Washington D.C., May 3, 2012 (CNA/EWTN News) -
A legal expert in religious freedom believes that President Barack Obama’s recent prayer proclamation reflects a wider problem of viewing constitutional protections for religious liberty as being limited to “mere belief.”
“I don’t know that the president intentionally wrote it in this fashion,” said Robert Tyler, general counsel for the non-profit legal group Advocates for Faith and Freedom.
However, he explained to CNA on May 2, the wording of the proclamation “reflects a real problem” in the understanding of religious freedom.
On May 1, President Obama issued a proclamation declaring May 3 as a National Day of Prayer in the United States.
Since 1952, every U.S. president has signed a National Day of Prayer proclamation calling on Americans to give thanks for their blessings and seek divine guidance for the future.
In his proclamation, Obama offered thanks for a “democracy that respects the beliefs and protects the religious freedom of all people to pray, worship, or abstain according to the dictates of their conscience.”
Religious freedom has become a hotly-debated issue after the Obama administration issued a mandate that will require employers to offer health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and drugs that can cause early abortions, even if doing so violates their religious beliefs.
Critics of the mandate argue that the Obama administration is failing to respect the right to religious freedom, treating it as though it is merely a right to worship, but not to live out one’s beliefs.
Tyler explained that the American founders “absolutely” intended for the First Amendment’s religion freedom protections to apply to actions as well as beliefs. This view was carried down throughout most of America’s history, he said.
However, in 1990, the Supreme Court held in Employment Division v. Smith that laws which burden religion are acceptable as long as they are “neutral and generally applicable,” he said.
This ruling “has created quite a problem for the free exercise of religion in America today,” explained Tyler, observing that it has led to the idea that religious freedom merely means “believing whatever you want to believe” and does not extend to cover conduct.
As a result, he said, there have been increasing attempts in recent years to burden the free exercise of religion.
But for two centuries before prior to the ruling “basically everybody understood” religious freedom as a broad liberty that extends to actions as well as beliefs.
This view is illustrated in the 1963 Sherbert v. Verner case, in which the Supreme Court held that laws imposing a burden on the free exercise of religion are subject to the highest level of scrutiny, he said.
This previous understanding, which was present throughout the vast majority of American history, is “much more consistent” with what the American founders meant, Tyler explained.
He observed that the First Amendment was written to provide a “really vast” protection for religious freedom.
Tyler also asserted that several members of the Supreme Court – including Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion in Employment Division v. Smith – probably did not intend for the decision to be used in the way it has been.
He believes that if given the chance, the Supreme Court would likely attempt to “curtail the impact” of the 1990 case.
Obama’s National Day of Prayer proclamation, he said, reflects the “errant decision” of the Supreme Court in 1990, which should be abandoned in favor of a fuller and more accurate understanding of the First Amendment.
Armagh, Ireland, May 3, 2012 (CNA) - Cardinal Sean B. Brady of Armagh, Ireland has denounced a BBC documentary on clerical abuse, saying he does not deserve blame for the results of a decades-old investigation in which he played a subordinate role.
“In the course of the program a number of claims were made which overstate and seriously misrepresent my role in a Church inquiry in 1975,” said Cardinal Brady, in response to a May 1 installment of “This World” entitled “The Shame of the Catholic Church.”
Cardinal Brady, who was not ordained as a bishop until 1995, issued a statement offering several clarifications about his role in the investigation of Norbertine priest Father Brendan Smyth, described in the BBC program.
Parts of the documentary, he said, gave viewers the impression “that because of the office I hold in the Church today I somehow had the power to stop Brendan Smyth in 1975.” But Cardinal Brady, who was not yet a bishop, had “absolutely no authority” over him.
The offending priest was not removed from ministry by his religious superiors, and went on to commit further abuse.
“Even my bishop had limited authority over him,” the cardinal recalled. “The only people who had authority within the Church to stop Brendan Smyth from having contact with children were his abbot in the monastery in Kilnacrott and his religious superiors in the Norbertine Order.”
“In fact, I was shocked, appalled and outraged when I first discovered in the mid 1990s that Brendan Smyth had gone on to abuse others.”
Cardinal Brady said he “assumed and trusted” that his bishop's presentation of evidence to the Norbertine superiors would prompt to them to act “decisively.”
“With others, I feel betrayed that those who had the authority in the Church to stop Brendan Smyth failed to act on the evidence I gave them. However, I also accept that I was part of an unhelpful culture of deference and silence in society, and the Church, which thankfully is now a thing of the past.”
Monsignor Charles Scicluna, a top official in charge of abuse cases at the Vatican, has confirmed this evaluation of the case in an interview with Irish broadcaster RTE. Fr. Smyth's order, he said, failed to take action on the basis of evidence recorded by the future cardinal and presented by his bishop.
Six weeks before the broadcast of “The Shame of the Catholic Church,” Msgr. Scicluna told the BBC that the future primate “acted promptly and with determination to ensure the allegations … were believed and acted upon by his superiors” in 1975. But the program made no note of this statement.
Cardinal Brady says he, too, had tried to draw the filmmakers' attention to other facts subsequently omitted from their program, regarding his role and responsibilities in the abuse inquiry.
“To suggest, as the program does, that I led the investigation … is seriously misleading and untrue,” the cardinal said. Rather, he was asked by his bishop “to assist others who were more senior to me in this inquiry process on a one-off basis only.”
In the case of abuse victim Brendan Boland, a key interview subject in the BBC program, the future cardinal's role was that of a “notary or note-taker.” To suggest that he played a larger role in gathering evidence from Boland “is false and misleading,” Cardinal Brady said.
“Acting promptly and with the specific purpose of corroborating the evidence provided by Mr. Boland, thereby strengthening the case against Brendan Smyth, I subsequently interviewed one of the children identified by Mr. Boland who lived in my home diocese of Kilmore,” he recalled.
“That I conducted this interview on my own is already on the public record. This provided prompt corroboration of the evidence given by Mr. Boland.”
Cardinal Brady noted that in 1975, “no State or Church guidelines existed in the Republic of Ireland to assist those responding to an allegation of abuse against a minor.” And even by today's standards, he said, the primary responsibility would not have been his.
“According to the State guidelines in place in the Republic of Ireland today, the person who first receives and records the details of an allegation of child abuse in an organization … is not the person who has responsibility within that organization for reporting the matter to the civil authorities.”
“This responsibility belongs to the ‘Designated Person’ appointed by the organization and trained to assume that role. In 1975, I would not have been the ‘Designated Person’ according to today’s guidelines.”
In his response to the BBC, Cardinal Brady affirmed his support for the Irish Church's current policy of reporting abuse claims to the civil authorities. But he rejected the suggestion that he should resign, and accused the BBC program of seeking to “deliberately exaggerate and misrepresent” his past actions.
“The program suggested that no response to their questions had been provided before the program was completed,” he pointed out. “In fact a comprehensive response had been provided to the program six weeks in advance and only days after the ‘door-stepping’ interview with me in Limerick.”
Bogotá, Colombia, May 3, 2012 (CNA) - On May 2, 2002, Colombian rebels known as the FARC massacred 78 people – including 48 children, several pregnant women and a newborn – in what's known as the worst assault by the Marxist group on civilians in the last decade.
During the attack, FARC soldiers and militia troops engaged in a firefight in the streets of Bojaya, some 380 kilometers northeast of the capital city of Bogota. Around 400 civilians, mostly women and children, sought refuge in the local St. Paul the Apostle parish.
Ten years after the tragedy, newspaper El Colombiano interviewed Father Antun Ramos, who saved dozens from death, and Sister Maria del Carmen, who helped those in the parish who were wounded.
Church pastor, Fr. Ramos, helped keep the people calm by telling them stories and praying with them.
“I thought of the movie, Life is Beautiful, in which a father teaches his son that the war is a game, and I tried to apply that. I told them to join hands and to pray. We shared some stories, and for a time, they forgot about the bullets that were flying around them,” the priest recalled.
“But the stories were interrupted by the exploding rockets launched from the other side of town,” El Colombiano reported. “The first landed on a home at 10am. The second landed behind the school but did not explode.”
“Outside, one of the guerrillas warned the commander leading the attack, who went by the alias ‘Silver,’ that the militias were on the move and that there were people in the church.”
But “Silver” ignored him and ordered the other rocket to be fired, according to the paper. At 11am, it crashed through the roof the church and exploded, killing 78 people, including 48 children.
Fr. Antun recalled that after the explosion, “I told everyone to leave because they were going to kill us all. One woman said they would leave if I went out first, so I held a white flag and went out first. They shouted that they were civilians as they came out, and the rebels held their fire.”
According to El Colombiano, guerrillas fired a fourth rocket that landed behind the home of the Augustinian Missionary Sisters, which the militias tried to enter.
“With her tiny body and small arms, Sister Maria del Carmen Garzon mustered the strength she didn’t have and blocked the door together with the other sisters,” the paper said.
“From inside they told the militia fighters they could not come in, 'because we had 130 civilians who were not a part of the conflict and that would be endangered.'”
When she returned to the hallway, the nun found several people dying on the floor.
“We began to care for them,” Sister Maria del Carmen recalled. “We did what we could because the people were running from one end to the other trying to dodge the bullets that were flying through the air. It was very hard. We felt helpless knowing that so many people needed aid.”
Valencia, Spain, May 3, 2012 (CNA) - A 70-year-old widow, who is a mother of three and grandmother of five, made her solemn vows as a Poor Clare contemplative nun in the town of Canals in Spain.
Sister Celia de Jesus, as she is now known, made her perpetual vows at the Convent of St. Clare, where she volunteered with her husband until he passed away in 2004. According the AVAN news agency, she has been in formation with the order since then.
“Before entering the convent, Sister Celia de Jesus worked with Catholic Action of Valencia and cared for the sick. Once her husband died, she decided to completely devote herself to the Lord as a religious,” the news agency reported.
Her final profession was attended by her children and grandchildren and celebrated by Father Miguel Albinana. Twelve priests from surrounding parishes who visit the convent also concelebrated.
The Poor Clares were founded by St. Clare of Assisi in 1212. She was the first woman to have her rule approved by the Church, and the order was established in Spain in 1228. Pope Alexander IV canonized her in 1255.
Rome, Italy, May 3, 2012 (CNA/EWTN News) - Pope Benedict XVI used a May 3 address to doctors and medical students to warn that the spread of relativism is resulting in scientific advances having “unpredictable consequences.”
The Pope told the faculty and students of Rome’s Agostino Gemelli Teaching Hospital in an outdoor speech that “ours is a time when the experimental sciences have transformed the worldview and understanding of man.”
While he granted that scientific discoveries are a “reason for pride,” the pontiff warned that they are often “not without troubling implications,” such that “behind the widespread optimism of scientific knowledge, the shadow of a crisis of thought is spreading.”
“Rich in means, but not in aims, mankind in our time is often influenced by reductionism and relativism which lead to a loss of the meaning of things,” he said, identifying the roots of the crisis.
The Pope observed that it is as if modern man is “dazzled by technical efficacy,” and therefore “forgets the essential horizon of the question of meaning, thus relegating the transcendent dimension to insignificance.”
When meaning is lost and the transcendent forgotten, he explained, “thought becomes weak” and “an ethical impoverishment gains ground, which clouds legal references of value.”
All in all, the Pope stated, “the once fruitful root of European culture and progress seems forgotten.”
This techno-practical mentality “generates a risky imbalance between what is technically possible and what is morally good, with unpredictable consequences.”
Pope Benedict proposed solving this dangerous imbalance by urging society to “rediscover the vigor and dynamism of the meaning of transcendence, in a word, it must open up to the horizon of the ‘quaerere Deum’ (search for God).”
Research, no matter how passionately or tenaciously it is done, is “not capable of finding a safe harbor by its own means, because man is not able to fully elucidate the strange shadow that hangs over the question of eternal realities,” he added.
Instead, is it God who “must take the initiative to encounter and speak to man,” he said.
The Pope also focused on the “fruitful reciprocity” between science and faith, a relationship that he described as “almost a complementary need to understand reality.”
Pope Benedict made the visit to the hospital to mark the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Gemelli’s medical college, which is the teaching hospital of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart.
In addition to the medical students and faculty, his speech was also attended by many students from the Catholic University’s Bioethics Center, which aims to assist scientists and doctors in taking an ethical approach to medical research and treatment.
The Pope urged them to pursue research that is “illuminated by faith and science” so that from “these two ‘wings’” their work “draws impetus and momentum, without ever losing the right humility, the sense of its own limitations.”
This type of approach results in the search for God becoming “fruitful for intelligence, a leaven of culture, promoting true humanism, a research that does not stop at the superficial.”
“Dear friends,” the Pope said, “allow yourselves to always be guided by the wisdom that comes from above, from a knowledge illuminated by faith, remembering that wisdom requires the passion and hard work of research.”
Vatican City, May 3, 2012 (CNA/EWTN News) - Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs told his fellow bishops that they must never reduce Christ “to the status of a wise man,” but preach that he is alive and present in the modern world.
“Our proclamation must be a proclamation of a living Jesus, the one who died for our sins, yes, but who was raised and lives now, never to die again, is in our midst – and it is he that we proclaim,” he said May 3 at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.
Bishop Sheridan is in Rome from May 1-5 with an episcopal delegation from Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming. The group is making their “ad limina” pilgrimage to the tombs of St. Paul and St. Peter and are due to meet with Pope Benedict XVI on May 4.
“Yesterday’s Mass at the tomb of St. Peter brought us into a very special union with the first Vicar of Christ,” recalled Bishop Sheridan, “and now in anticipation of our visits with our Holy Father we are in his cathedral church and he is very much with us today.”
Describing the architectural surroundings as “ancient and venerable,” Bishop Sheridan drew inspiration from a homily also delivered in St. John Lateran’s by Pope Benedict to mark the opening of the 2011 Diocesan Convention.
In that address, the Pope had suggested that “if mankind forgets God this is also because Jesus is often reduced to the status of a wise man.” This, said the Pope, diminished the divinity of Christ to the point of denial and made it “impossible to comprehend the radical novelty of Christianity” as it asserted that “God did not enter into the history of mankind.”
This, said Bishop Sheridan, was the attitude of the disciples who “commiserated with one another” as they walked the road to Emmaus on Easter day. “What they were doing was speaking to each other of a dead Jesus, a dead savior,” he said.
This cautionary tale, he noted, is highlighted in the preparatory documents for this October’s Synod of Bishops in Rome that will focus on theme of New Evangelization and will also launch Pope Benedict’s Year of Faith.
Bishop Sheridan concluded by praying with his fellow bishops “that the Lord will indeed fire us up with his Holy Spirit so that we may join in this new evangelization in a most effective way.”
In this way, he prayed, they could make their own the words of Christ as recorded in the Gospel of St. Luke – “I must proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. It is what I came to do.”
Washington D.C., May 3, 2012 (CNA/EWTN News) -
The blind Chinese pro-life activist Chen Guangcheng has confirmed that he wants to leave his country for the United States and is asking the Obama administration to help him.
Chen Guangcheng testified via phone May 3 for an emergency hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Speaking from his room in Beijing’s Chaoyang Hospital with the help of a translator, he said that he wants to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“I hope I can get more help from her,” he said.
Chen also requested that his freedom of travel be guaranteed. He said that he wants to come to the United States to rest because he has not been able to rest for the last decade.
His biggest concern right now, he said, is the safety of his brother and elderly mother, whose condition he has not been able to confirm.
Other witnesses at the congressional hearing testified about the brutality used by the Chinese government against those who disagree with its policies, as well as the U.S. government’s handling of the situation.
They pointed out that Chen’s plight falls within the broader problem of human rights abuses within the country.
Chen’s advocacy work has made him the target of government persecution. He spent more than four years in prison and was then placed under house arrest, where he says that he and his family members were beaten and refused medical treatment.
After more than a year and a half under house arrest, Chen escaped and was transported on April 26 by friends to Beijing, where he was transferred to U.S. protection. His escape from house arrest occurred just before Clinton and other diplomatic officials arrived in the country for previously scheduled meetings.
On May 2, American officials announced that an agreement had been reached and that Chen had left the American Embassy in Beijing for a local hospital, where he was receiving medical treatment and had been reunited with his wife and two children.
According to U.S. officials, the Chinese government had promise to treat Chen humanely and allow him to move with his family to a safe place in the country to pursue higher education.
However, recent media interviews with Chen indicated that he was scared for the safety of his family and wanted to leave the country.
Prior to today’s congressional hearing, some of the official witnesses spoke about Chen’s situation at a press conference at the D.C.-based Heritage Foundation.
Bob Fu, president of the Texas-based human rights group ChinaAid, said that he had talked to Chen the previous night and he was crying and felt “isolated.”
Chen said that he was told that if he did not leave the embassy on May 2, he should not expect to be reunited with his family.
He had felt “pressured” to leave the embassy, Fu said, and that he had no other option because he did not want to abandon his family to be tortured.
Fu questioned the U.S. government’s handling of the situation, asking why Chen’s family had not been brought to the embassy so that they could all safely discuss their future.
Reggie Littlejohn, an expert on China’s one-child rule, believes that China is trying to make an example of Chen in order to show what happens to people who oppose its central policies.
The founder and president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, an organization that works to oppose forced abortions in China, Littlejohn also testified at the hearing.
She observed that in covering Chen’s plight, much of the mainstream media has ignored the cause for which he has been fighting.
Chen has worked to document “horrific” cases of human rights abuses relating to China’s one-child policy, she explained. He has spoken out against forced sterilizations and abortions, as well as other “untold suffering” that the policy brings to women, she said.
Alone in hospital, she said, Chen is in a “very, very vulnerable position.”
Littlejohn said that the United States has “very seriously mishandled this entire situation.”
She explained that the Chinese people have long considered the U.S. Embassy to be a safe place and are now feeling extremely “betrayed” that America would hand Chen back over to the Chinese government, which is not likely to keep its promises of treating him humanely.
The way that the United States has dealt with the situation has done “untold damage” to its reputation as human rights defender, Littlejohn said.
U.S. officials maintain that Chen had said that he wanted to remain in China and never asked to come to the United States. They acknowledge that he now seems to have had a “change of heart” and say that they are planning to discuss various options with him.