1. Venezuela’s Crisis Looms Large as Pope Visits Latin America: Bishops and activists urge Pope Francis to intervene in Venezuela when he visits Colombia this week. 

By Anatoly Kurmanaev and Francis X. Rocca, The Wall Street Journal, September 5, 2017, 5:30 AM

Venezuela—whose economy has shrunk by a third since 2013, sparking a humanitarian crisis—looms large as Pope Francis arrives on Wednesday in neighboring Colombia, where tens of thousands of Venezuelan migrants have fled.

Top Venezuelan bishops plan to greet the pope in Colombia, hoping to convey in person the gravity of the country’s situation.

In a letter published last week, the leader of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress urged the pope to demand that Mr. Maduro allow humanitarian aid, release political prisoners and respect human rights.

Vatican intervention in international political conflicts is rare.

Pope Francis, an Argentine who takes a keen interest in Latin American affairs and has issued forceful calls for leaders to respect human rights, helped broker the December 2014 rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba.

But a Vatican spokesman played down the likelihood that the pope would speak publicly about Venezuela during his trip to Colombia. That trip is likely to emphasize reconciliation and human rights after that country’s recently ended civil war.

Many Venezuelans are angry over the Vatican’s failed attempt to broker a truce between the opposition and Mr. Maduro’s envoys during talks late last year. The talks broke down after his government failed to implement its promises.

The opposition and some clergy blamed the Vatican for allowing Mr. Maduro to stall for time, thus dissipating protests and ultimately tightening his grip on the country.


2. Pope, Catholic Church push rebels, Colombians to reconcile.

By Christine Armario, Associated Press, September 5, 2017, 12:05 AM

In the nine months since Colombia passed a historic peace accord with the nation’s largest rebel group to end Latin America’s long-running conflict, the Roman Catholic Church has emerged as a guiding force in bringing rebels back to civilian life and leading a still-bitter nation toward reconciliation. Pope Francis is expected to build on those efforts during this week’s trip to the South American country.

Priests are celebrating Mass at the rustic camps where rebels have laid down their arms. Catholic aid workers are helping former guerrillas track down relatives they have not seen in decades. In the rural communities hit hardest by the 53-year conflict, church teams of psychologists and social workers are explaining the peace accord and facilitating encounters with the rebels many mistrust.

Francis has been one of the chief advocates for peace in this deeply Catholic country, urging leaders for and against the agreement to settle their differences. He will lead a prayer for national reconciliation in the city of Villavicencio, where 6,000 victims from around the country are expected to gather. And he will beatify a Colombian bishop killed in 1989 by guerrillas of the National Liberation Army, another leftist rebel group now negotiating peace.

But the pontiff is also likely come face-to-face with profound discord the agreement has sowed even within the church.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by its Spanish acronym FARC, formed in the mid-1960s to mount an armed insurrection to overthrow the system and open the way to redistributing land amid economic inequality.

Much of the FARC has historically been hostile to religion, both over its view that the Catholic Church was a reactionary force backing the Conservative Party during a 10-year civil war known as “La Violencia,” or “The Violence,” and from the atheism of the rebel group’s communist ideology. Dozens of priests were slain and dozens of churches were damaged or destroyed over the years.

“Nearly all of these killings were attributed to leftist guerrillas, particularly the FARC,” a 2004 report submitted to the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations concluded.

In spite of the bloodshed, the church took a position as a mediating force. During four years of negotiation in Havana leading to last year’s accord, priests accompanied victims to Cuba to testify about the atrocities they had endured and advocated for indigenous groups.

Pope Francis himself gave negotiators a strong push when he visited Cuba in 2015, telling them they didn’t have the right to abandon peace efforts. He said he would visit Colombia only once an agreement was signed.

In total, the conflict left more than 250,000 people dead, 60,000 missing and millions more displaced — wounds that for many cannot be closed with the generous terms offered to rebels under last year’s accord.

A narrow majority of Colombians rejected the agreement in a referendum before it was passed by congress.


3. Rebel faction in Colombia reaches peace deal ahead of Pope Francis’s visit.

By Anthony Faiola, The Washington Post, September 5, 2017, Pg. A11

Ahead of a historic visit by Pope Francis, Colombian officials signed a temporary cease-fire deal Monday with the leftist rebels of the ELN, potentially putting the long-troubled nation on track for a broader era of peace.

The deal with the ELN marks Colombia’s first cease-fire with an armed group founded in the 1960s with the aid of radical Catholic priests. It comes on the heels of a peace accord reached last year with what was Colombia’s largest armed guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. 

The ELN, or the National Liberation Army, had long been Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla movement, engaging in extortion, kidnappings and attacks on civilians and oil pipelines.

Under the 102-day cease-fire signed in Quito, Ecuador, after months of talks and set to start Oct. 1, the ELN has pledged to stop those activities. In return, jailed ELN fighters would receive improved conditions and the government would increase security for leftist community leaders, dozens of whom have been killed in recent months. 

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced the deal Mondaymorning, suggesting that the cease-fire had come together in part to honor the visit of Francis, the first Latin American pope. The pontiff, who has railed against social injustice, is revered even by leftist guerrillas.

Since rising to the papacy, Francis has presided over a surge in diplomatic efforts by his church in Latin America. Under the direction of the former cardinal of Buenos Aires, the Vatican helped broker a thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States in 2015, and has sought to bring the government and the opposition together in Venezuela. 

Francisco de Roux, a priest from Francis’s order of the Jesuits, has played a key role in negotiations between the ELN and the Colombian government. De Roux has called on the ELN, which for years was led by a series of Catholic priests subscribing to leftist ideals, to renounce violence. “Kidnapping doesn’t destroy capitalism, nor does it destroy imperialism. It destroys the kidnapper and the kidnapped,” De Roux has said.

“The pope’s impending visit to Colombia is a key factor” in the cease-fire, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, an organization based in Washington that promotes democracy and social equity in Latin America.


4. Congress can — and should — repeal DC’s assisted suicide law.

By Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie, Policy Advisor for The Catholic Association, The Hill, September 4, 2017, 8:00 AM

The District of Columbia recently became the seventh “suicide” jurisdiction in the country when the D.C. council passed the Death with Dignity Act in February. No one has yet to kill themselves under the law using a massive, prescribed dose of sedatives, and it may be that the law will be blocked by Congress before anyone has the chance.

As a physician, it is no surprise to me that Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), the congressman spearheading the effort to repeal D.C.’s assisted suicide law, is a doctor. Some of the most ardent opponents of physician-prescribed suicide are doctors and nurses with plenty of experience accompanying patients through the shock of a terminal diagnosis and the struggle of the last months of life. Becoming an agent of your own patient’s death is directly at odds with a vocation designed to prolong and enhance lives.

Harris and the other members of the Appropriations Committee who seek to repeal the D.C. suicide law must also be mindful of the people in the District who fought hardest against the legislation: the disabled and marginalized, and of course, their advocates.  

One disability advocacy group published a resolution opposing the measure which eloquently explains why the disabled have mobilized against the institutionalization of suicide. They point out that the disabled and people with chronic illnesses are at great risk of despair, abuse, and discrimination in our increasingly rationed and managed health care system.

Institutionalizing suicide in our nation’s capital would send a destructive signal to the rest of the country. It would be better if Dr. Harris succeeds and Americans are reminded that strong and compassionate communities respond to the suffering and vulnerable with attention and care, not with assistance to kill themselves.


5. Pope’s trip to Colombia unlikely to stem flight from pews.

By Alba Tobella, Associated Press, September 4, 2017, 7:53 AM

Evangelical Christians now make up 15 percent of the population in Colombia, where the Roman Catholic Church until recent decades had few rivals. It’s a trend seen throughout Latin America, where flight from the Catholic Church is spreading. While only 4 percent in the region identified as non-Catholic Christians in 1970, today they number about 20 percent.

Many within the Catholic Church are hoping that Pope Francis will help draw disillusioned parishioners back to the pews when he visits the South American nation this week.

Four of every 10 Catholics worldwide reside in Latin America, yet in countries like Uruguay, Cuba and parts of Central America, they are no longer a majority, according to the Pew Research Center. In Brazil, home to the largest Catholic population in the world, Catholics stand to be a minority by 2030, according to Chesnut’s calculations.

Many lapsed Catholics say they migrated to evangelical churches in search of a closer relationship with God than they found in the region’s copious cathedrals. And their numbers have become large enough to influence politics.

Evangelical leaders like Canas encouraged parishioners to vote against Colombia’s historic peace accord with the nation’s largest rebel group in a referendum last year because it included a small section recognizing the rights of people of all sexual orientations. The agreement backed by the pope was rejected by a narrow majority, but later was passed by congress.

Francis has also denounced the idea that people can choose their own gender as a “sin against God the Creator” that is threatening family life. But unlike many of the conservative evangelical churches, he has also attempted to draw the church closer to traditionally shunned groups like remarried divorcees and homosexuals.

Whatever their theological differences, the Catholic Church is now taking a cue from evangelicals and responding with new ways to reach parishioners, such as celebrating Mass and hearing confession in malls.


6. Kentucky’s last abortion clinic to face off against governor.

By Bruce Schreiner, Associated Press, September 4, 2017

Its survival on the line, Kentucky’s last abortion clinic is bracing for a pivotal legal showdown with health regulators and the state’s anti-abortion governor that could determine whether Kentucky becomes the first state in the nation without an abortion clinic.

The licensing fight, set to play out in a Louisville federal courtroom starting Wednesday, revolves around a state law requiring that EMW Women’s Surgical Center have agreements with a hospital and an ambulance service in the event of medical emergencies involving patients.

State regulators defend those conditions as “important safeguards” to protect women’s health. The clinic in downtown Louisville counters that the requirements lack any “medical justification” and amount to an unconstitutional barrier to abortion.

But the case’s significance goes beyond a debate about state law.

“The stakes in this case couldn’t be higher: the very right to access legal abortion in the state of Kentucky is on the line,” said Dr. Ernest Marshall, who opened the clinic in the early 1980s.


7. Global research project looks at Christian response to persecution.

By Catholic News Agency, September 4, 2017

Which Christians face the most persecution around the globe, and how do they respond to it?

The Religious Freedom Institute teamed up with the University of Notre Dame and Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project to find out.

And what they ended up conducting was the world’s first systematic global investigation of the Christian response to persecution, called Under Caesar’s Sword.

This report, funded by the Templeton Religion Trust, was researched over the course of three years by a team of 14 scholars who analyzed more than 30 of the most threatened countries around the world. They examined the patterns of religious persecution, the varieties of responses to persecution, and made recommendations for action against persecution.

The study’s major findings were turned into a number of different resources, including two different educational courses now offered online for free through the Satellite Theological Education Program (STEP) at the University of Notre Dame.

The first program is called Christians Confronting Persecution, which is intended for educators, ministers, pastors and adults who are interested in actively encountering “the reality of persecution through the lens of faith.”

The six-week course includes lectures from experts such as Tom Farr, Tim Shah, Daniel Philpott and Kristen Haas, and takes about 3-4 hours of study each week. Those who complete the course will receive certificates of completion which will also prepare them to facilitate the course with others.

The second program is called We Respond, a seven-session lecture series for adult groups, high school students, parishes, and churches who “wish to engage both intellectually and reflectively with the reality of religious persecution today.”

Both of these resources explore how Christian communities respond to persecution, and include videos, Scripture passages, stories and information on how to cultivate solidarity.

The programs will start online on Sept. 4 and are now open for registration.


8. Michael Cromartie, Who Guided Journalists on Religion, Dies at 67.

By Sam Roberts, The New York Times, September 2, 2017, Pg. D8

Michael Cromartie, who shepherded a generation of journalists toward more informed coverage of religion’s evolving junction with politics and public policy, died on Monday at his home in Arlington, Va. He was 67.

The cause was glandular cancer, his daughter, Heather Cromartie, said.

In his book “Religion and Politics in America: A Conversation” (2005), Mr. Cromartie wrote, “As religiously grounded moral arguments have become ever more influential factors in the national debate, journalists’ ignorance about theological convictions has often worked to distort the public discourse on important policy issues.”

He pursued a mission not to convert, but to advise — both individually and at dozens of the Faith Angle forums he organized in Maine and Florida beginning in 1999 under the auspices of the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington, where he was a vice president and director of the center’s Evangelicals in Civic Life project.

The editor of more than a dozen books, Mr. Cromartie was appointed by President George W. Bush to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and was elected its chairman twice.

While unabashedly conservative, he was also an equal-opportunity critic.

After three decades of educating journalists, Mr. Cromartie‘s feelings about the state of national affairs were unambiguous. Asked by Politico earlier this summer to describe his morning routine, he replied: “Pray. Read the news. Then pray all the more!”


9. To brother Cromartie, with love. 

By Kathleen Parker, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, August 29, 2017

There is something eternally bonding about a shared near-death experience, which is how I first met Michael Cromartie.

This was 15 or so years ago, before I had moved to the nation’s capital for an up-close look at power. Cromartie had called to invite me to one of the Faith Angle Forums he hosted for a select group of journalists and scholars to discuss religion in the public square. I happened to be driving when my cellphone rang.

His enthusiasm was such that he was nearly chirping, and I do believe there was a choir of angels humming in the near-distance when suddenly another car shot out of nowhere. I was forced into the median, across two lanes of oncoming traffic and onto the grassy shoulder on the far side of the road.

For the next 30 minutes or so, we chatted away, he in his office and I still sitting roadside in my car, about everything under the sun — life, death, God, gratitude. When a conversation suddenly swerves from cordial hellos to “Oh-my-God-that-person-almost-killed-me,” one is allowed to bypass several centuries of pleasantries and cut to the chase. 

Cromartie, who was vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and director of its Evangelicals in Civic Life program, felt strongly that the public’s perception of journalists as unfriendly toward religion and especially toward evangelical Christians, though not unwarranted, was a reflection of the media’s lack of exposure to and understanding of America’s faithful rather than willful animus.

He was, in other words, one of Washington’s relatively unknown elves who work diligently and without fanfare to make the world a better place. The forums, which were his brilliant idea, were held twice a year in Key West and more recently in Miami’s South Beach.

I doubt Cromartie feared death because he was a man of enduring faith, though he may have grieved the loss of a life well-lived but not yet finished. When he died Monday morning at 67, he left a void that will be felt by hundreds of friends, admirers and, of course, his family. For them — and even the greater world for which he steadily prayed — the loss is immeasurable.