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US Catholics' awareness of Christian persecution increasing

Washington D.C., Mar 21, 2019 / 03:54 pm (CNA).- Nearly half of American Catholics say global persecution of Christians is “very severe,” a 16 percent increase from a year ago, according to a new survey commissioned by the papal charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

Despite this increase in awareness, the American Catholics surveyed ranked human trafficking, poverty and the refugee crisis as more urgent problems than the global persecution of Christians, the study says.

“It is heartening to see that U.S. Catholics have a growing awareness of and concern about the persecution of Christians,” said George Marlin, chairman of ACN-USA, in a March 19 statement.

“It is telling that human trafficking, poverty and the refugee crisis get more attention from U.S. Catholics than the persecution of Christians,” he added, saying that the survey “strongly suggests that the U.S. Catholic Church, both at the parish and diocesan levels, should get more engaged with the global persecution of Christians around the world.”

The study examined the extent to which American Catholics are aware of the persecution of Christians around the world; the countries and regions where they consider Christians to be most severely persecuted; specific measures and policies they want the U.S. and other Western governments to pursue to help and protect persecuted Christians; the extent to which they feel that the pope, their bishops and their parishes are prioritizing the persecution of Christians; and actions they believe they can and should take themselves.

Only 19 percent of the survey’s respondents said their parish is very involved with the issue of global persecution of Christians, down from 37 percent a year ago. In addition, 22 percent said they are unsure about their parish’s involvement in this area.

Similarly, only 24 percent of U.S. Catholics believe their bishop is “very engaged” with the issue of Christian persecution, though over half say they think Pope Francis is “very engaged” with this issue.

When asked what they themselves should do to help persecuted Christians around the world, American Catholics ranked prayer highest, followed by raising awareness at the parish level; donating to agencies that work to support persecuted Christians; and contacting their members of Congress. However, the report found that almost half of U.S. Catholics have not donated in the past year to an organization that helps persecuted Christians.

Regarding potential policies by the U.S. and other Western governments to deter the persecution of Christians, respondents ranked diplomatic pressure as most important, followed by economic sanctions; granting victims of persecution emergency asylum; and supporting persecuted Christian communities financially.

U.S. Catholics are least in favor of military intervention and the arming and training of persecuted Christians, but more than 60 percent of U.S. Catholics say that the Church must play a hands-on role in providing emergency and humanitarian aid to persecuted Christians around the world.

The study’s release comes amid increased persecution of Christians in many countries worldwide. ACN released a report last November that highlights 38 nations with significant religious freedom violations, and in more than half of those countries, conditions for religious minorities have deteriorated since 2016.

Some notable countries where persecution of Christians is taking place include China, where the Communist government is brutally cracking down on the practice of religion despite a September 2018 provisional deal with the Vatican meant to ease tensions between the faithful “underground” Church and the state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the report said.

In other countries including North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Eritrea, “the situation [for religious minorities] was already so bad, it could scarcely get any worse,” it added.

Islamic extremism, fueled by conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam, accounted for the persecution faced by minorities in 22 of the 38 countries highlighted.

Interreligious conflict has been especially acute in Nigeria of late, where clashes between Christian and Muslim herdsmen have killed at least 120 people in the past few weeks, and has claimed thousands of lives in recent years, according to local reports.

 

Indiana legislature fails to restore two genders to driver’s licenses

Indianapolis, Ind., Mar 21, 2019 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- Indiana lawmakers did not act to restore gender options on driver’s licenses as “male” or “female” after the state Bureau of Motor Vehicles announced it would allow for a third “non-specified gender,” but instead chose to require a changed birth certificate, not a doctor’s note, to allow the change to the driver’s license to take place.
 
State Rep. Matt Hostettler, R-Fort Branch, had filed an amendment to Senate Bill 324, whose main focus is providing a special disabled parking placard to eligible military veterans in Indiana, instead of a disabled license plate.
 
The House of Representatives’ Republicans considered support for Hostettler’s amendment, among other proposals, during a March 19 afternoon meeting, the Times of Northwest Indiana reports.

After the House reconvened, Hostettler did not call his proposal for a vote and the bill advanced unchanged for final approval. Any lawmaker can propose inserting the language of the amendment into any germane legislation until the close of the legislative session, which must take place on or before April 29.
 
Under the bureau’s new policy set to begin this month, a third gender option will be indicated by an “X” on driver’s licenses and state ID cards, the NBC television affiliate WTHR reports.
 
Applicants seeking a “non-specified” option must provide a certified, amended birth certificate or a signed and dated physician’s statement attesting that they have permanently changed their gender.
 
The Bureau of Motor Vehicles said it made the changes based on resident requests and on credential standards recommended by the American Academy of Motor Vehicle Administrators.
 
On March 20 the House Roads and Transportation Committee voted to revise Senate Bill 182 so that only a certified and amended birth certificate may be used to change the gender listed on a driver’s license or a state identification.
 
The State Department of Health usually requires a court order to change the gender listed on an Indiana birth certificate. In cases where a baby’s sex is undetermined at birth, such as anatomically ambiguous genitals, the gender is listed as “U.” It is unclear whether a birth certificate can subsequently be changed to something other than “male” or “female,” the Times of Northwest Indiana reports.
 
Under current practice, applicants for a gender change may submit a state form completed by a licensed physician to confirm that an individual has undergone a treatment reputed to be a gender change. A physician may also submit a signed and dated statement on office letterhead to that effect, provided the wording is substantially similar to the language required by the state’s administrative code.
 
The vote in the Republican-controlled House committee was split along party lines.
 
State Rep. Holli Sullivan said she was not trying to eliminate the non-specific gender designation “X” but wanted the birth certificate to be the sole document to establish gender.
 
“It does not say that you cannot change your gender. They still have the process to do that,” she said, arguing that her proposal takes the motor vehicles department out of making medical decisions.
 
One opponent of the change, State Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster, said that reading a note is not a medical decision and compared the practice to how the Bureau of Motor Vehicles approves handicapped placards.
 
“What happens to the people that are in transition and they're not one or the other yet?” asked Candelaria Reardon. “They're in the middle of a transition. How do we address their concerns? How do they get a certified birth certificate?”
 
Sullivan said she did not intend to make anything more difficult, but wanted to put together a process that can be followed to ensure there won’t be questions about the process.
 
Katie Blair, director of advocacy and public policy at American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, said the modification would force self-identified transgender people to undergo “the burdensome and costly legal process of changing their birth certificate in order to update their ID.”
 
Residents born in states that do not allow such modifications to birth certificates will be unable to get “accurate identification,” she said, according to the Times of Northwest Indiana reports.

Blair previously commented on Hostettler’s proposal to remove the unspecified gender option and restore two genders, calling this a “retrograde attempt” to “mandate a definition of gender that would have major, long-term implications for the transgender community.”
 
The amendment would “force gender non-binary people to carry identification that does not accurately identify them,” said Blair. “For people who are non-binary, identification that fails to affirm who they are can trigger the distress of gender dysphoria and contribute to widespread discrimination.” Identification that is “affirming and accurate” would help reduce discrimination, Blair argued.
 
Oregon, Maine, Minnesota, and California offer similar non-binary gender identification, in addition to Washington, D.C., and New York City. The Maryland and New York legislatures are considering proposals to change their identification regarding gender.

How this classical Catholic school welcomes children with Down syndrome

Louisville, Ky., Mar 21, 2019 / 10:22 am (CNA).- Students with Down syndrome study Latin and logic alongside their classmates at Immaculata Classical Academy, a Catholic school in Louisville, Ky., that integrates students with special needs into each of their pre-K through 12 classrooms.

The school emphasizes “education of the heart,” along with an educational philosophy tailored to the abilities of each student. About 15 percent of students at Immaculata have special needs.

“When you look at these students with Down syndrome in a classical setting, it is truly what a classical education is all about -- what it truly means to be human,” the school’s founder, Michael Michalak, told CNA.

“You can't learn compassion in a book,” Michalak explained.  He said the students at Immaculata are gaining “the ability to give of yourself to help others” through mutual mentoring constantly taking place in the classrooms.  

Michalek founded the academy along with his wife, Penny, in 2010. The couple saw a need for a Catholic school in which students like their daughter, Elena, who has Down syndrome, would not be segregated from her siblings. They wanted to keep their children together without compromising educational quality or spiritual formation.

“A classical education is, I think, the best education for a child with special needs because it is an education in everything that is beautiful, true, and good. It is perfect for these children,” Penny told CNA.

The school’s course schedule is configured so that students can move up or down grade levels by subject at each class hour, according to individual needs. “A second-grader might go to third grade math class and a child with Down syndrome in second grade might go over to first grade or might stay in second grade,” Michael Michalak explained. “Nobody is looking around and saying, 'Oh, they are going to special classroom.’ They are just going where they need to be.”

“In the midst of all of this we are not leaving students behind,” Penny added. “We keep our high academic standards while integrating students with special needs.”

Since its founding, the independent Catholic school has grown to a student body of 160. Other Catholic schools across the country have begun looking to Immaculata as a model, the Michalaks say.

“Whenever anyone visits our school, they always say, ‘Oh my goodness the joy of this place!’” Penny told CNA.

The couple attributes the school’s sense of joy to the Holy Spirit and “the joy of belonging.”

“Inclusion is more of a buzzword these days, but it is true that we all want to belong and we all want to be loved,” said Michael Michalek.

"Prayer is the air that we breathe. We start the day with prayer. Every class starts with a prayer and ends in a prayer,” said Penny, who entrusted the school to our Our Lady at the school’s founding with St. Maximilian Kolbe as its patron.

"Our whole philosophy is to teach every child as if we were teaching the Christ child, so that is how we handle each and every student," Penny continued.

A developing religious community, the Sisters of the Fiat, also teach at Immaculata. The sisters take an additional vow to serve those with with special needs, along with the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

The school’s founders say they are aware of their unique witness and role in a world where many children with Down syndrome are aborted. The estimated termination rate for children prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome in the United States is 67 percent; 77 percent in France; and Denmark, 98 percent, according to CBS News.

At the annual March for Life in Washington, DC, students from Immaculata Classical Academy hold signs that read, “Abortion is not the cure for Down syndrome." The students are united in mission as “a pro-life school” and pray together for an end to abortion for their brothers and sisters with Down syndrome around the world, Michalak said.

The Michalaks have also adopted three children with Down syndrome.

Michael sees the founding of a school like Immaculata as the natural Catholic response at a moment in history when children with Down syndrome are especially at risk.

"Look at what the Catholic Church has done throughout history: We see orphans; we build orphanages. We see sick people; we build hospitals. It is in this particular time and place that we saw the need to take the lead on this and to start a school that incorporates the whole family.”

His wife adds, “When you are doing something that you feel called by God to do, it is a vocation, it is a mission, it is a calling...how can you not be full of joy when you know that this is the will of God. It is very rewarding.”

 

This article was originally published on CNA Feb. 2, 2018.

Cardinal DiNardo discharged from hospital, expected to make full recovery

Houston, Texas, Mar 21, 2019 / 08:59 am (CNA).- Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston has been released from the hospital, following a mild stroke last week, his archdiocese announced March 20.

The cardinal, who serves as president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, is expected to make a full recovery.

DiNardo had suffered a stroke on the evening of March 15, while leading Stations of the Cross. He was admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital.

According to the archdiocese, he has now “entered a standard rehabilitation program which usually lasts in the neighborhood of two weeks.”

“I could not be more grateful to the truly wonderful doctors and nurses at St. Joseph’s for their expert care and compassion, which has helped hasten my way down the road to a full recovery,” DiNardo said in a statement released by the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

“I am also doubly thankful for the many kindwishes and especially the prayers that have been directed towards my healing, which I can assure you are making a true difference. I look forward to getting back to work soon and continuing the important work we have before us.”  

DiNardo, 69, was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1977. As a priest, he spent six years working in the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, and became Bishop of Sioux City, Iowa, in 1998. He became coadjutor bishop of Galveston-Houston in 2004, and was installed as archbishop of that archdiocese two years later.

DiNardo became a member of the College of Cardinals in 2007. He was the first Archbishop of Galveston-Houston to be appointed a cardinal.

The cardinal served as vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2013 to 2016. He began his three-year term as president of the conference in 2016.

Chaput to college students: Following God's will is the answer to our dark times

Bismarck, N.D., Mar 21, 2019 / 03:21 am (CNA).- There’s a scene in the middle of the Lord of the Rings, a fantasy series written by Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien, where the quest to destroy an evil, all-powerful ring seems to be utterly hopeless. Darkness and danger have surrounded and hounded Frodo, the little hobbit ultimately given the mission to destroy the ring, ever since he set foot out of the Shire, the idyllic and safe home he left behind for this quest.

This was the scene Archbishop Charles Chaput set for students at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, as he spoke to them about their vocations and the purpose of their lives on Wednesday evening.

In a moment of despair, Chaput noted, Frodo turns to his most faithful friend, Samwise Gamgee, a hobbit who has refused to leave Frodo’s side, and asks him whether it’s even worth continuing with the seemingly impossible mission.

Sam says yes: “Because there’s some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”

The Dakotas, Chaput noted earlier in his address, are much like the idyllic Shire from which those hobbits hail: safe, in many ways idyllic, and almost never the center of attention.

“I’ve served as bishop in three different dioceses, and each has been a great blessing of friends and experiences. I’ve loved them all. But my first love is the Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota,” Chaput said.

“There’s a beauty and sanity to the Dakotas that you can’t find anywhere else. I also think the devil tends to focus on places like New York and Washington and to see places like Bismarck as less important – which is his mistake. It means a lot of very good things can get done here, right under his nose,” he said.

But just as the Hobbits did not remain in the Shire, Chaput noted, so too are Christians eventually called to go out from their homes and places of formation to engage the world and spread the Gospel.

“The day comes when (the Hobbits are) called out of their homes and into a great war between good and evil for the soul of the wider world – a war in which they play the decisive role, precisely because they’re small and so seemingly unimportant,” he said.

But the outside world is in desperate need of remaking, Chaput noted, including from within the Catholic Church.

The recent barrage of sex abuse scandals in the Church can make these seem like very dark times, he said.

“A lot of very good people are angry with their leaders in the Church over the abuse scandal, and justly so. I don’t want to diminish that anger because we need it; it has healthy and righteous roots,” he said.

But the right response to that righteous anger is not a poisonous resentment, but rather a response of humility and love that purifies the individual as well as the Church, he said, much like St. Catherine of Siena, who through her holiness and persistence convinced the Pope to move back to Rome.

“God calls all of us not just to renew the face of the earth with his Spirit, but to renew the heart of the Church with our lives; to make her young and beautiful again and again, so that she shines with his love for the world. That’s our task. That’s our calling. That’s what a vocation is – a calling from God with our name on it.”

There is also much darkness in the world that comes from outside the Church, Chaput noted.

“American life today is troubled by three great questions: What is love? What is truth? And who is Jesus Christ?” he said. “The secular world has answers to each of those great questions. And they’re false.”

The world defines love solely with emotions and sexual compatibility, while it defines truth as something that can only be observed through objective, measurable data, he said. The world also says Jesus Christ was a good man in a long line of good teachers, but is ultimately just a nice superstitious belief rather than a real person who is the Son of God and Savior of the world.

“The key thing about all these secular answers is this: They’re not only false, but dangerous. They reduce our human spirit to our appetites. They lower the human imagination and the search for meaning to what we can consume. And because the human heart hungers for a meaning that secular culture can’t provide, we anesthetize that hunger with noise and drugs and sex and distractions. But the hunger always comes back,” he said.

The secular world offers easy answers, he noted, but it does not offer satisfying answers to some of the most deeply human questions one could ask: “Why am I here, what does my life mean, why do the people I love grow old and die, and will I ever see them again? The secular world has no satisfying answer to any of these questions. Nor does it even want us to ask such questions because of its self-imposed blindness; it cannot tolerate a higher order than itself -- to do so would obligate it to behave in ways it does not want to behave. And so it hates, as Cain did, those who seek to live otherwise.”

The answer to all of these questions, Chaput said, is not some theory or equation but the person of Jesus Christ.

“He’s the only reliable guide for our journey through the world. Christians follow him as the Apostles did because in him and in his example, God speaks directly to us and leads us on the way home to his kingdom. To put it another way, Jesus is not only the embodiment of God, but also the embodiment of who we are meant to be.”

And Jesus’ message is that each life is “unrepeatable and precious [and has] a meaning and a purpose that God intends only for you. Only for you,” he said.

For many people, this will mean living out the vocation of marriage, and witnessing to Christ among family, friends and places of work, “and you’ll make your mark on the world with an everyday witness of Christian life,” he said.

“Marriage and family are profoundly good things,” he added, and laypeople are called not just to be “helpers” of holier clergy, but to share an equal responsibility in furthering the mission of the Church.

“Remember that as you consider your future,” he said.

God also calls some to be radical witnesses of holiness in the priesthood or consecrated religious life, he said.

“Religious are a living witness to radical conversion and radical love; a constant proof that the Beatitudes are more than just beautiful ideals, but rather the path to a new and better kind of life,” he said.

“And priests have the privilege of holding the God of creation in their hands. Without priests, there is no Eucharist. Without the Eucharist, there is no Church. And without the Church as a living and organized community, there is no presence of Jesus Christ in the world.”

The keys to finding one’s vocation and purpose in life are silence and prayer, which make room for God’s voice, he said.

“Making time for silence and prayer should be the main Lenten practice for all of us – but especially for anyone seeking God’s will for his or her own life.”

So rather than bemoaning the fact that times are bad, Chaput urged the students to remember that they are living at this time for a reason, and can by their holiness and witness of their lives reshape the times.

“As a bishop, St. Augustine lived at a time when the whole world seemed to be falling apart, and the Church herself was struggling with bitter theological divisions. But whenever his people would complain about the darkness of the times, he’d remind them that the times are made by the choices and actions of the people who inhabit them,” he said.

“In other words, we make the times. We’re the subjects of history, not merely its objects. And unless we consciously work to make the times better with the light of Jesus Christ, then the times will make us worse with their darkness.”

“There’s some good in the world, and it’s worth fighting for,” Chaput reiterated, again recalling the Lord of the Rings. “That’s a pretty good description of the vocation God asks from each of us.”

 

Migrants are revitalizing the Church in Chile, missionary priest says

Santiago, Chile, Mar 21, 2019 / 12:31 am (CNA).- For six years, Fr. Marcio Toniazzo has worked as the director of immigration services for the Archdiocese of Santiago in Chile.

In that time, he says he has witnessed “a good marriage…between migration and Chile,” in which “both [have] had to reinvent themselves.”

Toniazzo, a priest with the Congregation of the Missionaries of Saint Charles Scalabrinians, spoke with ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish language sister agency, as he concludes his work in the Latin American country.

He said that in his work to help foreigners integrate and assimilate in Chilean culture, he has found that “God was providential with the Church in Chile, because migration is what is revitalizing the Church in the midst of its crisis.”

“The migrant is the one who is working to help incorporate, integrate, improve, heal and go forward,” he said. “The migrant has given a new dynamism to the faith and a clear example is the choirs they have joined in the communities. It’s with that participation that they find a way of showing their love for God and to live the faith through music.”

The energy in the workplace, the cuisine available, and culture that Chile is experiencing “show that migrants came to contribute and have a life experience,” he reflected.

Chile’s economic and political stability has made it a major destination for Latin American immigrants. Politicians in the last year have proposed cracking down on immigration through tighter border control and increased restrictions on access to social services for immigrants.

Toniazzo himself is an immigrant, originally from Brazil. During his time in Chile, he has directed the Chilean Catholic Institute for Migration and served as pastor at a parish.

He has also witnessed the development of the Integrated Center to Serve Migrants, which includes two shelters for men and women, an employment exchange for migrants, and activities to support the assimilation of foreigners and enhance parish work with diverse communities.

This growth has been joyful for the priest. But he has also witnessed moments of sadness, particularly in seeing the limited resources and capacity for immediate housing assistance and food available to migrants who have come to Chile with high hopes.

“As a country, we don’t have enough places to receive and care for the children who come with their mothers, or pregnant women. Many of them have nowhere to live,” he said.

“The big challenge now for immigration is inculturation, an encounter between those who arrive and those who receive them. How to help each other so there is cohesion and a family is formed, a Pentecost and not a Tower of Babel,” he reflected.

Concluding his assignment in Chile, Toniazzo is now headed to Miami, where he will begin a new pastoral ministry with the Brazilian community there.

He said he is both fearful and anxious about migrating the U.S. and starting over with a new country and culture and he works to spread the Gospel.

At the same time, he is grateful for his experiences in Chile and all the volunteers there who “are working in a committed and dedicated manner to advance God’s work” in the two shelters and in the parish.

Toniazzo said he hopes their work will continue to bear fruit, guided by “the words of Jesus: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’.”

“To welcome the migrant is to welcome Christ,” he said. “There can be a lot of difficulties, problems, dissatisfaction and challenges – but Christ is in the migrant and all the good that is done. God doesn’t forget it.”

 

This article was originally published by our sister agency, ACI Prensa. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

 

US bishops: Equality Act will hurt more than help

Washington D.C., Mar 20, 2019 / 02:16 pm (CNA).- In a March 20 letter to members of the U.S. Senate, three bishops warned that while the proposed Equality Act purports to address issues of discrimination, it would actually create new problems and threaten fundamental freedoms.

“This proposed legislation does not accomplish what its supporters assert, but rather creates new difficulties and will hurt more people than its designers want to help,” the bishops said, urging Senators to oppose the bill.

The Equality Act, reintroduced in Congress this month, would add anti-discrimination protections for sexual orientation and gender identity to existing protections for race, color, national origin, sex, disability and religion.

It would apply not just to employment, but other areas like housing, jury duty, credit, and education, as well as at retail stores, emergency shelters, banks, transit and pharmacies, among others. It would also specify facility access for self-identified transgender persons, such as access to male and female bathrooms.

David Cicilline, D-R.I., is the bill’s main sponsor in the House, NBC News reports. As of March 13, the bill had 239 co-sponsors in the House.

The March letter to the U.S. Senate was signed by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ religious liberty committee; Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, head of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage; and Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

“As a nation we have a laudable history of confronting and overcoming unjust discrimination and attempting to balance the rights of various groups,” the bishops said.

“As Catholics, we share in this work of justice. It is our firm belief that each and every person should be treated with dignity and respect,” including the right to gainful employment with discrimination and the right to services necessary to maintain health and safety, they said. “In this, we whole-heartedly support nondiscrimination to ensure that everyone’s rights are protected.”

But instead of providing these protections, the Equality Act would create broad regulations that would harm society, they warned.

“The Act’s definitions alone would remove women and girls from protected legal existence. Furthermore, the Act also fails to recognize the difference between the person – who has dignity and is entitled to recognition of it – and the actions of a person, which have ethical and social ramifications. Conflating the two will introduce a plethora of further legal complications.”

The legislation would threaten the right to free speech, conscience and exercise of religion by making illegal certain beliefs about the human person - held by many individuals and groups, the bishops said. It would particularly threaten religious freedom, a foundational principle of the American founding, by exempting itself from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a move that the bishops noted is “unprecedented.”

Also dangerous, they said, is the lack of criteria for “gender identity,” which could open the door for abuses in restrooms and locker rooms.

“This risk arises not so much from those who experience gender incongruence, but from others who would take malicious advantage of open-door policies in these private spaces,” they stated.

The Equality Act would also put many charitable organizations at risk, requiring that homeless shelters place biological men with vulnerable women and adoption agencies place children with same-sex couples, even if this violates their beliefs and the birth mother’s wishes, the bishops said.

“The resulting closures of such charitable services would be unconscionable – especially when the opioid crisis is leaving more and more children in need of foster care.”

The legislation could threaten professionals in the wedding industry, such as cake bakers, photographers, and florists, who will serve all customers but cannot express messages to which they object. It would require health professionals to provide “gender transition” treatments and surgeries in violation of their medical and ethical judgments.

“Given all of these effects, we strongly oppose the Equality Act and respectfully urge you to oppose it as well,” the bishops wrote to the Senate. “We pray that wisdom will inform your deliberations on these matters and we readily stand with you, and are willing to assist you, in developing compassionate and just means to eradicate unjust discrimination and harassment from our country.”

Colombian diocese has served 1 million meals to Venezuelan migrants

Cucuta, Colombia, Mar 20, 2019 / 12:11 pm (CNA).- The Diocese of Cúcuta in Colombia reported this week that it has provided 1 million meals to Venezuelan migrants affected by the humanitarian crisis in their country.

In a statement released March 18, the diocese thanked the volunteers and donors who since June 5, 2017, have provided support to those affected by the emergency at the Colombian-Venezuelan border.

“As the Holy Father Francis has well reminded us, the Church is like a field hospital where wounded people come seeking the goodness and closeness of God,” Bishop Víctor Manuel Ochoa Cadavid said in the statement.

Since Nicolas Maduro succeeded Hugo Chávez as president of Venezuela in 2013, the country has been marred by violence and social upheaval. Under the socialist government, the country has seen hyperinflation and severe shortages of food, medicine, and other necessities, and millions have emigrated.

Currently, thousands of Venezuelan citizens live on the remittances that relatives send them from abroad. However, only a maximum of 6,000 bolivars a day can be withdrawn from the bank, the equivalent of about $2.00.

Colombia has been a major destination for Venezuelans fleeing their home.

The Diocese of Cúcuta is serving the migrants through the Divine Providence House of Transit in addition to eight parish soup kitchens.

Speaking on RCN Radio March 19, Fr. David Cañas, the coordinator of the Divine Providence House, said that between 3,800 and 4,200 people arrive daily, starting very early, in search of food.

“Previously between 3,000 and 3,500 used to come (…) despite the blockades on the international bridges” that join Colombia and Venezuela, the priest said.

Bishop Ochoa voiced gratitude for “the 800 Catholic volunteers, men and women religious, priests and deacons, donors, coordinated by Fr. José David Caña Pérez, [who] make it possible for the Diocese of Cúcuta to become a prophetic witness of the charity of the Church.”

“The Lord in his infinite goodness blesses the families of Cucuta through the generosity and availability which they have had since the beginning of the border crisis in order to serve their neighbor with love,” he said.

He also thanked the institutions that have donated food, money, and resources to make the program possible: the World Food Program, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Caritas International, Adveniat, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

On March 19, in a meeting with migrants and volunteers at the Divine Providence House, Bishop Ochoa praised the 800 volunteers who have given their time to serve those in need.

“It’s the work of the Catholic Church…it’s the work of the Church for the beloved people of Venezuela… we ask you to pray for the people that help us help others.”

Amid continued Midwest flooding, Catholic groups step up to help

Omaha, Neb., Mar 20, 2019 / 05:06 am (CNA).- As devastating flood waters continue to rise in parts of the Midwest, Catholics are working to raise funds for both short-term aid and long-term rebuilding efforts.

“Please join Archbishop [George] Lucas in praying for all those displaced or otherwise affected by the ongoing flooding,” said the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska.

A special collection in Omaha this weekend will help fund recovery efforts. Parishes have been asked to evaluate needs in their communities and request funds for both immediate recovery needs and long-term rebuilding.

“Grants may be distributed to purchase water, food, shelter, cleaning supplies, tools, building materials, and tuition assistance for displaced employees,” said archdiocesan spokesman Deacon Tim McNeil said.

He added that funds can go not only to the immediate needs of parishes, but to help with broader community assistance.

Nebraska has been among the hardest-hit states by severe flooding in recent days, although several other Midwestern states have also been affected as a “bomb cyclone” tore through the region last week, bringing with it strong winds and heavy rain. The floods that have resulted have washed out roads, destroyed homes, and burst dams, compounding the damage throughout the area.

The majority of counties in Nebraska are currently under a state of emergency, as are nearly half of the counties in Iowa.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said the storm has already caused “the most extensive damage our state has ever experienced.” Repairing damaged infrastructure could take months, and agricultural losses in ranching and growing crops could reach nearly $1 billion.

As residents scramble to evacuate, watching their livelihoods wash away in front of their eyes, their neighbors are doing what they can to offer support.

Catholic Social Services of Southern Nebraska is currently holding a bottled water drive to help students at Peru State College, who have been displaced for several days and are facing contaminated water for the foreseeable future.

The organization is also accepting donations to aid those who are suffering from the flooding.

“It is at times like these that we are all called to help our friends, relatives and neighbors who are suffering,” Catholic Social Services said in a statement. “Please help us help those who have lost so much.”

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Elkhorn, Nebraska, is teaming up with Bethany Lutheran, Brookside, Peace Presbyterian and COPE to help with long-term rebuilding support for flood victims.

Proceeds from the March 15 Lenten Fish Fry at St. Patrick’s were donated to flood relief efforts.

Meanwhile, northwestern counties in the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph are in the path of the flood waters.

“The towns are preparing,” said Kevin Murphy, executive director of marketing and communications for Catholic Charities in the diocese.

He told CNA that the major highway in the area has been closed, as the Missouri River is expected to reach near-record flooding levels.

Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph could also be feeling the effects of the flooding in a very direct way - the organization's satellite office in Buchanan County sits just about 5000 feet from the river.

“We are monitoring the situation closely,” Murphy said.

Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, head of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, offered his prayers as the floods continue, while also calling Catholics to participate in relief efforts.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of life and the damage caused by the flooding throughout the Midwest these past few days,” he said in a March 19 statement.

The bishop prayed “that those affected by the floods will find the strength to rebuild.”

“We trust that the Lord will console them in their suffering,” he said. “Let us answer the Lord’s call to love one another and generously support our neighbors in this time of need.”

He noted that Catholic Charities USA is collecting funds to help flood victims throughout the entire region.
 

Federal court reaffirms tax exempt clergy housing allowances

Chicago, Ill., Mar 19, 2019 / 05:02 pm (CNA).- The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld tax-free housing allowances for clergy, a decision welcomed by pastors, religious organizations, and others who say the allowances make their ministries affordable and strengthen limits on the ability of government policy to interfere with clergy.
 
The law’s effect is “neither to endorse nor to inhibit religion, and it does not cause excessive government entanglement,” the March 15 decision said, adding that Congress has provided federal tax exemptions for religious organizations since 1802.
 
The federal law challenged in court is the Administrative Procedure Act of 1954. It provides that a “minister of the gospel” does not pay income taxes on compensation designated as a housing allowance. Religious leaders save about $800 million in taxes a year due to the benefit, the Associated Press said.
 
Among those who benefit are Pastor Chris Butler of Chicago Embassy Church, on the south side of Chicago, Ill.
 
“This ruling is a victory not just for my church but for the needy south side Chicago community we serve — our youth, our single mothers, our homeless, our addicted, and our victims of gang violence,” Butler said in a statement. “I am grateful that I can continue serving them and living side by side with them to make our neighborhood a safer, more peaceful place.”
 
The religious freedom legal group Becket had intervened on behalf of Butler’s and several other congregations. His church cannot afford a full salary for him, so the housing allowance makes it possible to live near his church.
 
The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation has been challenging the law for a decade, the Associated Press reports. It argued that the law discriminates against secular employees. It argued that clergy can used untaxed income to buy a home and deduct interest paid on mortgage and property taxes, which constitutes “double dipping.”
 
The group is deciding whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
 
Its leadership saw the decision as a significant defeat.
 
“It’s a blow,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told the Associated Press.
 
In 2013 comments on the case, Gaylor criticized “some of these mega-church pastors with huge mansions” who can be paid “an enormous amount in housing allowances.”
 
In 2017 U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that the exemption is an unconstitutional benefit to religious persons and no one else, thus violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
 
The three appeals court judges who upheld the law are Republican appointees.
 
The Becket legal group’s arguments in favor of the exception cited treatment of other employers.
 
For the past century, both Congress and the IRS have recognized the convenience-of-the-employer doctrine, which upholds that employees may exclude housing benefits from their income if the benefits contribute to the convenience of the employer. This doctrine has been applied to religious and non-religious groups alike.
 
Becket argued that if the housing allowance is ended, then the IRS would be discriminating particularly against religious leaders, since other secular workers receive a similar exemption.
 
Holy Cross Anglican Church in Wisconsin and the Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia were among Becket’s other clients in the case.
 
Other backers of the law include the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom.
 
“The power to tax is the power to destroy, and so refusing to tax a minister’s housing expenses is simply the best way to ensure the free exercise of religion and prevent the excessive entanglement of government with religion,” Erik Stanley, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said in response to Friday’s ruling.
 
Stanley, who is also director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries, backed the court decision on the grounds that “declining to tax the housing support money that congregations provide to their ministers is not in any way a government establishment of a particular religion or any religion.”
 
Its amicus brief in the case, Gaylor v. Mnuchin, was submitted on behalf of nearly 8,900 ministers and churches.
 
The ADF amicus brief “demonstrated just how many ministers would be directly and negatively affected if those attacking the housing allowance were to prevail,” said Stanley.
 
“The 7th Circuit was certainly right to recognize ‘that the survival of many congregations hangs in the balance’,” he said.
 
The legal group noted that the court decision said a tax exemption does not “connote sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the government in religious activity.”
 
“Congressional action to minimize governmental interference with the decision-making process in religions…does not violate the Establishment Clause,” the ruling said.