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Want safe church re-openings? Follow CDC guidelines, infectious disease expert says

Denver Newsroom, May 24, 2020 / 12:35 pm (CNA).- Timothy Flanigan, M.D., worked to combat the deadly Ebola outbreak of 2014.

If someone asks him, “Is it safe for me to go to Mass?” Flanigan has one answer: “Are they following the guidelines the CDC has provided us to decrease the risk of transmission?”

In his view, it is the wrong question to ask whether it is safer to go to Home Depot than to go to church.

Rather, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines for group gatherings are paramount.

“The question is: can I follow the CDC guidance just as carefully, in each setting, in order to decrease transmission of coronavirus? Can I maintain safe distancing? Can I maintain good hand hygiene? Can I ensure that I am not ill?” said Flanigan, a professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

“Following that guidance is so important for all of us to do,” he told CNA May 21. “Whether it’s in a mall, whether it’s in a supermarket, whether it’s in an office building, whether it’s in a meeting.”

The novel coronavirus, technically known as Covid-19, has killed over 94,000 Americans and infected more than 1.5 million since January, the CDC reports.

Flanigan is also a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island. He is part of the Working Group on Infectious Disease Protocols for Sacramental and Pastoral Care, a project of the Thomistic Institute at the Pontifical Faculty of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. The group has put out guidelines on the sacraments pastoral care and the restoration of public Masses.

In 2014, Flanigan was in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. There, he helped Catholic clinics and the local Catholic hospital to increase safety amid the extremely deadly Ebola epidemic. His comments to CNA came before President Donald Trump’s May 22 announcement that he would direct the CDC to issue new guidance for churches to re-open.

The CDC has clearly said that the primary mode of transmission is through the aerosolization of droplets, Flanigan said.

“We know that these droplets occur certainly when people cough, when they sneeze, when they sing, when they talk in a loud voice. There is more projection of these aerosolized droplets,” he explained.

CDC guidance for people in groups is the same whether they are at a large store, a meeting, a workplace or at Mass.

“Their guidance says it is most important that we socially distance, that we’re six feet apart. That’s very important. That we don’t touch each other, because when we touch each other or when we share items,we come in contact with these droplets, and then when we touch our nose, our eyes, or our mouth, that gives the virus the ability to enter into those mucous membranes and cause infections.”

The CDC recommends that anybody with respiratory illness or an active cough should stay home.

“They recommend the use of masks in public spaces, and different states have different guidances,” said Flanigan. Wearing masks is helpful to decrease the spread of respiratory droplets and makes the wearer more aware.

“We generally don’t touch our nose and our mouth in the same way when we are wearing a mask,” he said. Flanigan also noted the importance of good hand hygiene, the use of different hand sanitizers, and guidance on cleaning services for venues.

“That guidance can help us significantly at decreasing the risk of transmission of coronavirus and other viruses associated with respiratory illnesses,” he said.

For Flanigan, the question is: “is the CDC guidance being followed when a group of people get together, for whatever those reasons are?”

“There is no reason to prohibit church services when you don’t prohibit other gatherings,” Flanigan added.

As states and localities gradually lift limits on economic and social life imposed to hinder the spread of the coronavirus, the courts are now considering the question of whether churches are being treated more strictly than similar venues.

A federal judge said the North Carolina governor failed to prove churches were more at risk and temporarily blocked restrictions For his part, Gov. Roy Cooper said different rules were justified because religious services posed greater dangers of spreading the novel coronavirus.


Coronavirus restrictions have tended to enjoy broad public support, though some churches, business owners and workers have protested.

On May 20, the Catholic bishops of Minnesota said they would allow parishes to resume public Masses, and to defy a statewide order prohibiting religious gatherings that exceed 10 people.

“An order that sweeps so broadly that it prohibits, for example, a gathering of 11 people in a Cathedral with a seating capacity of several thousand defies reason,” they said.

However, the Catholic bishops emphasized the need for parishes to follow strict requirements established by the Church. They must limit attendance to no more than one-third of church capacity, and must follow sanitation protocols. Catholics are still dispensed from their Sunday obligation to attend Mass.

Flanigan said safety precautions are vital for any such effort.

“When bishops do the careful work, as is done in many parts of the country like Minnesota, to recommend that their churches open following the guidance of the CDC, and the state has opened up similar gatherings in similar-type gatherings, then I’d certainly support the bishops in doing this,” he told CNA. “I support them for recommending an opening up, and the most important thing is doing what they are doing: following the CDC guidance.”

Churches have been the focus of concern during the epidemic because of the close proximity of church attendees, socialization before, during and after services, and practices like singing. Some churches have older congregations and so are believed to be more vulnerable to extreme consequences from coronavirus infection.

A May 22 article in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report considered a novel coronavirus outbreak at a rural Arkansas church from March 6-11. The report said that large gatherings pose a risk for Covid-19 transmission. Among the 92 attendees at the Arkansas church, 38% developed a laboratory-confirmed case of infection, and three died. Cases in the community linked to the church numbered 26, including one death.

The article said the case has the implication that faith-based groups “should work with local health officials” to determine how to implement U.S. guidelines for modifying their activities “to prevent transmission of the virus to their members and their communities.”

While not commenting on any specific incident, Flanigan said these incidents of contagion at churches “occurred prior to the use of those guidelines.”

“We know that one very significant outbreak occurred where there was a lot of contact with different church members, very close contact, a lot of physical contact, touching, different materials, passing things around,” he said. “Of course this was prior to our awareness of the spread of coronavirus and prior to an understanding of how important it is that we follow the CDC guidance.”

“The CDC has described outbreaks that have occurred in the setting of singing,” he said. “We know that different activities can cause more aerosolization of droplets, and that has let to very specific recommendations. Unfortunately, choirs are recommended not to practice and not to sing, and not to perform in all areas. Whether it is in Mass or other choral groups or performances, for example.”

He said outbreaks have been related to public gatherings, carnivals, celebrations, conferences, and public worship.

“I think it’s a mistake to say ‘is a conference safer or less safe than a house of worship?’ That’s the wrong question,” Flanigan told CNA. “The CDC gives us that guidance to decrease the rate of transmission. It’s just as important that guidance be followed at a house of worship, as at a conference, as at any other gathering.”

“If somebody makes an arbitrary judgment that a church is not going to follow that guidance, without any evidence, that is biased and there is no evidence for that,” he said.

Flanigan questioned the categories of some governors who classified religious gatherings as “non-essential,” compared to more “essential” activities like grocery stores.

“Being able to come together and pray together, being able to receive the sacraments, to encounter the Lord, right there in the sacraments, is so important,” Flanigan commented.

Mental health is just as important as physical health, just as important as spiritual health,” he said. “We are a whole self, which has a mind, a body, a heart a soul. To be able to pray together, to be able to support each other, to be able to worship together, to be able to receive the Lord in communion, is so important for us to be healthy and to thrive.”

“That is why our churches are essential,” he told CNA. “That is why this whole argument of essential vs. non-essential was a mistake, and not supported by anyone. Some governors just made assumptions that church is non-essential, and that is a grave error. It is an error from the public health point of view, and it is an error from the public health point of view.”

One hallmark of the Covid-19 pandemic, he said, is isolation.

“We are alone in the hospital, we are alone in our nursing homes, we are alone with our fear at two o’clock in the morning. The way we normally get our support is suddenly taken away from us,” he reflected. “That alone-ness is very very difficult. The evil one can attack us, gravely, during these times.”

Coronavirus restrictions have polarized some supporters and critics, and appears to have resulted in violence at times. Across the country, Several store clerks who have asked patrons to wear masks have been assaulted or killed. A Holly Springs, Mississippi Pentecostal church that filed a legal challenge against the city’s stay-at-home order was burned down in an apparent arson, with a note chalked nearby denouncing church members as hypocritical.

Even as some states open up, outbreaks continue. Five of seven Redemptorists at a Houston, Texas community went back into quarantine after testing positive for the coronavirus, and after another priest died after possible exposure.

 

Warning of global hunger crisis, CRS launches campaign to help

CNA Staff, May 23, 2020 / 03:59 pm (CNA).- As the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to worsen an already tenuous food situation for millions across the globe, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) has announced a campaign to help address global hunger.

“Now is the time for us to lead the way forward to ensure that these communities have the support they need to make it through this crisis and beyond,” said CRS president and CEO Sean Callahan this week.

“If we don’t provide adequate food to children now, it will impact them for the rest of their lives.”

Catholic Relief Services warned that a food crisis already existed in many countries before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now, unemployment, lockdowns, heightened food prices, and supply disruptions have made it even more difficult for impoverished families in many areas to get food.

“The shadow pandemic of worsening hunger is playing out in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries,” said Callahan.

The World Food Program has warned that the pandemic could double the number of people facing acute hunger or starvation, which already stands at 135 million.

Pope Francis has highlighted food insecurity in his homilies and addresses. In his comments on the COVID pandemic earlier this month, the pope noted that more than 3.7 million people have died from hunger so far this year. He warned of a “pandemic of hunger” that is not receiving adequate attention.

In response to the global crisis, Catholic Relief Services has launched a “Lead the Way on Hunger” campaign, calling for greater awareness, advocacy and fundraising to address global hunger rates.

The relief agency is encouraging Catholics to educate themselves and become involved in the effort to fight global hunger. It is asking Americans to contact their representatives in support of specific legislation, such as the Global Thrive Act (H.R. 4864), which would integrate early childhood development efforts - including health and nutrition assistance - into already-established foreign aid programs.

The campaign also encourages Catholics to donate to relief efforts when possible as a sign of solidarity with those who are suffering, and to help spread awareness on social media with the hashtag #LeadNow.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has invited the faithful to offer a prayer at noon on May 24 as part of the campaign.

“At this critical time, CRS' ‘Lead the Way on Hunger’ campaign is an important expression of our Church's steadfast commitment to global solidarity, to working for the common good, and to the upholding of human dignity,” said Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis, a member of the CRS board.

“We believe that each life, no matter how vulnerable, is precious.”

Catholic Relief Services is active in many countries to help alleviate food insecurity. In Guatemala, the agency is helping offer packages of rice, corn, beans and oil for children who are at risk of malnutrition and often receive their only meal of the day through distribution programs at their schools, which are now closed due to the pandemic. In the Philippines, CRS aided a home for people with disabilities to acquire a one-month supply of food and hygiene items.

Catholic Relief Services is also helping with instructions and supplies for hand-washing and sanitization, to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Callahan urged Americans to be involved in efforts to alleviate acute hunger for the most vulnerable populations.

“The welfare of the next generation hangs in the balance,” he said.

 

After Minnesota bishops plan to defy Mass restrictions, governor eases rules

CNA Staff, May 23, 2020 / 01:46 pm (CNA).- The governor of Minnesota has issued an order allowing for the resumption of limited public worship gatherings, days after the bishops of the state said they would allow public Masses to resume in defiance of previous guidelines.

The bishops maintained that the original guidelines were unfairly restrictive toward religious services, as businesses and other entities in the state are slowly being allowed to reopen with new safety protocols in place to help guard against the novel coronavirus.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Saint Paul and Minneapolis said he welcomes the new executive order by Governor Tim Walz. In a May 23 letter to the members of the archdiocese, he thanked the governor and his team for their willingness to dialogue and arrive at a solution that respects both safety and freedom of religion.

“As you know, the Catholic bishops of Minnesota believe that the previous limitation on faith-based gatherings to ten people unreasonably burdened the Church’s ability to fully meet the sacramental needs of our faithful,” Hebda said in the letter.

“As allowances were made for other, less essential activities, it seemed to many that the life of faith was receiving unequal treatment,” he continued. “The new executive order removes that unreasonable burden on the Church and allows us to bring the Eucharist, the food of everlasting life, to our community.”

A May 13 executive order began Minnesota’s second stage of statewide response to the coronavirus pandemic. The order, issued by Governor Walz, reopens retail businesses and will gradually reopen restaurants and bars, but limits religious services to 10 people or fewer, with no timeline for loosening religious restrictions.

On May 20, the bishops of Minnesota said they would allow parishes to resume public Masses at one-third of church capacity on May 26, in defiance of the statewide order.

They bishops said the governor’s order was overly broad, to the point of defying reason, since significantly greater numbers of people were permitted to enter stores and shopping malls. They said they believed Masses could be resumed in a way that adhered to health and safety standards.

The bishops said they had attempted to work with state leaders, but had not received a concrete timeline or reasonable roadmap for resuming public Masses. Lutheran churches in the area also announced a plan to reopen without the governor’s permission.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which had worked alongside law firm Sidley Austin to raise the churches’ religious freedom concerns with the governor, said the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod worked with the governor’s office to develop a plan for houses of worship to open safely and responsibly on May 27.

While the Minnesota bishops had initially granted permission for public Masses to resume on May 26, Hebda explained that the additional day will allow parishes to have a chance to reconsider plans based on new protocols, which were developed with the help of public health officials.

These protocols include limiting attendance to 25% of church capacity, or 250 people, whichever is lower, rather than the one-third capacity the bishops had initially proposed.

“Even with these revisions, we hope that parishes already planning to come together on Sunday, May 31, for the celebration of Pentecost and the conclusion of the Easter season, should still be able to do that,” Hebda said.

The archbishop stressed that Governor Walz is trusting faith communities to make responsible decisions as they gather for public worship.

“The bishops of Minnesota have repeatedly told our pastors and parishes that they should only return to public Mass when they are able and willing to follow the many protocols that have been put in place – including sanitization and a few changes to the liturgy, particularly regarding the reception of Holy Communion [in the hand],” he said. “If a parish is not confident they are ready, they should not open. Period.”

Other changes to the liturgy will include a suspension of the Sign of Peace and the use of hand sanitizer by Eucharistic ministers before the distribution of communion.

Hebda recognized the sacrifice of the faithful in the archdiocese who have been unable to receive the Eucharist in recent weeks, while reiterating that the dispensation from the Sunday obligation to attend Mass remains in place, and those who are sick, vulnerable, or uncomfortable attending Mass at this time should remain at home.

He also thanked the priests who have ministered to their people and to the sick, recognizing the risk associated with doing so. He called the faithful to pray for the sick and dying, the first responders and health care workers treating them, and for an end to the pandemic.

Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said Minnesota should be a model for other states that have closed houses of worship.

“Governor Walz is to be commended for seeing the light,” he said. “Minnesota is setting an example by recognizing the importance of giving equal treatment to churches and other houses of worship, and that worship services can be conducted safely, cooperatively, and responsibly.”

 

After Trump call to reopen churches, Catholic doctor says it can be done safely

Denver Newsroom, May 22, 2020 / 05:45 pm (CNA).- While President Donald Trump's May 22 call to reopen churches has become a source of national controversy, a group of Catholic doctors has offered a plan that could expedite that process.

“I think that if we just use common sense to compare apples to apples for metrics that we know matter - like density, for example - then there’s no real kind of objective scientific reason why Mass is any more dangerous than going to the grocery store. I think the difference here is a perceived risk,” said Dr. Andrew Wang, an immunobiologist at the Yale University School of Medicine.

Wang said that while it is impossible to eliminate all risk, there are steps that churches can take to prudently reopen for Mass and Confession.

“If we have best practice for the hospital, for Home Depot, for Chick-fil-A, then why not have best practices for Mass? It just seems like it would follow naturally,” he told CNA.

Wang is one of seven Catholic doctors who released a document entitled “Road Map to Re-Opening our Catholic Churches Safely.”

The road map says that the sacraments are essential for Catholics, and argues that “churches can operate as safely as other essential services,” as long as care is taken to form and follow careful plans.

Safety protocols should be created with the help of medical experts and may need to be adjusted over time, it says, to reflect the changing realities and medical recommendations in a given area.

The document calls for Mass to be held with social distancing and the use of masks and hand sanitizer. Singing should be avoided, and those who are ill or believe they may have been exposed to the virus should stay home, it says.

It calls for confessions to be held in outdoor or well-ventilated indoor areas, with the use of masks, an impermeable barrier between the priest and penitent, and frequent sanitization of surfaces.

As the novel coronavirus spread in March, all U.S. Catholic dioceses curtailed public Masses to prevent the spread of the disease. However, beginning in mid-April, dioceses have begun resuming the offering of public Masses.

At a Friday press briefing, Trump said that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would, at his direction, be issuing new guidance for churches to reopen. He said he was identifying houses of worship as “essential,” although a source familiar with the deliberations told CNA that the label is not an official designation by the administration.

Trump’s announcement comes after the CDC reportedly drafted guidance for reopening businesses, churches, and other places of public accommodation earlier this month. On May 7, however, the AP reported that the Trump administration had shelved a 17-page CDC report that included an “Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith.”

On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the White House pushed against the CDC issuing guidance for churches, with the concern that it did not want to unnecessarily limit the freedom of churches.

Critics of the decision have argued that church gatherings could result in additional outbreaks of the coronavirus, which has led to more than 93,000 deaths in the U.S., according to the CDC.

However, Wang said that he thinks careful guidelines can aid in efforts to prudently reopen churches. He told CNA that he finds Trump’s announcement “very encouraging.”

“I think those of us who are Catholic would probably view attending Mass as essential,” he commented.

The guidelines laid out in the “Road Map to Re-Opening our Catholic Churches Safely” are the fruit of careful consideration, he said. They address the major points that are currently known about the transmission of the coronavirus.

In implementing the guidelines, he said, parishes will need to take local context into account. For example, a large suburban church with a sizable parking lot may be able to hold an outdoor Mass, while an urban church may find it more difficult to do so.

He also noted that the road map is “a document made by doctors, not by liturgists, so the considerations are really purely medical” and may need to be adapted as deemed appropriate by Church authorities.

In developing the document, Wang said, “what we spent the lion share of our time on was the Eucharist, because that is a bit of special case that the grocery store or Walmart may not have.”

“The moment where you take the host, that presented really a special challenge…This was discussed at length, so that we all had a consensus on what would be safest practices for that particular moment.”

Ultimately, the group of doctors concluded that the safest recommendation is to receive communion in the hand rather than on the tongue.

Wang referenced a recent study showing it is much easier to pick up the virus from saliva than a nasal swab.

While full information about the risk remains unknown, he said, “receiving on the tongue in this case, with this particular virus, may present higher risk” than reception in the hand.

Although he acknowledged that some people may object to this, Wang said that in his perspective, “it boils down to, is it better to not have communion at all - and by extension not have Mass at all?”

He added that the document’s guidelines are recommendations, but that priests and bishops can do as they see fit.

Wang also addressed the concern that HVAC systems may contribute to the spread of the coronavirus, moving contaminated air particles around even if people are spaced out within a church.

Outdoor Mass would be ideal at addressing this particular concern, he said, but it may not be logistically feasible at all parishes.

Still, he said, after a lengthy discussion, “our assessment of the literature was that it was not entirely clear that the circulation of air was necessarily something that would be limiting.” He noted that grocery stories, research labs, and other indoor facilities would also be similarly problematic if HVAC systems played a significant role in spreading the virus.

Ultimately, Wang said, going to church at this time is not risk-free, just as any other public activity is not without risk during a pandemic. He noted that dioceses throughout the country have granted dispensations from the Sunday obligation for those who are unable to attend or are not comfortable with the risk involved.

However, he believes that if churches act prudently, they can implement guidelines to minimize risk, while making the sacraments available to the people of God.

“It just boils down to one of the oldest institutions on earth having some kind of best practices, guidelines, for how one might do this as safely as is possible, based on what we currently know about COVID,” he said.

Laudato si': Atlanta archdiocese’s sustainability efforts 5 years on

Denver Newsroom, May 22, 2020 / 04:58 pm (CNA).- Susan Varlamoff, a retired biologist and parishioner at St. John Neumann Catholic Church, was in 2015 serving as director of the Office of Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia, when she heard that Pope Francis was working on an encyclical on the environment.

Varlamoff told CNA that working for a cleaner environment has been a personal mission for her for many years, in part because her family suffered the negative effects of living near a toxic landfill when she was a child. 

“I've been on the forefront of this, doing so much in my own home, but to actually see the Catholic Church embrace this and the pope, who's a trained chemist, come out with an environmental encyclical was absolutely thrilling,” she told CNA.

Varlamoff approached her archbishop at the time— Wilton Gregory, now Archbishop of Washington— to see if she could somehow offer her scientific expertise to the pope.

Gregory laughed and said the pope likely had all the scientific help he needed— but, he said, the archdiocese would need its own action plan.

Valamoff began collaborating with climate scientists and other professionals at the University of Georgia, along with several interreligious groups who also were working on addressing environmental issues, to begin the process of creating the action plan. Before they could do much, Laudato si’ was promulgated.

Valamoff said when she read the encyclical, it exceeded her expectations. It was clear to her that Pope Francis had received good input from his scientific advisors, she said.

“What I was surprised about the document was that it addressed many different environmental issues from biodiversity, energy, water, and then he talked about the unfair way that the environmental issues are affecting the poor. They're taking a disproportionate share of the burden, of these environmental issues,” Varlamoff said.

Laudato si’ was released in May 2015. By November, Susan and her team presented a 48-page, peer-reviewed action plan to the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

The plan suggests ten areas where Catholics in Atlanta can make changes to make their homes— or their parishes— more eco-friendly, from energy efficiency and recycling to sustainable landscaping and water conservation.

Each section includes a few concrete suggestions that vary in time commitment, cost, and resources. For example, if you want to conserve water, you can check your toilet for slow leaks. Or, if you want to do something bigger, you can install a drip irrigation system in your yard.

The archdiocese presented the plan in 2016, and sent a copy to every parish.

Now, four years on, there are at least 60 or 70 parishes throughout the archdiocese that have a sustainability ministry, Varlamoff said.

One of the first things Varlamoff did at her parish was to replace styrofoam and disposable dishes at events with actual dishes, which reduced waste after large events.

In addition, after an energy audit, the parish replaced all its light bulbs, and is transforming its campus by planting native plants and trees.

She said for the ministries to work well, each parish needs a point person.

“They need somebody to lead the effort, to inspire the people to do this work, and to bring together experts and interested people to move the parishioners and to move the pastor and facilities manager and parish council to do this work,” she said.

At the beginning of this year, the Atlanta archdiocese started the Laudato Si Initiative, meant to expand on what the parish teams were already doing under the action plan.

The archdiocese also hired two Laudato si’ coordinators, including a sustainability strategist, in February.

Leonard Robinson, the sustainability strategist, has some 45 years experience in the field and previously worked with several California governors at the California Environmental Protection Agency.

He said not every parish in Atlanta has embraced the call for greater sustainability, partly because it simply was something new for many of them.

“It's a slight change, but it's not the change people expect. A lot of the parishes said, ‘Okay, we're overburdened. We've got all these ministries we've got doing this, this and this. We don't have time for one more thing’," Robinson told CNA.

“Well, I explained that this one more thing it's not really a thing, we want to weave sustainability in all walks of Catholic life, education, ministry, and everything else. So if you're open to it, you won't even notice that it's extra work. You might find in some cases there's less, and you'll have more resources to do other things.”

In some cases, the best way to approach parishes or individuals is not to even mention the phrases “climate change” or “sustainability.”

“Let's say energy efficiency. Let's say water conservation. Let's say sustainable landscapes. Let's say extra resources for other ministries, because you're saving energy, and these things when you save them, it does save you money, but it's not about money, it's maximizing the things that you do to enforce other ministries."

Robinson said the Laudato Si Action Plan was a great starting point, a “roadmap” for his work at the archdiocese.

“That was one of the attractions for my job. I don't have to start from zero, I've got this roadmap. All I have to do is institute that and weave that into every part of Catholic life,” he said.

Varmaloff commented: "The Pope is so well respected as a moral leader in the world...why shouldn't Catholic churches be demonstration sites for energy efficiency, water efficiency, growing food sustainably? Why not recycling? There's no reason why the Catholic church can't lead the way.”

Church fighting Mississippi coronavirus restriction was burned down

CNA Staff, May 22, 2020 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- Authorities are investigating the burning of a Mississippi church as a potential arson. The fire comes less than a month after the church filed suit arguing the city’s stay-at-home order was unconstitutional.

First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs, located in the city of Holly Springs, MS, was destroyed by a fire on Wednesday, May 20. Firefighters responded to the blaze at approximately 2 a.m., and were unable to save the building.

Fire investigators described the incident as an “explosion” from the back of the church, which further damaged the front of the building. The church has been declared a total loss.

At the scene, several cans of spray paint were recovered. A message reading “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits [sic]” was found painted on the church’s parking lot.

These factors, said Marshall County official Kelly McMillen, have led authorities to suspect arson.

“We do believe that based on the evidence and what we have seen at the scene and on top of the hill this was an arson,” said McMillen to local media.

Pastor Jerry Waldrop, who has led the congregation for more than three decades, said he would continue to “keep the faith,” and “keep doing what we have always done.”

“I’ll get with our faithful people, and maybe we’ll rent a building or whatever we need to do for the time being,” Waldrop said. He said that his church “has the means” to rebuild, and that he was unable to come up with any potential suspects.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) said on Twitter Thursday that he was “heartbroken and furious” to hear of the burned church.

“What is this pandemic doing to us? We need prayer for this country,” said Reeves.

Waldrop, through his church, filed suit against Holly Springs on April 23, one day after his weekly Bible study was broken up by three members of the Holly Springs Police Department. On Easter Sunday, Waldrop was cited for violating the city’s stay-at-home order by hosting a service inside the church building instead of in the parking lot.

To protest the Easter Sunday citation, Waldrop took his congregation en masse to a nearby Walmart, where they were permitted to gather without incident.

Churches were among the establishments listed as “nonessential” in the March 30, 2020 stay-at-home order issued by Holly Springs. According to the lawsuit, the order’s terms were so far-reaching that Waldrop would not be allowed to enter his own office at the church by himself.
In the lawsuit, Waldrop claims that his First Amendment rights were violated by the selective enforcement of the stay-at-home order. He states that efforts were taken to ensure social distancing at the indoor services, and that the services were indoors due to inclement weather.

There have been 68 reported cases of COVID-19 in Marshall County, with three deaths. Two of the cases were connected to long-term care facilities.

Holly Springs is not the only Mississippi city home to a controversial stay-at-home order. In April, the city of Greenville withdrew an order that forbade even socially-distant drive-in church services.

On Wednesday, April 15, the City of Greenville announced on its website that “all drive in and parking lot church services are allowed as long as families stay in their cars with windows up and adhere to all state and federal social distancing guidelines.”

Mayor Errick D. Simmons (D) was quoted saying that he was “pleased to announce that Governor Tate Reeves has responded to my public request for definitive guidance on drive-in and parking lot church services. Thank you, Governor Reeves.”

Prior to rescinding the order, a church had been fined for having a parking lot service, and Greenville police blocked the parking lot of another church to prevent a gathering of parked cars.
 

Corpus Christi bishop condemns naval base shooting

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 22, 2020 / 02:11 pm (CNA).- Bishop Michael Mulvey of Corpus Christi offered prayers for a sailor who was injured in a terrorist attack in his diocese on Thursday, and pledged to be a force for peace in the face of evil.

Early on May 21, a 20-year-old man named Adam Salim Alsahli drove to the entrance of the Naval Air Station Corpus Christi and shot a member of the base’s security forces, who was wearing a bulletproof vest. He then proceeded to crash his car into a barrier, and continued to fire shots. Alsahli was shot and killed, and the base was locked down.

“I condemned the act of terrorism that was perpetrated this morning at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi,” said Mulvey in a statement released shortly after the attack. “These acts of violence are heinous, but they will not undermine our resolve to work for peace in our hearts, and our society. Our prayer is with the sailor who was injured this morning.”

Mulvey prayed for “the Lord to sustain those on the front lines who courageously confront this evil,” and for “calm and peace to our community and the world.”

The base’s guard suffered non-life-threatening injuries and was released from the hospital on Thursday.

Alsahli’s vehicle was checked for explosives, but none were found. Authorities said that “electronic media” was found at the scene, but did not elaborate as to what this meant.

The FBI’s Houston office confirmed Alsahli’s identity shortly after 1 p.m. local time May 22, following the notification of his family .

“The FBI would like to recognize the bravery and heroism of the NAS personnel who took quick action to prevent the shooter from entering the base and engaged the shooter, potentially saving many innocent lives,” said the agency on Twitter.

By Thursday afternoon, law enforcement had declared that the shooting had been “terrorism related.”

Law enforcement told Texas media that they believed Alsahli, who lived in the United States but was born in Syria, had expressed online support for various terrorist groups, including the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Authorities are continuing to investigate if there is a second person connected with Thursday’s shooting.

Thursday’s attack on the Naval Air Station is the second terrorist attack in a six-month period to occur on a naval air station. On December 6, 2019, three people were killed and eight were injured after a shooting at the Naval Air Station Pensacola in Pensacola, Florida. The shooter was killed shortly afterwards by law enforcement.
 
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took credit for that attack in February 2020, and the FBI confirmed on May 18 that the shooting was related to terrorism.

President Trump: Churches should reopen 'right now'

Washington D.C., May 22, 2020 / 12:57 pm (CNA).- President Donald Trump on Friday called on state governors to reopen churches “right now.”

At a Friday press briefing, Trump said that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC)  would “at my direction” be issuing new guidance for churches to reopen. He said he was identifying houses of worship as “essential places that provide essential services,” noting that state governors had classified such establishments as liquor stores and abortion clinics as providing essential services, but not churches.



The White House and the CDC have for weeks reportedly been in the process of drafting and publishing new guidelines for churches to reopen.

On Friday, CNA learned that, according to someone familiar with the deliberations, the new CDC guidance is expected on Friday afternoon and will differ from its previous interim guidance for faith communities that was issued in March, at the outset of the U.S. pandemic. That guidance was reportedly not cleared by the White House before publishing.

That guidance was reportedly met with concern by many in the faith community for certain provisions that seemed to intrude on the autonomy of religious groups, such as one recommendation that Jews should be allowed to use electronic devices on the Sabbath to stream services online.

The new guidance, CNA was told, would be more sensitive to the autonomy of churches and religions and will apply a “lighter touch” to them, functioning as a set of recommendations rather than instructions, and implying that actions taken by state and local governments that go beyond the federal recommendations are inappropriate. It has the input of lawyers with experience in religious freedom cases.

The guidance will include a section for state and local leaders, saying they should recognize religious gatherings as something unique and different from other gatherings and protected by the First Amendment; it will imply that states should not be treating churches more strictly than they are treating other public gatherings or businesses reopening.

Churches, however, will not be officially classified as “essential” establishments, CNA was told, as that classification can vary state-by-state in its implications for religious groups. However, calling churches “essential” in the administration’s “messaging” on the guidance was reportedly discussed.

Earlier on Friday, Trump said that he believed the CDC would “be issuing a very strong recommendation” for churches to reopen, speaking at the end of an event with military veterans at the White House.

Trump added that “we’re going to make that [churches] ‘essential.’”

On the previous day, Thursday, Trump spoke several times about his desire for churches to reopen soon, and said health officials would issue relevant guidance “today or tomorrow.”

“I think CDC is going to put something out very soon. I spoke to them today; I think they're going to put something out very soon,” Trump said at a listening session with African-American leaders on Thursday afternoon in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Conversations about guidance for churches to reopen during the pandemic have taken place for weeks. On April 28 and 29, officials at the White House and U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) talked with four Catholic bishops who had decided to resume public Masses in their respective dioceses. The conversation focused on the reopening of churches and what federal guidance on that might look like.

The CDC reportedly drafted guidance for reopening businesses, churches, and other places of public accommodation earlier in May, but on May 7, AP reported that the Trump administration had shelved a 17-page CDC report that included an “Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith.”

On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that the White House pushed against the CDC issuing guidance for churches, with the concern that it did not want to unnecessarily limit the freedom of churches.

The CDC, meanwhile, has published a report this week warning that “COVID 19 spreads easily in group gatherings” and citing the case of a rural Arkansas church where 35 of 92 attendees of services between March 6 and 11 ended up testing positive for COVID-19, with three deaths.

On Thursday, however, Trump spoke several other times of his desire to see churches open again soon.

“I saw a scene today where people are trying to break into a church to go into the church -- not to break in and steal something, to break in -- they want to be in their church,” Trump said on Thursday afternoon.

“I said, ‘You better put it out,’” he added, referring to the CDC guidance. “And they [the CDC] are doing it and they’re going to be issuing something today or tomorrow on churches. We got to get our churches open.”

There have been more than 1.5 million cases of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) in the U.S., and more than 93,000 deaths, according to the CDC.

As the virus spread in March, all U.S. Catholic dioceses curtailed public Masses to prevent the spread of the disease. However, beginning in mid-April, dioceses have begun resuming the offering of public Masses.

In Minnesota, the state’s Catholic bishops decided on Wednesday to resume public Masses on Pentecost weekend, in defiance of a state order. As the order had allowed some businesses to begin reopening, but not churches, Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul-Minneapolis said on Thursday that Catholics “really depend on the Eucharist to get through the challenges of their lives” in defense of the decision to reopen.

Masses will be offered in churches at no more than 33% capacity, the bishops said, and with safety precautions.

Trump hosted a conference call with administration officials and 1,600 “pastors and faith leaders,” the White House said on Thursday. The participants included Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, and Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church.

According to the White House readout of the meeting, Trump said the right of church congregations to hold services was part of America’s “transition to greatness.”

Speaking with reporters before he boarded the Marine One helicopter on Thursday afternoon, the president said that “One of the other things I want to do is get the churches open.”

“The churches are not being treated with respect by a lot of the Democrat governors,” he said. “I want to get our churches open. And we’re going to take a very strong position on that very soon.”

When a reporter asked if he wanted mosques to reopen as well, Trump said that he did.

In the listening session with African-American leaders in the afternoon, Trump repeated his desire to have churches reopened swiftly.

When asked if he “prioritizing the reopening of churches over other establishments,” Trump answered “No, not at all.”

Regarding churches, he said “they’re so important, in terms of the psyche of our country,” and that they “are essential.”

“It’s wonderful to sit home and watch something on a laptop, but it can never be the same as being in a church and being with your friends.”

 

A Telling Spell of Catholic ‘Leadership’

Crisis reveals and clarifies. At a time when Catholic bishops, public intellectuals, and editors need to speak and act with moral clarity more than ever, the past month has seen such leaders doing the opposite. The cardinal of New York cozied up to the president. Editors at a respected national Catholic publication abruptly removed articles critical of the cardinal from their website. A prominent conservative Catholic commentator used Twitter to mock people who wear protective face masks. If anyone still wonders why young people continue to leave the church, and why many of us who stay are often anguished by our fellow Catholics with pulpits and platforms, the evidence is not hard to find.

On a phone call between Catholic leaders and President Trump that went public after a report in Crux, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan seemed barely able to contain his enthusiasm for a president who uses cruelty as a political weapon, energizes white supremacists, and degrades anyone who challenges him. The cardinal defended his chumminess on the call, and follow-up cheerleading for the president on Fox News, with the kind of false equivalency that often characterizes many bishops’ engagement in politics. “Look, are we in the sacred enterprise of accompaniment and engagement and dialogue or are we not? When you do it, you risk criticism from both sides,” Cardinal Dolan said in response to critics, specifically, those two thousand Catholics—including religious sisters, clergy, and theologians—who signed an open letter released by my organization, Faith in Public Life.

Bishops and other faith leaders have a right to engage with the White House. What Cardinal Dolan fails to acknowledge is the difference between “dialogue” or “accompaniment” and deferential coziness. When Trump boasted he was the best president in “the history of the Catholic Church”—and urged those on the call to get out the vote for his reelection— not one of the six hundred Catholic educators and bishops even politely pushed back against the president. That silence sends a message, even if unintentional, that church leaders will accommodate racism, misogyny, nativism, and cruelty in exchange for anti-abortion judges and funding for Catholic schools. We should expect more from bishops than transactional politics.

Cardinal Dolan’s defense that he sometimes applauds Democratic politicians and gets criticism from both the right and left isn’t a satisfactory response. While it’s true that neither political party fully reflects the expansiveness of Catholic social teaching, this default framework is proving inadequate to the urgency of the Trump era. False equivalency prevents us from speaking honestly. It’s one political party that has been twisted into the image of a demagogue who abuses power. It’s one party now defined by right-wing nationalism rooted in reactionary white resentment toward an increasingly diverse society. It’s one party obstructing policies that confront the existential threat of climate change. It’s lawmakers from one party who continue to put up barriers to voting rights. All of this is done by Republicans who call themselves “pro-life.” 

Moral integrity is not easily regained once it’s squandered.

“But what about abortion?” This is the rejoinder from many who dismiss or deny the fact that the Republican Party has been taken hostage by those who have little regard for defending human life and dignity in its broadest sense. It’s true that many leaders in the Democratic Party have moved from a “safe, legal, and rare” position, and now even seem skeptical of how President Obama rhetorically framed the need for common ground and abortion reduction. As I wrote in Commonweal last year, the absolutism of both parties reinforces polarities and has left little space for a conversation about abortion that doesn’t devolve into tribal politics. But when church leaders define abortion as the “preeminent” issue for Catholic voters, as bishops do in their Faithful Citizenship election-year document—and have failed to substantively update that guide even after the elections of Pope Francis and Donald Trump—the church’s moral witness in the public square shrinks in ways perfectly suited to manipulation by politicians with agendas hostile to most principles of Catholic teaching.

As public criticism of Cardinal Dolan’s flattery of Trump grew, the editors of U.S. Catholic—published by the Claretian Missionaries—responded in a particularly troubling way. Without explanation, the magazine abruptly deleted from its website two articles from respected scholars critical of Dolan and the bishops’ call with Trump, one by Stephen Schneck, a retired Catholic University professor who is the executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, and the other by Steven P. Millies, director of the Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union. After the National Catholic Reporter broke the story, Millies wrote on Twitter that he would never write for U.S. Catholic again: “I think contributing to the debate as a public intellectual is more needed now than ever.” (The National Catholic Reporter subsequently published both of the deleted articles.)

Meanwhile, another Catholic editor used words that were reckless in their own way. R. R. Reno of First Things launched a series of tweets in which he called the wearing of protective face masks, as recommended by public-health experts, a “PC gesture” and a form of “cowardice.” He contrasted people who “want to cower in place” with those “who want to live.” After days of criticism in Catholic and mainstream media, he issued a brief apology for what he called his “foolish and ill-considered remarks.” Yet by then Reno had already displayed his contempt for the common good, if not his reckless libertarianism, in a series of “coronavirus diary” entries on the First Things website, in which he bragged of his unauthorized visit to a New York City emergency room, and belittled social distancing, the wearing of face masks, and other measures meant to protect the public’s health.

First Things inhabits that particular Catholic ecosystem in which the coronavirus is no match for “muscular Christianity” and Pope Francis is a dangerous threat to the church. Consider also the recent manifesto spearheaded by papal foe Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former nuncio to the United States, which claims public-health responses to the coronavirus are an overhyped “pretext” to deprive the faithful of Mass and part of an assault on religious liberty. The petition, signed mostly by Italian clergy and conservative academics, also warns that efforts to use contact-tracing devices that can help limit the spread of the virus are a “disturbing prelude to the realization of a world government beyond all control.”

Catholics with influence have a responsibility that comes with public platforms and access to political power. Moral integrity is not easily regained once it’s squandered. History will judge our actions today. Where will our Church stand?

Archbishop Hebda: Catholics ‘depend on the Eucharist,’ and Masses will resume

Denver Newsroom, May 21, 2020 / 05:36 pm (CNA).- The day after announcing that parishes in Minnesota can ignore a statewide order on religious gatherings, the Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis explained the pastoral motive for his decision.

Catholics “really depend on the Eucharist to get through the challenges of their lives,” Archbishop Bernard Hebda told reporters May 21.

“The reception of the Eucharist is extremely important,” the archbishop added. “We can’t have the opportunity for communion by livestreaming.”

Speaking at a press conference Thursday afternoon, Hebda said the May 20 decision of Minnesota’s bishops to ignore a prohibition of religious gatherings of more than 10 people was a pastoral decision.

“We have this responsibility to take care of the spiritual needs of our people,” Hebda said.

The archbishop’s remarks came one day after a historic decision that Minnesota’s six dioceses would permit parishes to resume public Masses amid the coronavirus pandemic, and to flout statewide pandemic orders.

The bishops said that parishes can open for Mass next week, if attendance is no more than 33% of building capacity, and if parishes follow rigorous sanitary and liturgical protocols designed in consultation with public health experts.

Missouri Synod Lutherans in Minnesota have also announced that services will resume under similar strictures.

Speaking on Thursday, Hebda said that he had not had the opportunity to speak with Minnesota Governor Tim Walz in the days leading up to the bishops’ decision, but that he would be doing so on Thursday. Walz said last night that he would be speaking to the state’s bishops alongside state public health authorities.

“These are very challenging times, and I recognize that he has a very difficult job,” Hebda said of the governor. “We want to help all of Minnesota get through this pandemic. I look forward to our conversation, but I can tell you I hope the governor changes his mind.”

It is not clear whether priests or bishops who begin celebrating public Masses next week could face civil penalties. Hebda said his “hope is that there won’t be a conflict, and that we will come to some kind of agreement.”

“I’m hoping that when we actually have this opportunity to speak with the governor that we might find more common ground,” he added.

The archbishop also said he believes the bishops are “on solid footing” from a legal perspective. On May 20, Becket Law, a religious liberty advocacy law firm, sent Walz a letter laying out a legal case arguing that Minnesota’s Catholic and Lutheran parishes have First Amendment protections ensuring continued public worship.

In a California fight over reopening churches, federal Department of Justice officials intervened this week, to argue that unless states can prove that churches pose some specific risk for spreading the virus, they can’t be held to more stringent measures than other places of public assembly.

In Minnesota, retail businesses will be permitted to open at 50% capacity on June 1, salons and tattoo parlors will reopen, and restaurants will gradually reopen.

On Thursday, Hebda said equality in law is important.

“Obviously, part of our faith is that we want to respect always legitimate civil authority, so that’s one of the reasons why we have really been trying to reach out to the govern and his administration to explain the needs of our Church, which are kind of particular,” Hebda told reporters,

“And really as we’ve seen other openings and plans for other openings, it makes us feel much more comfortable with what we’re doing, because we see a parallel that’s there and we see that we need to be treated equally.”

There has not yet been any official response from the apostolic nuncio in the United States or from the Holy See to the Minnesota announcement. Officials at the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis have not yet answered questions from CNA about whether Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the pope’s representative in the U.S., had been consulted before the bishops announced their decision.

When Italian bishops raised objections in late April to continued strictures on public Masses in the country, Pope Francis did not address the matter directly, but did praise the virtue of obedience at a Mass a few days later.

For his part, Hebda acknowledged that no sanitary precautions are enough to completely stem the spread of the virus, and acknowledged that a parish outside Minneapolis had announced May 20 that at least one priest in the community had tested positive for the coronavirus.

But the archbishop said he appreciated the speed and clarity with which the parish had made the announcement. And he emphasized the risk inherent to life in a global pandemic.

“We’re living in a dangerous time and we can expect that we’re going to have priests and faithful who are infected with COVID, that’s going to be part of life, what’s important is how we handle that,” Hebda said.

“I think we can expect in all dimensions of life, right now, that there are those risks that are there.” Even in the supermarket, he said, “there’s always that risk.”

More than 800 people have died of the coronavirus in Minnesota, and more than 18,000 have been diagnosed with it. Nearly 100,000 people have been recorded dead from the virus across the U.S., with more than 1.6 million positive coronavirus tests.

To Hebda, the difficulty of the pandemic emphasizes the need for pastoral ministry.

“Please remember, we bishops have a solemn duty, really a responsibility, to provide spiritual care and religious services to our faithful, and that responsibility includes doing it in a way that is safe and responsible,” the archbishop said.

Hebda told reporters about a man who had managed a years-long recovery from addictions.

“What makes that possible is that he goes to Mass every morning and receives communion,” the archbishop said.