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Maryland county drops second order to keep Catholic schools closed

CNA Staff, Aug 7, 2020 / 02:15 pm (CNA).- Catholic schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, can reopen for the coming semester after the county rescinded a second controversial order preventing all non-public schools from welcoming students for in-person learning until at least October 1. 

“Reemphasizing the need to protect the health and safety of Montgomery County residents as well as parents, students, teachers and staff from the spread of COVID-19, County Health Officer Dr. Travis Gayles today announced that he has rescinded his health order that prohibited nonpublic schools from opening for in-person instruction until after Oct. 1, 2020,” said a statement from the county published on August 7. 

An updated executive order published on August 7 rescinds the earlier order, although it “strongly advises schools against in-person learning.” 

Gayles said that he “strongly believes that based on the current state of surveillance and epidemiological data, it is neither safe nor in the interest of public health for any school to return for in-person learning this fall.” 

The executive order also requests that the Maryland Department of Health provide “articulable criteria” that would be used to determine if a school should be having in-person learning. 

The order was rescinded by Gayles after a Thursday memorandum from the Maryland Department of Health banning the blanket closure of all non-public schools in a county. 

“At this time, it is the health policy of the State of Maryland that non-public schools not be closed in a blanket manner,” said the Department of Health’s memorandum.

“The State of Maryland’s position is that all schools, including public school systems and non-public schools, be provided with the individualized opportunity to determine how they are able to comply with the federal and state COVID-19 guidance to reopen safely and protect students and staff,” said the department memo. 

“Those determinations should be made in close consultation with the affected schools and local health departments with Maryland Department of Health guidance,” they added. 

The developments of August 7 cap off a week of controversy regarding the safety of opening non-public schools in Montgomery County, the most populated county in Maryland.  

On the evening of July 31, Gayles issued an order banning non-public schools from reopening for inperson tuition before Oct. 1, carrying a punishment of a $5,000 fine or a year in jail for failure to comply. This order came as a surprise to non-public schools in the county, many of whom had already invested in safe reopening plans in accordance with state guidelines. 

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) dismissed the blanket ban on reopening on Monday, August 2, saying that non-public schools should have the same opportunities afforded to public schools in choosing whether or not to open for in-person classes. 

Montgomery County Public Schools were never ordered to have virtual-only learning, and initially planned on having a hybrid model of in-person and online classes. Those plans were scrapped in late July, following pushback from teachers unions throughout the state. Montgomery County Public Schools will be online-only until January 31, the entirety of the first semester. 

Since the announcement to online-only learning, Montgomery County Public Schools have seen steep declines in new student registration as parents have opted for non-public schools or homeschool programs. 

Six Montgomery County families, including four Catholic school families, who were joined by two Catholic schools, filed a federal lawsuit against the county for the forced school closures. 

Despite Hogan’s intervention, on August 5 Gayles once again issued an executive order saying non-public schools must remain closed to in-person classes until October 1. Unlike the previous executive order, non-public daycares and preschools were exempted, and would have been permitted to operate. Additionally, the previous punishments of $5,000 and up to a year in jail were no longer included in the order, which carried no enforcement mechanism. 

The August 7 order goes into effect immediately, and notes that there have been no binding metrics put forward by the state for the safe reopening of schools. Many leading epidemiologists have pointed to a positivity rate of 5% as a standard to be met to shift to in-person learning. The second-largest teacher’s union in the country, the American Federation of Teachers, also is in favor of reopening schools in areas with a sub-5% positivity rate. 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on Friday that every school in New York would be permitted to re-open in the fall as positivity rates in every state region had dropped below the 5% benchmark and stayed below that level for a set period. Individual districts will have to submit approved reopening safety plans, but they can in theory have in-person classes.  

Montgomery County’s three-day average positivity rate has been below 5% since July 16. It has been declining for 14 days. This drop in positivity has come amid increases in testing.

US sanctions Hong Kong chief executive over National Security Law

CNA Staff, Aug 7, 2020 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- The United States announced sanctions against Carrie Lam, the leader of the government of Hong Kong, as well as other officials in China on Friday, August 7. The sanctions were issued in response to recent actions by the Chinese government to curtail civil liberties in Hong Kong.

“The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong and we will use our tools and authorities to target those undermining their autonomy,” said Secretary of the Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin in a statement released on Friday by the Treasury Department. 

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam was cited for her attempts to pass a controversial extradition law in 2019 which, Mnuchin said, caused “a series of massive opposition demonstrations in Hong Kong” last year, as well as Lam’s role in “developing, adopting, or implementing the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”

On July 1, a new National Security Law went into effect in Hong Kong. The law has been harshly criticized by politicians from both major parties in the United States as a clear violation of the civil liberties guaranteed to Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” policy agreed at the time of the territory’s handover from Great Britain. 

The details of the U.S. action were not disclosed in the announcement. The decision follows previous measures by the administration against Chinese government officials who have contributed to the ongoing detention of more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. The Chinese government responded by sanctioning several prominent U.S. politicians who had spoken out against China’s treatment of ethnic minorities, including Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback. 

“When Beijing announced its intention to pass the National Security Law, so-called, we were concerned. It was frightening,” said Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) at a July 1 hearing titled “The End of One Country, Two Systems?: Implications of Beijing’s National Security Law in Hong Kong.”

“[The law] is nothing short of an all-out effort to negate the rights of the people of Hong Kong in violation of the agreements made under the ‘One Country, Two Systems,’ said the California Democrat.  

Pelosi said that Congress had long been concerned about the law’s final form, but the text of the legislation “exceeds even those horrors.” 

The sanctions against Lam and other officials came just hours after President Donald Trump signed an executive order that effectively banned the popular app TikTok. TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance. The executive order banned any transactions between American companies and ByteDance. 

TikTok has been criticized for its extreme amount of personal data collection, its censorship of videos related to the Hong Kong protests and the detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang, and its promotion of conspiracy theories related to COVID-19. 

“TikTok automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users, including Internet and other network activity information such as location data and browsing and search histories,” said the executive order. “This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information — potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.”

TikTok has also been criticized for having a lack of child safeguarding features. The app does not have an option to make a profile private, and various safety restrictions on the app automatically turn off after a 30-day period. 

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation cited TikTok for a “lack of moderation” and the ability for children to be sexually groomed, and listed the app in its annual “Dirty Dozen” roundup of the worst companies that are enabling sexual exploitation.

Help Catholic schools to help at-risk families, US bishops tell Congress

CNA Staff, Aug 7, 2020 / 10:30 am (CNA).- Several leading U.S. Catholic cardinals and bishops urged congressional leaders to provide emergency private school tuition aid to low-middle income families, in a letter on Thursday.  

The president of the U.S. bishops’ conference (USCCB), Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, signed the letter to House and Senate leaders, along with USCCB education chair Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland.

They argued that many Catholic schools which serve low-income families are at risk of closing due to economic difficulties caused by the pandemic.

“The economic devastation that has hit so many of America’s families has made it impossible for many struggling families to continue paying tuition,” they wrote, adding that school closures in urban areas “are disproportionately harmful to low-income and black children” who attend.

Other U.S. metropolitans with large Catholic school districts signed on to the letter, including Cardinal Blasé Cupich of Chicago, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston.

They addressed the letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Congressional and White House leaders are currently in the middle of negotiations on another coronavirus relief package. Associated Press reported on Wednesday that parties were still debating provisions for food stamps, and renters and jobless assistance.

On Thursday, the bishops said that education aid in the relief package should be “robust,” and should grant “equal consideration” to private school children.

Economic shock from the pandemic has already resulted in the closure of 140 Catholic schools around the country, the bishops said, and with many schools unable to reopen for in-person learning in the fall, there could be a resulting drop in tuition revenue and the closure of more schools.

The Boston archdiocese superintendent told NPR recently that nine of its Catholic schools would be closing, and that 24 more schools were on a “watch list.” The New York archdiocese announced in July that 20 schools would close and three would merge, due to the pandemic.

The bishops asked that non-public schools receive 10% of the emergency education aid given to public schools, noting that emergency tuition scholarships would be “the most effective way to help struggling families stay attached to their schools.”

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles announced in July that schools would be reopening in the fall, but then a state public health order required all schools in certain high-risk districts to remain closed for in-person learning. Archdiocesan schools in Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa Barbara counties are set to begin the school year with virtual learning.

According to the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), there are currently more than 1.7 million students enrolled at 6,183 Catholic schools this year; more that 21% of the students are racial minorities, NCEA says, and 19% are non-Catholic.

“By equally supporting children in the non-public school community, you will maintain the integrity of those strong communities, while helping sustain the positive legacy of Catholic schools and their benefit to the common good for generations to come,” the bishops’ letter said.

Christmas comes early in Indiana with nativity scene court case

CNA Staff, Aug 7, 2020 / 10:00 am (CNA).- An Indiana town is defending its Christmas display in court this summer, after a traveller through the area claimed she was offended by the sight of a nativity scene on public land in 2018. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed on August 3, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said that a Supreme Court ruling last year meant the display should stay.

The Brownstown Area Ministerial Association purchased a light-up nativity scene in 2003 and began to display it in front of the Jackson County Courthouse during Christmastime. The display is part of a town-wide “Hometown Christmas” event that is sponsored in part by several local businesses, including the Brownstown Chamber of Commerce, the Jackson County Historical Center, and the town’s McDonald’s. 

In 2018, Jackson County was sued by a woman who was traveling through the town, spotted the nativity scene, and claimed she was offended by its presence and that its location amounted to the promotion of Christianity by the county. The nativity scene features both religious and secular figures, including the Holy Family, Santa Claus, and reindeer. 

“The annual nativity isn’t just a beloved holiday tradition, it’s a symbol of unity and God’s ‘goodwill to all men’ during the Christmas season,” Doug Pogue, president of the Brownstown Area Ministerial Association was quoted saying in a press release.

“In a time of such fear and uncertainty in our country, it’s heartbreaking to think that our town could lose this important symbol of hope,” said Pogue. 

On May 1 this year, Judge Tanya Wilton Pratt of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ruled against the county in the case Woodring v. Jackson County and said that the nativity scene was an unconstitutional display. The county has appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Becket, which is representing the Brownstown Area Ministerial Association, disagrees, and noted in the brief that the Supreme Court had regularly permitted religious-themed monuments on public land. 

In June 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision that a war memorial containing a cross was constitutional, even though it was on publicly-maintained land. In that case, American Legion v. American Humanist Association, the court ruled 7-2 that the Bladensburg Peace Cross in Maryland did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and could remain on public land and be maintained by public funds.

Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that “a government that roams the land tearing down monuments with religious symbolism and scrubbing away any reference to the divine will strike many as aggressively hostile to religion.”

“The Supreme Court has already protected religion in the public square,” Diana Verm, senior counsel at Becket told CNA in a statement Wednesday. “This is a no brainer. The Seventh Circuit should follow suit and protect this nativity scene.”

Vatican cardinal promotes rural tourism as sector projected to lose billions

Rome Newsroom, Aug 7, 2020 / 09:30 am (CNA).- As the global economy braces to lose billions in international tourism in 2020 due to coronavirus travel restrictions, a Vatican cardinal is encouraging travelers to explore “hidden places.”

Tourism and rural development, the theme of the 2020 World Day of Tourism, could indicate a way forward for the industry once the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic ends, Cardinal Peter Turkson said in a message Aug. 7.

“It begins with the invitation to take seriously and put into practice sustainable development which, in the field of tourism, means a greater interest in extra-urban tourist destinations, small villages, hamlets, roads and little-known and less frequented places,” the cardinal said, “those most hidden places to discover or rediscover precisely because they are more enchanting and unspoiled.”

The United Nation’s 41st World Tourism Day will be September 27.

Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, noted the grave impact the coronavirus pandemic has and will have on the tourism industry and on those whose livelihoods depend on it.

“The suspension of international flights, the closure of airports and borders, the adoption of severe travel restrictions, including domestic ones, are causing an unprecedented crisis,” he said.

The cardinal cited “fears that in the worst-case scenario, at the end of 2020 there will be a decrease of about one billion international tourists, with a global economic loss of about 1.2 billion dollars.”

“The result would be a huge loss of jobs in the entire tourism sector,” he said.

Turkson also quoted the secretary general of the World Tourism Organization, Zurab Pololikashvili, who said “tourism has been the sector most affected by the global lockdown, with millions of jobs at risk in one of the most labor-intensive sectors of the economy.”

Despite these facts, Turkson encouraged people to remain optimistic and to consider how sustainable development can be put into practice through a slower, more “rural” tourism.

“It is, therefore, the promotion of sustainable and responsible tourism which, implemented according to principles of social and economic justice and in full respect of the environment and cultures, recognizes the centrality of the host local community and its right to be a protagonist in the sustainable and socially responsible development of its territory,” he stated.

It is “a tourism, therefore, that favors the positive interaction between the tourism industry, the local community and travelers.”

This would in turn also help the rural economy, on which many farmers, families, and small businesses depend, he argued.

According to Turkson, traveling in a “conscious and sober way” can also help people to “grasp the differences, small or large, among the traditions, places and communities encountered.”

“So why not turn to tourism that enhances rural and marginal areas by meeting them while walking?” he said. “This will allow us to slow down and avoid the risks of frenzy.”

Pope Francis sends donation to Beirut for explosion recovery

Rome Newsroom, Aug 7, 2020 / 08:30 am (CNA).- Pope Francis has sent a donation of 250,000 euros ($295,488) in aid to the Church in Lebanon to help with recovery efforts after the devastating explosion which occurred in the capital city of Beirut earlier this week.

“This donation is intended as a sign of His Holiness’s attention and closeness to the affected population and of his fatherly closeness to people in serious difficulty,” a Vatican press release stated Aug. 7.

More than 137 people were killed and thousands injured in a blast near Beirut’s port Aug. 4. The explosion caused extensive damage to the city and flattened buildings near the port. Beirut’s governor, Marwan Abboud, said around 300,000 people were left temporarily homeless.

Church leaders have warned that the city and nation are on the brink of total collapse, and pleaded with the international community for aid.

Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn, and Bishop Elias Zeidan of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles described Beirut as an “apocalyptic city” in a joint call for assisstence on Wednesday.

“This country is at the verge of a failed state and total collapse,” they said. “We pray for Lebanon, and we ask for your support for our brothers and sisters at this difficult time and in response to the catastrophe.”  

Pope Francis’ donation, made through the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, will go to the apostolic nunciature of Beirut “to meet the needs of the Lebanese Church in these moments of difficulty and suffering,” according to the Vatican.

The explosion destroyed “buildings, churches, monasteries, facilities and basic sanitation,” the statement continued. “An immediate emergency and first aid response is already taking place with medical care, shelters for the displaced and centres of basic needs made available by the Church through Caritas Lebanon, Caritas Internationalis and several Caritas sisters organizations.”

Lebanese officials say the blast appears to have been caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of the chemical ammonium nitrate, which is commonly used in fertilizer and mining explosives, stored in an unsecured warehouse on the docks for six years.

Pope Francis made an appeal for prayer for the people of Lebanon after his general audience address Aug. 5.

Speaking via livestream, he said, “let us pray for the victims, for their families; and let us pray for Lebanon, so that, through the dedication of all its social, political, and religious elements, it might face this extremely tragic and painful moment and, with the help of the international community, overcome the grave crisis they are experiencing.”

Aid to the Church in Need sending 250,000 euro in food aid to Lebanon

CNA Staff, Aug 7, 2020 / 12:47 am (CNA).- International Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has announced an emergency 250,000 euro food aid package for victims of the massive August 4 explosion in Beirut, Lebanon.

The ACN grant will focus on poor families most affected by the explosion, which devastated the port area of the Lebanese capital and adjacent areas, including the mostly Christian neighborhoods of Mar Maroun and Achrafieh.

At least 135 people have died and another 5,000 were injured when a warehouse storing some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded Tuesday evening. Officials are investigating the cause of the explosion.

Fr. Samer Nassif, a Lebanese priest, told Aid to the Church in Need that the Christian area of Beirut is “completely devastated,” with at least 10 churches destroyed.

“In one second, more damage was done to the Christian area of Beirut than during the long years of the civil war. We have to rebuild everything again from the ground up.”

ACN estimates some 300,000 people have been left homeless. Additionally, many offices, schools, hospitals, and shops were completely destroyed in the explosion.

The priest stressed that amid the country’s long economic crisis and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Lebanon is ill-equipped to face this new emergency. International aid is urgently needed to meet people’s basic needs, they said.

Lebanon is currently facing its worst economic crisis in decades, with corruption and financial mismanagement leading to an unprecedented devaluation of its currency, hyperinflation, rising unemployment and banking restrictions. The health system is also in crisis. Power outages and street protests had rocked the country a few months before the coronavirus pandemic broke out.

In recent years, Lebanon has been hosting large numbers of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, many of them Christian, as well as Palestinian refugees. According to official data, Lebanon currently hosts almost 2 million refugees, representing about a third of its total population.

Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch, has called on the international community for aid.

“Beirut is a devastated city. Beirut, the bride of the East and the beacon of the West, is wounded,” he said. “It’s a war scene: there is destruction and desolation in all its streets, its neighborhoods and houses.”

Aid to the Church in Need also called for prayer for all those affected by the explosion and other challenges.

“We pray for the victims and their families; and we pray for Lebanon so that, with the commitment of all its social, political and religious components, it can face this tragic and painful moment and, with the help of the international community, overcome the serious crisis it is going through.”

Biden talks Catholic faith after Trump says former VP is 'against God'

CNA Staff, Aug 6, 2020 / 11:30 pm (CNA).- Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday spoke about his Catholic faith, in response to comments from President Donald Trump that a Biden presidency would “hurt God.”

“Like so many people, my faith has been the bedrock foundation of my life: it's provided me comfort in moments of loss and tragedy, it's kept me grounded and humbled in times of triumph and joy. And in this moment of darkness for our country — of pain, of division, and of sickness for so many Americans — my faith has been a guiding light for me and a constant reminder of the fundamental dignity and humanity that God has bestowed upon all of us,” Biden said in an Aug. 6 statement.

“For President Trump to attack my faith is shameful. It's beneath the office he holds and it's beneath the dignity the American people so rightly expect and deserve from their leaders," he added.

Speaking in Ohio today, Trump said that Biden wanted to "take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment, no religion, no anything. Hurt the Bible, hurt God. He's against God, he's against guns.”

Biden has spoken about his Catholic faith on the campaign trail, and is known to attend Mass when he is at home in Delaware and when he travels. But the former vice president’s positions on some issues, most notably abortion and sexual orientation/gender identity policy, have put him at odds with Catholic teaching.

Brian Burch, president of political advocacy organization CatholicVote, told CNA that Biden’s faith itself should not be called into question, but his position on issues of importance to religious believers should be a matter of consideration.

“Joe Biden says his Catholic faith is important to him, and it's not our place to question that,” Burch told CNA. “It's obvious Biden attends Mass, and it's obvious his Catholic faith has been a comfort to him at critical moments in his life.”

“But the question in this election is about what his plans are for this country, and that's what believers should focus on," Burch said.

“What matters here isn't his devotional life, but his policies. And his policy agenda threatens the freedom of the Church in America," he added, not only on life, but also on religious liberty.

Burch said that in his view, Biden’s positions could impact the Church’s social and charitable ministries.

“I worry that the Catholic Church in America is not taking seriously enough how a Biden presidency might threaten the freedom of the Church in America. Catholic hospitals, schools and charities will surely be forced to choose whether to operate in communion with what we believe as Catholics, compromise the Faith, or shut down altogether. Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state grants that serve the poor and vulnerable could be at stake,” Burch said.

In October 2019, Biden was denied Holy Communion at a South Carolina church because of his support for legalized abortion.

“Sadly, this past Sunday, I had to refuse Holy Communion to former Vice President Joe Biden,” Fr. Robert Morey, pastor of St. Anthony Catholic Church in the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, told CNA Oct 28.

“Holy Communion signifies we are one with God, each other and the Church. Our actions should reflect that. Any public figure who advocates for abortion places himself or herself outside of Church teaching,” the priest added. Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law states that

“Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote a memorandum to the U.S. Catholic bishops in 2004, explaining the application of Canon Law 915 to the reception of Holy Communion.

The memorandum stated that “the minister of Holy Communion may find himself in the situation where he must refuse to distribute Holy Communion to someone, such as in cases of a declared excommunication, a declared interdict, or an obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin.”

The case of a “Catholic politician” who is “consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws” would constitute “formal cooperation” in grave sin that is “manifest,” the letter continued.

In such cases, “his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist,” Ratzinger wrote.

At the time Biden was denied Communion, his website stated that one of his priorities as president would be to “work to codify Roe v. Wade” into federal law, and that “his Justice Department will do everything in its power to stop the rash of state laws that so blatantly violate the constitutional right to an abortion,” including laws requiring waiting periods, ultrasounds, and parental notification of a minor’s abortion.

“Vice President Biden supports repealing the Hyde Amendment because healthcare is a right that should not be dependent on one’s zip code or income,” said his website.

Biden’s website also pledges him to “restore federal funding for Planned Parenthood,” and promises to “rescind the Mexico City Policy (also referred to as the global gag rule) that President Trump reinstated and expanded.”

During his career as a senator, Biden voted numerous times in favor of the Hyde Amendment and Mexico City Policy, and opposed public funding for abortions.

But as he campaigned for the Democratic nomination last year, Biden shifted his views on abortion funding.

Over the course of one week in June 2019, Biden went from publicly supporting the Hyde Amendment--which prohibits the use of Medicaid funds for most abortions--to pledging to repeal it if he were to be elected president.

Previously, Biden supported some aspects of pro-life legislation. In addition to his Senate vote in favor of the Hyde amendment, he also supported the Mexico City Policy in 1984, voted again in favor of Hyde in 1993, and voted to ban partial-birth abortion in 1995 and again in 1997.

On Thursday, Biden said that his Catholic “faith teaches me to love my neighbor as I would myself, while President Trump only seeks to divide us. My faith teaches me to care for the least among us, while President Trump seems to only be concerned about his gilded friends. My faith teaches me to welcome the stranger, while President Trump tears families apart. My faith teaches me to walk humbly, while President Trump teargassed peaceful protestors so he could walk over to a church for a photo op.”

The candidate’s statement did not address his position on abortion.

In July, a grop of 115 Christian leaders, including Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky and other Catholic clergy, religious, and laity, signed a letter to the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Platform Committee, asking the party to support pro-life policies including “legal protection for pre-born children.”

“We call upon you to recognize the inviolable human dignity of the child, before and after birth,” the letter stated, asking for a rejection of “a litmus test on pro-life people of faith seeking office in the Democratic Party.”

Biden, who as the 2020 presidential candidate is de facto leader of the Democratic party, did not comment on their letter, and has not responded to other entreaties from pro-life Democrats.

Earlier on Thursday, CatholicVote and former Congressman Tim Huelskamp called on Biden to denounce a recent spate of vandalism and arson at Catholic Churches across the U.S, which they called “a rising climate of anti-Catholicism” in the country. Biden has not spoken out about the matter, and his campaign has not responded to a request for comment on that issue from CNA.

For his part, Trump has faced criticism from U.S. bishops for his positions on the death penalty, immigration and refugee policy, social welfare programs, housing policy, and other issues. At the same time, the president has been praised by bishops and other Catholic leaders for policies that restricted abortion funding, and addressed religious liberty and conscience protections.

Trump has also been criticized by some Christian leaders for incidents they said instrumentalized religious faith, especially a controversial June appearance outside of a Washington, DC church, at which the president displayed a Bible while posing for photographs at the height of protests immediately following the death of George Floyd.

The Trump campaign has made a push in recent weeks for religious voters, after polling showed the president’s favorability declining among some religious voters. Among white Catholics, a crucial voting block for Trump in 2016, support dropped by almost half between March and June. Polling has shown that Catholics who say they attend Mass regularly are more likely to support Trump’s reelection than those who do not.

In addition to his statement on faith, Biden also made efforts on Twitter Thursday night to walk back controversial comments he’d made earlier in the day on race.

In an interview, Biden had told journalists that “what you all know but most people don't know, unlike the African American community with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community with incredibly different attitudes about different things." His tweets Thursday night said that “in no way did I mean to suggest the African American community is a monolith -- not by identity, not on issues, not at all."

A campaign adviser told CNN that Biden was “referring to diversity of attitudes among Latinos from different Latin American countries," on some issues, including immigration policy.

SSPX accused of intimidating would-be whistleblowers amid abuse investigation

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Aug 6, 2020 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- After an official with the Society of St. Pius X told priests and staff they should speak with criminal investigators only in the presence of an attorney provided by the group, the group’s leaders say their message was not intended to suggest anyone should cover up alleged sex abuse.

The Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) is a breakaway traditionalist group of priests and bishops with no official canonical status in the Church.

Rev. Scott Gardner, bursar of the U.S. district of the SSPX, told staff and priests at St. Mary’s SSPX chapel and school in Kansas last weekend that they did not have to cooperate with state investigators of alleged child sex abuse.

He added that employees and priest should speak to police only in the presence of a lawyer, who would be provided by the organization.

Some former members of the organization said the message, sent by email, seemed designed to silence witnesses or whistleblowers of abuse.

“It looks like they’re trying to hide things, trying to keep people from speaking and definitely stonewalling,” Kyle White, who has alleged that priests in the organization covered up reports of sexual abuse, told the Kansas City Star Aug. 4.

“They don’t want any more stuff like this getting out,” White added.

Gardner said when he emailed priests and staff, he was simply informing them that they did not have to speak to investigators without a lawyer present.
 
“It was certainly not an attempt to intimidate anyone or to discourage cooperation with the KBI,” Gardner said in an Aug. 5 statement.

“This email was clearly sent to priests and employees and not to people attending our church or school in St Mary’s or elsewhere,” the priest said, adding that it was not “an attempt to intimidate anyone or to discourage cooperation” with investigators.

The SSPX is under investigation in the state of Kansas for alleged sex abuse, along with the four Catholic dioceses.

The group was founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970. When Lefebvre and Bishop Antonio de Castro Mayer consecrated four bishops without the permission of St. John Paul II in 1988, the bishops involved were excommunicated.

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications of the surviving bishops, while noting that “doctrinal questions obviously remain and until they are clarified the Society has no canonical status in the Church and its ministers cannot legitimately exercise any ministry.”

The group has been in intermittent talks with the Vatican about returning to full communion with the Church. In 2015, Pope Francis extended the faculty to hear confession to priests of the society as part of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

In the group’s U.S. district, however, a number of abuse allegations have surfaced in relation to the large SSPX community at St. Mary’s, Kansas, which includes the society’s K-12 school, as have several allegations that priests engaged in cover-ups of abuse by priests or attendees of SSPX chapels.
 
In 2019, the Kansas Bureau of Investigations (KBI) announced it would investigate clerical sexual misconduct in four Catholic dioceses in the state; the investigation was subsequently expanded to include the SSPX.

In May, a spokesperson for the KBI told CNA the investigation is “ongoing” and that as of February 1, the bureau had 186 reports of abuse and had opened 112 investigations. KBI did not say how many of the investigations pertained to the SSPX.
 
In addition to the Kansas City Star, the weekend email from Gardner was reported on the Church Militant website. Gardner’s statement said of that report that “Church Militant has once again tried to wring fake news out of an internal email by falsifying the context.”

Gardner’s statement did not address the Kansas City Star, or indicate whether he perceived that newspaper as well to be reporting “fake news.”

The priest did say that the SSPX is “making any priest, employee, or agent” available to the KBI “without the need for a subpoena.”
 
Gardner said in his correspondence that he has “no indication that the KBI has been intimidating” anyone, but added that “our legal system is adversarial” and thus it is “common sense for the Society to protect itself and its priests and employees by having its attorney present at an interview with law enforcement.”

“I hope that anyone with evidence of abuse will go freely to the KBI or other appropriate authorities,” he said.
 
KBI has said that it is accepting reports of abuse by phone at 1-800-KS-CRIME, or by email. [email protected]

Nicaraguan cardinal says Mass at entrance of firebombed cathedral chapel

CNA Staff, Aug 6, 2020 / 03:46 pm (CNA).- Cardinal Leopoldo José Brenes Solorzano of Managua said Mass Wednesday at the entrance of the Blood of Christ chapel in his cathedral, which was firebombed last week.

"The Church has always suffered and will continue to suffer, but our assurance is that the Lord is with us,” Cardinal Brenes said during the Aug. 5 Mass.

He called the July 31 firebombing "an act of terrorism."

Anti-government protests in Nicaragua began in April 2018. They have resulted in more than 320 deaths. The government has accused many bishops and priests of siding with the opposition.

A small group of priests and religious participated in the Aug. 5 Mass. Behind the cardinal could be seen the large image of Christ crucified that was scorched by the attack. During the Mass, the cardinal showed the face of Christ, which had broken away from the corpus during the fire.

The Archbishop of Managua said there is "an atmosphere of sadness and pain...because what we feel from this nightmare is: When are we going to wake up?" He urged clinging to "the cross, because if we are clinging to his cross, who can separate us from the love of God?”

Cardinal Brenes said that looking at the image of Christ crucified, "we see our Blood of Christ charred, but still standing."

“The image and the cross resisted the forces of the flames as a testimony to us that the cross is not so easily defeated, the cross is not so easily destroyed. That is why today I call on you to cling to the cross, at the foot of the cross like Mary and that small group that accompanied him," the cardinal said.

The Blood of Christ chapel of Managua’s Immaculate Conception Cathedral has been home to a crucifix made in the 17th century.

Bishop David Malloy of Rockford, chair of the US bishops’ international justice and peace committee, said Aug. 5 that the crucifix “has become a poignant image of the country’s suffering Church, which has sustained repeated rhetorical and physical attacks (three in the last three weeks) since attempting to mediate peace in 2018.”

He added that “The Church in the United States stands with the suffering Nicaraguan faithful, and with all people of goodwill striving for peace and reconciliation in Nicaragua.”

Msgr. Carlos Avilés, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Managua, said Aug. 4 that "the only threats we have gotten have been from the government, they’ve been publicly speaking out against the bishops, calling them  'terrorists' trying to overthrow the president, and they’ve been criticizing the Church."

"We condemn both nationally and internationally the irrational actions of the government through its violent repression and not accepting the humanitarian aid which the Church has offered,” he added.

The vicar general said that there is "an undeclared persecution, an open persecution against the Church.”

The identity of the man who perpetrated the attack on the chapel is unknown; he wore a hood while in the cathedral.

Several churches or chapels in Nicaragua have been vandalized in recent weeks.

On July 29, Our Lady of Perpetual Help chapel in Nindirí, about 13 miles southeast of Managua,was attacked. The perpetrators stole the tabernacle and the ciborium, smashed statues, and trampled the Hosts.

There was an attack on Our Lord of Veracruz parish in Masaya district, fewer than 20 miles southeast of Managua, July 25. The chapel was desecrated, and audio equipment and money boxes were stolen.

Nicaragua’s crisis began in 2018 after president Daniel Ortega announced social security and pension reforms. The changes were soon abandoned in the face of widespread, vocal opposition, but protests only intensified after more than 40 protestors were killed by security forces.

The pension reforms which triggered the unrest were modest, but protests quickly turned to Ortega’s authoritarian bent.

Ortega has been president of Nicaragua since 2007, and oversaw the abolition of presidential term limits in 2014.

Ortega was a leader in the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which had ousted the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and fought US-backed right-wing counterrevolutionaries during the 1980s. Ortega was also leader of Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990.

The Nicaraguan clergy have not hesitated to call out the government for its violent repression of protests and for human rights abuses, making the Church an adversary in the eyes of the government.

On various occasions both bishops and priests have been physically assailed by pro-government supporters, and other acts of vandalism and intimidation have occurred.

Managua’s cathedral was also the site of a hunger strike in November 2019. The hunger strikers were calling for the release of their relatives, whom they believe to be political prisoners. Pro-government forces besieged the cathedral in response.