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Congress passes Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act

Washington D.C., May 28, 2020 / 09:00 am (CNA).- The House on Wednesday evening passed legislation to respond to the mass detention and other human rights violations against Uyghurs in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang.

“We cannot be silent,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) on Wednesday before the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act passed the House. “Xi Jinping is smashing and obliterating an entire people. He is presiding over genocide.” Smith authored the House version of the legislation which had 136 cosponsors.

The bill (S. 3744) was passed by the Senate on May 14, where it was sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). It requires the administration to report on the scope and details of abuses committed against Uyghurs by the Chinese authorities, and to sanction the officials complicit in the abuses through actions such as visa denial and blocking an individual’s financial transactions.

“Congress is sending a strong message of support to Uyghur Muslims worldwide that the United States stands with you and will not sit idly by as the Chinese government and Communist Party commit egregious human rights abuses and crimes against humanity,” Sen. Rubio, the co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), stated.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 413-1, with Rep. Tom Massie (R-Ky.) the lone vote against. In December, when Massie opposed the passage of the House version of the legislation, he tweeted that “[w]hen our government meddles in the internal affairs of foreign countries, it invites those governments to meddle in our affairs.”

According to the CECC, more than one million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim minority groups have been detained by Chinese authorities in camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Former detainees or their relatives have reported torture, beatings, forced sterilizations, and other abuses committed in the camps, with detainees sometimes sent to work in factories upon their release. The Chinese government denied the existence of the camps but later said they existed to provide vocational training.

There have also been reports of mass surveillance of residents in the region, forced labor in factories producing goods that end up in the supply chains of U.S. companies, and abuses of religious freedom with mosques and shrines being destroyed.

The Congressional-Executive Commission on China concluded in 2019 that the abuses in the region may constitute “crimes against humanity.”

The Chinese government’s crackdown in the region has been conducted as part of its enforcement of a Counter-Terrorism law.

A report by UN human rights officials in November said that the application of the law “and related practices raises serious concerns regarding increasing practices of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, absence of judicial oversight and procedural safeguards and restrictions of the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, the right to education and the right to freedom of movement within an increasingly securitized environment, particularly for designated minorities, notably Uyghurs and Tibetans.”

The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act has now passed both the House and the Senate and heads to President Trump’s desk for signature.

“The world has stood by for too long as the Chinese government detained millions of Muslims in concentration camps,” Nury Turkel, a commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), stated. “Hopefully, other countries will follow the U.S. government’s lead and take action on this issue.”

“I call on the President to sign the legislation quickly and take swift action to sanction Chinese officials and businesses engaged in mass internment, surveillance, and forced labor,” stated Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).

Congress passes Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act

Washington D.C., May 28, 2020 / 09:00 am (CNA).- The House on Wednesday evening passed legislation to respond to the mass detention and other human rights violations against Uyghurs in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang.

“We cannot be silent,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) on Wednesday before the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act passed the House. “Xi Jinping is smashing and obliterating an entire people. He is presiding over genocide.” Smith authored the House version of the legislation which had 136 cosponsors.

The bill (S. 3744) was passed by the Senate on May 14, where it was sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). It requires the administration to report on the scope and details of abuses committed against Uyghurs by the Chinese authorities, and to sanction the officials complicit in the abuses through actions such as visa denial and blocking an individual’s financial transactions.

“Congress is sending a strong message of support to Uyghur Muslims worldwide that the United States stands with you and will not sit idly by as the Chinese government and Communist Party commit egregious human rights abuses and crimes against humanity,” Sen. Rubio, the co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), stated.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 413-1, with Rep. Tom Massie (R-Ky.) the lone vote against. In December, when Massie opposed the passage of the House version of the legislation, he tweeted that “[w]hen our government meddles in the internal affairs of foreign countries, it invites those governments to meddle in our affairs.”

According to the CECC, more than one million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim minority groups have been detained by Chinese authorities in camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Former detainees or their relatives have reported torture, beatings, forced sterilizations, and other abuses committed in the camps, with detainees sometimes sent to work in factories upon their release. The Chinese government denied the existence of the camps but later said they existed to provide vocational training.

There have also been reports of mass surveillance of residents in the region, forced labor in factories producing goods that end up in the supply chains of U.S. companies, and abuses of religious freedom with mosques and shrines being destroyed.

The Congressional-Executive Commission on China concluded in 2019 that the abuses in the region may constitute “crimes against humanity.”

The Chinese government’s crackdown in the region has been conducted as part of its enforcement of a Counter-Terrorism law.

A report by UN human rights officials in November said that the application of the law “and related practices raises serious concerns regarding increasing practices of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, absence of judicial oversight and procedural safeguards and restrictions of the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, the right to education and the right to freedom of movement within an increasingly securitized environment, particularly for designated minorities, notably Uyghurs and Tibetans.”

The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act has now passed both the House and the Senate and heads to President Trump’s desk for signature.

“The world has stood by for too long as the Chinese government detained millions of Muslims in concentration camps,” Nury Turkel, a commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), stated. “Hopefully, other countries will follow the U.S. government’s lead and take action on this issue.”

“I call on the President to sign the legislation quickly and take swift action to sanction Chinese officials and businesses engaged in mass internment, surveillance, and forced labor,” stated Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).

Island in English Channel permits public Masses as UK churches remain closed

CNA Staff, May 28, 2020 / 08:30 am (CNA).- The island of Guernsey will permit what may be the first public Masses in the British Isles since the coronavirus lockdown Monday. 

While churches remain closed across the United Kingdom, authorities in Guernsey have allowed public liturgies to resume from June 1. 

The island is a self-governing British crown dependency and not part of the U.K. It is therefore able to set its own rules.

From Monday, the island’s three Catholic churches will be permitted to admit up to 30 people at Masses, not including the celebrant or concelebrants, and have up to six altar servers. 

Fr. Bruce Barnes, the Catholic Dean of the Bailiwick of Guernsey, told CNA: “There’s a tremendous sense of change in the air and a tremendous sense of optimism for the future. We hope it will all be for the good of the island.”

Guernsey, which has a population of 67,000 and is located in the English Channel, has had 252 confirmed coronavirus cases and 13 recorded deaths as of May 28. But it recently became the first place in the British Isles to have no active cases. 

On May 15, the island’s authorities announced that churches could reopen for private, individual prayer, provided that social distancing was respected. Priests are now permitted to hear confessions again, while sitting at a distance from penitents. 

But Catholics who plan to attend Masses on Monday do not know whether they will be allowed to receive Holy Communion.

The States of Guernsey will announce May 29 whether priests will be permitted to distribute Communion to members of the congregation. 

If the authorities give the go-ahead, Catholics will only be able to receive Communion in one kind, in the hand, and will have to observe social distancing as they approach the priest. Priests will be required to sanitize their hands before and after Communion.

“We can’t, at the moment, sing,” Fr. Barnes said. “Which I’m sure will please some people.”

The island’s churches will continue to livestream Masses after public liturgies resume for those who are unable to attend in person.

Guernsey’s Catholic churches are part of the English Diocese of Portsmouth. Under current government plans, churches are not expected to reopen for private prayer in England before July 4. But bishops are in talks with officials and hope that churches will open sooner. 

Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth said in his weekly newsletter that Catholics in the U.K. “will have much to learn from the experience of Fr. Bruce and the parishioners there.”

Guernsey will be the first of the Channel Islands to resume public Masses, ahead of Jersey, the largest of the islands, which has a population of 98,000.

The U.K. has recorded more than 37,500 deaths from the coronavirus as of May 28, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center -- the second highest figure in the world after that of the United States.  

St. Augustine bishop calls for end to Florida death penalty

Denver Newsroom, May 28, 2020 / 03:00 am (CNA).- All of Florida’s death row inmates live in the Diocese of St. Augustine. Many are Catholic. At least twice a year St. Augustine’s Bishop Felipe Estevez goes to visit death row inmates himself.

So when Estevez issued a pastoral letter this week chronicling the efforts of Catholics in Florida to end the death penalty, and laying out the Catholic case for its abolition, the issue was personal.

"Justice needs to be restorative, not out of vengeance," Estevez told CNA May 27.

"We don't want anyone in society to be in danger because of these criminals, but we don't think that death is the answer. Killing them because they have killed would perpetuate the cycle of violence."

Jesus, on the cross, stopped a cycle of violence, Estevez said, by forgiving his killers.

"We need to put a stop to the death penalty because, as John Paul II said, it is not necessary. We can put all our energy into having the best prison system so that these prisoners who are a danger to society will not do any harm to anybody."

Estevez notes that no death row inmate in Florida has been granted clemency since 1983, and with 350 death row inmates, Florida has the largest active death row in the United States— indeed, in all the Americas.

California has more prisoners on death row, but the state’s death penalty is currently under moratorium. 

At least 50 of the men on Florida’s death row are Catholic, Estevez told CNA.

Estevez said he wanted his letter to reflect the commitment and care of those involved in prison ministry to death row inmates. There are over 27 prisons in the St. Augustine diocese.

Prison ministers provide much-needed accompaniment to prisoners, he said, helping provide an opportunity for them to repent.

"As they are being treated with love...something happens within their hearts, that tenderness transforms their hearts. And it is a very slow process...they have been damaged by violence. And so gentleness, mercy, accompaniment, and friendship and dialogue, all of that creates a culture of peace," he said.

"I think the reason why [the volunteers] persevere, and they are so committed, it is because they witness that transformation."

He said he sees the decline over the past few decades in executions throughout the country as a sign that more and more people are embracing a culture of life.

Society often tends to meet acts of violence with more violence, Estevez said.

"We need to heal that reaction— violence needs to be tempered by mercy," he said.

"We don't need to be engaged in vengeance, we don't need to be involved in killing. We need to be involved in restoration."

The bishop pointed to instances where the families of murder victims have asked that their loved one's killer not receive the death penalty.

"They who have been hurt the most are thinking and acting as Christians," he observed.

Estevez’s letter lays out a recent history of the development of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty.

The letter quotes a speech that Pope St. John Paul II delivered in St. Louis in 1999, in which he called for an end to the death penalty, calling it “cruel and unnecessary.”

“The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation,” John Paul II said.

“A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.”

John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae notes that cases in which executing an offender is an “absolute necessity” are, thanks to improvements in the penal system, “very rare if not practically nonexistent,” and reaffirms the Catechism’s teaching that “bloodless means” are “more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”

“Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this,” John Paul II wrote.

Pope Benedict XVI, too, continued to support the limitation and eradication of the death penalty during his pontificate, Estevez writes.

During August 2018, Pope Francis ordered a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, updating it to describe the death penalty as “inadmissible” and an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

Many Christians attempt to use Bible passages to justify the death penalty, but the death penalty as it exists in the United States, Estevez says, is particlarly contrary to a biblical view.

Dale Recinella, a Catholic death row chaplain in Florida and frequent collaborator with Bishop Estevez, used his skills as a lawyer to analyze how the death penalty, as applied in the US, compares to the requirements found in the Bible.

Recinella identified 44 requirements of the biblical death penalty when it was the law of the land in Israel. He found that the death penalty, in Florida and the US, scored zero out of 44 on the requirements of the biblical death penalty.

Estevez noted that the bishops of Florida have collectively expressed their opposition to the death penalty ever since the US Supreme Court ruling in 1972 that forced states to reasses their statutes for capital offenses.

At the time, the Florida bishops acknowledged that those who could pay for lawyers and appeals would likely avoid the death penalty, while “circumstantial evidence and discrimination in jury selection would inordinately affect the poor and minorities.”

John Sullivan, a Catholic inmate executed in 1983, received spiritual support and advocacy from Bishop John Snyder, Estevez’s predecessor.

The bishops continued to speak out as Florida scheduled more executions, issuing public pleas for stays of execution and mercy in every case of a scheduled execution in the 2000s.

The pastor of St. Mary, Mother of Mercy Parish, in Macclenny, Florida has had the primary responsibility for the church’s ministry at death row since 1976, Estevez said, with volunteers making themselves available for a quiet prayer vigil with the inmate’s family during the execution, and the pastor available to celebrate Mass at the church immediately following the execution.

The prison ministers at St. Mary’s also make the rounds in the death row prisons to bring the sacraments to those who are Catholic.

In June 1999, St. Marys’ parish council unanimously voted to formally pass a moratorium resolution on the death penalty, making it one of only two parishes in the country to have done so.

Defending human life at all costs requires courage and can be dangerous, Estevez said, recalling the story of Father Rene Robert, a St. Augustine priest who in 2016 attempted to help a troubled young man who subsequently kidnapped and murdered him.

Father Robert had, in 1995, signed a “Declaration of Life” asking that his killer not be put to death should he ever die by homicide. As a result, his killer was sentenced to life in prison.

Prisons are human institutions, and thus are fallible, Estevez writes, and thus “there is a great need for vigilance toward the effectiveness of prison security, even in well-developed societies, so these systems do not deteriorate or become corrupt and endanger their citizens.”

But:

“Our system of incarceration needs to change from inhumane punishment to hopeful rehabilitation. Everyone must be concerned that not a single innocent human is condemned to deadly execution,” he wrote.

“Our pastoral experience in caring for inmates has revealed that many of them have experienced a conversion of heart, and society can benefit from a reunion with their families and re-entry to society,” he concluded.

Estevez invoked the intercession of Our Lady of La Leche— who is honored at the newly-elevated national shrine at Mission Nombre de Dios in St. Augustine— consecrating to her the effort to end capital punishment in Florida.

 

Baltimore archdiocese has ‘serious concerns’ about county Communion ban

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 27, 2020 / 06:02 pm (CNA).- The Archdiocese of Baltimore said it has “serious concerns” about public health guidance from Howard County, Maryland, which prohibits the reception of Communion as a condition for churches to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.

“For the Catholic community, the reception of Communion is central to our faith lives and to our public worship,” said a statement from the archdiocese, released to CNA on Wednesday.

“Since learning of the concerns of Howard County officials, we have shared our guidelines for the distribution of Communion and express our own serious concerns about their recent guidance preventing Catholic churches in Howard County from distributing Communion.”

Howard County’s Executive Order #2020-09, published on May 26, outlines the conditions and regulations that must be met for non-essential businesses--which in Maryland includes churches and other houses of worship--to resume operations. The order was released by Howard County Executive Calvin Ball.

The order provides that “there shall be no consumption of food or beverage of any kind before, during, or after religious services, including food or beverage that would typically be consumed as part of a religious service.”

Since the consumption of the consecrated species at Mass, at least by the celebrant, is an integral part of the Eucharistic rite, the order effectively bans the licit celebration of Mass in the county.

The executive order was reported by CNA May 27. 

The archdiocese said it is committed to ensuring churches reopen safely after closure amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The archdiocese has “developed thorough and carefully thought-out guidelines for resuming public Masses, including detailed guidance on the safe distribution of Communion.”

“These guidelines respect both the sanctity of the Sacrament and the need for abundant caution to protect the health and safety of both those receiving and distributing Communion,” the archdiocese said.

“While we recognize and value the urgent desire to guard the health and safety of local communities that is guiding the decisions of our government leaders, we are committed to engaging in dialogue with them to work together towards a policy going that balances the need for free expression of religious faith and the public’s health and safety interests.”

Baltimore’s Archbishop William Lori is well known for his advocacy on religious liberty issues, and was the inaugural and longtime chair of the U.S bishops’ conference ad hoc committee on religious freedom. 

Earlier on Wednesday, Howard County spokesman Scott Peterson told CNA that "Howard County has not fully implemented Phase 1 of Reopening. We continue to do an incremental rollout based on health and safety guidelines, analysis of data and metrics specific to Howard County and in consultation with our local Health Department."

"With this said," Peterson added, "we continue to get stakeholder feedback in order to fully reopen to Phase 1." 

“Regarding religious services,” Peterson said, “we have allowed for outdoor services. However, public health officials continue to describe the ongoing risks associated with hand-shaking, singing, and consumption of food of any kind thereby continuing the need for restrictions on these types of activities out of an abundance of safety precautions to protect the health, safety and well-being of the community.”

The executive order limits attendance at indoor worship spaces to 10 people or fewer, while allowing outdoor services for up to 250 socially-distanced people wearing masks – though the prohibition of food or drink, including Communion, is not limited to indoor celebrations.

The archdiocese announced its own phased reopening plans on Tuesday. While some of the policies outlined in the archdiocese’s plans are in line with Executive Order 2020-09, there is no prohibition on the reception of Communion before, after, or during Mass. 

The Archdiocese of Baltimore's reopening plans require that communicants observe social distancing while in line for communion, and is discouraging reception on the tongue--but the archdiocese has not instructed parishes to place any other restrictions on the reception of communion, apart from ordinary canonical norms.

In Phase I of the archdiocese’s reopening plan, churches will be open for private prayer, but Mass will still be celebrated without a congregation. In Phase II, which is expected to begin in some areas the weekend of May 30-31, churches may open to socially-distanced congregations up to one-third of the seating capacity, if local public restrictions permit the attendance of more than 10 people at Mass.

43% of US coronavirus deaths in nursing homes

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 27, 2020 / 03:00 pm (CNA).- A new report on Tuesday says that more than 40% of deaths from the new coronavirus (COVID-19) in the United States have occurred in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities.

“Much more attention must be paid to the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection in nursing homes, especially through nursing home staff who work at multiple facilities,” wrote Avik Roy and Gregg Girvan for the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity.

“Nursing homes must use best practices for testing and cleanliness,” they wrote.

Analyzing state data on COVID-19 deaths, Roy and Girvan noted that, of the states reporting coronavirus deaths in long-term care centers, 43% of the overall deaths from the virus occurred in the centers; outside of New York state, that percentage rose to 53%.

New York, they said, may be an “outlier” among state reports because the volume of deaths outside of nursing homes may have driven the percentage share of nursing home deaths down. New York also reportedly changed how it was counting COVID nursing home deaths in early May; nursing home patients who died from the virus at a hospital were not counted as nursing home deaths.

The death rates at nursing homes were particularly high in the Northeast. In New Jersey, almost one in ten nursing home residents died from the virus, with 954 COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes per 10,000 residents. In Connecticut, the number of fatalities per 10,000 residents was 827; in Massachusetts, it was 703.

However, in some other states such as Minnesota, the percentage of coronavirus deaths at nursing homes—as a share of overall deaths from the virus—was extremely high.

In Minnesota, more than 81% of COVID-19 deaths have occurred in nursing homes, as of May 22. In Rhode Island, 77% of virus deaths happened in nursing homes; in Ohio, 70% of COVID-19 deaths occurred at nursing homes, and New Hampshire was close behind at 69.8%. Pennsylvania saw 69.2% of its deaths from the virus occur in nursing homes.

In the wake of reports of the high number of deaths in nursing homes, some have pointed to policies of several states that sent positive COVID patients to nursing homes, to free up hospital beds. New York, New Jersey, California, and Pennsylvania instructed nursing homes that they could not refuse COVID patients discharged from hospitals.

Charles Camosy, a theology professor at Fordham University, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that nursing homes already had problems of poor training or funding before the pandemic struck.

Sending patients who had COVID to nursing homes started an “uncontrollable wildfire of infection and death,” he told CNA. However, he added, as nursing homes and long-term care facilities “were already pushed to the margins of our culture, it actually made sense that the dignity of these residents and workers was ignored and their lives discarded.”

The high percentage of U.S. nursing home deaths from the virus was reflected in other countries, Roy and Girvan wrote.

They cited a study by the International Long Term Care Policy Network that analyzed COVID deaths in Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. In those countries, more than 40% of reported COVID-19 deaths occurred in nursing homes.

“States and localities should consider reorienting their policy responses away from younger and healthier people, and toward the elderly, and especially elderly individuals living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities,” Roy and Girvan wrote.

Maryland county bans Eucharist in church reopening order

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 27, 2020 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- This story is developing and has been updated.

An executive order issued Tuesday in Maryland’s Howard County outlines public health rules under which churches may reopen. The order prohibits the distribution and consumption of any food or drink as part of any religious service, effectively outlawing the distribution of Communion and the celebration of the Mass. 

Howard County Executive Order #2020-09 outlines the conditions and regulations that must be met for non-essential businesses--which in Maryland includes churches and other houses of worship--to resume operations. The order was released by Howard County Executive Calvin Ball.

“There shall be no consumption of food or beverage of any kind before, during, or after religious services, including food or beverage that would typically be consumed as part of a religious service,” the order says in a section delineating norms and restrictions on religious services. 

The consumption of the consecrated species at Mass, at least by the celebrant, is an integral part of the Eucharistic rite. Rules prohibiting even the celebrating priest from receiving the Eucharist would ban the licit celebration of Mass by any priest.

CNA asked the Howard County public affairs office to comment on how the rule aligns with First Amendment religious freedom and free exercise rights.

Howard County spokesman Scott Peterson told CNA in a statement that "Howard County has not fully implemented Phase 1 of Reopening. We continue to do an incremental rollout based on health and safety guidelines, analysis of data and metrics specific to Howard County and in consultation with our local Health Department."

"With this said," Peterson added, "we continue to get stakeholder feedback in order to fully reopen to Phase 1." 

The executive order also limits attendance at indoor worship spaces to 10 people or fewer, limits outdoor services to 250 socially-distanced people wearing masks, forbids the passing of collection plates, and bans handshakes and physical contact between worshippers. 

 

Beginning at 7am on May 29th, religious institutions may resume services assuming the following guidelines are met. The guidelines refer to churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, interfaith centers, and any other space where faith gatherings are held.https://t.co/XE0soDdV3l pic.twitter.com/NieG0MavCv

— Calvin Ball (@HoCoGovExec) May 26, 2020  

In contrast to the 10-person limit for churches, establishments listed in the order that do not host religious services are permitted to operate at 50% capacity. 

The order also states that “singing is permitted, but not recommended,” and that only the person leading the service or a choir may sing. Those who are singing without masks should, per the order, “maintain a 12-foot distance from other persons, including religious leaders, other singers, or the congregation.” 

The sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel contains the well-known “Bread of Life” discourse, in which Jesus teaches at a Capernum synagogue that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”

Catholics believe that teaching constitutes part of Christ's revelation of the Eucharist.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore, whose territory includes Howard County, did not respond to requests for comment on the Howard County executive order by the time of posting.

The archdiocese announced its own phased reopening plans on Tuesday. While some of the policies outlined in the archdiocese’s plans are in line with Executive Order 2020-09, there is no prohibition on the distribution of food or beverages before, after, or during Mass. 

The Archdiocese of Baltimore's reopening plans require that communicants observe social distancing while in line for communion, and is discouraging reception on the tongue--but the archdiocese has not instructed parishes to place any other restrictions on the reception of communion, apart from ordinary canonical norms.

In Phase I of the archdiocese’s reopening plan, churches will be open for private prayer, but Mass will still be celebrated without a congregation. In Phase II, which is expected to begin in some areas the weekend of May 30-31, churches may open to socially-distanced congregations up to one-third of the seating capacity, if local public restrictions permit the attendance of more than 10 people at Mass.

The Department of Justice has recently issued a number of letters concerning cases of state and local public health orders which affect churches and houses of worship. In the last week, the department sent letters to the governors of California and Nevada, emphasizing the need to respect religious freedoms while working to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

“Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” Eric S. Dreiband, head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, said in a May 19 letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom. 

The DOJ has also filed statements of interest in cases involving conflicts between churches and local authorities, including a lawsuit against the Mayor of Greenville, Mississippi, after members of the Temple Baptist Church were fined $500 for attending a service in their cars in the church's parking lot. The mayor later rescinded the fines and amended the city’s stay at home order.

LA archdiocese announces reopening plan

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 27, 2020 / 10:35 am (CNA).- After California relaxed public health restrictions on churches on Monday, the nation’s largest diocese announced its plan on Tuesday to resume public Masses.

In a two-step plan for parishes to reopen and offer the sacraments, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles on Tuesday provided a checklist for each parish to observe. The state’s dioceses and archdioceses have all curtailed public Masses since March, but starting June 3 the archdiocese will allow for public Masses.

While Governor Gavin Newsom’s four-step reopening plan for the state had initially placed churches in stage 3 of reopening, that of “higher-risk workplaces,” on Monday the state announced that churches could begin reopening subject to county restrictions. The state is currently in stage 2 of Newsom’s reopening plan, where manufacturing and some retail businesses have been allowed to reopen.

Now, California has allowed churches to open at 25% capacity with a maximum of 100 people.

The state’s Catholic Conference called the new state guidelines “positive, constructive and fundamentally in alignment” with the diocesan reopening plans, and expressed gratitude for being “a part of the consultation.”

Individual dioceses and archdioceses would make the decisions on reopening parishes in consultation with local authorities, the conference said.

“We look forward to collaborating even further with Governor Newsom and our county leaders in the coming weeks to make social distancing the determining criterion for attendance for public worship so that our communities can undertake a pattern of worship that is both sustainable and safe,” their statement read.

For the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, “Step 1” of its reopening plan for parishes allows for silent adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and individual confessions heard upon request inside a church, with social distancing measures in place.

Churches must be deep cleaned before reopening and cleaned again after each use, and volunteers should be present to open the doors, keep count of the number of those inside the church, usher the faithful to designated seating, and help clean the church.

Parishes can “advance” to Step 2 of the archdiocese’s plan starting June 3, when public Masses, sacraments of initiation, scheduled confessions, and weddings, funerals and quinceañeras can resume. Choirs at Masses will be replaced by a cantor and accompanist, and Holy Communion can be received in the hand only.

For infant baptisms, “[t]he use of the Oil of Catechumens and the ‘Ephphatha’ rite are to be omitted,” the archdiocesan guidelines state.

While the state’s Catholic Conference offered a positive commendation of the state’s reopening plan, one Pentecostal church is still challenging the plan in court, saying it arbitrarily subjects churches to stricter limits than businesses are subject to.

The Thomas More Society, representing South Bay United Pentecostal Church in San Diego, sent a letter to Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan on Tuesday stating that the state’s reopening plan was still unacceptable for churches.

Justice Kagan handles emergency requests from the jurisdiction of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, according to SCOTUSBlog.com.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but it certainly doesn’t go far enough for the simple reason that they’re placing arbitrary and unconstitutional restrictions on churches that they’re not placing on secular organizations,” attorney Charles LiMandri told CNA on Wednesday.

South Bay church had already filed for an emergency injunction on the state’s order requiring churches to remain closed—Newsom’s original plan that placed churches in “stage 3” of the reopening. The church had asked for relief by Pentecost Sunday, May 31.

Then on Monday, May 25, the state’s health department announced that churches could resume religious services at a maximum of 25% capacity or 100 people.

The allowance is still not acceptable, the church argued in its letter to Kagan, as individual counties can still maintain stricter regulations than the state’s “ceiling” that was announced on Monday.

Furthermore, for larger churches such as South Bay which seats 600 congregants in its sanctuary, the 100-person limit is an “arbitrary cap,” the church argued.

“Some of these churches will seat over 1,000 people, so it makes no sense to have an arbitrary minimum cutoff” of 100 people, LiMandri said.

“They’re not doing that in any other organization or facility,” he added, noting that shopping malls are allowed to open at 50% capacity and warehouse stores like Costco do not have a customer limit.

The state’s allowance for churches is also legally suspect, the Thomas More Society argued, as it did not move churches to stage 2 of the original reopening plan “but has created an entirely new regime to regulate them alone.”

As various federal circuit courts have disagreed on the extent to which states may restrict religious practice during the pandemic, the Thomas More Society asked the Supreme Court to intervene and offer clarity.

“In light of these continued exigencies, it is imperative that states receive consistent and uniform guidance on this matter of utmost importance from Your Honor or the entire Court,” the letter stated.

“The deepening conflict between and among the various Circuit Courts of Appeal has triggered serious uncertainty as to what legal standard applies when citizens consider whether and under what circumstances they may freely exercise their religious faith by attending services at their church, temple, mosque or other place of worship.”

The U.S. Department of Justice warned California in a May 19 letter that it could not single out churches for burdensome restrictions during the pandemic. 

“California has not shown why interactions in offices and studios of the entertainment industry, and in-person operations to facilitate nonessential e-commerce, are included on the list as being allowed with social distancing where telework is not practical, while gatherings with social distancing for purposes of religious worship are forbidden, regardless of whether remote worship is practical or not,” stated a letter by Eric S. Dreiband, head of the DOJ Civil Rights Division, joined by four U.S. attorneys for California.

That letter is one of several recent interventions by the DOJ, warning state and local authorities of the need to respect religious freedoms while making efforts to halt the spread of coronavirus.

On Monday, Nevada U.S. Attorney Nicholas A. Trutanich and U.S. Assistant Attorney General Eric S. Deibrand wrote to Governor Steve Sisolak regarding the standing prohibition on gathering of more than 10 people for religious purposes.

"We understand these directives were issued in the midst of an uncertain situation, which may have required quick decisions based on changing information," the DOJ lawyers said. 

"We are concerned, however, that the flat prohibition against ten or more persons gathering for in person worship services — regardless of whether they maintain social distancing guidelines — impermissibly treats religious and nonreligious organizations unequally."

The letter asked Sisolak “to balance competing interests and make your best judgments” in drafting guidelines which accommodate both public health and religious freedom concerns.

After leukemia returns, Bishop Murry of Youngstown resigns

CNA Staff, May 27, 2020 / 09:19 am (CNA).- Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio has submitted his resignation to Pope Francis, due to a recurrence of leukemia, the diocese has announced. The bishop is 71 years old, four years younger than standard retirement age for bishops.

In April 2018, Bishop Murry was diagnosed with leukemia. He underwent a month of intensive chemotherapy treatment at the Cleveland Clinic, and was released in late May of that year. He doctors said he responded well to the treatment, and the leukemia cells had been suppressed, although he would need to return to the clinic weekly for monitoring.

“In July of 2019 he reentered the Cleveland Clinic for a reoccurrence of leukemia. At that time tests confirmed that he was in remission and that doctors were not recommending a bone marrow transplant,” the Diocese of Youngstown said in a statement this week.

“This past April, his leukemia retuned and he resumed treatment. With this third bout of leukemia, his present state of health leaves him less able to fulfill the tasks entrusted to him as bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown,” the statement said.

Following his initial leukemia diagnosis, the bishop stepped down from his role as chair of the U.S. bishops’ new Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, as well as his role as chair of the conference’s Committee on Catholic Education.

Bishop Murry was born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1948. He entered the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1972, and was ordained to the priesthood seven years later. Murry holds a M.Div. degree from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, California, and a Ph.D. in American Cultural History from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

He served in administrative roles in two Washington, D.C., high schools, as well as serving as a professor of American Studies at Georgetown University and as Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Detroit-Mercy.

In 1995, Pope John Paul II appointed him Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago. In 1998, the pope appointed him Coadjutor Bishop of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and on June 30, 1999, appointed him bishop of the diocese.

Bishop Murry has led the Youngstown diocese since 2007.

 

Holy water and Super Soakers don't mix, priests say

Denver Newsroom, May 27, 2020 / 03:12 am (CNA).- After photos appearing to depict blessings or baptisms by water gun went viral online, several priests cautioned that Catholics should take care to treat sacred objects and rites with a proper sense of reverence.

“Putting holy water into a squirt gun and treating it as if it were a comedy sketch on SNL is treating both the sacrament and the blessed water unworthily,” said Fr. Pius Pietrzyk, assistant professor of canon law at St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park, California.

He noted that the Catechism teaches that profaning sacred objects or treating them unworthily is a sin – the sin of sacrilege.

Pietrzyk spoke to CNA about a number of photos online appearing to depict priests holding water guns at people, purportedly to meet “social distancing” guidelines during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

In one photo, a priest points a water gun at a baby in a baptism gown from several yards away.

The priest, Fr. Stephen Klasek, pastor of two parishes in the diocese of Nashville: St. Mark in Manchester, Tennessee, and Saint Paul the Apostle in nearby Tullahoma, took to Facebook Tuesday to explain his intentions.

Saint Mark Catholic Church said in a Tuesday Facebook post that the photo was intended to be humorous. According to the social media parish’s post, the family had asked the priest to pose for the photo in imitation of similar pictures on the internet. It said the gun did not contain holy water and was not squirted at the baby.

The parish said it felt a need to “clarify the photo that has gone viral as we have been receiving inquiries about it. It has garnered almost a million views in Twitter, has been in the news in several websites and memes. It had good and controversial comments.”

While Klasek’s photo was apparently staged, other photos have also been circulating the internet, including pictures of a priest purporting to bless parishioners with a water gun in Detroit. Fr. Tim Pelc told Buzzfeed News he had shot parishioners with holy water in a water gun as something “for the kids of the parish.”

Pietrzyk cautioned against assuming that the intention in a specific instance was to mock the sacraments. “I think we ought to proceed from the premise that it involves individuals who were attempting to make light of the difficulties of the coronavirus situation,” he told CNA.

Still, the priest said, while the intent may have been lighthearted, the photos raise serious concerns.

Holy water is a sacramental, a material object meant to help us sanctify our lives and dispose us to better receive the graces of the sacraments, he explained. Holy water reminds us of the purifying power of baptism, and of Christ, who referred to himself as living water.

“[B]lessed objects, including holy water, should be treated with respect and reverence as things set aside to build up the life of faith,” Pietrzyk said.

Fr. Daniel Cardo, who holds the Pope Benedict XVI Chair of Liturgical Studies at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, noted that there is a liturgical instrument specifically intended for the sprinkling of water - the aspergilium – which is used during the Easter Season and in other ceremonies when holy water is sprinkled.

“We do this all the time. We bless people at a distance with holy water. We have a beautiful thing that we can use [the aspergilium]. We don’t need toys to do that,” he told CNA.

Both Cardo and Pietrzyk suggested that an actual baptism performed with a water gun would be illicit.

But even a staged photo raises the possibility of the sin of scandal, which the Church defines as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil,” Pietrzyk said.

Staging such a photo, he said, may lead others “to treat the things of God and of Divine Worship as mere objects of derision, stripping them of their sacral import and infusing them with a sense of the slap-stick.”

“It especially leads non-believers into concluding that people of faith do not take their beliefs seriously and, in extreme cases, can lead people to conclude that the priests involved think that such acts of religion are no more than superstitious nonsense.”

Cardo agreed. He said the photo, while perhaps intended to be funny, could lead to confusion about the Sacrament of Baptism and how it is conducted.

“There is definitely a risk of trivializing” the sacrament, he said, and of undermining the sacredness of the rite that the Church views as opening the door to eternal life.

Ultimately, Cardo said, it is a question of whether we believe what the Church professes about holy water – and what it means to act accordingly.

“Do we believe that this water that has been blessed is actually different than what it was before? In other words, do we believe that through the prayers instituted by the Church, that water is not the same – there is something that changed in that water, that therefore makes it capable of doing something in the object or person that receives it?”

If so, he said, “then the consequence of treating that water with the utmost love and devotion and respect would be the most natural thing.”