Signs of the Times

Church Groups Resist Contraceptive Mandate

Claiming that New York’s highest state court erred on several counts in upholding a state mandate that would require religious organizations to provide contraceptive prescription coverage for their employees, eight Catholic and two Protestant groups have asked the New York Court of Appeals to rehear the case. The court’s Oct. 19 decision also failed to consider that the practical impact of the legislation could be the opposite of the law’s intended effect, by providing an incentive for religious employers to cancel prescription coverage altogether, the groups said in a motion filed Nov. 20. Mandating contraceptive coverage by church entities like plaintiffs if and only if those entities choose to provide their employees with prescription drug coverage at all actually undermines the objective of the law, while exempting such entities would without question advance that objective, the motion said.

Religious Freedom Law Influences Diplomacy

Though it has plenty of weaknesses and flaws, the system put in place by the International Religious Freedom Law of 1998 to monitor and protect religious freedom internationally has begun to change how the United States and other countries approach religious rights, said panelists at a Washington forum co-sponsored by the American Academy of Religion, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Library of Congress’ Kluge Center. Among the problems in trying to protect religious rights abroad, according to speakers at the Nov. 20 forum, are too little emphasis on advocacy, as opposed to sanctions, in the current diplomacy system and a risk of other countries misunderstanding the goals of the U.S. policy. The law that created the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also set up a formal approach for evaluating how various countries treat religious rights and established an office within the State Department to oversee how diplomats deal with the issue. The State Department now prepares an annual report on the state of religious freedom in each country, while the commission issues its own reports focusing on select countries about which its members are particularly concerned.


Polish Bishops to Probe Communist Infiltration

The Polish bishops’ conference has launched a historical commission to investigate infiltration of the church by Communist agents during the cold war era. Auxiliary Bishop Piotr Libera of Katowice told the Polish information agency, KAI, that work on the several dozen kilometers of files on the church must have a clear methodological program. Bishop Libera, general secretary of the Polish bishops’ conference, said the bishops would approve competent experts to help the commission, which will be chaired by a former constitutional court judge, Wojciech Laczkowski. The bishop said the commission will rely on Poland’s National Remembrance Institute, which controls access to former police files. Bishop Libera added that he hoped to cooperate closely with separate commissions already working in several Catholic dioceses.

12 Percent of Americans Now Go Hungry

Just before the feasting season that begins with Thanksgiving and ends with New Year’s Day, reports are issued documenting the prevalence of hunger in the United States and around the world. Hunger is an easy, six-letter word. But this year in its annual report on Americans’ access to food, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to use the term very low food security, which brought scoffs from some and rebukes from others. The Rev. David Beckmann, head of the Christian citizens’ anti-hunger lobby Bread for the World, told Catholic News Service he got no flak for his comments about it in The Washington Post Nov. 16. He was quoted as saying that the proposal to remove the word hunger’ from our official reports is a huge disservice to the millions of Americans who struggle daily to feed themselves and their families. The U.S.D.A. study, released Nov. 15, showed that in 2005, 35 million peopleabout 12 percent of all Americanscould not put food on the table at least part of the year, and that 11 million reported going hungry on occasion.

Vouchers Barred in Maine Religious Schools

A ruling upholding a school voucher program’s exclusion of religious schools was allowed to stand Nov. 27 by the U.S. Supreme Court. By declining to review Maine’s voucher law, the court let stand a bar on vouchers being used at religious schools. Prior to 1980, students in small Maine towns with no high schools could use tuition vouchers to attend the secondary school of their choice, including religious schools. In 1980 the state attorney general said the policy violated the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause separating church and state, and in 1983 the state legislature codified the decision, eliminating religious schools from the program. Currently about 17,000 Maine students in 145 small towns use vouchers to attend public and private high schools in the state and out of state. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court in April ruled the restrictions are constitutionally valid because they stem from the Legislature’s desire to comply with the Constitution, not from religious hostility.

Pope’s Visit to Turkey 'An Unforgettable Experience’

Pope Benedict XVI called his visit to Turkey an unforgettable experience and said he hoped it would lead to improved relations between Christians and Muslims. The pope made the remarks at his noontime blessing in Rome Dec. 3 at the start of the Advent season, addressing pilgrims two days after returning from a pilgrimage of dialogue in Turkey. The pope thanked the organizers of the four-day trip, including Turkish authorities, for ensuring that the visit was "peaceful and fruitful." He expressed his gratitude to the "friendly Turkish people" for giving him "a welcome worthy of their traditional spirit of hospitality." He said the visit was "an unforgettable spiritual and pastoral experience, which I hope will help produce an increasingly sincere cooperation among all the disciples of Christ and a beneficial dialogue with Muslim believers."

Los Angeles Abuse Cases Settled for $60 Million

The $60 million settlement of 45 cases in which members of the Catholic clergy had been accused of sexual abuse is fair and just, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles said Dec. 1. In a statement, the cardinal also termed the settlement a positive step forward in the church’s efforts to promote healing and reconciliation for those who have suffered abuse by members of the clergy. He also made a personal apology to all victims of abuse by a priest, religious or deacon in the archdiocese. The sexual abuse of minors is both a sin and a crime, and there is no place in the priesthood for those who have abused children, he added. The archdiocese said its share of the settlement was about $40 million, with the remainder covered by insurance companies or religious orders. The amount of the settlement was anticipated and set aside last year, it added. I want to assure you...that no parishes will be affected as a result of this settlement, Cardinal Mahony said.

Priestly Celibacy Not Currently Up for Discussion

The new head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, O.F.M., of Brazil, clarified his recent comments about priestly celibacy, saying the question was not currently up for discussion by church authorities. In a Brazilian newspaper interview Dec. 2, Cardinal Hummes had said priestly celibacy was a disciplinary norm, not a church dogma, and was therefore open to possible change. Although Cardinal Hummes was not arguing in favor of modifying the celibacy rule, his comments stirred considerable interest in Rome.

Shortly after arriving at the Vatican from Brazil on Dec. 4, the cardinal issued a statement emphasizing that priestly celibacy was a long and valuable tradition in the Latin-rite church and was based on strong theological and pastoral arguments. Cardinal Hummes, a Franciscan who has headed the Archdiocese of Sao Paolo, was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI in October as prefect of the clergy congregation, a move widely seen as bringing a moderate Latin American voice to the Roman Curia.

Muslim-Catholic Dialogue Growing in United States

Muslim-Catholic dialogue is a living and growing reality in the United States. "The important thing is to keep the dialogue going, because there are so many parts of the world where it isn’t going," said John Borelli, special assistant to the president and director for interreligious initiatives at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Sayyid M. Syeed, national director of the Islamic Society of North America’s new Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances, called the advancement of the U.S. dialogues something of a historical imperative because if they go in the right direction, they could give a gift of the 21st century to the rest of mankind.

The Rev. Francis Tiso, associate director for interreligious relations at the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said dialogue is a tremendous opportunity to refine your thinking about the other side. Borelli, who held Father Tiso’s post from 1987 to 2003, played a major role in the 1990’s in getting three official regional dialogues started between Catholic and Muslim leaders and scholars. He also serves as director of interreligious affairs for the U.S. Jesuit Conference.

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