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What connection does Moderna’s vaccine have to aborted fetal tissue? 

Denver Newsroom, Nov 24, 2020 / 06:33 pm (CNA).- Amid debate over the ethics of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate under development by Moderna, a Catholic microbiologist told CNA that while research connected to aborted fetal cells may have contributed to the knowledge base being used in the vaccine’s development, the actual production of the vaccine does not use cells of any kind, fetal or otherwise.

Deacon Robert Lanciotti, a microbiologist and the former chief of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s diagnostic and reference laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado, told CNA that the manner of production for the Moderna vaccine is ethically uncontroversial— in contrast to several other common vaccines, which are grown in aborted fetal cells.

Traditional vaccines use dead or altered viruses, and viruses have to be grown in cell lines, Lanciotti said. Some vaccines that are based on altered viruses are produced by growing them in aborted fetal cell lines, rendering them morally illicit for Catholics to take except for grave reasons.

In contrast, the production of RNA vaccines does not use cells at all, he said. During his 30 years as a CDC scientist, Lanciotti’s specialty was producing RNA in the same reaction used to produce the Moderna vaccine.

Moderna's vaccine is based on the coronavirus' RNA, and uses a spike protein, or peplomer, from SARS-CoV-2 rather than cell lines derived from aborted fetuses.

The RNA is injected into the recipient, which induces their cells to produce the spike protein. This triggers the production of antibodies and T-cells by the recipient.

Moderna’s vaccine is not completely free of any connection to abortion, as there is evidence that the vaccines have some connection with the use of aborted fetal cells in the early stages of vaccine design.

However, Lanciotti said, there is a distinction between “design” and “production.” Although it may seem like a subtle difference, he said in this case it makes more sense to assess the ethicality of the production of the vaccine itself, rather than any pre-existing knowledge and understanding that went into its development.

“The association with aborted fetal cells and these RNA vaccines is so distant that I don't think you would find a Catholic moral theologian that would say there's a problem at all,” Lanciotti said.

A complete bibliography of the Moderna vaccine reveals the HEK-293T cell line mentioned in some of the work that led to the vaccine's development.

The HEK-293 cell line is derived from a baby who was aborted in the Netherlands in the 1970s. However, the HEK-293T cells in question are not the direct descendants of these aborted fetal cells, but rather are genetically distinct variants.

The HEK-293T cell line was used by scientists to test the spike protein which was later used in the Moderna vaccine. Moderna scientists were among the researchers collaborating on the project, although it is unclear to what extent Moderna was involved in that specific part of the research.

Laciotti emphasized that the HEK-293T cells in question were not used to evaluate the vaccine itself, since the vaccine had not yet been designed, but rather went into the background knowledge that enabled the vaccine’s design.

He also explained that the spike protein itself is not contaminated with fetal cells, as the spike protein produced by the vaccine comes directly from the synthetic RNA injected, and is “100% newly derived and pure.”

Lanciotti also noted that there exists a knowledge base that was generated years ago— likely decades ago— about the basic biology of coronaviruses, which Moderna, a ten-year-old company, likely did not create themselves.

Moderna recently announced that a trial of its vaccine demonstrated it to be 94.5% effective. The trial involved 30,000 people, half of whom were given two doses of the vaccine, and half of whom received a placebo.

In an internal memo dated Nov. 23, Bishop Kevin Rhoades, who chairs the bishops’ committee on doctrine, and Archbishop Joseph Naumann, the head of the committee on pro-life activities, wrote to the bishops of the United States that the two RNA vaccine candidates appear to be ethically sound.

“Neither the Pfizer nor the Moderna vaccine involved the use of cell lines that originated in fetal tissue taken from the body of an aborted baby at any level of design, development, or production,” the bishops wrote.

“They are not completely free from any connection to abortion, however, as both Pfizer and Moderna made use of a tainted cell line for one of the confirmatory lab tests of their products,” the bishops wrote, referring to the HEK-293T cell line.

“There is thus a connection [to fetal tissue], but it is relatively remote,” the bishops concluded.

The Vatican has said that researchers have a duty to avoid using cell lines derived from aborted children in vaccine production, and have an obligation to “denounce and reject publicly the original immoral act [of abortion].”

The Church has allowed the use of vaccines produced in fetal cells if no alternative exists, while stressing the importance of protesting the vaccine’s production and encouraging “vigorous efforts to promote the creation of alternatives.”

The Pontifical Academy for Life, in a Nov. 22 statement posted to Twitter, said based on its own 2005 and 2017 guidance on the origin of vaccines, the academy has found “nothing morally prohibitive with the vaccines developed” by Moderna or Pfizer.

The Charlotte Lozier Institute, research arm of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, has listed the Moderna vaccine among the “ethically uncontroversial CoV-19 vaccine programs.”

However, Dr. Stacy Transankos, a PhD chemist, argued in a Nov. 20 National Catholic Register op-ed that listing a vaccine which has even a remote connection to aborted tissue as “ethically uncontroversial” could undermine the Catholic fight for ethical medicines.

“Instead of assigning this vaccine to a category that suggests no more caution is needed, I think it is better to slow down and look at the big picture...We need to speak up loudly with clarity and courage about the ethics and insist upon an ethical option. It could redirect this entire issue towards the good,” she wrote in her op-ed.

For his part, Lanciotti said that while all the COVID-19 vaccines remain in the testing phases, it appears that two of the three leading candidates are at least produced in an ethical manner free from the use of aborted fetal cells— which is more than can be said for some common vaccines such as MMR, polio, and chickenpox.

“We as Catholics should actually be very pleased that the two leading COVID vaccine candidates are both RNA vaccines with no ethical concerns,” he said.

“The third leading candidate, the AstraZeneca vaccine, is in fact a modified virus that is produced in HEK-293 cells. Therefore, that vaccine clearly has ethical problems and should be rejected by Catholics.”


New Catholic priests voice satisfaction in priestly life, but minority report 'troubling' adversity

Denver Newsroom, Nov 24, 2020 / 04:50 pm (CNA).- A survey of recently ordained Catholic priests reports that the great majority find satisfaction in their work celebrating sacraments and in their parish ministry, but there are also difficulties and areas for which they felt seminary life had left them unprepared.

A small minority of new priests voiced great dissatisfaction with their priestly life.

“We need to do a better job preparing our seminarians for living a life of celibacy as spiritual fathers, and... a much better job at helping them land successfully in their first year of priesthood and make the adjustments to a challenging environment,” Father Thomas Berg, a moral theology professor and director of admissions at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers, N.Y., told CNA.

“We also need to find the way to help them prepare better for real and practical challenges such as loneliness or the difficulties in maintaining friendships they began in seminary,” said Berg, who served as a coordinator on the study’s advisory board.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate collaborated with the National Association of Catholic Theological Schools from April to July 2020 in the study, published in the report “Enter by the Narrow Gate: Satisfaction and Challenges Among Recently Ordained Priests”.

Researchers sent a survey request to 1,379 priests recently ordained for both dioceses and religious orders. They received 1,012 valid responses, a 73% response rate. Respondents answered questions about areas of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their priestly lives, discussed their seminary formation, and discussed difficulties of priestly life.

“By far, the areas they are most satisfied are related to their immediate ministries, including celebrating the sacraments in their parishes, serving the needs of their parishioners, teaching the faith to others, presiding at Masses and other liturgies, hearing Confessions, ministering to the youth, and providing pastoral counseling,” the report summary said.

However, their self-reported areas of least satisfaction include “performing administrative and human resource duties, the poor relationship they have with the pastors under whom they serve, feeling burned out from their workload, their frustration with their diocese/bishop, and the lack of fraternity among their fellow priests.”

Respondents’ average year of ordination was 2017, and their average age was 38 years. About 76% were diocesan priests, with the remainder from religious institutes. While many were foreign-born, 82% were born in the U.S. The racial and ethnic breakdown of respondents was 74% white, 12% Hispanic or Latino, 8% Asian or Pacific Islander, and 4% African-American.

More than half of new priests said they were well prepared to preside at Mass, to preach, and to hear confessions. Fewer than half said they were well prepared for hospital ministry, presiding at funerals, and pastoral counseling. Only 30% said they were well prepared in language skills needed for their pastoral work, 28% were well prepared for serving diverse cultures in their diocese, and 24% said they were well prepared for personal skills like time management and stress management.

The new priests said they were least well prepared in administrative, human resources, and leadership skills. Only 16% said they were well prepared for the areas of communication and conflict management, building consensus, or motivating people, and only 6% said they were well prepared in administrative skills like budgeting and investing.

About 59% of new priests reported being “very satisfied” with their life as a priest, with 22% saying they are “somewhat satisfied.” Another 6% said they were “somewhat dissatisfied,” and 13% said they are “very dissatisfied.” The researchers interviewed 16 of the hundreds of respondents, focusing on those who reported dissatisfaction with their lives.

Berg found it “troubling” that so many reported struggles in their first years as priests. 13% of respondents said their lives as priests were “very dissatisfying.”

“We need to dig further into the data, and get at those reasons, but I think this will be a wake up call for a lot of bishops,” Berg told CNA. “It seems our newly ordained priests are landing in unexpectedly adverse environments in their respective dioceses. The report tells us in clear language that we need to do a much better job of accompanying and supporting our newly ordained priests in their first years of ministry.”

While the study did not explicitly ask the priests about many personal problems, according to Berg a “low but consistent” percentage of recently ordained priests across dioceses experience a major crisis such as depression, alcohol dependency or other addiction, or entering a sexual relationship. Such a crisis might help lead them to abandon the priesthood.

“It was the desire to get at the causes of this phenomenon that occasioned the study,” Berg told CNA.

The reports said that when new priests are asked their largest problems on a daily basis, they “express their greatest frustration with their diocese and fellow priests.”

For 20% of respondents, differences among different age cohorts of priests are “very much” a problem, with another 26% indicating this was “somewhat” a problem. Another 20% named theological differences in the concept of the priesthood among fellow priests as a significant problem, with another 24% saying it was somewhat a problem. About 17% of respondents named feeling a lack of input into diocese-level decision-making processes to be a large problem.

A significant minority of respondents thought they had been assigned too many ministries and duties or were so busy they could not meet people’s pastoral needs. Ministering at more than one parish was a problem for some. They said there was not as much fraternal support among priests as they would like, and the “loneliness of priestly life” was a problem. Some 30% of respondents thought that “unrealistic demands and expectations of lay people” were a problem, though about half as many said actual conflicts with parishioners or lay people were problematic.

Some 4% said living a life of celibacy or chastity was “very much” a problem, with about 14% saying this was “somewhat” a problem. About 2% said that “resolving any personal psycho-sexual issues” was very much a problem, and 9% said it was somewhat a problem.

Some 10% of respondents said that “differences among priests with different sexual orientations in your diocese” was very much a problem, while about 13% said this was somewhat a problem.

“Being expected to represent Church teachings you have difficulty with” was “very much” a problem for 2% or respondents, and “somewhat” a problem for about 5%.

About one percent said feeling comfortable ministering to women was very much a problem for them.

The new priests were asked whether they would choose the same path, knowing what they know now, and they were overwhelmingly positive. 80% of respondents said they would “definitely” enter the priesthood again. Another 16% said they “probably” would. One percent said they would definitely not enter the priesthood again if they had the choice, and 4% said they probably would not.

The survey asked the new priests to consider their own future in the priesthood. A large majority, 76%, said they will definitely not leave the priesthood, and 18% said they probably will not. However, 5% expressed uncertainty about whether they would continue to exercise their priesthood.

Asked if they have ever thought about leaving the priesthood, about 40% cited “celibacy and the loneliness of the priestly life” as a reason they have considered leaving.

“The next most frequently cited reasons are frustration with their diocese, religious institute, bishop or superior and the disappointment they feel in regards to their current ministries,” the report said.

Some 79% know someone who left active ministry or the priesthood within five years of ordination. The respondents hypothesized that the reasons for this were “disillusionment with the actual life of ministry, loneliness, meeting someone they would like to be their romantic partner or to marry, and their desire to look for a romantic partner.”

Among all survey respondents, the priests tended to report being very satisfied in the respect they receive as members of the clergy from lay persons, their present financial situation, and their present living situation. They were least likely to report satisfaction in balancing work, personal and spiritual lives and in their training for administrative matters such as budgeting and managing staff.

The clergy sexual abuse scandals have “greatly” hindered the ministry of about 16% of respondents, while 64% said the scandals have “slightly” hindered their ministry.

Regarding their seminary formation, almost 90% reported that their seminary offered counseling with a psychologist. Another 76% said their seminary offered programs about formation in chaste celibacy, and an equal percentage reported prayer groups or prayer teams at their seminary. Some 66% said seminary offered mentoring during their pastoral year, while 61% reported that a pastoral year internship was available.

The least offered programs include a “propaedeutic”, or spirituality year, reported by only 23% of respondents; 30-day spiritual exercises, reported by 26% of respondents; and chastity support groups, reported by 38% of respondents.

Berg noted to CNA that the responses were overwhelmingly from men of the millennial generation. He said that if it was challenging to be a new priest in the last decade, it is “even more challenging in a post-McCarrick Church.”

“To be a priest in the coming decade I think will be to partake in a profound transformation of how the Church lives and experiences the faith: a Church with a smaller footprint as more and more parishes necessarily will have to be consolidated, merged or closed,” he said. In his view, the Church will be forced to “find fresh new ways to engage in discipleship and thrive, mostly likely, as smaller but more intentionally Catholic communities.”

“The priests of the next two decades will be part of this--major players. They will not tolerate a Church leadership focused simply on managing decline.,” he said.

Berg encouraged prospective seminarians and priests to read the report and make their own conclusions.

“Lean into the hard work of vulnerability and transparency in formation. Be brutally honest with yourself about your past wounds, about those areas where you need to mature and grow,” he said. “Take note of the many seminarians who reported how positively they benefited from counseling during formation.”

Seminarians should ask themselves and bring to prayer and spiritual direction various important questions:

"What am I looking for in the priesthood? Is what I am looking for what the Holy Spirit wants me to desire? Am I looking for the esteem of others, for power, influence and admiration? Or am I sincerely hungry to be a spiritual father and to give myself in spousal love for the Church? What am I really looking for?”

“Seminarians have to get to the bottom of that with raw honesty,” said Berg. “If you are looking for esteem, power, influence and admiration--pack and go home because you are not called to the priesthood.”

Berg also had advice for all Catholics.

“Always pray for your priests,” he said. “Be patient with your newly ordained priests. Simple things: be kind. But by the same token don’t be afraid to give them clear feedback--while not forgetting to complement them for the positive.”

“Remember -- and this is true of any priest--at any given moment priests are being pulled in a dozen directions at once,” he said. “Keep that in mind. They have far many more things on their minds and hearts than may be apparent as you just chat together after Mass.”

Analysis: Archbishop Gregory says he won’t deny Biden communion. How will Catholics respond?

Denver Newsroom, Nov 24, 2020 / 04:25 pm (CNA).-  

Washington’s archbishop, who will be made a cardinal this weekend, told a journalist Tuesday that in his diocese, he will not deny Holy Communion to a politician who has pledged to enshrine access to abortion in federal law and permit federal funding of abortions. That politician is President-elect Joe Biden.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s comment is sure to raise questions about the Church’s pro-life witness. But for some Catholics, the remark might also raise questions about the sincerity of U.S. bishops on the topic of ecclesial reform.

In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Church’s doctrinal office, told U.S. bishops in a memo that a Catholic politician “consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws” is engaged in “manifest” and “formal cooperation” in grave sin.

In such a case, the politician’s “pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist,” Ratzinger wrote.

If the Catholic perseveres in grave sin and still presents himself for Holy Communion, “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.”

Ratzinger’s memo was an application of canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law, which says that Catholics “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.”

In short, Ratzinger’s memo gave bishops instruction on how to apply the Church’s law. On Tuesday, Archbishop Gregory said he has no plans to do so.

Some Catholics will soon raise objections to Gregory’s remark.

Pro-life activists will say bishops should stand up for the unborn, and that distributing the Eucharist to pro-choice politicians implies that abortion is not a serious moral issue. Some will accuse the archbishop of preferring secular approval to uncomfortable evangelical witness.

Those are exactly the arguments Catholics made when Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said in 2019 that he would not deny the Eucharist to New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, who signed one of the most permissive abortion laws in the country’s history, and again in October of that year, when Dolan said he would not deny Biden the Eucharist.

If history is predictive, other Catholics will praise Gregory as a witness of civility and tolerance. They will say that no one should politicize the Eucharist, and that denying Holy Communion is not pastoral, or prudent.

They will not be the first to use that language.

In 2004, when U.S. bishops discussed pro-choice politicians and the Eucharist, one cardinal among them was charged with summarizing the memo sent from Ratzinger to bishops on the subject, as few of them had yet received it. The cardinal downplayed the memo, saying addressing the matter at all was up to the discretion of U.S. bishops.

“The question for us is not simply whether denial of Communion is possible, but whether it is pastorally wise and prudent,” the cardinal said.

That cardinal was Theodore McCarrick.

At the 2004 spring meeting of U.S. bishops, which took place in Denver, McCarrick inaccurately summarized the instructions of the Vatican on Holy Communion, omitting Ratzinger’s normative direction. Under McCarrick’s influence, the bishops decided the best way to handle the question was to defer to the individual judgement of bishops.

The memo, incidentally, was sent ahead of the meeting to two U.S. bishops: McCarrick, and the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Bishop Wilton Gregory.

In the wake of McCarrick’s more recent scandal, pro-lifers will not be the only ones to lament Gregory’s decision about Biden. Catholics concerned with ecclesial reform are also likely to have concerns.

Gregory is charged with leading the Archdiocese of Washington after the scandal of McCarrick, and in the wake of serious questions raised about his immediate predecessor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl. The archbishop is charged with promoting healing, and enacting reform, and he’s pledged to do so.

But his critics are likely to see his remarks on Biden as a setback to reform. Some will argue that Gregory has substituted his own judgment for the law of the Church, and the Vatican’s instructions on how to apply it. That practice, they’ll say, is the kind of clericalism that made the McCarrick scandal possible.

Gregory may not see that matter that way, or believe himself to be flouting canon 915. But if his priests think he is not taking seriously ecclesiastical law, his reform agenda may be seriously jeopardized.

Archbishop Jose Gomez said last week that a Biden presidency promises “certain challenges” for the bishops of the U.S. As Gregory wades into controversy over canon 915, the reach of those challenges may soon become apparent.


Massachusetts governor must decide whether to veto bill expanding abortion access

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Nov 24, 2020 / 04:01 pm (CNA).- A measure expanding abortion access in Massachusetts has passed both the state house and senate, and could prompt a veto from the governor.

On Nov. 18, the state senate passed amendment 180 by a vote of 33-7, according to The Herald News; the amendment would allow for some abortions until the point of birth.

Legislators had inserted amendments into house and senate budget bills that would effectively implement the “Roe Act,” a bill proposed in 2019 to legalize abortion in the state in the event Roe v. Wade were overturned by the Supreme Court.
The amendments would allow for abortions up until the point of birth in the event of a lethal fetal anomaly. They would also allow for minors as young as 16 years old to have an abortion without parental consent.
In addition, the bill calls for life-saving equipment to be in the room when a doctor performs a legal late-term abortion, but only says the equipment is to “enable” the doctor to safe the life of a baby surviving an abortion. Pro-life groups have warned that the language amounts to “passive infanticide” by not specifically requiring a doctor to save the infant’s life.
On Nov. 18, the senate passed its budget bill that included amendment 180, the abortion measure. Now both budget bills will be reconciled in a conference committee, after which the final version will be voted on by both chambers and sent to the governor for signature.
Gov. Charlie Baker (R) has already stated his opposition to the measures. Pro-life groups are calling on Massachusetts residents to contact the governor asking him to veto the measures.
However, both the house and senate passed the amendments with a veto-proof majority.
The state’s Catholic bishops have stated their opposition to the amendments.
“Abortion at any time, from the moment of conception to birth, is in direct conflict with Catholic teaching and must be opposed,” the bishops said Nov. 24.
The pro-life group Massachusetts Citizens for Life also says that the measures allow for late-term abortions when a physician determines it “necessary” in order “to preserve the patient’s physical or mental health.” Also, under the proposed amendments, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and nurse midwives could perform abortions.

Feinstein will not continue as head Democrat on Senate Judiciary Committee

CNA Staff, Nov 24, 2020 / 03:21 pm (CNA).- Following complaints from liberal groups on her handling of Amy Coney’s Barrett’s confirmation hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) announced that she will not seek to continue as ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“After serving as the lead Democrat on the Judiciary Committee for four years, I will not seek the chairmanship or ranking member position in the next Congress,” she said in a November 23 statement. Feinstein added she looks “forward to continuing to serve as a senior Democrat on the Judiciary, Intelligence, Appropriations and Rules committees as we work with the Biden Administration.”

Feinstein faced calls to step down from the position after she was cordial with her Senate colleagues at Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings last month. Feinstein, a Democrat, thanked chairman Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) at the conclusion of the hearings, and said it was “one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in.”

“I want to thank you for your fairness and the opportunity of going back and forth,” she added. “It leaves one with a lot of hopes, a lot of questions, and even some ideas,” she said, noting that “perhaps some good bipartisan legislation” could happen in the future.

Feinstein and Graham hugged each other after the hearings ended. Feinstein did not vote to confirm Barrett to the Supreme Court.

Despite not actually supporting Barrett’s confirmation, Feinstein was criticized for lending an “appearance of credibility to the proceeding.”

Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL, added in an October 16 statement that she believed “the committee needs new leadership.”

NARAL had previously endorsed Feinstein, and had described her as someone “at the forefront of the movement to safeguard (abortion rights).”

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the Senate minority leader, said in October that he had a “long and serious” talk with Feinstein regarding her position on the Judiciary Committee. Following her announcement that she would be stepping aside from the role, Schumer thanked her for her service.

“I know Senator Feinstein will continue her work as one of the nation’s leading advocates for women’s and voting rights, gun safety reform, civil liberties, health care, and the rights of immigrants,” he said.

It is unclear as of now who will replace Feinstein as the ranking member of the committee. According to POLITICO, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) are likely contenders for the role.


Federal court says Texas can withhold Medicaid from Planned Parenthood

CNA Staff, Nov 24, 2020 / 10:05 am (CNA).- A federal appeals court on Monday upheld the authority of states to not fund abortion providers through Medicaid.

A majority opinion of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, issued Nov. 23, ruled that abortion providers and their customers could not challenge Texas’ decision to withhold Medicaid funds from Planned Parenthood.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised the decision in a statement.

“Undercover video plainly showed Planned Parenthood admitting to morally bankrupt and unlawful conduct, including violations of federal law by manipulating the timing and methods of abortions to obtain fetal tissue for their own research,” Paxton stated.

“Planned Parenthood is not a ‘qualified’ provider under the Medicaid Act, and it should not receive public funding through the Medicaid program.”    

Texas in 2015 moved to defund Planned Parenthood, after undercover videos alleged that officials were unlawfully profiting from the sale of aborted fetal tissue.

The state’s determination of “qualified” Medicaid providers is between the state and the provider, the court ruled on Monday.

The case dates back to 2015, when citizen journalists with the group Center for Medical Progress (CMP) published undercover videos of conversations with Planned Parenthood officials. In the conversations, where the CMP members posed as fetal tissue harvesters, the videos appeared to show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the unlawful sale of fetal tissue for profit.

The research director at Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast appeared to suggest that the affiliate could alter abortion procedures to produce higher-quality tissue specimens for harvesters, having doctors perform abortions “in a way that they get the best specimens.”

Later that year, the Texas Office of the Inspector General said that Planned Parenthood was “no longer capable of performing medical services in a professionally competent, safe, and legal manner.” The state barred Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid funding.

In response, several Texas Planned Parenthood providers and their customers brought a lawsuit.

In 2019, the Fifth Circuit ruled in the state’s favor. On Monday, the court considered whether Medicaid beneficiaries had a right to challenge the state’s determination in court. The Fifth Circuit ruled that they did not.

Under federal law, “Medicaid beneficiaries have an ‘absolute right,’… to receive services from a provider whom the State has determined is ‘qualified,’ but beneficiaries have no right under the statute to challenge a State’s determination that a provider is unqualified.”

What Biden foreign policy picks mean for religious freedom

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Nov 24, 2020 / 09:30 am (CNA).- President-elect Joe Biden announced several foreign policy appointments to his cabinet on Monday, including a nominee for Secretary of State. If confirmed, nominees will shape U.S. foreign policy on a range of subjects, especially religious freedom.

Biden will nominate Antony Blinken, former Deputy Secretary of State under President Obama, to be the next Secretary of State. Binken also served as assistant and a national security advisor to Obama, and worked on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration.

The appointment of a former Obama official to lead the State Department could signal a shift in U.S. policy on international LGBTQ issues and on promoting religious freedom abroad.

Under the Obama administration, the U.S. invested tens of millions of dollars to promote LGBTQ concerns while being criticized by some religious freedom advocates for deemphasizing or taking a softer approach to promoting international religious freedom.

Some advocates pointed out lengthy gaps in time under the Obama administration where a key position at the State Department, the Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom, remained vacant. The administration, meanwhile, established and appointed the first-ever Special Envoy for LGBTQ issues at the department in 2015.

Dr. Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, told CNA that through the special envoy, the U.S. could go further than simply trying to end violence against persons with same-sex attraction; the State Department could actively influence public opinion on the LGBT agenda in developing countries including by pressuring non-governmental organizations to change their beliefs on marriage.

In promoting international religious freedom, the State Department produces an annual report on the matter and lists certain countries in a tier rating system depending upon how poorly they protect religious freedom.

The Trump administration took a strong approach in presenting the report, condemning religious persecution and calling out bad actors by name. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned China’s abuses of largely-Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang more than two dozen times in less than a year.

The U.S. also formed the International Religious Freedom Alliance, and hosted the first-ever ministerial on religious freedom with religious and civic leaders attending from more than 100 countries.

Blinken, if confirmed, would also have to navigate these and other pressing humanitarian concerns, such as violence in Nigeria that has displaced millions of Muslims and Christians, and a dwindling Christian population in the Middle East.

The Biden administration could take a softer approach to dealing with bad actors, as some advocates, such as former USCIRF commissioner James Zogby, have called for a shift in the strategy of “naming-and-shaming” violators of religious freedom.

When he introduced the State Department’s 2015 religious freedom report, Blinken emphasized that “[t]he purpose of this annual report is not to lecture,” but rather “is to inform, to encourage, and ultimately to persuade.”

In Obama’s State Department, Blinken was part of an administration that pursued the nuclear deal with Iran and U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Accord—agreements that were supported by the U.S. bishops’ conference and the Holy See.

While the Trump administration withdrew from both agreements and ratcheted up “maximum pressure” sanctions on Iran, Blinken may work to revive U.S. relations with Iran and participation in international climate agreements.

Also on Monday, Biden named Linda Thomas-Greenfield as his pick for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

Greenfield served in the Obama administration as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and before that as Ambassador to Liberia. Among other issues, she fought laws that she said discriminated against the LGBT community, including criminalization of same-sex relations in countries like Uganda and Nigeria.

The Obama administration promoted LGBT concerns in Africa, but backlash in African countries reportedly led to some stricter laws against persons with same-sex attraction and violence against them.

At an April, 2014 congressional hearing, Greenfield spoke out against proposed “anti-LGBT legislation” in Africa that was leading to “renewed violence against the LGBT community.” Uganda had just enacted a law criminalizing homosexuality.

“We're in the process of reviewing that relationship and our funding to see where changes can be made and in particular changes that will take funding away from those organizations and entities that discriminate against the LGBT community,” Greenfield said.

In 2015, around a visit of the Nigerian president to the U.S., she reportedly said that “As a policy, we will continue to press the government of Nigeria as well as other governments who have provided legislation that discriminate against the LGBT community.” 

After President Obama promoted “the rights of gays and lesbians” during a 2015 trip to Kenya, Nigerian Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja responded that “our Church has always said homosexuality is unnatural and marriage is between a man and a woman.”

During the Trump administration, the U.S. also spoke out against abortion as an international human right at the United Nations General Assembly. As Biden has pledged to support legal abortion and overturn a ban on funding of foreign abortion promoters and providers, his administration might also promote legal abortion as part of diplomacy.

When senior advisor to the president Ivanka Trump tweeted that she was “unapologetically pro-life” on Oct. 30, Greenfield replied “Good! Pro life means supporting the lives of children taken from their parents at the border, poor children and people with Covid...”.

Biden has also tapped former Secretary of State John Kerry to serve in his cabinet, as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.

Kerry in 2015 praised Pope Francis’ ecology encyclical Laudato Si’ as “powerful,” telling TIME magazine that the pope “thoughtfully applied” the value of environmental stewardship “to the very real threat our planet is facing today.”

Santa Cruz historical commission recommends removing city’s last mission bell

CNA Staff, Nov 23, 2020 / 04:34 pm (CNA).- The historical preservation commission of Santa Cruz, California last week advised the city council to remove a replica mission bell from a city intersection, saying the bell represents painful history for the indigenous people of the city.

In a Nov. 18 recommendation to the city council, the Santa Cruz Historic Preservation Commission wrote that some California indigenous peoples view the mission bells as a “colonial settler and racist symbol” that “glorifies the killing, dehumanization, forced labor and imprisonment of their ancestors.”

“The mission bells are a constant reminder of the brutal history of the Santa Cruz mission and to our indigenous populations,” Director of Parks and Recreation Tony Elliot told the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

“[They’re] really representative of a lot of pain. Of the genocide and the history related to the Santa Cruz mission.”

Spanish missionaries founded 21 California missions between 1769 and 1833 to evangelize the native people of the area. St. Junipero Serra is considered the founding father of the missions, as he led the creation of the first nine.

The Franciscans founded Mission Santa Cruz Aug. 28, 1791, seven years after St. Serra’s death.

Critics of the missions, and of Serra, have long maintained that the mission system contributed to the virtual destruction of native Californians’ culture and way of life.

Experts have disputed claims that Serra was in any way involved in genocide, and in contrast, there is evidence that Serra advocated for the rights of the indigenous people in the face of mistreatment by the Spanish military.

The mission bell in question, located at an intersection near a park in Santa Cruz, is a replica installed in 2006.

The commission said Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, contacted the city in 2019 to ask that all the bells be removed. The city council in October 2020 approved a resolution to update the city’s historic district to provide “a more accurate depiction of the history of the indigenous people of the area.”

Lopez in 2015 wrote to Pope Francis to express his tribe’s opposition to Serra’s canonization.

The bell would be the third and final one in Santa Cruz to be removed from its place since 2019.

During June 2019, officials from the University of California Santa Cruz removed a bell— also a replica, installed in the 1990s— from the school’s campus.

Another bell, installed in Mission Park Plaza in 1999, was stolen during a June 11 protest.

Hundreds of mission bell replicas have been installed over the years along the historic “El Camino Real,” which today roughly follows the route of Highway 101.

According to the California missions’ website, the original mission church, whose bell tower collapsed in 1840, contained nine or ten bells, none of which have survived. The current mission bell tower also contains a replica bell.

During the years that the missions were active, the bells were mainly used to wake the Franciscan friars for their daily prayers.

The decision whether to remove the final bell will come down to the Santa Cruz city council. Eliot, the parks and recreation director, suggested the bell could be moved to a museum and replaced with a historical marker that contextualizes the history of the area. 

Statues of the saint have this year become focal points for protests and demonstrations across California, with images of the saint being torn down or vandalized in protest of California’s colonial past. Nationally, rioters have targeted Catholic churches and statues of Christ and Mary.

A Oct. 12 protest at Mission San Rafael Arcangel began peacefully but then turned violent, as participants defaced another St. Junipero Serra statue with red paint before dragging it to the ground with nylon straps and ropes. The local district attorney ultimately charged five individuals with felony vandalism in connection with the incident.

A statue of Serra was torn down in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, June 19 by a crowd of about 100 people, and on the same day a statue of the saint was torn down in Los Angeles.
Rioters pulled down and defaced a statue of Serra in Sacramento on July 4.

Some California institutions, such as the University of San Diego, have put their statues of Serra in storage to protect them.

On July 11, a fire being investigated for arson gutted the 249-year-old Mission San Gabriel in Los Angeles, a mission church founded by St. Serra.

Catholic mental health council applauds Bishop Conley’s candor on mental illness

CNA Staff, Nov 23, 2020 / 03:30 pm (CNA).- When Catholic bishops and leaders share their experiences with mental illness, it encourages other Catholics to seek help and to know that recovery is possible, a national Catholic group has said.

In a statement issued Monday, the National Catholic Partnership on Disability’s Council on Mental Illness applauded Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska “on his complete candor regarding his recent experience of coping with mental illness.”

“Based on Bishop Conley's public testimony, other individuals in leadership positions are more likely to be upfront about their mental wellbeing. They too are seen as capable of recovery and are finding ways to become more effective and committed to ministry than ever before.”

“An illness is an illness not a weakness of character,” the group said.

In an interview with CNA earlier this month, Conley shared his experiences after being diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and while taking an 11-month mental health leave of absence for his recovery.

“I was trying to fix myself and as time went on, I realized that I couldn't fix myself while I was still on the job, so to speak,” Conley told CNA in an interview published Nov. 14.

The misconduct of Catholic clergy, both locally and at large, weighed heavily on Conley, starting in the summer of 2018. There were also some difficult school closings and the death of a young priest, those events were triggers for the anxiety and depression that Conley experienced.

He tried first to get help while continuing his duties as a bishop, but in late 2019 Conley presented his case to the apostolic nuncio, who advised the bishops to take some time off and receive professional help. Conley spent 11 months on leave, receiving help in Phoenix, Arizona from doctors and psychologists and a spiritual director.

His return to the Diocese of Lincoln was announced earlier this month.

Conley told CNA he has been open about his experience because he wants to encourage others to seek help when they need it.
Such testimonies can be a helpful step in increasing awareness and advocacy for others with mental illness, the NCPD explained.

Conley told CNA this month he had initially been afraid that his mental illness would be seen as a sign of weakness. But he said that after he announced his mental health leave, people reached out to him, saying they were grateful for his willingness to share about his experience.

The group encouraged other Catholic leaders to share their testimonies of mental illness and recovery, and to work to connect their communities to mental health resources.

“Through the awareness made possible by such testimonies as Bishop Conley's, doors can open to ensure that anyone seeking help, including family and friends, will have easy access to information, referrals, and good sound advice,” the NCPD said.

The NCPD was founded in 1982, with the mission of providing resources and advocacy for disabled Catholics, with a focus on participation in the sacraments and parish life of the Church.

The NCPD's Council on Mental Illness was founded in 2006, with this mission: “Following Jesus who embraced all, we reach out to accompany our brothers and sisters with mental illness and their families while assisting the Catholic community by providing resources and education for spiritual and pastoral support.”

Advocacy for people with mental illness “promotes a just society and an end to stigma, which is the biggest obstacle towards healing and recovery,” the group said in its statement.

Bishop Malone and Buffalo diocese sued by NY AG over clergy abuse

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Nov 23, 2020 / 11:40 am (CNA).- The State of New York is suing the Diocese of Buffalo and its former bishops for failing to protect children for clergy sex abuse.

New York’s Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit on Monday in the state’s supreme court against the diocese. The state also named Bishop Emeritus Richard Malone, retired auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz, and Buffalo’s apostolic administrator, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, in the lawsuit.


#BREAKING: I filed a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo and former senior leaders after we found they failed to follow mandated policies and procedures that would help to prevent the rampant sexual abuse of minors by priests within the Catholic Church.

— NY AG James (@NewYorkStateAG) November 23, 2020 The state alleges that the diocese, Malone, and Grosz failed to properly investigate claims of clergy sex abuse. The state also claims diocesan leadership did not “refer unassignable priests to the Vatican,” monitor priests with credible accusations, or take necessary action against diocesan priests credibly accused of child sex abuse. Under state laws governing non-profits, the diocese did not act in “good faith” by failing to follow its own procedures on clergy sex abuse.

The state is seeking a court order for the diocese to comply with its own policies and procedures on clergy sex abuse, and for the appointment of an auditor to investigate the diocese’s compliance. In addition, the state is seeking restitution from Malone and Grosz, and a ban on their serving “a secular fiduciary role in a nonprofit or charitable organization” in the state.

A spokesman for the Diocese of Buffalo told CNA that the diocese “will be reviewing this lawsuit just announced by the New York Attorney General and weighing the Diocese’s response.”

“In the meantime,” the diocese said, “we wish to reiterate that there is zero tolerance for sexual abuse of a minor or of sexual harassment of an adult in the Diocese of Buffalo by any member of the clergy, employee or volunteer.” 

“The Diocese has put in place rigorous policies and protocols governing required behavior as well as a code of conduct which all clergy are expected to abide by. Moreover, the Diocese has committed to full cooperation with all civil authorities in both the reporting and investigation of alleged crimes and complaints.”

In 2018, then-Attorney General Barbara Underwood launched an investigation into the diocese over allegations of clergy sex abuse and the failure to investigate by diocesan leaders.

The office, now under James, said Monday that the two-year investigation had discovered that although “the diocese’s leadership found sexual abuse complaints to be credible, they sheltered the accused priests from public disclosure by deeming them as ‘unassignable,’ and permitted them to retire or go on purported medical leave, rather than face referral to the Vatican for possible removal from the priesthood.”

The diocese flouted the requirements of the U.S. bishops’ conference in responding to allegations of clergy sex abuse, the state claimed in its lawsuit.

Despite the USCCB implementing standards for responding to clergy sex abuse for dioceses acorss the country through the 2002 Dallas Charter and Complimentary Norms, the diocese “ignored” the charter “[f]or nearly two decades,” the state said.

The diocese did not conduct proper investigations of clergy sex abuse, as directed by the USCCB, and failed to refer more than two dozen priests with substantiated accusations of abuse to the Vatican.

When the diocese’s “mishandling of specific cases was exposed,” the state claims in the suit, it “misled its beneficiaries about its response to sexual abuse allegations and the measures that its leaders had taken to protect the public.”

The Buffalo diocese has been embroiled in scandal since November, 2018, when Bishop Emeritus Richard Malone’s former assistant leaked records reportedly showing that the diocese worked with lawyers to conceal credible abuse allegations from the public.

While the diocese had reported the names of some priests credibly accused of abuse, it had not reported others, the records appeared to show. Bishop Malone denied claims that he had covered up abuse.

Six months later, Bishop Malone apologized for his handling of the case of Fr. Art Smith, a diocesan priest who faced repeated accusations of abuse and misconduct with minors.

Bishop Malone had written to the Vatican in 2015, in a letter later reported in the press, asking that Fr. Smith be kept in active ministry. He admitted in the same letter that Smith had groomed a young boy, had been accused of inappropriate touching, and refused to stay in a treatment center. Smith was eventually suspended in 2018 after the diocese received a new substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor. 

In August of 2019, the diocese was named in a RICO lawsuit alleging that its handling of clerical sex abuse was akin to that of an organized crime syndicate.

In September, 2019, Bishop Malone’s former secretary leaked audio of conversations where Malone appeared to acknowledge the legitimacy of sexual harassment accusations made against a diocesan priest months before the priest was removed from active ministry.

In Oct., 2019, a Vatican-ordered apostolic visitation of the diocese commenced, and in December, Pope Francis accepted Bishop Malone’s resignation.

The Buffalo diocese filed for bankruptcy in February of this year, after it was named in hundreds of clergy sex abuse lawsuits filed in New York courts.