1. Rule Change Allows Damaged Churches to Rebuild With Federal Aid: Houses of worship hit by disasters on or after Aug. 23 are now eligible for funding. 

By Ian Lovett, The Wall Street Journal, January 3, 2018, Pg. A3

Churches and other houses of worship are now eligible to receive federal disaster relief funding, government officials said Tuesday, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency overturned a longstanding rule barring such religious institutions from getting it.

Under the new rules, houses of worship damaged in a disaster on or after Aug. 23—days before Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas—can receive money to help rebuild.

In September, three Texas churches damaged by Hurricane Harvey sued the federal government, arguing they were being unconstitutionally discriminated against because of their beliefs.

“By finally following the Constitution, FEMA is getting rid of second-class status for churches,” said Daniel Blomberg, a lawyer at the Becket fund for religious liberty, which represented several houses of worship that have sued the federal government over disaster relief.


2. “Pope of Mercy” talks penance in opening public act of 2018. 

By John L. Allen Jr., Crux, January 3, 2018

Resuming a series of talks he began before the Christmas holidays on the various parts of the Mass, the “Pope of Mercy” in his first General Audience of 2018 focused on the importance of the Act of Penance at the beginning of Mass, saying, “only those who recognize their sins and ask forgiveness can receive the understanding and forgiveness of others.”

The centrality of God’s mercy, and the importance of penance, have been important themes for Pope Francis since his election in March 2013, culminating in the special Jubilee Year of Mercy called by the pontiff to run from December 2015 to late November 2016.

In small ways too, Francis has made his passion for penance clear. He’s made hearing confessions, for instance, a regular feature of his visit to Roman parishes, something that previous popes generally didn’t do.

On Wednesday, Francis was back at it, trying to stress the centrality of the Act of Penance to everything that follows in the Mass.


3. Viva Cristo Rey! 

By George Weigel, George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, First Things, January 3, 2018

The Cristo Rey network of Catholic high schools, which began in Chicago in 1996, is something different in U.S. Catholic education today. Many Catholic schools are closing because of decreasing enrollments and financial pressures; the Cristo Rey network is opening new schools. Instead of losing students, Cristo Rey is attracting new students. And the Cristo Rey schools are doing this by serving low-income families in inner-city areas, through a distinctive combination of Catholic educational commitment, partnerships with local businesses, and creative financing.

As a recent report by the Massachusetts-based Pioneer Institute put it, Cristo Rey schools “are returning Catholic education to urban areas. In its unique model, students receive a college-preparatory education and participate in a work-study program in which they learn employable skills and earn money to help pay their tuition.”

The local business connection is one key to Cristo Rey’s success. As the founder of this remarkable experiment, Fr. John Foley, SJ, put it, getting high school kids entry-level jobs as part of their education was, at the beginning, simply a way “to pay the bills.” But then other factors came into play. To cite the Pioneer Institute study again, over time, “the corporate work study program took on a more meaningful, transformative role. It became a self-esteem builder as teenagers saw they were earning money to help pay for their own education. They learned office skills in environments in which many had never envisioned themselves working. And they developed interpersonal skills with people outside their peer networks including supervisors, company presidents, and coworkers.”

This is Catholic social doctrine—which teaches the empowerment of the poor and the unleashing of their potential—in action. Catholic schools in inner-city America have always been the Church’s most effective anti-poverty program. Keeping those schools alive under very different circumstances than those portrayed in The Bells of St. Mary’s means meeting serious challenges through creative educational programs and imaginative funding. The Cristo Rey schools, which are some of the best news in U.S. Catholicism in 2018, are shining examples of both.


4. Could Iranian protests bring religious freedom for Christians? 

By Michelle La Rosa, Catholic News Agency, January 2, 2018, 4:08 PM

Ongoing protests in Iran could be a sign of hope for repressed religious minorities, if protesters demand that conscience rights be respected, said an Iranian-born journalist who converted to Catholicism in 2016.

Since the current round of protests erupted on Dec. 28, at least 21 people have died and 450 been arrested, CNN reports.

The Iranian government has responded to the current demonstrations by sending out riot police and restricting access to internet and social media.

The protests began over economic issues. A year after sanctions against Iran were lifted by the United States, United Nations, and European Union, citizens of the Middle Eastern nation have yet to see the economic recovery that many had expected. Unemployment among the youth is high, and food and gasoline prices have risen significantly.

However, as the protests have grown, so have the grievances, with signs and slogans opposing what many see as a corrupt regime that suppresses the civil rights of its people.

The regime does grant Christians and Jews a certain level of “second-class protection” as “People of the Book,” Ahmari said, but even this “limited protection only applies to the likes of Armenians and Assyrians, who are considered indigenous Christians.”

Converts are not protected, he said, because Sharia law – which is the foundation of Iran’s penal code – views apostasy from Islam as a crime punishable by death.

While the regime generally does not formally charge Christian converts with apostasy, Ahmari said, “it routinely harasses them, monitors and raids their house churches, and arrests and imprisons their pastors on trumped-up ‘national-security’ charges.”


5. Michigan community to hold meeting on calls to remove cross. 

By Associated Press, January 2, 2018

Officials in western Michigan will hold a meeting this month to get public feedback on calls for the removal of a large cross that’s stood along Lake Michigan for decades.

The Michigan Association of Civil Rights and the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation say the Father Marquette cross, which is maintained with public funding, is unconstitutional.

The Ludington Daily News reports the Pere Marquette Township Board will hold the special meeting Jan. 23 in Ludington.

The two groups say the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits Pere Marquette Township from displaying and maintaining such religious symbols. Others contend the legal issues aren’t that clear cut.

Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette was among the first Europeans to explore the area in the 1600s. The cross was built in 1955 on the spot where he supposedly died at the age of 37.

Several towns in the Midwest are named for the Jesuit, as well as a river, island, and state park. A statue of Marquette stands in the U.S. Capitol’s statuary hall, a gift from the state of Wisconsin.

In a similar case, a federal appeals court on Oct. 18 ruled a 92-year-old 40-foot-tall cross memorializing soldiers who died in World War I that sits at a busy intersection in the Washington suburb of Bladensburg, Maryland, was unconstitutional.