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Quebecois bishops: prohibition on religious garb will 'fuel fear and intolerance'

Quebec City, Canada, Jun 18, 2019 / 05:01 pm (CNA).- The Canadian province of Quebec passed a law Sunday prohibiting future government employees “in positions of authority” from expressing their beliefs through religious symbols during office hours.

The law passed June 16, previously known as Bill 21, does not mention any religion in particular, and would include, for example, hijabs for Muslim women and crosses for Christians. It covers covers judges, police officers, teachers, and other public figures, the BBC reports.

“We believe that Bill 21, as it stands now, will fuel fear and intolerance, rather than contributing to social peace. We therefore call on members of the government and all Quebecers to promote important amendments to this project, in order to seek more to welcome than to exclude, to understand that to reject,” Quebec’s Catholic bishops wrote in a statement issued in French June 14.

Existing employees are exempt from the new legislation. Some critics of the law claimed it particularly targets Muslim women, but Jewish organizations have also spoken out against it.

Quebec has previously sought to assert the secularity of the state and ban religious symbols. The province issued a ban in 2017 on religious full-face coverings, but it is was suspended by a judge last June.

The bishops of Quebec expressed concern about the law, especially as it relates to teachers.

“The measures affecting teachers reveal a lack of knowledge about religious life in society, as well as its cultural connotation. This lack of knowledge seems to us fueled by prejudices and fear. Rather than defuse them, these measures exacerbate them.”

“On a daily basis, [religious] people build a better society through their benevolent acceptance of others, their active solidarity with excluded and poor people, their hope for the future and their concern for peace,” the bishops noted.

The bishops pointed out that the clothing and symbols of certain religious traditions are often misunderstood as being a “tool of propaganda,” and that the new law will only encourage “unjustified mistrust.” They also expressed worry that representatives of a secular state will now be the ones to determine what is and isn’t a “religious sign.”

“Certain traditions incite or force the faithful to put on particular clothes or symbols, generally as a sign of humility. This phenomenon seems to be misunderstood, especially when we automatically consider any religious sign worn by a person as a tool of propaganda whose function is to convert those who see it,” the bishops wrote.

“Mistrust inspired by certain dress practices related to a particular religious identity may be exacerbated by the discretion of some other religious groups to use explicit signs. For example, Christianity, which remains the declared religious affiliation of the vast majority of the population in Quebec, does not require its faithful to wear specific clothing or symbols.”

The Archdiocese of Montreal had issued a statement in April saying that the crucifix represents the Christian roots of the country and does not need to be removed in a religiously pluralistic society.

“As a sign revered by Christians, the crucifix remains a living symbol. It symbolizes openness and respect toward all peoples, including toward other faith communities and religious traditions, which rightfully adhere to their own signs and symbols,” said Archbishop Christian Lépine.

Europe, too, has also seen debate over religious symbols in recent years. In 2017, the Court of Justice of the European Union upheld a ban on religious symbols in the work place. The court ruled that it is not directly discriminatory for a workplace to ban “any political, philosophical or religious sign” if the ban is based on internal company rules requiring neutral dress.

A ban on teachers wearing religious headscarves was ruled unconstitutional in a German court in 2015. In Austria and the German state of Bavaria, full-face veils are banned in public. France banned religious symbols and veils in schools in 2004.

In 2013, four Christian British Airways employees won a legal case in the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled their employer engaged in illegal discrimination for telling them they could not wear their crosses.

Church in Scotland urged to update sex abuse reporting and prevention protocols

Glasgow, Scotland, Jun 18, 2019 / 04:11 pm (CNA).- A Scottish Catholic organization set up to prevent, report and audit allegations of sexual abuse within the Church can do even more to “rebuild trust” following the sex abuse scandals, an independent review board has found.

The review, conducted by the Independent Review Group (IRG), was a follow-up to a major review undergone by the Church in Scotland in 2014 and 2015, led by Andrew McLellan. That review concluded with the publication of the “McLellan report”, which included a set of recommendations on how to make the Church "a safe place for all,” according to the BBC.

The recently-conducted review by the IRG examined how well the Church had implemented the recommendations of the McLellan report, and where there was still room for improvement.

Baroness Helen Liddell, who headed the IRG review, said that the Church had made "a good start” in addressing and safeguarding against sex abuse, but that more could be done, the BBC reported.

The group recommended that the Church review and strengthen its current safe environment service, the Scottish Catholic Safeguarding Service (SCSS), as well as provide more accessible, robust support for survivors of abuse.  

The SCSS provides training to diocesan and religious leaders on sex abuse prevention standards in accordance with the bishop’s standards as well as national standards, and facilitates an annual audit of compliancy with national sex abuse prevention standards, according to their website.

The site also contains several downloadable resources, information on upcoming training sessions, and an audit from the bishops of Scotland on abuse allegations that occurred between 1943 to 2005. The IRG recommended the SCSS become more independently sourced, and that any audits conducted by the group be independently reviewed, according to The Press and Journal.

It also recommended that each of the eight dioceses in Scotland have a clear plan and public statement on what resources and support are available for survivors of abuse, as well as an independent person to which survivors can be referred for support and counsel. The IRG also recommended including survivors in groups that make decisions about sex abuse reporting and prevention.

The IRG statement from the review noted that the bishops need to be open to learning from the information that is gathered in abuse audits if they are to move forward in making the Church a safer place for children and vulnerable groups.

“Improvement in policy and openness to learning from the audit process will start to shift culture,” the group stated.

“Commitment to create a dedicated, independent safeguarding service which supports the development needs of the eight dioceses; drives consistency; is empowered to independently investigate concerns or complaints and can act without bias in all its affairs is critical to rebuilding trust with congregations and the general public,” the IRG added.

Liddell said that the problem of sexual abuse in the Church will only be solved through a “change in culture” and with the “vigour” necessary to implement this change.

“There needs to be a change in culture, in capacity, in capability and that needs training, learning, reflection, the utmost transparency, and it needs leadership,” she said, according to The Press and Journal.

“We have found a willingness to adopt that change, but true progress can only come about as a result of deep analysis of strengths and weaknesses,” she added.

Bishop Joseph Toal, who leads the SCSS, said he was grateful for the IRG’s work and that he would give it “serious consideration,” The Press and Journal reported.

“We are determined to apply what we learn, both from the steps we have already taken and from the IRG’s report, and to ensure that the highest standards of safeguarding practice are met throughout the Church in Scotland.”

 

US Supreme Court will soon decide 'Peace Cross' First Amendment case

Washington D.C., Jun 18, 2019 / 04:10 pm (CNA).- Before the month is out, the US Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision in an establishment clause case with the potential to create a new standard for dealing with problems related to religious liberty, religious symbols, and the relationship between religion and public life.

The case, The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, hinges on the legality of the Bladensburg Peace Cross--a 40-foot stone cross that was erected in 1925 in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

The cross honors those from the area who were killed in World War I. The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission has performed regular maintenance around the monument since 1961, as it is located on a median in the middle of a public road. This, the American Humanist Association has argued, is entangling government unnecessarily with religion.

Joe Davis, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told CNA that things appeared to be positive during oral arguments, and that “at least five” of the justices indicated that they felt as though the cross monument was legal. Oral arguments do not, however, always reflect what the justices decide months later.

If the Supreme Court does indeed rule in favor of keeping the peace cross, it is increasingly likely that they would have to use a new sort of legal test to justify how the cross is constitutional. Since 1971, the Supreme Court has used the “Lemon test” to decide these cases, something Davis described as “wildly inconsistent.” The application of the Lemon test has led to some religious symbols being found constitutional, and others not.

“(The Lemon test) has been heavily criticized over the decades," explained Davis.

It is a threefold standard, which examines if the action in question has a secular purpose, a primarily religious or secular effect, and if the action “entangles the government with religion” excessively.

The “test” was established in the Court's 1971 decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman, which struck down a Pennsylvania law allowing the reimbursement of private school teacher's salaries from public funds.

In The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, those arguing in favor of the Peace Cross proposed alternative tests for the court to consider instead of Lemon.

"The parties defending the cross argued that (the Lemon test) should be replaced by a coercion test, when you ask if the government action is coercing some religious exercise,” said Davis. “And if it's not, it's not an establishment clause violation."

The governmental party defending the Peace Cross put forward an “independent, secular meaning test,” said Davis, which would be similar to parts of the Lemon test.

The Becket lawyers argued what Davis termed a “historical approach,” which would put the action in the context of what the founders of the United States intended when they created the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

“The idea would be, you take the government action and you say ‘Does this look like what establishment of religion looks like at the founding? Is this the kind of thing that the founders were concerned about when they ratified the establishment clause?’” said Davis.

This historical approach would work, said Davis, “because you can just compare whatever the current case is about to the historical data, and see whether it matches up.”

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in February. The court’s term ends at the end of the month, meaning that the decision will be released shortly.

Eritrean Catholic Church denounces government seizure of health clinics

Asmara, Eritrea, Jun 18, 2019 / 02:26 pm (CNA).- The Eritrean Catholic Church has criticized the government of the one-party state for seizing and closing its 22 health clinics throughout the country last week.

“The government can say it doesn't want the services of the Church, but asking for the property is not right,” read a letter from the Church to the Eritrean health ministry, the BBC reported June 17.

The Church added that its social services cannot be characterized as opposition to the government.

In seizing the clinics, patients were told to return to their homes, and military are guarding the buildings.

Of the 22 Catholic clinics in Eritrea, eight are in the Eritrean Eparchy of Keren alone, where they serve an estimated 40,000 patients annually.

According to the BBC, analysts believe the seizures were retaliatory, after the Church in April called for reforms to reduce emigration. The bishops had also called for national reconciliation.

Government seizure of Church property is not new, however.

A 1995 decree restricting social and welfare projects to the state has been used intermittently since then to seize or close ecclesial services.

In July 2018, an Eritrean Catholic priest helping immigrants and refugees in Italy told EWTN that authorities had recently shut down eight free Catholic-run medical clinics. He said authorities claimed the clinics were unnecessary because of the presence of state clinics.

Christian and Muslim schools have also been closed under the 1995 decree, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2019 annual report.

Eritrea's human rights record has frequently been deplored, and the nation has been designated a Country of Particular Concern for its religious freedom abuses by the US Department of State since 2004.

Many Eritreans, especially youth, emigrate, due to a military conscription, and a lack of opportunities, freedom, education, and health care.

A July 2018 peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which ended a conflict over their mutual border, led to an open border which has allowed for easier emigration.

Mom, target of doxing state rep, calls for Sims’ censure

Harrisburg, Pa., Jun 18, 2019 / 12:30 pm (CNA).- State Rep. Brian Sims is facing possible censure in the Pennsylvania legislature following his harassment and attempts to dox women and minors outside a Philadelphia abortion clinic last month.

In videos posted on social media May 2, Sims offered money to his followers if they would publish the names and addresses of pro-life demonstrators, including two women and several high school-age students. One of the demonstrators, Ashley Garecht of Lower Merion Township, travelled to Harrisburg June 17 to encourage state legislators to back the censure.

“It’s unclear to me why any member of this body would be hesitant to sign on to the resolution,” said Garecht, who can be seen with her daughters being harassed by Sims in one of his videos.

Garecht told local media that she thinks the incident highlights Sims’ abuse of power as much as his intolerance for pro-life speech.

“What happened to us was about an elected state representative who declared in his own video to be an elected state representative harassing and intimidating citizens out of their First Amendment rights--and three of those were minors. Then he took it a step further by offering money to expose their identities on the internet.”

So far, 36 lawmakers have supported the resolution, out of the 201 members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

Rep. Jerry Knowles (R-Berks/Carbon/Schuylkill) filed the resolution in early June. Knowles is seeking to remove Sims from the four committees he belongs to, as well as prevent him from being appointed to any additional committees or positions until the end of his term. Sims’ term expires Nov. 30, 2020.

“It should be noted that Representative Sims also used his elected position to intimidate the individuals with whom he was interacting, clearly stating on the videos that he was a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives,” said the memorandum issued by Knowles that was sent to other members of the Pennsylvania House.

In the videos, Sims referred to one woman as an “old white lady,” and in another, he targeted three teenage girls accompanied by Garecht.

Sims has not yet publicly apologized for attempting to dox the pro-lifers, but he did publish a video where he pledged to “do better for the women of Pennsylvania.”

Following outcry against Sims’ actions, a pro-life rally was held outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic in Philadelphia on May 10, where Sims is a volunteer patient escort.

In the 2014 case McCullen v. Coakley the Supreme Court unanimously found “buffer zones” around abortion clinics, limiting the space where a person can either pray or protest, to be unconstitutional.

Garecht said she has forgiven Sims for his doxing threat and harassing comments, and that she and her family continue to pray for them. She may pursue some sort of civil action suit against Sims.

“This isn’t about a vendetta for me as a mother,” said Garecht. “This is about standing up specifically for my daughters to hold the person who attacked them to account.”

Rosica resigns from Salt and Light after plagiarism scandal

Toronto, Canada, Jun 18, 2019 / 11:20 am (CNA).- Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, has resigned as CEO of the Salt and Light Media Foundation, four months after reports emerged that the priest had plagiarized sections of texts in lectures, op-eds, scholarly articles, and other writings.

“After 16 years as the founding Chief Executive Officer, I have submitted my resignation to the Board of Directors of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation effective today,” Rosica said in a June 17 statement. The priest, who led the Salt and Light network since it launched in 2003, was placed on leave from the non-profit in March.

Rosica also apologized for his acts of plagiarism.

“I ask forgiveness for errors in not properly acknowledging individuals and attributing sources in my writings,” he said.

In a separate statement released June 17, the Salt and Light Foundation’s board said that “Fr. Rosica played a critical role in the founding and growth of this network over the past 16 years. The involvement of many young women and men on our various media platforms has made a positive difference in the lives of many people around the world. We are grateful to Fr. Rosica for his leadership.”

Rosica was first reported by Life Site News Feb. 15 to have plagiarized sections of text in lectures and op-eds from a variety of writers, among them priests, theologians, journalists, and at least two cardinals.

Subsequent reports found pervasive plagiarism in academic articles, essays, speeches, and op-eds by Rosica, dating back more than a decade. Rosica has served as a Vatican press aide and was a central figure in the planning of World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto.

The priest was reported in March to have misrepresented his academic credentials, claiming falsely in his official biography to have earned an advanced degree from École Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem.

“I realize that I was not prudent nor vigilant with several of the texts that have surfaced and I will be very vigilant with future texts and compositions,” Rosica told The Catholic Register Feb. 18.

“I take full responsibility for my lack of oversight and do not place the blame on anyone else but myself.”

Rosica told the National Post Feb. 22 that “What I’ve done is wrong, and I am sorry about that. I don’t know how else to say it.”

Rosica also told the National Post his plagiarism was inadvertent and not malicious. He explained that “it could have been cut and paste,” apparently meaning that he had mistakenly included passages of text written by others in his texts without remembering to attribute them.

In April, it was discovered that one of Rosica’s most controversial publications, a July 2018 blog post, had been plagiarized from a 2014 blog post by by Richard Bennett, a former member of Dominican Order and an apparently laicized priest, who is now active in a fundamentalist Protestant organization which says it “places particular emphasis on the evangelization and conversion of Roman Catholics.”

In his July post, Rosica copied Bennett’s passage saying that Pope Francis “breaks Catholic traditions whenever he wants because he is ‘free from disordered attachments.’ Our Church has indeed entered a new phase: with the advent of this first Jesuit pope, it is openly ruled by an individual rather than by the authority of Scripture alone or even its own dictates of tradition plus Scripture.”

Vatican quashes rumors of Benedict XVI stroke

Vatican City, Jun 18, 2019 / 11:01 am (CNA).- Pope Benedict XVI is not dead and did not recently suffer a stroke, the Vatican confirmed on Tuesday.

On Monday, rumors circulated on Twitter and other social media platforms that the Pope Emeritus had suffered a “mild ischemia” - a kind of stroke.

“The rumours are false,” Alessandro Gisotti, director ad interim of the Press Office of the Holy See, confirmed to the Catholic Herald on Tuesday.

Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s personal secretary, called the rumors “fake news,” Edward Pentin reported on Twitter.

On multiple occasions over the past several years, Vatican officials have had to quash similar rumors that the small, white-haired nonagenarian is close to death.

Benedict XVI resigned from the papacy in 2013, citing advanced age and declining strength that made it difficult to carry out his ministry. He was the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years.

International Youth Forum meets to continue work of Synod

Vatican City, Jun 18, 2019 / 07:45 am (CNA).- Nearly 250 young adults will meet in Rome this week for the International Youth Forum to discuss how best to implement ideas from the 2018 Synod of Bishops in their home dioceses.

Citing Pope Francis’ urging in Christus Vivit that “young people themselves are agents of youth ministry,” the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life invited young adults from 109 countries to participate in the forum June 19-22.

Isabella McCafferty was selected by the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference to participate in the International Youth Forum this week. She called Christus Vivit “a constant source of encouragement in my own faith journey and inspired me in my ministry.”

“The challenge of course now is how to enable its richness to reach those who need to hear the heart of the document,” McCafferty said June 18.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who is chairman of the U.S. bishops’ conference Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, said he was “grateful” that Pope Francis was continuing the conversations begun at the synod last year and that the forum in Rome was part of an “important dialogue.”

Brian Rhude and Brenda Noriega are two of the young adult leaders who have been asked to represent the United State at the forum.  

Rhude, a student of Theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., studied at the Catholic University campus in Rome during the Fall 2018 semester, which coincided with the Synod on Young People. He attended the synod as a media correspondent for the Catholic Apostolate Center.

Noriega is the current coordinator of young adult ministry in the Diocese of San Bernardino, Ca, and also serves on the USCCB’s National Advisory Team on Young Adult Ministry.

Last year, Noriega was co-leader of the bishop and young adult encounter at the V Encuentro national event held in Texas.

All the “youth delegates,” who are between the ages of 18 to 29, will listen to talks and panels on synodality, pastoral ministry, and vocational discernment. They will also meet in groups to consider how to apply the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Christus Vivit to their local youth ministries.

Pope Francis published Christus Vivit, a 50-page letter to “all Christian young people,” April 2 following the Synod of Bishops on young people, faith, and vocational discernment which took place Oct. 3-28.

In Christus Vivit Pope Francis addressed the obstacles to faith and personal fulfulment faced by young people today, such as isolation, over-consumption of media, and addiction to drugs and pornography. Do not let the world “rob you of hope and joy, or drug you into becoming a slave to their interests,” Francis said.

“You need to realize one basic truth: being young is not only about pursuing fleeting pleasures and superficial achievements. If the years of your youth are to serve their purpose in life, they must be a time of generous commitment, whole-hearted dedication, and sacrifices that are difficult but ultimately fruitful.”

On the final day of the International Youth Forum, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life will celebrate Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica with the young participants, after which they will meet Pope Francis.

“I think Pope Francis offers a very personal invitation to young people to return to what is most essential: an encounter daily with the love of God and the living person of Christ," McCafferty said.

Supreme Court gives second chance to Oregon cake bakers who declined same-sex wedding

Portland, Ore., Jun 18, 2019 / 12:20 am (CNA).- An Oregon bakery whose owners declined to make a cake celebrating a same-sex commitment ceremony will get another chance in court, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 17 ruling ordered lower courts to reconsider a massive fine and other penalties in light of a similar Colorado case.

“The Constitution protects speech, popular or not, from condemnation by the government,” Kelly Shackelford, president, CEO and chief counsel of the legal group First Liberty, said June 17. “The message from the court is clear, government hostility toward religious Americans will not be tolerated.”

“This is a victory for Aaron and Melissa Klein and for religious liberty for all Americans,” added Shackleford.

The Kleins, who are practicing Christians, owned Sweet Cakes by Melissa, a bakery in the Portland suburb of Gresham, Ore. In January 2013, the couple declined to bake a cake for a same-sex commitment ceremony, citing their religious views. They then lost an effort to fight a lawsuit charging they had illegally discriminated.

First Liberty, a non-profit legal firm based in Plano, Texas, focuses on religious freedom cases with a nationwide scope. It is representing the Kleins as are two attorneys from its network: C. Boyden Gray, former U.S. Ambassador to the European Union; and Adam Gustafson, both of Boyden Gray & Associates.

Boyden Gray said the Supreme Court should decide whether its 2015 ruling that mandated legal recognition of same-sex marriage “can be wielded as a shield in defense of same-sex unions but also — as in this case — a sword to attack others for adhering to traditional religious beliefs about marriage,” NBC News reports.

The women who had attempted to commission the cake from the Klein’s bakery filed a complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, claiming discrimination based on sexual orientation. The mother of Rachel Cryer, the woman who tried to order the cake, had asked Aaron Klein to reconsider, but he declined.

While the legal complaint was pending, Aaron Klein posted the first page of the couple’s complaint, which contained their names and contact information, on the Sweet Cakes by Melissa Facebook page. The women said they received death threats as a result of the posting, which was taken down after one day.

The State of Oregon in its filing with the Supreme Court had argued that the lower courts had ruled correctly. “Baking is conduct, not speech,” its filing said. “A bakery open to the public has no right to discriminate against customers on the basis of their sexual orientation.”

Requiring equal treatment for customers regardless of sexual orientation does not compel support for same-sex marriage “any more than the law compels support for religion by requiring equal treatment for all faiths,” said the state filings, according to NBC News.

Sweet Cakes by Melissa closed in September 2013, a decision that the owners described as a “devastating loss.”

In April 2015, the Oregon labor bureau ordered the Kleins to pay damages to the plaintiffs, ruling that by declining to design and make the cake, they had violated Oregon law barring discrimination in public accommodations. The labor bureau ordered them to pay a $135,000 penalty for emotional damages and issued a gag order that prevented them from “even talking about their beliefs,” First Liberty said June 17.

The Kleins initially attempted to raise the cost of the fine on the crowdfunding website GoFundMe, but their effort was taken down by the site, which cited a violation of their terms of service.

In their appeals, the Kleins claimed that their First Amendment right to free speech was violated by the state’s decision.

Their prior appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court was rejected in June 2018. This left in place the decision of the Oregon Court of Appeals, which rejected claims that a cake is a work of art. That court said “even when custom-designed for a ceremonial occasion, they are still cakes made to be eaten.” Those who attend a wedding might consider the cake to be an expression of the views of the couple who undergo the ceremony, not the views of the baker, the court said.

That same month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a narrow ruling in favor of Colorado baker Jack Phillips, owner of the bakery Masterpiece Cakeshop, who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. The court found that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had not respected Phillips’ sincerely-held religious beliefs when it ordered him to make a custom cake for a same-sex couple.

There are 21 states that bar discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation, among other categories.

Similar laws and regulations have affected wedding industry professionals in other states, including bakers and photographers. Such laws and regulations have also closed or stripped funding from Catholic and other Christian adoption agencies that decline to place children with same-sex couples.

The proposed federal Equality Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in May, would add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under federal law and strip defendants’ ability to appeal to religious freedom as a defense against discrimination claims.

The Masterpiece Cakeshop itself has faced two more lawsuits. It refused to bake a cake to a transgender person seeking a “gender transition cake,” with the lawsuit thrown out of court. A second lawsuit later came from the same person seeking to make a similar cake, but then added it was a birthday cake with special status for the individual as a self-identified transgender woman.

Wealthy philanthropic foundations have spent close to $10 million in targeted grants seeking to limit religious freedom protections on issues such as abortion access and compliance with LGBT concerns. About $500,000 of that went to advocacy and public relations campaigns related to the Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court Case, CNA has reported.

 

Analysis: How will the USCCB vote in first elections since McCarrick scandal?

Washington D.C., Jun 17, 2019 / 06:00 pm (CNA).- While the spring meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference has only just concluded, some bishops are already looking to the election of new conference officers at their November meeting. While the elections are still five months away, bishops are already discussing their options - particularly in light of the scandal the Church in the U.S. has faced in the last year.

It is widely expected that Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, the bishops’ conference vice president, will be elected to succeed Cardinal Daniel DiNardo as conference president. Gomez has several factors working in his favor. Most notably is the sheer force of custom: With only one recent exception, the conference vice president has been elected president as a matter of course. That Gomez has served in the second slot for the last three years is likely sufficient by itself for him to secure the votes of most bishops.

Within the conference, Gomez is perceived to cut across traditional ideological and social lines. He was ordained a priest of Opus Dei, and he has a long history of leadership on pro-life and marriage issues. But, an immigrant himself, he is also among the most outspoken advocates for the conference’s call for just immigration reform and advocacy for the poor. He is, in short, difficult to pigeonhole into a partisan camp, and at a time when the Church is increasingly segmented by politics, many bishops see that as an important advantage.

Some bishops have also mentioned to CNA the symbolic significance of electing a Hispanic archbishop, a Mexican-American immigrant, in advance of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. While the bishops have a working relationship with the Trump administration on issues pertaining to abortion, marriage, and religious liberty, they remain strongly opposed to the president’s immigration policies, and if Trump wins a second term, they will likely be at odds with him over that issue throughout. Gomez is seen to be the right voice to lead advocacy on behalf of their immigration agenda.

If a Democrat wins the presidency in 2020, Gomez’ well-known advocacy on immigration could make it easier for him to gain a hearing from a Democratic administration, especially during the battles over religious liberty on gender and sexuality that would be sure to come.

Because Gomez, who leads the largest U.S. diocese, has not been made a cardinal, it is sometimes speculated that he might have a difficult working relationship with Pope Francis, or that the Holy Father might consider him to be too conservative.

This speculation seems to be grounded in particularly American misunderstandings of both men: caricatures of Gomez as a doctrinaire conservative and Francis as a freewheeling progressive work only if the frame of reference is the U.S. left-right divide. Those with experience in Latin and South America are far more likely to see the common threads running through the thought of both: especially a common concern for solidarity with the powerless and the marginalized, including both the unborn and the immigrant.

Ultimately, that Gomez is not yet a cardinal could reflect more about the hermeneutics of the Congregation for Bishops than about any actual division between Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Los Angeles.

Whatever the reason that Gomez is not a cardinal, the archbishop is not perceived to be ineffective in engagement with Rome. Gomez is seen to have successfully manned the point position in negotiating with the Holy See an approach to establishing sexual abuse policies that would be acceptable in both Rome and the U.S. The archbishop became an especially active figure in deliberations after the breakdown in communications that led to the cancelled votes at the bishops’ November meetings.

He does not seem most comfortable at a podium, presiding over the full assembly of bishops, though his aptitude in that role has grown over the course of recent meetings. While DiNardo leads the room with a poise that seems at once fraternal and efficient, Gomez is more reserved in a large public setting. But if this is seen as a liability by some bishops, it is unlikely to overcome both the archbishop’s personal reputation and the force of precedent.

Of course, in recent history, custom has been overcome in conference elections. In 2010, Cardinal Timothy Dolan was unexpectedly elected conference president ahead of Bishop Gerald Kicanas, who was then vice president. Dolan was elected through the work of a cadre of bishops who thought a Kicanas presidency would be out of step with the leadership and emphases of Pope Benedict XVI.

It is possible that Gomez could face a credible and organized opponent in November 2019. Most frequently discussed at the conference, and mentioned to CNA by a few bishops, is the idea that the newly-installed Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, DC, could challenge Gomez for the presidency.

As it stands, though, electing Gregory seems a very remote possibility. In the first place is, again, the sheer force of custom. For Gregory’s supporters to overcome that force would require a great deal of organization, and a good amount of time spent convincing bishops to make a change.

Making their task especially difficult is that Gregory was conference president from 2001 to 2004, and presided over the bishops’ conference response to the sex abuse crisis of 2002. Gregory was the bishop who ushered into being the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” and the accompanying “Essential Norms.”

While the Charter is widely thought to have changed ecclesial culture for the better with regard to child and youth protection, it has been panned during the last year because it is understood to pertain to priests and deacons only, using language that explicitly delineates the exclusion of bishops from some norms.

The shortcomings of the “Dallas Charter,” are not Gregory’s fault, but bishops who want to convey that the Church is moving on from “business as usual” may be reticent to elect as president someone so directly connected to the Charter.

There is also Gregory’s task in Washington. The archbishop is 71, and is largely understood to have only a four-year mandate to begin the process of restoring trust among Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington, which has been the epicenter of the McCarrick affair, through which Gregory’s predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, lost a great deal of trust among his priests, and among ordinary Washington Catholics. This task, Gregory is known to understand, will require a considerable investment of personal and pastoral time, and for that reason, the archbishop may not find the prospect of running the bishops’ conference a temptation.

But if he does want the job, there is at least one thing Gregory could do to improve his chances of being elected: He could release from the Archdiocese of Washington’s files on Theodore McCarrick as many records as possible, and encourage other diocesan bishops to do the same. Gregory has the opportunity in Washington to establish a new paradigm of transparency in Church governance – a paradigm much discussed but not yet much demonstrated – by releasing as much as possible on McCarrick, his finances, his friends and protectors, and then encouraging the other dioceses where McCarrick served to do the same.

While Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark told CNA this week that he is precluded from issuing a full report on McCarrick by an attorney general’s investigation in the state, Gregory has not indicated that he is under any similar restriction. A comprehensive release of information from his archdiocese would do a great deal to restore confidence in Church leadership among practicing Catholics, and it would likely raise esteem for him considerably among the younger bishops in the conference, who have been calling for just such a release from Rome.

If that does happen, Gomez could face more of a challenge for election as conference president than expected.

Who will be elected vice president?

Some bishops have mentioned to CNA that Tobin could be a natural candidate for the position.

The Archbishop of Newark is affable and friendly to other bishops, well-known, and articulate. He has the experience of leading his own religious community, the Redemptorists, of a senior leadership position at the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life at the Vatican, and has led archdiocesan sees in both the Midwest and on the East Coast. As chairman of the USCCB Committee on Consecrated Life, Clergy, and Vocations, Tobin has played a prominent role in the Church’s response to the McCarrick crisis, and he presented one of the major policy documents on sexual abuse approved by the bishops at their November meeting.

The cardinal, in short, has considerable experience and qualifications that seem relevant to a leadership position at the conference.

But even if he were nominated as a candidate, Tobin might not accept the nomination. The cardinal withdrew from participating in the October 2018 synod on youth, which came just a few months after the McCarrick scandal began. At the time, Tobin recognized the havoc wrought by the McCarrick revelations on his archdiocese, which McCarrick led for more than a decade, and he explained the priority he placed on being present to the people of his own archdiocese, and especially to his priests.

Tobin is a cardinal, which means that he already has responsibilities taking him to Rome with regularity. Given his clear aversion to becoming an “airport bishop,” the cardinal might decline the possibility of adding even more frequent trips to Washington, DC to his schedule, especially as his archdiocese will soon grapple with fallout from the New Jersey attorney general’s investigation, and from the eventual release of Rome’s report on McCarrick.

If he were to stand for election, Tobin would face both episcopal support and criticism for his endorsement of “Building a Bridge”, a 2017 book by Fr. James Martin, SJ, who is a frequent writer and speaker on the topic of Church engagement with those who identify themselves as LGBT or LGBT activists. Bishops are divided on how best to approach that kind of engagement, and Martin’s work is at the center of that divide, because some bishops say that Martin’s work is not faithful to the teachings of the Church, while others actively promote it. While some bishops might be reticent to support a Tobin candidacy because of this, others would take Tobin’s position as a positive sign in the conference.

Tobin’s work on the U.S. implementation of Vos estis lux mundi is appreciated by bishops, as is his work on revisions to the national directory for deacons. But during the last year, Tobin has been the subject of rumors and questions about his personal life from some blogs and websites. The cardinal has denied rumors of misconduct, and scant evidence has turned up to support conjectures made about him. It is unlikely that Tobin would allow such rumors to keep him from serving the Church in whatever way he thinks himself to be called, but there are likely some members of the bishops’ conference who, given the sensitivities surrounding McCarrick and the Archdiocese of Newark, might judge this an inopportune time for the cardinal to stand for election.

Another frequently named possibility for conference vice president is Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City. Coakley has been a bishop for 15 years, and served a term as chairman of Catholic Relief Services, the bishops’ international humanitarian aid apostolate.

In his role at CRS, he is generally regarded as having addressed lingering issues pertaining to the Catholic identity of the institution and its partners, in part by bringing together a coalition of moral theologians and international development experts to work through thorny issues. Coakley is also thought to have capably overseen leadership transitions amid a complex period of expansion during his term as CRS board chairman.

Bishops also noted to CNA that Coakley’s archdiocese, Oklahoma City, is perceived to have handled safe-environment related matters well, and that Coakley is perceived to have prioritized recruiting lay collaborators for the administration of his archdiocese.

Though he has a relatively low public profile, some bishops told CNA that Coakley has a moderating voice, is calm under pressure, a clear teacher and an organized administrator. And Coakley is already set to begin in November 2019 a term as chair of the bishops' influential Domestic Justice and Human Development committee.

While some bishops might prefer a bishop with more name recognition beyond the conference, others told CNA that because he is not seen to carry any “baggage” into the election, the choice of Coakley for vice president could be exactly the right move after the bishops’ year of scandal.

Other names that have been mentioned as candidates for conference vice president are Archbishop Gregory Aymond, Archbishop Allen Vigneron, and Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul-Minneapolis, who is well regarded for his work to heal an archdiocese deeply wounded by grave clerical abuse scandals.

Of course, none of these figures have yet been nominated to the slate. Nomination requires that diocesan bishops propose the names of the candidates they would like to see considered for the post; a process that will take place over the next few months. But bishops have already begun talking about the needs of the Church, and the needs of their conference. The results of their discussion will be clear in November.