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Secular group wins case to install mock nativity display at Texas capitol

Display by Freedom from Religion Foundation at the Iowa state capitol, 2016 / Freedom from Religion Foundation

Washington D.C., Jun 11, 2021 / 08:01 am (CNA).

After a six-year court battle, a secular group will be permitted to install a “Bill of Rights Nativity Exhibit” at the Texas Capitol following a federal court decision last month.

The secular advocacy group Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit six years ago to install a mock nativity display at the Texas state capitol building. 

The “Bill of Rights Nativity Scene” mimics the traditional nativity scene with St. Joseph, the Blessed Mother, and the infant Jesus. Instead of the Holy Family, the “Bill of Rights Nativity Scene” features the Statue of Liberty in the place of the Blessed Mother, with the founding fathers of the United States surrounding the Bill of Rights in a manger. 

The foundation sued Abbott in 2016 after it was not permitted to keep its display at the state capitol in December 2015. A Christian nativity scene was, however, allowed to be displayed. The Freedom From Religion Foundation claimed that Abbott violated their rights to free speech with the removal of the display. 

In denying the secular exhibit to the foundation, the state of Texas violated the group’s First Amendment rights and engaged in unlawful “viewpoint discrimination,” Judge Lee Yeakel said in his May 5 decision siding with the foundation. Yeakel issued an injunction which barred the State Preservation Board from ever blocking the group from showcasing their display at the capitol.

The foundation says it “works as an effective state/church watchdog and voice for freethought (atheism, agnosticism, skepticism).”

Abbott had the “Bill of Rights Nativity Scene” removed three days after it was installed. He criticized the display, saying it was offensive and served no educational purpose. 

Previously, the Freedom From Religion Foundation was victorious in district court, which ruled its free speech rights were violated. The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case to the district court in April 2020, asking for a permanent injunction protecting the free speech rights of the group. 

According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, it had obtained the proper permits for the display and was sponsored by a Texas legislator. The organization also had a sign celebrating the winter solstice, noting it was close to the anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights. 

The group’s mock display at the Iowa capitol in 2016 also featured figures of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the Statue of Liberty, all “gazing in adoration at a ‘baby’ Bill of Rights.” The group said their “tongue-in-cheek” display was a response to a Christian nativity scene at the state capitol.

"At this Season of the Winter Solstice, join us in honoring the Bill of Rights, adopted on December 15, 1791, which reminds us there can be no religious freedom without the freedom to dissent," a sign beside the Iowa display stated. The sign added, "Keep religion and government separate!"

The foundation was involved in two other cases in May and June related to religious displays and public prayer in Texas. In May, a federal district court judge ruled that a county judge in Texas had to stop opening court sessions with prayer led by a chaplain, after the foundation sued to curb the prayer. In June, the foundation insisted that a Texas public hospital remove a prayer banner from an employee parking garage.

Pro-life leaders warn of 'egregious' new pro-abortion bill

Nicole Glass Photography/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Jun 10, 2021 / 18:01 pm (CNA).

Pro-life leaders warn that an “egregious” bill introduced this week in Congress would override most state abortion regulations, require health care workers to perform abortions, and mandate federal funding of abortion.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), along with Reps. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), re-introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act on Tuesday. 

The bill has been introduced in each Congress since 2013, but has never received a vote in either chamber. In a joint release, the member offices said the bill has 48 total co-sponsors in the Senate and 176 in the House. 

If it were enacted into law, the bill would grant patients the right to undergo an abortion, and health care workers the right to perform an abortion. It would prohibit states from restricting abortions through laws requiring mandatory ultrasounds or waiting periods before an abortion. It would also block restrictions on pre-viability abortions and on the method of abortions. 

Tom McClusky, president of March for Life Action, told CNA in an email that the "misnamed Women's Health Protection Act seeks to foist Congressional Democrats' radical abortion agenda on the American public.” 

“Among other extreme policies, the bill would eliminate nearly all state laws that regulate abortion and force objecting hospitals and medical professionals to perform or participate in the life-ending procedure,” McClusky said. “It would also do away with popular pro-life riders like the Hyde amendment which protect Americans from paying for abortions with their tax dollars.” 

He argued that Democrats “have decided to serve the abortion lobby's interests over the American public which opposes unlimited abortions paid for by taxpayers."

In a statement, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, called the bill “egregious” and “deceptively named.” 

“While most Americans want reasonable pro-life protections for unborn children, pro-abortion Democrats are moving swiftly in the opposite direction,” Dannenfelser said. “This radical bill would destroy existing pro-life protections at the state level and prevent future pro-life limits from being enacted.” 

“This a direct attack on the will of the people as demonstrated by the groundswell of pro-life legislation we’ve seen this year,” she said. 

The lawmakers described the re-introduction of the bill as a response to the Supreme Court taking up the case of Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

In a statement, Chu said in light of that case, “the fight to protect abortion rights for all Americans is more critical than ever.” 

Mississippi’s law “is part of a deliberate strategy by anti-abortion extremists to use state laws and the courts to slowly chip away at abortion access, with nearly 500 restrictive laws introduced in states since just 2011,” she said. 

“That is why we need the Women’s Health Protection Act to ensure that no matter where you live, what your background is, or what your zip code, you have the same rights to make decisions about your own body as anyone else,” she said. 

Blumenthal said in a statement that the Dobbs case means the high court will “consider a direct attack on Roe and as emboldened and extremist lawmakers viciously attack women’s reproductive rights in statehouses across the nation.”

He argued that the Women’s Health Protection Act “has never been more urgent or more necessary.” 

“These demagogic and draconian laws hurt women and families as they make personal and difficult medical decisions,” Blumenthal said. 

“This issue is about more than health care, it’s about human rights—all our rights. I’m proud to join this historic coalition of lawmakers in introducing the Women’s Health Protection Act and look forward to taking the next step towards seeing it passed into law by holding a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee on the bill next week,” he said.

Vice President Kamala Harris, while she ran for president in 2019, had proposed a policy based off a previous version of the Women's Health Protection Act - which she co-sponsored as a senator.

As a presidential candidate, Harris promised that her Justice Department would review any state abortion restrictions to ensure they complied with Roe v. Wade and the Women's Health Protection Act.

In pushback against AG inquiry, Wisconsin Catholics cite decades of church vigilance against abuse

Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee, Wisconsin / Sulfur via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Denver Newsroom, Jun 10, 2021 / 17:04 pm (CNA).

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee is citing decades of Catholic efforts to prevent sex abuse, along with judicial statements and reviews of Church documents, as among the reasons it is pushing back against a state inquiry into clergy abuse.

In April, Wisconsin attorney general Josh Kaul had announced the launch of an investigation into alleged sexual abuse in the state’s Catholic dioceses and at least three religious orders. Kaul said he planned to review reports of abuse by clergy and faith leaders “with support from district attorneys, survivor groups, and crime victim services professionals.” 

In response, the Milwaukee archdiocese says that judges, civil authorities, and an outside firm have already reviewed their documents - multiple times - and a bankruptcy judge has declared no concern for public safety after reviewing abuse claims.

“Our assertion is the Church is being unfairly singled out by this investigation,” Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff to Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee, told CNA on June 9. “We have accepted our past history and worked so vigilantly to correct how things are handled, but it’s the Church that is continually targeted.”

“Archdiocesan files have been reviewed multiple times over the past 30 years,” Topczewski added. “First by a retired Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge; then by civil authorities, including the Milwaukee County District Attorney; and also by an outside firm of former FBI agents; to make sure no allegations had gone uncovered.”

“Federal Bankruptcy Judge Susan V. Kelley stated after reviewing all the claims filed that ‘no public safety concern is present’,” Topczewski added.

Kaul portrayed his investigation as “an independent review” of reports of clergy abuse that aimed “to ensure that survivors of clergy and faith leader abuse have access to needed victim services, to help prevent future cases of sexual assault, and to get accountability to the extent possible.”

The Wisconsin Department of Justice said it would start by requesting documents and information from Catholic dioceses and religious orders, but also encouraged victims to report sexual abuse committed by any members of religious organizations. 

The agency said that “although one of the goals of this initiative is to verify the accuracy of public lists of priests credibly accused of abuse, ultimately, it is up to the church to decide which names are included on their lists.”

Topczewski, however, suggested the inquiry’s focus will end up falling disproportionately on the Catholic Church.

“The investigation has been represented widely in the media as ‘an investigation into the Catholic Church,’ including during a Wisconsin Public Radio interview on May 10 featuring the Attorney General, who stated that his initial request for documents was only to Catholic dioceses and religious orders,” he said. 

Topczewski contended that this specific request violates the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause prohibition against the “disfavoring of a particular religion.”

The archdiocese has pledged to provide its records in cases of new allegations made against living priests, he said. 

“The archdiocese will voluntarily provide access to documents and information on any living individual against whom a new allegation is made. This is already our practice and, if there are any new prosecutable crimes, the Church will offer its assistance in seeking justice,” Topczewski said.

“There has been one substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a diocesan priest since 2000. This reinforces the historical nature of these crimes and indicates that education and prevention efforts are effective,” he said. 

Four of the state’s five dioceses, as well as the Jesuits and the Norbertines, have already disclosed the names of priests credibly accused of sex abuse. The Diocese of Superior is gathering its own list with the intent to publish it by the end of the year. 

In total, 177 Catholic priests have been identified as credibly accused of abusing minors - though the incidents took place as far ago as the 1950s. Some of the accused priests themselves died decades ago.

The Milwaukee archdiocese’s attorney Frank LoCoco responded to the attorney general’s announced plans in a June 1 letter. LoCoco similarly emphasized Catholic efforts to investigate and prevent abuse, but also suggested the attorney general’s efforts were “unlawful” given that many records are under court seal.

LoCoco noted that the archdiocese has already made public on its website the documents and chronologies related to the clergy listed as credibly accused of abuse. He cited trends in sex abuse claims which indicate that sex abuse by clergy peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, then declined significantly.

Of the 578 claimants who filed claims against the Milwaukee archdiocese, 99% of them involved allegations that predate the year 1990, he said.

Topcziewski argued that the Catholic Church has taken effective action against sex abuse, and its recent record shows this.

“Over the past 20 years, no institution in the United States has done more to combat the evil of this societal issue,” Topcziewski told CNA. “We know there have been mistakes made in how some cases were handled in the past, but today the Church has become a model of how this issue is addressed, including oversight, safe environment and prevention.”

“The Catholic Church is the largest provider of Safe Environment programs in Wisconsin and this mandatory education means nearly 100,000 individuals have been trained to recognize potential abuse/abusers and have heightened awareness of this societal scourge,” he said. 

LoCoco said that many of the archdiocesan records remain under seal due to both previous bankruptcy court proceedings and abuse survivors’ own decisions to file their claims under seal. The Office of the Attorney General received a copy of the relevant court order in 2011.

“Fewer than 5% of the claimants, a total of 28, filed their Proofs of Claim on the public docket,” LoCoco stated. “The remaining claims were filed under seal based on the Bankruptcy Court protections. Even today, these proofs of claim remain under seal and cannot be made public as required by the final, non-appealable order of the Bankruptcy Court.”

LoCoco cited an effort in 2012 to release some statistical information from the records “because certain lawyers such as Jeff Anderson and certain advocates such as Peter Isely had made irresponsible and untrue allegations that children were at risk within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.”

During a bankruptcy court hearing which rejected these claims, former Chief Judge Susan Kelley said her review “shows there is no public safety concerns with those claims – none whatsoever. The claims are old, the claims are by these known abusers with very few exceptions.”

LoCoco said there have already been significant financial expenditures to investigate abuse in the Milwaukee archdiocese, as well as to find potential victims.

During the Chapter 11 proceedings, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee produced some 60,000 pages of documents for the lawyers representing abuse victims and the official committee of unsecured creditors, which then chose the documents to be made public. The document review cost the archdiocese some $600,000.

The archdiocese spent “several hundred thousand dollars” to provide notice to abuse survivors to file a claim before the Feb. 1, 2012 deadline established by the court.

Several lawyers representing abuse survivors, the archdiocese estimated, spent more than $1 million to find alleged victims.

Compliance with the attorney general’s request would involve “another six-figure expenditure of lawyers’ fees and untold staff hours for just the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,” LoCoco said.

In a June 1 email to Catholics in the archdiocese, Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee said the archdiocese would cooperate with any “proper” state investigation, including providing records related to any living priest accused of abuse.

“While the archdiocese has done a lot, we can and should do more, and that includes cooperating with the attorney general in any proper inquiry he might undertake,” Archbishop Listecki said.

“As such, we will once again voluntarily provide access to documents and information on any living individual against whom a new allegation is made. This is already our practice and, if there are any new prosecutable crimes, the Church will offer its assistance,” he said.

However, he expressed “significant doubt that the attorney general has the legal authority to conduct such an investigation,” and added that the archdiocese has “legitimate concerns that his inquiry is directly targeting only the Catholic Church.”

“We believe we have offered a way to provide what the attorney general has requested while continuing to walk with survivors, maintaining the Church’s rights and avoiding unnecessary expense,” he said.

In April the Madison diocese, the Green Bay diocese, and the La Crosse diocese noted their own reviews of records. The Superior diocese has hired an outside firm, Defenbaugh & Associates, to conduct an independent third-party review of clergy files. The diocese said it is “in the process of using the independent report to list the names of clergy against whom substantiated child sexual abuse claims have been made.”

Retired Calgary bishop: Canadian government must own 'primary' responsibility for abuses of Indigenous

Kamloops Indian Residential School, Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada / Bruce Raynor/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Jun 10, 2021 / 16:15 pm (CNA).

The retired bishop of Calgary this week said the Canadian government must shoulder its “primary” responsibility for past abuses in the country’s residential school system. He maintained that Catholic Church leaders must also “own our sinfulness” in the abuses.

“We have a right to less pompous posturing and more forthright action on the part of [the] federal government,” said Bishop Fred Henry in a June 7 letter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Bishop Henry retired as bishop of Calgary in 2017.

The letter was reported by Bill Kauffmann in outlets of Canada’s Postmedia Network, and was later obtained by CNA.

“Primary responsibility must be owned by the federal government,” Henry said in response to the recent discovery of unmarked graves of 215 Indigenous children at a former Catholic-run residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia.

On the weekend of May 22, the graves were discovered at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, with the use of ground-penetrating radar. It is unclear how the children died.

The Kamloops school was opened in 1890 and was run by Catholics before the Oblates of Mary Immaculate oversaw the school beginning in 1893. In 1969, the government took back control of the school until it closed in 1978.

Last week, Trudeau - a Catholic - said he was “deeply disappointed” at the lack of a formal apology by the Church for its role in the residential school abuses. He called on the Church to release all relevant records for the schools and said the government had “tools” to apply if the Church did not do so, according to the Associated Press.

In response, Bishop Henry said he was “disappointed” with Trudeau’s “unhelpful” and “posturing” comments.

“Your comments are not only unhelpful but must be considered posturing for political purposes and yet another blatant attempt at ongoing dissimulation,” the bishop told Trudeau.

He cited 2014 apologies of bishops from the province of Alberta to Indigenous communities, “for Catholic participation in government policies that resulted in children being separated from their families, and often suppressed Aboriginal culture and language at the Residential Schools."

Bishop Henry emphasized that while Catholics ran some of the residential schools, the government established them.

“Primary responsibility must be owned by the federal government,” he said.

Canada’s residential school system was established by the federal government beginning in the 1870s, with Catholics and members of Protestant denominations charged with running the schools. Children of First Nations and other Indigenous communities were placed in the schools as a form of forcible assimilation. The last remaining residential school closed in 1996.

A 2006 settlement between the Canadian government and the Assembly of First Nations called for the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which began its work in 2008 and issued its final report in 2015. The commission reported that Indigenous children were separated from their families and sent to the residential schools, in order to strip them of family and cultural ties.

According to the commission, an estimated 4,100 to 6,000 children died as a result of neglect or abuse at the schools.

Bishop Henry quoted at length from the final report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, arguing that according to the commission, the government bore “primary” responsibility for the poor treatment of children at the schools.

“The federal government never established an adequate set of standards and regulations to guarantee the health and safety of residential school students,” he said. “This failure occurred despite the fact that the government had the authority to establish those standards,” he said, quoting the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“The failure to establish and enforce adequate standards, coupled with the failure to adequately fund the schools, resulted in unnecessarily high residential school death rates,” he added.

“The most basic of questions about missing children—Who died? Why did they die? Where are they buried?—have never been addressed or comprehensively documented by the Canadian government,” he said, quoting the commission’s report.

Regarding the high death rates of Indigenous students at the schools, he quoted the report’s finding that “the federal government failed to take appropriate action to address a national health-care crisis in the residential schools and in the Aboriginal community in general.”

The government for decades did not provide the schools the adequate resources to care for students, the report stated.

“Students were housed in poorly built, poorly heated, poorly maintained, crowded, and often unsanitary facilities. Many of the schools lacked isolation rooms or infirmaries. Many lacked access to trained medical staff. It was not until the late 1950s that the federal government attempted to provide sufficient funding to ensure that student diets were nutritionally adequate,” Bishop Henry stated, quoting the report.

Further, the government “never adopted a national policy on the reporting of the physical and sexual abuse of students,” leaving children vulnerable to abuse and resulting in the dismissal of investigations, the report stated.

One of the calls of the commission’s 2015 report was for a papal apology “to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.”

Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto explained in a June 3 statement that a formal papal apology would involve an in-person papal visit to Canada, requiring significant logistical actions. Pope Francis has already encouraged the country’s bishops to lead on the process of reconciliation for the Church’s role in the school system, he said.

Pope Benedict XVI previously met with Canadian Indigenous leaders in 2009 at the Vatican, where according to Cardinal Collins he expressed his “sorrow and anguish” for the abuses in the schools.

Pope Francis last Sunday expressed sorrow over the discovery of the unmarked graves, but did not issue a formal apology.

“May Canada’s political and religious authorities continue to work together with determination to shed light on this sad event and humbly commit themselves to a path of reconciliation and healing,” the pope said at the June 6 Sunday Angelus at the Vatican.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Catholic, in 2017 met with Pope Francis and raised the issue of the residential school system, inviting the pope to come to Canada. Last week, Trudeau said he was “deeply disappointed” at the lack of a formal apology by the Church, calling on the Church to release all relevant records for the schools and saying the government had “tools” to apply if the Church did not do so, according to the Associated Press.

Appearing on CBC on Sunday, Cardinal Collins called Trudeau’s remarks “extremely unhelpful” and “uninformed,” saying the Kamloops school’s records are available at the Royal British Columbia Museum. The school’s records were also given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

Other relevant Catholic institutions "should" release their records on the schools if they have not already done so, Collins added.

In his June 7 letter, Bishop Henry criticized “pompous posturing,” in an apparent reference to Trudeau’s comments.

The country’s bishops have issued statements following the discovery of the Indigenous children’s remains.

Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg, president of the Canadian bishops’ conference, prayed for the deceased children and said that “Honouring the dignity of the lost little ones demands that the truth be brought to light,” in a May 31 statement. 

Bishop Joseph Nguyen of Kamloops on May 28 said he was “heartbroken and horrified” by the discovery, offering his “deepest sympathy to Chief Roseanne Casimir of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation and to all who are mourning this tragedy and unspeakable loss.” 

In a June 2 letter to First Nations governments and other Indigenous populations, Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB of Vancouver promised “tangible actions” to support school survivors and the families of the deceased.

This article was updated on June 10 with new information.

How a 'culture of conversion' transformed a Catholic high school

A group of students from Jesuit High School, an all-boys school in Tampa, Florida, praying in front of Our Lady. / Jimmy Mitchell

Denver Newsroom, Jun 10, 2021 / 15:02 pm (CNA).

An all-boys Catholic high school in Tampa, Florida is attracting attention for fostering a faith-filled environment that helped lead nearly two dozen of its students into the Church last month. 

"Coming off of COVID, there was really a hunger and an openness and a desire for God that, at least on our campus, we had never seen before," Jimmy Mitchell, director of campus ministry at Jesuit High School in Tampa, told CNA.

Jesuit High School saw 22 students convert this past year through its RCIA program - making 2020 "one of the most beautiful and fruitful years that our campus has ever seen,” Mitchell said. 

The large number of converts has “everything to do with a culture of conversion, brotherhood, and discipleship” at the school, Mitchell said. 

He said that as a campus minister he seeks to “infiltrate” every aspect of the students’ lives at school, including their classroom learning and their participation in music and sports. He also seeks to get to know the students and take a deep and personal interest in their lives. 

Mitchell said the school seeks to make Catholicism “appealing, attractive, and accessible” for the young men, with a special emphasis on seeking out underclassmen. 

"If we can catch them in their freshman year, we've got them for good," Mitchell laughed. 

"In a world that has normalized sin like never before, there's a growing community, a growing brotherhood of young men in Tampa who are normalizing holiness," he said, reiterating that the increase in conversions at the school is “unprecedented.” 

Of the 22 students who entered the Church this year, 14 of them were baptized; many of them had entered high school with no faith at all, Mitchell said. 

Toward the beginning of the school year, Mitchell and his fellow campus ministers observed a surge in attendance at daily Mass and confession offered at the school's recently-renovated chapel. 

Mitchell credited much of the campus renewal to the actions of school president Fr. Richard Hermes, S.J. 

Under Fr. Hermes' leadership, the school has been “transformed” in the faith, he said. 

Fr. Hermes, who has led the school for the past 13 years, told CNA that the school has devoted much effort to developing the campus ministry program, particularly the retreats it offers. 

"As the years went by, we really started to articulate the retreat program better and better," he said, adding that the retreats and pilgrimages are centered around daily Mass, small group discussions, and participants sharing their faith. 

Another of Fr. Hermes’ actions, Mitchell said, was to reshape the school’s theology department where the entire staff not only teaches Catholic doctrine, but has a “zeal for souls.”

Fr. Hermes said he works to ensure that all the school's teachers are well-credentialed, believe in God, and adhere to the Church’s Magisterium - but also seeks to ensure that they are effective at reaching teenage men. 

As president of the school, Fr. Hermes said his role is to ensure that the school has a Catholic identity.

"That's what motivates us. That's the heart of who we are and why we're here," he said. 

Mitchell said a key factor in the campus’ “dynamic, orthodox, authentically Catholic culture” is the availability of the sacraments. Mass is offered daily, along with regular Eucharistic adoration and, on the first Friday of each month, confession is available all day to the young men. 

The school also seeks to emphasize beauty, Mitchell said. The school’s setting in the Florida landscape is itself beautiful, he noted, but its crown jewel is the newly-renovated, $10 million Romanesque chapel. 

Students fill Holy Cross Chapel, renovated in 2018. / Jimmy Mitchell
<p>Students fill Holy Cross Chapel, renovated in 2018. / Jimmy Mitchell</p>

The chapel, dedicated in 2018, was redesigned to encourage devotion to God. The renovation featured a larger space than before, with a clearly demarcated sanctuary, a prominent tabernacle and altar, a large 19th century stained glass window, elegant wooden pews, and numerous references to the Society of Jesus. Father Hermes told CNA at the time of the dedication that he wanted the new chapel to “bespeak the sacred. When you walk in there, you're gonna know this is a sacred space and a holy chapel.”

“The main vision was sacred space, and nobility, and make it a place where not only Mass is celebrated, but devotions, the rosary or Stations of the Cross,” Father Hermes said. 

In addition to organizing 18 annual retreats for the students, Mitchell and his fellow ministers facilitate peer groups among the young men. Groups of eight to 10 students convene regularly during lunch periods to discuss their faith, he said, engaging in vulnerable conversations about their struggles and sharing wisdom and counsel with each other. 

He said many upperclassmen commit to acting as “peer ministers,” attending daily Mass and weekly confession, and spearheading the discipleship groups. 

One such leader is rising senior Jackson Graham, who serves as president of the school’s peer ministry club. He told CNA that he is considering options for college, as well as discerning the priesthood through the Jesuits. 

Though Graham grew up in a Catholic household, he said he somewhat drifted from his faith early in his high school career. Graham said the experience of the pandemic in 2020 helped him realize "how much worse my life was when I was not putting God first."

Graham committed to daily Mass and daily rosaries to help with conquering vices. He said that returning to school in-person presented him an opportunity for a “new beginning.”

Throughout the rest of his high school career and beyond, Graham said he plans to continue daily prayer and attending daily Mass, and plans to maintain a men's group where members can discuss the faith and hold each other accountable. 

"Don't be afraid to cast your net out and really start diving into your faith. The Lord gives you the courage you need, and it's attractive," Graham said. 

Altar servers kneeling during the celebration of the liturgy of the Eucharist in Holy Cross Chapel. / Jimmy Mitchell
<p>Altar servers kneeling during the celebration of the liturgy of the Eucharist in Holy Cross Chapel. / Jimmy Mitchell</p>

Ryan Feocco, a fixture of Jesuit High School’s basketball team, graduated from the school this year and is planning to attend the University of Florida in the fall.

Feocco told CNA that he grew up in a relatively irreligious household, and he largely forged his own religious path. He said that in entering Jesuit High School, he did not at first find the idea of Catholicism appealing but tried to approach it with an open mind. He described his first few years of high school as “a time in my life where I wasn't really who I truly was."

Ultimately, thanks in large part to the school’s peer groups as well as to his theology courses, he learned that the moral teachings of the Catholic faith aligned with his own beliefs. Through a series of events, “God revealed Himself,” he said. 

Feocco says he prayed for clarity, and asked God to place the right people in his life; a close friend helped him greatly in his faith journey, he said. 

He decided to join RCIA during his senior year, and was received into the Church in May. He said his parents were very supportive of his decision. 

Feocco said he has several friends and fellow Jesuit graduates who are also planning to attend the University of Florida, and that he hopes they continue to support each other and attend Mass together while in college. 

He said he has found prayer to be the key to keeping his faith strong. 

"When I first came to school I just recited the words and didn't think anything of it. But prayer is undoubtedly, in my opinion, one of the most important things in the faith,” Feocco said. 

“You spending that time praising and glorifying God through your own words - it shows that you're willing to give Him all that you have. Building that prayer life aids tremendously in what you can become in the faith."

For fellow educators seeking to build a similar Catholic community at their school, Fr. Hermes said the first thing is to understand that such an undertaking is the Lord's work. 

Though changing a school's culture may take time, he urged against discouragement. Teens respond well to seeing adults living their faith, Father Hermes noted. 

Mitchell said that Jesuit High School holds the faith in great esteem and seeks to convince students that there is “nothing more exciting than sharing the love of God with others.”

Several young men that Mitchell has counseled have already entered successful college and post-college careers. At the end of the day, Mitchell says his job is “loving them well” and proclaiming the Gospel clearly. 

"The Lord does everything else,” he said. 

Author says maternal instinct can be measured in a lab

Liderina/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Jun 10, 2021 / 14:00 pm (CNA).

In her new book “Mom Genes: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct,” author Abigail Tucker argues that maternal instinct can be measured in a lab. 

“I had never thought of maternal behavior, maternal instinct, as something you could study under a microscope,” Tucker told CNA in an interview. However, she said that a trip to Emory University and a study of rodents made her consider the distinctiveness of a mother’s brain. 

“We are just beginning to understand what makes moms moms,” Tucker said. “And that’s to the detriment of the human species.” 

Weaving her own experience as a mother with an examination of the ways motherhood changes body and mind, Tucker’s book explores the biology of motherhood.

Tucker said that while most of her career was spent writing about animals, one area of expertise she could contribute to was her own experience having four children.

“By repeating the experience four times, I was able to see some of the hidden forces and wild card factors that were shaping me,” she said. 

Maternal instinct, she told CNA, is really a “change in motive.” She noted that some of these changes are physical. The brain, for example, is “a very key organ of childbirth,” she said. 

“Maternal instinct is really the awakening of this core, pro-baby motive, it's a sensitization to infant cues and a desire to respond to them,” Tucker said. “One scientist called it an ‘unmasking of a latent identity.’” 

A host of variables - financial, social, stress, partner and familiar relationships - also contribute to the type of mother a woman becomes, Tucker said.

“As mothers, we make babies, but we are also being made,” Tucker said. “What are the forces that are invisibly working on us that help account for this staggering variation you see in maternal variation, just in one American city or one American block?” 

Tucker said that humans are “notable” among mammals in that they do not have what scientists call “fixed action patterns” with motherhood - patterns that other species have. 

“There’s so much variation in the way moms do their jobs globally, it's hard to pinpoint one thing we uniformly do,” she said, adding that scientists have noticed that many human mothers have a “left-sided cradling bias” - meaning they are more likely to cradle an infant on their left side. 

Tucker said she hopes the fact that birth rates are currently in “a swan dive” will prompt increased scientific study of maternal health and science, so that mothers, babies, families, and society can all thrive. 

“At a moment where moms are becoming a bit more of a scarcity than they were before, it might be worth kind of weighing some of these things we can do to help moms be at peak performance, because that’s good for everyone,” she said.

 

Court blocks Missouri's eight-week abortion ban

Natalia Bratslavsky/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Jun 10, 2021 / 10:30 am (CNA).

A federal appeals court on Wednesday blocked a 2019 Missouri pro-life law from going into effect.

The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court’s injunction on the Missouri Stands for the Unborn Act, which set up tiers of abortion restrictions at various stages of pregnancy.

Sue Liebel, state policy director for the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, said she was “disappointed” at the decision, “especially with a landmark U.S. Supreme court case already pending.” The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the fall on Mississippi’s ban on most abortions after 15 weeks, a case some legal experts say could be a landmark abortion ruling.

“Missouri lawmakers acted on the will of the people when they enacted some of the nation’s strongest protections for the unborn and their mothers in 2019,” Liebel stated.

The Missouri Stands for the Unborn Act was signed into law in 2019. Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region sued over the law, and a district court judge in August 2019 blocked it from going into effect.

The law set up several tiers of abortion restrictions at various stages in pregnancy – at eight, 14, 18, and 20 weeks of pregnancy – designed to be able to withstand judicial scrutiny. Judge Howard Sachs halted all the tiers from going into effect, ruling that they were unconstitutional pre-viability abortion bans; the abortion providers were likely to succeed on the merits of their case against the law, he said in his decision to grant a preliminary injunction.

Judge Sachs initially allowed one part of the law to go into effect – a ban on “discrimination” abortions conducted for the sole reason of the baby’s race, sex, or a Down Syndrome diagnosis. The district court later blocked that provision as well, after Reproductive Health Services brought additional evidence claiming harm done to clients by the law.

In the Eighth Circuit ruling on Wednesday, a three-judge panel considered whether or not to uphold the preliminary injunction placed on the law by the district court. The state failed to make its case to overcome the injunction, the court ruled.

“Missouri has failed to demonstrate that its policy priorities outweigh (1) the public interest in access to pre-viability abortions, or (2) the significant interference with RHS’s business and the harm to pregnant individuals who might seek a pre-viability abortion before final judgment in this case,” Judge Jane Kelly of the Eighth Circuit court wrote in the majority opinion.

The law’s ban on abortions after 20 weeks would have resulted in around 100 fewer abortions each year in the state, she wrote, and the eight-week abortion ban would have restricted around half of abortions in the state – estimates that the state “does not dispute.”

“The district court concluded that this was ‘a significant interference with plaintiffs’ service and the rights of its prospective patients,’” she wrote, “and Missouri offers nothing to counter that conclusion.”

Judge David Stras, concurring in part and dissenting in part from the majority opinion, argued that he would have allowed the restriction on “discrimination” abortion to go into effect.

“Women remain free to terminate their pregnancies for nondiscriminatory reasons,” Stras wrote, arguing that the provision was an abortion regulation and not a ban.

Wedding cake, controversy and faith: Colorado baker's book recounts years-long legal fight

Cake artist Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado. / Alliance Defending Freedom.

Denver, Colo., Jun 10, 2021 / 03:01 am (CNA).

Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker whose decision not to bake cakes for same-sex weddings ended up taking him before the US Supreme Court, has told his story in a book about his profession, his Christian faith, and his belief that religious freedom benefits everyone.

 

“My canvas is a cake. I hope to create messages that help people celebrate different events,” he said, explaining that he and his wife discussed their design standards in light of their Christian faith at the very beginning of the cakeshop.

 

“In our case, we drew our lines in the sand way back before we opened in 1993 about which cakes we could create and which cakes we could not create, because of their messages. We can’t cross those (lines),” he told CNA May 28. “We serve everybody, we just can’t create every cake.”

 

Phillips is the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in the Denver suburb of Lakewood. In 2018, with support from the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, he won a six-year legal battle in the U.S. Supreme Court after he faced legal action for declining to bake a cake to celebrate a same-sex couple’s union.

 

Despite continuing to be a focus of controversy and legal action, Phillips is steadfast.

 

“We drew our lines in the sand knowing that not crossing them might cause these problems. I was willing to lose my bakery,” Phillips said. “I would tell people your lines have to be worth it. I can’t celebrate a view of marriage that goes against my faith, and if friends and relatives disagree with that, my relationship with Christ is more important.”

 

He recounts his story in a new Salem Press book, The Cost of My Faith: How a Decision in My Cake Shop Took Me to the Supreme Court.

 

Phillips initially thought he could write a book to tell his story to his children and grandchildren. He also realized he had a platform to make his case that “all Americans should be free to live and work according to their conscience without fear of punishment from the government.”

 

“If this can happen in a small place like this, it can happen anywhere,” he said. “Every American needs to be prepared.”

 

“It’s been quite a ride,” Phillips recounted. “The first controversy happened in July 2012. Two men walked into my cake shop and asked me to create a wedding cake to celebrate a marriage. This marriage was different than my biblical view of marriage, and so I was forced to decline to create that cake and that message because of my Christian beliefs.”

 

“They swore at me, the flipped me off, they stormed out of my shop and filed a lawsuit,” said Phillips. “I was pretty stunned at that.”

 

He said he’d hoped for a longer conversation than that 20 second interaction. Phillips said he would sell birthday cakes, shower cakes, cookies, and brownies, “but I can’t create a cake for a same-sex wedding.”

 

Same-sex marriages were not recognized as legal unions in Colorado at the time. Nonetheless, the couple filed an anti-discrimination complaint under state law, claiming they faced discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

 

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled against the baker. They required Phillips to change his policy, to make wedding cakes for every customer, and to avoid personal participation in wedding cake design.

 

“If somebody wanted a cake that was adult themed or even pornographic I would have to do it or create it,” he said. “It was an easy decision to make, but the ramifications were that we had to give up our lucrative wedding business.”

 

Phillips and his wife had decided never to make cakes that celebrated Halloween, that were “anti-American or racist”, or “insulted other people, including people who identify as LGBT.”

 

“We knew even way back then we couldn’t bake cakes that celebrated same-sex marriages, even though in ‘91 or ‘92 that wasn’t anybody’s target,” he said.

 

 “We drew those lines in the sand. We knew we couldn’t cross them,” he told CNA. “That’s what I would say to all Americans: they should know where their lines are, and know how to fight for them, know that they have to be worth it first. And Jesus Christ is (worth it), and our relationship with him.”

 

The Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision did side with Phillips, but it did not rule on the free speech claims or the claims of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Rather, it found that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission proceedings against the baker “showed elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs motivating his objection.”

Phillips’ legal fights are not over. He is back in court after Autumn Scardina, an attorney who identifies as a transgender woman, asked that he bake a birthday cake with different colors to honor a gender transition. When he declined, the attorney filed a legal complaint alleging discrimination.

 

When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission accepted Scardina’s complaint in June 2018, Phillips then countersued Colorado. He claimed that he was being persecuted for his religious beliefs. The discovery phase of the case found evidence the state was displaying “anti-religious hostility.” The case before the commission was dropped in March 2019 in an agreement between Phillips and the State of Colorado that left open the possibility of a lawsuit from Scardina.

 

If the court rules unfavorably, Phillips and his legal team are prepared to appeal.

 

“If they do rule for us or if the case is dismissed, I was promised face-to-face by the person suing that I would be faced with another cake decision the very next day and we’d start all over again,” Phillips told CNA.

 

“We have to be prepared for a longer fight,” he said, voicing gratitude for the Alliance Defending Freedom legal group that is assisting in his case.

 

Jonathan Scruggs, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom working on Phillips’ case, said other creative professionals who work in the wedding business have faced struggles with similar laws, including calligraphers, photographers, and filmmakers.

 

“Jack has really set the standard or for how to interact in the public square and how to do so respectfully and peacefully,” he told CNA. Scruggs said it was “a shame” that the laws are being used as a “cancel culture” that targets people.

 

“In the current situation, this attorney called up Jack and asked for a cake to celebrate Satan. That wasn’t an out-of-the-blue request,” Scruggs said. “That is an unfortunate thing. I think in our pluralistic society, we need to learn how to disagree respectfully, and Jack has set the pattern for how to do that. We can disagree and still treat each other with grace.”

 

CNA sought comment from Scardina’s attorney, Paula Greisen, but did not receive a response by deadline. Greisen sits on the board of OneColorado, an LGBT advocacy group that has helped push for social, political, and legal changes in Colorado.

 

John McHugh, another attorney for Scardina, previously said it does not matter whether his client asked for a sex-change cake or a birthday cake.

 

“What matters is they refused to make her a cake based on her identity,” he said in March, according to the Associated Press.

 

For his part, Phillips has drawn support from Mike Jones, a gay man who supports his stand and testified on his behalf in court.

 

“These rights that we all hold dear, the freedom to exercise our religion, our free speech rights, these are freedoms we all value and cherish,” said Phillips. “Without those valuable freedoms, we lose all of them.”

 

Phillips said these freedoms are spiritually important for his growth as a person.

 

“I think those freedoms help for a better society,” he said. “We’re even fighting for those freedoms for the people who are suing me. I’m sure If those freedoms were gone, they would miss them and wish they hadn’t been involved in the fight to tear them down.”

 

He also reflected on God’s role in his life.

 

“God has been faithful to us,” he said. “I know that God has used these experiences to strengthen us, because my heart is fully committed to him.” Drawing on 2 Chronicles 16:9, Phillips said he believes that God is “looking for anyone whose heart is fully committed to him, to strengthen him and to show his strength through him.”

Biden administration cites ‘duty’ to uphold Title IX exemption for Christian schools

Christopher E Zimmer/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Jun 9, 2021 / 16:01 pm (CNA).

The Biden administration on Tuesday said it is required by law to uphold a Title IX exemption for religious colleges, in response to a lawsuit filed by students identifying as LGBT.

Filing in an Oregon district court, the Justice Department said that religious post-secondary schools seeking to intervene in a case to defend their Title IX religious exemption are not entitled to do so; the colleges have not made a “compelling” case that the federal government won’t defend their religious exemption in court, the Biden administration argued.

In the case of Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education, the pro-LGBT Religious Exemption Accountability Project in March filed a lawsuit on behalf of 33 current and former students from more than 20 colleges associated with evangelical Christianity and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The students, who identify as LGBT, said they experienced discrimination at the schools on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The schools, they argued, should be subject to the Title IX prohibition on sex discrimination – which the Biden administration interprets to include discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Title IX includes an exemption for religious colleges and universities.

In response, two Christian universities and one seminary – as well as the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities – in April moved to intervene in the case to defend their religious exemptions. The three schools – Corban University, William Jessup University, and Phoenix Seminary – are represented by the group Alliance Defending Freedom.

In a court filing reported by the Washington Post on Tuesday, the Biden administration argued that the colleges should not be able to intervene in the case, because they have not proven that the administration would not adequately defend their religious exemption in court.

The Justice Department stated that “at this stage of the litigation, it is premature to conclude that the Federal Defendants would neglect to raise, or be ‘ill-equipped’ to develop, effective arguments in support of the Religious Exemption.”

The administration said that it has a “duty” to uphold the statutory religious exemption, and thus shares the same interests as the colleges “to uphold the Religious Exemption as it is currently applied,” and “to defend the statutory exemption and its current application by ED.”

Reached by CNA on Wednesday, Alliance Defending Freedom declined to comment on the government’s court filing.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in federally-funded education programs and activities. It includes a religious exemption for colleges and universities that are “controlled by a religious organization.”

The Justice Department in March issued guidance interpreting Title IX to also apply to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Biden administration on Tuesday acknowledged that it is in the process of reviewing Title IX regulations, but stated its duty to uphold existing legal statutes – namely, the religious exemption.

“But neither the Administration’s stated policy positions nor the Department’s review of existing regulations abrogate the government’s duty to defend federal statutes and regulations in court as a legal matter,” the Justice Department stated.

The president of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities told CNA in May that if the court overturned the colleges’ religious exemptions, they could be forced to forego federal financial student aid.

This “would have a disproportionate impact on low-income and first-generation college students, as well as students from racial and ethnic minority groups,” the council’s president Shirley V. Hoogstra said.

In May, a lawyer for the Religious Exemption Accountability Project told Inside Higher Ed that the colleges’ motion to intervene was “premature” as the administration  “has not indicated whether they will defend the Title IX religious exemption or whether they will be neutral or align with the plaintiffs.” 

On his first day in office, President Biden stated his administration’s policy of applying federal civil rights protections against sex discrimination to sexual orientation and gender identity, in a sweeping executive order.

Biden cited the Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, where the court majority said that Title VII prohibitions on sex discrimination in employment did apply to sexual orientation and gender identity as well.

In his majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch acknowledged concerns of religious Americans about future conflicts pitting claims of LGBT discrimination against religious freedom claims. He said that religious employers could appeal to statutory religious protections such as those within Title VII, the First Amendment, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. How these statutes “interact with Title VII are questions for future cases too,” he said.

The Education Department has already begun implementing the order. While the agency previously supported female high school athletes in their lawsuit over Connecticut’s transgender athletics policy, the Biden administration withdrew that support.

Harvard Catholic Center engages intellectual tradition with new forum

Harvard Memorial Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. / Jon Bilous/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Jun 9, 2021 / 14:01 pm (CNA).

The Harvard Catholic Center is in its first year of launching an initiative to engage the university, academic professions, and the arts with the insights of Catholic culture.

“We are dealing with intellectual engagement in a whole variety of fields,” Deacon Tim O’Donnell, the program director at the Harvard Catholic Forum, told CNA.

The Harvard Catholic Forum is a project of the Harvard Catholic Center, the chaplaincy to the university’s Catholic students at nearby St. Paul’s parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts . 

Established in October 2020, the forum currently offers students a Catholic speaker series and non-credit courses in Latin and Greek. One course recently covered Greek in the Gospel of Matthew, and the other covered Latin texts from the late antiquity and medieval periods.

The courses typically attracted 12 to 14 people to sign up for the course, the center said, and the classes will once again be offered in the fall.

The center has also been inviting catechetical speakers to campus for years. The forum’s new speaker series will not replace those speakers, but will add additional speakers focusing on the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Due to the pandemic, the forum was forced to begin virtually last year. However, O’Donnell told CNA that the circumstances presented a unique opportunity to reach out to international speakers whom they otherwise might not have been able to host on campus. 

The forum is advertised to the public, but Harvard students reap the benefits of being on campus.

One of the goals of the forum is to provide a venue for Catholic graduate students in Boston to connect. 

“Promoting fellowship and intellectual exchange between Catholic students and scholars is an important part of our mission,” O’Donnell said. 

Father Patrick Fiorillo, an undergraduate chaplain at the Harvard Catholic Center and parochial vicar at St. Paul’s, told CNA that the Harvard Catholic Center has a global mission as well.

“That's very intentional because people come to Harvard from all over the world,” Fr. Fiorillo said.  “And so we really take seriously that the Catholic formation the students are getting here is going to have ripple effects throughout the world.” 

The forum plans to eventually offer conferences, host a visiting scholar-in-residence, and feature classes for credit.

Of the eight speakers invited by the forum this year, the most recent event was a webinar presentation on the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Latin American art, by Dr. Gauvin Alexander Bailey of Queens University in Ontario. 

Programs in the past year have included a series on faith and science, an annual lecture on miracles in Scripture, and a series on faith and art.

The webinars typically brought in between 250 and 400 viewers live. “Across all programs the rating has been about 9.5, so people are really very excited about what they've been experiencing,” O’Donnell said. “Our expectation in the coming year is to do a similar number of lectures and panels but to live stream them as well.”

Each webinar has been co-presented with the Lumen Christi Institute, which is next to the University of Chicago. O’Donnell said the organizations have a similar mission and sponsor related programming.