in Catholic Circles

US Departments of State and Justice Prioritize “Religious Liberty” while Touting Superiority of Christian Morality

US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo attendS a Vatican - US Symposium on Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs), on October 2, 2019 at the Old Synod Hall in the Vatican. The symposium "˜Pathways to Achieving Human Dignity : Partnering with Faith-Based Organizations' is co-hosted by the Holy Sees Secretariat of State and the US Embassy to the Holy See. Photo by Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo attendS a Vatican – US Symposium on Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs), on October 2, 2019 at the Old Synod Hall in the Vatican. The symposium “˜Pathways to Achieving Human Dignity : Partnering with Faith-Based Organizations’ is co-hosted by the Holy Sees Secretariat of State and the US Embassy to the Holy See. Photo by Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

In July, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo intro­duced the State Depart­ment’s new Commission on Unalienable Rights to review the definition of human rights and its role in foreign policy decisions. Pompeo stated that the concept of human rights has been “hijacked” and that “international institutions designed and built to protect human rights have drifted from their original mission” because of this. All members of the Commission are anti­abortion, including its chair, Mary Ann Glendon, former ambassador to the Vatican, who is a vocal opponent of contraception and abortion. In response, dozens of lawmakers issued a letter to Pompeo, expressing concerns that the Commis­sion would “push a narrow, discriminatory agenda that decides whose rights are worth protecting and whose rights the administration will ignore.” Catholics for Choice joined with hundreds of organizations, scholars, faith leaders and advocates in signing a letter asking that the Commission be disbanded and urging Pompeo “to use the resources of your office to take action on the great many grave human rights issues facing the world today, including those—like the treatment of asylum seekers and administration rhetoric and policy supportive of some of the world’s leading human rights violators—you have the power to improve directly.” Pompeo recently attended a conference at the Vatican on religious freedom, at which he described members of the Trump administration as “the strongest advocates of religious freedom in the history of our country.” The State Department later drew fire for promoting on its official website the speech the secretary deliv­ered under the title “Being a Christian Leader.”

Meanwhile, Attorney General William Barr alarmed observers with an October speech at the University of Notre Dame, where he delivered remarks on the government’s “monstrous invasion of reli­gious liberty” in America while explicitly claiming superiority for Judeo-Christian traditions: “Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct. They reflect the rules that are best for man … like God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and human society.” He blamed “militant secu­larists” for destroying America’s “traditional moral order.” He also criticized Catholic efforts to influence public policy related to alle­viating poverty while lauding Catholic efforts to influence public policy restricting women’s access to healthcare. The speech concerned many progressive Christians, who pointed out that Barr’s vision of Christi­anity in the public sphere appears solely focused on the imposition of narrow, conservative views on contraception, abortion and LGBT people while lacking compassion. Moreover, watchdogs were alarmed that, much like Pompeo’s State Department, Barr’s Justice Department high­lighted the religious speech on its official government website.

Biden Communion Denial Sparks 2020 “Wafer Watch”

During a campaign stop in Florence, South Carolina, in October, Rev. Robert Morey publicly refused to serve Communion to former vice president and 2020 Democratic frontrunner, Joe Biden, citing Biden’s prochoice position as the reason. The incident briefly revived the national debate over the purpose of the sacrament and the consequences of politicizing it. In 2004, presidential candidate John Kerry was denied Communion in St. Louis due to his prochoice stance, sparking what observers called “Wafer Watch.” At that time, a vast majority of US bishops opposed the practice of using the Eucharist as a “sanction”—for both theological and political reasons. Theologically, they noted

that there was no basis in canon law for denying Communion on political or ideological grounds and felt that doing so would “trivialize” the sacrament, dragging it into the morass of political squabbles. Others worried it would cast the church as a “bully” in the eyes of the public or appear hypocritical amid sexual abuse scandals. Outside the hierarchy, critics were quick to point to other policy positions that conflicted with official church teachings, questioning the motives behind those who would deny the sacrament to prochoice politicians but not to those who support the death penalty or the Iraq war.

In the 15 intervening years, the issue has become more polarized, but the attitude of the US bishops has remained largely the same. Earlier this year, Cardinal Timothy Dolan refused calls to deny the Eucharist to New York governor

Andrew Cuomo after the passage of abortion protection laws, arguing that it should not be “used as a weapon.” Others offered reminders of Pope Francis’ statement that the sacrament “is not a prize for the perfect.” There are outliers, such as Bishop Thomas Poprocki of Springfield, Illinois, who issued a public statement declaring that he would withhold the sacrament from Catholic lawmakers who voted for abortion protections in the state, unless they not only rescinded their vote but proposed counter-legislation to restrict access. Given that none of the lawmakers he targeted were actually under his “jurisdiction,” the move was perceived largely as a publicity stunt. Only a handful of US bishops have followed Poprocki’s lead.

Morey’s decision marks the first such instance of the presidential campaign season. Biden and his staff have chosen not to respond to queries about the matter. Though a hot topic in some corners, the overall response has thus far been one of relative indifference, and media interest was light and quick to fizzle, distinguishing it from the “Wafer Wars” of 2004. Still, of the remaining Democratic presidential candidates, five are

Catholic—and all five are prochoice—and election day is still a year away.

US Supreme Court to Review Louisiana Abortion Restrictions

The Supreme Court has agreed to take up the case of a Louisiana law that would require abortion providers to have hospital privileges within 30 miles. Those who oppose Louisiana’s law argue that it will deprive access to abortion care to most Louisiana women, especially in rural areas. Moreover, while nationally, Catholic hospitals serve one in six patients in the US, in Louisiana that rises to one in four. It is unlikely that any Catholic hospital would grant admitting privileges to providers.

The case, June Medical Services v. Gee, will be the first major abortion rights case to be argued before the Court since the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, both recommended by the conservative, anti-abortion Federalist Society. Before the retire­ment of Anthony Kennedy, the Court had already struck down a virtually identical law in Texas. Upholding the Louisiana law would there­fore signal an uncertain future for other TRAP (“targeted regulation of abortion providers”) laws and, ultimately, for Roe itself.

Also of concern is the “cross-petition” filed by Louisiana’s Health Depart­ment chief, which will accompany the case. The petition asks the Court to rule as to whether clinics and practitioners have legiti­mate “third-party standing” to sue on behalf of patients. Most legal challenges to abortion restrictions are brought by these third parties, rather than by an individual patient, who is unlikely to have the resources for a lengthy legal battle. Overturning their standing would not only put an end to this lawsuit, but would also work retroac­tively and potentially nullify all previous decisions on abortion cases not brought by a patient. It would also impact the status of abortion restrictions currently blocked by pending litiga­tion in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio.

Dioceses Struggle to Manage Abuse Settlement Payouts

A Minnesota judge has approved a bankruptcy settlement for the Diocese of Duluth, which will provide $39 million for survivors of clergy abuse. The agreement also includes additional protocols for child safety—and promises the release of files on each of the three dozen credibly accused priests. In Pennsylvania, the Diocese of Pittsburgh anticipates closing multiple parochial schools, citing the financial burden of survivors’ compensation amid declining offertory money. Several recent polls indicate significant shifts in Catholic views of the hierarchy. In addition to diminishing confidence in the US bishops, a March 2019 Gallup poll revealed that 37 percent of American Catholics are questioning whether to remain in the church as a result of the sex abuse scan- dals specifically. Pope Francis himself admitted that the church’s “credibility has been seriously undercut and diminished by these sins and crimes, but even more by the efforts made to deny or conceal them.”

Meanwhile, California joined a host of other states in passing new laws expanding the statute of limitation on victims of sexual assault. When California temporarily suspended the statute of limitations, in the wake of church abuse scandals, the state saw hundreds of lawsuits against the church, totaling $1.2 billion in settlements.

Pan-Amazon Synod Chooses Married Priests over Women’s Ordination

Pope Francis presides the Holy Mass for the closing of the special assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region in Saint Peters Basilica at the Vatican City, 27 October 2019. ANSA/GIUSEPPE LAMI (ANSA via AP)

Pope Francis presides the Holy Mass for the closing of the special assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region in Saint Peters Basilica at the Vatican City, 27 October 2019. ANSA/GIUSEPPE LAMI (ANSA via AP)

Bishops from the Amazon region gathered for an unprecedented three-week synod this fall, during which discussions about ordaining married men in remote regions and expanding the role of women in ministerial roles took center stage. The synod voted 128-41 to allow men with “a legitimately constituted and stable family” to be ordained to perform the sacraments in remote areas of the Amazon. Members of the synod considered the question of female deacons, but rather than taking it up directly, they voted 137-30 to revisit the unreleased findings of a commission convened by Pope Francis to study the role of women in the early church. No women were permitted to vote on any of the proposals. Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, marched in protest with other Catholic women activists to St. Peter’s Basilica, saying that a vote in the synod for women “would be a first, and a huge change.” Miriam Duignan, of the Women’s Ordination Worldwide campaign, said that “the time has come” for women deacons, and that she hopes any progress in the Amazon will mean change for women in the church worldwide.

Courts Deem HHS Conscience Rule Unconstitutional

A federal judge in the Southern District of New York vacated implementation of a proposed Health and Human Services (HHS) rule that would have expanded the ability of healthcare providers to refuse care for “religious, moral, ethical, or other reasons,” denying federal funding to any entity that failed to comply with the rule. New York’s attorney general argued that the rule would create “irrational, untenable, and potentially cruel situations,” by requiring state and local governments to “grant to individual health providers the categorical right to deny lawful and medically neces­sary treatment, services, and information to patients, based on the provider’s own personal views.” For example, the complaint continues, “if a woman arrives at the emergency room of one of Plaintiffs’ institutions presenting with a ruptured ectopic preg­nancy, the Final Rule would permit a wide swath of employees—from reception­ists to nurses to doctors to pharmacists to anesthesiolo­gists—to refuse to assist that patient in real time, and without advance notice, no matter the intense medical risk to the patient.”

The State of New York was joined by Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin, as well as New York City, Chicago and the District of Columbia. California and the City of San Francisco have filed a separate suit challenging the rule.

Judge Paul Engelmayer ruled simultaneously on this and three other lawsuits brought against the HHS rule, agreeing with the plaintiffs’ claim that the rule was “arbitrary and capricious.” He advised HHS that in future rulemaking, the agency should “do so within the confines of … the Constitution.”

Several similar rules are making their way through the federal pipeline and are sure to face similar challenges.