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Defining our values: What Catholics can take from Bush's speech

New York City, N.Y., Oct 20, 2017 / 04:01 pm (CNA).- In a rare political speech on Thursday, former president George W. Bush had blunt words for America: Remember your identity or lose your freedom.

Bush spoke Oct. 19 at the “Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In The World” event at the Lincoln Center in New York.

Almost nine years removed from the nation’s highest political office, Bush offered a reflection on the current state of the country. At the heart of his reflection was a diagnosis – and a powerful wake up call:

“We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions – forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.”

Bush’s words ring true in a country still deeply divided one year after a contentious presidential election that polarized families, friends, and neighbors. In a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, 80 percent of respondents categorized the U.S. as “mainly divided” or “totally divided.”

From birth control to gun control, from questions of undocumented immigrants to NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, America is fractured. And that division has become vitriolic, manifesting itself in insults spewed across comment boxes and hostile clashes in the media.

After exploring a litany of symptoms – from bigotry and nativism to fake news and gang violence – Bush offered his remedy for the polarization plaguing America: “we need to recall and recover our own identity. Americans have a great advantage: To renew our country, we only need to remember our values.”

But in a country so divided, what are our values?

In his address to the United States Congress in September 2015, Pope Francis laid out a set of values that he thinks define America at its best.

“A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as (Abraham) Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to ‘dream’ of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton,” the Pope said.

Catholics have an important role to play in shaping the values that define society. Deus Caritas Est, the first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, teaches, “The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society is proper to the lay faithful.”

The U.S. bishops, in their document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, note, “This duty is more critical than ever in today's political environment.” While there may be a temptation for retreat or discouragement, the bishops say, this is actually “a time for renewed engagement.”

In the early Church, Christians stood out from the rest of the Roman Empire. They took care of orphans and widows. They founded hospitals and schools. They cared for the poor. They didn’t work on Sundays. They loved their enemies.

Today, the U.S. Church is called to stand out, too. In a nation torn apart and confused about its own identity, people are exhausted from fighting and weary from talking past one another without ever being heard. People are looking for a better way.

Amid the political and social turmoil, Catholics can offer that better way. They can offer what the bishops describe as “a different kind of political engagement: one shaped by the moral convictions of well-formed consciences and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good, and the protection of the weak and the vulnerable.”

And they can do it by engaging with others civilly, by creating the “culture of encounter” that Pope Francis refers to so often.

This lesson is critical for America’s future. Will the next generation be raised in a culture of encounter, or in what Bush describes as a culture of “casual cruelty,” marked with animosity and dehumanization? The former president notes with urgency that “our young people need positive role models” because “bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children.”

George W. Bush is right. America does need to return to her values. But first she needs to figure out what they are. And Catholics can help lay the groundwork for that, by working to create a society where people can dialogue without fear, where they discuss their different views without being attacked or demonized, ultimately a society where people can encounter truth.

As we approach the one-year mark after the most contentious election in recent history, Catholics have an opportunity to show Christian charity in their interactions with others. It’s a small gesture. But it could be the first step in helping people recognize, as the former president put it, “the image of God we should see in each other.”

 

Georgetown pro-marriage group faces sanctions after students complain

Washington D.C., Oct 20, 2017 / 09:53 am (CNA).- A pro-marriage student group at Georgetown University is in danger of being defunded and barred from campus facilities, after fellow students have petitioned that it be recognized as a “hate group.”

The Hoya, Georgetown’s student newspaper, reported on Oct. 20 that Love Saxa, a student organization promoting Catholic doctrine regarding marriage, will undergo a Student Activities Commission hearing on Oct. 23, to defend itself against charges that the group fosters hatred and intolerance. The hearing is a response to a petition filed by a student-senator in the Georgetown University Student Association, and supported by leaders of gay pride student organizations at Georgetown.

Love Saxa intends to petition for a delay before the hearing takes place. The group told CNA they were only officially informed of the hearing’s date on the evening of Oct. 19, giving them an insufficient amount of time to prepare. The group also says they haven’t been given a copy of the petition, or an exact rendering of the charges against them.

Lova Saxa’s student-president Amelia Irvine told CNA, “I believe that Love Saxa has the right to exist, especially at a Catholic school. We exist to promote healthy, loving relationships at Georgetown.”

In a Sept. 6 column in The Hoya, Irvine wrote that “we believe that marriage is a conjugal union on every level – emotional, spiritual, physical and mental – directed toward caring for biological children. To us, marriage is much more than commitment of love between two consenting adults.”

Leaders of gay pride student organizations at Georgetown denounced this language as “homophobic,” and claimed it violated university standards.  

The university’s Student Organization Standards state that: “Groups will not be eligible for access to benefits if their purpose or activities … foster hatred or intolerance of others because of their race, nationality, gender, religion, or sexual preferences.” Love Saxa is accused of fostering hatred and intolerance, because of its support for Catholic teaching regarding marriage.

Love Saxa receives $250 of funding from the university, and is permitted to use university facilities for its activities, according to The Hoya. Results of the hearing could lead to loss of funding and facility access, among other sanctions, the newspaper reported.

Irvine told CNA that Love Saxa is hopeful about the results of the hearing. “We're optimistic that the university will uphold our right to exist, given that we share the Catholic view on marriage,” she added.

In an Oct. 20 editorial, The Hoya’s editorial board advocated for Love Saxa’s defunding. The editorial board wrote that Love Saxa fosters intolerance by “actively advocating a limited definition of marriage that would concretely take rights away from the LGBTQ community.”

Georgetown is a Catholic university in Washington, D.C., founded by the Society of Jesus in 1789.

 

Commentary: Redefining gender while California burns

Sacramento, Calif., Oct 20, 2017 / 03:01 am (CNA).- California is still burning.

At this point, 42 people are dead. Some 217,000 acres are devastated. Thousands of homes are destroyed. Entire towns are now charred wreckage. As the fires burned their hottest, trees glowed a seething orange behind their bark, before exploding. Families took shelter wherever they could find it; one couple spent a long, cold night submerged to their necks in a neighbor’s pool, seeking refuge from falling embers.  

The fires are now mostly contained. But the cleanup will be massive. It will take political cooperation at the local, state, and federal levels to allocate funds, organize rebuilding, and provide relief to the tens of thousands of people who are now displaced – homeless – with no certainty about their future. It will take leadership, compromise, and statesmanship. It will take selflessness.

Even in ordinary times, the political cooperation and organizational infrastructure required after a disaster of this magnitude are a challenge. The political infighting after Hurricane Katrina is the stuff of legend. And these are not ordinary times. After a particularly brutal hurricane season, federal recovery dollars will be hard to come by. And Washington has never been more polarized, or less stable. California is beginning a gubernatorial primary season, which brings with it the kind of posturing and grandstanding that make it difficult to get real work done. At the same time, finger-pointing has begun, as Californians try to explain the causes of the massive wildfires that consumed so much of the Napa Valley. Governor Jerry Brown is already being blamed for the fires, after vetoing a bipartisan 2016 bill intended to make power lines less likely to contribute to the spread of wildfire in residential areas.

In such extraordinary times, facing such a monumental task, it’s natural to hope for a singularly focused, consensus-building political leader, who would cut through partisanship and pettiness to help rebuild lives, homes, and communities across California. Governor Brown, who has a very long record of public service in California, and has few political limitations in the year before his final term expires, should be the man for the job. That is why it is so disappointing that on Sunday night, while the wildfires were still spreading, the governor took time to sign California’s Gender Recognition Act, which allows Californians to choose a “non-binary” gender identity on drivers’ licenses, and to change name and gender on state identification documents with ease.

Signing the bill will cement Brown’s legacy among libertines and elites, who already revere him because of his support for gay marriage and assisted suicide. But while the Gender Recognition Act will win him adulation from progressive pundits, it won’t make it easier for Brown to solve the real and immediate problems his state is facing. In fact, he’s made that job harder.

In the face of a crisis requiring broad cooperation, especially from churches and religious social service agencies, Brown chose to remind Californians of faith that their views don’t matter, and that they have no place in his vision for California. Instead of building the consensus that would help real Californians, Brown chose to secure his place in the pantheon of progressive demagogues, consequences be damned. Instead of facing the reality of California’s needs, Brown spent his time trying redefine what’s real, to usher in a new world in which reason is supplanted by confusion, masquerading as freedom.
 
In the classic 1951 film Quo Vadis, based upon Henryk Sienkiewicz’ novel, the emperor Nero is a mad narcissist: licentious, insecure, and cruel. Nero is far more concerned with securing his place in history – with being remembered as a genius, and an artist – than he is with leading his people. They suffer for his madness, and for his neglect.  

Eventually, Nero’s Rome burns to the ground, in a fire which the emperor himself began. But he is impervious to the suffering of his citizens. He stands overlooking his burning city, plucking a harp, and obsessing about his place in history, and a new world he’ll create in his own image – Neropolis.

“That is my epic,” Nero tells his courtiers. “To change the face of the world. To demolish and create anew.”

California is burning. Brown is not the cause of the fire. But he should be singularly focused on helping his people. Instead, he seems more concerned with plucking a harp for his place in history, redefining reality with his pen. “To change the face of the world. To demolish, and create anew.”

 

How Los Angeles Catholics help the homeless

Los Angeles, Calif., Oct 20, 2017 / 12:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- With growing numbers of people suffering homelessness in the expensive megalopolis of Los Angeles, Catholics and people of other religions are working together to provide a serious response.

“The faith community is really a giant part of the services provided to the folks in need,” Kathleen Domingo, Director of the Los Angeles archdiocese’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace, told CNA.

There’s a reason Catholics help the homeless.

“We’ve been told that our salvation depends on how we treat those in need,” said Domingo. “Our faith isn’t just in praying and personal spirituality, it’s actually in what we put into action.”

She said the homeless are “the face of Christ, especially in Los Angeles.” Many residents live in such prosperity that “to turn our backs on the homeless is really to turn our backs on Christ.”

“We really need to ask ourselves: are we willing to sacrifice our salvation, literally, for our own convenience or our own comfort at not getting involved?” Domingo said.

Leaders of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities gathered at the University of Southern California campus Oct. 18 for a roundtable discussion that aimed to find new ideas and a united approach to responding to homelessness.

Among the scheduled speakers was Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles. He joined other religious leaders, homeless experts, and representatives from Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti’s office.

In a June 6 column, Gomez warned that an increase in homelessness shows a failure to foster a strong “human ecology.” It reflects a widening gap “between those who have what they need for a dignified life and those who do not.”

“I worry that we are getting accustomed to these sights in our city,” he said. “We cannot allow ourselves to accept a Los Angeles where sidewalks become permanent residences for our neighbors.”

A May 2017 report from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority found a 23 percent increase in homelessness in Los Angeles County since the previous year. According to the Associated Press, about 7,700 volunteers counted about 58,800 homeless people, an increase of 11,000.

The number of homeless veterans had increased 57 percent. The number of homeless aged 18 to 24 increased 64 percent, while the number of those under 18 increased 41 percent.

The report did find improvements in the number of homeless families who have shelter. The number of families without shelter decreased 21 percent.

Officials said there is increasing financial stress on renters in the Los Angeles area. Over 2 million households spend half their income or more on housing costs.

The roundtable is sponsored by four USC organizations, including the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies. Father James L. Heft, founder and president of the institute, said there are many different religions in Los Angeles working to ameliorate the homelessness crisis.

“People in these different religions are doing good things to address this crisis. But they often work by themselves,” he said. “I thought it would be good for the leaders of the different religions to talk with each other, learn from each other, and through these conversations find even better ways to work at solving the crisis of homelessness.”

According to Heft, the roundtable aims to help advance understanding of the “complex issue of homelessness” and learn the most effective ways to address it.

“We want to promote greater cooperation among religions in addressing a serious challenge that our whole community faces,” the priest said.

For Domingo, Catholic action for the homeless in Los Angeles already has a record of success.

In 2016, Catholic Charities of Los Angeles and the St. Vincent de Paul Society worked together to place about 300 people in permanent housing. Though the numbers seem small compared to the problem, the beneficiaries are given a sustainable place to live and the means to stay there for the long-term. They also receive help with job placement and other support resources.

The work of individual parishes is significant, but sometimes difficult to report, Domingo said. “Much of it is done just in a manner of course as the parishes operate.”

Domingo noted a five-parish cluster in the archdiocese’s eastern San Gabriel region which collectively offers cold weather shelter to the homeless. The parishes also offer food, including some meals homemade by parishioners.

In addition, parish outreach seeks barbers, stylists and manicurists for these beneficiaries to “make them feel good and look good while they’re here,” she said.

The parishes involve homeless guests in Christmas activities, including Las Posadas, the traditional Mexican Advent season commemoration of the journey of the Holy Family, in which they found no room at the inn of Bethlehem.

Local schoolchildren make prayer cards, placemats, and table settings to help welcome the hosted families. A jazz band from the local Catholic high school also comes to play.

“You could just see this exhaustion melt away as people listen to music that maybe they haven’t been exposed to for years,” said Domingo, who added: “These are really amazing moments. It doesn’t get a lot of press, but it’s really the parish coming together to do something impactful.”

Some parishes collaborate with the nationwide Family Promise program to house families that have just become homeless. When they secure permanent housing quickly, they have a better chance of not becoming homeless again.

Domingo praised the “housing-first” approach to homelessness. This approach, developed in recent decades, aims to provide permanent housing immediately for those in need, rather than put them through transitional programs whose conditions are sometimes counterproductive and harder to fulfill for someone without permanent housing. She suggested the archdiocese would be happy to pursue such an approach.

“That’s also an approach that’s very much in keeping with Catholic social teaching, with the dignity of the person,” she said. Getting someone a house is something basic that does not need many restrictions.

“Just get people housed. That’s a very good step in the right direction,” said Domingo.

Many Catholic charities, St. Vincent de Paul organizations, and parishes in Los Angeles are taking part in a process called the Coordinated Entry System. It helps to ensure some knowledge about who is getting services and to ensure that some people are not “falling through the cracks.”

Domingo attributed the shortfall in housing for those at risk of homelessness to the “not in my backyard” mindset. Many projects have been halted due to local opposition.

“As Catholics we could help to shift the conversation on that,” she suggested. Catholics could help rally their neighbors to welcome homeless families to their neighborhood just as they’d welcome any family.

She also stressed the need for people to educate themselves about the options specifically available for homeless minors and the elderly so that they could help those the encounter find temporary assistance.

“It seems small in a sense, but they’re realistic steps, and I think that they can be incredibly effective,” she said.

Government must allow abortion for undocumented teenager, judge rules

Washington D.C., Oct 19, 2017 / 12:50 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- In a controversial decision, a U.S. district judge ruled that the government must facilitate an abortion for an undocumented teenager under federal custody in Texas. The federal government has appealed the ruling, asking for a stay on the judge’s order.

On Oct. 18, U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan ruled that a 17-year-old from Central America, known only as “Jane Doe,” must be allowed to get an abortion. The girl has been in federal custody since early September, and is living in a south Texas shelter operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement – an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Currently 15 weeks pregnant, the girl has secured outside funding for the abortion, and has obtained state permission to get the abortion – a requirement for any minor in Texas who does not have parental permission for an abortion procedure.

The ACLU has alleged that the government is utilizing an “unconstitutional veto power” by not allowing Doe to obtain an abortion, and has filed a suit against HHS. The administration has countered that the government has “exercised a legitimate choice to refuse to facilitate an abortion,” and argues that the girl could leave the country voluntarily to obtain the procedure. It also argues that since the girl is in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, it has the right to determine what is in the best interest of the teenager.

The government also says that the United States has an interest in “not providing incentives for pregnant minors to illegally cross the border to obtain elective abortions while in federal custody.”

Under the judge’s ruling, the administration must allow the minor to attend an abortion counseling appointment on Oct. 20, and have the abortion the following day or over the weekend. If the administration does not comply, it will be held in contempt of court, the ruling states. A decision on the appeal is expected Thursday evening.

Pro-life organizations criticized the judge’s decision, warning of the precedent it sets.

“Today’s ruling is outrageous and sets a dangerous precedent,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List.

“The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services took a simple position that it would protect the life and dignity of the teenage girl and her unborn child while in their care,” she said in a statement. “Shame on this judge for overruling compassionate care and instead mandating that the U.S. government help facilitate an abortion for a teenage girl.”

“This ruling plays into the broader agenda of the ACLU, which is recklessly exploiting a teenage girl in order to make the United States a sanctuary state for abortion,” she added.

Catherine Glenn Foster, President and CEO of Americans United for Life, also objected to the ruling, saying that because the government would have to expend resources to provide access to the abortion clinic, the decision “mandates that taxpayer funds be expended to facilitate the destruction of an innocent human life, in violation of the Hyde Amendment and the consciences of millions of American citizens.”

English nuns offer free meals – but there's a catch

London, England, Oct 19, 2017 / 12:08 pm (CNA).- A group of religious sisters are offering free meals in a trendy neighborhood of London, but on one condition: the customers must forfeit the use of their phones and converse with fellow diners.

“We give you a little food for soul. We don’t just mean the food that you eat, but something for you to take away and reflect in your life,” said Sister Anna, according to Business Insider.

As part of the new reality TV series “Bad Habits: Holy Orders,” the Daughters of Divine Charity have left their homes in rural Norfolk to serve food at “Nundos” in Shoreditch from Oct. 17-19.

The pop-up restaurant is a play on words for the peri-peri chicken chain Nando’s, but rather than serving African cuisine the holy restaurant offers chicken broth, lentil soup, breads, and homemade pies.  

If the costumer’s phone is put aside, the wholesome meals are offered free of charge as a means to deter people from the distractions of social media.

The Channel 5 series takes five millennial women and follows their transition from a party lifestyle to the simple life of the convent. The girls' beliefs are then challenged by the religious community as they participate in the nun’s activities, like early morning prayers and works of charity.

Founded in 1868, the Daughters of Divine Charity seek to make God visible through acts of charity, like attending to the sick and elderly and aiding children in preparation for the sacraments.

Central Americans fleeing violence can't return home yet, bishops warn

Washington D.C., Oct 18, 2017 / 05:04 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- As a temporary immigration permit program for families fleeing violence in Honduras and El Salvador is set to expire, the U.S. bishops warn that requiring immigrants to return to unsafe countries is unjust.

“There is ample evidence to suggest that current TPS recipients from Honduras and El Salvador cannot return safely to their home country at this time,” said Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of Austin, Texas, Chairman of the U.S. Bishops Committee on Migration.

He urged the faithful to keep the people of El Salvador and Honduras, including those with Temporary Protective Status “in your thoughts and prayers,” while introducing a report on the issue, released by the USCCB this week.

The bishop and the report expressed support for an extension of TPS – a kind of temporary immigration status– for people from Honduras and El Salvador, and called for a long-term legislative solution to the situation.

Temporary Protective Status allows people who are unable to safely return to their home nations because of armed conflict, other violence, natural disasters or other extraordinary and temporary circumstances to remain in the United States while the situation in their home country resolves.

In August, a group of researchers from the USCCB’s Office of Migration and Refugee Services traveled to Honduras and El Salvador to assess the circumstances TPS recipients returning to their home countries would face.

The trip was inspired by the upcoming expiration of TPS status for Salvadoran and Honduran nationals. The TPS designation for Honduras is set to expire on January 5, 2018, and El Salvador’s will end on March 9, 2018, unless the Department of Homeland Security authorizes an extension. If the designations expire, more than 200,000 people from El Salvador and 57,000 people from Honduras will need to return to their home countries. These temporary immigrants are parents to more than 270,000 children who are United States citizens.

In El Salvador, gang-related violence has led to widespread crime and extortion, the bishops’ report said. In addition, children and their families are targeted for gang recruitment. This has also led to the displacement of between 200,000 and 400,000 persons in El Salvador.

In Honduras, the bishops’ report said, high homicide rates and internal displacement of families has led to the designation of TPS status for some Honduran refugees. Currently, there are at least 174,000 people who are internally displaced within the country.

Many of the affected families sought TPS as part of the Central American Minors refugee program in order to protect their children from violence and gang recruitment.

The bishops observed that the security situations in both countries has not been fully resolved, and their report warned that the end of TPS might “negatively impact regional security, and have negative economic and humanitarian consequences” in El Salvador and Honduras, as well as in the United States. They also observed that neither country is prepared to receive and reintegrate the full population of citizens that would need to return.

The bishops warn that forcing families to return, including those families whose children are US citizens, would leave returned people at grave risk of violence and targeted gang action.

On top of the policy ramifications of the political situation in Honduras and El Salvador, the destabilization and insecurity in these two countries has made it more difficult for the Church to operate and adequately minister to those in need, the bishops’ conference reported.

The report quoted Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador: “It is truly unfortunate and painful that the Church cannot work because of this atmosphere of insecurity and anxiety that shakes our beloved country.”

The bishops offered a number of policy recommendations for the United States, as well as to the impacted countries and Church leaders. To the US government, they encouraged the extension of the TPS program for 18 months, and also backed efforts to ensure permanent lawful status for some, namely those who are parents of U.S. citizens or who have found employment in U.S. businesses.

The bishops also urged the U.S. to work with both Honduras and El Salvador to help the countries end the violence – particularly violence that targets youth – and form a solid plan to reintegrate families who will need to return. The U.S. government, they said, should “support anti-gang, anti-corruption and systematic integration efforts to ensure greater regional stability and human security.” They encouraged the Central American countries to improve job access and help ensure that Internally Displaced Persons can also return to their homes.

The bishops encouraged the Church and charitable organizations to help with humanitarian aid and supporting a solution to displacement – an issue which will be essential for “possible future TPS returnees.” They also encouraged Church-government partnerships to help people returning to their home countries, as well as any who might seek legal status in the United States and Canada.

“We look forward to working with Congress, the Administration and others in pursuing humane and just solutions for the long-term TPS beneficiaries currently residing in the United States,” the bishops concluded.

Wealthy donors working to limit 'inappropriate' religious freedom

Denver, Colo., Oct 18, 2017 / 02:51 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A network of wealthy donors is funding a series of well-organized lobbying campaigns to restrict legal protections for religious freedom, in order to advance access to abortion and LGBT causes.

Since 2013, a network of funders has earmarked at least $8.5 million in grants for projects intended to limit religious freedom provisions in federal, state, and local law, according to a CNA investigation of grant listings and tax forms.

Many of these funders are part of the Rights, Faith & Democracy Collaborative, a grantmaking fund launched by the Proteus Fund in March 2017. The collaborative opposes “the inappropriate use of religious exemptions to curtail reproductive health, rights and justice, discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community, and otherwise undermine fundamental rights and liberties essential to a healthy democracy,” the fund’s website says.

The new anti-religious freedom collaborative was created to oppose “ongoing and growing efforts in too many states to ‘legalize’ discrimination and restrict fundamental human and civil rights under the guise of protecting ‘religious liberty’,” according to the fund’s website.

The Rights, Faith & Democracy Collaborative has given grants to pro-abortion groups and LGBT advocacy groups at the state, federal and international levels; religious groups including Catholics for Choice; legal advocacy groups like the ACLU and Lambda Legal; and aligned academics, including those at Columbia Law School’s “Public Rights, Private Conscience Project.”

One donor, the Arcus Foundation, has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to John Podesta’s Center for American Progress initiatives. These grants seek to redefine religious liberty as “a core progressive American value that includes LGBT equality and women’s reproductive health and rights,” according to its latest grant listed at the Arcus Foundation website.

The collaborative’s network also spends millions on leadership development, donor development, anti-violence and anti-discrimination projects, and LGBT and pro-abortion rights advocacy.

The Rights, Faith & Democracy Collaborative says it will serve as “a vehicle for broader donor education and mobilization in order to achieve deeper funding alignment as well as enhanced donor collaboration.”

The collaborative aims to nurture strategies and organizations that foster collaboration between “the reproductive equity and LGBTQ movements, especially at the state and local level.” It aims to boost the influence of faith leaders and religious communities that it says will support “equal rights and opportunities for everyone while also protecting legitimate constitutionally protected religious liberty rights.” Its website also claims that “discriminatory practices fostered by overly broad religious exemptions” have a disproportionate impact on racial minorities.

The collaborative’s funding partners, listed on the Proteus Fund’s website, are the Alki Fund of the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Arcus Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, the Gill Foundation, the Groundswell Fund, the Irving Harris Foundation, the Moriah Fund, the Overbrook Foundation, and anonymous donors.

The Proteus Fund appears to have had previous success. Its Civil Marriage Collaborative, closed in 2015, was a leader in the push for legal recognition of gay marriage. The fund’s “Hearts & Minds” report says that the consortium of foundations invested $153 million over 11 years in many states and at the national level in marriage-related advocacy.

CNA contacted the Proteus Fund for comment, but received no response by deadline.

Religious freedom laws: ‘not a blank check’

Richard Garnett, a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, disagreed with the fund’s claims that religious freedom legal accommodations and exemptions are illegitimate. He said this claim is “inconsistent with our history and with our longstanding commitment to religious liberty as our ‘first freedom.’

“Reasonable exemptions do not ‘undermine fundamental rights and liberties,’ they protect and promote them,” he told CNA.

“Unfortunately, there are powerful and well-funded interests who, with broad support in the academy and in media, have been working hard to associate our ‘first freedom’ with discrimination and prejudice,” Garnett said.

He reflected on the state of religious freedom advocacy.

“Proponents of religious freedom, broadly and generously understood, will need to work hard to remind our fellow citizens that religious liberty – which has to mean religious liberty for all, and not just for ‘people like us’ – is itself a fundamental human right, and a protection for democracy,” he said. “And, of course, to make religious freedom more appealing, it is important that religious-freedom proponents conduct their efforts in a civil, charitable, and inviting way.”

For Garnett, the fund’s rhetoric about discrimination concerns did not accurately represent the current state of the law.

“In fact, only a tiny number of religious-exemptions claims involve antidiscrimination laws and these claims almost always fail,” he said. “The claim that religious-liberty laws undermine important anti-discrimination protections in the marketplace, the workplace, or in public accommodations is false.  

“Instead, what these laws do is call for sensible accommodations for religious conscience, in cases where the accommodations will not undermine compelling public interests. These laws call for a balance, not a blank check.”

Religious freedom protections have become more controversial in recent decades. In 2012, the Obama administration attempted to mandate that all employers, including religious employers, cover sterilization and contraceptive drugs, including drugs that can cause abortions. The mandate burdened many Catholic dioceses and organizations, including EWTN Global Catholic Network, and was only changed by a recent Trump administration action.

There is also an ongoing push in some states to require insurance coverage of abortions, and some medical professionals and hospitals have faced pressure to cooperate in providing abortions.

Garnett thought abortion would be a prime focus of the Proteus funding network.

“My sense is that what efforts like the Proteus Fund are really aimed at is undermining the longstanding protections in American law for religious health care workers and institutions who cannot in conscience participate in abortions,” he said. “These protections are falsely labeled as ‘discriminatory’ when, in fact, they reflect the commonsense notion that it would be deeply unjust to require, as a condition of working as a healer, a pro-life medical professional to participate in a procedure she believes to be gravely wrong.”

Some Christian adoption agencies have been forced to close because placing children with same-sex couples violates their religious convictions. There is an ongoing debate over whether small businesses in the marriage industry must cater to same-sex ceremonies if they have religious objections to them.

Ryan T. Anderson, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and co-author of “Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination,” reflected on the current situation.

“Anti-gay and anti-transgender bigotry exists and should be condemned,” he told CNA. “But support for marriage as the union of husband and wife isn’t anti-gay. Nor is the conviction that sex is a biological reality anti-transgender.

“Just as we’ve combatted sexism without treating pro-life medicine as sexist, any public policy necessary to help people who identify as LGBT meet their needs should be crafted so as to respect the consciences of reasonable people, acting on good-faith beliefs about marriage and gender identity,” said Anderson. “Not every disagreement is discrimination. And our law shouldn’t suppose otherwise.”

‘We’re going to punish the wicked’

The Proteus Fund’s collaborative brings together several organizations with experience in effective political advocacy.

One of its funding partners, the Colorado-based Gill Foundation, was launched by the politically savvy former businessman Tim Gill. He has pursued strategic LGBT advocacy through funding both non-profits and political campaigns.

“We’re going into the hardest states in the country… we’re going to punish the wicked,” Gill said in a June interview with Rolling Stone magazine about his LGBT activism.

In March 2015, Tim Sweeney, a former president and CEO of the Gill Foundation,  told leading business executives and others attending the Out & Equal Workplace Advocates executive forum in San Francisco about the need to ensure their fight against religious exemptions is finished quickly.

“We are at a crossroads where the choices we make will mean we will fight religious exemptions for two to three years or have a protracted twenty year struggle on our hands,” he said.

The New York-based Arcus Foundation, founded by billionaire heir Jon Stryker, has dedicated millions of dollars to opposing religious freedom protections and to funding LGBT advocacy within world religions, including dissenting Catholic groups like Catholics for Choice, New Ways Ministry and Dignity USA.

One board member of this foundation is Darren Walker, past vice-president of the Rockefeller Foundation and current president of the deeply influential Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation has funded some projects against religious liberty protections, but is not listed as a direct member of the collaborative based at the Proteus Fund.

However, the Oakland, Calif.-based Groundswell Fund board of directors is chaired by Rocio L. Cordoba, a past program officer for the Ford Foundation’s Gender, Sexuality and Reproductive Justice Program. The Groundswell Fund claims to fund more reproductive justice organizations than any other foundation.

Another partner, the Rockefeller Family Fund, was launched in 1967 by members of the prominent American family, including then-New York governor and future vice-president Nelson Rockefeller. Its mission statement says it “initiates, cultivates, and funds strategic efforts to promote a sustainable, just, free, and participatory society.” The fund did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

The San Francisco-based Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund is a private family foundation with half a billion dollars in assets. Since 2014 it has earmarked at least $1.4 million in grants for projects related to religious exemptions, according to a CNA review of its grant listings.

The New York-based Overbrook Foundation, founded in 1948 by financier Frank Altschul and his wife Helen, has a gender rights program to fund those who oppose “overly broad religious exemptions.” Its website listed $220,000 in grants related to religious freedom: a $100,000 grant to the Proteus Fund’s collaborative, and two $60,000 grants to Lambda Legal.

The Chicago-based Irving Harris Foundation, created by the businessman and philanthropist, awards $10 to $15 million in grants annually, InsidePhilanthropy reports. The Washington, D.C.-based Moriah Fund dedicated over $10.6 million to program spending in fiscal year 2016. Neither grant maker's website listed grants related to religious freedom.

 

Correction Oct. 18, 2017, 12:40 pm ET: This article incorrectly identified the Alki Fund as being part of the Rockefeller Foundation. It is part of the Rockefeller Family Fund.

 

 

A modern horror: global persecution of Christians at historic peak, report says

New York City, N.Y., Oct 17, 2017 / 03:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Anti-Christian persecution is “worse than at any time in history” and in many cases genocide and other crimes against humanity “now mean that the Church in core countries and regions faces the possibility of imminent wipe-out,” says a new report from Aid to the Church in Need.

The report, titled “Persecuted and Forgotten?”, covers the years 2015-2017. Its contents are bleak, describing Christianity as “the world’s most oppressed faith community.” Anti-Christian persecution in the worst regions has reached “a new peak” and its impact is “only now beginning to be felt in all its horror.”

“In 12 of the 13 countries reviewed, the situation for Christians was worse in overall terms in the period 2015–17 than within the preceding two years,” said the report’s executive summary, released Oct. 12.  

John Pontifex, the report's editor, commented that “In terms of the numbers of people involved, the gravity of the crimes committed and their impact, it is clear that the persecution of Christians is today worse than at any time in history. Not only are Christians more persecuted than any other faith group, but ever-increasing numbers are experiencing the very worst forms of persecution.”

China, Eritrea, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Syria were ranked “extreme” in the scale of anti-Christian persecution. Egypt, India, and Iran were rated “high to extreme,” while Turkey was rated “moderate to high.”

The report’s ratings draw from analyses like the Pew Forum’s Social Hostilities Index and Open Door’s World Watch List, in addition to other factors and sources, including fact-finding trips.   

In some countries the state is the principal persecutor, while in other countries social groups are culpable, while in still others a combination of both are responsible.

Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic pastoral charity, provides emergency and pastoral relief in 140 countries. Its U.S. affiliate published the report.

The report’s foreword was written by Archbishop Issam John Darwish of the Melkite Archdiocese of Zahlé and Furzo, a Lebanese archdiocese near the Syrian border. He recounted the stories of Christian refugees fleeing the six-year-old Syrian civil war.

“Many refugees have told terrible stories of persecution: like the man whose brother, a priest, was kidnapped – and despite the family paying the ransom they killed the priest. They sent his family a box containing his severed wrist, tattooed with a cross, to show he was dead,” the archbishop said.

The Middle East is a major focus for the report.

“Governments in the West and the U.N. failed to offer Christians in countries such as Iraq and Syria the emergency help they needed as genocide got underway,” the report said. “If Christian organizations and other institutions had not filled the gap, the Christian presence could already have disappeared in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.”

The exodus of Christians from Iraq has been “very severe.” Christians in the country now may number as few as 150,000, a decline from 275,000 in mid-2015. By spring 2017 there were some signs of hope, with the defeat of the Islamic State group and the return of some Christians to their homes on the Nineveh Plains.

However, the departure of Christians from Syria has also threatened the survival of their communities in the country, including historic Christian centers like Aleppo. Syrian Christians there suffer threats of forced conversion and extortion. One Chaldean bishop in the country estimates the Christian population to be at 500,000, down from 1.2 million before the war.

Many Christians in the region fear going to official refugee camps, due to concerns about rape and other violence.

The Islamic State group and other militants have committed genocide in Syria and Iraq. While Islamic State and other groups have been defeated in their major strongholds, many Christian groups are threatened with extinction and would not survive another attack.

In northern Nigeria, the radical Islamist group Boko Haram has engaged in genocide against Christians.

There are reports from North Korea of forced starvation of Christians and forced abortion. Some Christians have been hung on crosses over fire, and others have been crushed by steamrollers. Protestants and Catholics are ranked among those least sympathetic to the state, which limits their access to food, education, and health care. Christianity is linked with American influence, and Christians are executed as spies.

In Sudan, the government’s pursuit of an extremist Islamist agenda led to orders to tear down Christian churches. Christians are arrested for alleged proselytism, and women face fines for wearing “obscene” or immodest dress. The government stripped citizenship rights of people with origins outside Sudan, leading many to leave for their ancestral homelands in South Sudan. Many had lived in their homes for three decades or more.

In January 2017 the U.S. put a six-month waiver on human rights sanctions against Sudan, on condition that the country improve its human rights and religious freedom record.

In Pakistan, banned fundamentalist cells pose a great threat to Christians, but some charge that the government’s failure to crack down on these groups worsens the problem of violence. On Easter Sunday 2016 as many as 24 Christians were killed in targeted violence in Lahore. A faction of the Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

In India, persecution has increased since 2014, with the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Like-minded groups frequently accuse Christians of forced conversion, a charge local Christian leaders strongly deny. An India-based Catholic group reported 365 serious anti-Christian atrocities in 2016, with 10 people killed and more than 500 clergy or church leaders attacked for their faith.

Some Christians have faced pressure to convert under threat of force, while others have been forced to take part in Hindu rituals and deny their faith.

In China, church communities face increased hostility. Authorities in some provinces have removed crosses from some churches and destroyed church buildings. In some regions, Christmas trees and greeting cards have been banned.

President Xi Jinping has depicted Christianity as a means of “foreign infiltration” into China and has advocated more state control and targeting of unofficial churches. There are fears that China’s 2016 announcement of categorization of citizens based on political, commercial, social and legal “credit,” will create a system that disadvantages Christians in a way similar to North Korea.

Christians in Egypt suffered a major suicide bombing attack in December 2016 and again on Palm Sunday in April 2017. Dozens were killed and more injured in both attacks, for which the Islamic State group claimed responsibility.

Saudi Arabia has come under criticism from western powers and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. However, President Donald Trump signed a $110 billion arms deal with the country, a deal which had been held up under the Obama administration due to human rights concerns. The Aid to the Church in Need report said sources in the country are supplying arms and finances to Sunni extremist groups including the Islamic State, known in the region as “Daesh.”

“Given that Islamist groups such as Daesh are likely to be heavily reliant on undeclared external sources for weapons and intelligence, there is an urgent need to step up action to stop all entities collaborating with them,” the report continued. “Persecuted Christians are among the many who stand to be beneficiaries of progress in this area.”

Archbishop Darwish said it is imperative to help persecuted Christians.

“When the Christian families who have turned to us need the very basics for daily life – food, shelter and medical care – how can we refuse to help?” he asked, lamenting a lack of aid from the U.N. and other humanitarian organizations.

He praised Aid to the Church in Need’s efforts to report anti-Christian persecution and aid those persecuted.

US bishops call for health care protection for the most vulnerable

Washington D.C., Oct 17, 2017 / 06:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In the wake of an executive order issued by the Trump administration halting federal assistance for certain insurance plans, the U.S. bishops reaffirmed that helping to protect low-income persons and the vulnerable is of the utmost importance.

“This is of grave concern. The Affordable Care Act is, by no means, perfect, but as leaders attempt to address impending challenges to insurance market stability and affordability, they must not use people’s health care as leverage or as a bargaining chip,” said Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, chairman of the U.S. bishops’  Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development in a statement.

“To do so would be to strike at the heart of human dignity and the fundamental right to health care. The poor and vulnerable will bear the brunt of such an approach.”

Trump's decision will end a series of subsidies for lower-income enrollees in Affordable Care Act plans, which help those people reduce their cost share. The subsidies were expected to total more than $9 billion in 2018, and Congress has never appropriated the money for these cost-sharing subsidies in particular.

Trump’s decision has been met with criticism from both the Democratic party and some members of the Republican party, while other members of the president’s party, like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), praised the move.

Bishop Dewane explained that in addition to cutting federal funds for insurance subsidies for low-income buyers, Trump also issued a directive whichallow the sale of insurance plans across state lines and expand options for certain kinds of plans that are lower-cost, but contain fewer benefits.

There is also concern among healthcare policy experts that if enough healthy people leave their current plans for such high-deductible plans, those remaining in other Affordable Care Act plans would be, on the whole, sicker, and eventually face higher premiums. These costs would eventually impact the economy at large.

Dewane said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will monitor how the order is implemented, and its impact on vulnerable persons.

“In general, robust options for people to obtain health coverage, as well as flexibility and approaches aimed at increased affordability, are important strategies in health care,” he said of the other elements of the executive order. “However, in implementing this executive order, great care must be taken to avoid risk of additional harm to those who now receive health care coverage through exchanges formed under the Affordable Care Act.”

In addition to opening up new areas of concern, the executive order “ignores” other severe problems in the health care system, Dewane said.

“Congress must still act on comprehensive reform in order to provide a sustainable framework for health care, providing lasting solutions for the life, conscience, immigrant access, market stability, and underlying affordability problems that remain unaddressed.”