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New religious freedom protections draw praise from experts

Fri, 10/06/2017 - 18:38

Washington D.C., Oct 6, 2017 / 04:38 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- After the Trump administration announced new exemptions to the contraceptive mandate and a religious freedom guidance, experts said both actions offered concrete protections of religious freedom.

“Today the Trump administration made two commendable decisions in support of the bedrock American principle of religious liberty,” Dr. Matthew Franck, director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute, told CNA, calling the actions “cause for much celebration.”

On Friday morning the administration followed through on two promises made in President Donald Trump’s May 4 executive order on religious liberty – relief from the HHS mandate for religious and conscientious objectors, and a Department of Justice guidance to federal agencies on implementing religious freedom protections found in existing federal law.

The administration first announced on Friday an expansion of religious and moral exemptions to the HHS contraceptive mandate, over which many non-profit groups and some for-profit businesses had sued the federal government.

“Groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, who dedicate their lives to the indigent elderly, can finally expect the restitution of their conscience-rights in court,” Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie, policy advisor with The Catholic Association, stated on Friday.

The HHS had interpreted the Affordable Care Act to include a mandate on cost-free coverage for sterilizations, contraceptives, and drugs that can cause early abortions in health plans.

Although many religious groups were opposed to contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortion-causing drugs, the religious exemptions from the mandate were so narrow that only churches and their integrated auxiliaries were safe from having to comply.

This meant that many religious charities and universities had to comply with the mandate’s demands. The Obama administration offered an “accommodation” to objecting non-profits to comply with the mandate, but charities like the Little Sisters of the Poor said this still forced them to be complicit in the provision of objectionable coverage.

Under the interim final rules released Friday, non-profits, small businesses, and even some publicly-traded companies can apply for a religious exemption to the mandate, if they establish that complying with the mandate would violate their religious beliefs.

The new rules “substantially expand the scope of that religious exemption,” Greg Baylor, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said.

Large “publicly-traded” companies wouldn’t be eligible to claim a “moral” exemption from the mandate, but secular non-profits and small businesses would be – which benefits groups like the March for Life, which is a pro-life organization opposed to the mandate on conscience grounds, but a group that is “not inherently religious.”

In establishing such broad new exemptions, the new rule “practically amounts to a revocation of the mandate,” Franck told CNA.

And the “accommodation” offered to non-profits, where their insurer or third party administrator provided the objectionable coverage, is now voluntary, the Department of Health and Human Services announced.

Prominent U.S. bishops praised the HHS announcement on Friday as a “return to common sense.”

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chair of the U.S. bishops’ religious liberty committee, said in a statement that the new rule “recognizes that the full range of faith-based and mission-driven organizations, as well as the people who run them, have deeply held religious and moral beliefs that the law must respect.”

“We welcome the news that this particular threat to religious freedom has been lifted,” they stated.

The Becket Fund, a religious freedom law firm that defended the Little Sisters of the Poor in court against the mandate, praised the “common sense, balanced rule,” but added that the litigation is ongoing in mandate cases.

In the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor against the mandate at the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court in a rare move in the middle of the case ordered both the plaintiffs and the government to submit briefs detailing if, and how a solution could be crafted that provided for cost-free coverage outlined in the HHS mandate, while at the same time maintaining the religious freedom of the non-profits that sued the government.

In May of 2016, the Court vacated the federal circuit court decisions on the mandate, ordered the federal government not to fine the plaintiffs, and instructed all parties to come to a solution that provided the contraception coverage while respecting the religious freedom of the plaintiffs. The cases are currently still at the federal circuit court level.

“14 or 15 months later” after the Supreme Court asked for a solution, “what we see today is really the resolution of that process,” Rienzi said.

With the HHS announcement, the government now “admits the prior version of the mandate broke the law,” Rienzi said, referring to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Under the 1993 law, the federal government must not substantially burden one’s deeply-held religious beliefs unless it establishes that to do so is in its “compelling interest” and is the “least-restrictive means” of fulfilling that interest.

The government essentially admitted on Friday that there were indeed less-restrictive means of ensuring cost-free coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortion-causing drugs than forcing the non-profits to comply with the mandate through the “accommodation,” Rienzi said.

“I assume those lawyers at DOJ will cooperate and go into the courtrooms and admit that the federal government broke the law, and that the Little Sisters and other groups are entitled to a final injunction to give them lasting protection against this kind of treatment,” he said.

Also on Friday, the Department of Justice announced a religious freedom guidance that was ordered by President Trump in his May 4 executive order on religious freedom.

The 25-page guidance outlines religious freedom protections in existing federal law that federal departments and agencies are to incorporate into their functions. It states that “Religious liberty is not merely a right to personal religious beliefs or even to worship in a sacred place. It also encompasses religious observance and practice.”

The guidance is significant and establishes solid protections for religious freedom at the federal level, Professor Robert Destro of the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law told CNA.

“We’ve never had anything this far-reaching before,” he said, noting that the guidance puts religious freedom on the level of freedom of speech.

It also takes principles of religious freedom and applies them to many federal levels, Destro said.

For instance, U.S. attorneys at the Department of Justice in litigation must “conform all the arguments that the government is making across the country” to the religious freedom principles outlined in the guidance, he said.

This would apply to ongoing court cases, including the DOJ’s position on the current religious freedom case before the Supreme Court of Masterpiece Cakeshop. It would also apply to “other cases where the arguments were already written,” Destro said.

The guidance also informs regulations, grants, contracts, and diversity training. Agencies like the State Department, where many employees have historically been reticent to talk about the role religion in international problems, could be affected by this, Destro said.

Regarding its application to federal contracts, the guidance could influence cases where religious charities are in danger of losing federal contracts due to their employment practices or their religious mission.

“It really gives faith-based organizations and others with religious objections an argument to make when they’re in discussions with a federal agency about accepting a grant or a contract,” Baylor told CNA.

The guidance also reiterates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, in that it “does not permit the federal government to second-guess the reasonableness of religious beliefs,” Joshua Mercer, co-founder of, told CNA.

This is significant because certain Catholic colleges did not receive religious exemptions from the contraceptive mandate, Mercer said, yet the government should have honored their religious objections. “It’s up to our bishops to decide a university is sufficiently Catholic or not, not our federal government,” he said.

It could apply to conscience protections for health care professionals, Baylor noted. The Obama administration, under Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act mandated that doctors had to provide gender-transition procedures even if they conscientiously objected to doing so.

“There has been a nationwide injunction against that rule, and the federal government has indicated that it plans to reconsider the rule,” Baylor noted.

However, he added, “this guidance strengthens the hand of those who would argue that this sort of thing violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment.”

Ultimately, the guidance is “pretty far-reaching, and it’s going to take a good deal of time for the agencies to conform their practice to what’s being required,” Destro said.

“This may have an impact that we don’t see” in informing federal agencies how they should operate, Baylor said.


The government's new religious freedom guidance: What does it mean?

Fri, 10/06/2017 - 17:31

Washington D.C., Oct 6, 2017 / 03:31 pm (CNA).- All eyes were on the Department of Health and Human Services on Friday, as the Trump administration announced a major broadening of exemptions to the federal contraception mandate, prompting cheers from religious freedom proponents nationwide.

Less noticed was another critical development in the U.S. religious liberty landscape: Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued government-wide legal guidance outlining 20 principles of religious liberty that, the Department of Justice says, should govern all administrative agencies and executive departments in their work.

Sessions had been instructed to “issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in federal law” by an executive order signed by President Trump in May.

The 25-page document released by the attorney general will please many religious liberty advocates. Its bold language highlights the crucial role of religious freedom in American life. It could also have an impact on pending legal disputes across the country.

Early in the memo, the guidance asserts, “Religious liberty is not merely a right to personal religious beliefs or even to worship in a sacred place. It also encompasses religious observance and practice.” Religious freedom proponents have argued for this definition avidly in recent years, amid fears that the idea was being eroded, especially as the phrase “freedom of worship” often replaced “freedom of religion” in the Obama administration.

The document goes on to state that religious liberty extends not only to persons, but to organizations, and that religious freedom is not surrendered when an individual participates in the marketplace or interacts with government – two key points argued in the HHS mandate debate over the last six years.

This second point – that individuals do not have to remove themselves from civil society in order to retain their right to religious freedom – could also have implications in several high-profile lawsuits, largely revolving around the freedom of service providers such as florists, cake bakers, and photographers to decline same-sex weddings, based on their religious beliefs about marriage.

Six of the 20 religious liberty principles in Sessions’ document are dedicated to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, known as RFRA.

Enacted in 1993, RFRA is one of the primary legislative pillars upon which religious freedom arguments have rested in the last two decades. It says that the federal government may not substantially burden the free exercise of religion, unless there is a compelling state interest in doing so, and it is carried out in the least-restrictive manner possible.

RFRA applies only to the federal government, although in recent years, similar laws have increasingly been proposed or passed in state legislatures.

The guidance explains that RFRA “applies to all sincerely-held religious beliefs,” and the government does not have the authority to second-guess the reasonableness of a religious conviction. It affirms that in evaluating RFRA claims, courts must use what is known as “strict scrutiny” – the highest level of judicial review, under which only the most serious of government interests are permitted to infringe upon a fundamental constitutional right.

It also says that the law “applies even where a religious adherent seeks an exemption from a legal obligation requiring the adherent to confer benefits on third parties,” making it clear that RFRA applies in cases such as the HHS mandate.

The document takes a firm stand in insisting that RFRA be taken seriously and interpreted robustly. It’s worth noting that this is a return to ideas widely held just 25 years ago: when RFRA was enacted in 1993, it has nearly unanimous support from both parties and was signed into law by Bill Clinton.

Also significant, the guidance explicitly affirms the right of religious organizations to “employ only persons whose beliefs and conduct are consistent with the employers’ religious precepts.” This is a victory for faith-based employers, among them Catholic schools who have faced opposition for asking employees to sign codes of conduct agreeing to abide by Catholic teaching on issues such as sexuality.    

Today’s guidance also confirms that government cannot interfere with the autonomy of religious organizations. This idea was reinforced by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC – a rare unanimous ruling in 2012 in which the court upheld the “ministerial exception” that allows religious organizations to hire and fire ministers without interference from the government.

Finally, the document released by Sessions said that religious organizations must have equal footing in applying for federal aid or grant programs – they may not be denied participation in these programs when the money is going toward activities that are not explicitly religious in nature.

This has been an important issue in the weeks after Hurricane Harvey with a group of Houston churches suing the Federal Emergency Management Agency, claiming they had been denied disaster relief grants due to their religious status.

The principle was also at play earlier this year, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Lutheran church that was seeking to make safety improvements on its playground through a state reimbursement program. The church had initially been turned away because of its religious affiliation.

Now that the attorney general has issued the guidance, it is up to each agency and department to implement the principles as they make employment decisions, develop regulations, administer programs and write up contracts and grants.

The fight over the proper role of religious liberty in the nation is far from over, however. The document has already been criticized by its opponents as oppressive to women and the LGBT community.

The broad effect of the guidance will continue to unfold in the coming months. Challenges to it will undoubtedly arise as well. The ultimate outcome remains to be seen. But in the meantime, religious liberty proponents can find encouragement in some of the strongest language on the issue coming from a presidential administration in decades.


How the US can protect human rights in China

Fri, 10/06/2017 - 15:01

Washington D.C., Oct 6, 2017 / 01:01 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The Trump administration should act to address “severe violations of religious freedom” in China, a bipartisan congressional commission said Thursday.

“Efforts to shutter and harass Protestant Christian ‘house churches’ and the demolition of renowned Tibetan Buddhist institutes of learning, Larung Gar and Yachen Gar, are particularly concerning developments,” the committee chairmen said in an Oct. 5 letter to US President Donald Trump.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) chairs the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) co-chairs the commission, which includes senior-level officials of the executive branch, U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives. The commission issued its annual report on human rights issues in China on Thursday.

“Nothing good happens in the dark,” Smith said in a statement on the report’s release. “That is why the Administration should shine a light on the Chinese government’s failures to abide by universal standards, shine a light on the cases of tortured and abused political prisoners, shine a light on China’s unfair trade practices and still coercive population control policies.”

“Chinese authorities are ruthlessly targeting human rights lawyers and advocates; clamping down on foreign NGOs, media outlets and Internet companies; restricting religious freedom particularly in ethnic minority Tibetan and Uyghur areas and forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees to near certain persecution and even death,” Rubio added.

The report urged the U.S. government to make diplomacy for religious freedom a priority. Countries that severely restrict religious freedom are likely to face domestic instability and could threaten regional stability, it noted.

The commission said its report documents “the Chinese government and Communist Party’s continued efforts to silence dissent, criminalize activities of human rights lawyers, control civil society, suppress religious activity, and restrict the operations of foreign media outlets, businesses, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) over the past 12 months”

“Chinese authorities continued to implement a ‘‘universal two- child policy’’ and persisted in actively promoting coercive population control policies that violate international standards,” the report charges. “Tellingly, the family planning bureaucratic apparatus remains intact. The Chinese government’s population control policies have contributed to the country’s demographic challenges, including a rapidly aging population and shrinking workforce that threaten to further slow China’s economic growth.”

The report notes the “missing girls” problem reportedly caused by sex-selective abortion and recommended the consideration of an appointment of a special advisor at the U.S. State Department to address the social and economic issues created by the Chinese government’s population control program.

It recommended projects “that protect women and their families from the most coercive aspects of the population control policies.” Congress should continue to link U.S. contributions to the U.N. Population Fund for use in China with “the end of all birth limitation and coercive population control policies in China.”

With China designated a “country of particular concern” because of its restrictions on religious freedom, the Trump administration should “strategically employ the sanctions and other tools” associated with that designation to bolster religious freedom protection in China, the report said.

Further, the administration should re-establish a working group of experts from government, universities, religious groups, and other NGOs “to develop an effective multiyear plan to promote and protect religious freedom in China.”

The commission urged “the Administration to develop an action plan that will facilitate interagency coordination on human rights,” noting that “that the desire for freedom, justice, and democratic openness are not alien to China or its people.”

Vietnamese native appointed auxiliary bishop of Orange

Fri, 10/06/2017 - 12:25

Orange, Calif., Oct 6, 2017 / 10:25 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Father Thanh Thai Nguyen, a priest of the Diocese of St. Augustine and a native of Vietnam, was appointed auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Orange on Friday.

“I thank God for giving me the gift of life, protecting me in my faith journey especially from Vietnam to the Philippines to the United States, gracing me with the gift of priesthood and leading me to you, your new auxiliary bishop,” Nguyen said Oct. 6 in Orange, Calif.

Nguyen was born in Nha Trang, Vietnam, in 1953, the second eldest of a family of 11 children. At the age of 13, he entered the St. Joseph Congregation in Nha Trang, and took his first vows in 1974. He studied at St. Joseph Seminary and Da Lat University.

When the communist North Vietnamese consolidated control of South Vietnam in 1975, they abolished the St. Joseph Congregation.

Nguyen and his family fled Vietnam by boat in 1979. “It was a small boat – six feet wide and 28 feet long for 26 people,” Nguyen explained. It took them 18 days to reach the Philippines.

“We experienced hunger and thirst, With God's grace, it rained three times, and each time we had enough water for one cup each. In the midst of this life struggle, we were faithful to morning and evening prayer – saying the rosary most of the time.”

Nguyen and his family lived in a refugee camp for 18 months before moving to the US. He studied at Hartford State Technical College in Hartford, Conn., and taught for three years as a math and science teacher in public schools.

In 1984 he joined the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette, and studied at Merrimack College and the Weston School of Theology. He gave solemn vows in 1990, and was ordained a priest of the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette the following year. He served as vicar at parishes in Georgia and Florida.

In 1999 Nguyen was incardinated into the Diocese of St. Augustine.

He served as a parochial vicar, and was named pastor of Christ the King parish in Jacksonville in 2001. “Through Father Nguyen's leadership and initiative, he brought harmony to the Vietnamese community by celebrating a Sunday Mass in Vietnamese and building a Vietnamese Center where cultural traditions among the youth and the elderly are preserved,” according to the St. Augustine diocese.

Nguyen, 64, has been pastor of St. Joseph parish in Jacksonville since 2014. With 4,000 families, the parish is the largest in the diocese.

“Father Thanh has not only promoted unity in the parish, but he has fostered more vocations to the priesthood and religious life than any other parish in the diocese,” said Bishop Felipe de Jesus Estévez of St. Augustine.

Fr. Nguyen said, “I thank God for the gift of the priesthood. I love parish life and ministry. I've found it both challenging and rewarding,” adding that it is “an awesome responsibility to be Christ-like to the people entrusted to me as their spiritual leader.”

“I find joy in the celebration of Mass. Joy in sharing the Word of Life and the Bread of Life. There is joy in my heart when I witness the love united in marriage, and in pouring saving waters on the heads of little ones. My joy is in conveying to sinners God's forgiveness and in praying with the dying as they prepare to meet their Lord and Savior.”

After thanking God, Nguyen said, “I thank my parents who gave me life and passed the Catholic Faith on to me. When I was young, they were sure that I had a vocation to the priesthood. They were so happy to attend my ordination. May they rest in peace.”

As auxiliary bishop in Orange, Nguyen will assist Bishop Kevin Vann alongside Bishop Timothy Freyer. He will lead the diocese's large Vietnamese community.

Bishop Dominic Mai Luong, another auxiliary bishop of Orange and a fellow native of Vietnam, retired in 2015 when he reached the age of 75.

EWTN chairman encouraged by changes to HHS mandate

Fri, 10/06/2017 - 11:47

Irondale, Ala., Oct 6, 2017 / 09:47 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The chairman of EWTN Global Catholic Network voiced optimism over an announcement by the Trump administration Friday broadening religious and moral exemptions to the HHS mandate.

“For more than five years, the HHS contraception mandate has forced Americans to violate their deeply held moral and ethical principles, without regard for the Constitution's guarantee of religious liberty,” said Michael P. Warsaw, Chairman of the Board and CEO of EWTN, in an Oct. 6 statement.  

“Together with our legal team, we are carefully considering the exemptions announced today and the impact this may have on our legal challenge to the mandate, but we are optimistic that this news will prove to be a step toward victory for the fundamental freedoms of many Americans.”  

The federal contraception mandate, an Obama-era HHS rule, requires employers’ health plans to include coverage of sterilization and contraception, including some drugs that can cause abortion.

The initial rule’s religious exemption was so narrow it only exempted houses of worship, drawing widespread objections and lawsuits from more than 300 plaintiffs. EWTN Global Catholic Network filed a lawsuit challenging the mandate in February 2012.

Subsequent revisions allowed some changes to the mandate for some religious entities. However, groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor objected that the rule still required their complicity in providing such coverage, which violates their religious and moral standards. Refusal to comply with the rule would result in heavy – potentially crippling – fines.

The HHS interim final rule announced on Friday adds broad religious and moral exemptions to the mandate. The original rule is still in place, but now non-profits and for-profit employers that are closely-held – and even some publicly-traded for-profits – will be exempt from the mandate, if they can demonstrate a religiously-based objection to the mandate’s demands.

Non-profit groups and for-profit businesses that are not publicly-traded can also apply for an exemption to the mandate based on moral, but not religious, objections to it. However, publicly-traded for-profit businesses cannot receive a moral exemption from the mandate.

An example of or a moral objection could be the secular crisis pregnancy center Real Alternatives, Inc., which has no religious affiliation, but which objected to the mandate. Real Alternatives lost a suit against the mandate at the Third Circuit Court in August, which ruled that their pro-life mission did not merit a religious exemption from the mandate.

Regarding the “accommodation” offered to non-profits by the Obama administration, that process is now voluntary. Non-profits can still have their insurer or third party administrator offer the coverage for sterilizations, contraceptives, and drugs that can cause abortions, but they do not have to do so under law.

As EWTN’s legal team examines the impact of today’s announcement on its pending lawsuit, Warsaw called for prayers for religious freedom to be respected across the country and around the globe.

“I invite Catholics, and all people of faith, to join me in continued prayer for our nation, for its leaders, and for the protection of liberty in the United States, and around the world,” he said.

EWTN was founded launched in 1981 by Mother Angelica of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration. The largest religious media network in the world, it reaches more than 268 million television households in more than 145 countries and territories.

In addition to 11 television channels in multiple languages, EWTN platforms include radio services through shortwave and satellite radio, SIRIUS/XM, iHeart Radio, and over 500 AM and FM affiliates. EWTN publishes the National Catholic Register, operates a religious goods catalogue, and in 2015 formed EWTN Publishing in a joint venture with Sophia Institute Press. Catholic News Agency is also part of the EWTN family.


Trump administration lays out principles for protecting religious freedom

Fri, 10/06/2017 - 11:46

Washington D.C., Oct 6, 2017 / 09:46 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In a set of memos issued Friday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions outlined principles of religious freedom that federal agencies and departments are to incorporate into their work.

“Our freedom as citizens has always been inextricably linked with our religious freedom as a people,” Sessions said in an Oct. 6 statement. “Every American has a right to believe, worship, and exercise their faith. The protections for this right, enshrined in our Constitution and laws, serve to declare and protect this important part of our heritage.”

The memos were issued in response to an executive order signed by President Trump in May, declaring, “It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law's robust protections for religious freedom” and instructing the attorney general to “issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law.”

Friday’s memos do not resolve specific cases currently in the court system. However, they were issued on the same day that the administration announced changes to the federal contraception mandate, allowing broad religious and moral exemptions to the regulation.

The first memo lists 20 principles of religious liberty that should govern all administrative agencies and executive departments in their work as employers, contract- and grant-makers, program administrators, rule-makers, and adjudicators.

These principles recognize religious freedom as “an important, fundamental right,” expressly protected by the Constitution and by federal law. This freedom extends to both individuals and organizations, and it is not surrendered when Americans engage in the marketplace or interact with the government.

Furthermore, the guidance says, religious freedom is more than the right to worship or believe privately. It includes “the right to perform or abstain from performing certain physical acts in accordance with one’s beliefs.”

The document notes the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which says that the federal government may not substantially burden the exercise of religious freedom, unless there is a compelling state interest in doing so, and it is carried out in the least-restrictive manner possible.

This law “does not permit the federal government to second-guess the reasonableness of a sincerely held religious belief,” the guidance says, and it places a demanding standard on government interference with religious belief or practice, including when the religious party is seeking “an exemption from a legal obligation…to confer benefits on third parties.”

The guidance also reiterates that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers covered by the regulation from discriminating based on an individual’s religious belief, observance or practice, “unless the employer cannot reasonably accommodate such observance or practice without undue hardship.”

Furthermore, the memo clarifies, religious employers are entitled to limit employment to people whose beliefs and conduct adhere to their religious precepts.

“Generally, the federal government may not condition federal grants or contracts on the religious organization altering its religious character, beliefs, or activities,” the document says.

A second memo by the attorney general directs implementation of the guidance within the Department of Justice. It instructs the department to vigorously defend religious liberty protections in federal law.


Breaking: Trump administration announces broad exemptions for HHS mandate

Fri, 10/06/2017 - 11:21

Washington D.C., Oct 6, 2017 / 09:21 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The Trump administration announced broad new exemptions to the HHS contraceptive mandate on Friday, giving relief to religious non-profits and others with deeply held religious or moral convictions regarding contraception.

A senior HHS official told reporters on Thursday that the exemptions are intended provide full protection for those with religious beliefs and moral convictions. Religious liberty protections are central to American values, the official explained.

The HHS official told reporters that on issues of grave moral concern to Americans, where the issue of human life is at stake, policy needs to ensure that religious believers are not “punished” by the federal government. Such policy reflects authentic “tolerance” of divergent viewpoints, he said.

In a May 4 executive order “promoting free speech and religious liberty,” President Donald Trump promised relief from the HHS mandate to the Little Sisters of the Poor, who were present at his May announcement in the White House Rose Garden. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. were also present for the announcement, which came during a National Day of Prayer ceremony.

“I want you to know that your long ordeal will soon be over,” Trump told the Little Sisters present at the White House. Their lawsuit against the mandate dates back to 2013.

The HHS policy announced today adds broad religious and moral exemptions to the mandate.

The HHS contraceptive mandate originated in the Affordable Care Act, which ordered that “preventive services,” be covered in health plans. In 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services mandated that cost-free coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacient drugs be included in health plans.

The original rule is still in place, but under policies announced today, non-profits and for-profit employers that are closely-held -- and even some publicly-traded for-profits -- will be exempt from the mandate, if they can demonstrate a religiously-based objection to the mandate’s demands.

Non-profit groups and for-profit businesses that are not publicly-traded can also apply for an exemption to the mandate based on moral, but not religious, objections to it. However, publicly-traded for-profit businesses cannot receive a moral exemption from the mandate.

An example of this could be the secular crisis pregnancy center Real Alternatives, Inc., which has no religious affiliation, but which objected to the mandate. Real Alternatives lost a suit against the mandate at the Third Circuit Court in August, which ruled that their pro-life mission did not merit a religious exemption from the mandate.

The 2012 mandate policies allowed only a narrow religious exemption for churches and their integrated auxiliaries, leaving many religious charities and universities to decide whether to comply with the mandate or face heavy fines.

It was later reported that the Obama administration used tax law to determine which groups would get a religious exemption from the mandate. Religious groups not directly affiliated with churches, required to file a 990 tax form because of their non-profit status, did not meet the religious exemption.

Employers began filing lawsuits against the administration over the mandate. In 2014, Hobby Lobby, a craft supply retailer, won a case against the mandate in a 5-4 Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby’s owners, the Green family, argued that providing coverage for drugs that could cause early abortions violated their Christian beliefs.

The Obama administration also offered an “accommodation” to  religious non-profits that objected to the mandate.

In the so-called “accommodation,” non-profits could send a letter or a form to the government outlining their objection to the mandate, which would trigger a government directive to an  insurer or third party administrator to provide the cost-free contraceptive coverage in employee health plans.

Many non-profits, including the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Archdiocese of Washington, said this process still forced them, under threat of heavy fines, to cooperate in the provision of objectionable coverage to their employees in their own health plans.

Catholic theologians and ethicists argued in an amicus brief at the Supreme Court that the accommodation would be considered “either formal cooperation in wrongdoing, or impermissible material cooperation in serious wrongdoing, and would therefore be gravely wrongful.”

Under the accommodation process, experts argued, the act of notifying the government of their objection would still cause the provision of contraceptives, sterilizations, and some abortion-causing drugs through their health plans, which would violate religious principles..

The Little Sisters of the Poor, the Archdiocese of Washington, Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, and other Christian colleges and universities filed lawsuits over the mandate and a bundle of cases made its way to the Supreme Court under Zubik v. Burwell, argued before the Court in 2016.

The Obama administration argued that the cost-free provision of the coverage was in the government’s  “compelling interest,” in the name of national health; the plaintiffs, on the other hand, pointed out that many health plans were already exempt from the mandate because they were grandfathered by the ACA. The “accommodation” offered to the non-profits still forced them to be complicit in acts they believed were immoral, they said.

After oral arguments in the case in March of 2016, the Supreme Court, in a rare move in the middle of a case, directed both the government and the plaintiffs to submit briefs explaining if, and how, a conclusion could be reached providing the contraceptive coverage while at the same time respecting the religious freedom of the non-profits.

Both parties submitted briefs, and in May of 2016, the Court voided the federal circuit court decisions involving the plaintiffs, and sent the cases back to their respective federal courts. The Court directed the lower courts to give all parties time to come to an agreement that satisfied their needs.

On the campaign trail, Trump had promised to grant relief from the mandate to the objecting parties. After his May 4 announcement, Former HHS Secretary Tom Price welcomed Trump’s promise, and 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 memo of the HHS final rule granting relief from the mandate was leaked to the press in May. It expanded religious and moral exemptions to the mandate for employers.

However, despite Trump’s statements against the mandate, the Justice Department continued to defend the mandate in litigation. In July, in proceedings for a lawsuit from the Catholic Benefits Association, the Justice Department asked for a delay in proceedings, rather than simply dropping the case, saying the government was crafting a final rule for exemptions to the mandate.

The “accommodation” offered to non-profits by the Obama administration is now voluntary. Non-profits can direct have their insurer or third party administrator offer the coverage for sterilizations, contraceptives, and drugs that can cause abortions, but they do not have to do so under law.



A tele-prayer service for Catholics with mental illnesses

Fri, 10/06/2017 - 08:20

Washington D.C., Oct 6, 2017 / 06:20 am (CNA/EWTN News).- To recognize Mental Illness Awareness Week, the National Catholic Partnership on Disability held a teleconference prayer service offering those with mental illness, and their friends and family, communal and spiritual support.

“Our hope is simply to provide an opportunity for Catholics to pray together in a place of understanding, trust, and acceptance,” an organizer for the event, Connie Rakitan, told CNA on Wednesday.

The prayer service took place on Oct. 3, which marked the National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding.

The service began with the song “Change my Heart, oh God,” after which the group was invited to say together the serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

The group reflected on those aspects of mental illness they are and are not able to change, and ample time was given for participants to offer reflections aloud.

The service continued with a reading from Scripture, Isaiah 43. “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned … Since you are precious and honored in my sight,” Judy Barr, another event organizer, read aloud.

Rakitan concluded with prayers for those with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.

The teleconference was organized by the NCPD’s Council on Mental Illness, of which Rakitan is a founding member. The NCPD was created in 1982, four years after the U.S. bishops released a statement affirming the dignity of people with disabilities. The Council on Mental Illness was created in 2006.

The council offers trainings, webinars, and seminars aimed at accompanying those with mental illnesses. It also hopes to change public understanding of mental illnesses, and guide the development of related public and Church policy.

“We hope that the public comes to a more compassionate, and less stigmatized, acceptance of all who are affected by mental illness – the individual, the family, friends, service providers, caregivers,” Rakitan said.

She also expressed hope “that policy makers in the Church and in the public sector are sensitive to their responsibility for justice and inclusion.”

Rakitan explained to CNA that there are four elements of treatment for mental illnesses: biological, social, psychological, and spiritual.

“Spirituality, as it is expressed in an open and inclusive church, is a place where people can explore and celebrate their inner resources, and find their relationship with God and God’s people,” she said.

The spiritual component contributes to a full and happy life, she said, but added that spirituality is also a source of a refuge for many of the people who struggling.

“For many, their spirituality is something that ‘gets them through the night’ and their faith is what provides meaning and hope.”


How should a Catholic respond to mass shootings?

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 19:05

Washington D.C., Oct 5, 2017 / 05:05 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- When Monsignor Robert Weiss gathered with parents in Connecticut, after 11 children were killed in a nearby shooting, the room went silent and one person called for prayer.

“And so everyone just fell on their knees or joined hands with each other, or formed a circle,” Monsignor Weiss said. “I think they realized at that point anything else was beyond their control.”

Monsignor Weiss is the pastor of St. Rose of Lima parish in Newtown, Conn. The site of the shooting was Sandy Hook Elementary School, where in December of 2012, 26 people were killed.

Since then, other mass shootings have scarred the American psyche, occurring in places like San Bernardino, Calif., Orlando, Fla., and now Las Vegas, Nev., where on October 1, 58 people were killed. It has been called the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

On Wednesday, almost five years after the Sandy Hook shooting, Monsignor Weiss spoke with CNA about the importance of prayer after such a tragedy. Prayer is a necessary resort for all those affected by such tragedies, he said, when they can’t comprehend the evil and when human consolation can only do so much.

Prayer as a response to tragedies has been denigrated by some as meaningless or secondary, when compared to advocating for policy aimed at preventing gun violence or improving access to mental health care.

The day after a shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. killed 14 on Dec. 2, 2015, the cover of the New York Daily News said “God isn’t fixing this,” in response to politicians and public figures offering their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of the tragedy, but allegedly taking insufficient action to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future.

Yet, without discounting the role of human action in response to these tragedies, humans can only do so much, Monsignor Weiss told CNA.

“To whom do you go? Do you rely on yourself? Because there’s no way you can individually handle these kinds of experiences. Times like this is when you’re called to be a community,” he said. He recalled professionals telling him in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting that “we can only do so much for these people” to help them heal from the tragedy.

“There is only one place to turn, and it’s to turn to the Lord and find some sort of understanding of this,” he said.

On Sunday evening, 64 year-old Stephen Paddock shot and killed at least 58 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas, Nev. and wounded almost 500. He shot with high-powered rifles outfitted with “bump stocks” from his 32nd-floor suite at the Mandalay Bay Resort, across the street from the Route 91 Harvest Festival outdoor venue.

Paddock was retired and divorced, and had a girlfriend. He owned rental properties and was a frequent gambler at local casinos.

After he shot down at the concert venue, a SWAT team broke into Paddock’s room and found him dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Medical and mental health professionals went into action helping victims with physical and psychological wounds.

Dr. Stephen Sharp is a Las Vegas local and a faculty member of Divine Mercy University, a Catholic graduate school of psychology and counseling. Sharp commended the Las Vegas community for its proactive response to the tragedy.

The first responders in Las Vegas had trained for such a tragedy “for a long time,” he said, as authorities had predicted that the city could be a target for such an event. First responders and hospitals were prepared for the rapid influx of trauma patients, he said.

And, he noted, mental health and trauma professionals were able to provide a quick response.

In light of previous shootings, where the perpetrator was later judged to have serious mental health issues, the question of Stephen Paddock’s mental health has been asked in the wake of Sunday’s shooting.

There are reports, like ABC News’ citation of a person briefed on the investigation, that Paddock’s mental faculties had possibly deteriorated in the months leading up to the shooting, with his “increasingly slovenly” appearance and loss of weight, as well as an obsession with his girlfriend’s ex-husband.

Yet no official determination has been made about Paddock’s mental health, and Sharp cautioned against speculation

“To establish a mental health or mental illness issue or a diagnosis requires quite a bit of psychological input and assessment and testing,” he said. “It’s too early to jump to that conclusion, and by making that leap, I truly believe that we would be damaging the mental health community more than we would be helping.”

Rather, Sharp said, focus should be drawn to the provision of long-term mental health care to victims of the shooting and their families. “The effects of this kind of trauma go on for months, if not years, so people need to be in place to help folks for a long time,” he said.

Monsignor Weiss sees a need for professional care in the Newtown community years after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting.

“We had issues in our schools starting Monday, with the whole thing coming back again,” he said of the Las Vegas shooting. High school students were crying after “they suppressed so much of the fear they experienced [in 2012],” he said. “It’s deadly to suppress the emotion, the grief.”

“You’ve got to get help, you’ve got to find someone you can trust, and you’ve got to talk about this. You just can’t suppress it and say it’s going to go away, because it’s not going away,” he said.

A mass shooting also has a ripple effect, Sharp said, because in addition to the 58 dead in Las Vegas and the hundreds injured, there were thousands of concert-goers who witnessed the atrocity and experienced the trauma of being in the line of fire.

And the many family and friends of the dead and injured are themselves affected by the tragedy, he said: “It’s like a pebble in the pond that creates a tsunami on the other side of the pond, because this will go on for a long time.”

“These lives will never be the same,” he reflected. “The 22,000 people who were at the concert will never be the same. It’s changed their life forever, on some level, that we can’t even predict or know how that’s going to turn out for them.”

Americans should explore the cultural or societal factors behind the number of mass shootings, he said.

“I think it’s more of a societal concern than it is of an individual’s mental health concern,” he stated. “My question is why are we seeing wave after wave of these kinds of events?”

Another issue usually debated in the wake of a mass shooting is access to guns, and gun laws.

Paddock reportedly had 23 guns with him in his hotel suite, and CNN reported he had 50 pounds of explosives and 1,600 rounds of ammunition in his car parked in the hotel lot. He passed gun background checks and did not possess a criminal record.

The U.S. bishops have stated their support for certain gun laws, like in April of 2013, four months after the Sandy Hook shooting, when then-chair of the domestic justice and human development committee Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton wrote members of Congress.

Among the policies Bishop Blaire cited for support were “universal background checks for all gun purchases,” restrictions on civilian purchases of “high-capacity ammunition magazines,” and an “assault weapons” ban. He cited Pope Francis’ call “to ‘change hatred into love, vengeance into forgiveness, war into peace’.”

In their 2000 statement “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration,” on crime and criminal justice, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supported certain gun laws in the name of safety.

“As bishops, we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner), and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns,” the bishops stated.

The bishops have been “clear that gun control policies are part and parcel of the common good,” Professor David Cloutier, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., told CNA.

In fact, the U.S. bishops have called for gun control measures since at least 1975, when they called for “a coherent national firearms policy responsive to the overall public interest and respectful of the rights and privileges of all Americans.”
Yet how should calls for gun control be interpreted in light of the Church’s recognition of a legitimate right to self-defense? Paragraph 2264 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that "it is legitimate to insist on respect for one's own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow."

Just war theory presumes against violence, Cloutier said, but does not prohibit it absolutely, and using guns as a means of self-defense is seen in the same light.

“In terms of using weapons to defend yourself, there’s a presumption of civility,” he said, “that is, there’s a presumption that in a society, you have civil relationships with other people that won’t require violence.”

And this fundamental approach Catholics must have toward society is one of “civil friendship,” he said, which is taught in the Compendium on Social Doctrine of the Church.

Furthermore, he said, access to certain high-capacity or semi-automatic weapons, like those “that were used in Las Vegas,” he said, could be questioned outright.

“It’s hard for me to see what prudential judgement is possible in favor of the broad ownership of such weapons,” Cloutier said. The Compendium of Social Doctrine also states that the proliferation of these types of weapons around the world “exacerbates conflicts” and “encourages terrorism,” he said.

Ultimately, Cloutier said, “a presumption doesn’t indicate that there should be a ban on guns, it doesn’t indicate that there isn’t some sort of right to own certain kinds of guns.”

“It simply suggests that there is a certain vision of society that challenges certain presumptions about why we should own guns.”

ISIS genocide survivor begs US to help Yazidis – before it's too late

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 12:45

Washington D.C., Oct 5, 2017 / 10:45 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A Yazidi survivor of the ISIS genocide urged members of Congress on Tuesday to help recover young girls and boys who were enslaved and sold by ISIS.  

Shireen Jerdo Ibrahim, a Yazidi girl from northern Iraq who was captured and enslaved by ISIS forces in 2014 before escaping from captivity in Mosul, told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Tuesday that there remain “thousands of Yazidi women and boys in captivity.”

“Help us free those in captivity, our family members,” she pleaded with members of Congress present at the hearing.

Ibrahim testified on Tuesday before the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations at a hearing on “Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability.”

Yazidis are a small ethnic-religious minority of Iraq who mostly lived in the Nineveh province in the north of the country, near Sinjar. They are of Kurdish descent, and their religion combines elements of Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. They are considered by ISIS to be “devil worshippers.”

In 2014, ISIS swept through northern Iraq, killing or enslaving many Yazidis, and surrounding a large Yazidi contingent taking refuge on Mount Sinjar. The Yazidi began to die from starvation or dehydration, until a U.S.-led humanitarian airdrops provided them with needed supplies, and airstrikes in the surrounding area drove away ISIS forces.

The goal of ISIS was to “eradicate Yazidis and Christians from Iraq,” Ibrahim said. “They displaced all of us,” she said, and minorities in the region “will not be able to live there in the same environment.”

“What ISIS did to us is out there. It’s known to everyone,” she said. “They enslaved thousands, they killed thousands of Yazidis,” she said. “We see mass graves almost every week,” she continued, reporting that there are almost 40 mass graves in the area.

Ibrahim shared with members of Congress her own experience of the ISIS attack. On Aug. 3, 2014, her uncle called her from a village in the area and told her that the Kurdish Peshmerga forces protecting the region had retreated, and ISIS had attacked.

She fled with others to Mount Sinjar, but their truck broke down. Trying to make their way to safety on foot, the group was captured by ISIS forces at the base of the mountain. They were taken back to their village and unloaded from the trucks. ISIS separated families and men from women.

Ibrahim was forcibly separated from her younger sister, taken to a prison in Badoosh, moved to the Tal-Afar district when coalition airstrikes targeted the area, and then sold to someone in Raqqa, Syria. There she was tortured, brought to Mosul, and sold five times in captivity.

In Mosul, there were “hundreds and thousands of Yazidi girls there being sold as sex slaves,” she said. Her nine months in ISIS captivity, “was like hell,” she said in a written statement. ISIS performed abdominal surgery on her without explaining why, and “committed all kinds of atrocious crimes against us including mass killing, sexual enslavement, and forced conversion.”

Nineteen members of her family are missing. She has no knowledge of their whereabouts, she said. “Almost all of Iraq has been liberated” but Yazidis are still missing. She has heard reports of Yazidi boys in Saudi Arabia, she said, where they have been sold and brainwashed.  

She asked the U.S. to help Yazidis locate and rescue their loved ones in captivity, to help those who have been recovered from ISIS captivity, and to assist Yazidis in rebuilding their homeland.

And young people recovered from ISIS captivity need support and psycho-social care, she added, since they have been traumatized.

In March of 2016, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that “in my judgment, Daesh [ISIS] is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims.”

“Our hope was that this would be followed by action,” Ibrahim said, like helping rebuild the area, providing security for religious and ethnic minorities against reprisals or extremists attacking them, and bringing the ISIS perpetrators to justice.

“Our hope is that Yazidis will be assured that they will be able to go back to their homes,” she said, or that they will be able to “emigrate somewhere else.” Although ISIS militants have largely been cleared out of Iraq, their ideology remains, she said.

“Under the same ideology, a different group may attack us, she said.

Former congressman Frank Wolf, a distinguished senior fellow of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, also testified that while he visited communities in the region, locals expressed concern about various military and militia groups taking a commanding role in the towns.

The Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, were one militia group in particular “largely backed by Iran” and “filling the vacuum left post-liberation,” Wolf said. In the Sinjar region, the control by the militia units has scared off many Yazidis from returning to their homes, he said.

Unless countries like the U.S. take further action to help the displaced minorities in northern Iraq by the end of the year, they could depart for good, Wolf said.

“I am sad to say that if bold action is not taken by the end of the year, I believe a tipping point will be reached and we will see the end of Christianity in Iraq in a few short years and a loss of religious and ethnic diversity throughout the region,” he said.

This “could result in further destabilization, violent extremism and terrorism across the Middle East,” he said. “In other words, ISIS will have been victorious in their genocidal rampage unless concrete action is taken.”

Lauren Ashburn, anchor and managing editor of EWTN News Nightly, told the subcommittee of her reporting trip to the region in April. “Christians in Iraq are on the brink of extinction,” she said.

The village of Batnaya, which she visited, had been nearly destroyed entirely by ISIS, she said. ISIS fighters decapitated a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the church, defaced pictures of Christ, and “bullet holes mark the place where a cross once hung,” Ashburn said. “Every Christian symbol I could see had been defaced or obliterated. I could not hold back my tears.”


California priest who embezzled donations gets prison time, $1.9 million fine

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 08:04

San Jose, Calif., Oct 5, 2017 / 06:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A priest in California has been sentenced to three years in prison for bank fraud and ordered to pay restitution after he put over $1.4 million in church donations into his bank accounts.

Father Hien Minh Nguyen, 57, was ordered to pay $1,880,000 to the Diocese of San Jose and the IRS, the U.S. Attorney’s Office says.

In March Nguyen was found guilty in federal court on 14 counts of bank fraud.

Prosecutors said he deposited 14 checks from parishioners into his personal account while he was pastor. The donations, made between 2005 and 2007, had been intended for the Vietnamese Catholic Center in San Jose, CBS San Francisco reported in March.

Nguyen had served as the center’s director from 2001-2011. He has also served as a pastor of St. Patrick’s Church, now called Our Lady of La Vang.

The priest previously pleaded guilty to tax evasion for the years 2008-2011.

Nguyen has been a priest of the Diocese of San Jose since 1995. The priest has been on a personal leave of absence since December 2013. He was born in Vietnam and fled to the U.S. as a boy during the Vietnam War.

Men are craving authentic friendships – and it's ok to admit it

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 05:08

Denver, Colo., Oct 5, 2017 / 03:08 am (CNA/EWTN News).- When Timothy Piazza pledged a fraternity at Pennsylvania State University in February 2017, he had hoped to find a brotherhood.  

To join the fraternity, he endured severe hazing rituals, one of which ended with Piazza collapsing down a set of basement stairs, where he was left alone without medical attention. Ultimately, the injury led to his death. 

His girlfriend of three years, Kaitlyn Tempalsky, told reporters that Piazza joined the fraternity looking for friendships. She told the New York Times that “he wasn’t in it for the partying … He really wanted that brotherhood.”

Male friendships are becoming a rarity in American culture, Catholic leaders say, which could lead some men, like Piazza, to look for friends in dangerous situations.  

Historically, occasions for brotherhood were systemically built into many cultures, Catholic psychologist Dr. Jim Langley told CNA.  

Listing the examples of chopping down trees or heading into battle together, Dr. Langley said, “It’s our base coding, in our human nature as men” to complete projects or engage in activities together – though in contemporary culture, men are becoming more isolated.

“Men who are isolated are prone to all sorts of mental health problems – anxiety and depression. Specifically among men that we see in our work, men who are isolated are much more prone to addiction to pornography.”

Langley explained that the source of pornography addiction may stem from a desire for intimacy, even for male friends.

“Men in general struggle with [intimacy], it’s a pretty common thing. But it’s not just romantic intimacy, and it’s not just intimacy related to woman, we also have a longing for brotherhood.”

Because humans are physical, intellectual, and relational beings, he said, our sense of identity is not discovered by being alone, it is rather found in the context of other people.

“Specifically, figuring out how we can contribute in relationship and how relationships contribute to us.”

Matthew Schaefer, director of student development at Franciscan University of Steubenville, agreed.   

“I am the best man I can be when I have strong male friendships. We hear in Scripture that ‘iron sharpens iron,’ and so it is with men,” Schaefer said.

“When men engage in true friendships – and by this I mean more than spending time together playing sports or video games – they can encourage one another toward holiness.”

Schaefer pointed to the household system at Franciscan University, through which more than half of the university’s students participate in small, single-sex faith communities.  

“These same-sex communities help members grow in mind, body, and spirit and hold each other accountable to ongoing conversion.”

“In men’s households, they are encouraged to be on more of a schedule by committing to weekly gatherings, generally focused on prayer. They are present to console in times of need and celebrate in times of joy. They are brothers for the Christian walk.”

This type of accompaniment is not easily accomplished, said Daniel Porting, a FOCUS missionary at Southern Methodist University, who reflected on his own college experience in the Phi Gama Delta fraternity.

Porting told CNA that most fraternities have mentoring programs, but that those programs are not always taken seriously.

“So that’s a very good structure, I’m not saying they do it well, but there is a structure in every fraternity where they want to inspire that good authentic and organic friendship, where it starts on a one-on-one level, where one person can accompany another,” he said.

But secular culture is struggling to foster this type of friendship, Dr. Langley said, “because an authentic friendship with men, in some ways, needs to be reinvented.”

“As men, we connect through doing things side-by-side, but if you look at the routes that men have to connect with each other, it’s very superficial.”

Dr. Langley said that some social norms and stereotypes make it difficult for men to pursue deep friendships with one another.

“Until recently in our culture, being affectionate with another man was really frowned upon and looked at as being effeminate, or a person would worry about [appearing] homosexual.”

Research conducted by Dr. Niobe Way, a psychology professor at New York University, published in 2013 by the American Sociological Association, showed that male friendships, which include emotional vulnerability, are typical during boyhood. But as boys get older, and deep male friendships become associated with homosexuality, she said men lose this avenue of emotional vulnerability.

“It is only in late adolescence – a time when, according to national data, suicides and violence among boys soar – that boys disconnect from other boys,” said Way in a 2013 article in Contexts magazine.

“The boys in my studies begin, in late adolescence, to use the phrase ‘no homo’ when discussing their male friendships, expressing the fear that if they seek out close friendships, they will be perceived as ‘gay’ or ‘girly.’”

Mark Harfiel, vice president of Paradisus Dei, a family-based Catholic ministry, said that when culture doesn’t support true masculinity, men lose sense of what it means to be authentically human.

“When you turn from Christ and begin to make all truth relative with no absolutes, you begin to lose a sense of what it even means to be human. All relationships have become sexualized and masculinity itself has even come into question.”

Secular culture often promotes a damaged view of masculinity, Daniel Porting said. He suggested that there are three main characteristics of heightened masculinity in the culture: an emphasis on power, pleasure and wealth.

“And I think that those all lead to unfulfillment and a lack of joy.”

Porting noted that many college-aged men with whom he works have suffered from a lack of authentic masculine role models, which creates wounds in men and impedes the desire to be loved.

The FOCUS missionary said these wounds are difficult for men to address, and added that when he meets men on campus he will steer away from questions like, “how is your life growing up?” or “how is your family?”

These questions “trigger something that is very wounding because someone didn’t step up and be a good role model,” he said.

Every parish needs to have an opportunity for men to find fraternal bonds and spiritually rich accountability, Harfiel added. That Man is You, a program affiliated with Paridisus Dei, is one possibility, he said, noting the group has created an estimated 1,000 male fraternal groups and reached over 100,000 men in the past 12 years.

However, this avenue might not be available for everyone, and Langley acknowledged that some men struggle with an even bigger problem – namely, fear.

“If there are not opportunities, one could create opportunities, connections with other people, but we’re afraid to be the first person to do that. We’re afraid to meet new people. We are afraid to be real with other people. So the virtue which would overcome all these virtues really is truly courage.”

Especially if there is no men’s ministry at the parish, Dr. Langely said, most likely other men in the parish are feeling the same way. He added that most people will be flattered by an invitation, “because it feels good to be noticed.”

This invitation, he said, doesn’t need to be big. It could simply be asking a gentleman (and maybe his wife) out for a bite to eat, or starting a small parish group of guys who go out periodically for beers.

“If you do sense a call to start something, then don't be afraid to keep it simple. A friend of mine at my parish started a men's group called ‘faith fermentation,’ which is just a fancy title for a bunch of guys going to get some beers together.”

“So don't worry about starting anything big. Just start something that ‘scratches your own itch,’ and most likely it will scratch the itch for connection that other men have too.”

Prioritizing male friendships with priests, peers, old and young adults, Langley said, takes courage. He noted Christ’s own example of surrounding himself with friends.

“We are blessed with this wonderful example of Jesus Christ, and he told his apostles that he was their friend – they weren’t just his pupils, they weren’t just the flock he was ministering to.”


Pro-life leaders: Life has value. Always.

Wed, 10/04/2017 - 17:42

Washington D.C., Oct 4, 2017 / 03:42 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The lives of all human people, especially those who are suffering, have value, speakers at a recent pro-life program at Georgetown University emphasized. Their lives deserve care and accompaniment, even in the most trying of times, the experts said.

“When we speak of respect for human life, it is easy for us to get caught up in abstractions, and our response can be – or appear to be – somewhat theoretical. But our obligations are quite concrete,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, in a speech at Georgetown University.

“Life depends on us,” he urged.

Wuerl spoke at an Oct. 2 event entitled “Lives Worthy of Respect,” beginning the school’s Respect Life Month programing.

After the cardinal’s address was panel of speakers, including George Mason University law Professor Helen Alvare, National Right to Life vice president Tony Lauinger, homelessness advocate Sister Mary Louise Wessell, and Congressman and doctor Dr. Brad Wenstrup (Ohio-2). The panel was moderated by Dr. Kevin Donovan, a a professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University, and director of the university’s Center for Bioethics.

Wuerl stressed the importance of life – and the challenges facing culture where “people have the power to choose which lives are worth living and which ones are not.” The cardinal pointed to the prevalence of suicide among young people, the rise of physician-assisted suicide, and the discarding of the disabled, the unborn, the elderly, and other vulnerable populations as examples of a culture which views some lives as not worthy of living.  

The Christian view of life, he countered, honors life not as something we own or create, but are stewards of: “Life, as all creation, in its rich diversity is God’s gift.” To counter the views of life which see people as disposable and burdens, Wuerl suggested following the example of Pope Francis and accompanying those who are suffering.

The speakers’ panel echoed the cardinal’s critique of a culture of discarding others and the need to care intimately for the vulnerable. Alvare shared how her experiences caring for her severely disabled sister and elderly grandparents gave her a new appreciation for the Church’s “radical” message of the equality of all human persons. As she became more involved in the pro-life movement, she saw the web of situations and decisions in a culture “that immiserates women.”

“The poor are suffering the most,” she said of this culture, and critiqued the lack of solutions provided to women that don’t include abortion.

Westrup pointed to a deeply moving experience of caring for an AIDS patient in 1985 while he was a resident in Chicago. He explained that many of his fellow doctors were scared of the man, and the attending physician made care for the dying man voluntary. Westrup wanted to see him, however, and learned much from his examination.

“I learned even more from what he said to me afterwards,” Westrup recalled. The man told the young doctor that “you just examined me more than anyone,” and was grateful for his care. The patient died the next day.

“I thought what does that feel like to be so discarded, cast aside. To be made to feel that your life is meaningless,” Westrup mused. However, the man’s life, though it was painful at the end, was not meaningless, and Western still remembers his patient’s name and takes his message of care for each vulnerable person to heart.

“He delivered that message on his last day of life,” the congressman stated. “It matters to the very last moment.”

Lauinger emphasized the high cost of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, and the millions of persons whose lives have been taken over the past 45 years. “It was less than 25 years after the Nuremburg trials that our own supreme court condemned to death the unborn children of America,” Lauinger lamented.

“This is not a victimless act,” he urged. “Therefore it is not a matter of private morality but public morality: protecting the most innocent, the most vulnerable members of our human family.”


Both on and off camera, 'Papal Ninja' is proud to be Catholic

Wed, 10/04/2017 - 17:37

Oakland, Calif., Oct 4, 2017 / 03:37 pm (CNA).- Whether he’s navigating a harrowing obstacle course in front of the camera or doing behind-the-scenes content editing for an evangelization website, Sean Bryan wants people to know that he is proud to be Catholic.

Also known as the “Papal Ninja,” Bryan competed for a second time this season on NBC’s obstacle course competition show, American Ninja Warrior.

“I hope (the audience) can see that the faith is not something extra-ordinary, but rather, something that is meant to be extraordinarily ordinary,” Bryan told CNA.

When he’s not training for daredevil feats of strength and agility, Bryan is working for Lay Mission Project, a website dedicated to equipping lay people with the tools to live their faith within the secular culture.

Through coursework and small groups, the project’s mission is “to form laypeople to delve deeply into the mysteries of the faith, to come to know Jesus at an intimate level, and to be lit on fire to act in his place in the secular realm.”

Bryan first garnered national attention in the eighth season of American Ninja Warrior, when he wore a bright yellow shirt with the words “Papal Ninja” written across the front. This year, he sported a papal flag emblem, and was one of three finalists, becoming the first contestant to defeat an obstacle known as “Wingnut Alley.”

No champion took home the $1 million prize this year, but Bryan said that he is grateful for his own personal improvement from last season, and for the ability to glorify God through his talents.  

“These abilities truly are God-given, for his glory, and are part of his plan for me in some way – no matter what the performance-specific result may be.”

Bryan also thanked God that he was able to be a witness to his Catholic faith on the show and that the producers were willing to portray it.

Part of the Papal Ninja’s goal in competing on the show is to portray the Church in a positive light, and to offer courage to young people as they encounter secular society.

“The negative publicity the Church has received in the past two decades has been overwhelming, as we all have experienced,” he said.

“I knew from the beginning of my Ninja Warrior endeavors that this would – in some way – not only shine a good light on the Church, but also help the youth open their hearts to our Lord in spite of the threat of potential persecution.”

While Bryan hopes to use his role on American Ninja Warrior as an evangelization opportunity, he is also involved in another apostolate – the Lay Mission Project.

Bryan serves as Animating Director for the group, a position that includes website development, networking, program facilitation and other tasks.

The goal, he said, is to form Catholics at the local parish level to better know and share their faith.

“Participants are brought to a profound awareness of their role as apostles to the world and are given the tools they need to respond to their calling and live out their vocations,” Bryan said.

Most of the course material is provided online, and participants are guided in spiritual exercises which coincide with each lesson.

“In addition to the coursework, participants also meet regularly in small discipleship groups, where they discuss what they’ve learned, share how have integrated the material, and talk through the struggles they’ve encountered along the way,” said Bryan, noting the project is currently being tested in the Diocese of Sacramento.

Although the project is still in initial development, Bryan said he is encouraged by how the program has already equipped parishioners with tools to be a witness of Christ at home, work, and in their communities.

Bryan is eager to expand the project, but he emphasized the importance of in-person collaboration to form disciples within a parish at a local level.

“We find it important to stick with the diocesan cohort approach, so that the formation lives in the diocese, revitalizes the local Church, and helps develop a network of disciples in a given geographic area, so that the Church is present and operative in ways in which it can be only through the laity.”


Sales of controversial birth control coil halted everywhere...except the US

Wed, 10/04/2017 - 17:09

Washington D.C., Oct 4, 2017 / 03:09 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- German pharmaceutical company Bayer announced recently that it has suspended from all non-US sales the Essure coil, a controversial form of birth control which has received the strictest possible FDA warning for its side effects, which include chronic pain, bleeding, and severe allergic reactions.

“The device [Essure] was sold to me as a simple and easy procedure. I was told that I’d be in and out of the doctor’s office in 10 minutes and that there’d be no recovery time,” said Laura Linkson, a user of Essure who shared her testimony on the UK show Victoria Derbyshire, according to the BBC.

“I went from being a mum who was doing everything with her children, to a mum that was stuck in bed unable to move without pain, at some points being suicidal,” Linkson continued, saying, “I felt like I was a burden to everyone around me.”

Essure is a nickel and polyester coil which is inserted into the fallopian tubes, causing scar tissue growth, as a way of preventing eggs from reaching the womb. This form of birth control, known as hysteroscopy sterilization, has been around since 2002 and is currently manufactured and distributed by Bayer.

Last week, Bayer announced its voluntary decision to halt all sales outside of the U.S., citing “commercial reasons.”

“We would like to reassure the Essure patients and their accompanying healthcare professionals that this decision is made for commercial reasons and that it is not related to a safety or product quality issue,” read a statement from Bayer’s website. “According to our scientific assessment, the positive risk-benefit ratio of Essure remains unchanged.”

Essure sales in the EU were temporarily halted last month, following product license suspension in Ireland due to overall concerns for the product. Bayer also encouraged hospitals in the UK to suspend the use of their existing stocks for the time being.

However, Essure is still being sold in the U.S., its most popular market, although Bayer announced it is no longer marketing outside of the country.

Despite its popularity, more than 15,000 women in the U.S. alone have reported serious health issues resulting from the birth control coil, according to BBC.

In fact, over the past few years a group has surfaced called Essure Problems – an organization of women who are lobbying against Essure in court due to negative experiences with the product. The group now has more than 35,000 members.

Some reported side effects included chronic pain, flu-like symptoms, bleeding, depression, exhaustion, suicidal thoughts, and allergic reactions. In some cases, the coil had moved into other parts of the body, protruding into nearby organs and the pelvis.

These side-effects are a far cry from the device’s label warnings, which include “mild to moderate pain and/or cramping, vaginal bleeding and pelvic or back discomfort for a few days.”

“Whatever they’ve put on the label, multiply it by 200,” said Angela Desa-Lynch, an administrator for the Essure Problems Group, in a previous interview with CNA.

“They don’t tell you that it’s ‘I can’t get out of bed and take care of my kids’ kind of pain,” she continued.

Surgery or a hysterectomy is the only way to remove the Essure coil, which has resulted in additional complications with the birth control device.

The coils can easily break during surgery, causing further health issues such as additional surgeries, inflamed abdomens, and cysts. In addition, most health insurance companies will not cover the cost of the coil’s removal, resulting in a hefty medical bill.

“One woman had a coil in her colon, she went from a business owner to bankruptcy” after four surgeries, Desa-Lynch stated.

The FDA placed its most severe warning on the birth control coil in November 2016. Known as the “black box” label, it is “designed to call attention to serious or life-threatening risks,” according to the FDA’s website.

An FDA spokesman said that the agency “has taken several steps to ensure the ongoing evaluation of Essure's safety and efficacy, as well as to educate healthcare professionals and women about the potential risks of using the device.”

US bishops' anti-racism chairman announces committee membership

Wed, 10/04/2017 - 16:52

Washington D.C., Oct 4, 2017 / 02:52 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- In an interview with CNA on Monday, Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, who chairs the US bishops' newly-formed anti-racism committee, revealed the names of the seven other bishops who are committee members.

The bishop members of the committee, Murry told CNA Oct. 2, are Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, and Bishop Martin Holley of Memphis.

Bishop consultants to the committee include Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago; Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, D.C.; Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore; Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice; and Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin.

Lay consultants to the committee will be announced later this week, Murry said.

Murry reflected that “the problems of racism are deep and widespread, and will take time to heal … Young people are understandably frustrated. We don’t do them a service by not talking about this, by hoping it’ll go away.”

“We need to turn to them and say instead of throwing rocks, instead of destroying buildings, and instead of setting cars on fire, let’s sit down and talk about what concrete steps can we take to overcome this problem.”

The ad hoc committee was announced in August after white supremacists and neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville, Va., and a 20 year-old man drove a car into the counter-protest killing one and injuring 19.

The committee will explore ways the Church can address the root causes of contemporary manifestations of racism, the conference said. The bishops will also hold public conversations about racism and race-related problems.

Will the real St. Francis please stand up?

Wed, 10/04/2017 - 12:16

Washington D.C., Oct 4, 2017 / 10:16 am (CNA/EWTN News).- St. Francis of Assisi is widely known for his life of poverty and love of creation. But there’s a lesser-known side to the friar as well – a side that showed a deep reverence for the Eucharist and attentive care to the sacred vessels at Mass.     

Francis’ love of creation really points to “the Christo-centrism of his spirituality,” said Brother William Short, a professor of spirituality at the Franciscan School of Theology in California.

“We can trivialize it and make Francis kind of a tree-hugger,” he told CNA, but “his Canticle of the creatures is a really profound way of understanding not just the presence of God, but the presence of Christ within all of creation.”

On Oct. 4, the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, a deacon from Assisi, Italy who renounced his wealth to follow Christ and founded the Order of Friars Minor, later called the Franciscans; the Order of Poor Ladies, now the Poor Clares; and the Third Order of Penance, now the Third Order Franciscans. Born in the 1180s, he died in 1226 and was canonized in 1228.

St. Francis is often cited as an example of poverty – he and his friars worked and begged for just enough food and resources to survive. The saint is also known for his love of creation, and statutes of the friar adorn many gardens. He is the patron of animals, ecology, and the environment and wrote the Canticle of the Sun where he praises God and His creation.

But the saint loved God first and creation in its proper order, stressed Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P., a biographer of St. Francis.

“He loved nature and animals, and they caused him not only to pray and praise God but to become ecstatic. Nature was a reason for him to praise God, and he loved nature. But there was no confusion between nature and God for Francis,” he said.

Fr. Augustine wrote the book, “Francis of Assisi: A New Biography,” published in 2012. “One of the principal conclusions of my book is that Francis had no political projects, whether for the Church or for the society,” he told CNA.

“In fact, the idea that he would put himself in a position of knowing better than other people is completely contrary to his desire to be a servant of all and be below everyone else,” he said.

Brother William noted that there are false assumptions that Francis was eccentric and was purely a poet and mystic who was “vague on the details” and “not very well organized.” On the contrary, he said, Francis actually showed “very clear ideas and was very good at expressing them” and had “organizational and administrative skill” in founding three orders.

And while he preached peace and some may have seen him as “gentle” and perhaps “weak,” there was a “very demanding side of him,” Br. William added, as Francis demanded much not only of himself but also of his fellow friars in following Christ.

He has also been perceived as “simple” and “not very well educated,” but Francis was actually better educated than most of his contemporaries, Br. William added. He was literate in two languages and composed poetry in the Umbrian dialect of Italian.

“He misleads people by referring to himself as simple, but he was more educated than we might think.”

Another lesser-known side of Francis is the deeply religious and pious man who put a strict emphasis on care for the sacred vessels at Mass, reverence for the Eucharist, and obedience to the Church.

“The one case where he’s harsh in his deathbed confession is he says if there are any friars who are not Catholic or do not follow the books of the Roman Church for their services, they are to be arrested, put in chains, and held to be handed over to the corrector of the order, the Cardinal of Ostia,” Fr. Augustine said.

Of Francis’ nine letters, he added, “seven of them are basically dedicated to chastising priests for using unpolished chalices, dirty altar linen, and not keeping the sacrament in a suitable place.”

This was actually a common practice of the time, Br. William noted, so much so that the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 spoke out about the need for better cleanliness in churches and for the Blessed Sacrament to be reserved in a suitable place.

Francis “made it a personal crusade of his not only to encourage others, particularly the clergy, to take care of churches a little bit better, but he personally would go with a broom and actually sweep out a church as a volunteer simply out of respect for the Eucharist and for the Lord,” he noted.

And Francis also drew a “very strong connection between the Eucharist and the Nativity,” he added, “that for him, his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary as the one who gives to the faithful the body of her son, is mirrored in the action of the priest at the Eucharist.”

“So there’s a strong connection between the Blessed Virgin and what he calls the hands of the priest and the womb of the Blessed Virgin – as these means by which the body of the Lord is given to the faithful.”

Francis’ devotion to the Eucharist also comes out in a letter he wrote to the Brothers and Sisters of Poverty where he described the “perfect act of poverty,” as Fr. Augustine summarized it:

“And the perfect act of poverty was when God Who was ruler of the universe took on weak human flesh in the Incarnation, and then not only did God Who was the ruler of all take on weak human flesh, he allowed Himself to be subject to being rejected, maltreated, tortured and killed, and then not only that, even more perfectly as an act of poverty, God Who became Incarnate and died on the cross gave us His body as our own food.”

That teaching “sums up everything about Francis,” he said.

Claims that Francis excoriated the clergy for their decadence were false and circulated by excommunicates decades after his death, Fr. Augustine added.

“Francis never displays in any authentic documents about him or his own writings anything except absolute submission, obedience to the hierarchy,” he said.

“The stories about him humiliating prelates and so forth about not living poorly are stories that date to over 100 years after his death and come out of circles of radical Franciscans who have been excommunicated by the Pope and are against the hierarchy.”


This article was originally published on CNA Oct. 4, 2016.

Christian beauty and encounter – one author's proposal to heal a wounded culture

Wed, 10/04/2017 - 08:14

Denver, Colo., Oct 4, 2017 / 06:14 am (CNA).- The power of Christian beauty and human encounter will be the focus of a leading Communion and Liberation priest as he holds a roundtable discussion and speaking tour of North America this Oct. 9-15.

“Do we Christians still believe in the capacity of the faith we have received to attract those we encounter, and do we believe in the living fascination of its defenseless beauty?” Father Julian Carron asks in his book “Disarming Beauty.”

Carron heads Communion and Liberation, the international ecclesial movement which originated in the 1950s under the Italian priest Monsignor Luigi Giussani. The movement focuses on making faith real by living as a Christian presence in community.

His book “Disarming Beauty,” published in 2017 from Notre Dame Press, considers the Church’s relevance to modern society’s most pressing challenges. From terrorism to consumerism, so-called “rights culture” to marriage and family, the book examines the plight of our current world and invites Christians to respond, not from a place of fear, but from the joy of their original encounter with the living person of Christ.

Carron’s North American tour will begin Oct. 9 at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, followed by an Oct. 10 stop in Denver, Colo. at the Denver Press Club, then an Oct. 11 roundtable at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. There will be an Oct. 13 event at the United Nations Headquarters in New York followed by a Spanish-language lecture that evening at the Sheen Center in New York for the Albacete Lecture on Ethics and Culture.

Fr. Carron will hold a panel discussion at La Grande Bibliothèque in Montreal, Quebec on Oct. 14 and conclude his tour Oct. 15 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. in a public conversation with Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the U.S.

The tour’s stops will include dialogue with discussants like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat; Fellowship of Catholic University Students founder and president Curtis Martin; M.J. Kahn, president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston; and sociologist Dr. Amitai Ezioni.

Internet livestreaming will be available for the Oct. 9 event at Notre Dame, the Oct. 11 event in Houston, and the Oct. 13 Spanish-language lecture in New York.

“Disarming Beauty” contends that the contemporary cultural crisis of fear and confusion is deeper than the rejection of ethical precepts. Rather, people have lost sight of what it is to be human. Instead of moral exhortation as a solution, Fr. Carron advocates “an encounter with a person…who makes the human benefit of faith tangible.”

“The book speaks of the beauty of Christian faith, of its power and its attraction,” Fr. Carron told CNA in a June interview. “When God takes on flesh, He strips Himself of His own power, entering into the history and poverty of the human condition, revealing to everyone the truth of His power.”

“Beauty disarms us from our narrow way of looking at ourselves and at reality; it opens our minds and our eyes to the totality of reality, of the real,” he added. “The attractiveness of beauty moves us affectively, so much so that it allows reason to become truly opened to all the factors of reality. We discover this openness in Christ’s gaze on reality; we are surprised by the way Jesus looks at the publicans, at Zacchaeus or Matthew, or at the crowd.”

Carron is a professor of theology at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan. He was born in Spain in 1950 and holds a doctorate from the Facultad de Teología del Norte de España. He is a past director of the San Justino Institute of Classical and Eastern Philology in Madrid and of the Spanish edition of the international Catholic journal Communio, and of the journal Estudios Bíblicos.

His book’s website is

Three years later, this terminally ill man is glad he rejected assisted suicide

Wed, 10/04/2017 - 05:01

Washington D.C., Oct 4, 2017 / 03:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Three years ago, J.J. Hanson received a diagnosis that no one wants to hear. He had terminal brain cancer, and doctors said his time was short – he likely had about four months to live.

“The surgeon said my cancer was inoperable and three different doctors told me there was nothing they could do,” Hanson said.

He was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the same type of brain cancer that led Brittany Maynard to choose to take her life through assisted suicide in a high-profile case in California in 2014.

“I would have easily met the criteria for accessing assisted suicide if I lived in a state like Oregon or California, where assisted suicide is legal,” Hanson said.

“In a dark moment, I might have opted for it, but I am fortunate to have a supportive family, and was given the opportunity to pursue cutting edge, experimental treatment instead,” he said. “Here I am three years later, enjoying the arrival of our second son and living life to the fullest.”

Today, Hanson is president of the Patients Rights Action Fund, which opposes efforts to legalize assisted suicide. The group is currently backing a Congressional resolution objecting to assisted suicide on the grounds that it puts all people at risk.

“When assisted suicide becomes accepted public policy it threatens the lives of everyone, especially the poor, elderly, mentally ill, disabled, and terminally ill,” he said. “Why? Well, for starters, abuse is unavoidable and doctors are fallible. Assisted suicide policy also injects government insurers and private insurance companies with financial incentives into every single person’s end of life decisions.”

House Congressional Resolution 80, proposed by Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) on Sept. 26, has nine co-sponsors from both parties. Besides Hanson’s group, other supporting groups includes the National Council on Independent Living, the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, Not Dead Yet, ADAPT, and Physicians for Compassionate Care Education Fund.

Rep. Wenstrup and the resolution’s sponsors said doctor-assisted suicide “undermines a key safeguard that protects our nation’s most vulnerable citizens, including the elderly, people with disabilities, and people experiencing psychiatric diagnoses. Americans deserve better.”

“When governments support, encourage, or facilitate suicide – whether assisted by physicians or others – we devalue our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings,” the legislators said. “That should not be who we are.”

The proposed resolution says that assisted suicide “puts everyone, including those most vulnerable, at risk of deadly harm and undermines the integrity of the health care system.” It notes that the purported “safeguards” limit the laws to patients with a prognosis of six months or less to live, but such people “outlive their prognoses every day.”

The federal government “should ensure that every person facing the end of their life has access to the best quality and comprehensive medical care,” including palliative or hospice care, says the resolution. It says the federal government “should not adopt or endorse policies or practices that support, encourage, or facilitate suicide or assisted suicide, whether by physicians or others.”

States with legal assisted suicide have come under criticism for lacking adequate safeguards to protect those who are depressed or pressured into requesting assisted suicide. Reporting standards for assisted suicide are substandard, according to the resolution. It also objects that some states require physicians to conceal assisted suicide and to list the cause of death as the underlying condition.

It adds that the low cost of lethal medication will make it more likely to be recommended to disadvantaged and vulnerable people.


US House passes bill to ban most abortions after 20 weeks

Tue, 10/03/2017 - 18:35

Washington D.C., Oct 3, 2017 / 04:35 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The U.S. House passed on Tuesday a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of gestation in a largely party-line vote. The measure is a major pro-life legislative priority, but it is expected to fail in the Senate.

“The New England Journal of Medicine has documented that premature babies are surviving earlier and earlier, yet our nations laws fail to protect these children,” stated Maureen Ferguson, senior policy advisor with The Catholic Association.

The House passed the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act late in the afternoon of Oct. 3 by a vote of 237 to 189, largely along party lines. The chamber also passed a version of the bill in 2015; but Tuesday’s bill, as in 2015, is expected to fail in the Senate.

If it were to be signed into law, the bill would “not only save between 11,000-18,000 lives a year, but will serve to educate the public on the humanity of the unborn person and affirm the science of fetal pain early in development,” said Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life.”

It bans most abortions past 20 weeks, except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is at stake. Pro-life leaders have pointed to studies which say that unborn babies can feel pain by 20 weeks post-fertilization, and that a small number can actually survive with the proper medical care, if born at that stage of the pregnancy.

“The fact is that more than 18,000 late-term, pain capable unborn babies were torturously killed without anesthesia in America in just the last year,” Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who introduced the bill, said on the House Floor Monday evening. “It is the worst human rights atrocity in the history of the United States of America.”

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, chair of the Pro-Life Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, asked House members to support the bill in a Sept. 29 letter.

“We hold that every child, from conception onward, deserves love and the protection of the law. We believe that no person or government has the right to take the life of an innocent human being – and we hold that the real problems that lead women to consider abortion should be addressed with solutions that support both mother and child,” Cardinal Dolan wrote.

“Stories of children being born earlier in pregnancy, as early as 20 weeks post-fertilization, are becoming more common,” he wrote. “These procedures after the middle point of pregnancy also pose serious dangers to women – as evidenced by a disturbing number of news stories about the death or serious complications of women undergoing such procedures.”

Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) said in a floor statement supporting the bill that “The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act will moderate our extreme position and ensure we protect the most vulnerable – like Micah Pickering, a lively five-year-old I met last week.”

He explained that Micah was born prematurely, at the age childen would be protected by the bill: “Micah was able to survive and thrive after spending more than four months in the neonatal intensive care unit. He is now in kindergarten, and I found out when talking to him that we share a love of Legos.”

“The bottom line is this: 20 weeks is halfway through a pregnancy. It’s too late to end the life of an unborn baby,” Hultgren stated. “It violates what Americans want, it violates science, and it violates our country’s most enduring values.”

The White House has promised to sign the bill if it passes both chambers, in line with a promise that President Donald Trump made on the campaign trail to sign certain pro-life bills if they were sent to his desk.

“The bill, if enacted into law, would help to facilitate the culture of life to which our Nation aspires,” the White House stated on Tuesday. “The United States is currently out of the mainstream in the family of nations, in which only 7 out of 198 nations allow elective abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.” Among those seven countries are China and North Korea.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, stated on Tuesday that “This bill, which the President has promised to sign, would get us out of that disgraceful club and bring our laws into line with basic human decency.” She noted that 20 states have already passed versions of the bill.

If the bill fails in the Senate, Dannenfelser told CNA last week that Susan B. Anthony List will begin working to ensure that enough pro-life candidates are elected in 2018 to build a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

“We are preparing for 2018 Senate elections,” Dannenfelser said. “What we’re doing is we’re building that Senate up to a 60-vote margin.”