Bishops and their flock at odds over religious liberty concerns

In a bit of coincidental timing, less than 24 hours after the U.S. bishops released a new statement promising a vigilant effort to defend religious freedom a new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) reveals that 57 percent of Catholics don’t seem to think their liberty is really in danger.

The bishops’ latest statement contains more of the same arguments they’ve been making in recent weeks–that the issue is not about contraception, nor are they engaging in a partisan battle. Their efforts are instead spurred by a general concern over religious liberty for all faith-based institutions, which they believe has been greatly eroded by the government’s health care coverage mandate. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the bishops’ conference, told the Washington Post that the bishops are prepared to move ahead with a full-scale media campaign on the issue in the coming weeks.

That’s likely because they were already aware of the same trend the PRRI study finds: the majority of Catholics simply aren’t in agreement with the bishops on this issue.”Catholics overall are generally more supportive than the general public of the contraception coverage requirements,” the study says. It finds that roughly 6-in-10 Catholics think the mandate should apply to religiously-affiliated hospitals, universities, social service agencies, and privately owned small businesses, which are the same institutions that the bishops argue should be exempt.

Walsh dismisses the findings as being a case of researchers asking the wrong question. “If you were to ask, ‘Should the government force churches to violate their religious beliefs?’, you’d get different results,” she said. That may be true, but it is comparing apples and oranges if people don’t buy the premise that the mandate is actually an infringement upon religious liberty. Even among those polled who did say that religious liberty is being threatened, only 6 percent specifically named the contraception mandate as the reason.

In a memo to the media after the release of the bishops’ statement, Jesuit Father Tom Reese notes that their argument hinges on a very broad understanding of what constitutes “religious freedom,” particularly their insistence that private employers should also be exempt from the federal law if they feel it violates their conscience.

“The statement infers that religious liberty is an absolute right that cannot be restricted,” Reese says. “If this were true, Mormons and Muslims could practice polygamy and those who believe God demands the separation of the races should be exempted from civil rights legislation… The application of civil rights and labor laws to faith-based institutions is more complicated.”

In fact the interpretation of all First Amendment rights, including religious liberty, is quite complicated. The justices of the highest court in the land have long disagreed with one another over the application and scope of those rights. It should come as no surprise then–nor should it be considered a sin–that faithful members of the Catholic Church would also differ in their interpretation of religious freedom rights.

The bishops have the right and responsibility to speak to the faithful on the church’s moral and social teachings. They can’t expect, however, that all who follow the teachings of the Catholic Church will be in agreement on matters of constitutional law.

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Pope denounces gay marriage lobby, evil of premarital sex, cohabitation in US bishops’ speech

Pope Benedict XVI waded deep into U.S. campaign politics Friday, urging visiting U.S. bishops to beef up their teaching about the evils of premarital sex and cohabitation, and denouncing what he called the “powerful” gay marriage lobby in America.

As debate over health care coverage for birth control rages in the United States, Benedict said there was an urgent need for Catholics in America to discover the value of chastity — an essential element of Christian teaching that he said had been subject to unjust “ridicule.”

Benedict has long championed traditional marriage between man and woman, as well as opposition to premarital sex and fidelity within marriage. But his strong comments to visiting U.S. bishops took on particular significance given the culture wars that have erupted in the U.S. this campaign season.

U.S. bishops are currently locked in an election year battle with the Obama administration over federal funding for birth control.

In addition, bishops have been at the forefront of the campaign against same-sex marriage, with at least five U.S. states scheduling ballot measures on the issue in coming months. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the head of the U.S. conference of bishops and archbishop of New York, unsuccessfully lobbied against the legalization of gay marriage in his state.

The 84-year-old pope acknowledged his comments might sound anachronistic or “countercultural,” particularly to the young. But he told bishops to not back down in the face of “powerful political and cultural currents seeking to alter the legal definition of marriage.”

“Sexual differences cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the definition of marriage,” he said.

He also denounced what he called the failure of priests and bishops to instruct Catholics in core church teachings on human sexuality, saying many Catholics seem unaware that living together outside of marriage was “gravely sinful, not to mention damaging to the stability of society.”

The entire Christian community, he said, must recover an appreciation of the virtue of chastity.

“Young people need to encounter the church’s teaching in all its integrity, challenging and countercultural as that teaching may be; more importantly they need to see it embodied by faithful married couples who bear convincing witness to truth,” he said.

Benedict said a weakened appreciation for traditional marriage and the widespread rejection of responsible sexuality had led to “grave social problems bearing an immense human and economic cost.” He didn’t elaborate on what the cost was.

Groups of visiting U.S. bishops have been traveling to Rome for the past several months as part of bishops’ regular once-every-five-year visits with the pope and senior Vatican officials.

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Gaithersburg priest defends decision to deny lesbian Communion

A Gaithersburg priest who was put on administrative leave from his parish after a controversial funeral Mass at which he denied Communion to a lesbian said in a statement Wednesday that he “did the only thing a faithful Catholic priest could do” and suggested that archdiocesan leaders and the woman were lying.

The Rev. Marcel Guarnizo had declined to comment publicly since the Feb. 25 Mass at St. John Neumann Catholic Church, where Barbara Johnson was mourning her mother. Having learned just before the Mass that Johnson, a 51-year-old D.C. artist, was a lesbian living with her partner, Guarnizo refused to let her receive Communion. The story exploded on the Internet, triggering an emotional debate among Catholics and others about the church’s views on homosexuality and the priest’s role in determining who is fit to partake of the sacrament.

Guarnizo’s statement, distributed on the conservative news site, contradicts the account given by Johnson and her family about how the tensions that day unfolded.

He also said his parish priest and the Archdiocese of Washington were being dishonest when they told parishioners this past weekend that Guarnizo was being removed for intimidating behavior unrelated to the Communion standoff.

Guarnizo said he was removed as a result of two conversations he had with people from whom he was trying to obtain written comment about what happened at the funeral Mass: the funeral director and a parish staff member present at the funeral.

In announcing his removal, the archdiocese said it had “received credible allegations that Father Guarnizo had engaged in intimidating behavior toward parish staff and others that is incompatible with proper priestly ministry.”

In his statement Guarnizo takes his superiors to task, saying he was essentially being removed because he denied Johnson Communion.

“And indeed contrary to the statement read on Sunday, March 11th during all Masses at St. John Neumann, both instances have everything to do with the Eucharistic incident. There is no hidden other sin or ‘intimidation’ allegations that they are working on, outside of these two meetings,” he said.

“The meetings in question, occurred in our effort to document from people at the funeral Mass in written form a few facts about the nature of the incident. We have collected more than a few testimonies and affidavits, testifying to what really took place during the funeral liturgy.

“My personal conversation with both parties in question were in my view civil, professional and in no way hostile. I respect both individuals in question and really do not know the nature of their grievance.”

Officials at DeVol Funeral Home have declined to comment, as have parishioners, who were told to refer questions to the archdiocese.

The Catholic blogosphere has been ablaze with debate about the incident, in part because of the silence of Guarnizo and the St. John Neumann community.

Previously, the only other details about the incident came from anonymous sources on conservative Catholic blogs who said Johnson had outed herself to the priest for no reason, forcing his hand.

Guarnizo said in his statement that public pressure to give Communion to the wrong people will force “the cruelest crisis of conscience that can be imposed.”

“It seems to me, the lack of clarity on this most basic issue puts at risk other priests who wish to serve the Catholic Church in Washington D.C.,” he said.

Officials of Washington Archdiocese, which includes the District and the Maryland suburbs, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But Johnson’s brother, Larry, said the family is livid.

“I actually thought there had been some closure. He has ripped it apart and escalated it,” said Larry Johnson, a Loudoun County accountant. “It’s remarkable. I thought he was a reprehensible person, and he’s certainly confirmed it. The arrogance, the tone, the characterizations, the blatant falsehoods.”

In describing the incident, Guarnizo said Barbara Johnson and her partner came in “completely unsolicited” and identified themselves as “lovers.”

The Johnsons said the women’s relationship came up inadvertently when Guarnizo, during a discussion of pre-Mass logistics, asked who the other woman was, and the other woman replied, “I’m her partner.”

Larry Johnson’s voice shook as he described Guarnizo’s version of events.

“His premise of the whole thing is the most remarkable. . . . I witnessed the coldness of this man, the arrogance of this man,” he said.

Guarnizo’s status at the parish isn’t clear as the Northern Virginia native is attached to the diocese of Moscow. It wasn’t known whether he was still a parish resident or what his suspension means for his ministry.

He said he would defend himself.

“What happened I believe contains a warning to the church. Such circumstances can and will be repeated multiple times over if the local church does not make clear to all Catholics that openly confessing sin is something one does to a priest in the confessional, not minutes before the Mass,” he said. “I am confident that my own view, that I did the only thing a faithful Catholic priest could do in such an awkward situation, quietly, with no intention to hurt or embarrass, will be upheld.”

Complete Article HERE!

UK churches launch attack on gay-marriage plan

The head of the Roman Catholic Church in England will be the latest church leader to try to ambush the prime minister’s attempt to legalise same-sex marriage when he launches his “no” campaign from the pulpit this weekend.

Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols has written a pastoral letter to be read out during Mass in dozens of churches on Sunday, warning about the dangers of changing the legal definition of marriage.

The head of the Church of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, however, has said a new law for gay couples would amount to forcing unwanted change on the rest of the nation.

The argument echoes others elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

On Friday, Pope Benedict denounced the “powerful political and cultural currents” seeking to legalise gay marriage in the United States, where Maryland has just become the eighth state to allow it.

The British government is planning this month to launch a formal consultation document on allowing homosexual couples to marry, spearheaded by a minister from the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the government coalition. Equalities minister Lynne Featherstone argues churches do not “own” marriage law.

Cameron, who has compared his faith to that of a weak radio signal – “it comes and goes”, supported the change during a speech last October.

Nichols’ letter, which has been released in advance, says that “neither the church nor the state has the power to change this fundamental understanding of marriage itself”.

“Changing the legal definition of marriage would be a profoundly radical step,” it says.

“A change in the law would gradually and inevitably transform society’s understanding of the purpose of marriage.

“It would reduce it just to the commitment of the two people involved. There would be no recognition of the complementarity of male and female, or that marriage is intended for the procreation and education of children.”

The Roman Catholic Church, which has some 1.3 billion members worldwide, teaches that while homosexual tendencies are not sinful, homosexual acts are, and that children should grow up in a traditional family with a mother and father.

Gay marriage is legal in a number of European countries, including Spain and the Netherlands.

An online survey by Catholic Voices, a group created to put the Roman Catholic church’s case to the British media, said seven out of 10 Britons believed that marriage should continue to be defined as a lifelong union between a man and a woman.


Last weekend, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in Britain, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, said the plans were a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right”.

The Church of England is the established church in a country is an increasingly secular society.

One liberal bishop in the Church of England has even said he regards some same-sex couples he knows as being in a marriage.

The National Secular Society argues the issue is broader than gay marriage, warning that if the Catholic church wins this argument it will lead to “other regressive demands” such as a change to the abortion law.

“This is the Catholic Church trying to bully its way into political power through lobbying by intimidation and emotional blackmail,” it said on its website.

Complete Article HERE!

Donations flood in after Catholic Church cuts fund to homeless agency

The first of hundreds of online donations to Francis House came in early Thursday, just after midnight, as news broke that the Catholic Church was cutting off funding to the homeless services agency because of its new director’s support of Planned Parenthood and gay marriage.

By Friday morning, people from Sacramento and across the country had contributed roughly $8,000 to the nonprofit group, and the checks and telephone calls continued throughout the day.

“We’ve been swamped,” said Michael Miiller, a member of the agency’s corporate advisory board. “The generosity has been incredible.”

In addition to donations from $20 to $1,500, the group has received offers of volunteer help and pledges of support from ordinary people and power brokers, including state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Sen. Roger Dickinson, both Democrats.

The cash and pledges will fill the gap created in January, when the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento decided to discontinue funding Francis House as part of its annual appeal, Miiller said.

The Sacramento Bee published a story on the development Thursday that quickly went viral on the Web, triggering a lively online discussion and telephone calls to Francis House and the Catholic diocese. The diocese heard from vocal supporters of its decision as well as those who opposed it, said spokesman Kevin Eckery.

“We’ve had calls on both sides,” Eckery said. “And we certainly don’t begrudge any additional money donated to Francis House. They do great work.”

For 41 years, Francis House has helped Sacramento’s poor with basic needs such as housing and transportation. It is one of the largest homeless services agencies in the region, with an annual budget of about $500,000. For at least two decades, it received annual donations from the diocese ranging from $7,500 to $10,000.

In January, in a hand-delivered letter to the agency’s executive director, the Rev. Faith Whitmore, the diocese said her “strong public support of Planned Parenthood and same-sex marriage” clashed with teachings of the church. Therefore, it is “impossible for the diocese to continue funding Francis House” as part of its Annual Catholic Appeal.

Whitmore, formerly the senior pastor of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Sacramento, took over leadership of Francis House in April after the sudden death of executive director Gregory Bunker.

She has been a vocal supporter of Planned Parenthood, which provides a range of women’s health services, including cancer screenings, contraception and abortion. The Catholic Church espouses “natural family planning,” and staunchly opposes abortion.

Planned Parenthood has long been a target of conservative groups over the abortion issue. Most recently, it found itself at odds with a longtime ally, the Susan G. Komen cancer foundation. Under pressure from anti-abortion activists, Komen cut funding to the agency for breast cancer screening but reversed its decision following a public outcry.

Whitmore said that, although she supports a woman’s right to choose an abortion, she has conflicted feelings about the issue.

“I am not pro-abortion,” she said. “But I do support Planned Parenthood because they do more to help women get needed health care than any organization in the country.”

Whitmore also has been a strong advocate of same-sex marriage, which the church opposes. The church was a primary financial backer of California’s Proposition 8, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

As news spread about the diocese’s decision to stop funding Francis House, its website lit up with donations. Supporters began arriving at the C Street agency when it opened a few hours later, and phoned and streamed in throughout the day.

Some expressed their unhappiness with the diocese’s decision, Miiller said. Others “just wanted to make sure that we were able to backfill the lost donations” from the church.

“We really don’t want to engage in politics,” Miiller said. “We just say, ‘Thank you so much for helping us help the poor.’ Our hope is that the support continues. The need is great.”

Complete Article HERE!