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Briefing shows ACLU has abandoned religious freedom for 'culture wars,' critic says

Denver Newsroom, May 26, 2020 / 05:45 pm (CNA).- Longtime critics of religious freedom protections, among them the American Civil Liberties Union, have formed a partnership to oppose the Trump administration policies and actions that aim to protect several Catholic institutions.

But for Matthew Franck, a Princeton University politics lecturer and senior fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, this course will advance conflict and coercion, not freedom.

“The American Civil Liberties Union used to take an active interest in protecting everyone’s religious freedom, as well as the other protections of the Bill of Rights. But no longer,” Franck told CNA May 26. “In the culture wars generated by the sexual revolution, the ACLU now ranges itself against the constitutional right of religious freedom and on the side of coercion.”

Franck said the ACLU is supporting claims to civil rights not grounded in the U.S. Constitution. When those claims come into conflict with the religious freedom of individuals, religious associations, religious schools and religious charities, he suggested, the result is sometimes government coercion.

Those claims include “women seeking employer-provided contraceptives and abortifacients, or same-sex couples that want to compel church-sponsored adoption agencies to place children with them, or gay teachers who marry their partners and want to keep on working for Catholic schools that consider their teachers bound by the Church’s moral teachings, or same-sex couples who want a Christian baker to make them a custom wedding cake,” Franck said.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for American Progress have launched a joint project, with material titled “Connecting the Dots.” The ACLU produced a legal briefing while the Center for American Progress released a short video May 19 linking to the briefing.

The advocacy is the product of a partnership between the two groups and the Movement Advancement Project, a strategic communications and development organization in LGBT advocacy founded by the influential millionaire Tim Gill.

“Freedom of religion is a fundamental American value—but that freedom does not give institutions or individuals the right to harm others,” the Center for American Progress said May 19. “Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, his administration has expanded religious exemptions in an attempt to gut civil rights protections and codify discrimination against people of minority faiths, women, and people who are LGBTQ.”

The ACLU’s May 2020 briefing paper “Connecting the Dots,” argued that the Trump administration was working to “create a license to discriminate across the country.”

“In the name of religious liberty, Trump and his allies have pursued a strategy to legalize discrimination based on religion and sex — including sexual orientation and gender identity — and other personal characteristics,” the briefing said.

“Freedom of religion is a fundamental American value, so fundamental that it is protected by the First Amendment to our nation’s Constitution. But that freedom does not give institutions or individuals the right to harm others, including by discriminating and especially with taxpayer dollars,” it continued.

The ACLU said that the Trump administration authorized or expanded religious exemptions “that enable institutions, businesses, and individuals to refuse to comply with laws they assert interfere with their religious beliefs.” Such laws, in the legal group’s view, include non-discrimination laws, health care laws, and adoption and foster care laws.

For his part, Franck rejected the legal group’s claims.

“What the ACLU calls ’discrimination’ is not, under federal statutes as currently interpreted, unlawful,” Franck told CNA. “That may change if the Supreme Court willfully misreads Title VII in two pending cases. But whatever happens in these cases, the fact that the ACLU and the Center for American Progress call the defense of personal and institutional conscience an ’abuse’ of the religious freedom protected by the First Amendment says more about those organizations’ abandonment of the traditions of American freedom than it does about the Trump administration.”

“The Obama administration, sadly, ’normalized’ all these attacks on religious freedom as administration policies. The Trump administration deserves credit for working to reverse such policies,” Franck said.

Several topics in the ACLU briefing concern cases where Catholic institutions are involved.

The legal group opposed accommodations for employers with religious or moral objections to providing health care plans that cover contraception, including drugs that can cause abortion. The Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic religious congregation that provides care for the indigent elderly, are still tied up in court over the coverage mandate, which dates back to the middle of the Obama administration.

The briefing objected to the Trump administration’s September 2019 statement of interest in a fired high school teacher’s lawsuit filed against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The archdiocese had ruled that the teacher violated archdiocesan policy and Catholic teaching by contracting a same-sex civil marriage and said that the Catholic high school must terminate his job to maintain its Catholic affiliation.

The ACLU characterized the Trump administration’s action as “arguing against employees who are fired for being gay.”

Regarding a California legal case against a Sacramento-area Catholic hospital, the ACLU briefing claims its client, Evan Minton, was “turned away from a religious hospital for being transgender.”

Minton, who presents as a transgender man, filed a lawsuit against the Dignity Health Catholic health system after a Catholic hospital refused to perform a planned elective hysterectomy. Health system officials arranged for Minton to be transferred to a hospital not affiliated with Catholicism. In September 2019, a California court allowed Minton’s lawsuit to proceed, overturning a lower court’s decision that the transfer of Milton was sufficient to avoid charges under state anti-discrimination law.

“Catholic hospitals do not perform sterilizing procedures such as hysterectomies for any patient regardless of their gender identity, unless there is a serious threat to the life or health of the patient,” Dignity Health said in September 2019.

A 2016 letter to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services signed by the general counsel for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, together with other groups, affirmed that the denial of surgery to someone seeking to change their gender would not be discriminatory. The letter rejected claims that it is discriminatory to decline to perform a mastectomy or a hysterectomy on a healthy woman who is “seeking to have the appearance of a man.”

The ACLU’s briefing criticized the creation of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division at the Department of Health and Human Services, and objected that this new division is better funded than divisions related to information privacy and civil rights.

The legal group objected to religious freedom protections for prospective foster and adoptive parents and for adoption agencies that receive federal funds. Several Catholic and other Christian adoption agencies have been forced to close by law or by denial of funds because they could not in good conscience place children with same-sex couples.

The ACLU also objected to the Trump administration’s amicus brief in the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court case. The case concerned a Colorado bakery that declined to make a wedding cake for a same-sex ceremony on the grounds of religious objections. The briefing charged that the Trump administration argued “on behalf of a business’ right to discriminate.”

The briefing claimed the Trump administration required departments and agencies to implement “a distorted interpretation of religious liberty” that in the ACLU’s view excessively favors religious claims. It criticized then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ creation of a Religious Liberty Task Force to implement federal guidance, claiming this could “open the door to widespread discrimination in employment and government-funded services.” The ACLU said the government has denied requests seeking to determine who is on the task force.

The May 2019 action of the Housing and Urban Development on gender identity also drew criticism from the ACLU. The group said this action this allows shelters “to exclude transgender and gender nonconforming people from appropriate shelters, including on the basis of the shelter’s religious beliefs.” The group said that self-identified transgender women should be able to have shelter that “conforms with their gender identity.”

The Department of Labor’s rules allowing religious associations to obtain federal contracts also drew criticism, as did a May 2018 executive order allowing faith-based and community organizations to receive federal funds in grants, contracts and program funding “to the fullest opportunity permitted by law.”

The ACLU, the Center for American Progress, and the Movement Advancement Project are part of a multi-million dollar social and political change advocacy network aiming to limit religious freedom protections. Major funders of this network include the Ford Foundation, the Proteus Fund, and the Arcus Foundation. The Arcus Foundation, founded by billionaire Jon Stryker, also funds Christian groups which reject traditional Christian teaching on LGBT issues and abortion.

The Center for American Progress was founded by John Podesta, a former chief-of-staff for President Bill Clinton and campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful 2016 presidential run. In 2016, Podesta drew attention after leaked emails implied he had backed several political Catholic groups for a “Catholic Spring” revolt against the bishops.

 

Mexican state passes pro-life education law

CNA Staff, May 26, 2020 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- The Mexican state legislature of Nuevo Leon passed an education reform bill May 21 to foster a “respect for life from conception to natural death” in students.

The law reflects the state constitution, which affirms that “the state recognizes, protects and defends the right to life that every human being has. From the moment of conception that life comes under the protection of the Law and is considered as having been born with regards to all corresponding legal effects until its natural death.”

The new bill also calls for the “inclusion, through the development of special training, programs for the employment of people with some kind of disability.”

Speaking with ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish languages news partner, state legislator Juan Carlos Leal, who introduced the education reform bill, said the law will “definitely have a big impact especially on the values of Mexican citizens.”

“We want to create a new generation of students that have values and respect, which unfortunately in Mexico, we have seen is being lost,” he explained.

The director of the ConParticipación platform, Marcial Padilla, stressed the importance of incorporating pro-life principles into constitutions and laws, inlcuding the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights or the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights.

“The initiative to recognize the right to life in education will help young people, adolescents and children learn to appreciate human life,” Padilla said.

The pro-life leader said he is hopeful the reform bill will “help reduce suicide rates, reduce addictions and will also help young people understand that abortion is not an option. ”

Above all, students “will be able to know that abortion is always an attack on human life,” he said.

Fr. José Manuel Suazo Reyes, director of the communications office of the Archdiocese of Xalapa, welcomed the passage of the law in a May 24 letter on behalf of the archdiocese. 

In the letter, titled The Culture of Life Advances, Suazo said that “Mexico continues to cry out that it loves and wants life” and that “abortion is not the solution” for distressed mothers, and that it is essential that the government support the a broader culture of life in the country. 

“It’s important for the state to protect life, but it is also essential that it form citizens in respect and care for life,” the letter said. “This reform creates awareness in students of the dignity that every human life has, thus contributing to the reduction of discriminatory, aggressive and even criminal behavior, as is the case with abortion.”

The priest called the law “a very important step in the culture of life,” while noting that “thousands of children are aborted year after year in Mexico City, where killing babies up to 12 weeks gestation is permitted.”

While government officials “want to promote abortion on demand,” he said, wider efforts to promote the dignity of all human life were gaining support, including the recent ninth annual March for Life in the country on May 23 - held online this year due to the coronavirus - which, he said, attracted more that 500,000 participants on Facebook alone.

“These manifestations of the culture of life seek to put a stop to all these criminal initiatives throughout the country to promote abortion,” said Suazo. “Today more than ever life is threatened. We must protect ourselves from those anti-life mentalities that despise the lives of others.”

COVID relief efforts should remember the poor, bishop says

CNA Staff, May 26, 2020 / 03:52 pm (CNA).- As Congress considers additional COVID relief efforts in the coming weeks, it should focus especially on the needs of the poor and vulnerable, said the head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

“As Congress turns once more to considering additional relief related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus should be on those most in need - the poor, the vulnerable, and people on the margins - to offer them some hope and assistance in desperate circumstances,” said Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City in a May 22 statement.

As many states begin the process of reopening following widespread quarantine restrictions to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, members of Congress have discussed the possibility of an additional COVID-19 relief bill, although details of a potential bill are not yet clear.

Since March, the U.S. bishops have advocated for bills that would help the poor and unemployed with food security, affordable health care, housing, and education. They have also pushed for assistance to migrants, protections for the unborn, efforts to address ethnic disparities in health outcomes, the well-being of the incarcerated, debt relief, and support for charities during the pandemic.

“Additional needs have emerged such as sufficient protective equipment for all essential workers, protection of familial well-being and integrity, additional research on the link between air pollution and coronavirus health outcomes, and the need to address disruptions to the food supply chain and its impact on farmers and farmworkers, food waste and public health,” Coakley said.

The archbishop welcomed the Vatican’s new commission on COVID-19, which was created by the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. The commission is made up of the dicastery’s prefect, Cardinal Peter Turkson; secretary, Mons. Bruno-Marie Duffé; and adjunct secretary, Fr. Augusto Zampini.

The Vatican COVID-19 Commission will analyze the virus’ potential socio-economic-cultural impact and propose appropriate solutions for the future. According to the dicastery’s website, it will focus on five major points: “acting now for the future; looking to the future with creativity; communicating hope; seeking common dialogue and reflections; and supporting to care.”

Coakley echoed the words of Pope Francis, who on Easter Sunday prayed for the gift of hope and encouraged solidarity in the face of this crisis.

“Let us proceed in this hope, asking the Lord for wisdom on how best to respond, drawing close to our brothers and sisters in need, and finding our peace in the Lord’s promise to be with us ‘until the end of the age,’” Coakley said.

 

Minnesota bishops: Death of black man in police custody a ‘tragedy’

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 26, 2020 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- The Minnesota Catholic Conference on Tuesday called the death of a black man while he was in police custody a “tragedy,” and welcomed an investigation.

A video circulated online on Tuesday of a May 25 arrest in Minneapolis. In the video an officer with the Minneapolis Police Department can be seen kneeling on the neck of a man laying on the street as he is taken into custody. The man was later identified as George Floyd.

“I cannot breathe,” Floyd said multiple times, groaning as the knee of a police officer was on his neck. A second police officer stood by watching.

The video appears to skip several minutes to a later shot, where Floyd’s eyes appear closed and onlookers exclaim that he was not moving and shouted at the officers to “get off of his neck.”

According to the Minneapolis Police Department’s account of the arrest, officers had handcuffed Floyd and “noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.” They called for an ambulance, and Floyd was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center “where he died a short time later.”

The state’s Catholic conference, which speaks on behalf of the bishops of Minnesota’s six dioceses, called Floyd’s death “a tragedy” and welcomed an investigation.

“This is a tragedy. It is good that state and federal investigators are already looking into the incident to determine what happened,” stated Jason Adkins of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

“People need to feel safe in their communities and have trust in law enforcement, who should exercise their power in a spirit of service,” Adkins said. “If there was misconduct, hopefully justice will be done.”

According to the police department, officers had initially responded to a “forgery in progress” on the 3700 block of Chicago Avenue South.

“Officers were advised that the suspect was sitting on top of a blue car and appeared to be under the influence,” the department said.

When officers arrived on the scene, the department said that Floyd was ordered “to step from his car,” and physically resisted arrest once he got out of his car; the officers handcuffed him and then noted “he appeared to be suffering medical distress.”

Both the FBI and the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension will be investigating the incident.

Minneapolis police authorities announced Tuesday afternoon that four officers were fired in response to the incident. There is not yet indication of whether the officers could face charges.

The mayor of St. Paul called the video “one of the most vile and heartbreaking images I’ve ever seen,” and that both officers “must be held fully accountable. This must stop now.”

 

This story is developing and has been updated.

Priest says water gun 'baptism' photo meant to be 'funny'

CNA Staff, May 26, 2020 / 12:55 pm (CNA).- The Tennessee priest in a now-viral photograph that seemed to depict a baptism by water gun has told parishioners that the photo was staged, and was meant to be funny.

“This is what Fr. Steve said about this: 1) The family had requested for him to do this pose as copied from several posts of priests circulating around the internet. He agreed because he thought it was funny. 2) The water in the water gun is not holy water and was squirted towards the dad and not the baby for humor impact,” explained Saint Mark Catholic Church of Manchester, Tennessee in a Facebook post Tuesday.

“Bottom line, it was meant to be for fun,” the parish post added.

The priest in the photo is Fr. Stephen Klasek, who is pastor of two parishes: St. Mark, and Saint Paul the Apostle in nearby Tullahoma. Klasek, a priest of the Diocese of Nashville, has been ordained 37 years.

The parish indicated it was posting to "clarify the photo that has gone viral as we have been receiving inquiries about it. It has garnered almost a million views in Twitter, has been in the news in several websites and memes. It had good and controversial comments.”

While Klasek’s photo was apparently staged, photos of a priest purporting to bless parishioners with a water gun in Detroit went viral earlier this month. Fr. Tim Pelc told Buzzfeed News he had shot parishioners with holy water in a water gun as something “for the kids of the parish.”

Klasek's photo spread like wildfire over social media this weekend. While some praised it, others criticized the photo, suggesting it seemed to make light of the solemnity of baptism or trivialize priestly ministry.

The Diocese of Nashville has not yet responded to questions from CNA regarding Klasek’s staged photo.

 

Chinese bishop who suffered years of forced labor dies at 98

Rome Newsroom, May 26, 2020 / 12:30 pm (CNA).- A Chinese underground bishop who was sentenced to 10 years of forced labor in the 1980s for bringing Catholics on pilgrimage to the Marian Shrine of Our Lady of Sheshan died this month at the age of 98.

Joseph Zhu Baoyu, bishop emeritus of Nanyang, made headlines in February for reportedly being the oldest person to recover from the coronavirus. Three months after his release from the hospital, Zhu died in his sleep on May 7 under the care of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.

He was one of three elderly underground Chinese Catholic bishops remembered in a Holy See communiqué on May 23 following their deaths over the past six months. All three died over the age of 90 after lives that spanned some of the most tumultuous periods for the Catholic Church in China. 

Zhu was born in Pushan, Henan, in 1921, at a time of extraordinary growth of Christianity in China. This was also the year that the Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai. 

After his father died, Zhu’s mother enrolled him in a Catholic orphanage in Jingang at the age of six. Two years later both he and his mother were baptized. Zhu enrolled in a minor seminary. During the Chinese Civil War, he moved to the regional seminary of the regional seminary  philosophy and theology in the Archdiocese of Kaifeng in 1946. 

However, he would not be ordained to the priesthood until after the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949. In the years following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China many Catholics were arrested for refusing to comply with government campaigns to eliminate foreign influence and nationalize private schools.

Pope Pius XII highlighted this suffering in his encyclical Evangelii praecones in 1951.

“We have learned that many of the faithful and also nuns, missionaries, native priests and even bishops have been driven from their homes, despoiled of their possessions and languish in want as exiles or have been arrested, thrown into prison or into concentration camps, or sometimes cruelly done to death, because they were devoutly attached to their faith. Our heart is overwhelmed with grief when We think of the hardships, suffering and death of these our beloved children,” the pope wrote.

Zhu was ordained to the priesthood in 1957, the year before Mao Zedong launched the “Great Leap Forward,” a five-year collectivised farming plan that resulted in a famine that killed more than 20 million people between 1959 and 1962.

Seven years after his ordination, he was sentenced to three years of forced labor because of his faith. Upon his release in 1967, he conducted ministry in secret in his hometown.

Zhu was again sentenced to 10 years of forced labor as an “anti-revolutionary” in 1981 after he was arrested for taking Catholics on pilgrimage to the Marian Shrine of Our Lady of Sheshan in Shanghai, according to a Human Rights Watch report documenting hundreds of religious and political prisoners detained in China at the time. 

Upon his release in 1988, Zhu was allowed to resume parish ministry. Pope John Paul II appointed Zhu as coadjutor bishop of Nanyang in 1995, and he was ordained in secret on the feast of St. Joseph. In 2002 he became the ordinary underground bishop of Nanyang until he submitted his retirement to the pope in 2010.

Nanyang is Chinese city more than 10 million people. According to the Vatican statement, the Diocese of Nanyang has 20,000 Catholics and 20 priests. 

Zhu’s funeral was presided over by Bishop Peter Jin Lugang of Nanyang, the first underground bishop to be publicly accepted by the Chinese government following the September 2018 China-Holy See agreement on the appointment of bishops.

The Vatican communique also announced the deaths of underground bishops emeriti Joseph Ma Zhongmu and Andrew Jin Danyuan.

Andrew Jin Danyuan, underground bishop emeritus of Changzhi, died in November at the age of 90. After his ordination to the priesthood in Beijing in 1956, Jin was arrested and imprisoned for 13 years. 

Bishop Joseph Ma Zhongmu, who remained a part of China’s underground Church until his death at the age of 101 on March 23, was the first and only bishop of Mongolian ethnicity.

Born in a village in Inner Mongolia in 1919, Zhongmu studied in a Chinese minor seminary from 1935 to 1947, when he was ordained a priest during the Chinese Civil War.

Fr. Ma was sentenced to 10 years of forced labor in 1958 after refusing to join the then recently established Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. Upon his release, Ma was forced to work as a village laborer in a water management plant during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. He was unable to resume his priestly ministry until 1979 as China began to open under Deng Xiaoping.

Pope John Paul II appointed Ma to be bishop of Yinchuan in 1983, entrusting to him the pastoral care of Mongolian Catholics. 

As bishop, Ma translated the catechism and other Church documents into Mongolian, and in his retirement dedicated himself to translating the New Testament and Roman Missal as well.

The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples sent Bishop Ma a pectoral cross in 2004 as a sign of recognition and communion. 

Ma’s funeral was offered on March 27 by Bishop Paul Meng Qinglu of Hohhot and two other priests. No others allowed in attendance due to the coronavirus restrictions. 

Australian journalists face court date over Pell trial coverage

CNA Staff, May 26, 2020 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- A judge in the Australian state of Victoria has proposed beginning a trial in November to prosecute journalists and media outlets for violating a court-imposed reporting ban on the trial of Cardinal George Pell in 2018.

Victoria Supreme Court Judge John Dixon said Tuesday that the trial could begin as soon as November 9, but prosecutors and lawyers for the journalists are still disputing the terms of the trial, Reuters reported.

Prosecutors allege that 19 individuals and 21 media outlets assisted in the violation of the gag order by overseas media and are seeking a single trial. Lawyers representing the accused journalists contend that separate allegations need to be heard in individual trials. Penalties for violating court gag orders include fines of up to 100,000 Australian dollars ($66,000) and five years in prison for individuals.

In December 2018, Cardinal Pell was convicted on five charges of sexual abuse of minors by a court in Victoria. His case was heard on appeal, first by the Victoria Court of Appeal, which upheld his convictions before they were overturned by Australian High Court in April this year, freeing Pell after more than a year in prison.

In 2018, Victoria police brought several charges against Pell related to his time as Archbishop of Melbourne and as a priest in the Diocese of Ballarat. The charges were set to be heard in two successive trials, with the Melbourne accusations heard first. At the request of prosecutors, that trial was subject to a sweeping gag order, with media prohibited from reporting on anything to do with the case or even acknowledge that it was underway.

The ban was dropped in February, 2019, after prosecutors abandoned the Ballarat charges, admitting there was not enough evidence to go to trial.

Despite the order, several international outlets, including CNA, carried news of the trial and verdict in 2018, in some cases blocking that coverage from appearing online in Australia in order to comply with the court order.

Domestic media in Australia mostly complied with the court order, though some media outlets reported that an unnamed high-profile individual had been convicted on unreportable charges.

The Herald Sun newspaper ran a December 12 cover story under the headline “CENSORED” which said that “the world is reading a very important story that is relevant to Victorians.”

“The Herald Sun is prevented from publishing details of this significant news,” the front page read. “But trust us, it is a story you deserve to read.”

Coverage like that, according to Victoria prosecutors, amounted to offering support to overseas outlets in contempt of court.

At the time of Pell’s conviction, Judge Peter Kidd, who presided over the initial trial, said that “a number of very important people in the media are facing, if found guilty, the prospect of imprisonment and indeed substantial imprisonment, and it may well be that many significant members of the media community are in that potential position,” for violating the gag order.

On April 15, Victoria County Court held a first hearing in an effort by state prosecutors to bring charges against journalists and news outlets, including some of the largest names in Australian media, including The Age newspaper and several News Corp publications.

The next hearing it set for July.

The state of Victoria has faced sustained criticism for the use of suppression orders by the state’s courts.

Despite an Open Courts Act passed in 2013 aimed at improving judicial transparency, Victorian courts issued more than 1500 suppression orders between 2014-2016.

CNA has previously reported that in 2014, senior police in Victoria discussed using an investigation into Cardinal Pell to distract media attention from serious allegations of corruption in the force.

In a 2014 email exchange, then-Deputy Commissioner Graham Ashton and Charlie Morton, assistant director of media and corporate communications for the Victoria police department, discussed how to respond to a high-profile scandal which would hamper the credibility of Victoria police operations.

In an email dated April 1, 2014, Morton advised Ashton not to make a media appearance in response to the “Lawyer X” scandal, because forthcoming announcements about Cardinal Pell could distract media and public attention.

“The Pell stuff is coming tomorrow and will knock this way off the front page,” Morton wrote to Ashton.

In 2013, Victoria Police opened Operation Tethering, an open-ended investigation into possible crimes by Cardinal Pell, although no victims had come forward against him and there had been no criminal complaints made against him at the time. Although they had found no victims or criminal accusations, in 2015 the program was expanded and put on a more formal footing.

Ashton, is now the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police. In 2019 he gave evidence at a Royal Commission inquiry into the use of police sources and the Lawyer X scandal, in which criminal defense lawyer Nicola Gobbo was recruited to work as an informant against members of the Calabrian mafia, while she was representing several of them as an attorney.

Much of Gobbo's work as a lawyer was with Australian members of the Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia organization, which has established a deep presence both in Victoria and across the country, with allegations of multi-million dollar bribes to judges and close connections to local Victorian politicians in both political parties.

The link between the Italian and Australian branches of the organization is known to be close and ongoing.

The Victoria police force has been the subject of numerous scandals over the years. In addition to the allegations concerning Gobbo, a 2017 report found that nearly half (46%) of Victoria Police employees believe they would suffer personal repercussions if they reported corruption, with almost one in five saying it would cost them their job.

Book calling for Catholic blessing of homosexual couples was requested by Austrian bishops' conference

CNA Staff, May 26, 2020 / 11:02 am (CNA).- A book considering how homosexual couples might receive a formal, liturgical blessing of their union in the Catholic Church was written in response to a request from the liturgical committee of the Austrian bishops’ conference, according to the book’s principal author.

The work includes contributions by a number of German speaking theologians and a liturgical section, including a suggestion for how such a Church blessing of homosexual unions might be "celebrated" in Catholic churches.

The official title of the book is "The Benediction of Same-Sex Partnerships." One of its principal authors and editors is Father Ewald Volgger, director of the Institute for Liturgical Studies and Sacramental Theology at the Catholic Private University of Linz.

In 2003, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explained that “The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behavior or to legal recognition of homosexual unions.”

But speaking to an Austrian diocesan paper, Father Volgger asserted he would like to see an introduction of an official benediction for homosexual couples "as soon as possible." 

The priest conceded that "according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, homosexual acts are in no way to be condoned and homosexual people are called to chastity".

The 58-year-old priest added that "there has been movement on the subject," and asserted that a rewrite of the Catechism of the Catholic Church might be in order to facilitate “an official liturgy" that would be "based on Church doctrine."

Pope Francis has emphasized repeatedly his committment to Catholic doctrine on homosexuality.

As to why the Catholic Church would change her teachings on sexual morality, Father Volgger pointed to a shift in public perceptions, saying "the doctrine on homosexuality has been discussed throughout Europe in such a way that an opening up is not only debatable but can also be demanded."

The priest added, "there are also a considerable number of bishops who would like to see a rethinking of sexual morality for the evaluation of same-sex partnerships".

Furthermore, Volgger argued, such a change might make the teachings of the Church more acceptable and relevant. 

The diocesan paper pointed out that same-sex couples are apparently already blessed by a Catholic priest in Vienna's St. Stephen Cathedral on occasion, and that one such couple was recently interviewed about the ceremony on Austrian TV.

Father Volgger said this was not the type of official benediction he had in mind.

"No, because that is probably the blessing of same-sex couples on Valentine's Day. These are already widespread and in practice.”

“But a benediction, as it is proposed from a liturgical-theological point of view, would also have an official character, through which the Church expresses the obligation of fidelity and the exclusiveness of the relationship. By the way, it is a very beautiful message that in St. Stephen's Cathedral everyone has a place and is blessed."

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made clear that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God's plan for marriage and family.”

“Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law. Homosexual acts ‘close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved,’” the congregation added.

Among the other authors of the book are several German theologians. In recent years, German bishops in particular have been increasingly outspoken in demanding "discussions about an opening" towards acceptance of practiced homosexuality and the blessing of homosexual unions in the Church.

Following consultations in Berlin in late 2019, the chairman of the marriage and family commission of the German bishops’ conference declared that the German bishops agreed that homosexuality is a “normal form” of human sexual identity.

The topic also plays a central role in one of four forums that constitute the controversial "Synodal Process" under way in Germany.

Several members of the "Central Committee of German Catholics" (ZDK), in charge of running the process in tandem with the bishops' conference, are members of parliament who have personally voted for the re-definition of marriage to include homosexual unions in a vote that legalized such partnerships as "marriages" in Germany in 2017, as CNA Deutsch reported.

Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück, vice-president of the German bishops' conference has also previously called for a "debate" on the blessing of homosexual couples and a change of the Church's teaching on sexual morality.

Speaking in an interview in January 2018, Bode said: "We need to reflect on how to evaluate a relationship between two people of the same sex in a differentiated way." He also asked: "Isn't there so much that is positive, good and right [about a homosexual relationship] that we need to do it more justice?"

The Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, at Christmas 2019 expressed the view that homosexual couples can receive a Church blessing “in the sense of a pastoral accompaniment” in the Catholic Church.

In the same month, Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin stated that both hetero- and homosexuality are “normal forms of sexual predisposition, which cannot or should be be changed with the help of a specific socialization.”

Koch went on to say that “developments” were made possible by Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis’ exhortation of marriage and the family. The Berlin archbishop attended the Vatican Synod on the Family together with Marx and is Chairman of the Marriage and Family Commission of the German bishops’ conference.

He spoke publicly after the German bishops asserted they were committed to “newly assessing” the universal Church’s teaching on homosexuality – and sexual morality in general – during the two-year “synodal process.”
 

 

UN chief says pandemic should inspire ‘new unity and solidarity’

Vatican City, May 26, 2020 / 11:00 am (CNA).- U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said Tuesday that the world needs a response to the coronavirus pandemic based on the protection of human dignity and human rights.

“The pandemic should be a wake-up call,” Guterres said in a May 26 interview with Vatican News. “Deadly global threats require a new unity and solidarity.”

“From the very beginning of this crisis, I have been advocating for solidarity within societies and among countries. Our response must be based on human rights and human dignity,” the UN leader said.

Guterres has led the international organization since 2017. He served as Prime Minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002 and as U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees from 2005 to 2015. 

In December, Guterres, a Catholic, recorded a video message with Pope Francis at the Vatican. The two leaders urged the importance of religious freedom, human dignity, and environmental protection.

At the end of March, the secretary-general called for a global ceasefire so that countries could focus on combating the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

He said his ceasefire message was simple: “fighting needs to stop so that we can focus on our shared enemy – COVID-19.”

In his interview, Guterres noted his appreciation of Pope Francis for his support for the global ceasefire appeal and the work of the UN.

“His global engagement, compassion and calls for unity reaffirm the core values that guide our work: to reduce human suffering and promote human dignity,” he said.

Guterres explained that 115 governments and more than 200 civil society groups have endorsed the appeal, and 16 armed groups have pledged to end violence, but “mistrust remains high, and it is difficult to turn these commitments into actions that make a difference in the lives of those impacted by conflict.”

The organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said last week that Yemen, in the midst of a civil war, is also on the brink of a coronavirus “catastrophe.” 

“What we are seeing in our treatment centre is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of people infected and dying in [Aden],” according to Caroline Seguin, MSF’s operations manager for Yemen.

“The United Nations and donor states need to do more and do it urgently, not just for Aden but for the whole of Yemen,” Seguin said.

The secretary-general said he was also concerned about “peace in the home.”

“Across the globe, as the pandemic spreads, we are also witnessing an alarming increase in violence against women and girls,” he pointed out.

Guterres said he had launched an appeal to mobilize better protection for women and asked religious leaders “to unequivocally condemn all acts of violence against women and girls and to uphold the bedrock principles of equality.”

The coronavirus pandemic is also exposing inequalities everywhere, he underlined, including economic disparity and unequal access to health care. 

“Poverty could rise by 500 million people -- the first increase in three decades,” he stated, adding that this is why he is advocating for a global relief package amounting to at least 10% of the global economy.

Guterres also said that it is important that any COVID-19 treatments found or developed -- including a vaccine -- be safe and available to everyone.

“In an interconnected world, none of us is safe until all of us are safe,” he said. “This vaccine needs to be the people’s vaccine.”

In the interview, the secretary general also said religious leaders have a “crucial role to play” during the pandemic in promoting mutual respect within their communities.

“They are well-positioned to challenge inaccurate and harmful messages, and encourage all communities to promote non-violence and reject xenophobia, racism and all forms of intolerance,” he said.

Religious leaders can leverage their networks “to support governments in promoting public health measures recommended by the World Health Organization,” he said, and “to dispel false information and rumors.”

Pope Francis to return to window overlooking St. Peter’s Square for Sunday prayer

Vatican City, May 26, 2020 / 09:30 am (CNA).- Pope Francis will deliver his Regina Coeli address from the window overlooking St. Peter’s Square this Sunday for the first time since coronavirus restrictions were imposed in March.

In a statement Tuesday, the Holy See press office said that on May 31 the pope would recite the Regina Coeli with pilgrims gathered in the square below.

“The police will guarantee safe access to the square and will ensure that the faithful present can respect the necessary interpersonal distance,” the statement said May 26.

Traditionally, the pope leads the Sunday Angelus -- and the Regina Coeli, between Easter Sunday and Pentecost -- from the window of the Apostolic Palace overlooking St. Peter’s Square.

But from March 8 onwards, Pope Francis delivered his address via videolink from the library of the Apostolic Palace, and offered a blessing from the window above an empty St. Peter’s Square.

People were allowed in St. Peter’s Square for the pope’s Sunday blessing for the first time in more than 10 weeks May 24 after Italy significantly loosened its coronavirus restrictions. 

Each person who entered the square was required to wear a face mask and security enforced social distancing for the people gathered outside of St. Peter’s Basilica, which reopened to the public May 18.

 

For the first time in over 10 weeks, Catholics were able to be present in St. Peter’s Square to receive a blessing from Pope Francis. ???

And they were pretty excited about it! pic.twitter.com/dQx7yGk5p8

— Courtney Mares (@catholicourtney) May 24, 2020  

The Holy See press office said that before this Sunday’s Regina Coeli the pope would celebrate a Pentecost Mass, without the presence of the people, in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel at St. Peter’s Basilica.

The pope is scheduled to deliver his general audience address this Wednesday from the Apostolic Palace library. It will be livestreamed on the Vatican News website.