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'Texting suicide' case could impact assisted suicide legislation

Boston, Mass., Jun 27, 2017 / 03:25 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A case about whether a troubled teenager convinced her depressed boyfriend to commit suicide through her words and text messages may have possible implications for physician-assisted suicide cases.

On June 16, a Massachusetts judge ruled that Michelle Carter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, for words and texts exchanged with her depressed boyfriend Conrad Roy III as he attempted to commit suicide two years ago. Both Carter and Roy were teenagers at the time.

The ruling of manslaughter was decided based on Carter’s words to Roy, mostly in a phone call, urging him to re-enter a truck she knew to be full of carbon dioxide, where he was attempting his suicide. Carter had also sent Roy numerous texts encouraging his suicide and later texted a friend about her phone call with Roy.

In Massachusetts, an involuntary manslaughter charge can be brought when an individual causes the death of another person by engaging in behavior that is considered reckless enough to cause harm.

While some states have laws that criminalize the encouragement of suicide, Massachusetts does not, complicating Carter’s case.

Legal experts wonder whether the case could set new legal precedents when it comes to legalizing assisted suicide.

Daniel Medwed, professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University school of law, told USA Today that the case may set a precedent of criminalizing those who sympathize with someone who expresses a desire for assisted suicide.

“Don’t forget, there’s a still a big societal debate going on about assisted suicide,” he said. “This sort of verdict would imply that anyone being sympathetic to a loved one could be at fault.”

Matthew Segal, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said the verdict “is saying that what she did is killing him, that her words literally killed him, that the murder weapon here was her words.”

Anti-assisted suicide groups believe that the case is significant because of the weight it places on outside pressures on already vulnerable people to take their lives, though it remains unclear if the case will set any legal precedent regarding the issue in reality.  

Tim Rosales, a spokesperson for Patient’s Rights Action Fund, told CNA that when it comes to assisted suicide, there are often outside pressures that can influence the person’s decision to end their life.

“Whether it’s the denial of a certain type of treatment, or there is the insinuation by a physician or a family member or someone close to them about the potential of assisted suicide versus (continued care), all of those go into someone’s mindset and decision making,” he said.  

These outside pressures can be particularly strong “when they’re in a vulnerable state, and mental illness as well as physical illness can be one of those things that puts people in a vulnerable state,” Rosales said.  

“I think we have to be exceedingly cautious and that’s one of the big reasons why you have a lot of opposition to something like assisted suicide, because at its very core it is fraught with the possibility for abuse or dangers,” he said.

“I think in (the Carter case) certainly the dynamics surrounding it kind of give us an indication of how vulnerable people can be at times and how influential those close to us are during those vulnerable times.”

John B. Kelly, New England Regional Director of the disability advocacy and anti-assisted suicide group Not Dead Yet, told CNA that he does not believe the Carter case will affect future assisted suicide legislation because the decision drew heavily from a 2002 case, Commonweath v. Levesque.

In the case of Commonwealth v. Levesque, homeless couple Thomas S. Levesque and Julie Ann Barnes were found responsible for the death of six firefighters who ran into a factory building as it burned. Levesque and Barnes had been living in the factory, escaped the fire and failed to report it.

In the Carter case, Judge Lawrence Moniz drew from the case directly in his verdict, saying that “where one's actions create a life-threatening risk to another, there is a duty to take reasonable steps to alleviate the risk. The reckless failure to fulfill this duty can result in a charge of manslaughter.”

“I don’t think that it adds any legal precedent to deciding what are words and what’s coercion (in assisted suicide cases),” Kelly told CNA.

“But I think we can say that words matter, and that this ruling underlines the commonsense notion that we make choices in a context, and that those contexts can be influenced by other people,” he said.

“Assisted suicide proponents argue that an individual makes that choice freely without any impact, but we know that it’s hard to choose...when you’re seen as a burden by those around you and your doctor thinks you would be better off dead, those are influences that would be very difficult for vulnerable people to resist.”

 

 

 

Terrorists desecrate Eucharist, destroy Catholic chapel in the Philippines

Manila, Philippines, Jun 27, 2017 / 12:05 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Last week, members of a terrorist group destroyed a Catholic chapel, desecrating consecrated hosts and religious icons, during a nine-hour long attack on the town of Malagakit in southern Philippines.

The June 21 attack was reportedly carried out by about 300 gunmen of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, known as BIFF, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. In the siege they also robbed houses and stores at gunpoint, causing the displacement of hundreds of residents.

Residents were also forced to flee after being caught in a fire-fight between BIFF and government forces, according to Realan Mamon, the police chief of Pigkawayan town, where Malagakit is located.

He told the Associated Press that he had a report that gunmen were occupying a school as well, although it wasn’t immediately apparent if people were trapped inside by the fighting or taken hostage.

In the chapel, which is nearby a school also destroyed in the attack, the militants used hammers to destroy religious icons and vital fixtures. They also desecrated consecrated hosts.

Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato decried the act Saturday, saying that he condemns “in the strongest terms possible the wicked desecration of the Catholic Chapel of Malagakit in the parish of Pigcawayan…”

“If the BIFF wants to have an image as a 'respecter' of all religions, it must punish its members who perpetrated the odious desecration in Malagakit and educate all its members in strictly respecting other religions,” he continued.

Cardinal Quevedo urged the Catholic faithful of Malagakit to restore the sacred space of their chapel, asking for the prayers of the entire Archdiocese for peace and harmony among all believers of all religions.

Some leaders of the town, such as Salvador Almonia, Jr., a chairman of Malagakit, have hypothesized that the attack on the chapel was intended to create division between the town’s Catholics and Muslims, who currently live together peacefully.

“That was meant to sow anger among us. We will not respond the way the BIFF want us to respond to that despicable act,” he said.

The vice governor of North Cotabato, Shirlyn Macasarte-Villanueva, urged Muslim and Christian residents to disregard attempts to sow division between them.

“Let us be sober and continue with the friendship and solidarity that we have. We just have to be vigilant and we need to help each other prevent a repeat of the incident,” Macasarte-Villanueva said Thursday.

The attack follows a May 22 siege on parts of a city on Mindanao in the Philippines, where militants burned several buildings, including the Catholic cathedral and the bishop's residence.

At the cathedral, they took hostages including a Catholic priest and a group of church-goers, threatening to kill them if the nation’s military does not cease its current offensive against them.

They are also said to have freed more than 100 inmates from prisons in the city. The fighting has reportedly killed at least 20 people in the city.

The attack was carried out by militants of the Maute group, which was formed in 2012 and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015. The militants' violence began after a failed army and police raid to capture Isnilon Hapilon, a local Islamist leader.

 

Cardinal Turkson: Marijuana debate ignores ethical questions

Vatican City, Jun 26, 2017 / 04:34 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The Vatican's top personality on social justice issues has voiced his concern for the increased demand for drugs, including recreational marijuana, saying debate on the plant's usage doesn't take ethical concerns into account.

In a June 26 letter on the occasion of the U.N. International Day against Abuse and Illicit Trafficking of Drugs, Cardinal Peter Turkson lamented the fact that narcotics “continue to rage in impressive forms and dimensions” throughout the world.

“It is a phenomenon that is fueled – not without concessions and compromises on the part of institutions – by a shameful market that crosses national and continental borders, intertwined with mafias and drug trafficking,” he said.

Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, Cardinal Turkson noted that compared to the recent past, drugs have now become “a consumer product made compatible with everyday life, with leisure activity and even with the pursuit of well-being.”

Pointing specifically to cocaine, he noted that the drug is linked to the spread of heroin, which at 80 percent represents the highest number of new requests for opioid-related treatments in Europe.

However, despite the high numbers for heroin and opioid treatment requests, the cardinal noted that “the most commonly consumed recreational drug is cannabis.”

The current, raging international debate on the use of the drug “tends to overlook the ethical judgment of the substance, by definition negative as with any other drug,” he said, pointing to the current focus on its possible therapeutic uses.  

This, he stressed, is “a field in which we await scientific data to be validated by monitoring periods, as for any experiment worthy of public consideration.”

According to September 2016 report from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which compared marijuana-related statistics from previous years in Colorado to data from 2013-2015, the first years after the legalization of recreational marijuana in the state, the prospects of the drug's increased use are grim.

Not only have the number of marijuana-related deaths, hospitalizations and traffic accidents increased since the drug's recreational use was legalized, there has also been growing concern over marijuana-related crime and a decrease in the IQ of youths who use it.

But before making a firm decision on the issue that is perhaps based on various prejudices, Cardinal Turkson said it would be better to first “understand trends in the use of cannabis, related damages and the consequences of regulatory policies in the various countries.”

It's especially important to recognize the factors “which push the illegal market to develop products intended to affect patterns of consumption and to reaffirm the primacy of the desire that is compulsively satisfied by the substance.”

On this point, concern has grown for many that the recreational use of marijuana is often a gateway for youth to become addicted, and eventually move on to other drugs such as cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, or meth.

In addition to voicing his concerns on marijuana, heroin, and the dangers of using them to improve one's “wellbeing,” Cardinal Turkson also pointed to the risks of other addictive behaviors such as gambling, saying its legalization, even in cases aimed at unmasking its criminal managers, “exponentially increases the number of pathological players.”

“Moreover, taxation by the state is to be considered incompatible from an ethical standpoint and contradictory in terms of prevention,” he said, adding that the development of “models of intervention and adequate monitoring systems, associated with the allocation of funds, is highly desirable to tackle the phenomenon.”

The cardinal noted that as the array of addictions continues to diversify, “indifference and at times indirect complicity in this phenomenon contributes to diverting the attention of public opinion and governments, focused on other emergencies.”

Plans to fight the increasing demand for drugs often collapse, he said, explaining that the present-day state of addictions shows “gaps in planning, policies and prospects,” which in turn is a sign of “sluggish progress” in the face of the drug market, “which is highly competitive and flexible to demand, and always open to novelties such as recently-created, extremely powerful synthetic opiates, ecstasy and amphetamines.”

“It is precisely the growing and widespread consumption of ecstasy that may serve as an indicator of how the use of illicit substances has now spread into everyday areas of life,” he said, adding that it could also be an indication of how the ecstasy user no longer identifies with the heroin addict, but “with the new profile of the user of multiple substances and alcohol.”

Because of this, strategies of intervention can't depend solely on reduced damage, “nor can drugs still be considered as a phenomenon that is collusive with social disorder and deviance.”

Rather, damage reduction “must necessarily involve taking on board both the toxicological aspect and integration with personalized therapeutic programs of a psycho-social nature, without giving rise to forms of chronic use, which are harmful to the person and ethically reprehensible,” the cardinal said.

Cardinal Turkson stressed the importance of not seeing the addict as a problem to be solved or as being beyond the hope of rehabilitation.

To consider people as irrecoverable, he said, “is an act of capitulation that denies the psychological dynamics of change and offers an alibi for disengagement from the addict and the institutions that have the task of preventing and treating.”

“It cannot be accepted that society metabolizes drug use as a chronic epochal trait, similar to alcoholism and tobacco, withdrawing from exchange on the margins of freedom of the state and the citizen in relation to substance use,” he said.

The cardinal recognized that there is no singular cause of drug use, but rather a panorama of causes including the absence of a family, various social pressures, the propaganda of drug dealers, and even the desire to have new experiences.

“Every drug addict has a unique personal story and must be listened to, understood, loved, and, insofar as possible, healed and purified,” he said.

“We cannot stoop to the injustice of categorizing drug addicts as if they were mere objects or broken machines; each person must be valued and appreciated in his or her dignity in order to enable them to be healed.”

For the cardinal, part of this process means finding effective means of prevention, beginning with education.

“The scenario which we must all face is marked by the loss of the ancient primacy of the family and the school, the emptying of authority of adult figures and the difficulties that arise in terms of parenting,” he said, stressing that this is not time for “protagonism,” but rather for “networks” that are capable of “reactivating social educational synergies by overcoming unnecessary competition, delegation and forms of dereliction.”

“To prevent young people from growing up without care, bred rather than educated, attracted by 'healing prosthetics,' as drugs appear to them, all social actors must connect and invest in the shared ground of basic and indispensable education values aiming at the integral formation of the person.”

In this regard, educational aspects “are crucial,” he said, especially during adolescence, when youth are more vulnerable, and at the same time curious and prone to periods of depression and apathy.

Youth look for the “vertigo that makes them feel alive,” he said, quoting Pope Francis. “So, let us give it to them! Let us stimulate all that which helps them transform their dreams into plans, and that can reveal that all the potential they have is a bridge, a passage towards a vocation.”

“Let us propose broad aims to them, great challenges, and let us help them achieve them, to reach their targets. Let us not leave them alone.”

In order to combat the ephemeral happiness of addictions, a “creative love” is needed, Cardinal Turkson said, as well as the presence of adults capable of both teaching and practicing healthy self-care.

“A spiritual vision of existence, projected towards the search for meaning, open to the encounter with others, constitutes the greatest educational legacy that must be handed down between generations, today more than ever,” he said.

Mystery surrounds death of priest who went missing in UK

Edinburgh, Scotland, Jun 26, 2017 / 03:23 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A priest who was reported missing last week from his parish in Edinburgh, Scotland was found dead on a nearby beach Friday afternoon.

Father Martin Xavier Vazhachira, 33, was a native of India and was studying for a postgraduate degree in Edinburgh University while serving at St. John The Baptist Catholic Church in Corstorphine.

The priest was last seen at the parish on Tuesday afternoon, June 20.

When he did not show up for morning Mass on Wednesday, his parishioners alerted the authorities.

His body was found on a beach in Dunbar, about 30 miles from the parish, on June 23. Authorities have confirmed that his family in India was contacted about his death.

The cause of his disappearance and death is yet unknown.

Father Vazhachira was a native of Kerala in southern India and was ordained a priest in 2013 for the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate Order. He moved to Scotland in 2016, where he served in several local parishes before his appointment to Corstorphine in October 2016.

“The news of Father Martin Xavier’s death comes as a great shock and a great sadness to all those who knew him and loved him,” Archbishop Leo Cushley of St Andrews and Edinburgh said in a statement on June 24.

“Our thoughts and, more importantly, our prayers are with him and with all his loved ones in both Scotland and India. May he rest in peace.”

Christian leaders in Zambia warn against government abuses

Lusaka, Zambia, Jun 26, 2017 / 02:53 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The leaders of three major Christian groups in Zambia have issued a strongly worded letter on the political state of the country, calling on Zambians to “examine our conscience, seek the truth, and work towards bringing back hope to our people.”

It also accuses the current administration of being a “dictatorship.”

The June 16 letter was penned by Archbishop Telesphore George Mpundu of Lusaka, president of the Zambian bishops' conference; Alfred Kalembo of the Council of Churches in Zambia; and Paul Mususu of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia.

“If these are not signs of dictatorship, what are they signs of?” the letter said. “Certainly not of a democratic dispensation!”

The letter comes as a response to the arrest of Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the opposition party, the UPND.

The current president, Edgar Lungu, has been accused of rigging last year's presidential election. He has been in office since January 2015.

Hichilema was arrested April 10 on charges of treason after his convoy failed to allow the presidential motorcade to pass as both headed to a ceremony in the Western Province. And on June 13, 48 members of the Zambian Parliament were suspended when they boycotted Lungu’s state of the nation address, the BBC reported.

These events mark an abrupt jump by Zambia onto the international scene, a nation that normally has a reputation for peace and stability. Zambia ranked 87 out of 176 in Transparency International's 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index, in the company of Mongolia and Panama.

The country's Catholic bishops had voiced their opposition to Lungu's administration previously.

In their letter, the Zambian Christian leaders lamented Hichilema’s arrest and said, “With the current state of affairs, it is difficult to see how the UPND can easily recognize the legitimacy of Lungu’s re-election in August 2016.”

“Leadership, particularly at the national level, requires integrity, truthfulness, honesty and sincerity. We believe that the political leadership has failed on this score.”

“Institutional violence is a fundamental measure of a dictatorship,” they said. They lamented the use of dogs in Hichilema’s arrest, noting that canine forces were a frequent characteristic of the British occupation in Zambia.

“The State Police brought along dogs of the German shepherd breed that defecated in the vehicle meant to carry Hakainde Hichilema.”

Hichilema was allegedly subject to torture and kept in inhumane conditions before even receiving a guilty verdict, the leaders said. They also offered their thoughts and prayers for a number of other political prisoners being held by the government.

They also noted that outrage over the arrest had been expressed in many countries, including the US, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and in the EU. They also committed their communities within Zambia to fighting “on the side of good.”

“We are fully aware,” they stated, “that more often than not, the fight for Justice is not a path filled with many pilgrims, but is a lonely journey by courageous leaders and a small number of followers.”

The letter at multiple points quotes John 8:32, “The Truth will set you free.” Freedom of the press, according to the letter, is under assault in the country. They noted the closing or “fixing” of various major news outlets in the country, and “maintain that the presence of 80 radio stations, online newspapers and independent television stations in Zambia does not mean press and media freedom.”

They also defended their charge that the arrest shows dictatorial qualities in the government.

“It is not the numbers of the afflicted victims that count. It is the principle,” they said.

“The dictum that God knows how to count only up to one when it comes to his children is the truth that makes us realize just how each one of us is important in God’s eyes.”

At the close of the letter, the Christian leaders' tone became outright mournful.

“Indeed, what has happened to us as a nation?” the bishops lamented. “Where are our values as human beings and as Christians? Is this what it means to be a ‘Christian Nation’?”

In concluding, the Christian leaders made a number of demands of the government, including that “we expect H.E. Mr. Edgar C. Lungu, to act as Republican President whose aim is not only to protect the good of the members of his party (the PF), but also and more importantly, be the guardian of ALL ZAMBIANS, regardless of their political affiliation.”

“We firmly believe that this nation can overcome all our current political differences through genuine dialogue aimed at true reconciliation and nation building.”

The bishops have spoken up on two very different issues – and now the Supreme Court will, too

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2017 / 12:38 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- As the Supreme Court wrapped up its latest term on Monday, it agreed to consider a major religious freedom case, as well as the case of President Donald Trump’s travel ban, this fall.

Both topics have drawn concern from the U.S. bishops, who have urged respect for freedom of conscience and religion in the face of legalized gay marriage, while criticizing the travel ban for abandoning vulnerable refugees in need.  

The court agreed to hear two cases next term which could prove to have major impacts – the constitutionality of President Donald Trump’s travel ban, and the case of Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which involves the rights of a baker to refuse out of conscience to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding.

The latter case was relisted 14 times by the Supreme Court, which finally took it up on Monday, SCOTUSBlog.com reported.

“The issue in this case is a free speech case; whether or not the state of Colorado can coerce a person to write a message through culinary arts that violates his conscience,” said Michael Farris, president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents the baker Jack Phillips in the case.

Phillips, who owns Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo. and has run the shop for over 23 years, explained on Monday how he operates his business in accordance with his religious beliefs.

The shop is “not just a bakery, but a place where I can use my artistic vision and talents to create cakes that communicate just the right message for my clients,” he said. “I gladly welcome and serve everyone that comes into my shop.”

His store is closed on Sundays and he refuses to craft cakes with messages that run contrary to his values, such as anti-American, atheist, or racist messages. He added that “my sincerely-held religious belief that marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman.”

“In 2012, I was stunned when I became the target of a lawsuit relying on sexual orientation gender identity law that offers no exemptions for people of faith,” he said.

After he had declined to make a wedding cake for the same-sex wedding of Charlie Craig and David Mullins, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission said he had violated the state’s anti-discrimination law. The couple was able to obtain a rainbow-themed cake at another shop in the vicinity of Masterpiece.

Phillips said he was barred by the commission from serving any weddings and ended up losing 40 percent of his business, “a crushing loss.” He was also ordered by the commission to enter anti-discrimination re-education, and submit quarterly reports on updating the policies of the business.

Furthermore, Phillips said he began receiving “vile and hateful calls at the shop, including one death threat that was so bad, that I hid my daughter and granddaughter in the back until the police arrived.”

On Monday, after the Supreme Court agreed to take Phillips’ case, lawyers for ADF hoped that the Court would ultimately uphold his free speech rights.

“We’re hopeful that the Court will affirm the basic principle that the government cannot punish artists like Jack for refusing to create art that violates his religious convictions,” said senior counsel Kristin Waggoner.

In an unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court also ruled on Monday that a travel ban on visitors from six majority-Muslim countries may go into partial effect, as the ban awaits a hearing and full consideration by the high court in October.

The court blocked full implementation of the executive order originally released by President Donald Trump in January, saying that the ban “may not be enforced against foreign nationals who have a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.”  

Thus, family members, students and employees from the six designated countries who wish to visit, live or work in the United States will be able to do so. Those who lack such ties to the U.S. will be banned under the executive order.

The order in question bars persons from six majority-Muslim countries – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – from entering the United States for 90 days, and also requires that refugees wait 120 days before entering the country. The executive order also lowers the number of refugees accepted by the United States in FY 2017 to 50,000 – down from the 110,000 person limit and the 85,000 refugees accepted in actuality during FY 2016.

Initially released January 27, the executive order was then revised on March 6 after judicial challenge. The modified version removed Iraq from the list of countries subject to the ban, and also walked back provisions that would have prioritized refugee admissions for persecuted religious minorities.

The bans were challenged by courts in Maryland and Hawaii, who blocked them from taking effect. Those rulings were later upheld by federal appeals courts in Virginia and California, respectively, on grounds that they violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The federal government appealed those rulings to the Supreme Court, asking that the stay be lifted and the ban go into effect until arguments are heard before the Supreme Court later this year.

The Supreme Court’s decision only removes part of the stay on the administration’s executive order, allowing the travel and refugee bans to continue against those with no existing ties to the United States. Many of the plaintiffs in the original cases brought in Hawaii and Maryland had family members, schools or employers based in the U.S.

The executive order has come under harsh criticism by the U.S. Bishops and Catholic refugee experts. Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, chair of the U.S. bishops' committee on migration, stated that the bishops were “deeply troubled by the human consequences of the revised executive order on refugee admissions and the travel ban,” after the ban’s March revision. “The revised Order still leaves many innocent lives at risk,” he said.

“The U.S. Catholic Bishops have long recognized the importance of ensuring public safety and would welcome reasonable and necessary steps to accomplish that goal,” the bishop said.

“However, based on the knowledge that refugees are already subjected to the most vigorous vetting process of anyone who enters the United States, there is no merit to pausing the refugee resettlement program while considering further improvement to that vetting process.”

Bill O’Keefe, vice president for advocacy and government relations at Catholic Relief Services, echoed many of Bishop Vasquez’s sentiments, urging in a March 6 statement that “now is not the time for the world’s leader in refugee resettlement to back down.”

The U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference runs one of the nation’s largest refugee resettlement agencies, helping to resettle more than a quarter of all of the refugees admitted to the United States annually.

 

Supreme Court rules in favor of church in crucial First Amendment case

Washington D.C., Jun 26, 2017 / 11:32 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In one of the biggest religious cases of the term, the US Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a church-owned playground can be eligible for a public benefit program.

Chief Justice John Roberts, delivering the opinion of the Court, wrote June 26 that “the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran,” the church at the center of the case, “from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”

The decision in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer was about “religious people being treated just like everybody else,” stated Mike Farris, president of Alliance Defending Freedom.

At issue was a playground owned by Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., and operated by the church’s preschool. To resurface the playground for safety reasons, the church had applied for a state reimbursement program that provides rubber surfacing material made from used tires. Trinity Lutheran had ranked the fifth most qualified out of 44 applicants for the program.

The state’s natural resources department ultimately ruled the church ineligible for the program because of its religious status. The Missouri state constitution forbids taxpayer funding of churches. The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the state.

The Supreme Court reversed that ruling and sent it back to the lower courts.

Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, and Elena Kagan joined Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion of the Court that the denial of the church’s eligibility for the program violated the free exercise clause. Justice Stephen Breyer filed an opinion concurring in Chief Justice Roberts' judgement.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch joined the Court’s opinion except for a footnote stating that the decision was about “discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing,” and does not “address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.”

“I worry that some might mistakenly read” the footnote to apply only to “‘playground resurfacing’ cases, or only those with some association with children’s safety or health, or perhaps some other social good we find sufficiently worthy,” Gorsuch wrote.

He added that “the general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise—whether on the playground or anywhere else.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from the Court’s opinion.

The Church had argued that the new surface would be a safety upgrade for the playground operated by its preschool and used by members of the community during non-school hours.

It was used by both church members and non-members, they insisted, and should not be ruled ineligible for a state benefit program available to other entities just because it is owned by a religious institution.

Opposing the church was the ACLU, which had argued that to make the church eligible for state benefits would be an unconstitutional violation of the establishment clause.

Missouri’s denial of the church, however, “goes too far” under precedents of Supreme Court decisions, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, and “violates the Free Exercise Clause.”

The Missouri law was passed during a time when many other states were passing laws barring public funding of sectarian schools, widely viewed at the time to mean Catholic schools and other religious schools that were not part of the public school system. The laws were modeled after the federal Blaine Amendment, proposed in the 1870s and named after Maine Congressman James Blaine. His amendment was proposed, but never passed by Congress.

In oral arguments in the case, justices also discussed the broader constitutionality of religious groups having access to other public benefits, including a Jewish synagogue requesting a security detail.

Catholic leaders applauded Monday’s ruling.

“The Supreme Court is signaling in this decision that the government must stop its growing hostility towards religion and religious institutions, and that antiquated and anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments should not be used as a weapon to discriminate against people of faith,” Maureen Ferguson, senior policy advisor with The Catholic Association, stated.

“For over a century, Blaine Amendments have enshrined into law discrimination against faith-based charities and schools that form an essential part of American society,” Ashley McGuire, senior fellow with The Catholic Association, stated. “In this case, a state Blaine Amendment was used to justify blacklisting a Christian elementary school from a playground safety program solely on religious grounds.”

“Blaine Amendments are anti-Catholic in their origin, and getting rid of them is more than a century overdue,” she added. “Today’s decision demands a more fair and inclusive approach to government programs meant to serve all people."

The decision “will have an effect” in the future, David Cortman, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, who argued the case for the church before the Court in April, said. “Whenever religious people, organizations, see themselves being discriminated against, this case will be the controlling precedent,” he added.

Members of Congress also weighed in on the decision. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) called it “an important ruling for religious liberty with profound significance for America’s civil society.”

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), co-chair of the Congressional Prayer Caucus and who filed an amicus brief with colleagues on behalf of Trinity Lutheran in the case, stated that “today’s decision affirms the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion—to have more than just a belief but to live out your faith without discrimination from the government.”

The case was ultimately between the church and the state’s natural resources department. Missouri’s attorney general recused himself in the case.

Missouri’s governor Eric Greitens (R) had already announced that in the future, religious institutions could be eligible for benefit programs of the natural resources department. However, the Court stated on Monday that “that announcement does not moot this case.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her dissent, stated that “this case is about nothing less” than the relationship “between church and state.”

“The Court today profoundly changes that relationship by holding, for the first time, that the Constitution requires the government to provide public funds directly to a church,” she added. “Its decision slights both our precedents and our history, and its reasoning weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.”

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged that “it is true the Department has not criminalized the way Trinity Lutheran worships or told the Church that it cannot subscribe to a certain view of the Gospel.”

“But, as the Department itself acknowledges, the Free Exercise Clause protects against ‘indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.’” And a church being denied participation in public benefits because of its religious character can be such an “indirect coercion” on the free exercise of religion, he continued.

“In this case, there is no dispute that Trinity Lutheran is put to the choice between being a church and receiving a government benefit. The rule is simple: No churches need apply.”

Chinese bishop forcibly removed from diocese still missing

Vatican City, Jun 26, 2017 / 07:03 am (CNA/EWTN News).- On Monday the Vatican issued a statement on the situation of the Chinese Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou, who has not been returned since being forcibly removed from his diocese by the Chinese state May 18.

“The Holy See is observing with grave concern the personal situation of Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou, forcibly removed from his episcopal see some time ago,” read the June 26 statement by the Director of the Holy See Press Office, Greg Burke.

The Catholic community of the diocese and his family and friends remain with no news of the bishop’s whereabouts or of the reason for his removal, the statement continued.

The Vatican-approved Bishop Shao, who is not recognized by the Chinese government, was summoned by their religious bureau on May 18 and has since not been heard from or returned, La Croix International reports.

Following canon law, the Vatican confirmed Bishop Shao as the successor of the Wenzhou diocese on Sept. 21, 2016, following the death of his predecessor, Bishop Vincent Zhu Weifang. Since then he has been removed from the diocese or detained on four different occasions.

He is not a part of the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) and is therefore part of the underground church not recognized by the communist government.

The Vatican’s statement was issued in response to questions from journalists. There were reports last week claiming that the bishop had been spotted in the local airport with government officials, though the claim has not been substantiated and his present whereabouts are still unknown.

“In this respect, the Holy See, profoundly saddened for this and other similar episodes that unfortunately do not facilitate ways of understanding, expresses the hope that Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin may return as soon as possible to the diocese and that he can be assured the possibility of serenely exercising his episcopal ministry,” the Vatican statement continued.

“We are all invited to pray for Bishop Shao Zhumin and for the path of the Catholic Church in China.”

Bishop Shao was first detained, along with three other priests, following the death of his predecessor, Bishop Zhu, preventing him from presiding over the funeral Mass.

He was also detained just one month prior to this current detainment, from April 12-17, which ostensibly was to prevent him from celebrating the Triduum and Easter liturgies, which would have been his first time as head of the diocese.

He is not the only Chinese bishop or Christian to be detained. Persecution of Christians in China varies by province, but certain provinces have seen an uptick in recent years.

In Zhejiang province, where the Diocese of Wenzhou is located, more than 1,500 churches have been desecrated or demolished. Churches in Zhejiang have been ordered to stop displaying crosses and Christians there have been detained.

Overall, the situation of religious freedom in China has deteriorated even more in recent years, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom noted in its 2017 annual report, as the country’s leader Xi Jingping has “further consolidated power” and worked to promote the “sinicization” of religion.

To understand Pope Francis, you have to understand the Jesuits

Rome, Italy, Jun 25, 2017 / 04:00 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Discernment is one of the words Pope Francis repeats most, especially when speaking to priests and seminarians.

He often expresses his desire for greater formation in discernment – a concept that may seem obscure without an understanding its importance to the Pope's Jesuit formation.

“When a Jesuit says 'discernment,' they’re employing a term that has a very rich spiritual tradition within the Society of Jesus, so you can presume a lot in that,” Fr. Brian Reedy, SJ, told CNA in an interview.

Fr. Reedy is a US Navy Reserve chaplain and is pursuing a doctorate in philosophical theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University. He holds a licentiate in theology from Boston College.

He explained that discernment is something St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, emphasized profoundly in his Spiritual Exercises, which form the “backbone” of Jesuit spirituality.

In fact, St. Ignatius twice in the spiritual exercises has an extended discourse on how to carry out discernment properly: what it means, what its limitations are, and the rules that govern it.

“One of the things that’s very interesting about discernment is that while it does have a very polyvalent meaning, you can usually presume that when a Jesuit uses the term, when they launch it, it has these rules at least playing the background in their mind,” Reedy said.

So when it comes to Jesuits and discernment, what are the governing rules, and how can we use them to understand Pope Francis?

Rules of Ignatian discernment

One of the first things to keep in mind when it comes to discernment is St. Ignatius' distinction between  categories of people, Fr. Reedy said, explaining there are different rules for people take the faith seriously, and those who do not.

“If you are somebody who is living a life where God is not really on the scene and the teachings of the Church aren’t really important you have one set of rules. But the reverse situation for somebody who does take their faith life very seriously and God is at least sought after … then we have a completely different set of rules,” he said.

Another distinction, he said, is between proper and improper objects of discernment, meaning that “some things you can discern and other things you can’t.”

When it comes to the current discussion on marriage, Fr. Reedy noted that in his spiritual exercises, St. Ignatius himself speaks specifically about discerning marriage after you have contracted marriage “as an example of one of the things you can’t legitimately discern.”

This, he said, is because “after you are married, you can no longer legitimately discern being married or not, because you’ve made the decision; it’s not a proper object.”

What can be discerned, by a tribunal, is whether or not the marriage is valid.

“That’s a different question than discerning whether you want to be in a marriage still,” Fr. Reedy said. “For Ignatius that question doesn’t make any sense; in fact, it’s offensive to the process that you would discern changing a state of life that you have already committed yourself to.”

The same thing goes for priesthood and the religious life, he said, explaining that St. Ignatius uses that example because “once you’ve made that commitment, what you discern is how to live the commitment.”

“That’s what you would actually be discerning, because discernment is, fundamentally in Jesuit spirituality, the application of doctrine and teaching to the practical applications in somebody’s life. So it’s making practical that which is theoretical.”

There are then certain “guiding rules” that help in the carrying out of proper discernment.

One of St. Ignatius' rules Fr. Reedy cited is that sin can never be discerned, using the example of committing murder.

“You can’t discern to murder,” he said. “In fact, it’s offensive to the process that you are pretending to discern choosing an absolute evil.”

What can be legitimately discerned is whether or not to kill, because “if you and your family were under immediate threat from somebody, then the father could in the moment discern whether it was possible for him to take lethal action. That’s permitted.”

In terms of Catholic moral theology, Fr. Reedy said it exists between the camp of what is “permitted” and what is “transformative,” and that beyond the permitted sign lies what is “forbidden.”

Things that are forbidden cannot be discerned, and “you only ask to be free from them,” he said. From there, the spectrum goes from what is simply permissible on one side, all the way to what is deeply transformative and engages the world like Christ on the other.

“In that realm, between what is permitted to what is transformative, there’s a lot of discernment of legitimate possibilities of things that are not against reason or against God or the Church,” he said, adding that one can never really discern between good and evil, but “only between relative goods.”

One key rule of discernment that is often forgotten is the guiding principle of “thinking with the Church,” Fr. Reedy said. This means that “whatever you discern, you’re not only thinking about the moral law and how that functions, but also specifically thinking with the Church.”

Francis is a man 'steeped' in Jesuit tradition

Pope Francis “is completely steeped in Jesuit tradition and is a man completely of the exercises,” Fr. Reedy said, explaining that one of the first things he tells people when he speaks about the Pope is that “you can hear the spiritual exercises active in what he says.”

In listening to Pope Francis “you can hear a Jesuit who has contemplated the life of Jesus,” the priest said, noting that Francis' pedagogical or didactic style “is very much patterned on Jesus’, who often gave very oblique and obscure answers to questions.”

Christ did this, he said, “to specifically avoid a kind of legalism that just wants a solid answer that can then be manipulated in some way,” whereas true discernment means “you’re not interested in rules for the sake of rules, (or) tools that can be manipulated or used as weapons; what you’re interested in is finding the best, the truest, the most holy, the most transformative.”

In essence, “you’re always looking for what is the spirit of the law: why does the law exist, what it is, what is it trying to do?”

What can be done is to “have people trained in what the rules are, why they exist, and how to help these people engage that system in a way that can contribute toward their holiness, to their growth in conforming to Christ.”

Fr. Reedy said that for him, one problem he sees in the Church right now is that some people, in their interpretation of the Pope's actions, are “trying to put on the table, calling under the umbrella of discernment, the actual consideration of sins, of evils.”

“I’ve never gotten the sense that that is what Francis is saying,” he reflected, explaining that in his view, given Francis' background, what he is is trying to do is to “train people in this: in the proper camp of moral reasoning, which extends from permitted all the way to transformative, how to help people function there in a way that can be messy, but also prevent them from crossing the line into what is forbidden.”

But what about Francis' ambiguity? Is that a Jesuit thing?

Part of the confusion surrounding Pope Francis' sayings and writings is that his language can frequently be ambiguous and imprecise, leaving people scratching their heads trying to figure out what he actually meant.

But for Fr. Reedy, this isn't a Jesuit quality so much as it is a personal limitation of the Vicar of Christ.

“Francis is a complicated character. He’s not a precise theologian, so I think some of the ambiguity and imprecision just comes from his own training and background, which the Church just has to be patient with,” he said.

Secondly, the priest said that if we reflect on scripture, we see that the Pope uses a style that is very similar to what Christ himself often used, especially when he senses a “Pharisaical attitude.”

“When he senses that somebody’s asking a question in order to pin something down in a way he fears is going to hurt somebody else” Francis gets obscure, he said, explaining that the Pope is “very sensitive” to having doctrine “turned into a weapon of sorts.”

And so was Christ, he said, noting that “Jesus had very harsh words for those people.” Even though the Pharisees were technically faithful, upstanding Jews, “they also had a problem in the way that the viewed law; they saw the law first and the needs of the people second, and Jesus challenged that and so is Pope Francis.”

“I think people should stop pretending that Jesus was crystal-clear when he said things all the time,” Fr. Reedy said, noted that Christ “specifically said at times that he was intentionally being confusing. He would say that he was using parables so those other people over there wouldn’t understand – he would say that.”

However, even though Christ could at times speak cryptically, he was clear when pressed on important topics, such as the Eucharist and the meaning behind his words “this is my body,” and that to enter eternal life his disciples must “eat my flesh and drink my blood.”

So when it comes to Pope Francis, Fr. Reedy said people have to take into account “the Jesus-like way he teaches,” which he said is often at play in the Pope's speeches.

But there is also an element of manipulation when it comes to the Pope's ambiguity which must be addressed.

“I think (the Pope's) ambiguity is being manipulated,” Fr. Reedy said, explaining that in these cases, “I think we need to continue to push for greater clarity.”

This doesn't mean we'll get the clarity immediately, he said, but when it comes to particularly problematic issues “we need clarity. We need a line to be drawn saying we’re not talking about Catholic divorce.”

This isn't referring to somebody “who was in a valid marriage just rupturing that marriage, pretending it’s dissolvable against the explicit words of Jesus, and just starting a new one and saying that’s okay.”

“We’re not talking about that … I don’t think we are, I don’t think the Pope is,” he said, because if we look to the rules of discernment of St. Ignatius of Loyola, “I don’t think we can legitimately discern that.”

“So I’m confident that that’s not what the Pope is saying and I think that we should continue to ask for clarity, but not rush to clarity so that we can feel good about ourselves.”

What is needed, he said, is “to defend the truth so that we can become good.”

Christ doesn’t promise freedom from difficulties, Pope says

Vatican City, Jun 25, 2017 / 11:38 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In his Angelus address on Sunday, Pope Francis reminded the faithful that following Christ does not mean our lives will be free from all earthly troubles.

“There is no Christian mission in the name of tranquility,” the Pope said, speaking to those gathered in St. Peter’s Square on June 25. “Difficulties and tribulations are part and parcel of evangelization.”

Pope Francis reflected on the day’s Gospel, in which Jesus instructs his followers not to be afraid.

“Jesus’ mission did not guarantee the disciples success, nor did it shield them from failure or suffering,” the Holy Father said.

But Christ did promise them that he would always be with them as they faced the trials that were ahead.

The same is true for us today, the Pope said. We should expect suffering and even persecution if we follow in the path of the crucified Christ, but at the same time, we can take comfort in knowing that “God does not abandon his children during the storm.”

Sometimes this storm comes not in the form of active persecution, but in indifference, through “people who do not want to be awakened from a worldly numbness, who ignore the truth of the Gospel message and build their own ephemeral truth.”

Regardless of the form that trials may take, we should persevere in faithfulness, he said, also reminding those gathered in the square to pray for those facing serious persecution. 

“Jesus does not leave us alone because we are precious to Him.”

Following the Angelus, the Pope offered prayers for landslide victims in southwestern China. He also offered a message to members of the Greek-Catholic Ukrainian Church on the 150th anniversary of the canonization of St. Josaphat, as well as to Lithuanians celebrating Blessed Theofilius Matulonius.