1. Caesar, God and the Lockdowns: A federal court ruling on religious liberty is a lesson to governors.

By The Wall Street Journal, May 12, 2020, Pg. A14, Editorial

As governors consider how to ease their lockdowns, they might take a moment to read a pair of unanimous opinions this month from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. They rebuke the idea of giving office parks greater pandemic leeway than churches.

A March order by Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear barred “mass gatherings,” including religious ones. Offices and factories were exempt if they followed “appropriate social distancing.” Other orders said that only “life sustaining” enterprises could stay open. That included law firms, laundromats and liquor stores, but not churches.

Gov. Beshear has now excluded churches from his original order. Kudos to the judges for a reminder that the Constitution requires neutral treatment of religion, even in a pandemic.


2. Job Bias Cases Test Religious Freedom.

By Brent Kendall, The Wall Street Journal, May 12, 2020, Pg. A3

The Supreme Court signaled Monday that it was struggling over how much freedom to give religious institutions from laws barring employment discrimination.

The justices spent more than 90 minutes considering a pair of cases involving Catholic schools to decide whether lay teachers can bring discrimination claims based on age or disability.

The court eight years ago allowed religious groups to make hiring and firing decisions about their faith leaders without government interference. The new cases present the court with questions about what types of jobs are essential to a religious group’s mission—and thus off-limits for discrimination claims.

Justices across the ideological spectrum suggested that clear rules could prove elusive, even in the teacher context, because it isn’t so easy for a court to determine which jobs involve central religious functions and which don’t.


3. The high court weighs a case affecting teachers in Catholic schools.

By Robert Barnes, The Washington Post, May 12, 2020, Pg. A1

The Supreme Court was unanimous eight years ago when it decided that certain employees of religious organizations were not protected by federal discrimination laws. But there was considerably more disagreement among the justices Monday about who qualifies for what the law calls the “ministerial exception.”

Liberal justices seemed particularly worried that lawyers for the Trump administration and Catholic schools were greatly expanding the definition of those who performed important religious functions and thus would not be protected by the law.

Conservative justices seemed to be in sync with the argument. Justice Clarence Thomas, who in a separate opinion in the 2012 case urged deference to the religious organization, said sorting employees is not for the courts.


4. Pope praises nurses’ role in fighting coronavirus.

By Reuters, May 12, 2020, 6:07 AM

Pope Francis praised the work of nurses around the world on Tuesday, saying the coronavirus crisis had shown how vital their service is, as he appealed to governments to invest more in healthcare.


5. Nadler blasts DOJ for defending Virginia church.

By Stephen Dinan, The Washington Times, May 12, 2020, Pg. A5

Top Democrats sprang to the defense of Virginia on Monday, suggesting the Justice Department overstepped its bounds when it said the state trampled religious rights by citing a church that held services despite a shutdown order.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler and three colleagues said states have the lead when it comes to policing their emergency shutdown orders.


6. Funding abortions overseas: A Supreme Court case that pro-life advocates should be concerned about.

By Jeanne Mancini, The Washington Times, May 12, 2020, Pg. B2, Opinion

United States Agency for International Development (USAID) v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc. (AOSI), a case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this week, has not garnered much attention from pro-life advocates — but it should.

This is likely due to the prominence of concurrent cases like June Medical Services v. Russo and Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, but USAID v. AOSI has the potential to upend long-standing pro-life protections established by the Protecting Life in Global Health Policy (PLGHP), formerly known as the Mexico City Policy.

Similar to the PLGHP, the policy in question in USAID v. AOSI deals with U.S. funding of overseas NGOs.

PEPFAR, or, the Leadership Act required that recipients of funds meet two conditions: First, they must agree that no funds will be used to promote or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution, and second, they must have a policy explicitly stating that they oppose prostitution. In 2013 the Supreme Court ruled that the latter of these two requirements — that an organization must have an anti-prostitution policy in place — violated First Amendment principles. 

The question before the Supreme Court now is whether this same first amendment protection extends to foreign affiliates of U.S.-based NGOs.

If the Supreme Court rules in USAID v. AOSI that First Amendment free speech rights do extend to overseas NGOs, this would threaten some of the protections in the PLGHP. Such a decision would result in making it impossible to deny pro-abortion NGOs foreign assistance without violating their free speech ‘rights.’

Jeanne Mancini is president of March for Life


7. The Irreplaceable Value of On-Campus Higher Education.

By Father Dave Pivonka, TOR, Real Clear Religion, May 12, 2020, Opinion

In recent weeks, pundits have made all sorts of proclamations like this about the future of colleges and universities. In some ways, they may be right. The massive and sudden shift to online learning, precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic, may forever alter the landscape of higher education. But if that happens, it’s students who will be the biggest losers, especially students attending religious schools.

The university I serve as president, Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, offers numerous online degree programs and I’m proud of the engaging, high-quality course content we provide our online students. If one of the consequences of this pandemic is more schools learning how to better serve students online, that’s a good thing.

Nevertheless, while I see value in online learning, and while I’m also grateful that it allows us to serve our students during this difficult time, distance learning cannot measure up to the on-campus experience. It can’t offer what living and learning on campus can. It simply doesn’t meet the need we have as human beings to gather with one another, grow together, and learn from each other face to face.

So much of the formation my university offers happens outside the classroom. The relationships formed in residence halls, the lessons learned on the playing field, the conversations that take place in the dining hall—these are every bit as formative as teaching and discussion in the classroom and they can’t be replicated online. Nor can the spiritual growth and maturity that comes from participating in mission trips, worshipping with classmates and friends in the Mass, and living in a vibrant Catholic community, surrounded by peers who strive for holiness.

A college education isn’t salvation, but it should help lead students to heaven. An experience of higher education deprived of the rich human formation that can only take place within an on-campus community will ultimately deprive the students of the transformational power and grace they ought to receive from a Catholic education.

The coronavirus has already done so much damage to our culture. I pray it doesn’t irreversibly damage higher education, too.

Father Dave Pivonka, TOR, a well-known speaker and author, became the seventh president of Franciscan University of Steubenville in May 2019.


8. English bishops: Plan to end lockdown ignores ‘spiritual needs’ of country.

By Charles Collins, Crux, May 12, 2020

The Catholic Church in England and Wales says the government has failed to recognize the “profound sensitivities and spiritual needs” of the people in its plan to re-open churches.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson released a 50-page, three-stage plan to re-open England after a lockdown was imposed March 23 to stem the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Churches would not be allowed to be open until July 4. Currently, churches in the United Kingdom are closed to everyone but clergy, even for private prayer, unlike in most other European countries.

“The timing and the manner of the opening of churches touches profound sensitivities and spiritual needs. The Government’s document and statements fail to recognize this,” said a spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference for England and Wales.


9. Italy’s church going back to business, but not business as usual.

By John L. Allen Jr., Crux, May 12, 2020, Opinion

For many, one indicator that things are gradually improving is the fact that beginning next Monday, May 18, Italian Catholics once again will be able to go to Mass. Following a May 7 deal between the Italian bishops’ conference, CEI, and the government, public Mass will be permitted, though under a slew of conditions.

Although when public liturgies may resume in the Vatican remains unclear, the church in Italy, anyway, is going back to business – but it’s likely to be far from business as usual.

Some indication of what to expect can be gleaned from churches experimenting with communion services and confessions, others from instructions offered by bishops, and still others from online announcements and discussions.

Herewith, four glimpses of the “new normal.”

1. Some churches won’t reopen
Prior to the pandemic, there were a grand total of 25,689 parishes in Italy, the most in the world, and arguably the country was long overdue for a round of closures and consolidations. Yet shutting down a parish is nobody’s idea of fun, since it inevitably triggers resentment and protest from people with sentimental ties to the place.

Some churches may use the crisis of the coronavirus to make temporary closures permanent.

2. A church of welcome but also red lights
Under pre-pandemic circumstances, a typical parish priest looking out at a crowded, standing-room-only church for Sunday Mass probably would have been delighted. Now, the same scene might induce panic.

Rather than a posture of “y’all come,” priests are likely to find that limiting the number of people who enter their church becomes part of their job description.

3. Mass al fresco
For probably nine months out of the year, most Italians, given a choice, would prefer to dine outside in the open air rather than within the confines of either their home or a restaurant.

Now, it seems many Italians may be able to choose to worship al fresco too.

4. Rethinking communion and confession
Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, entrusted to the Community of Sant’Egidio, has resumed offering communion services and confessions, and the precautions they’ve adopted provide a glimpse of what will soon be standard practice.

Though this may not mean much to American Catholics, long accustomed to forming orderly and well-choreographed lines at communion time, in Italy it’s something of a cultural revolution to see people respecting lines rather than pushing their way forward and crowding around the priest. Some remained in their seats awaiting their turn last Sunday, while others knelt in place.

Vatican uncertainties
In the meantime, the situation remains unclear in the Vatican.

It’s been reported that its own parish church of Sant’Anna, which largely serves its own employees and their families, will resume public Mass on May 18 following the Italian dispositions, but that has not yet been officially confirmed.

The situation regarding public access to papal liturgies, whether in St. Peter’s Basilica or the square outside, remains under study, in part because of the complexities of determining precisely how many people can be admitted, and in part because of the even greater headaches of maintaining the required distances, avoiding the usual scenario of people crowding spaces where they think they can get a better view of the pope.

To date, no announcement has been made about when, or how, the pope’s public events, including not only liturgies but also his Wednesday general audience and Sunday Angelus address, may resume.


10. New York extends time period to file civil lawsuits in sex abuse cases.

By Christopher White, Crux, May 11, 2020

Governor Andrew Cuomo has extended the state’s lookback window for victims of abuse to file civil lawsuits until January 14, 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The New York Child Victims Act (CVA) took effect last August and extends the statute of limitations for abuse victims which had originally allowed for a one-year window in which victims could bring suit. Further, the legislation extended the statute of limitations for civil claims, now allowing survivors to file a claim until they are 55 years old. In January, a similar window allowing for two years took effect in New Jersey.

In March, the legislature granted Cuomo broad powers amid the pandemic. At the time, however, the New York Civil Liberties Union and some legislators voiced opposition to it. Presumably, Cuomo is exercising those powers here in announcing this extension, though it remains to be seen as to whether he will face a challenge from legislators over it.


11. Safety a priority as Vatican Museums eyes reopening, official says.

By Junno Arocho Esteves, Crux, May 11, 2020

As Italian authorities prepare to slowly relax lockdown restrictions in the country, a Vatican City official said it will enact new measures and protocols to ensure the safety of visitors to the Vatican Museums.

In an interview with Vatican News published May 9, Bishop Fernando Vergez Alzaga, secretary general of the Governorate of Vatican City State, said that due to ongoing health and safety preparations, the museums “do not yet have a definite date on reopening.”

Vergez told Vatican News that since then, the limited staff are obliged to wear protective gloves and masks and have their body temperatures measured daily. He also said the installation of thermoscanners to measure the body temperatures of visitors is nearing completion.

Once they reopen, “the museums can only be accessed with a reservation,” he said. “This will allow us to stagger the entrances during opening hours” and “visitors will be required to wear a mask.”


12. Vatican official was director in London property broker’s company.

By Ed Condon, Catholic News Agency, May 11, 2020, 6:05 PM

As the Vatican’s Secretariat of State finalized its purchase of a London luxury apartment building, a lay secretariat official who oversaw investments was appointed a director of a company owned by the financier who brokered the property deal.

Vatican sources tell CNA that appointment is now under investigation, as Vatican prosecutors continue their look into suspicious financial transactions and investments at the Vatican Secretariat of State.

The official, Fabrizio Tirabassi, is one of five Vatican employees suspended in October 2019, following a raid conducted by Vatican gendarmes, who seized computers and documents related to financial dealings at the department.

Tirabassi has not since returned to work, and it is unclear whether he remains employed. An April 30 announcement from the Holy See press office confirmed that “individual measures” had been taken against some employees in relation to the ongoing investigations, but did not specify what that might mean.


13. What the Supreme Court Needed To Hear About Catholic Institutions: It is possible to envision a 5-4 decision in favor of the Catholic schools, but all the same, the arguments missed a crucial point.

By Helen Alvaré, National Catholic Register, May 11, 2020

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday in two consolidated cases concerning the right of Catholic elementary schools to decide who can teach there: Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Berru, and St. James School v. Biel. Arguing on behalf of the schools was an attorney with the Becket law firm — a prominent religious liberty firm in Washington, D.C. — and also an assistant to the U.S. solicitor general, Morgan Ratner, who had obtained permission from the Court to speak in favor of the schools.

It is possible to envision a 5-4 decision along the usual divisions on the Court in favor of the Catholic schools, but all the same, the argument was disappointing.

If I had the time to write an amicus brief in this case, I would have made a robust showing about the inescapably communal character of every Catholic institution, as a believing community whose members are called to witness to the living Christ to one another and all onlookers. I would have quoted Pope Francis’ ringing advice from his first homily after his election about Catholic institutions: “If we do not confess to Christ, what would we be? We would end up a compassionate [nongovernmental organization].”

I would have quoted Pope Benedict XVI’s advice in Deus Caritas Est about personnel in Catholic institutions: They must “want to work with the Church and therefore with the Bishop, so that the love of God can spread throughout the world.” And I would have pointed to the vast sociology-of-religion literature demonstrating that faith is so often transmitted by deed and not by word.

Monday’s oral argument lacked these necessary points. While the two Catholic schools in California merit and will likely obtain a (possibly narrow) victory, the written decision could well lack the more convincing — and even inspiring — arguments in favor of a robust, and theologically true and necessary, ministerial exemption. The decision might not bode well for future cases involving religious institutions’ employees other than religion teachers.

Helen Alvaré is a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University


TCA Media Monitoring provides a snapshot from national newspapers and major Catholic press outlets of coverage regarding significant Catholic Church news and current issues with which the Catholic Church is traditionally or prominently engaged. The opinions and views expressed in the articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Catholic Association.
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