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As marriage rates continue to plunge, how can the Church get more people to the altar?

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CNA Staff, Jul 11, 2024 / 06:00 am (CNA).

The Catholic Church needs to be focused at the parish level to drive up plunging marriage rates among the faithful, experts say, as low marriage rates in the Church mirror the collapse of matrimony in wider society. 

Catholic marriage rates dropped by about 70% between 1969 and 2019, according to data from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate

The collapse reflects the broader decline of marriage rates throughout the United States, with a record 25% of 40-year-olds in the U.S. currently having never been married, according to Pew Research data

Experts and marriage advocates have long offered explanations for plummeting marriage rates. Mary Rose Verret, who with her husband, Ryan, founded the marriage renewal and preparation initiative Witness to Love, has argued that young Catholics are “not seeing holy, healthy, happy marriages being lived out,” leaving them without meaningful examples of successful unions.

The Verrets told CNA that the Catholic Church should be considerably more proactive in encouraging marriages. 

“As a Church, we can do a better job talking about marriage from the pulpit,” Mary Rose said. “We need to talk to young people about marriage when they’re younger. We need to sing the benefits of marriage. We should have married couples go to schools and espouse the benefits of marriage.”

Ryan told CNA that such witness is a critical component to bolstering marriages, especially for those who lack those examples in their own lives. “How do you know there’s another way of doing things if you don’t even see it?” he said.

‘An opportunity for conversion’

Pope Francis last year named the Verrets as consultants to the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life, which Mary Rose said would allow them to “serve the sacrament of marriage in a more impactful way.” 

The couple’s Witness to Love program offers a “full-circle” approach to promoting strong marriages in order to counteract collapsing marriage numbers in the U.S. The ministry helps couples “explore the depths of their relationship” by “nurturing qualities that form the foundation of enduring love and commitment.” 

Yet Ryan told CNA this week that “more and more couples these days don’t know someone who’s married.” 

J.P. De Gance, the founder and president of a marriage and relationship ministry called Communio, pointed out that dioceses often invest much more in priestly vocations than matrimonial ones. 

“Every diocese has a vocations director, and that director typically focuses on vocations to priestly ordination,” he told CNA. “When we focus in that area, we’re trying to get men to commit to a celibate life dedicated to Our Lord and to priestly ministry.”

“That’s a harder ask, typically, than marriage,” he pointed out. “... If you compare marital vocations to priestly vocations, ordinations are down 38% since 1970, but Catholic marriages are down north of 70%.” 

That ratio, he said, means that “we’re getting twice as many priestly ordinations per Catholic wedding.” 

He pointed out that historically marriage has been seen as the “foundation” of success, whereas in the modern era it is increasingly seen as a “capstone” to success. 

“Today a lot of parents, even faithful parents, are saying: ‘Don’t think about getting married or even getting serious until after college. Wait until you’re established’,” DeGance noted. “Any time parents say that, you’re advancing a message that causes our kids to delay marriage.”

Parishes have a significant role to play in helping reverse this decline, De Gance said.

“At the parish level, we need to teach the skills of discerning a good Christian relationship and a good Christian spouse,” he said. 

Though not everyone is called to marriage, De Gance said, pastors should stress that it’s “the most common path to grow in holiness.”

“A lot of time parish priests are concerned about preaching in this way,” he said. “They’re afraid of hurting people by talking about this.” 

But “if we fail to preach and teach about it, we’re not going to have any chance to push back against the zeitgeist that’s saying the exact opposite,” he said. 

Mary Rose Verret told CNA that she has observed intense interest from young people about marriage. When she facilitated marriage-focused events while working for the Family Life Office of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, “we’d hit the capacity of the building,” she said.

“It’s not that young people value marriage less,” she said. Rather, “they idealize it, they delay it,” and, further, they “don’t surround themselves with marriageable people.”

Ryan Verret said parishes should help facilitate relationships in which young adults can help each other toward getting married, including introducing single friends who are seeking marriage.

“We’re helping parishes to say: ‘If you want engaged couples to be married in the Church, then there needs to be an opportunity to enrich marriages,’” he said. To get to that point, he noted, young men and women “need to have a reference point for what marriage looks like in society.”

De Gance, meanwhile, said one way parishes can help is to defray the high costs often associated with weddings. The average wedding in the U.S. can run more than $30,000, which is often prohibitive for young people looking to get married.

Parishes often charge money for wedding services, including receptions, and De Gance said they should aim to keep those fees as low as possible.

“Parishes should see marriages and weddings as an opportunity for conversion, not as a way to offset costs for the parish,” he said. “The cost of a wedding is a barrier for a lot of young people. There should be inexpensive ways to leverage the facility so you can host a low-cost wedding reception.”

Part of the danger, De Gance noted, is that many Church leaders have become used to the new paradigm of low marriage rates and young people who don’t want to get married. “There is a general cultural zeitgeist that Catholics and other Christians have imbibed, and we don’t even realize it.”

Yet the crisis, he said, should not be overlooked. “This is the civilizational challenge facing the Church,” he said.

States, doctors sue Biden administration over transgender medical mandate

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Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jul 10, 2024 / 17:55 pm (CNA).

Seven states and a group of pediatricians are suing President Joe Biden’s administration over a rule that would force doctors to provide sex-change procedures and require health insurers to cover them.

“Joe Biden is once again exceeding his legal authority in order to force his radical transgender ideology onto the American people,” Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, who led the seven-state coalition, said in a statement on Wednesday.

The lawsuit argues that HHS did not have the authority to create the rule and that it is not a legitimate interpretation of the Affordable Care Act’s prohibition on sex discrimination. It also argues that the rule violates the First Amendment and Fifth Amendment rights of health care providers.

The Biden administration “is threatening to hold federal funding hostage from any health care provider that refuses to perform or affirm harmful and irreversible transgender procedures,” Bailey said.

“I am filing suit because I will not allow out-of-touch federal bureaucrats to force Missouri health care providers into performing experimental and dangerous gender-transition procedures on the taxpayer dime.”

The other states joining in the lawsuit are Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued the rule in April of this year. The rule reinterprets the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) prohibition on “sex” discrimination to include a ban on “gender identity” discrimination, even if the person’s self-asserted “gender identity” is different from his or her sex. The ban on discrimination applies whether the patients are adults or minors.

Refusing to provide or cover transgender medical interventions, such as sex-change operations and drugs, is considered discriminatory and unlawful under the rule. If a health care provider or insurer violates this rule, they could be stripped of federal financial assistance and would be excluded from participating in Medicare and Medicaid. 

The ACA itself does not specifically reference “gender identity” or sex-change procedures on adults or minors.

The lawsuit asks the federal court to block HHS from enforcing the law against the seven states in the lawsuit and the doctors affiliated with the American College of Pediatricians, which is also represented in the lawsuit. 

Last week, a federal judge temporarily blocked HHS from enforcing the law against 15 other states who separately filed a lawsuit.

Dr. Jill Simons, the executive director of the American College of Pediatricians, said in a statement that the organization joined the lawsuit because “doctors should never be forced to violate their sound medical judgment and perform life-altering and sterilizing interventions on their patients.”

“Our doctors take an oath to do no harm, but the Biden administration’s rule forces them to violate this oath and perform procedures that are harmful and dangerous to our patients — vulnerable children,” she added. “What the Biden administration is calling for is wrong and unlawful.”

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Counsel Julie Marie Blake accused the Biden administration of trying to “hijack medicine” with the rule. ADF is representing the American College of Pediatricians in the suit.

“The HHS rule will harm those suffering from gender dysphoria, particularly children, and punish doctors who seek to care for them,” Blake said in a statement. 

“Medical professionals around the world and individuals who have undergone these experimental, body-altering procedures are warning about their risks,” she said. “Yet the Biden administration is working to force doctors to perform these harmful, often sterilizing procedures to make people appear as the opposite sex.” 

“We are urging the court to halt the administration’s vast overreach in health care.”

The HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

National Eucharistic Pilgrims serve the poor during ‘Boxes of Mercy’ day of service

Perpetual Pilgrim Patrick Fayad lifts a heavy "Box of Mercy" filled with donations for refugee families. / Credit: Jonah McKeown/CNA

St. Louis, Mo., Jul 10, 2024 / 17:25 pm (CNA).

As cars sped past a humble St. Louis apartment complex and children played nearby, a gaggle of mostly Latino residents gathered around a group of Catholic sisters, eagerly waiting to hear their name called. 

When each family’s cardboard box was located, a Perpetual Pilgrim — young men and women committed to walking thousands of miles across the U.S. with the Eucharist this summer — stepped forward to carry the heavy box up to each family’s apartment. 

An initiative of the Archdiocese of St. Louis as part of the ongoing National Eucharistic Revival, the “Boxes of Mercy” were loaded over the past few months with donated necessities such as food, clothes, and personal care items. Catholics from at least 61 parishes in the archdiocese contributed donations to the boxes, according to the St. Louis Review.

The St. Junípero Serra Route, the longest of the four National Eucharistic Pilgrimage routes, began in San Francisco in May and arrived in the St. Louis area July 5 to enthusiastic crowds. Throughout the pilgrimage experience, on Saturdays, the Perpetual Pilgrims have been given opportunities to serve the poor in the communities they are passing through. 

Given the summer heat and the substantial weight of the boxes, the July 6 project turned out to be one of the more physically strenuous service opportunities that the pilgrims have engaged in, Perpetual Pilgrim Patrick Fayad told CNA. 

Of all the projects the Serra Route pilgrims have done, “this is the most intense,” he said.

“Which is really good,” he added. 

Before the sisters brought the boxes to the apartment complex, Auxiliary Bishop Mark Rivituso of St. Louis blessed the boxes with holy water, calling the boxes “an overwhelming response of generosity on behalf of so many, who see the need and want to help and be Christ’s compassion for others.”

After Eucharistic adoration with the Missionaries of Charity, Rivituso then processed the Eucharist from the Missionaries of Charity to St. Josephine Bakhita Parish, where adoration continued while the pilgrims prepared to head to where the boxes were to be distributed. 

Bishop Mark Rivituso, auxiliary of St. Louis, blesses the "Boxes of Mercy" filled with donations for refugee families. Credit: Jonah McKeown/CNA
Bishop Mark Rivituso, auxiliary of St. Louis, blesses the "Boxes of Mercy" filled with donations for refugee families. Credit: Jonah McKeown/CNA

Carpooling in vans, the pilgrims arrived at the north St. Louis City apartment complex that houses a large number of refugee families from Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and several African countries. As the assembled refugees smiled with joy and gratitude, the pilgrims carried the heavy boxes up to each apartment while the Missionaries of Charity issued directions. Sister Drita Maris, MC, said the sisters come to this complex frequently to offer assistance and faith instruction to the children who live there.

“Really, we appreciate it. My family appreciates it always,” said Olga Rivas, one of the recipients, who came to the U.S. with her family from Colombia. She said the Missionaries of Charity always make themselves available for the material and spiritual needs of the refugees. 

“I’m blessed, because they always try to help … They help me with my apartment and come and pray in my apartment … If you have a problem, just talk with them,” Rivas said. 

Cecelia Lopez, a former resident of the apartment complex who returns frequently to help the refugee families, acted as translator and led the group in prayer, in Spanish, before the boxes were distributed. She said the sisters have been a huge help to the refugee families, saying the families know they can call the sisters “with any need.”

Ceclia Lopez, center, leads the group in prayer, in Spanish, before the "Boxes of Mercy" were distributed. Credit: Jonah McKeown/CNA
Ceclia Lopez, center, leads the group in prayer, in Spanish, before the "Boxes of Mercy" were distributed. Credit: Jonah McKeown/CNA

Jane Guenther, director of the Catholic Renewal Center for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, told CNA that the service project aimed to be a preparation for the next phase of the Eucharistic Revival, the Year of Mission. As part of that next phase, Catholics are invited to “commit to the daily gift of yourself, in concrete acts of service to others, which is at the heart of missionary discipleship.”

The St. Louis service project was “a really important thing, to give them that experience to be a part of that Eucharistic missionary aspect,” Guenther said. 

Radio María in Nicaragua shut down by country’s dictatorship 

Daniel Ortega. / Credit: Flickr de la OEA (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

ACI Prensa Staff, Jul 10, 2024 / 16:55 pm (CNA).

The dictatorship of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, canceled the legal status of Radio María Nicaragua along with that of several evangelical churches.

The decision was detailed in ministerial agreement No. 34-2024-OSFL, signed by Minister of the Interior María Amelia Coronel Kinlock and published July 9 in the official government newspaper La Gaceta.

In addition to Radio María, also named in the notice were the Prince of Peace Christian Church House of Prayer Association, the Association of Evangelical Churches of Nicaragua Jacob’s Well, the Apostolic Ministry Pentecost Prophetic Fire Association, and eight other institutions.

The ministerial agreement states that these organizations have not reported “for periods of between 2 and 26 years their financial statements” with “detailed breakdowns of income and expenses,” which hinders “regulation and oversight” by the Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate of Registration and Regulation of Nonprofit Organizations.

Sources consulted by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner, pointed out that this is the same dictatorship, through the Ministry of the Interior, that decides not to receive these financial statements when the organizations want to file them and then argues failure to file as a reason for the cancellation of the legal status of targeted organizations.

The notice in La Gaceta also specified that the title to the properties of all the listed organizations will pass over to the government of Nicaragua, the measure usually taken by the dictatorship when it decides to revoke the legal status of a nonprofit institution.

On April 11, Radio María Nicaragua had previously reported that its bank accounts in the Banco de la Producción, where donations are received in dollars and córdobas, the national currency, were frozen.

‘More attacks against the Church’ in Nicaragua

In an X post, Nicaragua’s former ambassador to the Organization of American States, Arturo McFields Yescas, denounced the regime’s “latest attack against the Church.” 

“Radio María’s accounts were frozen, their programming was altered, they were monitored, harassed, and finally today they canceled their legal status. The satanic dictatorship of Nicaragua hates the Church to death,” McFields Yescas declared.

For its part, the Nicaragua University Alliance charged on X that “the Ortega-Murillo regime continues to demonstrate its fear of truth and faith, canceling Radio María Nicaragua. They will not silence us. We condemn this new attack against freedom of the press and religion.”

Meanwhile, exiled researcher and lawyer Martha Patricia Molina, author of the report “Nicaragua: A Persecuted Church?”, told ACI Prensa the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship continues to persecute Christians in Nicaragua “despite the silence that has been imposed on bishops and priests so they won’t continue denouncing the arbitrary actions committed daily.”

“First, Radio María was forced to cut staff and broadcasting hours due to high operating costs that are attributed to the increase in charges for basic services such as electricity, which is a way employed by the dictatorship to financially suffocate the Church,” she explained.

“Then the vice dictator Rosario Murillo forced the radio directors to include in their programming the daily speeches that she broadcasts in the pro-government media,” Molina charged in a statement to ACI Prensa.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

Biden administration shifts again, appears to back sex-change surgeries for minors

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Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jul 10, 2024 / 16:25 pm (CNA).

President Joe Biden’s administration has shifted its position on sex-change surgeries for minors for the second time this month, now appearing to support surgical gender transitions for people under the age of 18.

Neera Tanden, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, sent an email to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) — an LGBT advocacy group — confirming that the White House supports transgender medical interventions on minors and opposes state-level efforts to restrict them. The news was first reported by an LGBT magazine, The Advocate, which obtained the email from HRC.

In her email, Tanden said that sex-change surgeries “are typically reserved for adults, and we believe they should be.” However, she added, “above all, families should have the freedom to make the medical decisions that they and their doctors determine are best for them — which is why we oppose attempts to limit health care for transgender individuals in the courts or through legislation.”

“We will continue to vigorously fight categorical bans on gender-affirming care in the courts, including the Supreme Court, and we will fight back hard against partisan laws being pushed by extreme Republican elected officials that target Americans just for who they are,” the statement read.

The statement provided to HRC is a departure from a comment made by a spokesperson for the White House just last week, which said that sex-change surgeries “should be limited to adults.” In a rhetorical shift, the new statement instead says that sex-change surgeries are “typically reserved for adults” but that the administration opposes legal restrictions.

For girls, sex-change surgeries can include the removal of healthy breasts and ovaries along with genital surgery to add prosthetic genitalia that appear male. For boys, sex-change surgeries can include the addition of prosthetic breasts along with castration and genital surgery that makes the boy appear female. Some surgeries, such as castration and the removal of ovaries, render the person infertile.

A study published in August 2023 estimated that patients aged 12 through 18 accounted for nearly 8% of transgender surgeries between 2016 and 2020 in the United States — about 3,678 surgeries in total. This included more than 3,200 chest surgeries and more than 400 genital surgeries to facilitate a sex change.

Jay Richards, the director of the DeVos Center for Life, Religion, and Family at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told CNA there’s been a “massive increase” in transgender medical interventions on minors in recent years and disputed the administration’s claim that sex-change surgeries are “typically reserved for adults” under current practice. 

“We know that … a few thousand American kids have undergone these procedures already,” he said.

The Biden administration issued its statement following a weeklong campaign by HRC and other advocacy groups that requested the administration openly support the legality of sex-change surgeries for minors. HRC President Kelley Robinson welcomed the clarification on the White House’s support for those surgeries.

“We appreciate that the administration has clarified that its position on health care for the transgender community has not changed — that it opposes any and all bans on access to care and will continue to fight these bans both in the courts and at the legislative level,” Robinson said in a statement.

Mary Rice Hasson, the director of the Person and Identity Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told CNA the White House’s email to HRC shows that “LGBTQ activists — not scientific evidence — dictate the Biden administration’s support for disfiguring, fertility-destroying hormones and surgeries for identity-distressed youth.”

“After initially appearing to oppose irreversible ‘transition’ surgery for minors, the White House faced huge pressure from powerful LGBTQ lobby groups to correct the record,” Hasson said. “Sure enough, the White House has reiterated its enthusiasm for sterilizing confused, troubled minors — under the deceptive label of ‘affirming care.’”

Similarly, Dr. Michael Artigues, the president of the American College of Pediatricians — which opposes gender transitions for minors — told CNA that the organization was “initially hopeful that the current administration had started to move in the right direction by opposing surgical intervention on minors, but this is apparently not the case.”

“We will continue to work with others in the medical community who understand what evidence-based medicine is and who truly want what is best for children,” he said.

Richards said he believes that the administration’s earlier hesitation on minors receiving sex-change surgeries was simply so “they can get headlines” because “the public overwhelmingly opposes these procedures.” He called the previous comments “half-hearted” and argued that the supposed shift on policy “wasn’t because [the administration] actually changed its mind.”

“Absolutely everything the Biden administration has done since it began has been in favor of the most radical transgender medical interventions [for minors],” Richards added.

Doctors can legally perform sex-change operations on children in slightly more than half of the states in the country. Over the past few years, about two dozen states banned doctors from performing sex-change surgeries on minors, an effort that was mostly led by Republicans.

Bishops’ committee faces backlash over call for Cuba to be removed from terrorism sponsor list

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops headquarters in Washington, D.C. / Credit: Farragutful, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jul 10, 2024 / 15:55 pm (CNA).

A U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) committee chairman’s call for the U.S. government to remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism has sparked a swift backlash from various quarters.

On Tuesday, the USCCB released a letter by Bishop A. Elias Zaidan, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on International Justice and Peace, in which he urged U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to “remove Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.” 

In his letter, Zaidan cited the position of his predecessor, Bishop David Malloy, who in the same capacity opposed the designation made by the Trump administration in January 2021. 

Cuba is currently on the U.S. government’s list of State Sponsors of Terror along with North Korea, Iran, and Syria. Countries are added to the list if they have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.”

Zaidan echoed Malloy’s 2021 statement that “for decades, in conjunction with the Holy See and the majority of the international community, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has urged collaboration and mutually beneficial relations between the United States and Cuba, as well as the full lifting of the economic embargo against the island nation.”

Zaidan’s letter was welcomed by Cuba’s embassy in the U.S., which denounced the “harmful consequences” of Cuba’s inclusion on the list. More than 250 progressive organizations worldwide also recently ramped up the campaign to get Cuba removed from the list, asserting that Cuba is not a state sponsor of terrorism but rather “a state sponsor” of “health,” “peace,” and “liberation.”

However, Zaidan’s letter also sparked a swift negative reaction from dissident and pro-democracy leaders opposed to the Cuban regime.

In an interview with CNA, Yuri Pérez, an exiled Cuban dissident and director of Latin American Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, argued that the USCCB committee was “advocating for the regime.”

“There are two different issues,” Pérez said. “One is the embargo and sanctions, which are tools the U.S. government uses to pressure the Cuban government to change,” he explained. “The terrorist list is more factual,” he said. “It’s based on regime behavior.”

Pérez said there is “a lot of pressure for the Biden administration to take Cuba off the list,” but “to make that decision, the regime has to change its behavior. And it hasn’t changed its behavior.”

One factor in Cuba’s inclusion on the list, Pérez said, is that it harbors terrorists on the island. 

“An easy step for the regime to get off the list would be to expel those people and surrender them to the countries seeking them,” he argued.

Jason Poblete, an attorney, Catholic, and president of the Global Liberty Alliance (GLA), said in an interview with CNA that the USCCB committee’s letter was “disconnected from reality.” 

Poblete said GLA has specifically worked with the Catholic Church in Cuba on human rights and religious freedom issues. The U.S. bishops, Poblete argued, “should respectfully stick with matters of faith and not issues related to national security.” 

Poblete noted the reasons for classifying a country as a state sponsor of terrorism are largely classified by the State Department. 

“Most Cuban priests I deal with are supportive of the designation,” he said, even though they do not know the specific reasons for it.

Jason Poblete of the Global Liberty Alliance. Credit: EWTN News Nightly / Screenshot
Jason Poblete of the Global Liberty Alliance. Credit: EWTN News Nightly / Screenshot

Poblete dismissed the notion that the U.S. embargo of the island is contributing to its ongoing crises. The embargo allows for vital products such as food and medicine, he said. 

“The problems in Cuba are nothing to do with the embargo,” he said. “It’s a totalitarian police state. I wish the bishops would take that into account before they write things like this.”

Along with allegations of terrorism support, Cuba’s communist government has long been criticized for its chronic human rights violations. The group Human Rights Watch, for example, says the Cuban government “continues to repress and punish virtually all forms of dissent and public criticism” and employs “arbitrary detention to harass and intimidate critics.”

Pérez, meanwhile, said lobbying efforts to remove Cuba from the list are likely to intensify in the coming months, especially if President Joe Biden loses the presidency. Advocates, he argued, would work to push the Biden administration to strike Cuba from the list before the Democrat leaves the White House. 

“Expect a flurry of activity if Biden loses before he transitions,” he said.  

The USCCB did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Colorado parishes to appeal ruling in dispute over universal preschool program

St. Mary’s Catholic Preschool in Littleton, Colorado. / Credit: St. Mary Catholic School

CNA Staff, Jul 10, 2024 / 14:27 pm (CNA).

Two Catholic parishes in Colorado are appealing a June federal court ruling that granted them access to a state preschool program, arguing that though the court ruled in their favor in the matter, it did not extend them sufficient protections of religious liberty. 

The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado ruled on June 4 that the preschools at St. Mary Catholic Parish in Littleton and St. Bernadette Catholic Parish in Lakewood can be included in the state’s universal preschool (UPK) program even though they prioritize the admission of Catholic families.

The court found that the state had discriminated against the Catholic parishes by “creat[ing] an unworkable scheme that breaches the appropriate limits on state power,” according to the judge’s opinion.

Though part of the ruling was in their favor, the preschools are still unable to participate in the program and uphold their religious beliefs, according to a statement from Becket, the nonprofit religious liberty law firm that is arguing on behalf of the parishes. 

Ryan Colby, a spokesman for Becket, told CNA on Wednesday that “the court ruled that Catholic preschools in the Archdiocese of Denver can consider religious affiliation in their student admission and operations decisions.” 

“However, the judge upheld the part of the UPK requirements that say the preschools can’t abide by and uphold their beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity,” he said.

Nick Reaves, counsel for the case with Becket, explained that they are appealing the decision because the schools still cannot participate in the program while following their religious convictions. 

“While the district court correctly recognized that the state has no right to prevent Catholic schools from considering religious affiliation in their enrollment decisions, the court still did not permit them to participate in the UPK program while operating consistently with their Catholic mission,” Reaves said in the statement. 

In archdiocesan guidance, for instance, schools are directed “not to enroll” students if there is, in part, “a conflict between what the school teaches and what same-sex parents are teaching their child regarding human sexuality.”

In its June ruling, in contrast, the federal court ordered that equal-opportunity law “demands that participating preschools ‘provide eligible children an equal opportunity to enroll and receive preschool services regardless of ... religious affiliation, sexual orientation, [or] gender identity ..., as such characteristics and circumstances apply to the child or the child’s family.”

Becket noted last month that “any appeal from this decision would be to the Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

“We look forward to vindicating our clients’ rights on appeal,” Reaves said on Wednesday.

Bishop Zaidan condemns ‘any targeting of civilians’ at Holy Family School in Gaza

Palestinian women react as they look at the badly damaged Latin Patriarchate Holy Family School after it was reportedly hit during Israeli military bombardment in Gaza City on July 7, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and Hamas. / Credit: Omar AL-QATTAA/AFP via Getty Images

CNA Staff, Jul 10, 2024 / 13:57 pm (CNA).

Bishop A. Elias Zaidan, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, offered support Wednesday for a Catholic school in Gaza after an alleged Israeli raid over the weekend and reported civilian casualties. 

“The [Holy] Family School has been a place of refuge for hundreds of civilians, and I join the Latin Patriarchate in condemning any targeting of civilians in the [Holy] Family School in Gaza,” Zaidan said in a July 10 statement. 

“I urge in strongest terms that civilians remain outside the sphere of combat, while also praying for peace and an immediate end to hostilities.”

Zaidan leads the Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon, encompassing a large portion of the western United States from California to Ohio. 

On Sunday the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem sharply condemned reports of the Israeli raid. Images circulated on social media on Sunday and Monday showing the destruction wrought at the facility. The school, attached to the only Catholic church in Gaza, is located in the Remal neighborhood of Gaza City, an area that sustained heavy damage at the outset of the Israel-Hamas war in October 2023.

The patriarchate said in a Sunday press release that it was “monitoring, with grave concern, the news of the raids, apparently launched by the Israeli army” against the Holy Family School. Gazan authorities later said four civilians were killed in the attack; Israel’s military said the school complex was used as a militant hideout and housed “a Hamas weapons manufacturing facility.” 

Hamas said that Ehab al-Ghussein, Gaza’s deputy minister of labor, was among the four people killed in the airstrike, CNN reported. 

While not commenting on whether Hamas militants were present at the school, the Latin Patriarchate said Holy Family School “has, since the beginning of the war, been a place of refuge for hundreds of civilians.”

“We continue to pray for the Lord’s mercy and hope that the parties will reach an agreement that would put an immediate end to the horrifying bloodbath and humanitarian catastrophe in the region.”

Holy Family Parish in Gaza was the site of a similar reported conflict late last year when in December it was alleged that an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) sniper shot and killed two women within the parish compound. 

IDF denied the allegations several times, while Pope Francis sharply criticized the reports after they became known, arguing that at the Catholic parish, there were “no terrorists, but families, children, sick and disabled people, nuns.”

Pope Francis tells AI leaders: No machine should ever choose to take human life

null / Credit: Blue Planet Studio/Shutterstock

Rome Newsroom, Jul 10, 2024 / 10:33 am (CNA).

Pope Francis urged artificial intelligence leaders on Wednesday to “protect human dignity in this new era of machines.”

In a message to an AI ethics conference in Hiroshima, Japan, with leaders from Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, the United Nations, and representatives from all major world religions, the pope underlined that artificial intelligence has implications for the future of war and peace in our world.

The Holy Father called for a ban on lethal autonomous weapon systems — a class of weapons that use computer algorithms to independently target and employ weapons without manual human control of the system.

“No machine should ever choose to take the life of a human being,” Francis said in the message published July 10.

The pope underscored the symbolic importance of discussing AI ethics at the atomic bombing site in Hiroshima, a place that serves as a reminder of the consequences that can arise from advancing technology without considering the full implications.

“It is crucial that, united as brothers and sisters, we remind the world that in light of the tragedy that is armed conflict, it is urgent to reconsider the development and use of devices like the so-called ‘lethal autonomous weapons’ and ultimately ban their use,” Francis said, renewing a call he made at the G7 summit in Italy in June.

“This starts from an effective and concrete commitment to introduce ever greater and proper human control.”

The two-day conference in Hiroshima brought together tech industry leaders with representatives of world religions including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Bahá’í, and other Eastern religions.

Brad Smith, the vice chair and president of Microsoft, said that Hiroshima, with its profound place in human history, has served as “a compelling backdrop to help ensure a technology created by humanity serves all of humanity and our common home.”

In one of the opening speeches for the conference, Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weisz said that “as individuals of faith, we carry a unique responsibility to infuse our pursuit of AI with moral clarity and ethical integrity.”

More than 150 participants from 13 countries took part in the event co-organized by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, Japan’s Religions for Peace Japan, the Abu Dhabi Forum for Peace, and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel’s Commission for Interreligious Relations.

Speakers included Amandeep Singh Gill, the U.N. secretary-general’s envoy on technology; Father Paolo Benanti, a professor of technology ethics at the Pontifical  Gregorian University in Rome; and a survivor of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.

The Vatican has been heavily involved in the conversation on artificial intelligence ethics, hosting high-level discussions with scientists and tech executives on the ethics of artificial intelligence since 2016.

The pope has hosted IBM executive John Kelly III, Microsoft’s Smith, and Chuck Robbins, the chief executive of Cisco Systems, in Rome — each of whom has signed the Vatican’s artificial intelligence ethics pledge, the Rome Call for AI Ethics.

The Rome Call, a document by the Pontifical Academy for Life, underlines the need for the ethical use of AI according to the principles of transparency, inclusion, accountability, impartiality, reliability, security, and privacy.

Pope Francis chose artificial intelligence as the theme of his 2024 peace message, which recommended that global leaders adopt an international treaty to regulate the development and use of AI.

At the G7 summit in June, the pope stressed that human dignity requires that the decisions of artificial intelligence (AI) be under the control of human beings.

“We need to ensure and safeguard a space for proper human control over the choices made by artificial intelligence programs: Human dignity itself depends on it,” Pope Francis said at the summit.

11 Vietnamese Christians missing from detention amid religious freedom concerns

The front of the Phat Diem Cathedral, Vietnam. / Credit: Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

CNA Newsroom, Jul 10, 2024 / 10:03 am (CNA).

Eleven Vietnamese Christians, including five Catholics, are reportedly missing from detention, according to a recent report from International Christian Concern (ICC), a U.S.-based advocacy group.

The ICC report, released on July 5, claims the missing individuals were sentenced between 2011 and 2016 to a combined total of 90 years and eight months in prison for their religious activities. Their current whereabouts are unknown.

According to the report, the five missing Catholics — identified by the names of Runh, A Kuin, A Tik, Run, and Dinh Kuh — were allegedly accused of “undermining national unity policy” for their participation in the Ha Mon Catholic Church, which lacks government approval.

The report also mentions six Protestant detainees among the missing, including four who were allegedly accused of involvement with Degar Protestantism, a movement not recognized by Vietnam’s government.

Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wisconsin, commented on religious persecution in Vietnam in 2022, stating: “The United States has a role as a leader to promote and defend religious liberty on the world stage, and that starts with denouncing the Vietnamese government for its track record of religious persecution.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has consistently raised concerns about religious freedom in Vietnam. In its 2024 report, USCIRF recommended that Vietnam be designated a “country of particular concern” for its violations of religious freedom.

A 2019 USCIRF report noted that Vietnam’s Law on Belief and Religion, which went into effect in 2018, has been problematic in its implementation. The law requires religious groups to register with the government and imposes procedures for religious activities that some groups have found burdensome.

The Vietnam Constitution nominally protects freedom of belief and religion, but in practice, the government maintains control over religious activities.

Warming Vatican-Vietnam relations

In December 2023, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Marek Zalewski as Vietnam’s first resident papal representative since 1975. This appointment followed a 2018 agreement between the Holy See and Vietnam on establishing a resident papal representative.

In April 2024, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s foreign minister, met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh in Hanoi. Both parties reportedly agreed on the need to advance high-level contacts, including possibly a papal visit to Vietnam.

Vietnam is home to an estimated 7 million Catholics, one of the largest Catholic populations among countries never visited by a pope — though some hope Pope Francis might change that. 

The Catholic Church in Vietnam has reported a rise in vocations, with government data indicating 8,000 priests, 41 bishops, and more than 2,800 seminarians as of 2020. This growth has led to the construction of new seminaries, including one in Hanoi completed in 2020 with capacity for 300 students.