Signs of the Times

Florida Court Overturns Voucher Program

The Florida Supreme Court struck down the state’s school voucher program on Jan. 5 in a 5-to-2 ruling that disappointed Florida Catholic Conference officials. The ruling said the Opportunity Scholarship program violates the state’s constitution, which guarantees all Florida students a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system of free public schools. The voucher program, enacted by the Florida Legislature in 1999, has provided tuition vouchers to children in failing public schools, which allow them to transfer to the school of their choice, including private or parochial schools. It has been under legal challenge since it began. Although the justices declared the program unconstitutional, they allowed it to remain operational until the end of the 2005-6 school year. D. Michael McCarron, executive director of the Florida Catholic Conference, said that although the ruling was a setback for hundreds of families and their children, at least the scholarship students will be afforded the opportunity to remain in the schools of their parents’ choice this school year.

Most Hispanics Consider Themselves Pro-Life

A survey of Hispanics reported that 57 percent identify themselves as pro-life and support laws requiring parental notification before a daughter under 18 years of age can obtain an abortion. The survey said only 27 percent identified themselves as pro-choice and 36 percent opposed parental notification before a minor’s abortion. The survey by the Washington-based Latino Coalition, an independent organization specializing in issues affecting Hispanics, was released in Washington on Jan. 5. It reported the responses of 1,000 adult Hispanics surveyed on Dec. 10-13 on public policy issues and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent. Seventy percent of the respondents identified themselves as Catholics.


Pope Meets With Prior of Taizé Community

Pope Benedict XVI met on Jan. 5 at the Vatican with Brother Alois Leser, prior of the ecumenical monastic community of Taizé, France. In a press release, the Taizé community said the meeting was a continuation of the tradition of the prior meeting each year with the pope, although it was the first time the prior was not the community’s founder, Brother Roger Schütz. The 90-year-old Brother Roger was stabbed to death in August by a deranged woman. Brother Alois, a German Catholic, told Vatican Radio the meeting with the pope was a very important moment because Brother Roger came every year for an audience with the pope, and it is important for me to continue this. While the Taizé community includes members of various Christian traditions, he said, it always has had a special bond with the pope in his role as the minister of unity for Christians.

High School Seniors Favor Curbs on Abortion

A national survey of high school seniors reported that many of them have a strong moral opposition to abortion and favor restrictions on a woman’s right to choose an abortion. An analysis of the survey said that when they answered general questions about abortion, seniors appeared supportive of abortion rights, but responses to more detailed questions on circumstances in which it should be allowed showed most seniors regard abortion as morally wrong and that they would significantly limit when a woman could have an abortion. The survey also showed that almost 75 percent of the respondents supported legal recognition for gay couples, with 54 percent of the respondents supporting gay marriage and 20 percent favoring gay civil unions. The survey of 1,000 public and private school seniors was conducted by Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and the polling firm of Zogby International. It was made public at a news conference in Washington on Jan. 5.

Rigali Asks Senate to Reject Immigration Bill

Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia has asked the Senate to reject a House-passed immigration bill that stresses law enforcement to prevent illegal immigration. A more comprehensive and humane approach to immigration reform is needed, he said in a statement on Jan. 9. The Senate should support legislation that reforms all aspects of our nation’s immigration system, not simply law enforcement. The statement was issued to coincide with National Migration Week, celebrated on Jan. 8-14 this year by the U.S. Catholic Church. The cardinal urged the Senate to consider legislation that would allow the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States to legalize their status. This would be an earned legalization program that would require immigrants to work for up to six years before applying for legal permanent residence, he said. Earned legalization is not amnesty.

New Jersey Passes Death Penalty Moratorium

Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark praised the New Jersey Legislature for passing a death penalty moratorium bill, calling it a giant step toward finding another way to punish criminals and protect its citizens. The state of New Jersey took a giant step in affirming what the bishops have long stated: that a developed and civil society should examine alternative processes for protecting its citizens and punishing effectively those who have committed grave wrongs, he said. The archbishop, who is also president of the state’s Catholic conference, issued his statement after the bill passed the state Assembly on Jan. 9 by a vote of 55 to 21. The bill had passed the state Senate by a vote of 30 to 6 in December. New Jersey’s acting governor, Richard Codey, signed the bill before he left office on Jan. 17. The bill suspends executions while a task force studies how the death penalty has been applied in the state. New Jersey would become the third state to enact such a moratorium.

Diocese, Insurers Agree to $85-million Fund

The Diocese of Covington, Ky., and its insurers have agreed to establish a fund that could reach $85 million to settle claims of sexual abuse of children. The agreement paves the way for a court-approved settlement of 382 claims made against the diocese by Nov. 10 last year. The agreement between the diocese and its insurers, Catholic Mutual Group and American Insurance Co., was announced on Jan. 9 in Boone County Circuit Court before Special Judge John Potter. Potter was conducting a fairness hearing on the settlement plan offered jointly by the diocese and lawyers for the claimants. Under the plan, the diocese would contribute $40 million to the settlement fund, Catholic Mutual Group would provide $40 million and American Insurance Co. would add $5 million. The plan calls for the money to be distributed to claimants, with the amount to be determined by the gravity of each person’s claim, with compensation ranging from $5,000 to $450,000 per individual.

Canadian Bishops Want End of Refugee Agreement With U.S.

Canadian Catholic bishops called for the repeal of the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States and the end of racial profiling of Arab and Muslim communities. The recommendations were contained in a pastoral letter, We Are Aliens and Transients Before the Lord Our God, published by the bishops’ social affairs commission. Refugees must not be scapegoats because of heightened security concerns following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said Archbishop Roger Ebacher of Gatineau, Quebec, at a news conference held on Jan. 10 on Parliament Hill. He said most terrorists would probably not go to the trouble of trying to enter the country as refugees. He urged Canadians not to become prejudiced toward refugees and migrants, who face poverty, separation from families and persecution in their home countries. It is a fundamental inversion of values when laws and politics place national interests before human dignity, said Archbishop Ebacher, who chairs the social affairs commission.

Catholic Historians Honor Two Priest-Authors

The American Catholic Historical Association honored two priest-authors on Jan. 7 during its annual meeting in Philadelphia. Father Stephen Schloesser, a Jesuit, received the association’s John Gilmary Shea Prize for his book, Jazz Age Catholicism: Mystic Modernism in Postwar Paris, 1919-1939, published by the University of Toronto Press in 2005. Father Augustine Thompson, a Dominican, received the Howard R. Marraro Prize for Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes, 1125-1325, published by the Pennsylvania State University Press, also in 2005. Each award carries a $750 prize. Father Schloesser holds the chair in Catholic social thought in the Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Studies and Social Thought at the University of San Francisco and is an associate professor of history at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Father Thompson is an associate professor of religious studies and history at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, N.C.

U.S.C.C.B. Official Calls Trafficking Bill Lacking

A bill signed by President George W. Bush on Jan. 10 to combat human trafficking was a step in the right direction, but not enough to help children, according to a representative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In general, I think the revisions are solid and necessary, and the allocation of money is good, said Sister Mary Ellen Dougherty of the bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services. Sister Dougherty, a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and manager for outreach, education and technical assistance in M.R.S.’s human trafficking program, said the final version of the bill didn’t go far enough for us as far as children are concerned. She said the legislation, called the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, fails to empower Department of Health and Human Services officials to make decisions about the eligibility of children to receive refugee benefits without having to wait an unreasonable amount of time. She also wanted to see more steps taken to make sure that immediate guardians are appointed to children who have been trafficking victims. [See article by Sister Dougherty in this issue.]

Religious Employers Must Pay for Contraceptives

A New York appeals court on Jan. 12 upheld a state law requiring religious employers to cover contraceptives in prescription insurance plans. A spokesman for the church-owned organizations that sued to block the law said they would appeal. In a lawsuit filed by Catholic Charities of Albany and other church-based medical and social service agencies, the appellate division of the state Supreme Court ruled 3 to 2 that the 2002 law is constitutional. The church groups had argued that the requirement to provide contraceptives for employees violates the tenets of their faith. This case is not about the right to contraception, said a statement from the New York State Catholic Conference. We have never challenged employees’ right to use contraception. We have simply maintained that our religious beliefs prevent us from paying for something we teach is sinful.

Bishops to Talk With Catholic College Heads

At a meeting in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 10, the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Education approved a set of questions to guide local dialogues nationwide between diocesan bishops and the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities in their diocese. The dialogues are to be conducted by May 3, the date on which The Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae for the United States took effect five years ago. Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Latin for from the heart of the church, is Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, which set norms to assure the Catholic mission and identity of Catholic colleges and universities worldwide and called on national bishops’ conferences to establish implementing norms applying the general norms within the context of their own countries. Bishop Robert J. McManus of Worcester, Mass., chairman of the education committee, said in an interview after the meeting that the guiding questions were themselves the result of a dialogue process between bishops and Catholic college and university presidents.

Jewish Group Helps Rebuild Church

A Catholic parish in New Orleans, St. Clement of Rome, received $125,000 from the American Jewish Committee to rebuild its sanctuary after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Meanwhile, the Louisiana Chaplains’ Association has established a fund to help rebuild the seminary in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, presented checks to the parish and also to three other institutions - Dillard University; Congregation Gates of Prayer, a Reform synagogue; and Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox synagogue - in late December. The organization gave a total of $575,000 in contributions from its Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund. In a letter published by The New York Times on Jan. 1, Harris wrote: The hurricane was another reminder that whatever our religious or other differences, we are one human family with a common destiny.

Palestinians Concerned With Unemployment

Palestinian Christians are concerned with high unemployment and its effects on the younger generation, said Bishop William S. Skylstad, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Of some 400 families in Holy Family Parish in Ramallah, West Bank, 125 are facing a daily struggle because of unemployment, Bishop Skylstad said after visiting the parish on Jan. 15. It is difficult for young people even to think of marriage, he said in an interview with Catholic News Service on Jan. 16. There is a real concern about immigration of young people from the country. Bishop Skylstad, of Spokane, Wash., was in Jerusalem participating in the Episcopal Conference Coordination in Support of the Church of the Holy Land in meetings with the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land on Jan. 14-19. He said he hoped he and Msgr. William P. Fay, U.S.C.C.B. general secretary, who accompanied him on the visit to Ramallah, were able to convey a sense of solidarity with the people and let them know they are with them in prayer, support and advocacy and that signs of hope can be seen as we look to the future.

Court Upholds Physician-Assisted Suicide Law

In a 6-to-3 ruling, the Supreme Court on Jan. 17 upheld Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law, rejecting the U.S. attorney general’s attempt to use federal drug control laws to stop doctors from prescribing lethal doses of medicine to people who are terminally ill. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that although the federal government may apply drug laws to states, the authority claimed by the attorney general is both beyond his expertise and incongruous with the statutory purposes and design. If the attorney general’s argument were to stand, the government could apply the same logic to other types of medical judgments, Kennedy wrote. He could decide whether any particular drug may be used for any particular purpose, or indeed whether a physician who administers any controversial treatment could be deregistered, or effectively barred from practicing medicine. The attorney general would have such power even though the law limits his authority to the registration and control of drugs and despite the statutory purposes to combat drug abuse and prevent illicit drug trafficking, Kennedy wrote.

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