Babak Namazi, whose brother Siamak was arrested in Iran in October of 2015 and whose father Baquer was detained in February of 2016 during a trip to Iran where he tried to see his son, told of how both have suffered while in prison, including while in solitary confinement.

His 81-year-old father has a “severe heart condition that requires medication and may shortly require a pacemaker,” Namazi said, and “has been twice been hospitalized for a week at a time” in recent months.

“It is obvious that his condition, both physical and mental, is rapidly deteriorating. My father’s prison sentence is a death sentence,” Namazi said.

Meanwhile, his brother has suffered in “horrific” conditions, he said, including prolonged isolation and regular beatings and tazings.

Omar Zakka testified about his father Nazir who has been imprisoned in Iran for two years. Nazir, who has suffered physical abuse in prison, is currently on a hunger strike, Omar said.

“All of this pain and suffering has led my dad to this ongoing hunger strike; he told me the other day that we do not put our heads down for anyone,” Omar said.

“My dad said that he would rather die for his cause than live with injustice and what they are doing to him. In fact, he said this phrase to us, in Arabic, that translates to ‘liberty or death’.”

Douglas Levinson said his father, due to his long absence, has missed several of his children’s weddings and graduations, and has never met five of his grandchildren.

“We need Bob Levinson, we need my father back now,” Douglas said on Tuesday. “It’s been 10 years. He’s missed so much.”

 

As vote looms, here's what bishops think about Trump's border wall

Wed, 07/26/2017 - 17:40

Washington D.C., Jul 26, 2017 / 03:40 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- As Congress prepares to vote on whether to fund the further construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, bishops of dioceses along both sides of the border have been outspoken against such a policy.

“While countries have a duty to ensure that immigration is orderly and safe, this responsibility can never serve as a pretext to build walls and shut the door to migrants and refugees,” Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas said in his July 18 pastoral letter on migration, “Sorrow and Mourning Flee Away.”

Although “the Church has long recognized the first right of persons not to migrate, but to stay in their community of origin,” the bishop wrote, “when that has become impossible, the Church also recognizes the right to migrate.”

The House will reportedly vote this week on approving $1.6 billion in funding for construction of a wall along part the U.S.-Mexico border, as requested by President Donald Trump in his FY 2018 budget proposal.

Trump had campaigned for president by repeatedly promising to build a wall on the border. Around 700 miles of the approximately 2,000 mile-long border is already fenced.

In a January executive order on immigration, President Trump stated:

“It is the policy of the executive branch to…secure the southern border of the United States through the immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border, monitored and supported by adequate personnel so as to prevent illegal immigration, drug and human trafficking, and acts of terrorism.”

He also called for the allocation of federal funding “for the planning, designing, and constructing of a physical wall along the southern border” and to “project and develop long-term funding requirements for the wall.”

Bishops of dioceses along both sides of the border, however, said that the additional construction of a wall would pose dangers to migrants and would create unnecessary divisions in societies that have transcended countries’ borders.

The chair of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee, Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, Texas said he was “disheartened” by the President’s request.

“This action will put immigrant lives needlessly in harm's way,” he said.

“Construction of such a wall will only make migrants, especially vulnerable women and children, more susceptible to traffickers and smugglers,” he said. “Additionally, the construction of such a wall destabilizes the many vibrant and beautifully interconnected communities that live peacefully along the border.”

Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas tweeted after the executive order was issued: “Walls only impede and put at risk the poor and children, because those who have resources always find other options.”

The Mexican bishops’ conference responded as well to the call for the further construction of the wall. In their Jan. 26 statement “Value and Respect for Migrants,” they expressed “pain and rejection” at the announcement and said that the wall would interfere in the multi-cultural societies that have developed where there are cities directly across the border from each other.

“We express our pain and rejection over the construction of this wall, and we respectfully invite you to reflect more deeply about the ways security, development, growth in employment, and other measures, necessary and just, can be procured without causing further harm to those already suffering, the poorest and most vulnerable,” the conference stated.

For over 20 years, the statement added, the bishops in dioceses including both borders have worked to achieve “the best care for the faithful that live in the sister countries, properly seen as a single city (from a faith perspective); communities of faith served by two dioceses (such as Matamoros and Brownsville, or Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, for example).”

“What pains us foremost is that many people who live out their family relationships, their faith, work or friendships will be shut out even more by this inhuman interference,” the conference said.

The bishops also said that the U.S. has a right to enforce its own border, but that “a rigorous and intense application of the law” would “create alarm and fear among immigrants, breaking up families without further consideration.”

President Trump requested $1.6 billion for a wall in his FY 2018 budget request. He also directed the Department of Homeland Security to spend $100 million of existing appropriations on “border security, fencing and infrastructure.”

Tom Homan, director of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, told reporters on June 28 that “the border wall is one tool to help control the border,” among other actions like the presence of border patrol agents and law enforcement.

When asked by a reporter after a July 7 bilateral meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto if he still wanted Mexico to pay for the construction of the wall, President Trump responded “absolutely.”

Bishop Seitz explained in his pastoral letter “When Sorrow and Mourning Flee Away” that the construction of a border fence poses harm to migrants in forcing them to cross the border in more dangerous areas.

“The burning sands of our desert are an unmarked grave for too many migrants who have died attempting to cross,” he wrote. “Increased militarization and more walls will only make this journey even more dangerous.”

And, he said, walls that separate cities directly across the border from each other – like El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico – interfere in the societies there and separate loved ones.

“Misguided policies and walls are widening the divide between us and our sister city of Ciudad Juárez,” he said. “I am pastor of a diocese divided by walls and checkpoints that separate individuals from loved ones.”

Pope Francis said Mass at the U.S.-Mexico border in February 2016 at Ciudad Juárez. He asked all those in attendance to pray for “the gift of tears” amidst the hardships of migrants and their “exploitation.”

“Let us together ask our God for the gift of conversion, the gift of tears, let us ask him to give us open hearts,” Pope Francis said at the Feb. 17 Mass. “No more death! No more exploitation!”

 

Pro-life groups praise new Missouri bill curbing abortion

Wed, 07/26/2017 - 17:35

St. Louis, Mo., Jul 26, 2017 / 03:35 pm (Church Pop).- Pro-lifers lauded a bill that will restrict abortion access in Missouri, granting the state attorney general more power to prosecute violations, and requiring both stricter health codes and proper fetal tissue disposal.

“Today is a great victory for pregnancy care centers that help women and children all over the state,” Governor Erik Greitens said in a statement according to the Associated Press.

“I'm proud that many of Missouri's lawmakers stood strong to protect the lives of the innocent unborn and women's health.”

The bill passed through the state's Senate 22-9 on July 25. Missouri's Catholic Conference supported the move by promoting it at the parish level and encouraging Catholics to contact their senator.
 
Greitens said the bill was in response to local ordinances aimed at curbing so-called reproductive health “discrimination,” which affected the state capital's pregnancy centers and religious organizations. The bill was also in response to the ruling of a federal judge which struck down some of Missouri's previous anti-abortion laws.

The legislation overturns a previous move that made St. Louis an “abortion sanctuary city,” which added abortion and contraceptive use to existing non-discrimination laws. It also prohibits St. Louis forcing religious schools from hiring abortion advocates and landlords from renting to abortion clinics.

Josh Hawley, the state's attorney general, will now have the power to prosecute abortion legislation violations, in order to balance concern surrounding a left-wing prosecutor who may not pursue abortion offenses. The bill also ditched a provision which would have forced the attorney general to notify prosecutors 10 days before action is taken.

Additional provisions include mandatory inspections by Missouri's health department once a year and stricter requirements on how clinics dispose of fetal tissue after the abortion.

The bill will also restrict which medical staff may refer women for an abortion and may have state-mandated discussions about the procedure. Before inducing an abortion to save the mother's life, the clinics must also get approval from the health department.

The law will be sent to the republican governor next, who is expected to sign into effect soon.

WYD Unite event brings together youth from across the nation

Wed, 07/26/2017 - 12:34

Washington D.C., Jul 26, 2017 / 10:34 am (CNA/EWTN News).- On one of the hottest days of the year, more than 1,300 young people from around the country gathered together for WYD Unite, bringing together alumni of former World Youth Days as well as pilgrims from at least 52 Catholic dioceses around the nations.

They gathered for the all-day event at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, named for the Pope who in 1984 began the World Youth Day celebrations to bring together millions of young people from around the globe to share and grow in their Catholic faith. From their starting place in Rome, World Youth Days have traveled across the world to six continents, most recently in 2016 to Pope John Paul II’s homeland of Poland.

The smaller United States gathering focused upon the theme, “The Mighty Has Done Great Things for Me and Holy is His Name.” The gathering explored the radical “Yes” Mary gave at the Annunciation, as well as gratitude for how God has acted in our lives.

Throughout the day, pilgrims toured the exhibits of the National Shrine, and had opportunities for Reconciliation and spiritual direction. The day also featured performances by Tony Melendez and Audrey Assad. Melendez is a master guitarist who was born without arms, but learned to play guitar using his feet. Previously he has performed before Saint Pope John Paul II in 1987. Assad, a daughter of a Syrian Christian refugee, is an acclaimed musician and songwriter who also often speaks on behalf of persecuted Christians of the Middle East.

Childcare and children’s catechesis was provided both by the event and by the Sister Servants of the Lord.

The first keynote message of the day was given by Bishop-elect Nelson Perez, who will soon take over the Diocese of Cleveland. He reminded attendees that “God meets us where we are in our brokenness, lowliness.”

While encounter with Christ may inspire a person to be kind or compassionate or have a loving family, these traits are not a mark of a Christian themselves, he continued. Instead, the Christian holds to the truth that Jesus “moved, He rose from the dead, and He continues to move in us and through us and about us.”

Bishop-elect Perez also urged the young Christians present to embrace gratitude for all that God has given, and to view one’s life as not only a gift but a tool for God to use. He recalled a personal story of a young woman he had spoken to rudely. Three years later, the bishop said, as the same young woman lay on her deathbed, she told Bishop-elect Perez it was the closest she had ever felt to God.

“Never underestimate the power of God’s spirit working in you, through you and despite you, and most of the time unbeknownst to you and to me,” the bishop reflected.

Later, the participants attended Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., told attendees to bring their neighbors and peers “into the ongoing mission of the Church.” He warned the youth not to be discouraged by the threat of modern secularism, instead placing hope in and offering a witness of God’s love.

Returning in a procession to the Saint John Paul II Shrine, participants were joined by an image of “Our Lady Undoer of Knots,” which was present for the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and blessed by the Pope during his visit there.

A second keynote was then delivered by Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Conn.

Bishop Caggiano focused on the radical message of the Annunciation and Mary’s acceptance of God’s plan. “It was her ‘yes’ that allowed ourselves to come here, and her ‘yes’ that enabled us to say yes to her Son,” he said.

He challenged the young people to accept God’s love of them, but also noted that that acceptance of God’s love compels us to bring that love “to everyone you and I meet.”

“Life will give you a thousand reasons to doubt God’s love,” he warned the youth, but to be missionary disciples, Christians need to “say yes to the fact that Jesus is extending his hand to us in friendship.”

After the keynote, the night ended with Eucharistic Adoration and prayer, accompanied by music.

Pages