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Pennsylvania AG files challenge to new federal religious freedom rules

Harrisburg, Pa., Dec 14, 2018 / 09:01 pm (CNA).- New rules are set to ensure strong religious exemptions to federal mandates requiring employer health care plans to provide birth control coverage, but Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s legal challenge could derail them.

“Families rely on the Affordable Care Act’s guarantee to afford care,” Shapiro said Dec. 14. “Congress hasn’t changed the law, and the president can’t simply ignore it with an illegal rule.”

He filed an amended complaint Friday challenging the Trump administration’s final religious exemption rules, set to take effect Jan. 14, 2019. New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal joined the complaint, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

Shapiro’s complaint makes several claims, including charges that the new rules violate the separation of church and state and allow employers to discriminate on the basis of sex.

On Nov. 7, the Trump administration released two updated rules concerning conscience protections for organizations and individuals in relation to the Department of Health and Human Services’ so-called contraception mandate.

The rules allow colleges, universities, and health insurance companies to decline to cover contraceptives, including drugs that can cause abortion, whether for religious or non-religious moral objections.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops welcomed the new rules as “common-sense regulations that allow those with sincerely held religious or moral convictions opposing abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception to exclude such drugs and devices from their health plans.”

Mark Rienzi, president of the Becket religious liberty legal group, praised the new rules, saying they signaled the end of a “long, unnecessary culture war.” Rienzi’s legal group represents the Little Sisters of the Poor, who have challenged mandates requiring them to provide such coverage to employees.

“All that is left is for state governments to admit that there are many ways to deliver these services without nuns, and the Little Sisters can return to serving the elderly poor in peace,” Rienzi said last month.

The Little Sisters of the Poor are currently being sued by the attorneys general of Pennsylvania and California, which challenge their religious exemptions allowing them to decline to provide the coverage to which they object.

The U.S. Supreme Court had barred enforcement of the mandate on closely held private companies in its 2014 case involving Hobby Lobby, which is owned by an Evangelical Christian family that objected to some of the mandated drugs.

In May 2016, the Supreme Court voided the federal circuit court decisions involving other plaintiffs challenging the mandate and sent these cases back to their respective federal courts. The court directed the lower courts to give all parties time to come to an agreement that satisfied their needs.

The Little Sisters of the Poor case, Zubik v. Burwell, is named for Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, who is a plaintiff.

Bishop Zubik came under fire for his diocese’s handling of sex abuse cases after Shapiro’s office in August released a grand jury report on six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, citing allegations of abuse over a span of decades.

The Trump administration’s 2017 religious exemptions to the HHS rule were still being litigated in court. A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel on Thursday lifted a district court’s preliminary nationwide injunction against the 2017 religious exemptions, but allowed the injunction to stand in the five states that have filed legal challenges.

The majority decision by Ninth Circuit Judge J. Clifford Wallace acknowledged that free exercise of religion and conscience are “undoubtedly, fundamentally important.”

“Protecting religious liberty and conscience is obviously in the public interest. However, balancing the equities is not an exact science,” the decision continued. The majority said the appellate court lacked sufficient basis “to second-guess the district court and to conclude that its decision was illogical, implausible, or without support in the record.”

The decision faulted federal officials for not satisfying the rules of the Administrative Procedure Act, including requirements for public comment on new rules.

A nationwide injunction against the 2017 rules was still in effect in Pennsylvania, however.

Last month the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a 2014 District Court decision against EWTN Global Catholic Network, the parent company of Catholic News Agency, in its lawsuit against the mandate.

Under the terms of the settlement with Department of Health and Human Services, EWTN will not be required to provide contraception, sterilization, or abortifacients through its employee health care plan.

Pennsylvania AG files challenge to new federal religious freedom rules

Harrisburg, Pa., Dec 14, 2018 / 09:01 pm (CNA).- New rules are set to ensure strong religious exemptions to federal mandates requiring employer health care plans to provide birth control coverage, but Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s legal challenge could derail them.

“Families rely on the Affordable Care Act’s guarantee to afford care,” Shapiro said Dec. 14. “Congress hasn’t changed the law, and the president can’t simply ignore it with an illegal rule.”

He filed an amended complaint Friday challenging the Trump administration’s final religious exemption rules, set to take effect Jan. 14, 2019. New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal joined the complaint, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

Shapiro’s complaint makes several claims, including charges that the new rules violate the separation of church and state and allow employers to discriminate on the basis of sex.

On Nov. 7, the Trump administration released two updated rules concerning conscience protections for organizations and individuals in relation to the Department of Health and Human Services’ so-called contraception mandate.

The rules allow colleges, universities, and health insurance companies to decline to cover contraceptives, including drugs that can cause abortion, whether for religious or non-religious moral objections.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops welcomed the new rules as “common-sense regulations that allow those with sincerely held religious or moral convictions opposing abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception to exclude such drugs and devices from their health plans.”

Mark Rienzi, president of the Becket religious liberty legal group, praised the new rules, saying they signaled the end of a “long, unnecessary culture war.” Rienzi’s legal group represents the Little Sisters of the Poor, who have challenged mandates requiring them to provide such coverage to employees.

“All that is left is for state governments to admit that there are many ways to deliver these services without nuns, and the Little Sisters can return to serving the elderly poor in peace,” Rienzi said last month.

The Little Sisters of the Poor are currently being sued by the attorneys general of Pennsylvania and California, which challenge their religious exemptions allowing them to decline to provide the coverage to which they object.

The U.S. Supreme Court had barred enforcement of the mandate on closely held private companies in its 2014 case involving Hobby Lobby, which is owned by an Evangelical Christian family that objected to some of the mandated drugs.

In May 2016, the Supreme Court voided the federal circuit court decisions involving other plaintiffs challenging the mandate and sent these cases back to their respective federal courts. The court directed the lower courts to give all parties time to come to an agreement that satisfied their needs.

The Little Sisters of the Poor case, Zubik v. Burwell, is named for Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, who is a plaintiff.

Bishop Zubik came under fire for his diocese’s handling of sex abuse cases after Shapiro’s office in August released a grand jury report on six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, citing allegations of abuse over a span of decades.

The Trump administration’s 2017 religious exemptions to the HHS rule were still being litigated in court. A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel on Thursday lifted a district court’s preliminary nationwide injunction against the 2017 religious exemptions, but allowed the injunction to stand in the five states that have filed legal challenges.

The majority decision by Ninth Circuit Judge J. Clifford Wallace acknowledged that free exercise of religion and conscience are “undoubtedly, fundamentally important.”

“Protecting religious liberty and conscience is obviously in the public interest. However, balancing the equities is not an exact science,” the decision continued. The majority said the appellate court lacked sufficient basis “to second-guess the district court and to conclude that its decision was illogical, implausible, or without support in the record.”

The decision faulted federal officials for not satisfying the rules of the Administrative Procedure Act, including requirements for public comment on new rules.

A nationwide injunction against the 2017 rules was still in effect in Pennsylvania, however.

Last month the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a 2014 District Court decision against EWTN Global Catholic Network, the parent company of Catholic News Agency, in its lawsuit against the mandate.

Under the terms of the settlement with Department of Health and Human Services, EWTN will not be required to provide contraception, sterilization, or abortifacients through its employee health care plan.

Minn. archbishop announces moves to end culture fostering clergy abuse

St. Paul, Minn., Dec 14, 2018 / 08:01 pm (CNA).- Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Saint Paul and Minneapolis announced Friday several changes meant “to change the culture that fostered the clergy abuse crisis.”

Among these are the creation of a new position within the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis to ensure that “the voice of survivors of clergy sexual abuse will be regularly heard within Archdiocesan leadership,” Hebda wrote in a Dec. 14 letter.

“To strengthen that voice, I want to say again today that any survivor who at any time entered into a settlement agreement containing a confidentiality provision is released from that provision,” he added.

“I also reiterate my pledge to meet with any survivors who would like to do so.”

Hebda wrote that he plans to make himself available to survivors of abuse all Friday afternoons in February, March, and April, as well as other times and places. Planning for spiritual outreach in 2019 is also underway, he said.

Hebda reiterated that he strongly favors a “lay-led mechanism for investigating and assessing any allegations made against me or any other bishop.”

Hebda’s predecessor, Archbishop John Nienstedt, was the subject of a misconduct allegation involving adult males in 2014. Nienstedt delegated the investigation to his senior auxiliary bishop, who submitted the investigative materials to then-Nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò after seeking the counsel of two law firms. In addition, the allegations against Nienstedt were provided to the county attorney’s office.

However, the situation remains “unresolved for the accusers, for Archbishop Nienstedt and for the public” because Hebda said as far as he knows, the Vatican’s effort into the investigation ended when Archbishop Nienstedt resigned his office in June 2015.

Archbishop Viganò has since denied that he ordered the Vatican’s investigation of Nienstedt to be halted.

Hebda wrote of the investigation: “I share the frustration that is felt by them, and believe this situation highlights the need for a better-defined process and independent mechanism to resolve allegations made against bishops.”

An additional allegation emerged that then-bishop of New Ulm Nienstedt, at a 2005 World Youth Day event in Germany, had invited minors to his hotel room, proceeded to undress and had invited them to do the same – an account which Nienstedt denies. Hebda said he transmitted information about this allegation to the nuncio in 2016.

“I have been asked repeatedly whether there are any restrictions on Archbishop Nienstedt’s ministry,” Hebda wrote.

“My answer has always been that although I do not know of any, I am the wrong person to ask: Bishops report to the Holy Father, not to each other. I have no general juridical authority over Archbishop Nienstedt or any other bishop outside the Archdiocese.”

However, Hebda did offer clarification that Nienstedt, like any priest facing misconduct allegations, “would not be free to exercise public ministry in this Archdiocese until all open allegations are resolved.”

Hebda said he would continue to advocate for an independent review board, and would commit to transmitting the entire 2014 archdiocesan investigation to whatever national or regional review board is created.

“In order to fully address bishop accountability, the Church needs a national or regional board empowered to act, much as our well-respected Ministerial Review Board has been empowered to address allegations involving our priests and deacons,” the archbishop wrote.

“The Church cannot fulfill its mission without public trust.”

Minn. archbishop announces moves to end culture fostering clergy abuse

St. Paul, Minn., Dec 14, 2018 / 08:01 pm (CNA).- Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Saint Paul and Minneapolis announced Friday several changes meant “to change the culture that fostered the clergy abuse crisis.”

Among these are the creation of a new position within the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis to ensure that “the voice of survivors of clergy sexual abuse will be regularly heard within Archdiocesan leadership,” Hebda wrote in a Dec. 14 letter.

“To strengthen that voice, I want to say again today that any survivor who at any time entered into a settlement agreement containing a confidentiality provision is released from that provision,” he added.

“I also reiterate my pledge to meet with any survivors who would like to do so.”

Hebda wrote that he plans to make himself available to survivors of abuse all Friday afternoons in February, March, and April, as well as other times and places. Planning for spiritual outreach in 2019 is also underway, he said.

Hebda reiterated that he strongly favors a “lay-led mechanism for investigating and assessing any allegations made against me or any other bishop.”

Hebda’s predecessor, Archbishop John Nienstedt, was the subject of a misconduct allegation involving adult males in 2014. Nienstedt delegated the investigation to his senior auxiliary bishop, who submitted the investigative materials to then-Nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò after seeking the counsel of two law firms. In addition, the allegations against Nienstedt were provided to the county attorney’s office.

However, the situation remains “unresolved for the accusers, for Archbishop Nienstedt and for the public” because Hebda said as far as he knows, the Vatican’s effort into the investigation ended when Archbishop Nienstedt resigned his office in June 2015.

Archbishop Viganò has since denied that he ordered the Vatican’s investigation of Nienstedt to be halted.

Hebda wrote of the investigation: “I share the frustration that is felt by them, and believe this situation highlights the need for a better-defined process and independent mechanism to resolve allegations made against bishops.”

An additional allegation emerged that then-bishop of New Ulm Nienstedt, at a 2005 World Youth Day event in Germany, had invited minors to his hotel room, proceeded to undress and had invited them to do the same – an account which Nienstedt denies. Hebda said he transmitted information about this allegation to the nuncio in 2016.

“I have been asked repeatedly whether there are any restrictions on Archbishop Nienstedt’s ministry,” Hebda wrote.

“My answer has always been that although I do not know of any, I am the wrong person to ask: Bishops report to the Holy Father, not to each other. I have no general juridical authority over Archbishop Nienstedt or any other bishop outside the Archdiocese.”

However, Hebda did offer clarification that Nienstedt, like any priest facing misconduct allegations, “would not be free to exercise public ministry in this Archdiocese until all open allegations are resolved.”

Hebda said he would continue to advocate for an independent review board, and would commit to transmitting the entire 2014 archdiocesan investigation to whatever national or regional review board is created.

“In order to fully address bishop accountability, the Church needs a national or regional board empowered to act, much as our well-respected Ministerial Review Board has been empowered to address allegations involving our priests and deacons,” the archbishop wrote.

“The Church cannot fulfill its mission without public trust.”

Six lay men installed as acolytes in Spokane

Spokane, Wash., Dec 14, 2018 / 07:01 pm (CNA).- Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane installed six laymen who are not in formation for holy orders as acolytes Wednesday.

“The men were chosen for their dedication to the cathedral family, and their service at the Altar reflects their commitment to service in the wider community,” Fr. Darrin Connall, vicar general and rector of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes,  said Dec. 12.

The six men insalled as acolytes are Dave Gibb, Gene DiRe, Justin Bullock, Dennis Johnson, Thomas Lavagetto, and Rick Sparrow.

The installation of acolytes is effected by the bishop praying over the candidates, and then giving each the Eucharistic vessels.

The ministry of acolyte is most often conferred upon men in who are in formation for the diaconate or priesthood, but the Code of Canon Law does provide that “Lay men who possess the age and qualifications … can be admitted on a stable basis through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of lector and acolyte.”

Becoming an acolyte does not grant one the right to obtain support or remuneration from the Church.

In the dioceses of the US, the qualifications to be installed as a lector or acolyte are having completed one's 21st year, and possessing the skills necessary for an effective service at the altar, being a fully initiated member of the Church, being free of any canonical penalty, and living a life which befits the ministry to be undertaken.

Lay persons who are not installed acolytes can supply certain of their duties, when the need of the Church warrants it and ministers are lacking.

However, installed acolytes are permitted to purify the Eucharistic vessels, which task cannot be supplied by another lay person.

The installation of lay men not in formation for holy orders as acolytes is not common among dioceses in the US, though the Diocese of Lincoln is among those which do so.

Bishop Daly, 58, was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1987. He was consecrated a bishop in 2011, serving as auxiliary bishop of San Jose until he became Bishop of Spokane in 2015.

Six lay men installed as acolytes in Spokane

Spokane, Wash., Dec 14, 2018 / 07:01 pm (CNA).- Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane installed six laymen who are not in formation for holy orders as acolytes Wednesday.

“The men were chosen for their dedication to the cathedral family, and their service at the Altar reflects their commitment to service in the wider community,” Fr. Darrin Connall, vicar general and rector of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes,  said Dec. 12.

The six men insalled as acolytes are Dave Gibb, Gene DiRe, Justin Bullock, Dennis Johnson, Thomas Lavagetto, and Rick Sparrow.

The installation of acolytes is effected by the bishop praying over the candidates, and then giving each the Eucharistic vessels.

The ministry of acolyte is most often conferred upon men in who are in formation for the diaconate or priesthood, but the Code of Canon Law does provide that “Lay men who possess the age and qualifications … can be admitted on a stable basis through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of lector and acolyte.”

Becoming an acolyte does not grant one the right to obtain support or remuneration from the Church.

In the dioceses of the US, the qualifications to be installed as a lector or acolyte are having completed one's 21st year, and possessing the skills necessary for an effective service at the altar, being a fully initiated member of the Church, being free of any canonical penalty, and living a life which befits the ministry to be undertaken.

Lay persons who are not installed acolytes can supply certain of their duties, when the need of the Church warrants it and ministers are lacking.

However, installed acolytes are permitted to purify the Eucharistic vessels, which task cannot be supplied by another lay person.

The installation of lay men not in formation for holy orders as acolytes is not common among dioceses in the US, though the Diocese of Lincoln is among those which do so.

Bishop Daly, 58, was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1987. He was consecrated a bishop in 2011, serving as auxiliary bishop of San Jose until he became Bishop of Spokane in 2015.

Gun deaths in US reach record-high

Washington D.C., Dec 14, 2018 / 06:44 pm (CNA).- The number of gun deaths in the United States reached almost 40,000 last year, the highest number since firearm deaths were first recorded in mortality data nearly 40 years ago.

According to an analysis from CNN, 39,773 people died by guns last year.

The analysis, using CDC data, found that nearly 24,000 people died from suicide by guns in 2017. This number is the highest in 18 years, and a more than 7,000 death increase from 1999.

“In 2017, nearly 109 people died every single day from gun violence,” said Adelyn Allchin, director of public health research for the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence.

“Gun violence has been part of our day-to-day lives for far too long. It is way past time that elected leaders at every level of government work together to make gun violence rare and abnormal.”

The U.S. bishops have long called for more restrictive gun legislation.

In their 2000 statement “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration,” on crime and criminal justice, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supported certain gun laws in the name of safety.

“As bishops, we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner), and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns,” the bishops stated.

In April of 2013, four months after the Sandy Hook school shooting, then-chair of the domestic justice and human development committee Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton wrote members of Congress.

Among the policies Bishop Blaire cited for support were “universal background checks for all gun purchases,” restrictions on civilian purchases of “high-capacity ammunition magazines,” and an “assault weapons” ban. He cited Pope Francis’ call “to ‘change hatred into love, vengeance into forgiveness, war into peace’.”

A similar statement encouraging public debate on gun control was released last year after mass shootings in Las Vegas, Nevada and the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Spring, Texas,

Earlier this year, after the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. that killed 17 people, the heads of the bishops’ committees on domestic justice and Catholic Education released another statement on gun laws.

“Once again, we are confronted with grave evil, the murder of our dear children and those who teach them. Our prayers continue for those who have died, and those suffering with injuries and unimaginable grief. We also continue our decades-long advocacy for common-sense gun measures as part of a comprehensive approach to the reduction of violence in society and the protection of life,” they said.

Last month, after a shooting at Mercy Hospital in Chicago left four dead, including the gunman, the president of the U.S. bishop’s conference again reiterated the call for “reasonable gun measures.”

“In our desire to help promote a culture of life, we bishops will continue to ask that public policies be supported to enact reasonable gun measures to help curb this pervasive plague of gun violence,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said Nov. 20.

Gun deaths in US reach record-high

Washington D.C., Dec 14, 2018 / 06:44 pm (CNA).- The number of gun deaths in the United States reached almost 40,000 last year, the highest number since firearm deaths were first recorded in mortality data nearly 40 years ago.

According to an analysis from CNN, 39,773 people died by guns last year.

The analysis, using CDC data, found that nearly 24,000 people died from suicide by guns in 2017. This number is the highest in 18 years, and a more than 7,000 death increase from 1999.

“In 2017, nearly 109 people died every single day from gun violence,” said Adelyn Allchin, director of public health research for the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence.

“Gun violence has been part of our day-to-day lives for far too long. It is way past time that elected leaders at every level of government work together to make gun violence rare and abnormal.”

The U.S. bishops have long called for more restrictive gun legislation.

In their 2000 statement “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration,” on crime and criminal justice, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops supported certain gun laws in the name of safety.

“As bishops, we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner), and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns,” the bishops stated.

In April of 2013, four months after the Sandy Hook school shooting, then-chair of the domestic justice and human development committee Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton wrote members of Congress.

Among the policies Bishop Blaire cited for support were “universal background checks for all gun purchases,” restrictions on civilian purchases of “high-capacity ammunition magazines,” and an “assault weapons” ban. He cited Pope Francis’ call “to ‘change hatred into love, vengeance into forgiveness, war into peace’.”

A similar statement encouraging public debate on gun control was released last year after mass shootings in Las Vegas, Nevada and the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Spring, Texas,

Earlier this year, after the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. that killed 17 people, the heads of the bishops’ committees on domestic justice and Catholic Education released another statement on gun laws.

“Once again, we are confronted with grave evil, the murder of our dear children and those who teach them. Our prayers continue for those who have died, and those suffering with injuries and unimaginable grief. We also continue our decades-long advocacy for common-sense gun measures as part of a comprehensive approach to the reduction of violence in society and the protection of life,” they said.

Last month, after a shooting at Mercy Hospital in Chicago left four dead, including the gunman, the president of the U.S. bishop’s conference again reiterated the call for “reasonable gun measures.”

“In our desire to help promote a culture of life, we bishops will continue to ask that public policies be supported to enact reasonable gun measures to help curb this pervasive plague of gun violence,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said Nov. 20.

After China deal, two underground bishops step down at Vatican's request

Beijing, China, Dec 14, 2018 / 05:01 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Two underground bishops in China have agreed to step aside in favor of bishops of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, in the wake of a deal signed between the Holy See and the Chinese government.

AsiaNews reported Dec. 13 that Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin of Mindong (Ningde) has agreed to become auxiliary bishop and that Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu will become Bishop of Mindong.

The agreement was made at a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, in the presence of Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

At the same meeting, Archbishop Celli announced that Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou will give way to Bishop Joseph Huang Bingzhang.

Both Bishop Zhan and Bishop Huang had been excommunicated, and were reconciled to the Holy See as part of a September agreement between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China.

According to AsiaNews, at the meeting Archbishop Celli gave Bishop Guo a letter from Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, and from Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, asking that he give up his role as Bishop of Mindong in favor of Bishop Zhan.

“Also according to the report of the priests of Mindong, Msgr. Celli would have told Msgr. Guo that Pope Francis himself asks for this gesture of obedience 'and of sacrifice for the general situation of the Chinese Church',” the news outlet reported.

AsiaNews also noted that in previous cases in which a bishop of the CPCA was reconciled to the Holy See, he would become auxiliary bishop to an existing bishop of the underground Church.

Bishop Guo, 59, was detained by the Chinese authorities overnight in March. While he was released after only a short detention, he was ordered not to officiate as a bishop while saying Mass because he is not recognized by the government.

He was taken away because he refused to concelebrate with Bishop Zhan at a Chrism Mass.

Bishop Guo was also detained ahead of Holy Week in 2017.

In January, Asia News reported that a Vatican delegation asked Bishop Guo voluntarily to accept a position as coadjutor bishop under Bishop Zhan. This was also among the conditions Chinese officials had proposed to Bishop Guo during his 2017 detention.

Bishop Guo told the New York Times in February that “we must obey Rome's decision,” and that “our principle is that the Chinese Catholic Church must have a connection with the Vatican; the connection cannot be severed.”

But he also indicated that while “the Chinese government doesn’t say explicitly that we need to disconnect” from Rome, “in some circumstances it has such an implication.”

In March, at the Chinese Communist Party's annual meeting, Bishop Zhan told China's Sing Tao Daily: “There are no obstacles [to a China-Vatican deal] if everyone just thinks of the benefit of the church for the sake of peace.”

Bishop Zhuang, 88, was asked to retire in late 2017 by the Holy See, but he reportedly refused the request at that time. He was consecrated a bishop in 2006, with the approval of the Holy See.

In December 2017 Bishop Zhuang was reportedly escorted to Beijing, where he met separately with leaders of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, officials from China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs, and the Vatican delegation.

If Bishop Zhuang resigned, the Holy See delegation reportedly said at that time, he could nominate three priests, one of whom Bishop Huang would choose as his vicar general. “Bishop Zhuang could not help his tears on hearing the demand,” Asia News’ source said, explaining “it was meaningless to appoint a vicar general, who is still a priest that Bishop Huang could remove him anytime.”

 

Catholic groups support prison reform bill

Washington D.C., Dec 14, 2018 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- Catholic groups expressed optimism at a criminal justice reform bill, as the “First Step Act”  legislation makes its way through the U.S. Senate.

The full title of the bill is “Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act.”

The bill, which has received bipartisan support, including from President Donald Trump and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), aims to reform the country’s prison system and better assist with integrating former prisoners into society after they have served their sentence.

Among other things, the bill will increase credits for good behavior and for participating in “evidence-based recidivism reduction programming”and other “productive programming.”

A total of $250 million would be authorized for the creation of educational, vocational and other skill-building programs for those in prison. Nonprofit organizations, including faith-based groups, would be permitted to assist with the creation and implementation of these programs.

These provisions would only apply to prisoners who were incarcerated for certain crimes. Those in prison for violent offenses, such as assault of a spouse, arson, or sex trafficking, are not eligible to receive these earned time credits.

The First Step Act would also ban the practice controversial practice of shackling pregnant women, and require that feminine hygiene products be provided to female prisoners free-of-cost. The bill also mandates that prisoners be held no more than 500 driving miles away from their families, because evidence suggests that increased time with loved ones assists with societal reintegration.

Under the bill, prisoners deemed to be “low” or “minimum” risk would be instead be held in either a halfway house or home confinement. The minimum age for “compassionate release” would be lowered from 65 to 60.

Two Catholic organizations told CNA that they are optimistic about the bill and that they feel as though it is a way to improve the country’s criminal justice system.

“The First Step Act is exactly what it sounds like: an important first step by the federal government as part of our ongoing national conversation about draconian punishments, disparate sentencing, and collateral consequences,” Griffin Hardy, a spokesperson for anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, told CNA.

While Hardy acknowledged that there is still much work that can be done in terms of easing re-entry for those who were incarcerated, “it’s even more important to remember that passage of this bill would mean that real people get to return home to their families.”

“You just can’t overstate that,” he added.

Hardy’s comments were echoed by the Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN), an organization that promotes restorative justice and an end to the death penalty.

CMN “considers the First Step Act an important piece of legislation deserving of the collective attention of U.S. Catholics and all Americans,” a spokesperson for the organization told CNA in a statement.

“The timing of the bill coincides with the recent release of the Catholic bishops pastoral letter against racism, which highlights the ways in which racial prejudice has become enshrined in our social structures, especially prisons,” they added.

This bill is a “modest but critical foundation” for confronting these issues, and “creates an opportunity for faithful Catholics to respond to the bishops’ call to ‘shape policies and institutions for the good of all.’”