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Sin starts with giving in to small temptations, Pope Francis warns

Vatican City, Apr 4, 2020 / 03:51 am (CNA).- Before we commit a sin, there were usually small temptations which we let grow in our soul, eventually making excuses for ourselves and our fall, Pope Francis said during Mass Saturday.

“That process which makes us change our hearts from good to bad, which takes us downhill,” he said April 4, is “something which grows, slowly grows, then infects others and ultimately excuses itself.”

Speaking from the chapel of his Vatican residence, the Casa Santa Marta, the pope advised first seeking forgiveness, and then reflecting on the temptations which preceded your fall into sin, considering also whether you have led others to sin.

“When we find ourselves in a sin, in a fall, yes, we must go to ask the Lord for forgiveness, it is the first [step] that we must take,” he urged.

But then ask yourselves, he said: “How did I come to fall there? How did this process start in my soul? How did it grow? Who have I infected? And how in the end did I justify myself for falling?”

Francis argued that “the devil is cunning” and usually tempts people to sin gradually: “it starts with a little thing, with a desire, an idea grows, infects others and ultimately, justifies itself.”

This process of temptation is illustrated in the day’s Gospel from St. John, he said.

In the Gospel, the chief priests and the Pharisees have met to discuss Jesus, who is causing them anxiety because through his signs, many Jews have begun to believe in him, and they feel they must do something.

The high priest Caiphas said Jesus should be killed, defending the decision with his prophecy, saying “it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people.”

Quoting the Gospel, Francis said “from that day therefore they decided to kill him.”

He explained that the Pharisees and chief priests justified killing Jesus to themselves, because if they did not, the occupying Romans “will destroy our temple and our nation,” but what brought them to this decision was a gradual process that “began with small concerns in the time of John the Baptist and then ended in this assembly.”

After this meeting, “everyone went home quietly,” the pope noted. They felt this was the decision they had to make.

This, the pope said, is “a figure of how temptation operates in us.”

Before Mass, Francis had noted that in difficult times, such as the present coronavirus pandemic, people are given the opportunity to do good.

But there are also plenty of people, he said, who take advantage of the moment for their own profit.

“Let us pray today that the Lord give us all a righteous conscience, a transparent conscience, which can be seen by God without being ashamed,” he urged.

In his homily, the pope recalled once again that behind every sin there is temptation, “which started small, which has grown.”

“All of us, when we are overcome by temptation, end up calm, because we have found a justification for this sin, for this sinful attitude, for this life not according to the law of God. We should have the habit of seeing this process of temptation in us,” he advised, adding that “the Holy Spirit enlightens us in this inner knowledge.”

 

Palm supplier sees business halved by coronavirus cancelations

Denver, Colo., Apr 3, 2020 / 11:55 pm (CNA).- Thomas Sowell and his wife own Southeast Palm and Foliage in Astor, Florida, in the middle of the state, about 40 miles west of Daytona Beach.

“It's in the middle of nowhere, actually,” Sowell told CNA in January.

Sowell isn’t Catholic, but his business supplies palms to hundreds of Catholic parishes across the country— in every state, as well as in Canada— not to mention the many Episcopal, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutheran communities that also use palms.

Last year, the Sowells’ farm shipped over four million palm leaves.

“There's not many of us that do this. There's not many people, not many companies do what we do,” Sowell told CNA.

“I know that there have been, over the past, say, 50 years, quite a few other companies embark upon this, but for whatever reason they couldn't hang in there with it. It's really difficult.”

Sowell never imagined how difficult this year’s harvest would turn out to be.

Amid the coronavirus outbreak, and with Mass suspended through Holy Week in every Catholic diocese in the United States, the Sowell’s business is taking a hit.

“We had an incredible number of cancellations up until two weeks ago,” he told CNA April 2.

Most of his orders for Palm Sunday come in during January, he said. This gives the palm suppliers the chance to harvest the palms, package them, and refrigerate them so they stay fresh before they’re shipped.

Normally, some of the biggest challenges to Tom’s business are natural, such as hurricanes and flooding. In terms of the weather, this was a great harvest year, he said, and they were able to gather all the necessary palms to fulfil the Palm Sunday orders they originally had. The process of cutting, cleaning and preparing the strips of palm is incredibly labor intensive.

But then, as the coronavirus pandemic took a hold in the US, parishes started canceling those orders.

“So here we are with an incredible amount of palms left over that were scheduled to be prepared and shipped...we just lost that,” Sowell said.

Altogether, Sowell said his family will likely ship fewer than half the palms they did last year.

“It's unbelievable. It's hard to grasp what's going on globally,” he said.

Though Sowell also uses leftover palms to create ashes for Ash Wednesday, he has such a large enough stockpile of ash— eight to ten years worth, in fact— that he said it doesn’t make sense to burn any more palms, especially since ash doesn’t go bad.

All the extra palms are currently in a dumpster on his property. The only thing he can really do with them, he said, is use them as fertilizer for next year’s crop.

“So we'll just take them out, spend a few days to drive through the areas where they came from and just scatter them back out again,” he said.

Kate Olivera contributed to this report.

U.S. religious freedom ambassador calls for release of prisoners of conscience

Washington D.C., Apr 3, 2020 / 07:00 pm (CNA).- The U.S. religious freedom ambassador on Thursday called on governments to release prisoners of conscience during the new coronavirus pandemic.

“In this time of pandemic, religious prisoners should be released.  We call on all governments around the world to do so,” Sam Brownback, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, said on April 2 during a conference call with reporters.

He said that the “very crowded, unsanitary conditions” faced by some prisoners is a nightmare scenario during a pandemic.

“These are people that should not be in jail in the first place,” he said. “They are simply in jail for peacefully practicing their faith, and yet various regimes put these peaceful prisoners in jail.”

An official U.S. list of global prisoners of conscience was mandated under the 2016 Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, authored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.).

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan federal commission that makes policy recommendations to the State Department, is charged with creating the list. USCIRF says the list is “in formation.”

Brownback did note specific areas of concern for prisoners of conscience, however, he praised Iran’s furloughing of 100,000 prisoners of conscience, but added that some “high-profile religious prisoners” are still detained there.

In China, as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities are detained in camps in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province (XUAR) in the country’s northwest.

Although the country has officially reported only 76 COVID-19 cases in the region, diaspora groups are concerned that the actual number of cases is much higher—and of the potential for the disease to spread in the mass internment camps where hunger and torture have been reported.  

Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong members have also been imprisoned for their faith in China, and should be released, Brownback said.

He also called on the government of Vietnam to release 128 prisoners of conscience, for Russia to release “nearly around 240 prisoners of conscience,” Eritrea to release 40 prisoners, and for Indonesia to release more than 150 people detained for violating the country’s blasphemy laws.

When asked by reporters if he was concerned about any countries in particular, Brownback responded “Iran, simply because it’s got hit big early and you’ve got a number of notorious prisons that are there that are quite overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.”

“North Korea has a very high number [of prisoners],” Brownback said, who “would be under exceeding exposure to COVID.”

Vulnerable religious populations elsewhere could also be at risk of the pandemic, he said, including Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh. “When we talk about a crowded place,” he said, “if COVID got going there it would just spread like wildfire.”

A Nigerian cardinal, he said, also commented that the country would not have the resources necessary to deal with a serious outbreak.

USCIRF has also voiced concerns that governments could use the pandemic to crack down on religious minorities, or violate freedom of religion.

The commission issued a fact-sheet on March 16 outlining some of its concerns, including Muslim Uyghurs being forced to work on factories around China despite health concerns, churches in South Korea subject to harassment for their alleged role in spreading the virus, and Saudi Arabia issuing a travel ban on a predominantly Shi’a Muslim province.

But on Thursday, Brownback said that, according to “anecdotal information,” governments around the world were not citing the pandemic to crack down on religious minorities.

He said that “fortunately the reporting that we are seeing is that governments are, by and large, not doing that and in some cases being more lenient towards religious minorities.”

He also called on churches and religions around the world to practice “social distancing” to slow the spread of the virus.

“I haven’t been to mass myself in several weeks, and it’s the longest period I’ve gone without going to mass, and I think people should be doing this to stop the spread of the virus,” Brownback said.

Filipino seminary shelters tourists trapped on holiday

CNA Staff, Apr 3, 2020 / 06:19 pm (CNA).- A Filipino seminary has opened its doors to over a dozen trapped tourists, who have been stranded since a mandatory lockdown was extended last month.

Saint Joseph Seminary in Puerto Princesa is providing shelter to 18 people now stranded in Palawan province following a forced extension to their holiday.

The tourists began their vacation March 11, but government orders placed Palawan on a more enhanced lockdown, canceling all domestic and international flights March 17-April 12.

Instead of returning home, the travelers were staying at guest houses until they ran out of money for food and lodging. Local officials then asked help from the Vicariate Apostolic of Puerto Princesa.

“I told them that we are ready to help and they can stay as long as they need shelter. The seminary will be open to cater to the needs of people in a similar situation, especially in this time of crisis,” said Father Roy Vasquez, the seminary rector, according to the UCA News.

While resources are limited, the priest expressed hope for future donations and gratitude for those who have been kind enough to share already.

“Of course, our resources are limited. So, eventually when they run out, we will ask for help or donations. But so far people are sharing their blessings, so we are really very thankful,” he said.

NY Catholic nursing homes in 'desperate need' of supplies to fight coronavirus

New York City, N.Y., Apr 3, 2020 / 05:30 pm (CNA).- The threat of the coronavirus has hit nursing homes of the Archdiocese of New York especially hard, with families now being advised to bring their loved ones home if possible.

Fr. John Anderson, vice president for mission integration at ArchCare, a “post-acute delivery system” of the Archdiocese of New York, told CNA on Friday that the system’s CEO has advised families with loved ones in ArchCare nursing homes to bring them home if they can be cared for there.

NBC News reported on Thursday that ArchCare’s nursing homes have been especially hard-hit by the crisis, with more than 200 COVID-19 cases among residents.

“Our nursing homes are desperately in need of PPE [personal protective equipment],” Fr. John Anderson told CNA.

As to whether families are starting to bring their loved ones home, “I have not seen a lot of that going on,” Fr. Anderson told CNA on Friday.

ArchCare serves 9,000 people each day in nursing homes, a long-term care program, and a specialty hospital.

New York City has become the epicenter of the U.S. pandemic, with the number of confirmed cases skyrocketing from more than 5,700 cases on March 20 to more than 57,000 confirmed cases and 1,584 deaths as of April 3.

Yet a lack of PPE—particularly in nursing homes—poses a critical problem for chaplains. The shortage is so acute in the region that health care staff have been asked to use one mask all week long when they would previously have changed it between patients.

The health department “asked us to not only use it [the mask] all week, but to do whatever we can to use it the week after,” Fr. Anderson said.

Availability of PPE makes the difference between chaplains’ ability to have a face-to-face visit with a sick patient, or to stand in the doorway a safe distance away, he said. Without PPE, priests cannot administer the sacrament of anointing of the sick which requires the direct anointing of the patient with blessed oil.

“Chaplains are there to pray,” he said, but “can only spend so much time with a patient” during the crisis.

Two ArchCare chaplains have tested positive for COVID-19, he said, but other archdiocesan priests have volunteered their services, “very willing to help.” The archdiocese is also monitoring the situation for elderly nuns in convents, who are more susceptible to the virus.

Another difficulty is families of sick patients not being able to visit them in the hospital or nursing home—“hard to see,” Fr. Anderson said.

There are also no funerals, but simply burials with up to 10 people who can attend, spaced apart.

With Easter approaching, nursing home residents and hospital patients may not be able to attend Mass in person but are still ministering to patients as best they can.

“We have gotten palms” for nursing home residents, Fr. Anderson said ahead of Palm Sunday, with accompanying prayer cards in English and Spanish. Priests will also offer Holy Week Masses in a chapel to be filmed and projected onto living room TVs for the elderly patients.

The Order of Malta is making Easter cards for residents in one program, Fr. Andreson said, while the Knights of Columbus are also making Easter cards for patients.

“Folks have been very generous and have really come forward,” he said.

New York uses budget bill to legalize commercial surrogacy during coronavirus

CNA Staff, Apr 3, 2020 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- The state of New York legalized commercial surrogacy as part of a budget bill passed on April 3. The law was condemned by the state Catholic conference. There are now just three states where commercial surrogacy is not legal. 

“The action by the legislature and governor to legalize monetary contracts for surrogate motherhood stands in stark contrast to most other democratic nations across the globe,” Kathleen Gallagher, director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference said in a statement Friday.

“[Other countries] have outlawed the practice because of the exploitation of women and commodification of children that inevitably results from the profit-driven surrogacy industry,” she said.

The New York State Catholic Conference represents the bishops of New York state in matters related to public policy. 

Gallagher criticized the inclusion of legal commercial surrogacy in a budget bill during the COVID-19 pandemic. New York has more cases of coronavirus than any other U.S. state, and has seen nearly 3,000 people die from the disease. 

“We simply do not believe that such a critical legal and moral decision for our state should have been made behind the closed doors of a Capitol shut off to the public,” she said. “The new law is bad for women and children, and the process is terrible for democracy.” 

In January, Gallagher was critical of the bill, calling it “a dangerous policy that will lead to the exploitation of poor, vulnerable women, and has few safeguards for children.” There are no safeguards such as residency requirements and background checks for surrogate parents, the conference points out.

“The surrogacy legislation is designed mainly to benefit wealthy men who can afford tens of thousands of dollars to pay baby brokers, at the expense of low-income women,” said Gallagher in a January 8 statement. 

Previously, New York was one of four states that prohibited contracts that would pay surrogate mothers to carry and deliver an unrelated child that would be then placed with a different family. 

Louisiana, Michigan, and Nebraska are the only states that now do not allow commercial surrogacy.

Gestational surrogacy typically uses a “donor” egg, rather than the surrogate’s ovum, to avoid legal complications if the surrogate were to decide she no longer wants to surrender the child to the “intended parents.” 

The donor egg is then fertilized and implanted in the surrogate using in-vitro fertilization (IVF). 

Regarding the practice of IVF, the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2376 teaches that:

“Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife, by the intrusion of a person other than the couple (donation of sperm or ovum, surrogate uterus), are gravely immoral. These techniques (heterologous artificial insemination and fertilization) infringe the child's right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage. They betray the spouses' ‘right to become a father and a mother only through each other.’”

Previously, all surrogacy in New York was known as “altruistic” surrogacy as the surrogate mother could not be paid for carrying the child. 

One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale), said that the passage of commercial surrogacy was a move to “bring New York in line with the needs of modern families, while simultaneously enacting the strongest protections in the nation for surrogates.” 

Under the new law, those wishing to use a surrogate must pay for her life insurance during the pregnancy and for one year after giving birth, and the “intended parents” must pay for legal counsel for the surrogate mother. Surrogates must be at least 21 years of age. 

Paulin has worked on legalizing commercial surrogacy for 14 years, and first introduced legislation to legalize the practice in 2012. 

She said her bill would provide “the opportunity to have a family in New York and not travel around the country, incurring exorbitant costs simply because they want to be parents.” 

Surrogacy costs range from $55,000 to nearly a quarter of a million dollars. 

In addition to the legalization of commercial surrogacy, the budget bill also banned plastic foam containers and flavored vaping products, instituted new paid sick leave requirements, expanded wage mandates, and introduced new policies that make it more difficult for third parties to qualify for ballots. 

The legalization of commercial surrogacy goes into effect on February 15, 2021.

'Catholics for Trump' launches with online broadcast

Washington D.C., Apr 3, 2020 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- The “Catholics for Trump” coalition was officially launched on Thursday evening in an online broadcast.

The coalition, led by American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and political consultant Mary Matalin, says it aims to “energize” the Catholic community in the U.S. to re-elect Donald Trump.

The 2020 Catholics for Trump group said it aims to focus on its view that the president’s policies model and reflect Catholic social teaching.

“The best president we’ve ever had for Catholics and Catholic values—and by that I mean those are American values—has been President Trump,” Matalin said.

The 2020 presidential election is predicted to be a tight race, and recent polling shows Catholics split over Trump’s reelection.

In February, polling conducted by RealClear Opinion Research for EWTN News asked Catholics about their plans for the 2020 election.

Among all Catholics surveyed, Trump had a 47% net approval rating and 46% said they would certainly or likely vote for him in November. 46% of Catholics also said they would not vote for Trump, or it was unlikely they would do so.

Those numbers broke down differently amongst various demographics. Among Catholics who said they accept all the Church’s teachings, 63% strongly or somewhat approved of Trump’s job as president and 59% said they would certainly vote for him in November.

Among Hispanic Catholics, Trump had a 29% net approval rating, and 34% said they would certainly or likely vote for him in November. 

In the lead-up to his reelection campaign, the president has been widely praised by some Catholics, especially those edified by his appearance at the 2020 March for Life - the first time a president has appeared at the event, and those who praise the administration’s initiatives on issues related to religious liberty and education. Other Catholics, however, have criticized Trump’s policy positions on immigration, and his personal comportment, which many characterize as divisive.

The U.S. bishops have issued both statements of criticism and praise for the Trump administration.

The president has had a rocky relationship with Catholics from the start of his candidacy in the 2016 election. When Pope Francis made a February, 2016 visit to the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump called the pope “political” and a “pawn” of the Mexican government, and talked of building a border wall.

During an inflight news conference on his trip back to Rome, Pope Francis said that “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.”

While Trump drew support from some prominent Catholics during his 2016 campaign, especially those advocating for pro-life policies, others, including some prominent conservative Catholics, were critical of the Trump campaign. 

In March 2016, as Trump’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate gained momentum, prominent Catholic intellectuals Robert George and George Weigel wrote “an appeal to our fellow Catholics,” arguing that Trump “is manifestly unfit to be President of the United States.” They cited the “vulgarity” of his campaign, “appeals to racial and ethnic fears and prejudice,” and a lack of confidence in his pro-life and pro-religious freedom credentials.

Although initial reports claimed that Trump won the Catholic vote in 2016, a 2020 RealClear Opinion Research poll sponsored by EWTN found that, of the Catholics surveyed nationwide, Hillary Clinton won the Catholic vote in 2016 with 48% to Trump’s 46%.

Just after Trump was elected president in November 2016, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles noted the fears of immigrants at a prayer service, saying that “men and women are worried and anxious, thinking about where they can run and hide. This is happening tonight, in America.” He pledged to “our brothers and sisters who are undocumented – we will never leave you alone.”

U.S. bishops, including Gomez, have continued to raise concern about the administration’s immigration policy, though in 2018, Gomez did praise an executive order from the White House calling for an end to family separation policies, and called for bipartisan congressional action on immigration reform.

In 2017 Pope Francis received Trump in a Vatican audience.

According to a May 24, 2017 Vatican communique, Pope Francis and Trump expressed satisfaction "for the good existing bilateral relations between the Holy See and the United States of America, as well as the joint commitment in favor of life, and freedom of worship and conscience."

Earlier this year, Vice President Mike Pence also met with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

On Thursday, Catholics for Trump leaders promised to make the group a “movement,” and to demonstrate that Trump is upholding Catholic social teaching by preventing “activist” judges in the courts, protecting religious institutions from coercive government mandates, upholding pro-life policies, and strengthening the economy.

“I think the most important thing we can do is to be a vehicle to deliver the truth,” Matt Schlapp said, to share “how Catholics should adjudicate the issues that our society faces.”

In an era when many are weary of “fake news,” Schlapp said, “let’s make sure that we’re a place where people can quickly find the facts and figure out what’s going on.”

One of the group’s priorities will be to emphasize Trump’s leadership during the global COVID-19 pandemic, leaders said.

“President Trump does talk about hope,” Mercedes Schlapp said on Thursday.

Fr. Frank Pavone, founder of Priests for Life and a co-chair of the Trump 2020 campaign’s pro-life coalition, is also a member of the Catholics for Trump advisory board.

Pavone said on Thursday’s broadcast that “this coalition is going to be truly a movement where Catholics rise up and say, ‘hey look, everything that the Church has been saying, we’re seeing it unfold before our eyes, not like magic, but with strong effort and united effort under this president.’”

“Thank God he’s the one leading us through this,” Fr. Pavone said, in reference to the pandemic. 

Trump is bringing together various federal agencies, the private sector, and state and localities, the priest said, and “is articulating what we’re all feeling” right now

In contrast, Pavone said, Democrats “keep attacking and keep complaining and keep criticizing and keep lying,” Pavone said.

“But the President is setting exactly the right tone. He’s not ignoring how serious the problem is. Very much the opposite. He’s leading in responding to it.”

Pavone is one of two clerics on the board of Catholics for Trump, the other being Deacon Keith Fournier, a married permanent deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Va. 

The priest’s campaigning work has previously drawn scrutiny. During the 2016 election campaign, Pavone served as a member of a Catholic advisory group for Trump, and posted a video in which he asked for votes for Trump while standing behind an altar on which he had laid the body of an aborted baby. 

At the time, Bishop Patrick Zurek of Pavone’s home Diocese of Amarillo said the stunt was "against the dignity of human life," and that he would investigate Pavone’s actions. The results of that investigation have not been announced.

Canon law provides that clerics “are not to have an active part in political parties” unless their bishop judges that “the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.”

CNA asked the Diocese of Amarillo if his active role in the president’s reelection campaign had been authorized by the bishop. No response was received by the time of press.

Trump has protected the right to life, Pavone said, but “is protecting the strength of our military,” the “right to work, and the “economy and the free market from the threat of socialism” and from “unfair trade practices,” and is also protecting “borders from criminal aliens.”

All of these, Pavone said, are Catholic values.

The coalition leaders have especially emphasized the president’s pro-life credientials.  

In 2016, Trump’s campaign announced the launch of a pro-life advisory board, headed by Marjorie Dannenfelser who is also president of the Susan B. Anthony List. Dannenfelser is co-chairing the Trump 2020 campaign’s pro-life coalition with Fr. Pavone, and is also a member of the Catholics for Trump advisory board.

Trump made four specific pro-life promises in his 2016 campaign letter to pro-lifers: that he would nominate “pro-life justices” to the Supreme Court, sign the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act into law, strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding “as long as they continue to perform abortions,” and codify the Hyde Amendment in law. The Hyde Amendment bars taxpayer funding of elective abortions, and is passed each year as a budget rider. Trump promised to make it permanent law.

Of the four promises, Trump has not has not codified the Hyde Amendment as law, nor signed a pain-capable bill, which failed to pass both chambers of Congress before Republicans lost the House in the 2018 elections. 

The administration has strengthened protections against taxpayer funding of abortion providers in Title X family planning funds, and in overseas global health assistance. Because a measure to defund Planned Parenthood failed to pass the Republican-led Senate in 2018, Trump has not completely divested Planned Parenthood and abortion providers of federal funding. 

The 2019 Protect Life Rule clarified that Title X recipients could not refer for abortions as a method of family planning, nor could they co-locate with abortion clinics. Planned Parenthood announced in August it would leave the program rather than comply with the new regulations.

The administration has reinstated the Mexico City Policy’s ban on funding of abortion promoters and providers overseas, and expanded it to include $8.8 billion in global health assistance.

Trump nominated two justices to the Supreme Court who were praised by Dannenfelser and other pro-life leaders, although no major abortion case has yet been decided by the two new justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

The current Supreme Court term was slated to feature the first significant abortion case at the Court since 2016, Louisiana’s safety regulations of abortion clinics. However, the court’s schedule is expected to be significantly altered in the coming weeks due to the new coronavirus.

Supreme Court delays Little Sisters of the Poor hearing because of coronavirus

Washington D.C., Apr 3, 2020 / 03:30 pm (CNA).- The Supreme Court announced Friday that oral arguments in the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Oral arguments in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania were originally scheduled for April 29, but the court announced on Friday that they would be postponed “in keeping with public health guidance in response to COVID-19,” together with other cases due to have been heard that week and the previous week.

The case of the Little Sisters involves their religious exemption from the HHS contraceptive mandate.

The states of Pennsylvania and California have sued the Trump administration to strip the religious community of their exemption to the mandate. In 2018, the Supreme Court allowed the sisters to intervene in the states’ lawsuits.

“In this trying time for our nation, the Little Sisters of the Poor are dedicated to protecting their elderly residents from the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket which represents the sisters in court, in a statement released Friday. 

“Now more than ever the Sisters need the freedom to focus solely on that mission.”

On Friday, the court announced that it “will consider a range of scheduling options and other alternatives if arguments cannot be held in the Courtroom before the end of the Term.”

The Little Sisters of the Poor have spent years in litigation related to the mandate. The 2010 Affordable Care Act mandated certain preventive coverage in health care, and the Obama administration interpreted the mandate to include coverage for contraceptives and sterilizations.

Afterward, the administration announced a process by which non-profits with religious or conscientious objections could notify the government, which in turn would direct their insurer or third-party plan administrator to provide the coverage in employee health plans.

Religious institutions, including the Little Sisters and Catholic dioceses, said that the “accommodation” still forced them to violate their religious beliefs in the provision of morally-objectionable procedures in employee health plans.

The case of the Little Sisters, bundled together with other cases, was heard by the Supreme Court which, in 2016, sent the case back down to lower courts, instructing the religious entities and the government to come to an agreement whereby the wishes of both parties could be attained.

In 2017, the Trump administration issued a rule exempting the Little Sisters and other religious entities from the mandate. State attorneys general for Pennsylvania and California then challenged the exemption in court.

The Little Sisters lost their case against Pennsylvania at the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in July of 2019, and lost their case against California at the Ninth Circuit Court in October. They appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed in January to hear their case.

Coronavirus brings crackdown on house churches in China

CNA Staff, Apr 3, 2020 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- Communist authorities in China are using efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic to step up enforcement action against Christians who worship in house churches, government insiders have told the human rights and religious freedom publication Bitter Winter. 

China has been battling coronavirus since late 2019, and the virus is believed to have emerged from a “wet market,” selling both living animals and butchered meat, in the city of Wuhan. Since then, multiple Chinese cities have been placed under lockdown in order to stem the spread of the virus. 

According to the journalist An Xin, writing in Bitter Winter on Wednesday, the city of Nenjiang, in the northeastern Heilongjiang province, has offered incentives to residents for reporting their neighbors if they are known or suspected to host religious services in their homes. 

On February 20, the city’s coronavirus control group, which was created by the Chinese government, released an order that specifically banned providing a location for “illegal religious activities.”

The coronavirus control group said that this was designed to prevent further people from contracting COVID-19. If a house church was discovered, it would be “resolutely shut down,” per the report in Bitter Winter. 

Residents of Nenjiang were offered a reward of 5,000 RMB (about $700 U.S.) if they reported suspected illegal religious activity to the authorities. 

In January, the leader of a house church in Daqing city in Heilongjiang province was photographed by Chinese officials, and was forced to write and sign a pledge to stop holding religious services. 

“Since 2018, community officials have been coming to film me and my house,” the church leader told Bitter Winter. 

“They always know where I go,” she told the publication. “Every time I visit a fellow believer, they follow and harass me. I’m monitored wherever I go.”

Local government officials have ramped up their prosecution of house churches in the past six months, and have shut down at least 12 of these churches since late October. 

Since coming to power in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping has mandated the “sinicization” of all religions in China, a move which the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called  “a far-reaching strategy to control, govern, and manipulate all aspects of faith into a socialist mold infused with ‘Chinese characteristics.’’

The Chinese government is in the midst of implementing a five-year “sinicization plan” for Islam, a religion that has faced increased persecution in the country with at least 800,000 Uyghur Muslims held in internment camps.

Vatican accomodation of the “sinicization” program was a much discussed topic during the formalization of a 2018 agreement between the Vatican and China that regularized the country’s government-appointed bishops with the Holy See. 

Previously, bishops affiliated with the “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association” were consecrated illicitly and previously held to be out of communion with Rome.

China is home to more than ten million Catholics, with six million registered as members of the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, according to official statistics. Millions of Catholics belong to the underground Church, which, unlike the CPCA, is not overseen by the Communist party and has always been in communion with the Holy See.

The Vatican-China agreement, reached in September of 2018, was intended to bring the CPCA into communion with Rome and unify the Church in China. According to some reports, the government’s persecution of the underground Church has intensified after the agreement was signed.

A January report of the U.S. China Commission found that Chinese Catholics suffered “increasing persecution” after the deal, where the government was “demolishing churches, removing crosses, and continuing to detain underground clergy.” Priests and bishops have reportedly been detained or have gone into hiding.

In November last year, the head of the state-sponsored CPCA, Bishop John Fang Xingyao, said that Catholics in the country must put their loyalty to the state before the faith.

“Love for the homeland must be greater than the love for the Church and the law of the country is above canon law,” said Fang.

Cardinal Turkson brings rosaries to Rome hospital treating coronavirus patients

Vatican City, Apr 3, 2020 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- Cardinal Peter Turkson visited Rome’s largest hospital on Friday, encouraging staff and handing out rosaries blessed by Pope Francis.

“I bring you the pope’s embrace. You are not alone in the fight against the coronavirus!” Turkson, who is prefect of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, told hospital staff and chaplains April 3, according to a press release.

The cardinal, who was accompanied by the two undersecretaries of the dicastery, met with staff and told them he was bringing the greeting of Pope Francis to all of the coronavirus patients and their families.

The three Vatican officials also handed out rosaries blessed by Pope Francis and assured hospital personnel of “the prayer and support of the Church in this difficult moment of struggle against the pandemic and of physical and spiritual trial,” the release stated.  

Agostino Gemelli University Policlinic is Rome’s largest general hospital and a teaching hospital for the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan.

During the coronavirus outbreak, the Gemelli hospital is working in partnership with one of Rome’s dedicated COVID-19 hospitals, the nearby Columbus Hospital.

The hospital’s foundation started a COVID-19 research unit to help fight the virus and to coordinate the research efforts throughout Italy.

As of April 3, there are more than 3,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Rome’s region of Lazio, with nearly 1,400 of these patients being treated in the hospital. The reported number of deaths is 199.

A rosary for an end to the coronavirus was broadcast live on national Italian television from the St. Joseph Moscati chapel of the Gemelli hospital April 2. The rosary concluded with a prayer for the intercession of Pope St. John Paul II on the anniversary of his death.