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Why Christians hope Pope Francis’ visit will bring a ‘reset’ for Iraq

Washington D.C., Mar 5, 2021 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq is hoped to bring a “reset” for the country, said one U.S. religious freedom advocate who has visited the region multiple times in recent years.

“Iraq cannot continue the way that it is, and see good outcomes. So there has to be some adjustments,” said Nadine Maenza, a commissioner at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), in an interview with CNA on Friday.

“I’m hoping that the light being shown on Iraq, and on Christians in particular, by the pope coming—it’s such a beautiful moment of just saying these people have value, they belong in Iraq, we all need to figure out how we can build a better Iraq together—I just hope it does have a restart for the country,” she said.

Maenza has traveled to the region multiple times in the last two years, including a visit to Sinjar, home to the Yazidi religious minority, as well as Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, where many Christians fled from ISIS in 2014.

She spoke to CNA at the outset of Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq, the first-ever visit of a pope to the country. From March 5-8, Pope Francis will meet with the country’s political and religious leaders, hoping to encourage the local church and foster interreligious dialogue.

On Friday, Pope Francis met with the country’s political and diplomatic leaders, as well as around 100 local Catholic leaders including Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph Younan and Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphaël Sako.

The pope addressed the Catholics at the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, where 48 people were martyred during a 2010 terrorist attack.

Christians in Iraq have been devastated by the U.S. invasion in 2003, the resulting sectarian violence, and the rise of ISIS in 2014. Their population has been steadily dwindling for decades, from around 1.5 million in 2003 to around 250,000 Christians in the country.

However, when ISIS swept across the region in 2014, many Christians fled into neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, taking refuge in and around the city of Erbil.

Maenza told CNA that Iraqi Christians are currently suffering from two chief problems: a lack of security and a lack of economic opportunity. She hoped Pope Francis’ visit would draw attention to these matters and help produce a solution.

Christians and Yazidis want to be involved in the decision-making about the future of the country, but they have not been given a seat at that table, she said.

“These people feel powerless,” Maenza said, noting their frustration that they don’t have a say in economic or security policy.

Iraq has resources, including the fifth largest oil reserves in the world, but the country is not able to even provide consistent electricity or water to its citizens, much less a sufficient number of jobs, she said.

After ISIS was defeated, many Christians in the country’s north have been unwilling or unable to return to their liberated towns on the Nineveh Plain or in Mosul. They still have serious security concerns, Maenza explained.

A number of militia units of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), as well as the country’s security forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and Christian militias, are all active in the region, she said, yet many of their members do not hail from the local towns they occupy.

Maenza compared the situation to the “Wild West,” where any citizen traveling through the security checkpoints is subjected to a shakedown. Thus, many Christians who fled ISIS but who remain in Iraq have not yet returned to their homes because they don’t feel safe with the presence of the militias and security forces.

Christians need to be reminded that they are a part of Iraq’s future—which will hopefully be a fruit of Pope Francis’ trip, she said. “Diversity is a good thing,” Maenza said of the Sunni and Shia Muslims and the number of ethno-religious minorities that make up Iraq’s population.

Pope Francis on Friday used the metaphor of a complex carpet to describe the different Christian churches in the country.

“The different Churches present in Iraq, each with its age-old historical, liturgical and spiritual patrimony, are like so many individual coloured threads that, woven together, make up a single beautiful carpet, one that displays not only our fraternity but points also to its source,” the pope said.

“For God himself is the artist who imagined this carpet, patiently wove it and carefully mends it, desiring us ever to remain closely knit as his sons and daughters.”

Pope Francis will also meet with leading Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, during his trip.

The meeting is significant, Maenza explained, and hoped that the pope could successfully push for Shiite militias on the Nineveh plain to stand off so that local Christians can safely return to their homes and live peacefully.

“That kind of conversation is a good thing,” she said.

Maine diocese, state, increase church attendance in time for Holy Week

Washington D.C., Mar 5, 2021 / 10:30 am (CNA).- Two weeks after the Bishop of Portland in Maine called state restrictions on religious gatherings “unacceptable,” Maine’s governor is allowing churches to host at 50% capacity beginning March 26. 

Gov. Janet Mills (D) announced on Friday that Maine churches will soon be able to host indoor religious gatherings at 50% capacity, a significant change from the state’s Feb. 12 restrictions of five people per 1,000 feet of church space or 50 people total.

About two hours before the state issued the order, Bishop Robert Deeley of Portland had announced the diocese would be increasing attendance limits at indoor Masses and liturgies to 50% church capacity. 

“The diocese is pleased that Governor Mills agrees with the diocese’s plan as Maine’s Catholic churches, which have successfully held over 25,000 Masses since June, will now be in line with neighboring states in our ability to provide greater opportunity to parishioners in Maine,” Dave Guthro, the head of communications for the Diocese of Portland, told CNA on Friday.  

Guthro told CNA that the diocese had been in communication with the governor since the Feb. 12 announcement, hoping Mills would “reconsider” her order “as it did little to help Maine Catholics.”

“We asked the governor to consider the mental and spiritual needs of Mainers, who will now be able to have the additional opportunities to grow in faith and community at Holy Week and beyond,” Guthro said.

The state’s expanded capacity limits can go into effect on the Friday before Holy Week - a liturgical significance that Bishop Deeley emphasized in his statement on Friday. 

“The events commemorated in Holy Week are the focus of our reflection and penance during Lent. The climax of the mission of Jesus is unfolded. The love of God he reveals to us becomes very real for us in his suffering, death, and resurrection,” Bishop Deeley said of Holy Week. 

“I know that expanding our capacity for in-person worship at the start of Holy Week will bring great joy to many parishioners who have been unable to attend Mass as they wish due to attendance restrictions. Now, they can participate in the most solemn week of the year as we, together, remember the events which are at the heart of our Christian faith,” he stated.

Precautions will remain in place at churches during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the bishop said, including the dispensation from the Sunday obligation and requirements of masks and social distancing for attendees. 

The announcement of the capacity increase comes one day after nearby Connecticut lifted all capacity restrictions on retail establishments and houses of worship, requiring only social distancing and masking. 

Churches in Maine have been under some of the strictest regulations in the country since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Until Friday’s announcement, capacity at houses of worship had been mostly limited to just 50 people since their reopening in June, 2020. 

There have been no outbreaks of coronavirus traced to a Mass in the state of Maine, the diocese said. 

Maine’s only Catholic diocese has been critical of Gov. Mills over capacity restrictions in recent weeks. 

On Feb. 12, Mills announced an “expansion” of capacity for houses of worship that allowed for five people per 1,000 square feet. According to the diocese, the “expansion” only increased capacity at fewer than 10 of the state’s 141 Catholic churches. 

Deeley called for a percentage capacity restriction similar to that of other states. He said that the governor’s office had refused to work with the diocese in crafting restrictions for houses of worship.

“This ruling, though sold as an ‘expansion,’ provides no real advance for the vast majority of the state,” said Deeley in a Feb. 17 statement provided to CNA. 

Two of Maine’s largest churches--the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland and the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston--could hold 975 people and more than 1,500 people inside, respectively. However, under the state’s restrictions, they would only be able to hold at most 63 people and 105 people inside, respectively. 

The previous hard cap of 50 people inside churches had been particularly hard on families, Guthro explained to CNA in February, as a family of five would account for 10% of the legal capacity at one Mass. Many parishes in Maine required people to sign up for Masses ahead of time, and names were checked at the door prior to entry. 

Archbishop Gomez to Congress, Biden: Don’t force pro-life Americans to oppose COVID relief

Washington D.C., Mar 5, 2021 / 09:00 am (CNA).- As the Senate considers a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package on Friday, the head of the U.S. bishops’ conference warned that the bill will fund abortions.

“We urge President Biden and the leadership on Capitol Hill not to force upon Americans the wrenching moral decision whether to preserve the lives and health of the born or unborn, all of whom are our vulnerable neighbors in need,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference (USCCB), in a statement on Friday.

He implored Congress not to force pro-life Americans to oppose the COVID relief bill.

“We ask that our leaders please not pit people against one another in such a way,” he said, asking for the pro-life protections to be added in to the legislation.

The American Rescue Plan of 2021, which passed the House last week, does not include traditional abortion funding restrictions. Pro-life groups, including the U.S. bishops’ conference (USCCB), have warned that it would result in a significant increase in funding of abortions, abortion coverage, and abortion providers.

The president of March for Life Action, Tom McClusky, said the relief bill “has the potential to be the largest expansion of abortion funding since Obamacare.”

In 2010, the USCCB opposed the Affordable Care Act in large part due to expectations that it would allow for subsidies of abortion coverage. A 2014 report by the Government Accountability Office found that abortion coverage was being subsidized in health care plans under the law.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), co-chair of the House Pro-Life Caucus, said on EWTN’s The World Over on Thursday that the funding to state and local governments in the bill has “absolutely no strings” attached and could go to abortion providers. In addition, federally-qualified health centers would receive billions of dollars; once subject to pro-life funding restrictions, Smith said the federally-funded centers could now do abortions under the COVID relief bill.

On Friday, Gomez noted that Congress for 45 years “has maintained that taxpayers should not be forced against their conscience to pay for abortions.”

The Hyde Amendment, enacted in law each year since 1976 as a rider to budget bills, prohibits federal funding of elective abortions. Once receiving bipartisan support, the policy is now opposed by leading Democrats—including by previous long-time supporter President Biden.

“Abandoning this compromise in a time of national emergency only serves to divide people in the very moment we should be united,” Archbishop Gomez said.

The archbishop emphasized that the rest of the bill is “important” in its goal of providing “much needed assistance for American families and businesses hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.”

In a Feb. 26 letter, the conference highlighted “many positive provisions” in the legislation that included increases to food stamp benefits, emergency rental and homelessness assistance, and unemployment benefits.

However, the USCCB warned, “billions of dollars for health care services” are not subject to abortion funding restrictions, “and could therefore allow funding of abortions.”

On Friday, Gomez said that pro-life members of Congress and many Americans will be forced to oppose the bill for its lack of pro-life funding protections.

The conference has also asked for increased access to aid for Catholic schools, and for the charitable tax deduction to be available to all taxpayers whether or not they itemize their deductions.

Despite denials, HHS nominee Xavier Becerra sued to take away nuns' religious freedom rights

Denver Newsroom, Mar 5, 2021 / 03:01 am (CNA).- Xavier Becerra, US president Joe Biden’s nominee for HHS secretary, did indeed sue to take away the religious exemptions for the Little Sisters of the Poor, and it is only “technically true” for the California attorney general to claim that he sued the Trump administration, not the Catholic sisters who joined the case in order to defend against threats to their rights, says an attorney involved in their case.
 
“This very afternoon I have to go to a hearing against Mr. Becerra in his lawsuit against the Little Sisters of the Poor,” Mark Rienzi, president of the Becket legal group, told CNA March 2. “I think Mr. Becerra is suing nuns. He is at the very least litigating against the Little Sisters as we speak.”
 
Rienzi’s legal group has supported the Little Sisters of the Poor in their opposition to the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services mandate which requires employers to provide coverage of sterilization and contraception, including drugs that can cause abortions. The Little Sisters have secured multiple court victories, and the Trump administration crafted religious and moral exemptions for groups affected by the mandate.
 
Rienzi described the situation by invoking the way parties to a case are named, on different sides of the “v.” abbreviation for “versus.”
 
“For the last three-plus years, (Becerra) has been on one side of the ‘v.’ and the Little Sisters have been on the other side of the ‘v’ and he’s been trying to take away their religious liberty rights,” said Rienzi.
 
In 2017, Becerra, in his role as the attorney general of California, sued the Trump administration over these exemptions. Becerra’s lawsuit, as well as a lawsuit by Pennsylvania against the administration, resulted in the nuns’ appeal to the Supreme Court. The court in 2019 allowed them to intervene in the case to defend their rights, and ultimately ruled in their favor in July by upholding the Trump administration’s religious and moral exemptions.
 
Becerra on Feb. 24 appeared at the U.S. Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. There, he rejected claims that he was suing nuns.
 
“I have never sued any nuns. I have taken on the federal government, but I have never sued any affiliation of nuns,” said Becerra. Rather, his actions were directed at federal agencies that “have been trying to do things that are contrary to the law in California.”
 
The Washington Post in a Feb. 26 fact check analysis, “Biden’s pick for HHS sued the Trump administration, not a group of nuns,” tended to side with Beccera’s interpretation, but also acknowledged the Little Sisters’ interest in the case.
 
“California is suing the federal government, challenging a Trump administration policy that exempts some employers from providing contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The Little Sisters of the Poor voluntarily joined that case, taking the Trump administration’s position that the exemptions were legally valid,” Salvador Rizzo’s Washington Post column said.
 
However, Rienzi emphasized the importance of the case for the Little Sisters because of “the threat of what the original federal mandate was going to do.”
 
“If they wouldn’t violate their religion, it would impose $75 million in fines on the sisters,” he said. “When the federal government finally got it right and said ‘okay we’ll exempt you, sisters, you don’t have to do this,’ that’s when Becerra and the states sued to try to get that mandate back.”
 
The Little Sisters had to act, he said: “It’s the looming threat against everything you do that your govt is either going to tell you, violate your religion or shut your doors.”
 
“It’s certainly true that the sisters have won at every stage. They keep winning because this is a ridiculously bad claim that Becerra and others are pushing,” he said. “But they’ve had to fight to get to that point to preserve their ministry of caring for the elderly and caring for the people in need. That’s the burden. That’s the threat. That’s the harm.”
 
Becerra’s case aimed to secure a ruling that exemptions are not required.
 
“In other words, the whole theory of the California case is that there shouldn’t be injunctions like that because federal law doesn’t allow for religious liberty exemptions like that,” said Rienzi.
 
“Technically I suppose the Little Sisters or anybody else could have just sat on the sidelines and watched Becerra and California have a lawsuit designed to take away their rights. But as it was their rights at issue, the federal judge said it was correct that they belonged in the lawsuit. They showed up to protect their rights in the lawsuit,” he said.
 
In another case involving Becerra and nuns, a group of Catholic nuns was affected by the state’s universal abortion coverage mandate. They did not fight the mandate in court, but did file a complaint with the civil rights office at the Department of Health and Human Services. The Missionary Guadalupanas of the Holy Spirit alleged that their religious freedom was being violated by having to provide abortion coverage in health plans.
 
The HHS office in January 2020 ultimately found that Becerra violated federal conscience laws, and gave him 30 days to comply with the law. Becerra refused, and in December the agency announced it would withhold $200 million in Medicaid funds to California.

Besides religious freedom, Becerra’s confirmation hearings focused on abortion. He did not directly answer whether he would support taxpayer-funded abortion and did not explain his previous opposition to a 2003 ban on partial-birth abortions. He indicated he wanted to expand access to chemical abortions, citing patients’ use of telehealth technology to consult doctors remotely during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Senate Finance Committee voted in a party line 14-14 vote March 3 to advance Becerra’s nomination to the Senate floor.

Investigation: Cardinal Wuerl received $2 million in 2020 for ‘ministry activities’

Washington D.C., Mar 4, 2021 / 05:32 pm (CNA).- Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop emeritus of Washington DC who stepped down in 2018 amid scandal, received over $2 million from the archdiocese last year for unspecified “ministry activities,” an investigation has found. 



A March 3 examination of the archdiocese’s financial records by The Pillar found that Wuerl was allocated $2,012,639 for “continuing ministry activities” during fiscal year 2020.



The amount appropriated to Wuerl is up from approximately $1.5 million in 2019. The archdiocesan financial statement does not detail what “continuing ministry activities” the funds facilitated. 



In contrast, the amount the archdiocese allocated for “Formation of priests” declined slightly from $1.1 million in 2019 to just over $1 million in 2020. 



Similarly, “Archdiocesan charitable giving” in 2020 was listed at just over $401,000, down from just over $651,000 in fiscal year 2019. 



The Pillar confirmed that Wuerl gave at least one retreat to a group of U.S. bishops in January 2021. The archdiocese did not respond to The Pillar’s questions about what other ministry responsibilities, if any, the archdiocese had given Wuerl.  



Revelations during summer 2018 about the sexual misconduct of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick raised questions about whether Wuerl, McCarrick’s successor, was aware of McCarrick’s misdeeds. 



McCarrick was found to have sexually abused both minors and adult seminarians and priests, and Pope Francis laicized him in Feb. 2019. 



For his part, Wuerl has insisted he knew nothing about McCarrick’s sexual misconduct until 2018.



But previous reporting by CNA, as well as the recent McCarrick Report, found that Wuerl was made aware in 2004 of inappropriate conduct, apparently not of a sexual nature, on the part of McCarrick involving an adult. 



Though Wuerl forwarded a report of the alleged misconduct to the apostolic nuncio in Washington, D.C., no record has been found that the nuncio, who by that time had fallen seriously ill, ever forwarded it to the Vatican.



The McCarrick Report also details a 2010 incident whereby Wuerl advised against then-Pope Benedict sending a birthday greeting to McCarrick because there remained “the possibility that the New York Times is going to publish a nasty article, already prepared, about the Cardinal’s ‘moral life.’”



Wuerl, 80, was appointed to lead the Washington archdiocese in May 2006. Pope Benedict XVI named him a cardinal in 2010. He was previously Bishop of Pittsburgh since 1988.



Wuerl had submitted his resignation to the Vatican in 2015 upon turning 75, as is the requirement for bishops. 



Pope Francis accepted Wuerl’s resignation in Oct. 2018 at Wuerl’s request, but asked him to remain as Apostolic Administrator until the appointment of his successor. In May 2019, Archbishop— now Cardinal— Wilton Gregory was installed in Washington. 



The archdiocese of Washington released a statement March 4 following The Pillar’s report, saying the funds in the “continuing ministry activities” account are donations “made by persons who want to cover Cardinal Wuerl’s expenses and ministerial needs.”



These include “living expenses, prior travel for business in Rome, as well as for charitable requests asked of the archbishop emeritus,” the statement said, adding that the “donations have accumulated over time.”



However, The Pillar noted that the funds allocated for Wuerl are classified as “net assets without donor restrictions,” meaning they are not subject to “donor imposed restrictions stipulating how, when and/or if the net assets are available for expenditure.”



The designation appears at odds with the archdiocese’s statement that the funds were donated with the specific intention of covering Wuerl’s expenses. 



The Pillar contacted the archdiocese to ask specifically about the funds’ designation—  which is regulated both by state law and the IRS— and did not receive a reply by press time. 



“All the expenses of Cardinal Gregory and Cardinal Wuerl are reviewed by members of the Archdiocesan Finance Council throughout the year. All expenditures go through the Archdiocese’s normal budget and internal control procedures, which are also audited by an accounting firm annually,” the archdiocesan statement concluded. 



The U.S. bishops’ conference has guidelines for providing for retired bishops, recommending that their diocese give them a stipend of at least $2,250 per month, as well as housing, health insurance, a car, travel expenses, secretarial assistance if needed, and a suitable funeral and burial.



McCarrick, Wuerl’s predecessor, is known to have funnelled hundreds of thousands of dollars through what was known as the Archbishop’s Fund, and reportedly made gifts to senior Vatican officials, even while the fund remained under the charitable auspices of the archdiocese.


The Archdiocese of Washington has so far declined to disclose sources, sums, and uses of money, though it has acknowledged that the fund exists.

Bishops across US issue split messages on Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine

Denver Newsroom, Mar 4, 2021 / 04:24 pm (CNA).- Bishops across the United States have weighed in with varied guidance for their flocks amid renewed debate over the morality of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, which received emergency FDA authorization last weekend. 



While the bishops’ conference at large has said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is morally acceptable if Catholics have no other choice, some individual bishops have said Catholics ought to accept the first vaccine they are offered. 



And in contrast, at least one bishop has instructed his flock not to accept the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at all. 



In a March 2 statement, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) echoed the Vatican in stating that it is “morally acceptable” to receive COVID-19 vaccines produced using cell lines from aborted fetuses when no alternative is available, but if possible, Catholics ought to choose a vaccine with a more remote connection to abortion.



“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has judged that ‘when ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available…it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process,’” the bishops wrote.



The statement was signed by Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, who head the USCCB committees on doctrine and pro-life activities, respectively.



Bishop Rhoades has since clarified that the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine “can be used in good moral conscience.”



“What’s most important is that people get vaccinated,” Bishop Rhoades said in a March 4 video message. 


“It can be an act of charity that serves the common good. At the same time, as we bishops have already done, it’s really important for us to encourage development of vaccines that do not use abortion-derived cell lines. This is very important for the future.”



In the United States, vaccines are federally allocated, and the amounts of each of the three COVID-19 vaccines available varies from state to state. Experts have said it is unlikely that patients will be able to choose which vaccine they will be able to get. 



Joseph Zalot, a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told CNA that while Catholics are free to choose to wait for a more ethical vaccine— or even to not receive a vaccine at all— they must take into account the potential effects not only on their own health, but on the health of others.



For example, a healthy person accepting a COVID-19 vaccine— even Johnson & Johnson’s— is less likely to spread the virus to others, such as elderly relatives, he noted, which could constitute a proportionate reason to accept the less ethical vaccine. 



NPR reported that at least one Catholic hospital, Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland, had already received several hundred doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week— before the USCCB’s statement— with plans to administer them as soon as possible. 



Zalot commented that he hopes most Catholic hospitals will have tried, as much as possible, to order the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines rather than the Johnson & Johnson. 



“However, if the J&J vaccine has already arrived, the question then becomes, ‘Which is the greater evil – issuing these vaccines knowing their ‘heightened’ connection with abortion-derived cell lines or letting them go to waste when people could greatly benefit from them?’” Zalot said. 



“As much as I personally would seek to avoid accepting the J&J vaccine, I also don’t think it would be prudent to let them go to waste.”



The Pontifical Academy for Life has said that Catholics should advocate for ethically-produced vaccines which do not use cell lines of aborted babies. Zalot noted that Catholics who do choose to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine ought to inform the manufacturers of their opposition to the use of abortion-derived cell lines.



Several bishops have echoed the USCCB’s March 2 statement with statements of their own. 



The bishops of Pittsburgh, St. Augustine, and St. Louis are among those bishops who have affirmed the USCCB statement to their own flocks. 



“I have received both doses of a vaccine and have encouraged our priests to get theirs as soon as their age or risk group is able to do so. You should not delay getting your vaccine. Moderna or Pfizer vaccines are preferable. When there is no choice, you may receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” archbishop Gregory Hartmayer of Atlanta said March 3. 



The Archdiocese of New Orleans, while not prohibiting Catholics from receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine if no other ethical alternative is available, advised Catholics to seek out the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines if possible.



Bishop Michael Duca of Baton Rouge also weighed in on the matter this week in a March 1 letter to the faithful.



“[M]y guidance to the faithful of the Diocese of Baton Rouge is to accept as your first choices the vaccines created by Pfizer and Moderna, but if for any reasonable circumstance you are only able to receive the vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, you should feel free to do so for your safety and for the common good,” Bishop Duca wrote.


Some bishops, such as Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, have released statements encouraging people not to delay in accepting any vaccination available to them.



“[O]n the concrete moral and pastoral question of receiving the Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson or Astra-Zeneca vaccines...in the current pandemic moment, with limited vaccine options available to achieve healing for our nation and our world, it is entirely morally legitimate to receive any of these four vaccines, and to recognize, as Pope Francis has noted, that in receiving them we are truly showing love for our neighbor and our God,” McElroy wrote March 3. 



McElroy’s statement did not reference any obligation to avoid certain versions if given a choice.



Bishop Robert Deeley of Portland, Maine, while echoing the USCCB and Vatican statements, similarly encouraged people to accept the vaccinations they are given. 



"When it is your turn to receive a vaccine, you can receive the one that is offered to you without moral reservation,” Deeley wrote in part March 4. 



The diocese of Syracuse, led by Bishop Douglas Lucia, said in a statement to local news that all individuals may not have the ability to pick and choose a vaccine, so “therefore what is most important is the duty to protect one’s own health and that of their neighbor by being vaccinated.”



Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri said March 4: “In the current situation of a pandemic, Catholics may in good conscience utilize any of the vaccines currently available, even those derived in an unethical manner, to protect themselves, as well as to avoid the serious risk to vulnerable persons and to society resulting from remaining unvaccinated. If a person concludes he or she cannot be vaccinated, whether for health reasons or if their own moral analysis is different from the Church, they are morally obliged to do everything they can to prevent transmission of the coronavirus and avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated.”



At least one U.S. bishop has specifically advised his flock against receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 



Bishop David Kagan of Bismark, North Dakota released a statement March 2 which took a harder line than the USCCB at large, effectively prohibiting Catholics in the diocese from accepting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 



“This Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine is morally compromised and therefore unacceptable for any Catholic physician or health care worker to dispense and for any Catholic to receive due to its direct connection to the intrinsically evil act of abortion,” he wrote. 



“No one should use or receive this vaccine but there is no justification for any Catholic to do so.  Two morally acceptable vaccines are available and may be used. As always, no one is bound to receive this vaccine, but it remains an individual and informed decision.”



One other prelate, Bishop Joseph Strickland, has publicly expressed his personal opposition to receiving any of the approved COVID-19 vaccines, while not prohibiting his flock from doing so. 



“I will not accept a vaccine whose existence depends on the abortion of a child, but I realize others may discern a need for immunization in these extraordinarily hard times,” Strickland said on Twitter late last year. 



Strickland has not issued a statement or letter to his flock directly addressing the issue since an April 2020 letter in which he encouraged Catholics to pray and demonstrate for ethical COVID-19 vaccines. 



Strickland has since called the situation with COVID-19 vaccines a “lost opportunity” to voice opposition to medical treatments with connections to abortion. 



“It’s not up to me to tell people whether or not to take the vaccine, but to be informed, and to make their own informed conscience decision. That’s really what the Catholic church teaches,” Strickland told local news station KETK March 3. 



The Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine makes use of PER.C6— a proprietary cell line developed from retinal cells from a fetus aborted in 1985— in design and development, production, and lab testing.



In contrast, mRNA vaccines available from Pfizer and Moderna have an extremely remote connection to abortion in the design and testing phases, leading ethicists to judge those vaccines “ethically uncontroversial.” Similar testing is performed on many contemporary prescription and over-the-counter medications.



A spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson issued a statement March 3 saying there is “no fetal tissue” in their vaccine. 


'Open the doors again': One advocate urges nursing home visitation to resume

Washington D.C., Mar 4, 2021 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- The U.S. must consider increasing nursing home visitation during the pandemic, one advocate for elder care told CNA.

“It’s necessary to open the doors again, and end the isolation of the elderly,” said Jim Towey, founder and CEO of the group Aging with Dignity, which advocates for care of the elderly. Towey was formerly legal counsel to Mother Teresa, director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, and president of St. Vincent’s College and of Ave Maria University.

Nursing homes and long-term care facilities have seen high death rates from the coronavirus pandemic, and thus have had strict visitation policies. Towey said that as a result, many elderly persons have been cut off from human contact and from the physical presence of their loved ones for nearly a year—with devastating consequences.

“I think what’s going to emerge in the next six months is the awareness that COVID was as much a mental health crisis as an infectious disease crisis,” Towey told CNA in a Feb. 17 interview. “And this is going to be true at every level of society, from school kids that are failing to thrive to seniors who have been traumatized by their isolation.”

While many might see mass vaccination as heralding a return to normal life in the coming months, he said, hospitals and long-term care facilities have not yet changed their “lockdown practices” despite COVID vaccinations beginning in December.

Kaiser Health News has reported that weekly new deaths among nursing home residents had sharply declined by 66% since COVID-19 vaccinations began in December. Yet many facilities, Kaiser reported on Thursday, are still not open to visitation, or have strict visitation policies.

Federal guidance acknowledges the difficulties faced by residents without visitors, and lists precautions that facilities could take to accommodate visitors safely. After Towey spoke with CNA on Feb. 17, multiple states announced a relaxation of their nursing home visitation policies.  

Yet public health regulations have prized physical safety over mental health without full regard to the consequences, Towey said. 

“I feel like the public health concerns failed to weigh the destructive effect these lockdown practices of nursing homes and hospitals have had on human beings and their emotional needs,” Towey said of the isolation felt by many nursing home residents during the pandemic.

Furthermore, he added, reports of widespread isolation “will have a chilling effect on individuals and their decisions to go into assisted living or a nursing home. They don’t want to be imprisoned. They don’t want to be cut off from the human race.”

Towey has argued that other local, state, and federal public health policies have reflected society’s disdain for the elderly. He told CNA back in May that nursing homes had been “ground zero” for the worst suffering from the pandemic, due to reports of neglect and state orders that nursing homes accept COVID-positive patients discharged from hospitals.

Then, he had warned of a “utilitarian” mindset that the lives of the elderly mattered less.

Now, Towey said, society cannot ignore the mental anguish of residents who have no one to visit them. “The isolation has been punishing. The loneliness that’s resulted has been cancerous,” he said.

Making matters worse, he argued, is that the U.S. has no plan or national initiative to deal with the problem.

“You can’t lock down the elderly forever and isolate them forever, and I don’t think our country has thought through humane approaches that give the elderly not simply protection, but also company and love and accompaniment,” Towey said.

He juxtaposed the care for the elderly in the U.S. with the situation in Italy. While the country saw high death rates among the elderly during the pandemic, there has also been a campaign by young people to send supportive calls and video messages to elderly residents in isolation. The Catholic “Youth for Peace” movement has organized the campaign, also collecting supplies for elderly residents.

Towey called for a national initiative in the U.S. to rethink elder care during the pandemic—including “how we can change practices immediately” to remedy the “starvation that the elderly are experiencing in the way of human contact.”

“I think the United States is lagging behind,” he said, noting that the isolation faced by elderly residents—along with anecdotes of them being denied access to ventilators at intensive care units— reflects a societal utilitarian view of human beings, that you’re valuable if you’re useful. And many feel that our elderly aren’t useful.”

At the outset of the pandemic, ethicists warned against state and local triage plans that would discriminate against the elderly and the disabled. Care should be rationed on an ethical basis and must not be denied those who are deemed to have a lesser “quality of life” on a utilitarian basis, ethicists told CNA.

The Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) warned that it would be watching for any age or disability-based discrimination during the pandemic. The office successfully prodded Alabama to update its controversial triage plan and exclude problematic provisions.

Some public officials, such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), have been criticized for state policies that allowed COVID-positive patients to be discharged from hospitals into nursing homes.

Although New York reversed that policy last spring, Cuomo’s administration is under federal investigation for its handling of nursing homes during the pandemic. An aide admitted that the administration tried to hide the nursing home death count from the federal government.

The general isolation or neglect of the elderly, Towey said, is all part of the “throwaway culture” condemned by Pope Francis

“I think Pope Francis has properly focused on the disproportionate impact that COVID has had on the elderly, far beyond the fatality count,” he said.

“It’s damaging to the social fabric that ties us all together,” he said.

The Catholic Church celebrates Easter Monday under the title 'Monday of the Angel'

ACI Prensa Staff, Mar 4, 2021 / 02:53 pm (CNA).- On Easter Monday, the Catholic Church celebrates what’s called “Monday of the Angel.” In many countries in Europe and South America, this day, also known as “Little Easter,” is a national holiday.



In a Vatican Radio recording in 1994, Pope John Paul II gave an explanation for Monday of the Angel:



“Why is it called that?” the pope asked, highlighting the need for an angel to call out from the depths of the grave: “He is Risen.”



These words “were very difficult to proclaim, to express, for a person,” said John Paul II. “Also, the women that were at the tomb encountered it empty but couldn’t tell ‘he had risen;’ they only affirmed that the tomb was empty. The angel said more: “He is not here, He has risen.”



The Gospel of Saint Matthew puts it this way: “Then the angel said to the women in reply, ‘Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ Behold, I have told you.” (Matthew 28:5-7)



Angels are servants and messengers of God. As purely spiritual beings, they have intellects and wills. They are personal and immortal. They surpass all visible beings in their perfection.



Christ himself gives testimony to the angels when he said, “The angels in Heaven always see the face of my father who is in Heaven!” (Matthew 18:10).



Christ is the center of the universe and angels belong to him. Even more so, because he made them messengers of his plan of salvation: an angel announced his conception to the Blessed Mother at the Annunciation and an angel proclaimed his Resurrection to Mary Magdalene.


From Easter Monday until the end of Easter at Pentecost, the Church prays the Regina Caeli instead of the Angelus at the noon hour.



On Monday of the Angel in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI said the text of the Regina Caeli “is like a new ‘Annunciation’ to Mary, this time not made by an angel but by us Christians who invite the Mother to rejoice because her Son, whom she carried in her womb, is risen as he promised.”


He continued, “Indeed, ‘rejoice’ was the first word that the heavenly messenger addressed to the Virgin in Nazareth. And this is what it meant: Rejoice, Mary, because the Son of God is about to become man within you. Now, after the drama of the Passion, a new invitation to rejoice rings out: ‘Gaude et laetare, Virgo Maria, alleluia, quia surrexit Dominus vere, alleluia’ — Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary, alleluia. Rejoice because the Lord is truly risen, alleluia!”



Regina Caeli (English)

V. Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia.

R. For He whom you did merit to bear, alleluia.

V. Has risen, as he said, alleluia.

R. Pray for us to God, alleluia.

V. Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary, alleluia.

R. For the Lord has truly risen, alleluia.

V. Let us pray. O God, who gave joy to the world through the resurrection of Thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, grant we beseech Thee, that through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, His Mother, we may obtain the joys of everlasting life. Through the same Christ our Lord.

R. Amen.

 

Regina Caeli (Latin)

V. Regina caeli, laetare, alleluia.

R. Quia quem meruisti portare, alleluia.

V. Resurrexit, sicut dixit, alleluia.

R. Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia.

V. Gaude et laetare, Virgo Maria, alleluia.

R. Quia surrexit Dominus vere, alleluia.

V. Oremus. Deus, qui per resurrectionem Filii tui, Domini nostri Iesu Christi, mundum laetificare dignatus es: praesta, quaesumus; ut per eius Genetricem Virginem Mariam, perpetuae capiamus gaudia vitae. Per eundem Christum Dominum nostrum.

R. Amen. 




This article was originally published by our sister agency, ACI Prensa. It has been translated and adapted by Jeanette De Melo at the National Catholic Register.

Relics of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to be displayed this summer at her shrine

Washington D.C., Mar 4, 2021 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- The Sisters of Charity of New York have donated several of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s relics to the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, it was announced on March 1. 

The relics, which include the saint’s religious bonnet, rosary, and crucifix, will be displayed in an expanded museum at the shrine, which is located in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Seton was the first American-born person to be canonized. 

The donation “was a surprise,” Rob Judge, the executive director of the Seton Shrine, said to CNA.

“We knew that they had these wonderful artifacts and they've loaned us artifacts at different times,” he said of the Sisters of Charity, “but it was really their generosity--they're recognizing that this is a momentous year for the shrine.” Seton died in 1821, and Jan. 4 marked the bicentennial of her death.

The bicentennial “has been an opportunity to share her story on a deeper level, with more people in the Church and in the world,” said Judge. 

The Sisters of Charity of New York, who Judge called “great partners” with the shrine, donated the relics with the intent of helping to share the saint’s story. While they originally displayed the artifacts at their archives and museum in Riverdale, New York, the sisters determined they “needed a climate-controlled environment” and could be seen and venerated by more visitors at the national shrine in Emmitsburg, the shrine said in its release. 

“They just decided to [donate the relics] out of their own generosity and desire to share Mother Seton,” Judge told CNA. “And we're just humbled and grateful.”

The relics include Seton’s bonnet, rosary, her family broach she wore on her wedding day, and the christening gown worn by her daughter. 

Judge called these items “just really precious artifacts that help make her relatable and help us tell her story.” 

Seton, who was canonized in 1975, was born in New York City in 1774. She was raised Episcopalian and was received into the Catholic Church in 1805, two years after the death of her husband, William. She and William had five children together including Catherine, the first American to join the Sisters of Charity. 

Following her conversion to Catholicism, Seton eventually moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland and founded a Catholic school for girls and a religious community to care for the poor. 

Judge thinks that Seton’s life story resonates with Catholics today, noting the saint had “such a broad life experience” that included times of joy and times of extreme sorrow. 

“She had such a strong belief in God's providential care, that he had a plan that she would see us through, and that led her through her life,” said Judge. Seton’s husband and two of her children died of tuberculosis, something that Judge thinks is particularly relevant during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

“She knew what it was like to live through a pandemic,” he said.

Seton is “an incredible model as a young woman, as a wife, as a religious, and as someone who was just a believer and a seeker,” said Judge. 

Her relics will be on display at the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton this summer. The shrine remains open to visitors with COVID-19 prevention protocols.

Doctors, hospitals, fight 'transgender mandate' in federal court

Washington D.C., Mar 4, 2021 / 09:32 am (CNA).- Doctors can’t be forced to perform gender-transition surgeries against their conscientious beliefs, argued attorneys for doctors and hospitals on Wednesday before the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Fifth Circuit judges heard oral arguments on Wednesday in Franciscan Alliance v. Cochran, the case of the federal “transgender mandate.” The mandate dates back to 2016, when the Obama administration interpreted a provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to require procedures—such as gender-transitioning and abortions—to be available upon request.

The 2016 mandate did not include conscience exemptions, thus forcing almost all doctors and hospitals around the country to provide gender-transitioning procedures upon the referral of a mental health professional—regardless of their moral or professional opposition to doing so.

“Religious liberty law protects doctors from having to violate their conscience in order to perform these highly-controversial procedures that they believe harm the patients they are performed on,” said Joe Davis, legal counsel at Becket, in an interview with CNA on Wednesday.

Sec. 1557 of the ACA prohibits discrimination in health care on a number of cases including race, sex, and disability. The Obama administration interpreted “sex” discrimination to include termination of pregnancy and gender identity—thus forbidding denial of abortions and gender-transitioning.

The mandate is attached to federal Medicare and Medicaid funds—which almost every doctor receives, Davis explained. The mandate also could be enforced by private lawsuits against doctors who won’t provide the requested procedures, he said.

After the 2016 mandate, more than 19,000 healthcare professionals, nine states, and several religious organizations filed two lawsuits. Two federal courts in December, 2016, placed an injunction on the mandate.

Two more federal district court judges ruled against the mandate in 2019 and 2020. The doctors and hospitals before the Fifth Circuit on Wednesday were seeking permanent relief from the mandate, Davis said.

The Trump administration issued a new rule protecting doctors who opposed the transgender mandate last summer, but a federal court put an injunction on that action.

President Biden, meanwhile, stated his administration will interpret federal anti-discrimination laws to also cover gender identity discrimination—thus taking the Obama administration’s stance and signaling that they could re-impose the full transgender mandate.

On Wednesday, judges asked attorneys for HHS if they could ensure doctors wouldn’t be forced against their beliefs to provide the procedures.

“HHS couldn’t answer the question, they couldn’t give that assurance,” Davis said. “That’s exactly what they are seeking to do, and that’s why we need protection from the courts.”

The Fifth Circuit, he added, “seemed dissatisfied” with HHS’ answer and “generally seemed to understand the principle that religious liberty is so important, that a violation of religious freedom should result in lasting protection in those cases.”

There is not a consensus within the medical community on gender-transition surgeries, Davis noted.

The mandate "is also a shocking move given the science, in which many doctors disagree for entirely medical reasons about the efficacy of performing these procedures, especially on children, who often desist from gender dysphoria on their own without medical interventions,” Davis said.