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McCarrick was a 'devourer of souls,' former priest secretary tells parish

Washington D.C., Feb 15, 2020 / 04:08 pm (CNA).- A priest who was the personal secretary of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick said he is sickened by manipulative fundraising tactics employed while McCarrick was Archbishop of Washington. The priest called McCarrick a “manipulator” and a “devourer of souls.”

“For a portion of my priesthood, I worked directly for the foremost fund-raiser in the Church – in the whole Church, the universal Church.”

“He was a master of the art, and knew every technique and tactic to its finest point. He paired with that an extraordinary, even preternatural sense of people, what they wanted and what they needed,” Monsignor K. Bartholomew Smith wrote Feb. 15 on a blog he maintains for parishioners of St. Bernadette’s parish in Silver Spring, Maryland.

“My stomach churns at the recollection, and not only because of how successful he was at this; but also because of what he obtained by this. He received the gratitude, the affection, and the emotional dependence of untold numbers of people high and low, rich and poor, because he made himself the bestower of the approval that they craved, told them that they were good and God Himself was grateful to them, and delivered them from the authentic demands of Jesus and His Gospel.”

“This is what their giving purchased, and what his fundraising obtained.  But he took more from them than just their donations, for he was a ravening manipulator of human affections, and a devourer of souls,” Bartholomew added.

The priest, who was ordained in 1998, was McCarrick’s private secretary in the early 2000s, before being appointed to serve in a similar role for Cardinal William Baum, who was then living in Rome.

Smith told his parishioners that “you would be hard pressed to find a person in our Archdiocese, Catholic or not, who did not fall for [McCarrick’s] seduction to some degree, or at some time.  We all want approval; we all enjoy gratitude. He offered Divine approval and God’s own gratitude, and many were the ones who did his bidding to obtain it.”

McCarrick, Smith wrote, “was a master of convincing folks of the pernicious delusion that God Himself needed, approved, and in fact was grateful to them for the difference that they were making in the world. This, in one line, is the snake-oil song of the ecclesiastical fundraiser, and he was the all-time virtuoso chanter and enchanter.” 

“Many good works were accomplished in this manner, and benefits from them still accrue to this day. But the cost, the cost in human lives and dignity, the cost to the integrity of the Faith, the cost to the fabric of the Church, is only recently become apparent to all,” Smith added.

Smith’s remarks came in the context of the annual archdiocesan appeal. He told his parishioners that because of his experience with McCarrick, “I beg your indulgence if I eschew fundraising techniques, and avoid tactics with proven records of success.”

“Instead of a fund raiser, I am charged by God to be a faith-raiser,” the priest added.

McCarrick served as Archbishop of Washington from 2000-2006, capping an ecclesiastical career in which he had also been the Archbishop of Newark, the Bishop of Metuchen, and an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of New York.

In June 2018, a report emerged that McCarrick had been credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor. That report was followed by a torrent of sexual abuse, coercion, and harassment allegations against McCarrick made by priests, former seminarians, and laypeople. McCarrick was dismissed from the clerical state in Feb. 2019.

Catholics in the U.S. are awaiting a Vatican report on McCarrick that is the result of an internal investigation into the former cardinal’s ecclesiastical career. While the report was initially expected to be released in the early weeks of 2020, Cardinal Blase Cupich told EWTN News this week that it might be released in March, but the exact date of release is still under consideration by Pope Francis.

 

'No different from the rest of us'- Priests and mental health care

Denver, Colo., Feb 15, 2020 / 04:00 am (CNA).- After the suicide of a Missouri priest last month, psychologists talked with CNA about the issues priests can face when they need help with caring for their mental heatlh.

Fr. Evan Harkins of Kansas City took his own life in late January, leaving parishioners and friends across the country mourning the beloved priest.

Shortly after Harkin's death, Bishop Vann Johnston of Kansas City-St. Joseph said the priest had a “sunny” personality, but had begun to struggle with anxiety and his physical health.

The bishop said the priest's decision to end his life might have been connected to his medication.

He said Harkins had developed serious stomach and gastrointestinal issues, which seemed to cause him anxiety.

“He was given a prescription drug to deal with the anxiety and was experiencing some of the extreme negative side effects of this drug including terrible nightmares, among other things,” Johnston explained.

Though the factors leading to his death are no doubt comlicated, the priest’s death has begun a discussion about the mental health needs of priests, and the stigmas that surround them.

Dr. Melinda Moore is a Licensed Psychologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Eastern Kentucky University and has studied Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS).

Moore told CNA that suicide prevention steps are incredibly important. She pointed to studies that show how a single individual's suicide can have a devastating effect that ripples throughout the community.

“We've got 48,000 Americans who are dying by suicide every year. … [These are] Americans who are killing themselves and leaving entire families, networks, communities devastated by their deaths. We know that for every person who dies by suicide, there are 135 people exposed. Out of those 135, forty-eight people will be seriously impacted by the death.”

“What we know is these people who are impacted significantly, they have higher rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and another study showed suicide attempt. So not only are these 40,000 Americans killing themselves every year, they're leaving all this collateral damage that amounts to over 2 million people every year,” she said.

Suicide among priests, and pastors of other Christian denominations, occurs more commonly than expected, Moore said. However, she said religious leaders often face stigmas about seeking psychological help.

“Priests are no different from the rest of us. The difference is that priests and other clergy oftentimes are idealized and held to a standard where they feel like they can't ask for help. They are the individuals that other people come to for help, and so they themselves feel like they can't seek help.”

Moore said suicide is not always tied to mental illness. But she said people who commit suicide often encounter three feelings - not belonging, being a burden to others, and the sense that that could carry out lethal self-harm.

“They oftentimes feel like they’re a burden, and then they also sometimes feel like they no longer belong to a community that they once belonged to … It's like they really feel like people would be better off if they weren't alive, that they are a burden to their loved ones, ” Moore said.

“Lastly, there's this thing called acquired capability to enact lethal self-harm. It's sort of a fearlessness in the face of death. It actually takes a lot of courage to kill yourself,” she added.

Dr. Christina Lynch was director of psychological services at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver from 2007 until she retired about a month ago. Lynch is still a supervising psychologist for the seminary, and is an advisor for the Catholic Psychotherapy Association (CPA), which she previously served as president.

Lynch told CNA that stigmas among priests regarding psychology differ depending on several factors, like location, age, and community. She said counseling may be looked down upon by older generations, noting that millennials are more sympathetic to it.

Lynch also said a sense of shame about getting psychological help may worsen if the priest or seminarian does not view the therapy setting as confidential or safe.

Shame among priests about seeking help gets worse among priests if mental health care is not supported by the bishop or laity. Lynch applauded the decision of Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, who announced in December that he was taking a leave of absence to focus on mental health.

Lynch also said the laity have a unique opportunity to support priests, even through simple actions like inviting them over to dinner.

“If they don't have support from their bishop, they feel shame or they don't want to go to counseling. So the support they received from the bishop is really important. I'm sure you read the article by Bishop Conley. I've heard from so many priests since then that this just gave them courage.”

“The laity have a role to play with the parish priest. They need to be praying for them, be friends with them. A lot of times laity are afraid to be really friends with their priests … They need to be attentive to their priests and make sure they're supporting them … The more support a priest is going to get from everybody instead of criticism, the better it is going to be for them.”

Dr. Cynthia Hunt, a Catholic psychologist, is a board advisor for the Catholic Medical Association and has also served as Chief of the Department of Psychiatry at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula.

Hunt said that stigmas about mental therapy are pervasive among clergy. She highlighted several reasons why priests might consider therapy a difficult process to access.

“There seems to be a shame surrounding the very human need for assistance in the mental health realm,” she said.

“Some difficulties which might bar priests from accessing therapy include their desire for more privacy (not wanting to sit in a waiting room), issues of shame, as noted above, as well as the desire to 'work things out on their own'.”

“Priests may consider their depression or anxiety a 'flaw' in their character. They also may not recognize the severity of their symptoms or realize that there is treatment,” Hunt added.

Hunt said that anxiety and depression can be as common among priests as it is among the general population. She said hereditary traits may contribute to a priest’s emotional issues, and addictions, like alcohol abuse, can exacerbate the problems.

The psychologist highlighted the options that priests can take to address these concerns.

“Priests may obtain therapy from a variety of disciplines including Licensed Clinical Social Workers, Marriage Family Therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other licensed professional counselors. The type of therapy can be tailored to the needs of the priest to include but not limited to psychodynamic Therapy, trauma-informed therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, and affirmation therapy,” she said.

While rural areas may face a lack of counselors, Hunt noted, there has been an increase in telemedicine, where priests can access therapy through video-platforms.

Hunt said psychological healing is best addressed through a holistic approach - a combination of biological, psychological, social and spiritual efforts. She said that while medication is not always necessary, it can be helpful, especially when coupled with counseling.

However, she added that some medications, like Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), have an occasional side effect, and people may continue to have recurring anxiety and depression throughout their life.

“SSRIs improve many symptoms of anxiety and depression through their biochemical action on neurotransmitters such as serotonin and others … With more balance again in the neurotransmitter system, many symptoms improve including but not limited to panic, chronic anxiety levels, low mood, sleep or appetite issues, fatigue, lack of enjoyment of things once enjoyed and suicidal thinking,” she said.

“As with all medications, there can be side effects. In the case of SSRIs these tend to be quite mild and short-lived such as nausea and headache. There are very rare but serious effects which can include increased agitation, restlessness or suicidal thinking.”

In order to address the possibility of suicide among priests, Dr. Moore told CNA that dioceses should focus strongly on education regarding suicide awareness and suicide prevention methods.

She said the topic should be addressed at the pulpit, and dioceses should also make more resources available, including the suicide hotline number and health care professionals.  She also said priests should educate themselves through books designed to address their needs. Hunt mentioned “Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors” by Karen Mason.

For her part, Moore applauded initiatives the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky has begun to support suicide prevention and mental health. She the dioceses has provided resources and sought to be more sympathetic to the deceased and their families.

“[I am] very pleased that the Diocese of Lexington, which is led by Bishop John Stowe, has been very much an ally in putting out messages around being attuned and being sensitive to people who are in crisis …  but then also those people who've lost a loved one to suicide, making sure that the loved one who died is not demonized, and that the loved ones are provided resources.”

Father Anthony Sciarappa, the parochial vicar of Holy Spirit Parish of Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, told CNA about his experience with therapy and mental health. He said, during his first year of seminary, he struggled with anxiety and depression.

“We had lots of events as seminarians where we put on our seminary uniform and we were supposed to meet with people, talk with people and all that was overwhelming. I would be physically, like, ill and sick, just paralyzed with that.”

“I have been suffering from anxiety and depression and I thought that's just how everyone lives and that was just normal,” he said.

Sciarappa’s bishop lived at the seminary where he studied. About six months into Sciarappa’s formation, the bishop, having spoken with the seminary faculty, encouraged the young seminarian to enter into therapy.

“When the bishop told me, I think I just started crying and his office right there, because it was just so overwhelming to be faced with the fact that I do need help,” he said.

It was a difficult concept to grasp, he noted, because therapy and mental illness were not topics typically discussed during his childhood. He said, among other stigmas, he considered therapy to be a tool for crazy people.

“I didn't know anybody who had done this before. It wasn't something that was ever just talked about in my circles growing up,” he said.

He went to a therapist for about three years. He went back to counseling during major seminary in Washington D.C. He described therapy as both a difficult and valuable process.

During counseling, Sciarappa said, he had to work through “core wounds” and the issues affected by habits learned during childhood. He said, “going through that is really hard work.”

“There were so many days I'd be exhausted after everything, but once [I brought] those things into the light I could make more sense of my life.”

It got easier as he progressed through the process, Sciarappa  noted, stating that he began to acknowledge the fruits of therapy and witness its impact on his health. He said, because of therapy, he learned the tools and skills to cope with depression and anxiety. He said it helped to better understand himself and what to expect from these kinds of struggles 

“It was like mechanisms and how to cope and strategies,” he said. “Now we see what's going on with the problem and why that's going on. For me, finding out why I struggled with this then helped me deal with it more and more.”

When asked about how to best priests can maintain mental health, Sciarappa stressed the importance of outside support, including spiritual direction, close friendships, and a priest support group to which he belongs.

The priestly support group meets once a month at one of the member’s rectories. At each meeting, there are two moderators, one a trained therapist, to help the team keep on track.

He said the group discusses personal struggles, like loneliness, but also struggles particular to priests, including the clerical abuse scandals, and priest relocation. Sciarappa said it is significant to have peers to confide in. It is not appropriate to be as open with parishioners, he added, noting it is nevertheless valuable to have community among the laity. 

“It's so important to have a brother priest so he can talk honestly about stuff, about difficulties, about insecurities,” he said. “I'm not going to spill my guts out to the random parishioner-- that would be unhealthy for them and for me.”

“I think it's [valuable to have] supportive, close friends, priests, laypeople. That's the biggest thing,” he said. “I'll talk about different things in those different circles or talk about them in different ways, but that way nothing that is going on stays in the darkness.”

Sciarappa said it’s difficult to enter into suffering places, recognizing one’s need for help and therapy. However, he said the experience has also given him more empathy and allowed him to truly experience the grace of God.

“It's given me tools where I can recognize it in other people. The big thing … it's made me a more empathetic person,” he said.

“Going through that suffering and having Christ redeem it and heal me more and more, when I speak to people about hope, when I speak to people [about] how healing can happen, I can speak about it from a place of experience. It's not theoretical, I really mean it. And that's going to change the way you preach. That's going to change the way you talk to people.”

US bishops praise pope's 'clarion call' for nuclear disarmament

Washington D.C., Feb 14, 2020 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- The bishops of the United States released a statement on Friday calling for the United States and other nuclear powers to dismantle their arsenals and praising Pope Francis for drawing the world’s attention to nuclear weapons.

“The Committee on International Justice and Peace is grateful to the Holy Father for this renewed effort to bring about a world of peace and justice that is not based upon fear or the threat of nuclear annihilation but justice and human solidarity,” said the statement released Feb. 14. 

The statement was co-signed by the eight bishops who comprise the committee, as well as the two bishop consultants to the committee. The chairman of the committee is Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford. 

The bishops referenced Pope Francis’ November visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki while he was in Japan. Both cities were attacked with atomic bombs at the end of World War II. The bishops said the pontiff “spoke forcefully” on the issue. 

“Speaking at Nagasaki, he emphasized the need for a wide and deep solidarity to bring about security in a world not reliant on atomic weapons,” said the bishops.

They quoted the pope calling on “individuals, religious communities and civil society, countries that possess nuclear weapons and those that do not, the military and private sectors, and international organizations” to work together to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

In Hiroshima, the bishops recalled, Pope Francis stated that the use of nuclear weapons is always immoral, as is their possession.

“The words of Pope Francis serve as a clarion call and a profound reminder to all that the status quo of international relations, resting on the threat of mutual destruction, must be changed,” they said. 

The bishops noted that the continued existence of nuclear weapons “weighs on the consciences of all to find a means for complete and mutual disarmament based in a shared commitment and trust that needs to be fostered and deepened.”

“As such, we also call upon our own government to be part of and indeed renew its primary responsibility in that effort.” they said. In addition to the United States, the other nations possessing nuclear weapons “must take the lead in mutual reduction” of their stockpiles.  

“The international community [has] recognized the need to move away from the threat of mutual destruction and toward genuine and universal disarmament,” said the bishops. 

Currently, eight countries--the United States, Russia, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and the United Kingdom--are known to possess nuclear weapons. Israel is also believed to have nuclear weapons, but has refused to confirm the matter. 

The former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, along with South Africa, have all disarmed themselves of nuclear weapons.

Alabama state Rep. proposes forced vasectomy law

Mobile, Ala., Feb 14, 2020 / 12:30 pm (CNA).- An Alabama state representative has introduced a bill that would require men of a certain age or state to have a vasectomy.

The legislation (HB 238) was introduced in the state legislature on Thursday by Rep. Rolanda Harris (D). It provides that a man must undergo a vasectomy “at his own expense” within one month of his 50th birthday or the birth of his third child, “whichever comes first.”

Harris tweeted on Thursday that her aim “is to neutralize the abortion ban bill” and “help men become more accountable as well as women” in family planning decisions.

Harris’s statements refer to the “Human Life Protection Act,” passed by the state legislature last year and signed into law by Governor Kay Ivey.

One of the strongest pro-life state law in the country, the measure outlaws abortion except in “cases where abortion is necessary in order to prevent a serious health risk to the unborn child's mother.”

The law also made performing or assisting in an abortion a felony offense for medical professionals; criminal penalties would not apply to mothers having abortions. Doctors performing abortions could be charged with a Class A felony and face up to 10 years in prison. No exceptions were made for cases of rape or incest.

The law has been the subject of legal challenges and was passed in part as an effort to force the reconsideration of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the U.S. The 1973 decision struck down state abortion bans and instituted a “viability” test where states could only regulate abortion when the unborn child is considered “viable.”

The 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision built upon that framework and said that states could not put an “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to get an abortion pre-viability.

Bishop Robert Baker of Birmingham, Alabama, stated his strong support for the 2019 Alabama law and expressed his hope to “eventually, to make the killing of unborn children in our country something that is no longer viewed as anything but the horrendous and inhumane killing of the most innocent among us that it is.”

In October last year, a federal judge blocked the law from going into effect.

Harris, on Thursday, said her bill aimed to “neutralize” the Human Life Protection Act by forcing men to sterilize themselves to cut down on the number of cases where abortion is considered.

“The responsibility is not always on the women. It takes 2 to tangle. This will help prevent pregnancy as well as abortion of unwanted children,” she tweeted.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2399 lists direct sterilization as one of the “morally unacceptable” means of the regulation of births, along with contraception.

More wives, fewer penalties? Utah debates partial decriminalization of polygamy

Salt Lake City, Utah, Feb 13, 2020 / 09:40 pm (CNA).- The Utah Senate will consider a bill that would partially decriminalize polygamy after a state senate committee passed it unanimously, drawing strong views on both sides.

“The diocese is not taking a position on this bill, but I will say that we find the sponsors’ statements that the bill could help individuals come out of the shadows of polygamy to be very credible,” Jean Hill, director of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace, told CNA Feb. 13.

However, Ora Barlow, who grew up in a polygamous community, opposed changes in her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Salt Lake City Tribune reports.

“The law is there for a reason,” she said. “And it’s for people like me who feel trapped.”

Barlow said she felt free when her church’s leaders were imprisoned and prosecuted. That action made her realize that she had been treated like property all her life.

Nicole Van Tassell-Henderson, a former member of a plural marriage, said lightening the legal penalties for polygamists will give “power and control” to community leaders, the Salt Lake City television affiliate Fox 13 reports.

Utah law presently punishes polygamy as a felony with a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Senate Bill 102 would treat polygamy among consenting adults as an infraction penalized less severely than many traffic offenses. Those cited for polygamy could be punished by fines of up to $750 and community service if the bill becomes law.

Polygamy could still be punished if the defendant is also convicted of fraud, child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, human smuggling, or human trafficking. In these situations, polygamy is penalized by up to 15 years in prison.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as Mormons, is the predominant religion in Utah. Its leaders supported the practice of polygamy in the 19th century, but ordered an end to plural marriages in the late 1800s, under heavy pressure from the federal government.

Some breakaway groups still continue the practice of plural marriage. An estimated 30,000 people live in polygamous communities in the state.

“The polygamous community is small, and very insular, with a few notable exceptions,” Hill told CNA. “The Catholic Church does not have many dealings with these communities and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not affiliated with the polygamous groups.”

“Catholic teaching does not recognize polygamy as a valid relationship,” Hill said, citing the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism teaches that “conjugal love between husband and wife is part of God’s plan for humanity.” It is a “a lifelong communion of a man and woman” that is a blessing to the couple, the Church and the world when it is “faithful, exclusive, and open to life.”

Sen. Deidre Henderson, a Republican sponsor of the Utah bill, told National Public Radio that strict enforcement of the anti-polygamy law in the mid-20th century did not deter plural marriage. She said polygamous families have been driven underground “into a shadow society where the vulnerable make easy prey.”

Henderson argued that the current law is unenforceable if there are no other crimes. She said the law has created a “full-blown human rights crisis” that makes victims of abuse and fraud afraid to come forward and which criminalizes citizens who otherwise follow the law, the Salt Lake City Tribune reports.

She also argued that the bill codifies current practice of the Utah Attorney General to prosecute only when other serious crimes are being committed.

Henderson said people in polygamous communities “long to feel part of society.”

“They are tired of being treated like second-class citizens,” she said. “They feel like Utah has legalized prejudice against them. They want to be honest people, but feel like they have to lie or teach their children to lie about their families in order to stay safe.”

Shirlee Draper, who grew up in a polygamous family in Colorado City, Arizona, told the Senate committee she was taught never to speak to law enforcement. Her father and other adults would warn children of raids on polygamous communities, which encouraged fear of outsiders as “kidnappers.”

Draper, a victim advocate who backs decriminalization, said abuse and violence cases come from a variety of family and religious backgrounds. She suggested that nobody argues that “it’s the family structure that causes those abuses.”

She said polygamous families are wrongly assumed to be committing illicit acts.

Other backers of the bill include the ACLU of Utah and the Statewide Association of Prosecutors.

Easton Harvey, speaking to the Senate committee on behalf of the polygamy critics Sound Choices Coalition, said members of these communities are afraid to report abuse because they fear ostracism from their community or divine punishment.

Angela Kelly, director of the Sound Choices Coalition, said polygamy is comparable to organized crime and slavery. Reducing criminal penalties would encourage more polygamous households and send the message that it is “an okay lifestyle.”

The coalition denies that polygamy is a choice, National Public Radio reports. It accuses fundamentalist Mormons of using their scriptures “to justify crimes and deviant behaviors” and “to subvert and oppress their wives and their numerous offspring who have been indoctrinated from birth into believing that a loving God commanded such suffering and disparity.”

The Sound Choices Coalition says that in polygamous practice, young men are pushed out of polygamous communities so that older men may monopolize young women as wives. It contends the practice is linked to child brides, incest, and the extortion of money in exchange for the promise of religious salvation.

Republican Sen. Dan Thatcher, the only member of the Senate committee who did not sponsor the bill, said he was not interested in hearing about the badness of polygamy because it would not cause him to vote against the bill.

“This is better than what we are doing now, and I have not heard a single person bring forward a better solution,” he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the prohibition on polygamy.

In 2019 the American Psychological Association launched a special task force to counter what it said was the “stigmatization” of people who practice consensual polygamy.

In 2017 a Gallup poll found 17% of Americans find polygamy to be morally permissible. Support had particularly increased among non-religious Americans. The change in opinion followed the 2010 launch of the reality show “Sister Wives,” which presents a sympathetic portrayal of a polygamous family. Pollsters also attributed the shift of the popular concept of polygamy from patriarchal and masculine centered family to a gender-neutral definition.

Kody Brown and his four wives, featured on the television show “Sister Wives”, had challenged a polygamy ban.

A lower court initially said the law violated their right to privacy and religious freedom. In April 2016, an appellate court ruled the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the law because they were not charged under it.

When the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 struck down anti-sodomy laws that criminalized same-sex sexual relations, critics warned that it set the stage for recognition of same-sex unions as marriages. The U.S. Supreme Court then mandated the nationwide legal recognition of same-sex marriage in 2015.

Catholics leaders in US call for nationwide limit on payday loan interest

Washington D.C., Feb 13, 2020 / 07:01 pm (CNA).- Catholics in the US are pushing for a national, bipartisan bill that would limit the interest rate on payday and car title loans.

“Payday lending is modern day usury. These short-term, high-interest loans prey on the financial hardship of poor and vulnerable consumers – all for the sake of big profits, which only come when consumers fail,” the Montana Catholic Conference said in a Feb. 12 statement.

“This practice directly contradicts our Catholic understanding that the role of the economy is to serve people, not the other way around.”

The conference is urging Catholics in Montana to contact U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, who represents Montana’s at-large congressional district, to urge him to support the Veterans and Consumers Fair Credit Act of 2019. (H.R.5050).

Introduced by Jesús "Chuy" García (D-IL) and Glenn S. Grothman (R-WI), the bill would expand the 2006 Military Lending Act rate cap - which only covers active military members and their families - to all consumers. The bill would cap all payday and car-title loans at a maximum of a 36% APR interest rate.

“That means that payday loan sharks would not be able to charge sky-high, triple-digit interest rates on their deceptive loans,” the conference further added.

It was introduced to the House of Representatives last November. In the near future, a companion bill will be introduced to the U.S. Senate by Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Jack Reed (D-RI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

According to a statement from Grothman, 12 million Americans take out payday loans per year, and the average interest rate is currently 391 percent. As online loans have continued to exacerbate the problem, states have had a more difficult time regulating payday loans.

“We already protect military service members under the Military Lending Act, which means that we have recognized the predatory nature of high-interest loans to our men and women in uniform. This raises the question – if it is wrong to allow predatory lenders to target our service members, why is it right to let them target the rest of the community?” he wrote.

Last month, the US bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development signed a letter supporting the bill which was sent to the House Committee on Financial Services.

The Jan. 10 letter from the Faith for Just Lending coalition said that nearly 16,000 payday or car title loan stores operate within the United States taking advantage of loopholes and circumventing traditional usury laws.

“Each year, many households face financial crises. Over the last several decades, high-cost lending to those in need has increased significantly,” the letter said.

“Far too often, the result is families trapped in a cycle of debt with even less ability to pay the bills, keep food on the table, save for the next emergency, or provide for their children,” they said.

There are already 16 states, as well as the District of Columbia, who have capped the interest rate at 36% percent or lower, they said, noting that residents of these states now “use various methods to address budgetary shortfalls – such as utility payment plans and credit cards.”

As usury is often condemned in the Bible, they said, the issue is a concern of the Church. They urged parishioners, Church leaders, and government officials to take a stance against payday loans. They said actions should be taken to educate people on stewardship and responsible credit use.

“Scripture condemns usury and teaches us to respect the God-given dignity of each person and to love our neighbors rather than exploiting their financial vulnerability. Thus, just lending is a matter of Biblical morality and religious concern. Fairness and dignity are values that should be respected in all human relationships including business and financial relationships.”

The Church has consistently taught that usury is evil, including in numerous ecumenical councils.

In Vix pervenit, his 1745 encyclical on usury and other dishonest profit, Benedict XIV taught that a loan contract demands “that one return to another only as much as he has received. The sin rests on the fact that sometimes the creditor desires more than he has given. Therefore he contends some gain is owed him beyond that which he loaned, but any gain which exceeds the amount he gave is illicit and usurious.”

In his General Audience address of Feb. 10, 2016, Pope Francis taught that “Scripture persistently exhorts a generous response to requests for loans, without making petty calculations and without demanding impossible interest rates,” citing Leviticus.

“This lesson is always timely,” he said. “How many families there are on the street, victims of profiteering … It is a grave sin, usury is a sin that cries out in the presence of God.”

Virginia bishops join second annual state March for Life

Richmond, Va., Feb 13, 2020 / 06:00 pm (CNA).- Bishops Michael Burbidge of Arlington and Barry Knestout of Richmond each spoke at events associated with the second annual Virginia March for Life on Thursday, Feb. 13. 

The commonwealth's two bishops concelebrated a pre-march Mass, and Burbidge spoke at the rally held immediately before the march. 

Knestout, who delivered the homily at the Mass, said that the Virginia March for Life is “a day of prayer and advocacy for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life in Virginia,” as well as “a day of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person” which were incurred by abortion.

“Today is not just a day to march but also to pray and fast for the recognition and dignity of human life in the Commonwealth,” said Knestout. “God fashioned each of us in his own image and we have a dignity that no other beings on earth can claim.”

During the homily, Knestout praised the work of pro-life groups and other individuals “who act with compassion and practical help” to assist those who are grieving. 

“As a human and Christian family, we grieve the loss of so many lives,” he said. “And yet, even in our grief, we know there is hope.” 

After the Mass, the marchers moved to the Virginia Capitol building for a rally. The rally featured numerous pro-life figures, including March for Life President Jeanne Mancini. 

Burbidge opened the rally with a prayer, and thanked the members of the state’s Senate and House of Delegates who were present at the event. 

"Each life welcomed into this world must be welcomed with thanksgiving, and shown a love and joy that resembles (God's)," said Burbidge. "Sadly, as we mark the anniversary of the legislation of abortion in our country, instill in us the courage to continue working on behalf of the unborn and vulnerable, despite the challenges before us." 

Burbidge prayed that those at the March on Thursday would be inspired "to be renewed in the faith, and rededicated to ending abortion and all other acts that deny and offend the inherent dignity of the human person." 

The Arlington bishop also prayed for expectant mothers, particularly those who are in less-than-ideal situations. He said he hopes they "will be given the courage and strength to bear the precious gift within them, in the midst of their hardships."

He hoped God would bless elected officials to work towards the common good, adding, "there is no good to be found in abortion." 

"Help our elected officials, especially here in Richmond, to see your light and exhibit the political will to do what is right and just and holy," said Burbidge.

International pro-life group says pro-choice bias fueled investigative report

Columbus, Ohio, Feb 13, 2020 / 05:50 pm (CNA).- Heartbeat International, a pro-life group that operates or supports crisis pregnancy centers throughout the world, said a recent investigative report into their centers was fueled by pro-choice bias.

“The abortion lobby has continually waged a ‘fake clinic’ offensive on pro-life centers in recent years as it tries to preserve its public image and funding,” Heartbeat International said Feb. 11.

The statement followed the publishing of a Feb. 10 investigative report into the group by openDemocracy, an online publication. One of the publication’s backers is the Open Society Foundations, HBI noted.

According to their report, openDemocracy sent undercover reporters to clinics supported by HBI in 18 countries, who said they uncovered the spreading of misinformation at some of the clinics and in training materials.

Some workers at clinics reportedly said that abortion increases their risks for leukemia and mental illnesses, or could increase the likelihood that the mothers would become child abusers. Clinic online training materials reportedely said that women undergoing abortions could “turn their partners gay”

Some studies have shown a correlation between the rates of breast cancer and abortion, though not leukemia. Some studies also show that abortion may increase a woman’s risk for mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. Abortion has not been proven to “turn partners gay” nor increase a person’s likelihood of becoming a child abuser.

HBI president Jor-El Godsey said Feb. 11 that he “stand(s) by our training and by our values” and that the openDemocracy report was a result of “misreporting” rather than “misinformation.”

According to the statement, HBI’s affiliates “must adhere to basic principles that affirm alternatives to abortion and ensure non-discrimination, but all other matters of policy and management remain under the direction of the centers’ local leadership, allowing for autonomy.”

Godsey added that openDemocracy did not give HBI adequate time to respond to their questions, as the group approached HBI on a Friday and asked for a response by Monday morning. Godsey said much of the staff was traveling over the weekend.

The misinformation openDemocracy reports to have uncovered largely occurred in international clinics in Europe or Latin America.

Ellen Foell, international specialist for Heartbeat International, said the group “stands firmly by ‘Our Commitment of Care and Competence’, while training continuously on it and promoting its use throughout the world...because we know that every woman deserves love and support during an unexpected pregnancy.”

“No woman should feel alone, coerced, or so hopeless that she ends her child’s life through abortion,” she stated.

Foell, who has worked with pregnancy help centers in 60 countries, added that while laws and cultural norms surrounding abortion differ throughout the world, abortion always “ends the life of a developing human baby.”

HBI said that they provided openDemocracy with scientific studies on the effects of abortion, but that these were not included in the final report.

HBI also refuted a claim from openDemocracy that they have “close ties” to Washington. HBI said the claims were false or misleading, such as the claim that Vice President Mike Pence has spoken at HBI events in D.C., when instead HBI was attending a roundtable event hosted by Students for Life of America, at which Pence spoke.

OpenDemocracy also claimed that HBI urged its allies to apply for funding from its “new friends in Washington.” HBI said that this quote came from Godsey, who was encouraging pro-life groups to apply for Title X funds after Planned Parenthood declined the funding so that it could continue providing abortions.

Subsequent to the initial publication of this report, openDemocracy contacted CNA with a statement:

"openDemocracy is a global news outlet that produces responsible, fact-based reporting on a wide range of issues, including the economy, environment, democracy, politics and human rights. It is not part of any pro-abortion lobby and we have not 'misreported' any of our findings," the group said.

"While openDemocracy sent the results of our investigation to Heartbeat prior to publication and, at their request, extended the deadline for comment, Heartbeat has subsequently published a number of inaccurate claims about openDemocracy, none of which were put to us for comment or verification. We believe that readers across the world, whatever their position on abortion, will be very concerned by our findings, which show that women across the world are being misled about their legal and reproductive options. If Heartbeat took their duty of care to women and girls seriously, they would be taking immediate steps to investigate."

For its part, HBI said that the attempts to discredit pro-life pregnancy resource centers are not new.

“The attack is very familiar,” Godsey said. “It’s just coming from different players.”
 

Editor's note: This story has been updated Feb. 14 with a statement from openDemocracy, a clarification of CNA's description of the organization, and to clarify that openDemocracy reported that the assertion that abortion could have some correlation to homosexuality was made in online training materials.

On transgenderism: Common ground, and real differences, between Catholics and radical feminists

Washington D.C., Feb 13, 2020 / 05:10 pm (CNA).- This article is the second part of Mary Farrow's two-part series on the Church, gender-critical feminists, and transgender ideology. Part one was published on Feb. 10.

In their efforts to teach the truth in the face of the transgender ideology, Catholics are finding an unlikely ally: trans-exclusionary, or “gender critical,” feminists, who say the transgender movement hurts women.

But while there are some points of common ground between Catholics and gender critical feminists, there are also important points of disagreement, even on the issue of what gender is.

One point of unity between the Church and trans-exclusionary radical feminists is agreement that the growing transgender movement is especially dangerous to children, who will often outgrow feelings of gender dysphoria naturally, or are led to believe their gender differs from their biological sex simply because they have atypical toy preferences for their biological sex.

“We agree that children should not be subjected to medical experimentation by doctors who profit from ‘affirming’ children, especially girls, in transgender or non-binary identities” in ever-increasing numbers, Mary Rice Hasson, the Kate O’Beirne Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and director of the Catholic Women’s Forum, told CNA.

Kara Dansky, a board member of the Women’s Liberation Front, agreed, telling CNA that children going through the typically-turbulent time of puberty deserve care and guidance, but not medical treatments that could cause them permanent harm.

“A child who is confused about her or his sex definitely deserves compassion and care and guidance to understanding that they're not born in the wrong body. Their body is fine just the way that it is (barring physical, medical ailments that should be treated appropriately), but we're all born in the bodies that we're born in,” she said.

“And we need to learn how to love ourselves physically and emotionally,” Dansky added. “So any child who is struggling to figure out what sex they are really needs caring, compassion and concern and guidance, but not sterilization and mutilation.”

Hasson said she hopes parents are aware of how the growing transgender movement is “radically reshaping how our children understand themselves and others, in ways that are incompatible with Christian beliefs. We need to be compassionate and kind to those who embrace transgender ideology, but we must be wise, and educate and guard ourselves - and our children- against the lies it proposes.”

On Causes, churches, and homophobia

On the causes of transgenderism, feminists and Catholics have both points of agreement and of disagreement.

Feminist Mary Kate Fain, who grew up in a conservative Evangelical church and community, said she thinks that in some cases, an overly rigid take on gender roles has contributed to the rise in the transgender phenomenon. For example, she said that feminists have long fought the gender norm that the only way to be a woman is to desire to stay home, cook in the kitchen, and raise children.

Feminists have argued that women can partake in any role in society that she wishes, Fain said.

But today, she said, a pervasive social message has become: “If you want to stay at home, work in the kitchen, and be feminine, have children, then you must be a woman. And therefore, if you don't want to do any combination of these things, you must not be a woman.”

Fain also said that from her perspective, some communities with rigid gender roles also speak about homosexuality in particularly negative or disparaging ways. That can lead children in these communities who experience same-sex attractions to believe they were born in the wrong body, Fain believes.

She added that she has friends from such communities who, upon experiencing same-sex attractions, choose to identify as transgender or non-binary (neither male nor female), rather than face the stigma of identifying as gay or lesbian.

“We're seeing this new ‘trans-the-gay-away’ movement happening, and people think that it's progressive, when in reality this is happening in some of the most conservative areas across the globe,” Fain said.

“It's happening in Iran where the government outlaws homosexuality on pain of death, but they're paying for homosexual people to transition in order to no longer be gay. Then we see it in the United States, where the most red states are where you have the highest rates of transgenderism, and it's no wonder that this is deeply linked to homophobia,” Fain said.

But Hasson cautioned against the assertion that homophobia in Christian and conservative churches is a significant contributor to the rise in transgenderism in youth. She said the assumption that most Christian churches with a biblical view of homosexuality are homophobic is unfair.

“I can’t speak to the views of ‘conservative’ or 'evangelical’ churches as such. But I can say that those who adhere to biblical morality, like Catholics who adhere to Catholic teaching, are frequently charged with being ‘homophobic’ because they believe that homosexual sexual activity is wrong, or that the homosexual inclination is not what God intended, because sexual desire should be ‘ordered’ rightly towards the opposite sex,” Hasson said.

“So there’s an unfortunate tendency for those who identify as gay or lesbian to cry ‘homophobia’ when a Church teaches against same-sex sexual relationships or behavior,” she noted.

Hasson said most churches today that teach a biblical view of sexuality do so with the distinction of the action and the person. - the Church’s rejection of homosexual acts is not a rejection of the person, but of the act of sexual relations outside of marriage, which the Church holds is only possible between a man and a woman. 

“But there are a significant number, including Catholic churches, that rightly reject the expression of sexuality towards a same-sex partner (which is always outside of marriage, as understood by the Church). We need to push back on the left's talking point that Catholic teaching is by definition ‘homophobic.’”

Furthermore, Hasson said, she doubts the assertion because Christian parents by and large would not prefer that their children be transgender instead of homosexual, as both transgenderism and homosexuality go against God’s plan for human sexuality.

“...conservative churches and evangelicals who are against homosexual behavior are generally not going to accept assertions of a trans-identity,” Hasson said.

“They both involve deviations from God’s explicit design, plus no parent would prefer a trans-identity over a same-sex attraction issue with a child, given the chemical castration and surgical interventions that are becoming commonplace ‘treatments’ for identity confusion.”

Hasson acknowledged that there are some fringe Christian communities that could be perpetuating truly homophobic attitudes. She also added that she is aware of a small subculture of Catholics who hold overly-rigid gender roles, such as that women shouldn’t wear pants and are not capable or fit to hold jobs outside the home.

“I think it's not healthy when someone does that and that strain of Catholicism is nothing new,” Hasson said, though she added that the sliver of truth there is that there is a different between men and women, and there are certain social cues used to distinguish between men and women that vary from culture to culture.

“Within that narrow slice, my sense is that someone who's growing up and feels constrained, if they feel some sort of weight of conscience like - ‘Oh, my gosh. I'm being a terrible woman,’ - they're also going to be getting a message that there are men or women,” Hasson said.

She said she didn’t necessarily see how someone who failed to fit into rigid gender stereotypes would then assume that they were actually a different biological sex.

“The most fundamental thing is whether you are a female, and that just doesn't change,” she said.

“And the fact that someone has put you in a box as to how to express that, it would take quite a leap of logic or something to talk that around and say, ‘Oh, that means I must be the opposite sex,’ when everything else that you would be taught in that same environment would say, ‘No, you are one sex or another.’ And your body tells you that. And science tells you that.”

First-person voices

A growing number of people who were given medical treatments to transition their gender, and then regretted it, are now speaking out against the push to medically treat minors with gender dysphoria.

Keira Bell, a 23 year-old woman in the UK, has recently joined a lawsuit against the gender clinic that began her gender transition when she was 16 and wanted to be a male.

At 16, Bell was given hormone blockers to stunt her development as a female, and then was given male hormones. Bell said the treatments gave her symptoms of menopause, depleted her sex drive and weakened her bones, and may have rendered her infertile. At the age of 20, the National Health Service paid for a surgery that removed her breasts, the Daily Mail reported.

It was not long after the surgery that Bell started to question her gender transition. She told the Daily Mail that she felt “stuck” between male and female, and that she didn’t feel she fit with either gender. At the age of 22, she decided to detransition back to female, and to fight giving such treatments to other young people. She said she felt like a “guinea pig” that was experimented on by the gender clinic, without much thought given as to how the treatments would affect her life in the long-term.

Bell is now considered a key witness in a high-profile case against Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the gender clinic where she had gone for treatments. The lawsuit was brought against the clinic by a psychiatric nurse formerly employed at the clinic, who is arguing in the suit that children are not capable of consenting to the powerful and experimental puberty blockers and hormones being prescribed to them.

Bell is just one of many people - many of them women - who are speaking out after having gone through experimental gender transitioning treatments as minors and who are now in the process of detransitioning.

Charlie Evans, a 28 year-old woman living in the UK, is in the process of detransitioning after identifying as trans since her teenage years. After sharing her story, Evans was contacted by so many men and women who regretted their gender transitions that she was inspired to found The Detransition Advocacy Network, a non-profit that seeks to support men and women who regret their gender transitions.

Evans told The Telegraph that she attributes her own desire to transition as a young person to abuse that she suffered outside of her family, that made her hate her own body so much that she wanted to cut parts of it off. That experience seems to be common among the people who contact her Detransition network, she added.

“...you can’t be born in the wrong body – it’s our minds that need treatment, not our sex,” Evans said.

 

Lay seminary prof in Buffalo charged with cyberstalking investigative reporter

Buffalo, N.Y., Feb 13, 2020 / 04:01 pm (CNA).- The FBI in Buffalo has arrested a lay, adjunct seminary professor who is accused of making a death threat against a local investigative reporter.

Paul Lubienecki appeared in federal court in downtown Buffalo Feb. 12 and was charged with cyberstalking, WKBW reported. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.

Lubienecki was an adjunct professor at Christ the King Seminary and also served as an adjunct at State University of New York Fredonia.

WKBW investigative reporter Charlie Specht, who has been covering the Buffalo diocese for well over a year, began receiving threatening voicemails from an unknown number during August 2019.

WKBW reported that Lubienecki also has left threatening messages for former diocesan employee Siobhan O’Connor, who leaked confidential chancery documents to the press during November 2018, and for Father Ryszard Biernat, an assistant to Emeritus Bishop Richard Malone who leaked secret recordings of the bishop to the press.

Buffalo’s apostolic administrator, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, announced earlier this month that Christ the King Seminary will close its doors at the end of the spring semester.

On Feb. 4, the day that Scharfenberger announced the seminary’s closure, Specht reported live from the seminary on television. Moments later, the mystery caller left Specht a voicemail.

“You must be so happy the seminary’s closing. You’re a bad person. I know where you live...I’m gonna find you. I’m gonna kill you,” the voicemail said as reported by WKBW.

Specht called the police, and WKBW’s parent company, the E.W. Scripps Co., made plans for Specht, his wife and children to receive around-the-clock protection at an undisclosed location from a private security firm, WKBW reported.

An agent from the FBI Buffalo Field Office was assigned to investigate the matter, and obtained records that allowed the identification of Lubienecki as the suspect.

Bishop Scharfenberger decried Lubienecki’s actions in a series of tweets Feb. 13.

“There is no place - nor should there be any tolerance - for threats or harassment towards members of the news media or any one else. This is against who we are as Christians, but also against our nation’s founding principles that guarantee freedom to the press and freedom of speech,” Scharfenberger said.

“As a Church we must be able to withstand the glaring light of scrutiny - even as we seek to pierce the darkness with our own light, demonstrating Christ’s abundant love, forgiveness and care for us all.”

In its Feb. 4 statement, the Buffalo diocese said that Scharfenberger is forming a committee “to ‘re-imagine’ and provide specific recommendations as to how priestly formation will continue for seminarians of the Diocese of Buffalo, while also providing ongoing education in pastoral ministry and theological training for lay women and men, as well as for those seeking ordination to the permanent diaconate.”

There are currently 26 seminarians enrolled at the seminary; 15 of whom are studying for the Diocese of Buffalo. The diocese said it will look for other schools for its seminarians.

Bishop Richard Malone, who resigned during December 2019, faced numerous accusations from whistleblowers of mishandling abuse cases during his time as bishop, and was the subject of an apostolic visitation by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn during October 2019.

During Bishop Malone’s tenure, the diocese faced charges that Christ the King faculty engaged seminarians in salacious and inappropriate conversation during a party at a parish rectory.

In April 2019, seminarians described the conversation as “pornographic,” and described lewd sexual references in a written report, other priests who attended the party told reporters they did not hear all of the salacious talk the seminarians claim to have heard, and say they wonder whether some aspects of the conversation were misinterpreted.

Malone removed the priests from ministry after the allegations of their misconduct was made.

Another seminary-related controversy began in August 2019, when Malone’s secretary leaked audio of conversations among himself, Malone, and diocesan lawyers and staff.

In the audio of the conversations, Malone admitted that a seminarian’s accusations of grooming and the violation of the seal of confession against a diocesan priest were probably true, but months later the priest remained in active ministry.

“We are in a true crisis situation. True crisis. And everyone in the office is convinced this could be the end for me as bishop,” Malone said, noting that if the matter—which could appear to be a “love triangle” between the seminarian and two priests—were leaked to the public, “it could force me to resign.”