1. Pope vows Vatican reform is real despite resistance, By John L. Allen Jr., Crux, December 22, 2016.

In his annual speech to the Roman Curia on Thursday, Pope Francis presented a sweeping vision of reform for the Vatican’s central administration, outlining the values he wants that reform to embody and insisting that old bureaucratic patterns such as “promoting to remove” must come to an end.

The pontiff then outlined twelve values he believes should guide Vatican reform.

  1. Individuality: “I again reemphasize that without individual conversion, all the changes in structures will be useless,” he said. “A healthy body is one which knows how to recuperate, welcome, strengthen, take care of and make holy its members.”
  2. Being Pastoral: Francis insisted that members of the Roman Curia must have a strong pastoral instinct, beginning with the people they encounter every day, and that no one should feel “overlooked or mistreated.” The work of the Roman Curia, he said, must be driven by a spirit of “service and communion.”
  3. A Sense of Mission: The ultimate end of every work of the Church, Francis said, must be to carry the Gospel “to the ends of the earth.”
  4. Rationality: Francis insisted that there must be a rational division of labor within the Curia, that every department must have clearly defined responsibilities, and that “no discastery can attribute to itself the competence of another.”
  5. Functionality: Combining several smaller offices into one, the pope said, strengthens their ability to perform their functions and also gives them a “greater relevance,” including in terms of external perceptions.
  6. Modernization: Offices of the Roman Curia, the pope said, must be able to “read the signs of the times,” in the language of the Second Vatican Council, and update their operations and personnel accordingly.
  7. Sobriety: The pontiff said a “simplification and streamlining” of the Curia is necessary, putting some offices together and eliminating redundant functions within offices. He suggested that some “commissions, academies, committees” and the like may yet be suppressed altogether.
  8. Subsidiarity: Francis suggested that the specific responsibilities of various offices may be retooled to make their competence clear, in order to promote “autonomy, coordination and subsidiarity.” Within that horizon, he confirmed the traditional role of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State as “the most direct and immediate help to the pope.”
  9. Synodality: The pope called for a more collaborative spirit among the various Vatican offices, including regular meetings of department heads, presided over by the pope. He also said that as the number of offices is reduced, it will make regular meetings for the heads of those offices with the pope more possible. Francis insisted that Vatican offices not become “fragmented” and “self-referential.”
  10. Catholicity: The pope called for Vatican departments to seek personnel from all over the world, including permanent deacons and laity, especially women, and that the Vatican’s workforce must be “multicultural.”
  11. Professionalism: Francis urged ongoing formation for Vatican personnel in their areas of professional responsibility, and also demanded a complete end to the time-honored practice of “promoting to remove.” (The Latin phrase is promoveatur ut amoveatur.)
  12. Gradualism: Francis said reform involves discernment, including a period of “steps, testing, corrections, experiments, and temporary approvals” of changes. “It’s not a matter of indecisiveness but the necessary flexibility to reach a real reform.”


2. Trump’s Opportunity: Saving Coptic Christians: Egypt’s minorities, long persecuted, are counting on the U.S. president to defend religious freedom., By Samuel Tardos, The Wall Street Journal, December 22, 2016, Pg. A19.

Islamic State’s local affiliate in Sinai claimed credit for the bombing of St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church in Cairo earlier this month. The group could not have chosen a more symbolic target. Erected in 1911, St. Peter’s was an architectural marvel built and decorated by Italian architects and mosaic artists.

Twenty-five worshipers, mostly women, died in the St. Peter’s blast. It is part of an ominous trend. Twenty Copts were killed by their neighbors during the 2000 New Year massacre in El Kosheh village. The Dec. 31, 2010, bombing of a church in Alexandria left 23 dead. The 2013 burning of more than 50 churches by Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators was the worst violence on Coptic churches since the 14th century. And the February 2015 beheading of 20 Coptic workers by Islamic State on the shores of Libya was the most horrifying incident for Copts in memory.

President-elect Donald Trump has enjoyed phenomenal support among Copts and other Middle East minorities after eight years of Obama-administration neglect. The president-elect may be uniquely positioned to deliver in Egypt. Mr. Trump praised President Sisi on the campaign trail. The Egyptian leader is one of two heads of state that Mr. Trump met during the presidential election, and he was the first to congratulate the president-elect. Egypt faces enormous security and economic challenges and is desperate for U.S. assistance. Persecution of Copts should be among the top issues on Mr. Trump’s Egypt agenda.

If President Sisi is serious about viewing all Egyptians equally regardless of their religion, concrete steps must be taken. Police need to protect Copts from mob attacks and bring their attackers to justice. The practice of reconciliation sessions that has created a culture of impunity must end. The law for building churches should be revised to give Copts true freedom to build churches. A serious antidiscrimination law needs to be passed. President Sisi needs to offer his Coptic citizens more than a mere visit to their cathedral on Christmas Eve.


3. Brightening the beacon of light: A revamped religious freedom act brings relief to persecuted peoples, By Erin Rodewald, The Washington Times, December 22, 2016, Pg. B3.

Former Republican Rep. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia has been turning on lights for decades — one man with the passion and moral clarity to bring awareness and relief to the plight of persecuted people in beleaguered places like Darfur, Iraq, Nigeria and China. In 1998, he sponsored legislation that elevated efforts within U.S. foreign policy to advocate for the universal rights to freedom of religion or belief abroad.

This month, Congress amended that legislation, passing H.R. 1150 — aptly titled the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act — thereby expanding the ability of the United States to advance religious freedom through enhanced diplomacy, training, counterterrorism and foreign assistance efforts, and through stronger, more flexible political responses to religious freedom violations and violent extremism worldwide.

Among the enhanced tools introduced: creation of a “designated persons list” for individuals who commit egregious violations of religious freedom; creation of a religious prisoners list of persons detained, imprisoned, tortured and subject to forced renunciation of faith; strengthening the role of the special adviser for religious freedom at the National Security Council; international religious training for all foreign service officers; and elevation of the position of the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom within the federal government.

H.R. 1150 also creates an “Entity of Particular Concern” designation for nonstate actors. The original 1998 legislation provided a mechanism whereby nations could be monitored and held accountable for bad behavior. This new classification strengthens and modernizes the IRFA by extending the State Department’s reach to terrorist groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab and al Qaeda, not otherwise affiliated with a single state.

The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act was born of one man’s compassion and outrage. It stands as a beacon in a dark world because of the hard work of dedicated public servants who have tirelessly pushed forward despite grim events and escalating human cruelty.


4. New Study Downplays Harm Abortion Inflicts on Women, By Cullen Herout, Crisis, December 22, 2016.

A study published last week in the journal JAMA Psychiatry claims to show that women facing an unwanted pregnancy do not suffer any negative impact on their mental health after abortion.

News outlets were quick to report on the study, eager to help divert attention from the well-documented experiences of the countless women who do suffer psychological distress after their abortion.

It’s clear that the researchers reached their conclusions based on the premise that any mental anguish experienced by women after an abortion would happen within five years and be detectable using simple symptom inventories and single Likert rating scale items about self-esteem and life satisfaction. But to believe that a simple inventory or a Likert scale could capture enough information about the post-abortion experience is to ignore both the long-term role that defense mechanisms play in the covering of negative emotions and the complexity of people’s lives.

Indeed, the fatal flaw of this study is that it neglects to recognize the vast, intricate complexities of the post-abortion experience. The study itself attempts to reduce emotional anguish into a binary of depression and anxiety, when the reality is that people’s emotions and psyches are far more complex.

Additionally, an important study conducted by David Reardon at the Elliot Institute found that, among a host of other things, almost two-thirds of women who eventually recognized the negative impact of their abortion admitted that they had been through a significant period of denial after the abortion. Further, among that group, the average length of time identified for how long the women denied their negative emotions was over five years. This indicates that the average woman suffering mental anguish as a result of her abortion would not even acknowledge or recognize the fact for over five years. It is thus not realistic to expect that a five-year longitudinal study would be able to yield useful data on the effect of abortion on a woman’s mental health or her overall sense of well-being.

One needs only to read the testimonies (or these, or these) of women who suffer to know that abortion has a deep and profound impact on a woman’s mental health. That impact does not happen on a set schedule and cannot be measured using overly simplistic inventories or scales.

Instead of making sweeping statements about how abortion has no impact on a woman’s mental health, we should acknowledge that all women grieve abortion differently, that it’s always good to inform them of the psychological risks of choosing abortion, and that adverse reactions to abortion are both non-pathological and legitimate. The women who suffer emotional anguish after abortion deserve to be heard and validated.

Perhaps most importantly, we should recognize that the complexity of the post-abortion experience is such that it cannot be captured by a single, non-comprehensive study. This is, without question, a fact that was missed by this team of researchers.


5. Looking back at 2016, the Year of Surprises: Church in the U.S., By Inés San Martín, Crux, December 18, 2016.

In this three-part series, Crux’s Inés San Martín reviews 2016 through a Catholic lens. In this installment, she examines an eventual year for the Catholic Church in the United States; part two looks at the Global Church, and part three hits the highlights of another remarkable year for Pope Francis, who capped 2016 by celebrating his 80th birthday.

Still, one thing that can be said with some certainty is that precisely because Catholics are such an important presence in American life, there’s virtually nothing that ever happens in the country that doesn’t have some sort of Catholic angle, and 2016 was no exception.

The 2016 election

Although Catholics were typically divided, Trump managed to capture the majority of the Catholic vote, 52 percent to 45, a tendency that was becoming evident in the days leading to the election. Evangelicals and Mormons also backed Trump, leading most observers to believe that religion had once again proved itself a decisive factor in American politics.

In terms of the Catholic vote, however, the overall result disguised a clear ethnic divide: White Catholics broke for Trump 60 to 37 percent, while Hispanic Catholics went for Clinton by 67 to 26 percent.

Though many may have considered his intentions dubious, Trump made several promises aligned with Catholic teaching, particularly on abortion, religious freedom, and conscientious objection, and promised to put a pro-life judge on the Supreme Court.

On the American debate over immigration reform, one contentious moment for Trump came in February when Pope Francis visited Mexico, including a final stop at the U.S./Mexico border in a clear statement of support for immigrant rights. On the plane on the way back to Rome, Francis was asked what he thought of a candidate such as Trump who wanted to build a wall along the border, and the pope replied that such a figure “is not Christian.”

Likewise, Clinton’s appeal to Catholic voters wasn’t helped by a scandal in mid-October surrounding hacked emails between staffers and advisers to her campaign which seemed to mock socially conservative Catholics and suggested the Church, among other things, suffers from “severely backward gender relations.”

Leadership shake-up at the USCCB

Although perhaps less groundbreaking, the election of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles as president and vice-president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops just ten days after Trump captured the White House was also noteworthy.

Gathered in Baltimore for the yearly fall general assembly, the bishops elected their new leadership on November 15, a week after the national elections. DiNardo was a safe bet, since he’d served as vice-president to incumbent Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky.
Yet the Mexican-born Gomez wasn’t, to the point that it took three ballots for him to win. Coming on the heels of Trump’s victory, the choice of a prelate who’s passionate about immigrant rights was seen as a powerful statement of priorities by the leadership of the American Catholic church.

The bishops’ response to Pulse and gun violence

Catholic leaders decried the June 12 massacre in the gay bar Pulse, at Orlando, where 49 people were killed and 53 others wounded in the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history.

Earlier in the year, responding to the enhanced gun control regulations implemented by the Obama administration and a Texas law which allowed licensed gun owners to display their weapons at public settings, Farrell had released a statement thanking God for President Barack Obama’s courage “to close the loopholes in our pitiful gun control laws to reduce the number of mass shootings, suicides and killings that have become a plague in our country.”

Religious Freedom and the Little Sisters of the Poor

Five years ago, the U.S. bishops’ launched the “Fortnight for Freedom,” a two-week campaign organized around July 4, Independence Day, intended to respond to what the bishops saw as an erosion of respect for the freedom of faith-based groups to be able to be both true to their religious beliefs and also active participants in national life.

Since Trump vowed on the campaign trail to repeal some, if not all, of the Affordable Care Act, and to respect religious freedom, attorneys for the Little Sisters are cautiously optimistic that the issue will be resolved soon after the new administration takes office.


6. Looking back to 2016, the Year of Surprises: Global Church, By Inés San Martín, Crux, December 19, 2016.

In part two of a Crux series looking back at 2016, the Year of Surprises, we survey the global scene for Catholicism, examining the Church’s role in Brexit and the Colombia peace referendum, expanding anti-Christian persecution, and ongoing clerical sexual abuse scandals.

Brexit and the “no” to the peace accord in Colombia

Arguably the first real political stunner of 2016, the United Kingdom’s June referendum in favor of leaving the European Union was taken as a defeat for European Catholicism, which has long been an agent in favor of continental unity.

On a return flight to Rome from a trip to Armenia in late June, after the Brexit vote, Francis said that “something is not working in this massive union” and called for “more independence and freedom to each country” of the EU.

Days later, with the ink on the divorce papers between the UK and the EU not yet dry, Francis released a video warning that Europe today seems to be building “walls of political and economic selfishness, without respect for the life and dignity of every person.”

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community described the result as “regrettable.” Noting that the EU was a “project of community and solidarity,” the German prelate said that “conscious withdrawal of a member is therefore painful and has consequences for all.

Seen from afar, the October referendum in Colombia on a peace deal signed between President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) could seem insignificant. However, it could have ended a six-decade old war, which has claimed an estimated 220,000 lives, and that’s a low-end figure.

The Catholic Church in Colombia played a key role in rebuilding trust between the former enemies, yet when the peace deal was announced, it was greeted with caution. As Archbishop Luis Augusto Castro, of Tunja, put it at the time, “It’s one thing to stop war…it’s quite another to build peace.”

Anti-Christian violence

Although it’s an issue that arose well before January 2016, and which will undoubtedly continue past the end of December 2016, there were several instances of violence against Christians that deserve to be remembered.

Starting with the most recent incident, on December 11 a bombing at a chapel adjacent to Egypt’s main Coptic Christian cathedral killed 25 people and wounded another 49 during Sunday Mass, in one of the deadliest attacks carried out against the religious minority in recent memory.

In the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Iraq, the death toll is much higher, and virtually impossible to assess. However, several governments, including the United States, have acknowledged that the Islamic State (ISIS) is perpetrating genocide against Christians and other minorities such as the Yazidis.

Religiously-fueled violence has also been the order of the day in several African countries.

In August, the new leader of Nigeria’s Boko Haram vowed to kill all Christians in the country. The group of Muslim extremists, has killed thousands, both Christians and Muslims, and perpetrated numerous attacks in Christian churches, mosques, and even in public markets. The latest attack, on December 11, saw two girls aged 7 and 8 blowing themselves up, killing one other person and injuring 17.

It’s also worth noting that harassment against Christians is not only a reality in countries where they represent a small minority or are not a clear majority.

In July, elderly priest Father Jacques Hamel was murdered in northern France while he was saying Mass, after being held hostage with several others, including two nuns, for 40 minutes.

Clerical sexual abuse

Another ongoing story for the Catholic Church in 2016 was scandal over its management – or mismanagement – of clerical sexual abuse allegations, with several new cases being uncovered, particularly in the developing world.

Although there’s a depressingly large set to choose from, few resonated as much as the situation in Guam, where Archbishop Anthony Apuron, 71, was accused of molesting at least five altar boys in the 1960s and ’70s. He was suspended by the Vatican in June, a few months after the allegations began to arise.

In October, Pope Francis appointed Detroit’s auxiliary Bishop Michael Jude Byrnes to lead the Church in Guam. A month later, Byrnes announced that there’s currently an ongoing canonical trial against his predecessor, who was the top Catholic leader in the island for almost three decades.

While allegations continued to be made globally, in the Vatican, Pope Francis’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, is moving forward.

Despite the early year shake-up, the commission has continued making concrete steps towards the prevention of clerical sexual abuse, scoring a victory last September, when it was asked to participate in the training of the world’s newest bishops who had gathered in Rome for a week to participate in what one of them described as “baby bishops’ boot camp.”

In early December, the body also launched its website, which includes the template for anti-abuse guidelines every local church was asked to produce back in 2011.


7. Looking back at 2016, the Year of Surprises: Pope Francis, By Inés San Martín, Crux, December 20, 2016.

In this series, Crux is examining Catholic highlights of 2016. Here we look back at a dramatic year for Pope Francis, in which the pontiff took six overseas journeys, issued a landmark document on the family, overhauled the Vatican’s bureaucracy, and also watched Benedict XVI occasionally step out of the shadows.

Papal travel

For a man known for his reticence about traveling, Francis has left Italy more times than had originally been forecast, with six trips abroad in 2016 alone.

The year kicked off with a politically charged visit to Mexico, where he not only venerated Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, but also did a south-to-north pilgrimage, similar to the route thousands of immigrants take in their journeys towards the United States.

An entire section could be dedicated to the pre-Mexico layover in Cuba, where he signed a historic declaration with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, cashing in on decades of ecumenical relations between the Vatican and the Kremlin.

Yet Mexico was only one trip. In April, he made another to the Greek island of Lesbos. In June he traveled to Armenia, where he once again invoked the magic word “genocide” with regard to the slaughter of Armenians by Turks during the WWI era, and delivered several lessons as to why ecumenism matters.

In July he was off to Krakow, in Poland, where he led over two million youth who had traveled to the land of St. John Paul II and St. Faustina Kowalska to participate in the itinerant Catholic festival known as World Youth Day.

Pope Francis and refugees

It’s well-known that the European migrant crisis, considered the worst since World War II, has been the key social concern for Pope Francis, son of immigrants himself, since the beginning of his pontificate.

In the past four months alone, he’s said welcoming refugees keeps us safe from terrorism. He said that fear is a poor adviser for countries struggling to set policies for immigrants and refugees, urged people to move past indifference when it comes to their plight because “that could be you. Or me,” and called Christians who reject refugees “hypocrites.”

Amoris Laetitia

Released in April, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia is a 255 page long document drawing conclusions from two tumultuous Synods of Bishops on the family in October 2014 and October 2015.

In the document, the pontiff quite literally touches on every issue concerning what he calls the “Christian proclamation on the family:” From immigration to gender ideology, to the challenge of dialogue within families and the need for stronger marriage preparation and greater support for couples just starting out.

Yet in the aftermath, most of the discussion has focused on chapter eight, which among other issues touches on the pastoral care of Catholics who find themselves in irregular relationships, particularly divorced and civilly remarried ones.

On this issue, the devil is quite literally in the detail of footnote 351, which says that in some very particular cases, people in these situations might have access to the sacraments.

In the fall, four cardinals, including American Cardinal Raymond Burke, submitted a dubia, a set of yes or no questions, to Pope Francis about the meaning of Amoris. Initially the request was private, but when Francis declined to respond directly, the cardinals made their questions public.

Burke went so far as to suggest that if the pontiff does not dispel what the cardinals described as “confusion” and “disorientation” resulting from the exhortation, some sort of public correction or rebuke may be warranted.

The pope’s allies have said time and time again that Francis has in fact answered the dubia, for instance through his support of the Argentine bishops’ position, but others argue that a leaked letter based on a drafted set of guidelines is not to be considered papal magisterium.

No matter what either side claims, the matter seems far from resolved, and the news cycle on this one is bound to continue far into 2017.

Church government

When he was elected to the papacy in 2013 by his brother cardinals, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who had openly expressed his distaste for Roman-style court politics, knew that one of the premises of his support was precisely his first-hand knowledge of how dysfunctional and slow the Vatican bureaucracy can be for outsiders.

That’s why soon after his election he created a group of nine cardinal advisers, or C9, to help him with the reform of the Roman Curia. The prelates come from every continent but Antartica, and have a diverse range of theological backgrounds.

Since the group has been meeting on average four times a year since its inception, and few announcements have been made regarding reform of the Church’s governing body, some have argued that the process is stuck.

The two key announcements from this year were the creation of two umbrella-like mega Vatican offices. One is dedicated to Human Development, and the other for all things family, laity and life, headed by American Cardinal Kevin Farrell.

Yet Cardinal Oswald Gracias of India, who sits on the pope’s C9, describes the advisory group as the “cabinet of ministers of the Holy Father,” arguing that it has become the “sounding board” of this papacy, and that although not many news flashes have come out of it, 75 to 80 percent of the big decisions Francis has made were crafted in consultation with the group.

Presumably, one of the things Francis sent his sounding board was the latest document from the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, which reiterated a 2005 document, that said that men with “deeply rooted homosexual tendencies” shouldn’t be admitted to Catholic seminaries and, therefore, shouldn’t become Catholic priests. The document wasn’t penned by the pontiff, but it had his seal of approval.

Finally, although the issue according to the pontiff himself garnered more hysteria than it deserved, Francis’s decision to create a papal commission to study the role of female deacons in the early times of the Church can’t be excluded from the roundup.

Benedict XVI

Although he’s kept his promise of remaining silent after his resignation, back in February 2013, emeritus Pope Benedict XVI proved that every rule is not without exceptions, allowing for the world to see him on a handful of occasions, and even giving a public address for the second time in three years.

In September, Benedict also became the first pope ever to do a kind of check-and-balances of his own pontificate, with an interview book with German journalist Peter Seewald.

In it, he candidly concedes that government was not his strong suit, despite the fact that he actually authored historic reforms.