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‘Unconscionable’: California Gov. Newsom cites Jesus on billboards promoting abortion

California State Governor Gavin Newsom. / Matt Gush/Shutterstock

Denver, Colo., Sep 23, 2022 / 18:56 pm (CNA).

When Gov. Gavin Newsom of California unveiled his plan for a billboard advertising campaign inviting women to travel to his state to have abortions, he was swiftly condemned by Catholics, who called the ads “unconscionable” and “blasphemy.”

Why the strong reaction? The abortion-selling ads include a passage from Scripture:

“Need an abortion? California is ready to help,” reads the message to be displayed along Indiana and Oklahoma highways.

In smaller lettering, the ads cite Jesus Christ’s words in the Gospel of Mark: “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these. -Mark 12:31”

“It is unconscionable that these ads distort Scripture to support abortion, specifically in states that have already dramatically limited abortion in favor of supporting life,” Kathleen Domingo, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told CNA Sept. 23.

Funding ads in other states is “nothing more than a political stunt by our governor,” she said. “It is virtue-signaling that California, with our extremely permissive abortion laws, is superior to red and purple states enacting abortion restrictions.”

Newsom, a Democrat, is expected to win re-election as California governor this fall. On Sept. 15 he announced seven versions of the pro-abortion ads that would run on billboards in seven states that restrict abortion.

The ads, which list an abortion access website hosted by the California state government, note that they are paid for by Newsom’s gubernatorial campaign. His campaign committee had almost $24 million cash on hand as of June 30, according to filings available on the website of the California Secretary of State.

Domingo said the use of scripture to back abortion was misleading.

“If we truly loved our neighbor as ourselves, we would want the best for our neighbor, which means true comprehensive support services so that no mother or father is misled or coerced into ending a child’s life, and no mother or father walks their parenthood journey alone,” she told CNA.

She added that basic needs aren’t being met in Newsom’s home state.

“California is not just providing abortions but promoting abortion as a solution for women,” said Domingo. “When California families are struggling to pay for gas, afford rent, and put food on the table, promoting the violence of abortion solves none of the urgent problems countless families are facing.”

CNA sought comment from several Catholic dioceses in California, Mississippi and Oklahoma but did not receive a response by publication.

Chris Check, president of the California-based apologetics organization Catholic Answers, said the ads “commit blasphemy by co-opting Sacred Scripture in service of abortion.”

Writing in a Sept. 21 commentary for Catholic Answers, Check noted that the biblical quotation refers to another commandment in which it should be grounded, the preceding Bible verse where Jesus says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

Check cited other verses which stressed the need to care for widows and orphans. A woman abandoned by her husband or boyfriend is a sort of widow, and the unwanted unborn child is “a sort of orphan,” he said.

Christianity has rejected abortion from its earliest years. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says "since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion."

Pope Francis has spoken of abortion as an aspect of a "throwaway culture" that also rejects those in need.

As for Newsom, his political rhetoric has labeled bans on abortion “un-American.” He contended that his Republican foes are “literally killing women.”

“The idea that these Republican politicians are seeking to ‘protect life’ is a total farce,” Newsom said on Sept. 15. “They are seeking to restrict and control their constituents and take away their freedom.”

Newsom’s billboard ads refer to a California abortion access website that includes information about abortion and financial aid for the procedure. The website includes telehealth information about receiving abortion drugs by mail. It provides information for specific groups including those under age 18, those who live outside of California, and immigrants and undocumented people.

The website also repeats criticism of crisis pregnancy centers that do not perform abortions, saying they may provide “false, medically inaccurate information” to convince women not to have an abortion. It links to a Planned Parenthood blog post about pregnancy centers and a California Department of Justice bulletin. The bulletin attempts to distinguish crisis pregnancy centers from “reproductive healthcare facilities” and claims crisis pregnancy centers “do not provide comprehensive reproductive healthcare.”

Newsom said the ads will run in seven of the states with the “most restrictive” anti-abortion laws. In the governor’s view, the ads “explain how women can access care — no matter where they live.”

“To any woman seeking an abortion in these anti-freedom states: (California) will defend your right to make decisions about your own health,” he said.

Billboard ads are also planned for Indiana, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas. The ads tell potential readers that these states “don’t own your body. You Do.” Some of these ads show the back of a woman in a white dress, with her hands handcuffed behind her.

These five ads do not include the citation from the New Testament but still refer to the State of California’s abortion website.

For the Catholic commentator Check, the ads should be a cause for fear, prayer and action.

“These blasphemies of Gavin Newsom and the other leaders of California should fill us with fear — fear for him, of course, whose soul is in grievous danger of a fate too horrible to comprehend,” said Check, who also voiced concern for those he might influence.

He encouraged prayers for the governor and for Newsom’s local Catholic bishop. He also encouraged Catholics to engage in their own spiritual formation and to support the work of crisis pregnancy centers, pro-life sidewalk counseling outside abortion clinics and the work of other pro-life non-profits.

FBI raids home of pro-life leader on questionable charges

Planned Parenthood gets millions of dollars in federal support each year. / Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 23, 2022 / 17:56 pm (CNA).

A Catholic speaker and author who regularly prays the rosary outside an abortion clinic in Philadelphia was arrested by at least 20 SWAT team members on Friday for an alleged physical assault of a Planned Parenthood clinic escort last year.

Mark Houck, 48, of Kintnersville, Pennsylvania, who disputes the allegations, is the co-founder and president of the Catholic ministry The King’s Men, which aims to give spiritual formation to Catholic men. 

News of Houck’s arrest on Friday morning was widely shared on social media after well-known Catholic speaker Chris Stefanick posted about it online. Houck’s wife, Ryan-Marie Houck, told CNA about the arrest Friday.

“A SWAT team of about 25 came to my house with about 15 vehicles and started pounding on our door,” Ryan-Marie Houck said. “They said they were going to break in if he didn’t open it. And then they had about five guns pointed at my husband, myself, and basically at my kids,” she added.

She said that multiple agencies were present at the arrest and that she was handed a warrant after she requested to see it.

Stefanick called the arrest “government sponsored bullying & intimidation.”

The FBI confirmed to CNA Friday that Houck was arrested outside his residence Friday morning “without incident.” In a press release, the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania said that Houck is being charged with a violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, more commonly referred to as the FACE Act.

The federal indictment says that Houck twice assaulted a 72-year-old man who was a patient escort at a Planned Parenthood clinic at 1144 Locust St. in Philadelphia on Oct. 13, 2021.

According to the indictment, Houck shoved the escort, identified only with the initials B.L., to the ground as B.L was attempting to escort two patients. Houck also “verbally confronted” and “forcefully shoved” B.L. to the ground in front of Planned Parenthood the same day, the indictment says. The indictment says that B.L. was injured and needed medical attention.

Brian Middleton, the Houck family spokesman, maintains the injury was minor, only requiring “a Band-Aid on his finger.”

According to Father James Hutchins, who serves as the chaplain of Houck’s organization, the case against Houck may have been deliberately exaggerated.

A statement from Joe and Ashley Garecht on a recently created fundraising page for Houck described a very different scenario — one of defense of Houck’s child.

“Last year, Mark and his son were praying in front of the PP at 12th and Locust. When one of the escorts began harassing Mark’s son they walked down the street away from the entrance to the building. The escort followed them, and when he continued yelling at Mark’s son, Mark pushed him away,” the couple said, noting that the incident is on video.

According to the Garechts, “that hasn’t stopped Planned Parenthood and the Biden administration. With no prior warning, and in spite of the fact that Mark is represented by an attorney, Biden’s Justice Department sent a fully armed SWAT team into a home full of young children at daybreak to arrest a father for protecting his son.”

If he is convicted, Houck could face up to 11 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of up to $350,000, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. 

The FACE Act “prohibits violent, threatening, damaging, and obstructive conduct intended to injure, intimidate, or interfere with the right to seek, obtain or provide reproductive health services,” according to the Department of Justice (DOJ). 

Violating the FACE Act is a federal crime and protects “all patients, providers, and facilities that provide reproductive health services, including pro-life pregnancy counseling services and any other pregnancy support facility providing reproductive health care,” according to the DOJ.

Ryan-Marie Houck told CNA that her husband prays the rosary outside one of two different Planned Parenthoods every Wednesday and hands out literature to anyone who wants it. She said that praying outside the clinic is part of The King’s Men ministry. 

“This was a gross over-reach from the ‘justice’ department with excessive use of force and trumped up allegations and our story needs to be told truthfully,” Ryan-Marie Houck said in a text. “These are false allegations.”

She said that he had his first appearance before a judge and was subsequently released on Friday. As of Sunday night, an online fund drive had raised more than $126,000 to help the family with legal costs.

“Planned Parenthood and its pro-abortion allies want to send a message of fear to the pro-life community of Pennsylvania,” said the fundraising page.

“But we have a different message to share: We will not back down, we will not stop fighting to protect the lives of Pennsylvania’s unborn children, and we WILL NOT TOLERATE the harassment of our leaders by a corrupt and politicized justice system.”

This story was updated on Sept. 25, 2022, with new facts provided by several sources.

This Muslim NBA vet is marching for persecuted Christians on Saturday

Former Celtics player Enes Kanter Freedom will be the keynote speaker at the March for the Martyrs, / Freedom: Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Martyrs: Screenshot from the National Catholic Register

Boston, Mass., Sep 23, 2022 / 11:00 am (CNA).

NBA veteran Enes Kanter Freedom has been using his platform as a professional basketball player to take direct aim at the Chinese Communist Party for its egregious human rights abuses.

“People need to understand this … the Chinese Communist Party does not represent the Olympic values of excellence, of respect, of friendship. The whole world knows that they’re a brutal dictatorship and they engage in censorship, they tread on freedoms, they do not respect human rights, and they hide the truth,” Freedom told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham in February.

But with no team signing a contract with the 6-foot-10, 250-pound center since February, he, and others, say that he’s paying the price for his activism — activism that includes explicitly calling out the NBA, his former team the Boston Celtics, and other players in the league for hypocrisy, citing their relationship with, and failure to condemn, China.

The 30-year-old seems more determined than ever to work in defense of human rights.

Freedom, a practicing Muslim from Turkey, will be speaking at Saturday’s March for the Martyrs in Washington, D.C., an event dedicated to raising awareness of the plight of persecuted Christians around the world. 

“His voice in this generation is so important,” said Gia Chacon, founder and president of For the Martyrs, the organization running the march. Chacon told CNA Aug. 25 that Freedom “had the world at his fingertips,” but added that he “sacrificed everything to advocate on behalf of the voiceless.”

Chacon said that the March for the Martyrs exists to “combat the silence” around the issue of Christian persecution. In addition, its goal is to bring the attention and prayers of Western Christians to the persecuted church across the globe. 

But why did Chacon choose a Muslim to speak at an event advocating for persecuted Christians?

She says it’s because a bridge needs to be built between Muslims and Christians. 

“For him to speak about persecuted Christians; to talk about the importance of freedom of religion makes this issue that much more powerful,” she said.

“And,” she added, “it’s a message to Muslims — not just in the United States, but around the world — that we need to build a bridge between Christians and Muslims,” especially given that Islamist terrorists are among the top persecutors of Christians around the world. 

This won’t be Freedom’s first speaking engagement for religious freedom. He spoke at the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, D.C., in June.

Freedom also recently launched his foundation — the Enes Kanter Freedom Foundation — in June, which, according to the Washington Times, advocates for civil rights in authoritarian countries like China and Turkey. The Times reported that Freedom will be taking on the foundation’s work full time.

In a June 22 Facebook post, Freedom said: “I’m so excited to announce my new foundation that aims to promote #Freedom, Universal Values, Social Harmony, Poverty Alleviation #HumanRights & #Democracy around the GLOBE.” On Freedom’s website, there is a page to donate to the foundation.

Freedom was born in Switzerland and raised in Turkey before coming to the U.S. to play basketball. He was drafted by the Utah Jazz as the third overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft and made his debut that same year.

The Bleacher Report recently called him one of the most underrated players of the last 10 years, citing his top 10 performance in career rebounding and offensive rebounding plus his general awareness on the court. 

Freedom is a longtime critic of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, often calling him a dictator. Although his family still lives in Turkey, Freedom has said in past interviews that he hasn’t spoken to them in years, which hurts him. But he says that communication must be cut off because of the political climate there and his criticism of the regime. 

While he was with the New York Knicks, Freedom said in 2019 that he skipped a team trip to London because he feared being killed, while calling the Turkish president a “freaking lunatic” and a “dictator.” 

Other speakers at the March for the Martyrs event include Chacon; David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA; Esther Zang, a survivor of Christian persecution in China and North Korea; Jacob Coyne, founder of Stay Here, an organization dedicated to ending the mental health crisis and suicide; Father Simon Esshaki, a Chaldean Catholic priest; Jason Jones, a filmmaker, humanitarian, and founder of the Vulnerable People Project; Shane Winnings, CEO and president of Overcomers Inc., an evangelical organization that helps Christians preach and teach the Gospel; Russel Johnson, pastor of The Pursuit church; and Ryan Helfenbein, executive director of the Standing for Freedom Center. 

Delivering another keynote address will be evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, who worked to spread Christianity in the Middle East for years before he was imprisoned in Turkey for two years. 

His experience as a pastor in the Middle East, in addition to his imprisonment, will be the topic of his speech, Chacon said.

As many as 1,000 people are expected at this year’s march, which begins at 3 p.m. with an opening rally before moving from the National Mall to the nearby Museum of the Bible. A new addition to this year’s event includes free busing for any group of 50 people located three or four hours from the march. 

The buses will pick the groups up and drop them off at the end of the night, Chacon said. Groups interested can email [email protected].

In addition to the march, Chacon’s organization leads an annual mission trip to visit persecuted Christians around the world. In 2021, Chacon and her team went to Iraq. 

The organization spreads awareness of Christian persecution through online content, especially through videos. It also sponsors various development projects overseas to help persecuted Christians such as a computer lab in Iraq for internally displaced Christians, Chacon said.

According to Open Doors USA, an organization dedicated to serving persecuted Christians across the globe, more than 360 million Christians around the world face extreme persecution and discrimination because of their faith.

The organization, which compiles a “World Watch List” of “The top 50 countries where it’s most difficult to follow Jesus” lists Afghanistan as the top persecutor of Christians in the world, citing “Islamic oppression.” 

The other countries that make up the top 10, in order, are North Korea, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Eritrea, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, and India. China is ranked 17th on the list. Turkey is ranked 42.

Padre Pio sculptor’s work to be blessed on saint’s feast day: ‘I have to honor him’

Artist Timothy P. Schmalz touches the hands of Padre Pio in one of his sculptures. / Courtesy of Timothy P. Schmalz

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 23, 2022 / 07:15 am (CNA).

Catholic artist Timothy P. Schmalz calls Padre Pio his favorite saint. And so, when he learned that four of his sculptures would honor the Italian mystic on his feast day — Sept. 23 — he was overjoyed.

“I thought a couple years ago about that moment in my life where Padre Pio gave me that peace and comfort and I thought, ‘I have to honor him,’” the 53-year-old sculptor told CNA over the phone, his hands full of clay. “I really do. And the best way I can honor a saint is by sculpting them.”

St. Pio of Pietrelcina, more commonly known as Padre Pio, is one of the most popular saints of the 20th century. The Capuchin friar is famous for his stigmata (Christ’s wounds, present in his own flesh), his spiritual wisdom and guidance, his ministry in the confessional, his reported ability to miraculously bilocate, and his being physically attacked by the devil.

On Friday, Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley of Boston will bless Schmalz’s bronze sculptures that will be installed that same day. Three of them will be placed in the plaza of San Giovanni Rotondo in Italy, where an average of seven million pilgrims visit annually to pray at Padre Pio’s tomb. The fourth will stand at another popular, nearby pilgrimage site: St. Michael’s Cave.

A video on Schmalz’s YouTube channel shows the artist working on his Padre Pio sculptures in his studio located in St. Jacobs, Ontario, Canada. At one point, he holds a rosary.

“I usually consider my sculpture [to be a] prayer, and my hands are always not busy with beads, but busy with clay,” he told CNA. “I do believe that these sculptures — all of them — are prayers, visual prayers and cast in bronze.”

Schmalz is not new to sculpting. The experienced artist’s work can be found worldwide, from St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican to Washington, D.C. He is perhaps best known for his “Homeless Jesus” sculpture and the “Angels Unaware” statue. Right now, he is also creating a life-size Stations of the Cross to be placed by Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

It took him roughly a year, he said, to form his Padre Pio sculptures. Each one is different.

A struggle with evil

His first sculpture depicts the saint wrestling in combat with a demon.

“I really do believe that it is something that, if you did not know who Padre Pio was, seeing this sculpture, you would want to know about him,” he explained of the sculpture that he hopes introduces more people to the saint.

In particular, he hopes that his work attracts the younger generation.

“Art can be a wonderful entrance, a wonderful doorway, but it has to be exciting,” he articulated.

Artist Timothy P. Schmalz's sculpture illustrates Padre Pio strangling a demon and pushing him into nothingness, with one fist posed to strike. Courtesy of Timothy P. Schmalz
Artist Timothy P. Schmalz's sculpture illustrates Padre Pio strangling a demon and pushing him into nothingness, with one fist posed to strike. Courtesy of Timothy P. Schmalz

This sculpture illustrates Padre Pio strangling a demon and pushing him into nothingness, with one fist posed to strike.

“I think so many people today have struggles with evil and they have these battles going on,” Schmalz said of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. “I thought that to have this saint in combat with evil and winning is a wonderful representation — and a very much authentic representation — of St. Padre Pio.”

A pietà offering peace

The second shows Jesus’ mother, Mary, and Padre Pio encircled in a sculpted ribbon.

“It's the ribbon for breast cancer, and many people around the world have that ribbon as a symbol of all cancer,” Schmalz said, adding that people frequently pray to Padre Pio when they have a family member suffering from cancer.

But the ribbon doubles as something else: a fish — an ancient symbol of Christianity — facing upward toward the sky.

Inside the outline of the ribbon (or fish), Mary looks down on Padre Pio in a way that Schmalz likens to a pietà. Padre Pio’s gloved hands reach out, inviting passersby to touch them.

Schmalz hopes that, when they do, they encounter peace.

Artist Timothy P. Schmalz touches the hands of Padre Pio in his sculpture that includes the Blessed Virgin Mary. Courtesy of Timothy P. Schmalz
Artist Timothy P. Schmalz touches the hands of Padre Pio in his sculpture that includes the Blessed Virgin Mary. Courtesy of Timothy P. Schmalz

“If you consider all the miracles of St. Padre Pio, I think one of the greatest miracles is that he brings people peace,” he said. “What I like to think about St. Padre Pio is [that] the comfort and peace he gave people, including myself, was the miracle.”

‘Be Welcoming’

His third piece embodies a pilgrim who turns into an angel. It is, Schmalz said, a visual translation of Hebrews 13:2: “Be welcoming to strangers; many have entertained angels unaware.”

“You have the pilgrim that has a staff, who has a conch — which is the symbol of pilgrims — and then before your eyes, artistically, that stranger turns into this mysterial-looking angel,” he described.

Sculptor Timothy P. Schmalz's work embodies a pilgrim who turns into an angel in a visual translation of Hebrews 13:2: “Be welcoming to strangers, many have entertained angels unaware.” Courtesy of Timothy P. Schmalz
Sculptor Timothy P. Schmalz's work embodies a pilgrim who turns into an angel in a visual translation of Hebrews 13:2: “Be welcoming to strangers, many have entertained angels unaware.” Courtesy of Timothy P. Schmalz

Schmalz said he is particularly excited that the “Be Welcoming” sculpture will be located at San Giovanni Rotondo because “it’s the place where pilgrims go.”

St. Michael the protector

The sculpture that will be placed in St. Michael’s Cave depicts the archangel protecting Padre Pio, as he kneels in prayer, from a demon.

“It makes me so happy that [on] this feast day of St. Padre Pio, this sculpture will be permanently installed and blessed in St. Michael's Cave,” he said. “It’s just beyond my wildest dreams of happiness that these celebrations are happening right now.”

Artist Timothy P. Schmalz's sculpture depicts St. Michael the Archangel protecting Padre Pio, as he kneels in prayer, from a demon. Courtesy of Timothy P. Schmalz
Artist Timothy P. Schmalz's sculpture depicts St. Michael the Archangel protecting Padre Pio, as he kneels in prayer, from a demon. Courtesy of Timothy P. Schmalz

Which U.S. states rank first (and last) in religious freedom protections?

null / Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 23, 2022 / 07:00 am (CNA).

A nonprofit legal organization specializing in religious liberty cases has conducted a study comparing U.S. states on the basis of how free its residents are to practice their faith. 

Spoiler alert: Mississippi offers the most protections for religious freedom, while New York comes in last on the First Liberty Institute’s “Religious Liberty in the States 2022 (RLS)” index.

The states are ranked according to how many laws are on the books that protect the free exercise of religion, with the states with the most laws providing safeguards for religious freedom ranked the highest.

Sarah Estelle, a research fellow with the Institute’s Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy (CRCD) and associate professor of economics at Hope College in Michigan, directed the project. She analyzed laws in all 50 states and narrowed the index down to 29 separate laws, the majority of which offer protections for medical professionals, allowing them to opt out of providing abortions, sterilizations, and contraception.

Top-ranking Mississippi, for example, scored a 20 out of 20 on laws that allow health care workers to refuse to take part in procedures or services that go against their religious beliefs.

By comparison, New York at No. 50 scored only a 5 out of 20 on health care exemption laws. Doctors in the Empire State have no legal protections if they were to refuse to perform sterilizations or prescribe contraception, nor does the state protect them from criminal liability if they refuse to perform abortions.

Five states — Alabama, Illinois, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Washington — have enacted “general conscience provisions,” which do not specify the type of medical care covered but offer protection to those who refuse to take part in any medical services that are contrary to their beliefs.

Estelle explained that these five states "can be considered models," for states considering enacting religious freedom protections for health care workers.

“The most extensive protection a state can provide to health care practitioners is a general conscience provision,” she told CNA.

A general conscience provision would protect health care practitioners who refuse to take part in transgender treatments, for example. Estelle said next year’s survey could conceivably reflect the public’s changing opinions about such treatments.

“If concerns about specific health care procedures spur changing laws in existing areas, say encouraging more states than the current five to codify general health care conscience provisions, then we’ll see that too as we update our data each year,” she said. 

Other safeguards included in the index are laws concerning absentee voting (whether states have laws that recognize religious holidays as a legitimate reason to vote by absentee ballot), childhood immunization requirements, and the freedom to refuse to participate in same-sex weddings.

Several areas of laws not included in the index are at the center of current legal disputes over religious liberty. The study notes that issues relating to state-funded scholarships for religious schools, adoption and foster care, employment discrimination, and the treatment of prisoners were not taken into consideration in the rankings.

In some cases, those issues involved federal laws, so state comparisons were not possible. For their inaugural index, researchers decided to narrow their criteria to a set of state religious freedom laws, which they note in the introduction to the index provides a “sketch” of religious liberty protections in the United States.

“To get an accurate understanding of religious liberty in America, we must start our sketch with the base level before we might move on to examine other phenomena that strengthen, weaken, or leave untouched these foundational elements,” Jordan J. Ballor, director of research at the CRCD, wrote in the introduction to the survey.

Here’s a look at why Mississippi ranks No. 1 and New York ranks No. 50 in religious freedom protections among U.S. states according to the RLS:

The First Liberty Institute's Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy (CRCD), “Religious Liberty in the States 2022 (RLS)
The First Liberty Institute's Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy (CRCD), “Religious Liberty in the States 2022 (RLS)
The First Liberty Institute's Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy (CRCD), “Religious Liberty in the States 2022 (RLS)
The First Liberty Institute's Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy (CRCD), “Religious Liberty in the States 2022 (RLS)

To view the entire study and learn about its methodology visit the First Liberty Institute’s website.

President Biden fundraiser remarks muddle Catholic teaching on abortion

President Joe Biden speaks during the Global Fund Seventh Replenishment Conference in New York on Sept. 21, 2022. / Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Denver, Colo., Sep 22, 2022 / 20:22 pm (CNA).

President Joe Biden on Thursday appeared to suggest — erroneously — that the Catholic Church makes exceptions for rape and incest in its condemnation of abortion.

Biden made the remarks at a fundraising event for the Democratic National Committee at a private home in New York City’s Central Park South neighborhood while discussing a Republican-backed congressional bill to ban abortions after 15 weeks into pregnancy. The president incorrectly said the bill has no exceptions for rape and incest.

“You have Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and others talking about how they’re gonna you know, make sure that Roe is forever gone and Dobbs becomes a national law,” Bloomberg quoted the president saying.

“Talk about, what, no exceptions. Rape, incest, no exceptions,” Biden continued, according to Bloomberg. “Now, I’m gonna deal with my generic point. I happen to be a practicing Roman Catholic, my Church doesn’t even make that argument.”

Reporters with the Los Angeles Times and The Hill tweeted similar comments.

A White House spokesperson was not immediately available Thursday night to clarify what Biden meant. But any implication that the Catholic Church makes exceptions where abortion is concerned is incorrect.

“Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church states. “This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed as an ends or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law” (No. 2271). 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also has addressed the difficult situation of a pregnancy conceived in rape.

“(A)ny woman subjected to sexual assault needs our compassionate and understanding care, including psychological and spiritual as well as medical support,” Richard Doerflinger, the then associate director of the pro-life secretariat, said in a July 2013 commentary on the U.S. bishops’ website.

“(A)ny child conceived in rape is, like his or her mother, an innocent victim. That child, too, has a right to life, and destroying the child does not punish the rapist or end the woman’s trauma,” he added.

The Biden administration is presently making a strong push against the proposed federal abortion ban, introduced by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham on Sept. 13. The bill would bar abortions nationwide except in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is in danger. 

The bill is called the Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children from Late-Term Abortions Act. It drew qualified support from pro-life leaders who described it as the “bare minimum.”

Biden is only the second Catholic to be elected U.S. president. He has repeatedly supported abortion rights despite the Church’s teaching that human life must be respected and protected from the moment of conception.

Biden has given conflicting statements over the years about when he believes life begins. At the 2012 vice presidential debate against Republican nominee Paul Ryan, he said “life begins at conception, that's the Church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life,” though he said he refused to “impose” this view on others.

In September 2021, after Biden reaffirmed his support for the now-overturned pro-abortion rights Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, said he did not agree that human life begins at conception.

Shortly after those comments, Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington took issue with the president’s statement. “The Catholic Church teaches, and has taught, that life — human life — begins at conception,” he said. “So, the president is not demonstrating Catholic teaching.”

After the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year, Biden made a strong push to reassert legal protections for abortion at the federal level. On July 8, he issued a major executive order that aimed to protect access to abortion.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chair of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee, said at the time that it is “deeply disturbing and tragic” that Biden would use presidential power “to promote and facilitate abortion in our country, seeking every possible avenue to deny unborn children their most basic human and civil right, the right to life.”

The pope himself soon addressed Biden’s stand, in response to a journalist’s question about Biden’s position and whether Catholic politicians who back abortion should be admitted to Holy Communion.

“Is it just to eliminate a human life?” Pope Francis said in an interview with Univision and Televisa broadcast July 12.

The pope said he left the matter of Biden’s defense of abortion to the president’s “conscience.”

“Let him talk to his pastor about that incoherence,” he said.

Florida priest and parish administrator embezzled $1.5 million from parish, police say

Deborah True was investigated on suspicion of embezzling church funds at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Vero Beach, Florida. Police say the former pastor, Father Richard “Dick” Murphy, who died on March 22, 2020, was also involved in funneling money from the parish. / Indian River County Jail/ YouTube screenshot of Murphy

Boston, Mass., Sep 22, 2022 / 15:30 pm (CNA).

A priest along with the former parish administrator of a Catholic church in Florida funneled nearly $1.5 million in parishioners’ donations into a secret bank account for personal use, Vero Beach police said Tuesday.

The former pastor of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Vero Beach, Father Richard “Dick” Murphy, died on March 22, 2020, at the age of 80. The administrator, 69-year-old Deborah True, “turned herself in” to the Indian River County Jail in Vero Beach on Sept. 19, police said in a statement posted on the Vero Beach Police Department’s Facebook page

The Diocese of Palm Beach contacted the police department in December 2021, raising concerns about a fraudulent bank account and the misappropriation of church funds that took place over the course of five years.

After a nine-month investigation, police concluded that from 2015–2020, $1.5 million in parishioner donations was funneled into a bank account called “Holy Cross Catholic Church” that was opened by Murphy and True in 2012. The account was hidden from the Diocese of Palm Beach, police said. 

Between 2015 and 2020, True paid off her personal debts with over $500,000 of the funds, police said. True transferred an additional $147,000 from the fake account into her checking account, police added.

According to the police statement, the late priest “personally benefited from the funds in the account.” It is unclear whether the entire $1.5 million in the fake account was spent. Police did not respond to a phone call inquiry on Thursday afternoon.

Police said that a criminal investigation has not been opened against Murphy because of his death. True “turned herself in at the Indian River County Jail on one count of Organized Fraud over $50,000,” and was released the same day on bond for $25,000, according to the police statement. According to veronews.com, True is scheduled for arraignment on Nov. 3 at 8:45 a.m.

In a statement to CNA, the Diocese of Palm Beach said: “Criminal charges were recently filed by the state attorney’s office related to financial irregularities discovered last year by the Diocese of Palm Beach at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Vero Beach.”

“The Diocese of Palm Beach reported concerns to local law enforcement after discovering these irregularities and has fully cooperated throughout their investigation. The diocese understands that an arrest has been made of a former employee,” the statement said. 

“The Diocese of Palm Beach is committed to financial accountability in all of its parishes and entities and will continue to cooperate in this process,” the statement said. “This matter does not involve the current pastor at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Vero Beach.”

According to Murphy’s obituary, True was his “longtime” secretary and his caregiver. Murphy was the pastor at Holy Cross for almost 23 years, from 1997 to 2020, True told veronews.com at the time of Murphy’s death. 

True told the outlet that Murphy was a “fantastic leader” and that “he cared about the parishioners and they cared about him.”

“He believed we needed to reach out to people in the community whenever there was a need,” True said.

True added that “he really cared about Vero Beach” and said that “he was a private person who didn’t like accolades or awards. He did stuff from the heart.”

According to Murphy’s obituary, he was born in Wexford, Ireland, in 1939 and was ordained in Ireland. He then served as a priest in Miami and at various parishes in South Florida, including St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Pompano Beach, Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lake Worth, St. Brendan Catholic Church in Miami, and Sts. Peter and Paul in Miami. 

Murphy then served as the pastor of Ascension Catholic Church in Boca Raton, St. Joseph Catholic Church in Stuart, and finally Holy Cross in Vero Beach.

Murphy served as the bishops’ delegate in the building and real estate development department for the diocese and as president of the affordable housing for seniors at Catholic Charities, the obituary said.

“He always relished being a pastoral priest,” the obituary said.

Methodist-linked university’s Christian conduct code under fire from LGBT advocates

Hand wearing gay pride rainbow wristband making a power fist gesture in front of the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Via Shutterstock / null

Denver Newsroom, Sep 22, 2022 / 14:30 pm (CNA).

Do church-affiliated universities and Christian moral codes have a place in higher ed?

Critics of the Methodist-linked Seattle Pacific University, it seems, think the answer is no. They have filed a lawsuit against the university’s board of trustees after it reaffirmed that full-time employees may not be in same-sex relationships.

The controversy could have broad implications: Catholic and other Christian educational institutions have faced similar lawsuits over their religious identities and expectations for faculty and staff.

“Seattle Pacific is fighting to protect its freedom, as a religious university, to have religious standards in hiring,” said Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket legal group, which is representing the school in a separate, related legal dispute over the university’s conduct code with the state attorney general.

“The First Amendment protects the right of churches and other religious institutions to decide what they believe and who should lead them,” she told CNA. “If Seattle Pacific loses that right, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and other faith groups will lose it, too.”

Multiple undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, and faculty and staff of Seattle Pacific University filed a lawsuit against the university’s trustees on Sept. 11 in Washington state superior court.

Their complaint is pointed in its criticisms of the trustees and the university’s affiliation with the Free Methodist Church, whose members founded the school in 1891. It alleged that the reaffirmation of the conduct code is a breach of fiduciary duty.

The lawsuit accused the trustees of “placing their personal religious beliefs above their fiduciary duty” to the university and its people. It claimed that the board is “rogue” for various actions, including its consultations with the Free Methodist Church, and demanded the appointment of a new board.

“These men treat the university and its assets like a personal weapon and war chest to fight the sectarian battles of the Free Methodist Church USA,” said the lawsuit.

The Free Methodist Church USA, headquartered in Indianapolis, has about 68,000 members in under 850 churches in the U.S. However, the Protestant denomination has more than 1.2 million adherents globally, with its largest church membership in India and Burundi. The denomination has five other universities and a seminary in the U.S.

The lawsuit characterized the church as “a denomination with a small domestic constituency” that is “openly hostile to the LGBTQ+ community.” The lawsuit claimed the trustees have “pledged their primary allegiance” to the Methodist denomination. The lawsuit characterizes the link between the university and the denomination as “voluntary” and “informal.” 

The lawsuit objected that the university’s hiring policies “advance the interests of a religious denomination at the expense of the students, alumni, staff, and faculty of the university.”

Some trustees leave, but board stands firm

The university’s board of trustees reaffirmed the conduct code in May, in part due to concerns about preserving its affiliation with the Free Methodist Church USA. In reaction, some students and staff held protests and called for the board to be removed. About 80% of the faculty voted to back the employment of people in same-sex marriages.

The university’s bylaws require the president and at least one-third of all trustees to be members of the church, according to Becket. Each year, each trustee must reaffirm his or her commitment to the university’s mission and faith statement.

The six trustees named as defendants include Dr. Matthew Whitehead, currently the lead bishop of the Free Methodist Church who oversees the denomination in the Western U.S., Africa, and Asia. Another defendant is Mark Mason, who serves with Whitehead on the Free Methodist Church Board of Accountability. Seven of the board’s 14 trustees have resigned since last year, with some voicing objections to the conduct code.

“Seattle Pacific University is aware of the lawsuit and will respond in due course,” Tracy Norlen, director of public information at the university’s Office of Communications, told CNA Sept. 19.

The lawsuit against the trustees has a financial aspect. It contends that the board “derives power from its ability to control the highly valuable assets of both the university and its foundation.” The complaint claimed that the university is “financially and structurally imploding” and that these assets will go to the Free Methodist Church if the university dissolves. University assets, land, and buildings exceed $500 million in value, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleged that the board of trustees now lacks the minimum number of members required by its bylaws. It asked the court to remove the trustees and university officers and put the university into receivership so that new trustees can be elected.

The university faces a $10 million deficit and an enrollment decline since 2015 from 4,175 students to 3,400 last fall. Cedric Davis, a former chair of the board of trustees who resigned over his disagreement with the sexual conduct statement, told the Seattle Times some of the enrollment decline is due to broader trends in higher education. He disagreed with the lawsuit’s claim that the university is “imploding.” Rather, he suggested the school will become smaller and more conservative.

Paul Southwick, the attorney representing the student and faculty plaintiffs, is director of the Portland, Oregon-based Religious Exemption Accountability Project. The project is sponsored by Soulforce, an LGBT advocacy group that has for more than a decade rallied opposition against sexual conduct codes at religious colleges and universities, including Seattle Pacific University.

Soulforce also backs a federal lawsuit that seeks to end federal funding of “any university that discriminates and abuses LGBTQI people.” 

University pressured by attorney general

The office of Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson also is involved in the legal controversy.

After receiving complaints from students and faculty about the conduct code, Ferguson’s office sent a letter to the university in June saying the policies may violate state anti-discrimination law. The letter sought detailed information about how the university applies the policies. Additionally, it sought contact information for those affected by the policies and job descriptions of every position at the school.

Ferguson’s involvement prompted the Becket legal group’s federal lawsuit, filed July 27 in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, challenging the attorney general’s actions.

“If the university changed its employment policies to permit employment of Christians in same-sex marriages, the university would be automatically disaffiliated from the Free Methodist Church. The university would no longer be a denominational institution,” Becket’s lawsuit states.

The university can fulfill its mission, it adds, “only with a faculty of Christians who affirm the university’s Statement of Faith, who affirm the university’s mission, who live out their Christian faith, and who bring their faith into all aspects of their lives, including their teaching and scholarship.”

The U.S. Constitution protects the university’s right “to decide matters of faith and doctrine, to hire employees who share its religious beliefs, and to select and retain ministers free from government interference,” the Becket lawsuit states.

It accuses the attorney general’s probe of violating the constitution’s “clear prohibition on interference in matters of church governance, including entangling investigations of religious employment decisions and the selection of ministers.”

The probe “inquires into confidential religious matters and is beyond the scope of authority granted under state law and the federal constitution,” the lawsuit argues. It alleges that Ferguson is “wielding state power to interfere with the religious beliefs of a religious university, and a church, whose beliefs he disagrees with.”

Just days after Becket filed the lawsuit, Ferguson announced on July 29 that his office was investigating alleged discrimination charges against the university. He characterized the religious freedom lawsuit as a demonstration “that the university believes it is above the law to such an extraordinary degree that it is shielded from answering basic questions from my office regarding the university’s compliance with state law.”

“Seattle Pacific University’s attempt to obstruct our lawful investigation will not succeed,” Ferguson said. “My office protects the civil rights of Washingtonians who have historically faced harmful discrimination. That’s our job — we uphold Washington’s law prohibiting discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation.”

“My office respects the religious views of all Washingtonians and the constitutional rights afforded to religious institutions,” Ferguson said. “As a person of faith, I share that view. My office did not prejudge whether Seattle Pacific University’s employment policies or its actions are illegal.”

Ferguson’s biography on his office’s website notes his personal involvement in successfully suing a florist who declined to serve a same-sex wedding ceremony on religious grounds.

Other legal cases in the state could have an impact. Last year the Washington Supreme Court allowed a bisexual lawyer to proceed with a discrimination lawsuit against a Christian nonprofit that serves the homeless. The organization had declined to offer him a job because he was in a same-sex relationship and rejected its Christian code of conduct.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has a “ministerial exception” for many religious nonprofits’ employee policies, the state Supreme Court said a trial court must answer the “open question” of whether a staff attorney for the nonprofit qualifies as a minister.

Another Methodist body, the United Methodist Church, agreed to split over disagreement on LGBT issues, though plans for the separation have fallen through after delays from the COVID-19 pandemic.

US bishops’ pro-life chair asks Catholics to practice ‘unconditional love’ after Roe

null / Thanatip S/Shutterstock.

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 22, 2022 / 09:50 am (CNA).

In anticipation of Respect Life Month in October, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore is encouraging Catholics to practice “radical solidarity and unconditional love” for pregnant and parenting mothers.

In a new statement issued Wednesday, Lori, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Pro-Life Activities, called the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade an “answer to prayer” — and an opportunity to build a culture of life.

The decision that leaves abortion up to the states ended the court’s “nearly fifty-year nationwide regime of abortion on demand,” Lori stressed.

He called it a “victory for justice, the rule of law, and self-governance” as well as a “time for a renewal and rededication of our efforts to build a culture of life and civilization of love.”

“Justice is, of course, essential to this end. But it is not sufficient,” he commented. “To build a world in which all are welcome requires not only justice, but compassion, healing, and above all, unconditional love.”

In a post-Roe world, he called on the faithful to “shift the paradigm” to what St. John Paul II described as “radical solidarity” — or “making the good of others our own good, including especially mothers, babies (born and preborn), and families throughout the entire human lifespan.”

Lori added: “It is a call to friendship and compassion rooted in the truth that we are made to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

To practice radical solidarity and unconditional love, the bishop called on the faithful to take certain steps.

“First, by speaking the truth that abortion not only unjustly kills a preborn child, but also gravely wounds women, men, families, and the nation as a whole,” he wrote. “We must speak these truths with compassion, and we must live these truths with compassion.”

Next, he asked the faithful to have the “courage to love — to act and bear witness by caring for the least among us, without condition or expectation of recompense.”

Lori pointed to the work that Catholics are already doing on a personal level to help those in need.

“Many are engaged in parish and community initiatives such as pregnancy resource centers, post-abortion counseling and more recently Walking with Moms in Need,” he said, referring to the USCCB’s parish-based pro-life ministry.

On a larger level, he recognized the Catholic Church as the largest charitable provider of social services to women, children, and families in the United States.

“Catholics have already done much at both the institutional and personal level to help address the problems of poverty, healthcare, education, housing, employment, addiction, criminal justice, domestic violence, and the like that push women towards abortion,” he confimed. “Our Church understands that parents, children, and families need help not just during pregnancy, but throughout the whole of life’s journey because millions of Catholics already accompany their neighbors in such circumstances.”

That includes, he said, accompanying parents during adoption or offering mercy and healing to women and men suffering after abortion.

He concluded by calling for a “new politics” through radical solidarity.

“Those who disagree on the morality or justice of abortion should nonetheless come together to pursue common-ground solutions to provide care and support to mothers, children, and families in need,” he wrote. “Public officials can stake out new ground, to move beyond the political divisions of Left and Right and build a new coalition of people of good will that will focus on the best outcomes for those in need by whatever means — public or private — that prove to be most effective.”

He emphasized that “we belong to each other, and each of us was made for love and friendship.”

“Accordingly, we must live and act in radical solidarity with mothers, children, and families in need,” he urged. “That means doing whatever we can through law, policy, politics, and culture to provide them with the care and support necessary for their flourishing throughout the entire arc of life’s journey.”

“Through our collective and individual actions, we can build a culture of life and civilization of love in America,” he added. “Let us begin.”

In November, Lori told CNA that if the overturning of Roe translated into an increase of mothers giving birth, the Church must “step up to the plate and be there,” with its Catholic health care institutions, Catholic charities, and Catholic parishes.

For Catholics, he said, “The duty to cherish and foster human life is always going to be part of who we are.”

Tennessee governor urges investigation of Vanderbilt pediatric transgender clinic

null / Image credit: ADragan/Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 21, 2022 / 18:00 pm (CNA).

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has called for an investigation into the Vanderbilt University Medical Center after faculty comments on the lucrative nature of transgender surgeries were brought to light.

A podcast had also highlighted statements from the school’s faculty on the “consequences” faced by conscientious objectors.

The Republican governor said in a statement to The Daily Wire that “The ‘pediatric transgender clinic’ at Vanderbilt University Medical Center raises serious moral, ethical, and legal concerns.”

“We should not allow permanent, life-altering decisions that hurt children or policies that suppress religious liberties, all for the purpose of financial gain,” Lee added. “We have to protect Tennessee children, and this warrants a thorough investigation.”

Matt Walsh, an internet host for the The Daily Wire, shared the recordings of the faculty members’ comments in the Sept. 20 edition of his podcast “The Matt Walsh Show.”

The comments were made by two faculty members: Dr. Shayne Taylor, a university professor and a physician at the Vanderbilt Clinic for Transgender Health, and Dr. Ellen Clayton, law professor in the center for biomedical ethics and society department. They were recorded in 2018 and in 2019 at the Nashville school’s Medicine Grand Rounds lecture, a weekly faculty lecture series.

The Vanderbilt University Medical Center responded to the report with a statement on Wednesday saying the videos in Walsh’s report are misrepresentative of the center’s care for transgender patients.

Transgender surgeries: ‘huge moneymakers’

A video of Taylor’s 2018 lecture — which Walsh says is the same year that the transgender clinic opened — shows her speaking about cost estimates for transgender surgeries. 

“These surgeries make a lot of money,” Taylor said in the video. “So female-to-male chest reconstruction can bring in $40,000. A patient just on routine hormone treatment who I’m only seeing a few times a year can bring in several thousand dollars. ... It actually makes money for the hospital.”

Citing the Philadelphia Center for Transgender Surgery, which performs transgender surgeries, Taylor said that vaginoplasty surgeries — performed on males seeking to transition into women — are priced at $20,000. 

Taylor also added that the price tag doesn’t include hospital-stay costs, post-operation costs, anesthesia, or operating room costs.

“So I would think that this would have to be a gross underestimate,” she said. “I think that’s just like the surgeon’s piece of it, which anybody who’s ever been in a hospital knows that that’s like 10% of it.”

Speaking of female-to-male “bottom surgeries,” Taylor called them “huge moneymakers.” 

Phalloplasty surgeries cost up to $100,000, Taylor said on the recording.

Women who undergo phalloplasty must first have a hysterectomy, and the vagina may also be removed. On average, it takes a patient 12 to 18 months to heal from a phalloplasty. 

Citing Vanderbilt’s own transgender surgeon, Taylor said that there are clinics that are financially supported solely from phalloplasty surgeries.

“And that is like a fraction of the surgeries that they’re doing,” she said. “These surgeries are labor intensive, they require a lot of follow-ups, they require a lot of OR [operating room] time, and they make money. They make money for the hospital.”

Conscientious objection ‘not without consequences’

Speaking to staff at the medical center, Clayton, the law professor, said at a Medicine Grand Rounds Lecture on Nov. 22, 2019: “If you are going to assert conscientious objection [to transgender surgeries], you have to realize that that is problematic.”

She added that the university may have to “accommodate” the religious beliefs of a staff member who conscientiously objects, but said that “I just want you to take home that saying that you’re not going to do something because of your religious beliefs is not without consequences.”

“And it should not be without consequences,” she added. “And I just want to put that out there. If you don’t want to do this kind of work, don’t work at Vanderbilt.”

Medical center issues statement

In response to Walsh’s exposé, the hospital issued a statement saying that the comments were not reflective of its policies.

“Vanderbilt University Medical Center is now the subject of social media posts and a video that misrepresent facts about the care the Medical Center provides to transgender patients,” the statement said.

“VUMC began its Transgender Health Clinic because transgender individuals are a high-risk population for mental and physical health issues and have been consistently underserved by the U.S. health system,” the statement said. 

The statement said the medical center is “family-centered” when dealing with adolescents and abides by the law.

“VUMC requires parental consent to treat a minor patient who is to be seen for issues related to transgender care, and never refuses parental involvement in the care of transgender youth who are under age 18,” the statement said.

“Our policies allow employees to decline to participate in care they find morally objectionable, and do not permit discrimination against employees who choose to do so,” the statement said. “This includes employees whose personal or religious beliefs do not support gender-affirming care for transgender persons.”

Walsh tweeted on Wednesday that he had a meeting with Tennessee state representative William Lamberth and state senator Jack Johnson, both Republicans, to work on legislation that will “shut down Vanderbilt’s child gender transition program and ban the practice in the state.”

CNA reporter Edie Heipel contributed to this story.