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Catholic Florida State student ousted from student senate alleges religious discrimination

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 30, 2020 / 01:00 pm (CNA).-  

A federal court heard arguments on Tuesday in the case of Jack Denton, the Catholic student ousted from Florida State University’s student senate in June.

Denton, the former head of the student senate, sued university and student officials Aug. 31, alleging that his religious freedom was violated when he was removed from his position for remarks he made in a private chat forum of Catholic students.

On Tuesday, at the Northern District of Florida federal court, lawyers for Denton and for university administrators and student representatives presented their arguments.

“Jack cannot be deprived of an educational benefit, the right to participate in the student senate on the same grounds as everybody else, simply because his beliefs are not popular on campus,” his attorney Tyson Langhofer, with the group Alliance Defending Freedom, told CNA after the hearing.

“No student should ever feel forced to silence their deepest convictions” in order to keep a student government position, he said. “He [Jack] may not have popular beliefs. That doesn’t mean he can be excluded from participation and they can impose a religious test on him.”

Denton, a rising senior at the university, was removed from his position as head of the university’s student senate in early June over remarks he made in a GroupMe chat forum of the school’s Catholic student union in late May.

As students discussed racial justice and financially supporting various organizations, Denton outlined concerns with policy positions of the groups ACLU,, and Reclaim the Block which he said conflicted with Church teaching.

Denton said that “ fosters ‘a queer-affirming network’ and defends transgenderism,” while the ACLU “defends laws protecting abortion facilities and sued states that restrict access to abortion.” The Black Lives Matter Global Network in September removed a page from its website which had previously promoted the positions Denton challenged in May.

The group Reclaim the Block, Denton said, “claims less police will make our communities safer and advocates for cutting PD’s budgets.” The claim “is a little less explicit,” he said, “but I think it’s contrary to the Church’s teaching on the common good.”

Later, in an interview with CNA, Denton said that he intervened in the GroupMe chat because he felt a “responsibility to point out this discrepancy, to make sure that my fellow Catholics knew what they were partaking in.”

One of the students in the forum took a screenshot of Denton’s comments and sent them to a member of the student senate. A student senate motion of no-confidence in Denton failed on June 3, but on June 5 the senate held another vote and removed Denton from office.

Langhofer told CNA on Tuesday that Denton’s removal was unlawful; the FSU student senate is a state actor by virtue of both its incorporation at a public university and its creation by a state statute. Denton could not be removed from this position simply for taking an unpopular policy stance, he said.

“There is very, very strong law with a lot of precedent saying very clearly that students don’t forfeit their religious freedom when they step on to a public university campus,” he said.

The defendants in the case—FSU president John Thrasher and two other officials, as well as the president and president pro tempore of the student senate—“don’t dispute that Jack was removed unconstitutionally because of his religious beliefs,” Langhofer told CNA. They did, however, dispute that they were personally liable in Jack’s case, he said.

Denton is pushing for a preliminary injunction on his removal, which the judge did not indicate when he would rule on it, Langhofer said.

In the seven-hour hearing which resulted in Denton’s removal, he showed “incredible courage and incredible resilience,” Langhofer said.

“Jack listened to every one of those students saying bad things about him simply because of his religious beliefs, and when he was given the opportunity to respond, what he said was, he said that every one of you are created in the image of God and you are loved, and you’re valued more than the entire universe,” Langhofer recounted.


Bishop: Claims that Church in Belarus being used by US 'complete nonsense'

CNA Staff, Sep 30, 2020 / 12:03 pm (CNA).- The Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Minsk-Mohilev on Tuesday denied reports from Russia's foreign intelligence agency that the Church in Belarus is being used by the US, calling them “complete nonsense, fake information.”

“Some media outlets published information provided by the head of Russia's foreign intelligence service Sergey Naryshkin. This is a fake, this is nonsense. He spoke about some provocations, about the fact that the United States, the CIA and other organizations are trying to use the Catholic Church to undermine the state system in our country. This is complete nonsense, fake information, lies that have nothing to do with the truth … This is information that should be treated with a touch of irony,” Bishop Yury Kasabutski said during his homily at a Sept. 29 Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Name of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Minsk.

Naryshkin is director of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service. The Russian news agency Interfax reported Sept. 29 that Naryshkin had said, “the United States is also unceremoniously interfering in the religious situation in Belarus … The clergy of the Roman Catholic Church are being asked to openly criticize the Belarusian authorities and to use religious events, including sermons, prayers, religious processions, to conduct opposition political propaganda among believers.”

The Russian foreign intelligence director added that “According to the plan of the Americans, this should force Minsk to take harsh retaliatory measures against the Roman Catholic Church.”

Naryshkin said the Belarusian opposition is planning a “resonant provocation” during which a high-ranking cleric “would be arrested or even wounded or killed,” with the intention of increasing opposition sentiment among Catholics in the country.

Belarus has seen widespread protests in recent weeks following a disputed presidential election. Protests began Aug. 9 after president Alexander Lukashenko was declared to have won that day's election with 80% of the vote. Lukashenko has been president of Belarus since the position was created in 1994.

The US and the EU no longer recognize Lukashenko as the Belarusian president. Canada and the UK placed sanctions on Belarus Sept. 29.

Lukashenko secured a $1.5 billion loan from Russian president Vladimir Putin earlier this month, and Putin has denounced “external pressure” on Belarus.

The president of the Belarusian bishops' conference, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Minsk-Mohilev, has been exiled. His passport was invalidated, and he was blocked from returning from Poland by border guards Aug. 31. The archbishop has spoken in defense of protests following last month’s presidential election.

Lukashenko has suggested the archbishop might be a citizen of more than one country. The archbishop told CNA Sept. 1 that “today I was accused that I received from Warsaw some instructions, or something, but I didn’t visit Warsaw.” He said he had visited eastern Poland to celebrate the First Communion of a relative.

Bishop Kasabutski told Sept. 29 that “Our clergy do not receive any instructions from anyone, and not only of a political nature … No one makes any calls to the priests for an open statement during the divine services of one or another attitude to the authorities. This information has no real basis.”

He added that the claim the US or other states are trying to influence the Church “sounds completely unrealistic.”

“Perhaps these statements have something to do with the Church's position. Today the Church in Belarus speaks the truth about the situation in the country, opposes violence, encourages people to solidarity, unity, harmony, peace, and forgiveness,” the bishop reflected.

Bishop Kasabutski continued: “Maybe in this way we are preventing someone from implementing certain scenarios aimed at division in society, at the bloody development of events. Maybe someone is trying to use this situation to divide people on the principle of religion to accuse us of what we are trying to avoid by praying to God for peace and harmony in our society. But we do not succumb to such 'brainwashing' and remain faithful to the commandments of love left to us by Christ.”

He added that relations between Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox in Belarus are warm, and that “we now see a very strong solidarity of people regardless of religion.”

Protests have taken place across Belarus since the August election, and thousands of protesters have been detained. At least four people have died in the unrest.

Electoral officials said that the opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, earned 10% of the vote. The opposition claims that she actually garned at least 60% of votes.

Tsikhanouskaya was detained for several hours after complaining to the electoral committee. She and several other opposition leaders are now in self-imposed exile in Lithuania or other nearby countries.

Pompeo: Nowhere is religious freedom more under assault than in China

Rome, Italy, Sep 30, 2020 / 11:00 am (CNA).- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Rome Wednesday that the Chinese government is the world’s worst persecutor of religious believers and that the Church is in a unique position to stand up for those whose religious freedom is being oppressed.

“Nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than it is inside of China today,” Pompeo said Sept. 30.

“The United States can and does play its part in speaking up for those oppressed, although we too can do more. … But for all that nation-states can do, ultimately, our efforts are constrained by the realities of world politics. … The Church is in a different position. Earthly considerations shouldn’t discourage principled stances based on eternal truths. And as history shows, Catholics have often deployed their principles in glorious, glorious service of human dignity,” the secretary added.

The U.S. Secretary of State’s remarks at a religious freedom symposium came a day before he was expected to meet with Cardinal Pietro Parolin at the Vatican to discuss the renewal of the Holy See’s provisional accord with China. 

Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, told journalists at the end of the conference that he was “surprised” that the U.S. official decided to publish an article on the Holy See’s provisional accord with China before his visit. 

“We have known for a long time the position of the Trump administration and that of Secretary Pompeo on this subject,” the cardinal added.

The cardinal said that the Vatican had decided to move forward with the agreement with China after thoughtful reflection and many years working toward the provisional accord. 

“We know that there is a lot of resistance … a lot of criticism,” Parolin said.

When asked by journalists if he expected that the Vatican-China deal would result in greater religious freedom in China, Parolin replied: “We are for the policy of small steps … With the policy of small steps, we believe that … even if at the beginning it does not seem to give great results, however, it is a step towards, in other words, the affirmation of greater religious liberty.”

Pompeo told CNA before his visit that he planned to use the meeting with Vatican officials to discuss human rights abuses in China and to urge the Vatican to speak out about Chinese religious persecution.

“We’ve spoken pretty clearly about the human rights situation in China that has deteriorated under General Secretary Xi Jinping for religious believers throughout the country,” Pompeo told CNA in an exclusive interview on Sept. 25.

“The Church has an enormous amount of moral authority and we want to encourage them to use that moral authority, to improve the conditions for believers, certainly Catholic believers, but believers of all faiths inside of China, and so that’s the conversation that we’ll have,” he said.

Speaking at the event organized by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See Sept. 30, Pompeo urged faith leaders to “find the courage to confront religious persecution.”

The U.S. Secretary of State pointed to Fr. Bernhard Lichtenberg -- a Catholic priest who during World War II resisted the Nazi regime and helped Jewish families -- and to the Chinese martyrs and missionaries canonized by St. John Paul II as examples of a “bold moral witness.”

“An increasingly repressive CCP frightened by its own lack of democratic legitimacy works day and night to snuff out the lamp of freedom, especially religious freedom on a horrifying scale,” Pompeo said.

“The Chinese Communist Party has battered every religious community in China: Protestant house churches, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong devotees, and more,” he said.

“Nor, of course, have Catholics been spared this wave of repression. Catholic churches and shrines have been desecrated and destroyed. Catholic bishops, like Augustine Cui Tai, have been imprisoned ... and Catholic lay leaders in the human rights movement, not least in Hong Kong have been arrested,” the U.S. diplomat added.

Immediately following Pompeo’s remarks, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, gave a speech focused on the importance of protecting freedom of conscience in the West.

The Italian newspaper La Stampa reported that afterwards Gallagher affirmed that Pompeo’s visit sought to exploit the pope during the U.S. election campaign. But journalists present when the comments were made said that it was the reporter, not the archbishop, who used the word “exploit.” Gallagher responded by saying: “Well, that’s one of the reasons why the Holy Father is not receiving the Secretary of State.”

While the pope does not always meet with foreign ministers visiting the Vatican, the Holy See has reportedly told U.S. diplomats that the pope did not want to meet with an American political figure so close to the November presidential election.

Cardinal Parolin (pictured above) was not present at the symposium when Pompeo gave his speech, but came later to deliver the closing remarks, in which he did not mention China.

Parolin said earlier this month that the Vatican’s two-year provisional agreement with China had not expired and would not do so until October. The cardinal said that the Vatican expected to renew the interim deal on the appointment of bishops and that he hoped that the Chinese had the same intention.

The symposium in Rome focused on diplomatic tools to advance religious freedom, and included panel discussions with the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback and Msgr. Khaled Akasheh.

In his comments at the conference, Ambassador Brownback said: “I believe the key to peace … is the protection of religious freedom for all.”

Pompeo said that, as a Protestant Christian, he had been struck by Pope Francis’ call to be a Church permanently in a state of mission.

“Pope Francis has exhorted the Church to be ‘permanently in a state of mission.’ It’s a hope that resonates with this evangelical Protestant who believes, as the Holy Father does, that those of us given the gift of Christian faith have an obligation to do our best to bless others,” he said.

“I’m humbled too by those of you here who have spent your entire lives in service of God in full-time pastoral ministry, makes my job look easy,” the U.S. Secretary of State said.

Trump and Biden clash over Barrett nomination, abortion, in fiery debate

CNA Staff, Sep 30, 2020 / 09:00 am (CNA).- The future of Roe v. Wade and the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court were raised in Tuesday night’s presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden. 

While the 90-minute debate, held in Cleveland, Ohio, was marked by fiery exchanges from both candidates, with frequent interruptions during answers, both presidential candidates did offer some remarks on abortion and the Supreme Court.

Moderator Chris Wallace asked the candidates about Trump’s recent nomination of Judge Barrett to the Supreme Court, and for their thoughts about how Barrett might change the balance of the court. 

Trump, who answered first, said that Barrett was a “phenomenal nominee” who had the support of “very liberal people from Notre Dame and other places.” Barrett, said Trump, is “going to be fantastic.” 

“She’s going to be as good as anybody that has served on that court,” said Trump. The president defended his nomination of the judge during an election year, which has been criticized by Democratic lawmakers, who contrast the nomination with the Senate’s 2016 refusal to have a hearing on the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the court. Trump said that the Republican Party controls both the Senate and the presidency and therefore has the votes to confirm his nominee. In 2016, under President Barack Obama, the Democratic Party did not have the votes in the Senate to move forward with the confirmation process. 

“They had Merrick Garland, but the problem is they didn’t have the election so they were stopped,” said Trump. “And probably that would happen in reverse, also. Definitely would happen in reverse.”

Trump added that he was elected to serve as president for four years, not three years, and had the right to fill vacancies in the Supreme Court any time they arose during his four-year term. 

Biden said that the Senate should “wait” when it comes to confirming Barrett to the Supreme Court, saying that “The American people have a right to have a say in who the Supreme Court nominee is and that say occurs when they vote for United States senators and when they vote for the president of the United States.”

“They’re not going to get that chance now because we’re in the middle of an election already,” said Biden, noting that many people have already cast their votes. 

Biden was also asked if, should he be elected, he would support efforts to add justices to the Supreme Court beyond the nine now prescribed by law. Biden declined repeatedly to answer the question.

Biden said that the Affordable Care Act, legislation that was passed while he was serving as vice president, was at stake due to Barrett’s potential presence on the court. 

“And the justice--I’m not opposed to the justice--she seems like a very fine person,” said Biden. “But she’s written, before she went on the bench, which is her right, that she thinks that the Affordable Care Act is not constitutional. The other thing that’s on the court, and if it’s struck down, what happens? Women’s rights are fundamentally changed.” 

The former vice president, a Catholic and strong supporter of expanded access to abortion, also suggested that abortion rights could be at risk if Barrett is confirmed to the Supreme Court. 

“The point is that the president also is opposed to Roe v. Wade,” said Biden. “That’s on the ballot as well and the court, in the court, and so that’s also at stake right now.”

Trump pushed back at the apparent notion that overturning the Roe v. Wade decision was on the ballot this November, saying that “it’s not on the ballot.” 

“There’s nothing happening there,” Trump said, referring apparently to the issue of abortion at the Supreme Court. Trump did not elaborate.

Wallace said the conversation would eventually return to Roe v. Wade, but the topic was not again raised during the debate. 

Cardinal Pell arrives in Rome as financial scandal casts shadow over Vatican

Rome, Italy, Sep 30, 2020 / 08:00 am (CNA).- Cardinal George Pell arrived in Rome Wednesday as financial scandals continue to cast a shadow over the Vatican.

The former prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy was pictured in the Italian capital Sept. 30 on his first visit to the city since he left in 2017 for Australia to prove his innocence of abuse charges. 

The 79-year-old left Sydney International Airport on Tuesday evening and arrived in Italy following an overnight flight, sources close to the cardinal confirmed to CNA. 

On the day of Pell’s arrival, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica claimed in a front-page report that Vatican investigators had discovered that 20 million pounds ($26 million) had been withdrawn from an account reserved for use by Pope Francis.

In 2014, the pope asked Pell to take charge of the newly created Secretariat for the Economy and to lead efforts at reforming Vatican financial affairs. After charges of sexual abuse were brought by Victoria police, Pell took temporary leave of his role in 2017 to return to Australia and defend his name. 

Pell faced allegations from a single accuser related to his time as bishop of Melbourne. He spent 13 months in solitary confinement after he was initially convicted and given a six-year prison sentence, before being vindicated on appeal to the High Court.

Pell’s term of office as head of the Vatican’s financial secretariat expired during his time in prison, with Pope Francis naming Fr. Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves, SJ, to succeed him in 2019.

The Australian cardinal returned to Rome less than a week after the dramatic resignation of Cardinal Angelo Becciu. Pope Francis asked Becciu to resign as prefect of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints and from the rights extended to members of the College of Cardinals Sept. 24 after he was linked to an ongoing investigation of financial misconduct at the Vatican.

Becciu had worked previously as the number two-ranking official in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, where, CNA has previously reported, he repeatedly clashed with Pell over the reform of Vatican finances.

The Italian cardinal held a press conference in Rome Sept. 25 at which he protested his innocence of financial wrongdoing.

Pell responded to the news of Becciu’s resignation with gratitude.

“The Holy Father was elected to clean up Vatican finances. He plays a long game and is to be thanked and congratulated on recent developments,” Pell wrote in a statement sent to CNA Sept. 25.

“I hope the cleaning of the stables continues in both the Vatican and Victoria,” Pell said.

Salesians raise 8 million euros for families affected by pandemic

CNA Staff, Sep 30, 2020 / 06:59 am (CNA).- The head of the Salesians announced that the order has raised nearly 8 million euros to help thousands of families worldwide who have been financially affected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Specifically, 7.9 million euros have been collected, a very significant amount that has reached 62 Salesian provinces around the world, in response to 143 projects in support of very hard-hit families, who have benefited from food and small salaries to support themselves,” said Fr. Ángel Fernández Artime, Rector Major of the Salesians.

Fernández, who is the tenth successor of Fr. Don Bosco, founder of the order, spoke in a video message during his visit to Turin, where he is present for the opening of the ”Don Bosco House Museum” from October 2 to 4.

“I would like to tell you, in the name of Don Bosco, thank you for that solidarity, thank you for the good we do together,” he said to all those who donated.

“It’s been very beautiful because it has not only been about collecting money to help people, it’s also been about putting together reflections, concerns, ideas and initiatives to reach all parts of the world.”

Fernández stressed that many lives can be saved when people work together.

“For all this, in the name of Don Bosco, thank you very much for continuing to really help and change the lives of so many people,” he said.

The Salesians were founded by St. John Bosco, a 19th century Italian priest who had a particular love and apostolate for at-risk and underserved youth. Today, the order serves youth throughout the world primarily in schools, homeless shelters, and community centers.


Virtual rosary Oct. 7 aims to unite Catholics in 'moment of prayer' for nation

Norway’s newest Catholic bishop is Cistercian monk Erik Varden

Rome Newsroom, Sep 30, 2020 / 04:00 am (CNA).- After 11 years, the Catholic Church in central Norway will have a bishop again.

Fr. Erik Varden, a Cistercian monk and spiritual writer, will be consecrated a bishop at the Cathedral of St. Olav in Trondheim on Saturday, Oct. 3.

Varden, 46, is also the first Norwegian-born bishop of Trondheim in modern times. His five predecessors were German.

The bishop-elect told CNA by email that he had “been warmly and kindly received. I now look forward to getting to know the faithful of the prelature in its length and breadth, for it covers a large area.”

The Territorial Prelature of Trondheim spans 21,806 miles and serves an estimated 15,000 Catholics. The explosive growth of the Church in Norway has been documented by local media

“To speak of a ‘boom’ is perhaps somewhat tendentious, but it is certainly in a state of numeric growth, chiefly on account of immigration,” Varden said.

“Norwegian Catholicism is extraordinarily international and intercultural. It is a paradox, a beautiful paradox, that one encounters such catholicity in the extreme diaspora,” he noted. “It is a challenge for all of us to make this growth bear fruit in unity, charity, and sanctity.”

Varden was abbot of Mount St. Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire, England, from 2015 to 2019, where he oversaw the abbey’s first foray into brewing beer in 2018. 

Born to a Lutheran family in south Norway, Varden converted to Catholicism at the age of 19. He joined the Cistercian monastic community of the Strict Observance at the English abbey in 2002, and was ordained a priest in 2011.

After becoming a Trappist, he studied in Cambridge and Rome. He was also a professor of Syriac language, monastic history, and Christian anthropology at the Pontifical Atheneum of St. Anselm in Rome from 2011 to 2013.   

His consecration as bishop takes place just over a year after he was appointed by Pope Francis in 2019. His consecration was delayed because he was in poor health in the first part of 2020.

Varden said “it is rare for Cistercians to become bishops, but it has happened at various times in the Church’s history; even here in Trondheim, there are several monks in the lineage of medieval bishops.”

Asked how he felt about being one of the world’s youngest bishops, he noted that it was “a relative condition! Time deals with it inexorably.”

St. Olav, the cathedral where Varden will be consecrated, is a new building. Constructed in 2016, it replaced a cathedral building in poor shape and too small for the number of local Catholics.

“It had become too small, since the number of people attending the Catholic Church in Trøndelag [county] and Norway is growing rapidly; with an annual growth of 15% in recent years,” Bishop Bernt Eidsvig of Oslo said at the time of the new cathedral’s opening.

Eidsvig has administered the Prelature of Trondheim since 2009, when the previous bishop retired.

A musician with expertise in Gregorian chant, Varden has also published books and articles on spirituality and monasticism. He told CNA that he was “profoundly convinced that the contemplative tradition has much to offer the Church as a whole.”

“One of the gravest threats in our current world order, so it seems to me, is a loss of perspective. This tendency affects Christians too,” he said.

“To be a contemplative is to strive valiantly to pass from what is partial to what is whole. St. Benedict speaks of the broadening of the heart that results if we really strive to follow Christ’s commandments -- and towards the end of his life he saw, so Gregory the Great tells us, the whole world in a single ray of light. This high goal indicates a vital aspiration for all of us.”

The monk added that he was “struck, inspired and challenged by the Holy Father’s insistence on the joy of the Gospel.”

“This joy is not a superficial feeling, but an existential response to an immense, unmerited, ever-surprising gift,” he explained. “To be capable of such joy is to be aware of one’s poverty and need; it is to have a heart that is vulnerable and open, that longs for communion, for joy calls out to be shared, like a current that is passed on as depth calls out to depth.”

“What a wonderful vocation and task this is! And what a life-giving challenge to seek to build up the Church as the Body of Christ in such a way that, according to Christ’s desire, our joy ‘may be full’!” he said.

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