Friday, June 29, 2012

Celebrate Independence by defending Religious Freedom

As an immigrant and now a naturalized citizen, I have always admired the pride Americans have for their nation and heritage, particularly as we approach our Independence Day. As the years go by I have adopted the pride and respect they feel for their flag and the freedoms we enjoy and are guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence.

As a journalist, I have learned the importance of freedom of speech and I have seen how it is boldly defended in this country, because it allows journalists to expose corruption schemes and more, without fearing for their lives. The same freedom is trampled in many countries such as Mexico and Honduras, where journalists are frequently murdered for exposing corruption.

Religious liberty is another fundamental value we all enjoy in this country. Many take this right for granted because we do not see the aggressive religious persecutions others experience in more than 133 countries like Iraq, where Christians are murdered because of their religious beliefs. Only about 27 percent of all the countries in the world fully respect religious freedom, according to studies quoted by Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces,NM, member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace.

In a more subtle way but just as concerning, we are also experiencing attacks to our religious freedom in this country. The most widespread example is the Department of Health and Human Services mandate forcing all employers, including religious organizations such as schools, hospitals and universities, to provide and pay for coverage of employees’ contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs even when they have moral objections to them. Another concern is the HHS's definition of which religious institutions are “religious enough” to merit protection of their religious liberty. This is not an issue about “women’s rights” as some have labeled it. Those who choose to use artificial means of contraception have had access to it and continue having it.

Religious freedom cannot be limited to the sanctuary. Religious freedom is not only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the rosary at home. It is about whether we can make our contribution to the common good of society. Our religious organizations must have the freedom to do the good works our faith calls them to do without having to compromise that very same faith.

As Catholics and citizens we must embrace the call to action issued by our bishops and recognize the importance of defending this essential right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, and to express the importance of protecting our religious freedom. For more information on how you can defend religious freedom, send a text message with the word “freedom” to 377377 or go to

Flawed Affordable Care Act Needs Fixing

Health care for all has been a goal for the U.S. bishops for almost a century. Yet despite the apparent Supreme Court victory June 28 for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the nation still does not have health care for all.

Most glaring is the lack of protection of the unborn, because the ACA allows use of federal funds for elective abortion. Rather than protecting children in utero, the health care law endangers them when it takes the unprecedented step of authorizing federal funds to subsidize health plans that cover such abortions. In addition, with the Health and Human Services mandate to coerce employers and employees to pay for female sterilization and contraceptives, including abortion-inducing drugs, children in utero are endangered more than they were before. When the ACA allows federal funding of abortion in various provisions, it contradicts longstanding federal policy in all other health care laws, such as Medicaid, Medicare and the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

The Affordable Care Act also excludes undocumented immigrants from the new health care exchanges, even if they simply want to purchase insurance with their own money. This is a cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face action, given that the ACA can’t work unless as many people as possible buy into the system. The stance also drives up health care costs for all of us because undocumented immigrants who cannot purchase insurance will be forced to seek medical care in the more expensive emergency room setting. For some, politics requires you fight against undocumented immigrants everywhere, despite the fact that about 11 million of them have become part of the fabric of America, holding jobs, paying taxes and making the economy work.

Some people will benefit from the Act. People with pre-existing medical conditions cannot be discriminated against, a merciful outcome. Young people can stay on their parents’ insurance until they are 26, certainly good now when post-college does not automatically mean a good job with insurance benefits. The exchanges will help working families who don’t have insurance through their employers. Uninsured poor people will be helped by the Medicaid expansion if their state pursues the expansion, which the Court’s ruling has now made optional.

But the bill is significantly flawed and the Administration and Congress need to face this when they stop popping champagne corks celebrating an apparent victory.

1.    ACA allows use of federal funds to pay for elective abortions and for plans that cover such abortions, contradicting longstanding federal policy. This law can be fixed by amending it to bring it into line with other health care legislation, for example by passing the Protect Life Act (HR 358) that the House has approved.

2.    ACA fails to include necessary language to provide essential conscience protection, both within and beyond the abortion context.  This has been illustrated in dramatic fashion by the HHS mandate to force religious and other employers to cover sterilization and contraception, including abortifacient drugs. Most of the conscience problems are problems of omission, because the act does not include protections of conscience that other federal programs have. This law can be fixed also by amending it to bring it into line with other health care legislation, by enacting the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (H.R. 1179) supported by a majority of the House and a near-majority of the Senate.

3.    ACA fails to treat undocumented immigrant workers and their families fairly, leaving them worse off by not allowing them to purchase health coverage in the new exchanges created under the law, even if they use their own money. Congress could easily change this.

Getting nearly universal health care is a first step. Now Americans need to get it right. This flawed Act needs fixing.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

From Fortnights to Faith: When Ideas Collide

It's difficult to walk into a parish, visit a diocesan website or even tune into the secular news media without seeing or hearing something about the Fortnight for Freedom, the bishops' two-week (June 21-July 4) campaign of prayer and education on the value of religious liberty.

Garnering less attention in the media right now is the upcoming opening of the Year of Faith, which the Vatican is kicking off globally on October 11 (the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church). The goal of the Year of Faith is to encourage Catholics, active and inactive, to experience a renewed sense of their faith through a personal encounter with Christ (a phenomenon commonly referred to as the New Evangelization).

On the surface, these two initiatives might not bear much resemblance to one another, but recent talks by leading figures in the U.S. Church at two major Catholic gatherings would suggest otherwise.

Addressing the U.S. bishops at their spring general meeting in Atlanta, June 13, John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, outlined some of the ideas associated with the Fortnight for Freedom and the general erosion of religious liberty experienced in the United States, such as the HHS mandate, Catholic Charities being driven out of adoption services under same-sex marriage laws, and Catholic social services in general being discriminated against for government contracts for their refusal to provide or endorse contraceptives and abortion.

But then Garvey took it a step further and asked why this is happening. As he sought an answer, Garvey briefly departed from his prepared remarks (around 21:40 in the video below), observing, "This is a really depressing message." Basically, he said, "we protect religious freedom because we think that religion is a good thing," and "Perhaps the reason we see a loss of religious freedom today is that we are turning a corner in our collective view of religion." He cited dwindling-to-nonexistent Mass attendance in Europe and the rise in popularity of combative atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins as part of the same trend and concluded, "Our society won't care about religious freedom if it doesn't care about God."

(Here's full video of President Garvey's address.)

A week later, June 20, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap., tackled the topic of religious liberty in an address to members of the Catholic Press of the United States and Canada, who were gathered in Indianapolis for their annual convention.

Just as Garvey's address raised themes associated with the Year of Faith and New Evangelization— decreased religious observance, greater secularism, etc.Archbishop Chaput also zeroed  in on Year of Faith themes as underlying causes of the current struggles surrounding religious liberty. He described how the actions (and inaction) of believers themselves create the need for a renewal of faith.

"I think it's fair, in part, to blame Church leaders for a spirit of complacency and inertia, clericalism, even arrogance, and for operating off a model of the Churchoften for well-intentioned reasonsrooted in the past and out of touch with reality," he said, adding, "Too many ordinary Catholics have been greedy to lose themselves in America's culture of consumerism and success. Too many have been complicit in the dullnessthe acediathat has seeped into Church life, and the cynicism and resentment that naturally follow it. These problems kill a Christian love of poverty and zeal. They choke off a real life of faith. They create the shadows that hide institutional and personal sins. And they encourage a paralysis that can burrow itself into every heart and every layer of the Church, right down to individual Catholics in the pews. The result is that Philadelphia, like so much of the Church in the rest of our country, is now really mission territory – again; for the second time." Enter the New Evangelization.

This dovetailing of ideas gives the current struggles over religious liberty broader context and deeper meaning. As Catholics speak out in the short term, they can reinforce their message and goals by rekindling their faith for the long term. Catholics who live out their faith with a sense of energy and authenticity provide a more powerful witness to the world, one that makes clear both the loving mercy of God and the saving work of his Church. This will benefit all Catholics, the cause of religious liberty and all of society.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Pallium Primer, 2012 Edition

It's that time of year again, when bishops appointed archbishops over the course of the preceding year gather in Rome to receive the pallium from Pope Benedict XVI. The Pallium Mass takes place on June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.

The pallium is a wool band worn by an archbishop at Mass, around his neck and over his vestments. This blog delved into a little more of the pallium's background in our write-up for last year's Pallium Mass.

Like last year, four U.S. archbishops will be participating in this year's Pallium Mass. Each one brings something unique to the event:

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila
Archbishop of Denver

Age 61
Ordained a priest June 5, 1976
Ordained a bishop August 24, 2001
Bishop of Fargo, North Dakota 2002-2012
Appointed Archbishop of Denver May 29, 2012

The fifth archbishop of Denver, Archbishop Aquila's appointment amounts to a homecoming as he was ordained a priest of Denver and served in that archdiocese until being appointed coadjutor bishop of Fargo in 2001. Denver was one of three U.S. archdioceses to go vacant (i.e. without an archbishop) in the past year, the other two being Baltimore and Indianapolis. Of the three, Indianapolis is the only one still awaiting the appointment of a new archbishop.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap.
Archbishop of Philadelphia

Age 67
Ordained a priest August 29, 1970
Ordained a bishop July 26, 1988
Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota 1988-1997
Archbishop of Denver 1997-2011
Installed as Archbishop of Philadelphia September 8, 2011

Predecessor to Archbishop Aquila in Denver, Archbishop Chaput's presence at the Pallium Mass brings to light one interesting aspect of the event, that a bishop who's been moved from one archdiocese to another receives the pallium again with his new assignment. This is the third consecutive year the U.S. Church has seen this phenomenon with Archbishop José Gomez (moved from San Antonio to Los Angeles) receiving the pallium in 2011 and then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan (moved from Milwaukee to New York) receiving it in 2010.

Archbishop William E. Lori
Archbishop of Baltimore

Age 61
Ordained a priest May 14, 1977
Ordained a bishop April 20, 1995
Auxiliary bishop of Washington 1995-2001
Bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut 2001-2012
Installed as Archbishop of Baltimore May 16, 2012

The presence of the Archbishop of Baltimore at the Pallium Mass is always significant for the United States, as Baltimore is regarded as our Premier See, that is the first diocese from which all other U.S. dioceses were eventually carved. The bishops still hold their annual fall meeting in Baltimore. The first Archbishop of Baltimore, John Carroll, had a brother sign the U.S. Constitution and a cousin who was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps fittingly, Archbishop Lori has been a major force behind the U.S. bishops' Fortnight for Freedom campaign, focusing on religious liberty.

Archbishop William C. Skurla
Archbishop of Pittsburgh (Ruthenian)

Age 56
Ordained a priest May 23, 1987
Ordained a bishop April 23, 2002
Bishop of Van Nuys (Ruthenian), California 2002-2007
Bishop of Passaic (Ruthenian), New Jersey 2008-2012
Installed as Archbishop of Pittsburgh (Ruthenian) April 18, 2012

Archbishop Skurla's presence on this list brings an interesting twist in that he isn't a Roman Catholic archbishop, but rather the Metropolitan Archbishop of the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh. This is one of several Eastern Rite Catholic Churches in the United States. Eastern Catholics belong to communities with ancient, distinctive worship and traditions that are very similar to Eastern Orthodox Christians, except that they are in communion with the pope. The Pallium Mass provides one strong visible sign of this communion.

Hat tip to David Cheney.

Monday, June 18, 2012

God in the Din Around Us

Amidst political rancor it is refreshing to read Mark Shriver’s A Good Man, about his father Sargent Shriver, founding head of the Peace Corps. Sarge was unapologetically Catholic without wearing religion on his sleeve. He rooted his life in prayer and attended Mass daily.

            His marriage to Eunice Kennedy made him part of the Kennedy clan, where at times philandering seemed to signify the good life. Yet no hint of scandal touched Sarge. And at his funeral after hearing more than one person speak of Sarge as “a good man,” the scandal plagued Bill Clinton looked down on the coffin and said, “Every other man in this church feels about two inches tall right now.”

            Sarge reflected a grace-filled life and maintained a contemplative vision. He saw God in a sunrise, in his wife, and in his children and grandchildren. In the glitz of Kennedy campaigns, he was the calming presence. In the devastation after the assassination of President Kennedy, he was the man behind the funeral that made a mourning country one nation under God.

            Mark spoke of his father’s funeral 18 months ago, where Sarge seemed to speak from death as friends and family eulogized him. From a media perspective, the church peaks in funeral liturgies, especially in its poignant prayer, “May the angels lead you into Paradise. May the martyrs greet you ….” Sarge’s funeral drove home the fact of that afterlife.

            Two moments stand out in the book for me. One was mention of the Choice Program, an effort Mark Shriver started with small government and foundation grants for youthful offenders moving into the work force. As he struggled to keep Choice afloat, he met a priest who offered help from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Mark worried about separation of Church and State. Sarge told him the separation was not to keep the Church from the poor. Mark later found a speech his father gave on the subject in 1966. He recalled the words:

       Just three or four years ago, it was practically impossible for a federal agency to give a direct grant to a religious group. People said there was that wall between church and state. But we said that wall was put there to keep government out of the pulpit, not to keep the clergy away from the poor! The wall protects belief and even disbelief. It does not exclude compassion, poverty, suffering, injustice. That is common territory – not exclusively yours or mine but everybody’s. With no wall between. And so we said, Reverend Mr. Jones, or Father Kelly, or Rabbi Hirsh, if you’re not afraid to be seen in our company, we’re not afraid to be seen in yours – because we are all about Our Father’s business.”

       The words made me long for someone to deliver that message today when some would trample religious rights by requiring all employers, including religious institutions, to pay for services that violate Church teachings, such as female sterilization and contraceptives, including abortion-inducing drugs.

       Sarge’s faith sustained him in times that would have emotionally paralyzed another. His 1972 loss on the McGovern-Shriver Presidential ticket, when 49 states opted instead for Richard Nixon, was devastating. Afterwards, Sarge put his arms on the shoulders of George McGovern and his crying wife Eleanor and said, "You know, George, we lost 49 states but we never lose our souls." It's a worthy message, not just for politicians, but for all.

            Mark's book is an easy read and captures happy and hard moments with his father who developed Alzheimer's, from which he died. Sarge Shriver saw faith not as a burden or set of rules but a way to live life fully. He practiced everyday Christianity, and it enriched his life and the lives of all those around him.