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Cardinal Gregory: Biden ‘not demonstrating Catholic teaching’ on when life begins

Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington speaks at the National Press Club, Sept. 8, 2021. / National Press Club/YouTube

Washington D.C., Sep 8, 2021 / 16:00 pm (CNA).

The Archbishop of Washington on Wednesday clarified the Church’s teaching on when life begins, after Catholic President Joe Biden last week said life does not begin at conception.

“The Catholic Church teaches, and has taught, that life – human life – begins at conception,” said Cardinal Wilton Gregory at a Wednesday luncheon of the National Press Club, in Washington, D.C.

“So, the president is not demonstrating Catholic teaching,” he added.

Last Friday, Sept. 3, President Joe Biden said he did not “agree” that life begins at conception.

"I have been and continue to be a strong supporter of Roe v. Wade,” he said at the White House, answering a reporter’s question on abortion. “I respect them - those who believe life begins at the moment of conception and all - I respect that. Don't agree, but I respect that,” he said.

Biden’s comments were a departure from previous statements of his on when life begins. In a 2008 interview as a vice presidential candidate, and again at a 2012 vice presidential debate, Biden said he believed life begins at conception.

Gregory addressed reporters and members of the public at a National Press Club Headliners Luncheon on Sept. 8.

After delivering remarks on journalism, Gregory took questions on various issues including abortion, COVID-19 vaccines, race and the Catholic Church, the clergy sex abuse crisis, the death penalty, and workers’ rights.

When asked if the Church has recently “softened” its teaching on abortion, Cardinal Gregory said the Church’s teaching has not changed.

“Our Church has not changed its position on the immorality of abortion, and I don’t see how we could, because we believe that every human life is sacred. Every human life is sacred,” he said.  

Gregory was then asked about the death penalty. The execution of Texas death row inmate John Henry Ramirez is scheduled for Wednesday evening, Sept. 8.

Ramirez has appealed to the Supreme Court to have his Baptist pastor pray aloud and lay hands on him in the execution chamber. Texas officials, while allowing his pastor inside the chamber, have denied Ramirez’s request for vocal prayer and physical contact.

“Should he be allowed to meet his creator, having the support of a pastor? I say yes,” Gregory stated.

While noting he did not know all the details of the case, the cardinal added that “if this man wants to pray with his minister, and his minister pray with him, it might very well be a sign that there is some reconciliation, conversion, going on within him.”

He went on to comment on the broader issue of the death penalty, saying it “has also been proven flawed.”

“There’s too many cases where people have been sentenced and, unfortunately, I think, put to death. And then with the development of scientific research, it’s been proven – or least raised to a serious doubt – that maybe the trial itself was flawed,” Gregory said.

He then explained the “consistent life ethic” of his mentor, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. Gregory served as auxiliary bishop of Chicago from 1983-1994.

“Life issues are linked,” he said. “They’re not at the same level. There are life issues that are predominant.”

“The conception of a child is the first life concern,” he said, adding that “those life issues have to extend to all the other moments of human existence as well,” such as to prisoners, immigrants, the elderly, and people with handicaps.

“Is he [Bernardin] saying that a prisoner that has been found guilty of multiple criminal behavior – is he to be equated with an infant in the womb who is just trying to live or to be born, literally? Oh no, he’s not saying that,” Gregory noted. “He’s saying they are linked, not because they are the same, but they are linked because they are all human.

As archbishop of Washington, Gregory has been at the center of discussion in recent months over whether pro-abortion Catholic politicians should be admitted to Communion. He told a reporter last year that he would not deny Communion in such cases.

In January, the president of the U.S. bishops' conference issued a lengthy statement on the day of Biden's inauguration as president, noting some of his positive policies but also warning that some of his proposed policies would "advance moral evils." Gregory thought the statement “ill-timed,” according to NBC’s Al Roker, who reported in February that Gregory had emphasized “dialogue” with the new administration.

During the U.S. bishops’ spring meeting in June, Gregory cautioned against drafting a teaching document on the Eucharist that would include language on worthiness to receive Communion, especially among Catholic public figures. Some bishops critical of the motion warned that it would be interpreted as a partisan denunciation of pro-abortion Catholic politicians, especially President Biden.

Gregory pointed to the “unusual” circumstances of bishops meeting remotely and not in-person, due to the pandemic. He warned that drafting the document at the time could “well further damage” unity.

Afghan Christian’s plea to CNA: ‘You are my last hope’

Taliban fighters gather along a street during a rally in Kabul on August 31, 2021 as they celebrate after the U.S. pulled all its troops out of the country to end a brutal 20-year war. / Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images)

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 8, 2021 / 15:12 pm (CNA).

He says the Taliban executed his father. And his brother. Now, they are hunting for him.

“Please do something,” he wrote in a plea to CNA.

He is a young Afghan, one of countless thousands still desperate to escape his country.

He is a doubly marked man. First, because he briefly worked for the U.S. military and other allied forces. Second, because he is a Muslim convert to Christianity. That is a capital crime in Afghanistan.

“I hope you save my life.”

His pseudonym is Kareem. CNA can’t publish his full name because of the peril he faces.

Kareem first contacted CNA Aug. 24. By that time, he had bid a painful goodbye to his family and joined throngs of other Afghan civilians at the gates to Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

Along the way, he said, his mother called him with the news that the Taliban had killed his father and brother because both men, who were Muslim, had worked with allied forces during the war.

Kareem shared his passport and other documents with CNA to corroborate his identity. Since then, two CNA officials — Kelsey Wicks, the news outlet’s operations manager, and Alejandro Bermudez, CNA’s executive director — have kept in regular contact with Kareem via email and WhatsApp, an instant messaging platform, while working in concert with humanitarian aid groups, religious liberty leaders, and others to try to help him.

‘You are my last hope’

CNA’s efforts on Kareem’s behalf are part of a larger story that has unfolded behind the scenes during and after the U.S. government’s chaotic air evacuation of American citizens, journalists, military personnel and endangered Afghan civilians.

More than 120,000 people were flown out of Kabul prior to the completion of the U.S. pullout Aug. 31, the U.S. government says. To date, some 40,000 Afghan refugees have arrived at U.S. military bases in the United States.

But countless other endangered Afghans, including many Christians like Kareem and others in the Taliban’s crosshairs, were left behind.

In the frenzy leading up to the Biden administration’s Aug. 31 exit deadline, Afghan civilians and their advocates turned to aid groups, well-connected insiders, and anyone else they could think of asking for help, before it was too late.

Their questions followed a similar script. Do you know anyone who can help? What about Glenn Beck’s planes? What do you know about the Pineapple Express?

“We're getting desperate calls, either from Afghanistan or from people who are getting them from Afghanistan, and we're all reaching out to all of our contacts,” Susan Yoshihira, a former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot who heads a non-profit humanitarian organization, the American Council on Women, Peace, and Security, told CNA Sept. 3.

In many instances, this fevered networking has yielded positive results.

A group of nuns from the Missionaries of Charity and the disabled Afghan children they cared for were rescued and flown to Italy, for example. And an Afghan high school girls robotics team managed to make it to Qatar, and some all the way to Mexico.

 

Yet in the tense countdown to the final U.S. pullout, such happy outcomes were offset by the gnawing realization that there simply wasn’t enough time or back-channel leverage to help countless others like Kareem.

“Everybody's exhausted,” Yoshihira said. “They haven't slept, they're tired, they're fraught, they're getting frantic, desperate emails.”

Kareem sent one of those desperate pleas to CNA.

“Please help me,” he wrote. “I have no one without you. You are my last hope.”

Helping a ‘brother in Christ’

Helping Kareem is complicated for a number of reasons.

While he worked at a U.S. military base, he was employed there for less than the one year of service time required to receive a Special Immigrant Visa for Afghans who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government.

And even if he had worked the necessary time frame and had all the required documents to prove it, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that was processing visa requests has closed.  

Additionally, it is possible Kareem could make a case for what is called a Priority 2 (or P-2) visa, which applies to vulnerable "minority populations," among others, but that eligibility category does not explicitly mention Christians or other religious minorities, a fact that has sparked widespread criticism. 

For Wicks, CNA’s operations manager, Kareem’s plight lent a deeply personal dimension to the raw humanitarian disaster she saw unfolding in the news.

“This man is our brother in Christ, and in his humanity, and he deserves all the love, the time, the attention in assisting him to safety that any member of our family would,” Wicks explained.

Kareem’s pleas to CNA coincided with rising aggravation with the Biden administration among refugee advocates for what they saw as a lack of resolve to help vulnerable Christians get out of Afghanistan.

“I’ve got a list of hundreds of individuals desperate to get out … now being hunted by the Taliban or other groups,” Sam Brownback, the Trump administration’s religious freedom ambassador, told Real Clear Politics last week.

Two charities headed by conservative commentator Glenn Beck, The Nazarene Fund and Mercury One, raised more than $28 million to charter 20 airliners capable of ferrying thousands of Afghan Christians to safety.

But Beck repeatedly charged that officials within the State Department and the U.S. military were obstructing the airlift, though he said that the charities still managed to fly some 5,100 Afghan Christians and other civilians to countries other than the United States. Beck’s rescue claims have not been independently verified.

More recently, others have made similar allegations about State Department interference in charter flight rescue operations. A Sept. 6 report by Fox News cited three aid group officials who said they have been unable to secure the necessary approval from the State Department to land charter flights in a nearby country.

And Rep. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, who served on a Navy SEAL team in Afghanistan, made the same claim in a series of tweets last week.

The State Department has denied that it is obstructing refugee charter flights, and on Sept. 7 Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken pledged to assist non-government organizations and other groups working to transport Afghan civilians out of the country. Yet Blinken acknowledged that the logistics of doing so have become more difficult since the U.S. withdrawal.

"Without personnel on the ground, we can’t verify the accuracy of manifests, the identities of passengers, flight plans, or aviation security protocols. So this is a challenge, but one we are determined to work through. We’re conducting a great deal of diplomacy on this as we speak,” Blinken said during a visit to a refugee staging facility in Doha, Qatar.

Stuck outside the Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate, the main checkpoint for evacuees, Kareem was convinced prior to the Aug. 31 deadline that his life hinged on getting on one of the U.S. military and civilian airplanes he watched taking off, one by one, some only half-full. 

“Please help me,” he wrote in his first email to CNA. 

“I will be shot or hang(ed) I don't know but talibaans looking also for afghans converted to christians. They will find me. I am begging you for help, any kind of help. I don't want to die. Save my life.” (CNA has edited some of the punctuation in his messages for clarity.)

On the morning of Aug. 27, Wicks was exchanging messages with Kareem when she began receiving news bulletins about a suicide bombing at the Abbey Gate, the same location where Kareem was waiting for a miracle.

“There has been a blast at the airport,” Wicks wrote.

“Are you okay? 

“[Kareem] are you there?”

There was no response. 

The suicide bomb attack by a regional affiliate of the Islamic State, ISIS-K, killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 100 Afghans. Scores more were injured.

An hour passed with no word from Kareem. Then two. Then three.

Wicks feared the worst.

Finally, a new message flashed on her laptop screen.

“Yes I here still hoping after blast on refugees gate. I was on that gate at morning.”

“Oh my gosh,” Wicks wrote back. “I thought you were dead.”

“No I got lucky or maybe your prayer,” Kareem replied. “I would send pictures but talibaans beating people.”

Hours later, Wicks received a voice message from Kareem. He said he was hiding in the corner of a building near the airport.

In the brief recording, his weak voice is shot through with loneliness and fear.

“I am so hopeless that there is no one coming for me, to help me and save my life,” he said.

‘What will they do to me?’

Kareem’s despair deepened as the hours and days passed by, with no fresh hope of rescue.

In one especially trying period, Kareem developed a fever and began to consider surrendering himself to the Taliban.

“Please do some thing,” he wrote. 

“Does Christian Life matters or not,” he asked. “I am suffering every hour every day. I don’t know what Jesus decided for me.” 

Wicks and Bermudez tried to encourage him to hold on, and continued reaching out to their contacts. “We keep working and fighting. Stay hopeful, brother,” Bermudez wrote.

But Kareem was terrified. His mind fixated on rumors that the Taliban were torturing people with what he called “skin punishments.” At one point, Taliban soldiers were whipping people outside the airport gates with cables, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“Taliban Wolfs are around me. They will hunt and eat me,” he wrote. “My heart is swelling. What will these animals do to me? Oh god,” he said.

“I am a human. I have rights. I am a human,” he wrote. “I’m not ready to die. I want to live my life.”

Wicks said later compared her experiences communicating with Kareem with keeping vigil at the bedside of a loved one preparing for death.

“Each of us is called to accompany the Suffering Christ. It might be someone you’re close to, someone in your family,” she said.

“God, in his Providence, asked that it be this person, 5,000 miles away.”

It was difficult “to encounter such darkness and to see the depths of this evil so closely, that a man would be hunted for his faith,” she said.

Kareem, for his part, clung to his human lifeline. “Please just stay with me [a] little more. Just talk to me,” he wrote.

Kareem remains in periodic contact with CNA, but it is now too dangerous for him to communicate on WhatsApp, especially in English.

Wicks and Bermudez continue to advocate for him, but there is little else they can offer him now other than their prayers.

Kareem told Wicks and Bermudez he is grateful for their efforts to help him.

“You two [are] keeping me hopeful and strong these scariest days of my life,” he wrote.

“I wish Jesus give me more life to meet you one day,” he continued.

“I will never blame you for this. You tried everything possible I know,” he told them.

“I love you two and others who tried to help me.”

Most recently, Kareem sent a video message to CNA, asking that it be made public if he should die.

“It is hard to survive in this hell, because this land is not for Christians,” he says in the nearly 8-minute-long video.

He says that the Taliban have the names of Christian converts whom they are hunting. 

“I know I am one on that list,” he says. “But I’m not afraid. Jesus is with me … Jesus is watching me.”

In last-minute plea to Supreme Court, lawyers beg for prayer in execution chamber

Pastor Dana Moore / Second Baptist Church, Corpus Christi, Texas

Washington D.C., Sep 8, 2021 / 14:04 pm (CNA).

Religious freedom advocates are urging that Texas honor the request of a death row inmate to be prayed over in the execution chamber.

John Henry Ramirez, 37, is set to be executed on Wednesday evening, Sept. 8. He wishes to be prayed over by his pastor, who would lay hands on him as he dies. Both of those requests have been denied by Texas prison officials, who say that the audible prayer and physical contact amount to distractions and security risks within the execution chamber. 

Ramirez has appealed to the Supreme Court for a stay of execution so his case can be considered. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty on Tuesday filed an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to block Texas' restrictions, or halt Ramirez's execution to more fully consider his case.

“For centuries, clergy have prayed aloud at the time of execution,” Eric Rassbach, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, told CNA on Wednesday. “We hope the Court will recognize this long standing tradition and tell Texas to allow prayer in the death chamber.”

Ramirez was sentenced to death in 2008 for the murder of 45-year-old convenience store clerk Pablo Castro in 2004. He now seeks to have Pastor Dana Moore of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi present with him as he receives lethal injection, and laying hands on him as he is dying. 

The “laying on of hands” is a Christian practice of blessing someone. Moore has been Ramirez’s spiritual advisor for the last five years.

Becket's amicus brief, filed by attorneys Rassbach and Chris Pagliarella, argued that Ramirez’s requests are not unreasonable, and that Texas’ denial of his request is a violation of his First Amendment rights.

“The right of a condemned person to the comfort of clergy—and the corresponding right of clergy to comfort the condemned—are among the longest-standing and most well-recognized religious exercises known to civilization,” said Becket’s brief, filed on Sept. 7. 

“And in multiple emergency-docket cases, this Court has spoken clearly on these rights in the modern death chamber: comfort of clergy is a religious exercise, and prohibiting it is subject to strict scrutiny,” they said. 

While Texas did not permit any spiritual advisors in the execution chamber for a two-year period from April 2019 until April 2021, it does now allow for personal religious ministers to accompany the inmate inside the chamber. However, they cannot pray aloud or make physical contact with the inmate.

​​The Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, was asked on Wednesday about Ramirez’s request. 

“Should he be allowed to meet his creator, having the support of a pastor? I say yes,” Gregory stated at a luncheon of the National Press Club.

While saying he did not know all the details of the case, Gregory added that “if this man wants to pray with his minister, and his minister pray with him, it might very well be a sign that there is some reconciliation, conversion, going on within him.”

The state had previously banned spiritual advisors from the chamber, following Patrick Murphy’s request for a Buddhist chaplain to join him at his execution in 2019. At the time, Texas only allowed state employees in the death chamber, and the state did not employ a Buddhist chaplain. 

After re-admitting spiritual advisors to the death chamber in April, however, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice changed policy and “abruptly added a rule that would bar clergy from praying aloud,” says the Becket brief. 

“By a letter dated August 19, it took the position not only that the chaplain would have a ‘No-Contact’ policy, but also a ‘No-Speaking’ policy—which Texas now explains as disallowing any ‘audible prayer’ with and for the condemned,” Becket said. 

“Given that focus on history, and the long tradition of audible prayer by clergy at the moment of death, the scope of the constitutional right is clear—audible prayer should be allowed,” the attorneys explained. 

Tradition that predates the founding of the United States upholds “respectful, nondisruptive—but audible—prayer at the time of executions,” said the brief. “Such expression was key to both the solace and spiritual help sought by the condemned and the guiding role the clergy sought to provide.”

The state of Texas said that audible prayer in the execution chamber would amount to “disruptive conduct.”

This argument, “fails on its face, and is particularly odd in light of evidence that prayer has been allowed in the execution chamber without incident in multiple jurisdictions, including the federal government and Texas itself in the past,” the Becket brief stated. 

Ramirez’s attorneys filed a lawsuit on Aug.12 in federal district court, claiming that the state is violating his First Amendment rights in denying him the “direct, personal contact” of his pastor. The laying on of hands is a “a long-held and practiced tradition in Christianity in general and in the Protestant belief system Mr. Ramirez adheres to,” the complaint stated.

In the 2004 murder of Castro, Ramirez and two women attempted to rob Castro for money to buy drugs. Ramirez stabbed Castro 29 times. Castro had $1.25 on him, which the three took. 

The women were arrested the night of Castro’s murder, and both were sent to prison in 2006. One of the women, Christina Chavez, was convicted of three counts of aggravated robbery and was sentenced to 25 years in jail. The other, Angela Rodriguez, was convicted of two counts of aggravated robbery and one count of murder. Rodriguez was sentenced to life in prison but will be eligible for parole in 2035.

Ramirez was arrested nearly four years later, in February 2008. He was found near Brownsville, Texas, near the border between the United States and Mexico. 

Catholic bishops’ commission laments EU religious freedom envoy vacancy

Christos Stylianides at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, Sept. 30, 2014. / European Union 2014 - European Parliament (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Brussels, Belgium, Sep 8, 2021 / 13:00 pm (CNA).

The special envoy has left months after taking up the role.

Book Review: Visually rich compilation of Marian apparitions is full of spiritual ‘gems’

null / "The World of Marian Apparitions: Mary's Appearances and Messages from Fatima to Today"

Denver Newsroom, Sep 8, 2021 / 11:50 am (CNA).

Sophia Institute Press and Polish theologian Wincenty Laszewski have successfully completed the task of creating the most ambitious, graphic-rich and beautifully printed compilation of Marian apparitions to date.

In its colorful 405 pages, "The World of Marian Apparitions: Mary's Appearances and Messages from Fatima to Today" immerses the reader in occasions in which the Virgin Mary either authoritatively or probably has shown signs of her presence and her love for us.

"The World of Marian Apparitions: Mary's Appearances and Messages from Fatima to Today"
"The World of Marian Apparitions: Mary's Appearances and Messages from Fatima to Today"

Adam Blai, the author of "The Catholic Guide to Miracles: Separating the Authentic from the Counterfeit" (Sophia Institute Press, 2021), sets the theological stage for the unique experience provided by the pictures, graphics and testimonies that Laszewski has curated with great care.

Blai explains that Marian apparitions generally include four components: the visionary, the experience, the message, and the miracles.

“But within this framework, there has been a wide variety,” he writes. 

“The messages are almost always centered on prayer and repentance, but sometimes they include dire warnings for the world. The accompanying miracles vary widely, from enduring images to onetime spectacles, but they are almost always testable by outside experts, so the Church and the world have some proof that something extraordinary happened."

Blai provides a key to understand some of the Marian messages included in the book, such as the possible apparition of Trevignano Romano in Italy in 2019, in which the Virgin Mary is said to have warned: “Pray for China, because new diseases will come from there.” 

"What most people do not know is that, although only a handful of apparitions have been officially approved — ten by local bishops and sixteen by Rome in some way — there have been hundreds of accounts of Marian apparitions down through the centuries,” Blai explains.

“Sometimes the supposed apparitions generated some local interest, but no investigation was undertaken; sometimes there has been disagreement between diocesan and Vatican authorities." 

The ongoing case of Medjugorje, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, from 1981 to today is a complicated version of this latter case, explains Blai.

"As of 2020, Rome has approved pilgrimages to the site, but final full approval has been withheld until the apparent visions conclude and the case can be studied in its entirety,” Blai writes.

Laszewski and the editors carefully navigate this complex reality and provide the images and the facts, using a cautious, conditional presentation when necessary. Thus, the book includes a visible legend next to each of the 48 reported apparitions, based on nine different qualifications, ranging from "A revelation recognized by the Vatican" to "A revelation accepted by the belief of pilgrims."

This beautiful book can be read and reread with true spiritual freedom. In the process, you are sure to find many gems, as I found in this statement attributed to the Blessed Mother: “I feel in my heart — and it fills me with great sorrow — with what falsity and hypocrisy the holy Rosary is recited. Prayer cannot be a careless tune. It has to be sweet music flowing from the heart.”

Burma’s Cardinal Bo: Jesus waits patiently for us in the Eucharist

Burmese Cardinal Charles Maung Bo speaks at the International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 8, 2021. / Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

Rome Newsroom, Sep 8, 2021 / 09:30 am (CNA).

He called the COVID-19 pandemic the ‘irritating teacher of patience.’

New Wuhan bishop consecrated under terms of Vatican-China deal

The episcopal ordination of Francis Cui Qingqi in Wuhan, China, on Sept. 8, 2021. / www.chinacatholic.cn.

Rome Newsroom, Sep 8, 2021 / 08:00 am (CNA).

He is the sixth bishop to be consecrated under the deal signed in 2018.

All-Ireland Primate honors Auschwitz martyr St. Maximilian Kolbe

Archbishop Eamon Martin holds a reliquiary containing relics of Auschwitz martyr St. Maximilian Kolbe in Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland, Sept. 5, 2021. / Anita Hoppe.

Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland, Sep 8, 2021 / 04:00 am (CNA).

Archbishop Martin carried the Auschwitz martyr’s relics through the streets of a Northern Irish town.

Ambassador: Pope Francis’ visit to Slovakia is ‘a historic moment’

null / Embassy of Slovakia to the Holy See.

Rome, Italy, Sep 8, 2021 / 02:00 am (CNA).

The pope will visit the central European nation on Sept. 12-15.

Cardinal Lacroix: The Eucharist is the sacrament of peace

Gérald Cardinal Lacroix of Quebec speaks at the International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 7, 2021. / Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

Budapest, Hungary, Sep 7, 2021 / 16:07 pm (CNA).

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped drive home the importance of the Eucharist, Gerald Cardinal Lacroix of Quebec said in a catechesis delivered Tuesday at the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest.