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Bishops urge passage of bill that would give same sentences to crack and powder cocaine offenders

null / Inked Pixels/Shutterstock.

Washington D.C., Aug 11, 2022 / 16:50 pm (CNA).

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops pressed the U.S. Senate to make the penalty for distributing crack cocaine the same as that imposed on those caught dealing powder cocaine.

In an Aug. 1 letter to Congress, the bishops announced their support for legislation passed in the House of Representatives that would eliminate a disparity in federal sentencing the bishops say has a disproportionate effect on Black people.

“Although crack and powder cocaine are simply two forms of the same drug, crack cocaine is cheaper; therefore, it is more accessible than powder cocaine to persons experiencing poverty, many of whom are persons of color,” the letter read.

“We cannot ignore the racial impact of current federal cocaine sentences when Blacks are more than three times as likely to be convicted for crack cocaine trafficking as for powder cocaine trafficking,” wrote Bishops Paul S. Coakley and Shelton J. Fabre of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development and Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism.

An amendment to add the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act to the defense authorization bill passed the House of Representatives on July 19 with bipartisan support. 

If approved by the Senate the EQUAL act would impose the same penalty on both forms of cocaine. In 1986 Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which established separate sentences for cocaine and crack cocaine offenses. If two individuals were caught with the same amount of cocaine, the one with crack cocaine would receive a sentence 100 times as severe as the person convicted of distributing powder cocaine. 

In 2010, Congress passed reforms to reduce that disparity to 18:1. Today, the penalty for 500 grams of powder cocaine is the same as for 28 grams of crack cocaine. The EQUAL Act would eliminate the disparity altogether.

In their letter, the bishops called for an end to long sentences for drug offenses and a focus on rehabilitation and treatment of offenders.

“As pastors, the Catholic bishops understand concerns regarding recidivism, substance abuse, and overdoses; yet public safety is not served by excessively long sentences. We believe these concerns would more effectively be addressed through programs that focus on root causes of crime through rehabilitation, treatment, education, literacy, and job-placement,” they wrote.

The EQUAL act has an uncertain future in the Senate. Since it has 11 Republican co-sponsors, it could pass as a stand-alone bill. However, the ranking Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley, has his own bill to address disparities in drug sentencing. His legislation would reduce but not eliminate the disparity. 

The prospect of the legislation's passage as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is far from guaranteed even though the legislation enjoys bipartisan support. Unrelated amendments attached to the NDAA often get removed in the process of reconciling the House and Senate bills.

Cardinal Zen to stand trial in September over role with pro-democracy fund

Cardinal Joseph Zen, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong. / Yung Chi Wai Derek/Shutterstock.

Denver Newsroom, Aug 11, 2022 / 14:12 pm (CNA).

Cardinal Joseph Zen is set to stand trial next month, along with four other people, in connection to his role as a trustee of a pro-democracy legal fund. It appears he has not been indicted under Hong Kong’s national security law, which would have carried with it much more serious penalties. 

Zen, 90, is the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong and an outspoken advocate for religious freedom and democracy, and a sharp critic of the Vatican’s 2018 agreement with Beijing on the appointment of bishops. 

Hong Kong authorities arrested Zen on May 11, and he was reportedly released on bail from Chai Wan Police Station later that day. At the time it appeared he would be charged under Hong Kong’s national security law, the Beijing-imposed measure which criminalizes broad definitions of sedition and collusion with foreign forces. Zen was arrested alongside several other prominent pro-democracy figures, including lawyer Margaret Ng and singer-activist Denise Ho. 

All were later charged in connection with a failure to register the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which helped pro-democracy protesters to pay their legal fees until it dissolved itself in October 2021. The defendants’ lawyers are arguing that they had the right to associate under Hong Kong’s Basic Law — essentially the constitution. 

In addition to Zen, Ho, and Ng, cultural studies scholar Hui Po-keung and ex-legislator Cyd Ho are accused of failing to apply for local society registration for the fund between July 16, 2019, and October 31, 2021, the Hong Kong Free Press reported. All the defendants have pleaded not guilty; Cyd Ho is already jailed for a different charge. 

The Sept. 19-23 trial will be conducted in Chinese with the closing arguments in English, HKFP reported. Without the national security law indictment, the defendants could face only a fine. 

Cardinal Zen offered Mass after his court appearance in May and prayed for Catholics in mainland China who are facing persecution. “Martyrdom is normal in our Church,” Zen said. “We may not have to do that, but we may have to bear some pain and steel ourselves for our loyalty to our faith.”

Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China with its own government, and its citizens have historically enjoyed greater freedom of religion than on the Chinese mainland, where religious believers of all stripes are routinely surveilled and restricted by the communist government. But in recent years, Beijing has sought to tighten control over religious practices in Hong Kong under the guise of protecting national security. In 2020, a sweeping National Security Law came into force, criminalizing previously protected civil liberties under the headings of “sedition“ and “foreign collusion.”

Millions of citizens of Hong Kong, including many Catholics, have in recent years participated in large-scale pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which came to a head in summer 2019. Catholic pro-democracy figures such as Cardinal Zen, media tycoon Jimmy Lai, and lawyer Martin Lee have all garnered media attention for their arrests at the hands of Chinese authorities. 

A Hong Kong priest told EWTN in April that the CCP is using ideological tactics such as re-education and propaganda to chip away at the freedom of religion in Hong Kong. A Reuters report from late December documented an October 2021 meeting at which Chinese bishops and religious leaders briefed senior Hong Kong Catholic clergymen on President Xi Jinping's vision of religion with "Chinese characteristics.” 

The Vatican has shied away from public criticism of the crackdown on democracy protests in Hong Kong since it first entered into a provisional agreement with China in 2018. That deal was meant to unify the country's 12 million Catholics, divided between the underground Church and the Communist-administered Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, and clear a path for the appointment of bishops for Chinese dioceses. Despite the deal, persecution of the underground Church has continued and, according to some, intensified.

Olivia Newton-John attended Catholic Mass, said ‘favorite prayer’ daily

Olivia Newton-John arrives for G'Day USA Los Angeles Black Tie Gala Jan. 27, 2018, in Los Angeles. The singer and actress died Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, at age 73 after a decades-long struggle with breast cancer. / Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Aug 11, 2022 / 13:51 pm (CNA).

Singer and actress Olivia Newton-John, perhaps best known for her role as Sandy Olsson in the 1978 film “Grease,” shared her favorite prayer last year. She passed away Monday at age 73. 

The prayer was, she revealed in a 2021 interview, the Lord’s Prayer. 

She began reciting it daily after she became pregnant with her only child, Chloe, she said on the podcast “A Life of Greatness.”

“I was close to losing her at one point,” she recalled. “I asked God to please save Chloe and, if he did, I would say the Lord’s Prayer every night for the rest of my life.”

“So I have,” she said. “I think it’s a beautiful prayer. It’s a powerful prayer. I believe in prayer, I think prayer is very powerful.” Chloe was born in 1986.

Newton-John learned the Lord’s Prayer as a child, she said, adding that her family attended church while her father served as the head of a Presbyterian college — Ormond College at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

“I believe all the beliefs have validity and meaning to a lot of people,” she added, “but I find that prayer a very powerful one.”

In response to her death, which came after a decades-long struggle with breast cancer, Capuchin friar and deacon Brother Vince Mary remembered Newton-John on Twitter. He shared that Newton-John attended Catholic Mass.

Olivia Newton-John appears in the back pew at the Capuchin novitiate at San Lorenzo Seminary in Santa Ynez, California. Date unknown. Photo courtesy of Capuchin Brother Mick Joyce from Borromeo Seminary Cleveland
Olivia Newton-John appears in the back pew at the Capuchin novitiate at San Lorenzo Seminary in Santa Ynez, California. Date unknown. Photo courtesy of Capuchin Brother Mick Joyce from Borromeo Seminary Cleveland

“She was a frequent visitor to our Capuchin Novitiate in Santa Ynez for masses,” Brother Vince Mary tweeted. “God grant her eternal rest!”

He told CNA that Newton-John attended Mass frequently at the novitiate that has attracted other celebrity visitors — San Lorenzo Seminary in Santa Ynez, California. 

Newton-John lived near the friars. According to the Santa Barbara Independent, she passed away at her 12-acre residence in Santa Ynez Valley.

In March 2020, she publicly shared her appreciation for one Capuchin Franciscan. Newton-John posted a poem on Instagram written by a Capuchin Franciscan in Ireland, Brother Richard Hendrick, where he wrote about responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was sent this poem by a friend and it said many things I was thinking — because I also believe that good things are coming out of this difficult time — which too will pass,” she commented. “Father Richard Hendricks says it so beautifully here.”

It is unclear what faith or religion Newton-John practiced before her death. During the 2021 podcast interview, she spoke about praying and chanting with her friends who are Buddhist and about experiencing spirits. 

She also talked about life after death.

“Most humans, we want to believe that we go on,” she said. “I don’t know if that is so and I hope that I can let people know when it happens if it is.”

Religious freedom objections to mandatory health care coverage part of broader lawsuit

null / Gorodenkoff via Shutterstock.

Denver Newsroom, Aug 11, 2022 / 13:39 pm (CNA).

Religious freedom violations are among the claims of a federal lawsuit challenging mandatory “preventive care” coverage in employee health plans. But the lawsuit’s other challenges to federal rule-making could have far-reaching consequences.

Though the Texas-based plaintiffs echo previous challengers in objecting to abortifacient contraceptives as mandatory “preventive care,” they also object to mandatory no-cost coverage of Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), a drug regimen intended to reduce the risk of HIV infection; STD tests and STD counseling; and drug use counseling.

“The government cannot possibly show that forcing private insurers to provide PrEP drugs, the HPV vaccine, and screenings and behavioral counseling for STDs and drug use free of charge is a policy of such overriding importance that it can trump religious-freedom objections,” said the lawsuit in Kelley v. Becerra.

The lawsuit was filed in 2020, but argued only last month before U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor.

John A. Di Camillo, an ethicist and director of personal consultations with the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told CNA that the objections raise valid moral questions.

“It certainly is an important moral consideration to know whether or not funding this kind of drug or this kind of procedure may actually incentivize or encourage or enable your employees to engage in immoral behaviors,” he said Aug. 9.

Alleged religious freedom violations constitute one of the eight claims made in the lawsuit. This claim charges violations of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires that the federal government may not “substantially burden” the free exercise of religion, unless there is a “compelling government interest” in doing so, and it is carried out in the “least-restrictive” manner possible.

A narrow court ruling on the issue of religious freedom could avoid a broader ruling about administrative law. A broad court ruling, however, could eliminate all requirements that insurers provide preventive care coverage at no cost, Bloomberg Law reported in April.

The lawsuit describes one plaintiff, orthodontist John Kelley of Tarrant County, Texas, as a Christian with religious objections to purchasing some health plans that subsidize abortifacient contraception or PrEP drugs that “encourage homosexual behavior and intravenous drug use.” He does not need or want health insurance that covers Truvada or PrEP drugs “because neither he nor any of his family members is engaged in behavior that transmits HIV.” He has no desire for contraceptive coverage “because his wife is past her child-bearing years.”

The other plaintiffs are Kelley Orthodontics, Joel Starnes, and Braidwood Management, Inc. Some plaintiffs, like Braidwood owner Steven F. Hotze, also object to mandatory coverage of STD screenings and counseling for those engaged in non-marital sexual behavior.

The plaintiffs claim a grounds for class action because the mandates still limit their options for health insurance that excludes or limits coverage as they desire.

Di Camillo, who has worked on ethics reviews of Catholic health insurance programs, told CNA that self-insured plans mean the employer is “actually directly paying out of pocket for the medical expenses.” This is in contrast to standard insurance programs where a large outside company pays for expenses.

“There's a more direct relationship, and so there's a heightened level of moral concern or responsibility for the employer in those situations,” he said.

Other claims in the lawsuit involve aspects of administrative law known as the non-delegation doctrine, which requires Congress to provide agencies with sufficient principles, policy, and standards to guide their action. The Supreme Court has not sided with claims of excessive delegation since two cases in 1935. The lawsuit charges that Congress wrongly delegated the definition of “preventive care” to regulators under the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had ruled that mandatory preventive care in employee health plans must include contraception, including drugs that can cause abortion. It did not provide exemptions for those with objections to the coverage. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled against this mandate in favor of Hobby Lobby, a closely-held company whose Christian owners had a religious objection to abortifacients. In 2020, the high court ruled in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor, who objected to providing contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans.

If the Kelley v. Becerra case results in a broad ruling against the regulatory mandates, it would eliminate mandatory no-cost coverage of cancer screenings, vaccines, counseling for alcohol abuse, diet counseling for those at risk of chronic disease, and other preventive services, National Public Radio reports.  The American Medical Association has led a coalition of more than 60 medical organizations in warning against a broad ruling.

Di Camillo considered the ethical questions involved in health care plan coverage and employers’ moral objections.

“We don't want to be forcing a company to have to subsidize all of the consequences of immoral behaviors,” he said. “On the other hand, we can take the approach of a Christian mercy that sees we’re all sinners and sometimes people make bad decisions.”

“Certainly, in a Catholic perspective, we often look not to just whether something is tied to immoral behavior, but whether there are grounds for helping an individual in need, even if that need arises from immoral choices,” he said.

There are questions about whether the exclusions in the case would mean no coverage for those at risk of disease, such as a dependent minor, or no coverage for an employee at risk of disease because of an adulterous spouse.

There are also questions about whether a moral objection is too rigorous, but Di Camillo cautioned that objections should be taken seriously.

“I think there is a tendency to quickly assume someone else is misapplying or misunderstanding (ethics), (but) sometimes we ourselves may be the ones who are misapplying or misunderstanding.” 

Di Camillo emphasized that employers do have a duty to make clear to prospective and current employees any conscientious objection exclusions in their health coverage so that “this is not sprung on them as a surprise.”

Majority of German Catholics don't like Church being against abortion, poll finds

The 2021 March for Life in Berlin, Germany. / Rudolf Gehrig/CNA Deutsch.

CNA Newsroom, Aug 11, 2022 / 06:58 am (CNA).

According to a new representative poll, 58% of German Catholics do not like "the fact that the Pope and the Church speak out against abortions." 

The Catholic weekly newspaper Die Tagespost commissioned the survey from the opinion research institute INSA Consulere, reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner.

"Among Lutheran respondents, the opinion picture is even clearer: 67% do not support the position of the pope and the church on the protection of life," the Tagespost reported on Aug. 8. 

The Catholic Church teaches that abortion is a grave evil and is never acceptable at any stage of pregnancy. 

Pope Francis has repeatedly and strongly condemned abortion.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Since the first century, the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable.” 

“Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law: You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.”

In July, a leading laywoman and co-president of the German "Synodal Way" demanded a "nationwide provision of abortion" across the European Union's most populous country.

Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), acknowledged that abortion should not be considered a "regular medical service," adding, however, that the committee advocated for "ethically responsible action on the part of all those involved."

The Central Committee of German Catholics is the organizer of the controversial "Synodal Way," together with the German Bishops' Conference. As serving president of the lay committee, Stetter-Karp is also co-president of the German process.

In an open letter launched by the initiative “Maria 1.0,” several well-known German signatories criticize Stetter-Karp and call on the president of the German Bishops' Conference to cut ties with her, reported CNA Deutsch on Aug. 11.

Germany currently permits abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, with mandatory counseling at a state-approved center, as well as later abortions in certain circumstances.

The country of 83 million people recorded approximately 100,000 abortions in the pandemic year 2020.

Following the German federal government’s decision in March, the German bishops’ conference published a statement expressing cautious criticism of the government’s plans to lift the ban on abortion advertising.

Spanish shrine where Our Lady of Fatima appeared to Sister Lucía is falling into ruin

Sister Lucia, seer of Fatima (left); detail of the sanctuary of Pontevedra (right) / Photo credits: Facebook, Virgin of Fatima / www.santuariodelasapariciones.org

ACI Prensa Staff, Aug 11, 2022 / 04:00 am (CNA).

The Shrine of the Apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima in Pontevedra, Spain, is in a dilapidated state. The place where Our Lady called for the first Saturday devotion — to make reparation to her Immaculate Heart on the first Saturday of the month for five consecutive months — needs urgent reconstruction work to avoid total ruin. 

“It’s a shame that such a special place is in this state,” said Father Luis Manuel Romero, the delegate of the Spanish Bishops’ Conference for the Shrine of the Apparitions of Pontevedra.

The architects who have planned the restoration project for the shrine said that the wood supporting the roofing has been damaged by fungi and rotting due to humidity and water leaks so “the structure must be changed and waterproofed.”

In addition, in a substructure “the supports on the stone walls are deteriorated,” which is why it “has rained inside the shrine,” the priest lamented.

To address the situation, the Spanish Bishops’ Conference has acquired ownership of the place, which until a year ago was owned by the World Apostolate of Fatima in Spain.

Romero told ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language sister news agency, that it is hoped the first phase of the restoration work “will be completed in October.” This includes the most pressing task, which is “to put the new roof on and to redo the floor in the cell of the apparitions.”

“A chapel will be built larger” than the existing one, he said, which will include the cell where one can venerate the exact place where, on Dec. 10, 1925, the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus appeared to Sister Lucía.

Need for financing

The repair project has an estimated cost of about $900,000, of which only about $200,000 has been collected, an amount that won’t cover even the first phase of the work needed to be done. In addition, another $200,000 must be raised to pay for taxes not foreseen in the first estimate.

According to ACI Prensa, if funding is not obtained for this first phase, the project will be terminated.

Currently, funding is being sought through various foundations as well as public institutions such as the regional government of Galicia, but there is also the support of private benefactors.

The majority of the voluntary contributions are being collected through a crowdfunding website for the shrine in Pontevedra, www.santuariodelasapariciones.org, launched by a group of lay people encouraged by Father Javier Siegrist, the pastor of Holy Christ of Mercy parish in Boadilla del Monte in the Diocese of Getafe, Spain.

How the girl Lucía arrived incognito in Spain

The Fatima message was revealed through various apparitions, most of them in Portugal. But not all of the apparitions occurred there.

First, an angel appeared in Aljustrel, Portugal, three times in 1916. Later, the Virgin visited the seers Francisco, Jacinta, and Lucía in the Cova da Iria and Valinhos between May and October 1917.

It was in the apparition of July 13, 1917, that the children were entrusted with the devotion of reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on the first Saturdays of five consecutive months.

After the death of Francisco in 1919 and Jacinta in 1920, Lucia came under the protection of the bishop. The Virgin had already announced to her that she would survive the death of her cousins “some time longer” to be an instrument of the Lord.

“Jesus wants to use you to make me known and loved. He wants to establish devotion to my Immaculate Heart in the world,” Our Lady told her in 1917.

All this remained secret until a few years later.

The bishop arranged for Lucía to study at the Sisters of St. Dorothy school in Porto, Portugal, using the name Dolores to conceal her identity. When she turned 18, she sensed a vocation to the Carmelites, but the nuns convinced her to go to their novitiate in Tuy, near Pontevedra, Spain.

The novitiate of the sisters was in Spain due to the anticlerical laws in force in Portugal at the time.

There the sisters discovered that she didn’t have the school certificate, since taking the exam in Porto would have meant revealing who she was. So they couldn’t admit her to be trained as a teacher.

This is the reason why she was sent to Pontevedra to take care of manual tasks. Lucía’s vocation as a Carmelite nun seemed like a distant dream then. It was in that moment of desolation that the Virgin appeared to her with the Child Jesus.

Apparition in Pontevedra

It was Dec. 10, 1925, and Lucía’s cell was illuminated.

“Our Lady, as if wanting to instill courage in me, gently puts her maternal hand on her right shoulder, showing me at the same time her Immaculate Heart that she holds in her other hand, surrounded by thorns,” the visionary related.

At that moment, the Child Jesus spoke and said, “Have compassion on the heart of your Most Holy Mother, covered with thorns, with which ungrateful men pierce it at every moment, and there is no one to make an act of reparation to remove them.”

Next, the Virgin urged Lucía to reveal the devotion of the five first Saturdays that had already been communicated to the visionaries in 1917: “Announce that all those who for five months, on the first Saturdays, go to confession, receive Communion, say five decades of the rosary and keep me company for 15 minutes meditating on the mysteries of the rosary, with the purpose of making reparation to me, I promise to assist them at the hour of death with all the graces necessary for the salvation of their souls.”

Lucía recounted that on Dec. 15, “I hardly even remembered that” and that, while doing her tasks, she met a boy whom she tried to teach the Hail Mary and urged him to go to a nearby chapel to say a short prayer.

Two months later, in February 1926, she met the boy again and asked him if he had asked the Heavenly Mother for Jesus, as she suggested. The boy turned and said, “And have you spread throughout the world what the Heavenly Mother asked you to do?”

Then, at once, Lucía said, the little boy was transformed “into a resplendent Child.”

The Child insisted that the first Saturday devotion be disclosed because “many souls begin them, but few finish them” and only in order to receive the promised graces.

“The souls who make the five first Saturdays with fervor and make reparation to the heart of your Heavenly Mother please me more than those who make 15 but are lukewarm and indifferent,” the Child said. 

Sister Lucía told the Child Jesus that many people find it hard to go to confession on Saturdays and asked if it could be done later. The Child Jesus replied, “Yes. It can even be made later on, provided that the souls are in the state of grace when they receive me on the first Saturday and that they have the intention of making reparation to the Sacred Heart of Mary.”

All this was revealed by Lucía in 1927, after she went to the tabernacle on Dec. 17 to ask how to reveal this devotion if it was part of the secret.

Lucía recounted that Jesus told her in a clear voice: “My daughter, write what they ask of you; and all that the Most Holy Virgin revealed in the apparition in which she spoke of this devotion, write it also.” The rest should remain secret, he said.

The consecration of Russia

The Shrine of the Apparitions of Pontevedra also contains the altar where Lucía witnessed a vision of the Holy Trinity and received the message in which the Virgin requested the consecration of Russia.

This apparition took place in the city of Tuy on June 13, 1929, where the novitiate of the Sisters of St. Dorothy had been.

Both the apparitions of Pontevedra and Tuy are part of those approved by the Catholic Church regarding the message of Fatima.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

Catholic schools’ free lunch funds jeopardized by Biden LGBT rule change

null / Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Aug 10, 2022 / 18:00 pm (CNA).

Catholic school leaders need to be aware that their schools could be cut off from the federal government's free and subsidized lunch program if their policies don't comply with the Biden administration's revised rules against LGBTQ discrimination, experts warn.

Earlier this year the administration re-interpreted Title IX's federal ban on sex discrimination to include “sexual orientation or gender identity.” Religious freedom and free speech advocates warn that the proposed rule change could be used to enforce mandates on hiring, bathrooms, using preferred pronouns, and dress codes. 

The broadened definition now also applies to the National School Lunch Program, a federally funded meal assistance program administered by the Department of Agriculture that provides subsidized or free lunches to more than 30 million public and private school students from low-income households.

That change promises to put pressure on religious schools not aligned with the Biden administration’s LGBTQ agenda, especially those serving low-income populations that rely heavily on the federal funds.

Fifty-two percent of U.S. Catholic schools participate in the federal lunch program, said Sister Dale McDonald, vice president of public policy at the National Catholic Educational Association, which represents nearly 150,000 educators serving 1.6 million students in Catholic schools, universities, and religious education programs.

One private school, Grant Park Christian Academy in Tampa, Florida, managed to secure a religious exemption last week from the state's agriculture department — but the school had to file a lawsuit first to get it.

And Grant Park Christian’s religious exemption “was the only one approved by the federal and state government,” said Erica Steinmiller-Perdomo, legal counsel with the nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the school in court.

“Other religious schools are not protected and will need to seek their own religious exemption in writing," she told CNA.

"There is no telling how long it will take for the government to respond to them without a pending lawsuit," she added, "and they have no idea if they need to comply with the unlawful mandates in the meantime.”

Until then, the lawyer stressed, “All schools will continue to be injured by the Biden administration’s overreach in redefining Title IX without going through the proper processes."

Catholic schools 'need to be ready'

The Tampa private school filed a lawsuit in July against Biden and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried after Fried threatened to cut off the school's lunch money. 

On Friday — just over a week after the lawsuit was filed — Fried informed the academy that the school’s application for a religious exemption would be approved, restoring the funds.

Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes and defends Catholic education, warned that although the lawsuit was a win for one school, religious schools that participate in the lunch program should be warned. 

“The fact remains that a religious school was forced to sue the government to protect its constitutional rights, and every Catholic school needs to be ready to do the same,” Reilly told CNA. 

“This was blatant bullying by the Biden administration to advance its radical agenda," he added.

"Moreover, they exploited the fact that many schools, including Catholic schools, felt compelled during the COVID pandemic to greatly expand their participation in the federal school lunch program," Reilly said. "You try to help needy families using federal money, and your religious freedom is endangered."

Several archdioceses contacted by CNA Wednesday did not respond for comment prior to publication time.

In a statement to CNA, the Archdiocese of New York said that it was "studying the applicability of the USDA’s Title IX regulations, and their potential impact on our Catholic schools.”

Britney Spears clarifies she asked for a Catholic church wedding: ‘I don’t like being called a liar’

Singer Britney Spears attends the MTV Bash at the Hollywood Palladium on June 28, 2003 in Hollywood, California. / Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Aug 10, 2022 / 18:00 pm (CNA).

American pop star Britney Spears said that she asked to get married in a Catholic church in California, pushing back against claims that she never contacted the parish.

“There was a lot of backlash saying I never asked to get married at the church I pictured,” the 40-year-old wrote in an Instagram post Tuesday. “[I]t’s not a big deal, but I don’t like being called a liar when their church says I never asked !!!”

Her comments came after she reportedly said in a previous Instagram post that she wanted to celebrate her wedding at St. Monica Catholic Church in Santa Monica, near Los Angeles.

At the time, she wrote: “when I wanted to get married there they said I had to be catholic and go through TEST!!! Isn't church supposed to be open to all???”

Later that day, entertainment site TMZ reported that a church representative said there was no record of Spears requesting to be married there. 

Spears ended up celebrating her wedding with actor Sam Asghari at their home in the Los Angeles area in June. 

In her post Tuesday, she shared that she hired a high-profile wedding planner who has organized weddings for celebrities such as Madonna.

“[A]nd yes my first request was to get married in that church pictured,” she said of a photo she previously shared of St. Monica.

“I was told 6 weeks later … I could not get married there !!!” she added. “During the 2 years of Covid, I also wanted to go there … I was told no due to the pandemic.”

Along with her comments on Tuesday, she posted a photo of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

Father Matthew P. Schneider, L.C., who teaches theology at Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, North Carolina, previously outlined for CNA four main requirements for a wedding to take place in a Catholic church.

Either the bride or groom must be Catholic and free from any impediments, such as marriage to another person. Both the bride and groom must “intend what the Church does,” including recognizing marriage as something permanent, exclusive, and open to life. 

They must also plan to raise their children Catholic.

Schneider also told CNA is it unclear whether Spears is Catholic. He said that, to be married in a Catholic church, she would need annulments for her two previous marriages.

Bishops of Mexico stand in solidarity with Nicaragua ‘at a time of profound suffering’

Bishop Rolando José Álvarez of the Diocese of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, was placed under house arrest by the police of Daniel Ortega's regime in early August 2022. / Photo credit: Diocese of Matagalpa

Denver Newsroom, Aug 10, 2022 / 17:12 pm (CNA).

The Mexican Bishops’ Conference expressed its solidarity with the Church in Nicaragua, whose freedom of speech and religion is under attack by the dictatorship of President Daniel Ortega.

“At this time of profound suffering, the bishops of Mexico wish to convey to you our fervent prayer, closeness, and support, imploring the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, the much-longed-for peace, justice, and harmonious coexistence of your people,” the conference said in an Aug. 8 statement.

The recent wave of repression against the Nicaraguan Church began Aug. 1, when the Ortega dictatorship ordered the closure of eight Catholic radio stations in the Diocese of Matagalpa.

Later, the bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando José Álvarez, was placed under house arrest and threatened with prison for allegedly trying to “organize violent groups” to destabilize the government.

The cathedral in Managua was vandalized Aug. 6, cutting off electricity to it and other buildings on the grounds. From Aug. 1 through Aug. 4, riot police prevented Father Uriel Vallejos and a group of faithful from leaving the rectory of Jesus of the Divine Mercy parish in the town of Sébaco after the police forced their way into the parish to shut down the Catholic radio station that operated on the premises. Vallejos is the radio station’s director.

On Aug. 6, unidentified vandals stole the main switch to the cathedral’s electrical control system, leaving the cathedral and surrounding grounds without power.

“We express our solidarity with the bishops’ conference of Nicaragua for the deplorable events that they have been enduring and that have caused suffering and global outrage due to the suppression of individual guarantees, particularly their fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion,” the statement said.

The Mexican bishops also lamented “that in communities, families, consecrated life, priests, laity, children, and young people suffer from conditions that create fear, take away tranquility, and steal peace.”

“They even experience difficulty in worshiping, praying, and announcing the Gospel,” they added.

“As an ecclesial family, we join in raising awareness so that, in the face of these situations that cry out to God for social justice, there be added attitudes of dialogue and encounters that seek a healthy coexistence,” they continued.

At the end of their message, the bishops of Mexico implored “the Blessed Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, Empress of America, her maternal intercession to find paths of dialogue that lead to respect and peace.”

Other Latin American bishops stand in solidarity

The Guatemalan Bishops’ Conference issued a statement Aug. 8 to express “its closeness, support, and solidarity,” especially to the priests deprived of their liberty and to Bishop Álvarez.

“Freedom of speech is part of the rights of man. Our love and support extends to all Nicaraguan Catholics to whom we recall the promise made by our Savior: ‘I will be with you all days until the end of the world,’” the message said.

The Bolivian Bishops’ Conference published a statement Aug. 5 assuring that it “is closely following … with deep pain the situation that the Church and the Nicaraguan people are suffering.”

“We want to express our most sincere solidarity and closeness in this difficult moment that you are going through. We ask you not to give up the effort to build a dialogue that is capable of achieving unity and peace in [the] land of Nicaragua. For this, you have our prayers for you, for the people you serve, and for the political authorities,” the conference stated.

The same day, the Costa Rican Bishops’ Conference lifted up “a prayer for peace to come and [that] paths of dialogue can be opened in search of the well-being of all the inhabitants of the sister country” of Nicaragua.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

Indian cardinal denies cover-up to shield bishop charged with fathering a child

Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay speaks at a Vatican press conference, Oct. 22, 2015. / Daniel Ibanez/CNA.

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Aug 10, 2022 / 15:47 pm (CNA).

Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias adamantly denied allegations that he attempted to arrange for a fake paternity test for a scandal-plagued bishop accused of secretly fathering a child, among other charges.

In a video statement posted on the Archdiocese of Bombay’s YouTube channel Sunday, Gracias said that a 2020 recording of a telephone conversation with Bishop Kannikass Antony William of Mysore had been “mischievously edited” to give the impression that the cardinal had tried to cover up the scandal.

The recording in question, originally posted by the website Church Militant, had been circulating on social media among Indian Catholics, according to various news accounts.

In the video, Gracias said that he was “distressed” to learn of the rumors, which he said he “categorically, emphatically and totally” denied.

He said that an unedited version of the recorded conversation would show that he was attempting to arrange for a paternity test in a reputable Catholic hospital.

“I did have a conversation with Bishop William in August 2020. During the conversation I urged Bishop William that it was advisable for him to undergo a paternity test. I impressed upon him that several people I know have been disturbed [by] the rumors going around the church and that the best way to end the controversy was to take this test,” he said.

“At no time did I suggest that we can control the outcome of the test,” said Gracias.

Gracias was appointed archbishop of Bombay by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, and made a cardinal in 2007. Pope Francis appointed him to the Council of Cardinals in 2013.

In 2021 a Vatican investigation was launched into charges of misconduct by William, the bishop accused of fathering a child. The investigation, which has thus far not resulted in any actions from the Vatican, was prompted by a 2019 letter to Pope Francis from 37 priests from William’s diocese. In the letter the priests called for the bishop's removal, citing charges of sexual misconduct and the misappropriation of Church funds.

William was later accused of arranging for the immediate transfer of the 37 to remote villages.

In 2020, former Bombay judge Micheal Saldanha sent a letter to Gracias accusing William of “letting loose a virtual reign of terror” in the Diocese of Mysore, the Deccan Herald reported.  

Saldanha charged that the bishop was responsible for the deaths of four priests, in “two murders, one hanging, and one so-called accident.”

In 2021, a group of 113 people, including 22 priests, calling themselves the Save Mysore Diocese Action Committee, wrote to Cardinal Luis Tagle, prefect of Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, to demand that William step down as bishop.