Browsing News Entries

Federal court rules Arkansas abortion restrictions can take effect

CNA Staff, Aug 10, 2020 / 06:01 pm (CNA).- A federal court of appeals has removed an injunction blocking four Arkansas abortion regulations from going into effect.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled Friday to reinstate the 2017 Arkansas laws. They can take effect August 28, although they may still face legal challenge.

The laws include a ban on abortions based solely on the sex of the baby, and two regulations on the preservation and disposal of tissue from aborted babies, as well as legislation prohibiting a second-trimester abortion method known as “dilation and evacuation,” by which an unborn baby is dismembered.

A district judge had blocked the rules following a legal challenge from the ACLU and the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of a local abortion doctor.

The appeals court said the district judge should re-examine the case in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this summer in June Medical Services v. Russo.

While that decision struck down a law regulating abortion clinics in Louisiana, the appeals court said Chief Justice John Robert’s concurrence in the case may be relevant to the Arkansas legislation in question. Roberts said states have “wide discretion to pass legislation in areas where there is medical and scientific uncertainty.”

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge applauded the ruling.

“Arkansas has taken a strong stance to protect the unborn from inhumane treatment,” she said in an August 7 statement.

“As Arkansas’s chief legal officer, I have always advocated for the lives of unborn children and will continue to defend our State’s legal right to protect the unborn. No defenseless baby should ever face the unimaginable and horrifying fate of death by dismemberment.”

Don’t Be Verbicidal

Words matter—and little things add up. We live in a time when people are constantly talking past each other—or all too often, shouting past each other, whether the topic is public health issues, political decisions, pastoral priorities, or questions of faith. “If it bleeds, it leads” has long been an apt description of media practices, and today we might update that to “If it causes outrage, it goes on the main page.” This is a nonpartisan phenomenon, an ecumenical, equal-opportunity temptation, and so is bad behavior online. Jumping to conclusions, being uncharitable, passing along fake news, oversimplifying and misrepresenting people’s views, indulging in mockery and abuse—these are temptations of the internet age, and Catholics are by no means immune. In particular, it’s easy to get drawn into an over-heated, rage-fueled, micro-attention-span online culture. What can we do about it? Our current cultural situation is very complex, and there are many…

Moved with Pity

“When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.” So read the Gospel from Matthew on August 2. I looked around the church, the clutch of parishioners fiddling with their masks. I love the thought of Jesus being “moved with pity” for the desperate crowds flocking to him. But in moments of fear and pain, the image lands differently. 

I tried to shove aside the feeling—Where are you now, Lord?—and listen to the homily that followed. It was the first time I had attended Mass in person since the start of the pandemic, and I assumed the priest, like priests everywhere must be doing, would work the global crisis into his remarks. “If you bring your needs to Jesus,” he said, “miracles can happen.” A few loaves and fish will feed a crowd of five thousand. Illnesses will be cured. The dead will be raised! If we pray and have faith, he said, we can all get “our miracles.” I waited for the other shoe to drop—What about the people who don’t get their miracles?—but it never did. 

It’s not the priest’s fault that to me on that day, the homily felt extra-useless. It came on the anniversary of my dad’s death, twenty-one years ago. My family had decided to attend Mass in person for that reason. I looked around again at the small group of parishioners. I couldn’t read their faces behind their masks.

The masks. I didn’t realize how hard it would be to see people attending Mass like this. Faces I’ve known for years, obscured for protection. Their songs muffled but faithfully sung. No sign of peace. Suddenly, we were all very fragile, not people in bodies but bodies that could hurt. An elderly parishioner approached the altar, bowed, and prepared to serve as a Eucharistic minister. 

It’s not doubt about his existence or goodness that I feel, but frustration: God, why are you leaving this to us? 

“How could a loving God let this happen?” is an ancient and understandable question, but usually isn’t one that I feel moved to ask. Its formulation as a statement rarely occurs to me either: “A loving God would never allow this.” Suffering doesn’t seem avoidable. The saints and martyrs suffered. Jesus suffered. It’s not doubt about his existence or goodness that I feel, but frustration: God, why are you leaving this to us? 

Communion began, and the congregation made its way up the aisle, single-file. I saw people I know, whose siblings and parents and aunts and uncles I also know. One family struggles with unemployment, another with addiction. A child who has lost a parent. A parent who has lost a child. A cancer patient. Some suffer depression and other mental illnesses. Many elderly, many frail. Literal widows and orphans. What about the people who don’t get their miracles?

Faithful as the congregants were, I’m not sure how many of us were there to claim our own, specific miracles. There is no guarantee of freedom from pain, and the only promise is God’s love. I wished I had heard it in a homily, but that truth was there for me to see. Our weak bodies are susceptible to a virus, and our fragile hearts are vulnerable to everything else. 

The vast crowd seeks Jesus. His heart is moved with pity for them. 

“Knock It Off”: Showing Internet Bullies the Line

It was hard to miss her. She was sitting in the back of the school bus on my first day of seventh grade. Her hair was a mess of barrettes. Her stonewashed jeans were more torn than whole and her shirt was emblazoned with a seething skeleton straining against shackles and a straitjacket (another genius album cover from Britain’s metal band Iron Maiden). Her eyebrows were arched and her face was a scowl. Her name, I came to learn, was Gina. And Gina was a bully. The whole bus was dominated by Gina. She yelled and screamed. She howled at her friends and screeched at her enemies. Gina shrieked at passing cars and muttered angrily to herself. She cursed like a sailor; every other word was the f-bomb. As Gina lorded over her domain, most of the rest of the bus—myself included—shrank in our seats and stared fixedly ahead, hoping,…

Coronavirus, vaccines, and Catholic ethics

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Aug 8, 2020 / 07:00 am (CNA).- Production for a new coronavirus vaccine is speeding along, but if one is developed to fight the pandemic, ethical questions remain about its development, and who should receive it first.

There are many workers in health care and in the public sector who could be considered a priority to receive any new vaccine, as they come into contact with many different people due to the nature of their profession, explained Edward Furton, ethicist and director of publications at the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

“All of those who come into contact with many different people through their ordinary line of work, they would be first in line,” Furton told CNA. People in this group might include first responders, physicians, nurses, and other health care workers, police officers, and public transit employees.

Authorities should also consider prioritizing citizens living in crowded urban conditions, as “an effort to tackle the disease and the places where it’s most likely to spread,” he said.

Multiple vaccine candidates to fight the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) are entering the latter phases of production and testing.

On July 27, the biotech company Moderna and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) announced that their vaccine was entering phase 3 of clinical trials, during which it will be tested for safety and effective prevention of the virus in two doses.

Another vaccine being developed by the University of Oxford in collaboration with Astrazeneca has entered phase 3 of trials.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIAID and White House health advisor, has said that a coronavirus vaccine might not be developed, approved, and made widely available until several months into 2021.

The Trump administration is funding several vaccine candidates as part of “Operation Warp Speed,” including the two by Moderna/NIAID and the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca.

However, Catholics are also discussing whether an obligation exists for one to receive a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, if it is made available. And other ethical questions remain, such as the source of the vaccines being developed and the speed at which they are being produced.

Two bishops of the conference of England and Wales recently produced a paper on vaccination in light of the pandemic.

“We believe that there is a moral obligation to guarantee the vaccination coverage necessary for the safety of others. This is especially important for the discovery of a vaccine against COVID-19,” they said.

In 2017, the Pontifical Academy for Life addressed the issue of commonly-used vaccines in a document.

The academy said that, in the case of commonly-used vaccines against rubella, chickenpox, polio, and hepatitis A, there exists a moral obligation for Catholic parents to vaccinate their children in light of possible threats to the vulnerable caused by a resurgence in the prevalence of the diseases.

The academy said that “the moral obligation to guarantee the vaccination coverage necessary for the safety of others is no less urgent, especially the safety of more vulnerable subjects such as pregnant women and those affected by immunodeficiency who cannot be vaccinated against these diseases.”

However, those vaccines have been used for years, while a vaccine for the new coronavirus has yet to be fully developed, approved, and distributed.

One of the preeminent issues with current COVID vaccine candidates is whether or not they are being produced by using cell lines from aborted babies—something that Vatican has warned against in previous documents.

In the 2008 document Dignitas Personae, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that researchers may not use biological material of “illicit origin,” or cell lines from aborted babies, in developing a vaccine.

Parents gravely concerned about their children’s health could use the vaccine, the CDF said, but must “make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available.”

Some of the vaccines being developed to fight the new coronavirus are using the HEK-293 cell line, one commonly used in vaccines and which is derived from aborted fetal tissue. The candidate being developed by the University of Oxford and Astrazeneca is using this cell line.

Other candidates do not use this cell line, such as one being developed by Sanofi Pasteur. The  Moderna vaccine candidate does not rely on this HEK-293 cell line for production. Rather, it uses a Spike protein, the gene sequence of which was determined through testing that involved a HEK-293 cell line. The gene sequence was not determined by Moderna scientists, but was simply selected by the company as the target for the vaccine.

Another ethical question that is being discussed is the rapid nature of the vaccine development. The prevalence and deadly nature of the coronavirus has prodded scientists to enter the final testing phase in record time, yet some ethicists are cautioning that a vaccine must be produced that is safe for widespread use.

“We all agree that it’s great to go as fast as possible, as safely as possible” during the production phase of vaccines, Joseph Meany, Ph.D., president of the NCBC, told EWTN Pro-Life Weekly.

However, he said, during the trial phases “safeguards exist for a purpose.”

“They should be very cautious about cutting corners when it comes to human safety” in the trials, he said.

If an ethical vaccine is developed and made available, the question remains as to the responsibility of Catholics to receive it.

“I think it would be reasonable for the government to issue a mandate, and require people to vaccinate, but there should also be exemptions—for obvious reasons,” Furton said.

Some legitimate exemptions that could be crafted might be someone’s medical risk or frail condition, he said, or other attributes that logically exempt them from being vaccinated.

If multiple vaccines are developed, and one of them is ethically sourced, Catholics would have a “moral obligation” to seek out one which is not ethically compromised, he said, unless for some reason the ethical vaccine is not distributed in someone’s immediate vicinity.

“Then the case might be different, depending on how difficult it would be to get it,” he said.

Questions of abuse cover-up directed at incoming St. Louis archbishop, but details unclear

Denver Newsroom, Aug 7, 2020 / 05:21 pm (CNA).- Archbishop-designate Mitchell Rozanski is set to take over the Archdiocese of St. Louis, after heading the Diocese of Springfield in Massachusetts since 2014. Though Rozanski himself backed major changes in the Springfield diocese's handling of abuse, one unnamed abuse victim has asked for a Church investigation into whether the archbishop-designate was involved in covering up abuse.

Olan Horne, an advocate for victims of sex abuse by clergy, said the request to investigate Archbishop-designate Rozanski was made by a Berkshire County resident who had taken part in the Boston archdiocese's multi-million dollar settlement, the Springfield newspaper The Republican reports. Horne said the request had support from “other concerned Catholics here in the diocese.”

The complaint was made through the Catholic Bishops Abuse Reporting Service website, and Horne said he received confirmation that the allegation had been filed.

Mark Dupont, secretary of communications for the Diocese of Springfield, told CNA August 6 that Rozanski had worked to make improvements in responding to sexual abuse allegations since before June 2019, when he commissioned an independent investigation into the mishandling of an allegation about a previous bishop.

“Even prior to commissioning the Judge Velis Report, then-Bishop Rozanski had directed a total revamping of our Safe Environment office, bringing in a new director, hiring new investigators, negotiating an agreement with all local district attorneys' offices, and naming a task force to review all procedures for handling complaints,” Dupont told CNA.

Dupont said the complaint about Rozanski would have been directed to Springfield's metropolitan, the Archdiocese of Boston, but added “to the best of our knowledge no such complaint has been filed.”

CNA sought comment from the Boston archdiocese, the St. Louis archdiocese, and Archbishop-designate Rozanski, but received no response by deadline.

Pope Francis named Rozanski Archbishop of St. Louis in early June. He will be installed Aug. 25.

In June, the Springfield diocese released the final report of an independent investigation led by retired Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis, an adjunct professor of criminal evidence at Westfield State University who handled Catholic clergy sex abuse cases as a judge.

The report examined the case of an alleged victim, known under the pseudonym John Doe, who said he told the diocesan review board that Springfield Bishop Christopher J. Weldon, who died in 1982, had abused him, as did two priests, when he was an altar boy in the 1960s.

However, Bishop Weldon was not listed on the Springfield diocese's list of clergy credibly accused of abuse. Although at least three witnesses and a letter to Doe from the review board supported Doe's claim that he told the review board about Weldon in 2018, the review board only acknowledged the claim that the two priests had abused him.

On June 24, the diocese released Velis' 373-page report finding that Doe's claim he was molested by Bishop Weldon were “unequivocally credible.”

The Velis report indicated that there were two accounts of the diocesan investigator's findings, one of which was more clear in accusing Weldon of abusing Doe. That version, however, was not shared with the review board. Some diocesan responses, which indicated Doe had never testified about Weldon's abuse, relied on the version which had been shared with the review board.

The Velis report said that “from the inception of the complaint through the follow-up process, the procedure was greatly flawed.”

In June, Rozanski apologized for the “chronic mishandling of the case, time and time again, since 2014.”

“At almost every instance, we have failed this courageous man who nonetheless persevered thanks in part to a reliable support network as well to a deep desire for a just response for the terrible abuse which he endured,” the archbishop-designate said at a June press conference, one year after he commissioned Velis to conduct the investigation.

Both a diocesan investigator and a victim's advocate involved in Doe's case are no longer employed by the diocese, and Weldon is now named on the Springfield diocese website as a “deceased bishop who was found to have credible allegations of abuse.”

Horne was still critical of the diocese.

“It should not have taken this herculean effort to get justice for the Weldon survivor,” he said. “Look at the names and the games — they are the same and finally we have had a few investigations to get to the bottom of the claims we all have been making here for years without any results.”

This is not the first time abuse concerns regarding a bishop have surfaced in the Diocese of Springfield. In 2004, Bishop Thomas Dupre became the first Catholic bishop in the U.S. to be indicted on criminal charges for sexual abuse. The case did not go to trial due to the statute of limitations on some charges and because the grand jury decided not to indict on other charges, The Republican reported.

Horne accused the diocese of handling abuse through “an archaic system” that should have been updated after Dupre left, but never was.

The sex abuse victims' advocate also objected to the diocese's delay in naming diocesan priest Father Paul Archambault to its list of credibly accused priests. The priest's name was added in 2016, the year the diocese disclosed its 2011 settlement with an alleged victim. Archambault committed suicide in 2011, after being confronted about his alleged abuse of a teenage boy.

Dupont, the spokesman for the diocese, told CNA the Velis report “had no finding of any cover-up.”

However, Velis said his findings raise questions about whether there was an attempt to conceal the report's contents about Bishop Weldon from the review board or Bishop Rozanski. It was not the scope of his investigation to determine responsibility for the apparent deceptive practice or “if and when the reports were switched.”

Rozanski told Velis he was not aware of the specifics of Doe's allegation of abuse by Weldon and did not know about the different reports about Doe's allegation produced by the diocesan investigator.

Velis reported that Rozanski “immediately felt a call to action” when he was made aware there were possible discrepancies in how the complaint was handled.

However, Rozanski said he knew that Weldon was accused of being “present during incidents of abuse that occurred” and acknowledged to Velis that he considered this to be a form of abuse.

Dupont, the Springfield diocesan spokesman, maintained that the diocese did not cover up allegations against Weldon. He told CNA that “our earliest public responses acknowledged Bishop Weldon was allegedly present where the abuse occurred.”

The Velis report is not unchallenged. The diocese's most recent vicar general, Monsignor Christopher Connelly, has said he was “unfairly and unfavorably portrayed” in the report, according to The Republican.

Connelly has denied the alleged victim's claim to have told him that Weldon abused him.

“I regret that my recollection of that meeting and his are so very different. I am also puzzled that throughout this process there is a lot of discrepancy and confusion. I am puzzled by that as well,” Connelly said.

“The name of Weldon was not divulged to me. Our meeting was not about Bishop Weldon, it was about another deceased priest,” said the monsignor. Connelly said that if Weldon's name had been mentioned, it would have been in a follow-up letter, which only mentions the accusation against Father Clarence Forand.

 

Archbishop Carlson: Christ 'welcomes and challenges' those wrestling with gender identity

CNA Staff, Aug 7, 2020 / 04:34 pm (CNA).- Christ draws close with love and compassion, as well as a challenge, for people who experience discord between their gender identity and their biological sex, Archbishop Robert Carlson of Saint Louis said in a reflection dated June 1.

“If you’re uncomfortable with your biological sex, or if you consider yourself as having a gender identity at odds with your biological sex, here’s the first thing I want you to know: God loves you. He loves you right where you are. He has a plan for you,” Carlson said.

“We are beloved sons and daughters of God in our best and worst moments. And when Jesus comes to us with a word of compassion, he always comes with a word of challenge too,” he added. “Yes, he loves us where we are; that doesn’t mean he simply affirms or celebrates where we are.”

The 12-page reflection notes that people who experience gender dysphoria are “uniquely vulnerable” and must be treated with care and compassion. The archbishop also notes that the Church has a duty to teach and affirm a Christian anthropology, which sees the unity of gender identity and biological sex as the path to human flourishing and, ultimately, to heaven.

“God made us male and female. God also made us as a union of body and soul. God has a purpose and a plan in giving us the male or female body we have,” the archbishop noted.

Carlson said he was inspired to write this reflection after a January 2020 visit with Pope Francis and the bishops of his region. During the visit, Pope Francis encouraged the bishops to address the issue of transgender theory, or gender ideology, with the Catholics in their dioceses.

Carlson is one of a small but increasing number of Catholic bishops and Catholic leaders in the U.S. who have issued statements on gender ideology, as well as guidelines for people with gender dysphoria who are participants in diocesan institutions or events. The Vatican has also recently issued recent documents on the subject, including a book released in June by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, as well as the 2019 document Male and Female He Created Them, issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education.

Carlson stated that his reflection did not offer a “comprehensive treatment” of the problem, but rather an addressing of a few of its “principal aspects.”

The archbishop said he wanted his reflection to begin and end with thoughts of compassion and care for people who experience transgender dysphoria, which he noted is a condition that puts people “at risk for a whole series of poor health outcomes. They experience higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, and have a much higher rate of suicide attempts than the general population. They are uniquely vulnerable.”

People with gender dysphoria are experiencing hurt, the bishop said. And whether people who believe their gender does not match their biological sex are making the choice freely or feel that it is a condition they experience not of their free will, Christ draws close to those experiencing hurt, he noted.

Some examples of Christ drawing close to hurting people from the Gospels which Carlson pointed to included Zaccheus the tax collector, who is visited by Christ in his home, and the woman with a haemorrhage, who was healed by Christ with a touch of his cloak because of her faith.

“Whether we’re talking about sins we have freely chosen or conditions we have not the Gospels make it very clear: whatever our hurt is, Jesus came for the hurt. He doesn’t draw away there, he draws closer.”

But Christ also challenges people to live according to God’s plan, Carlson noted.

“When the Rich Young Man came to ask about eternal life Jesus both welcomed him and challenged him. He does so repeatedly with various people he encounters in the Gospels. We have to expect him to do the same with us. The welcome and the challenge are both expressions of his love,” Carlson said.

In this Gospel story, a rich young man approaches Christ and asks what he must to do to have eternal life. Christ tells him to follow the commandments, to sell all that he has to the poor, and to follow him. The rich young man “went away sad, for he had many possessions”.

“Do you ever wonder if he came back? I think part of the reason we never hear is that the ultimate point of the story isn’t what happened to him. The point is: I am the Rich Young Man, Jesus asks something of me, and I have to decide how to respond. I can walk away sad, or I can embrace his challenge,” the archbishop said.

The challenge for people with gender dysphoria, then, is to live according to God’s plan for sexuality, which does not separate gender from sex, Carlson noted.

“Based on the unity of the human person, the basic challenge on this matter is articulated by the Catechism of the Catholic Church when it says: ‘Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity.’ Long before gender ideology was a cultural topic, the Catechism had already named the central issue: this is a question of reconciling ourselves to the physical facts of sexual identity, not trying to change the facts according to how we think and feel,” he said.

This does not mean that one must live according to rigid stereotypes, he noted.

“How we live our masculine and feminine identity is certainly diverse, and there needs to be room for that. There’s a wide variety of personalities, and they don’t always fit gender-stereotypes. But that doesn’t mean being male or female is negotiable, or that sex and gender can be separated. Being male or female is written into every cell of our body, and is part of the body-soul unity that we are.”

A Catholic understanding of anthropology maintains this unity in the person, Carlson noted, including unity between sex and gender.

“The Catholic understanding of the human person holds that sex and gender cannot be separated, and that there are limits to how we should manipulate our bodies. According to the Catholic understanding there is, and is meant to be, a profound unity in the human person: ‘In fact it is from [their] sex that the human person receives the characteristics which, on the biological, psychological and spiritual levels, make that person a man or a woman, and thereby largely condition his or her progress towards maturity and insertion into society,’” he said, referencing Persona humana, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1975 declaration on certain questions concerning sexual ethics.

In order for human beings to experience true freedom, the Church teaches that humans must both be able to freely choose, and freely choose what is good.

“We can all name examples of people freely choosing something that’s bad for them and bad for others. Freedom is perfected in the combination of choosing freely and choosing the good,” he said.

“A simple analogy comes from playing a musical instrument. You don’t have more freedom simply because you’ve never had lessons. You’re most free to make beautiful music when you’ve been trained and learned discipline. The same is true for excellence in human living.”

In practical applications of this teaching, Carlson said that people with gender dysphoria must be welcomed into Catholic institutions and events in the archdiocese, but with the understanding that the unity of their gender and sex will be respected, including use of pronouns, as well as restrooms and locker rooms, that match their biological sex, “thereby affording our bodies the healthy modesty and dignity deserved under such circumstances.”

“Those who experience discordance with their biological sex should not be denied admission to Catholic schools or participation in Archdiocesan or Parish events as long as they agree to abide by these guidelines,” he added. “It’s important that we be willing to help people in their struggles and questions. Our solution can’t be to abandon them, and only welcome them after they’ve resolved their questions on their own. We want to be with people, and we need to be there for them and with them in the midst of their questions and struggles.”

In his reflection, Carlson also draws directly from the words of Pope Francis, who has numerous times spoken or written about the problem of gender ideology.

In his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’, Pope Francis wrote that accepting one’s biological sex as a gift from God and as the foundation for one’s identity was key to a “geniune human ecology.”

“The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology,”  Francis wrote.

“Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it,” the pope added.

In the end of his reflection, Carlson noted that the Church and her members must always speak the truth about gender and sex with “charity and clarity.” He noted that the Church must always reject violence and unjust discrimination toward people with gender dysphoria, and that they must be treated as “brothers and sisters.” He also added that the Church must be there to care for people who are hurting after choosing medical or hormonal gender interventions, in the same way that the Church offers care to women who are hurting after an abortion.

“As we have experienced the merciful love of Jesus, let’s bring that merciful love to the world,” he concluded. “And let’s remember that his love always has two parts: compassion, and the challenging truth about God’s plan. If we lack either – the compassion or the challenge – our love isn’t fully Christian.”

Updated: DC archdiocese welcomes Maryland county dropping second order to keep Catholic schools closed

CNA Staff, Aug 7, 2020 / 02:15 pm (CNA).- Update: The Archdiocese of Washington's interim superintendent of schools, Kelly Branaman, expressed gratitude for the county's recognition of "the autonomy of non-public schools to make local decisions on reopening in a safe and appropriate manner."

She said that "we will continue to work with our schools to make the decisions that work best for each of our individual school communities."

The archdiocese noted that its schools are making individual reopening plans, accounting for enrollment, facility size, and parent feedback. Most have a hybrid model incorporating in-person and distance learning, while some have one model or the other.

"It is important that parents have a choice in determining what is best for their child," Brandaman reflected.

--

Catholic schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, can reopen for the coming semester after the county rescinded a second controversial order preventing all non-public schools from welcoming students for in-person learning until at least October 1. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas comes early in Indiana with nativity scene court case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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