US Jewish movements struggle with same-sex unions too

With the passage last week of same-sex marriage in New York and civil unions likely to become law in Rhode Island, the church’s efforts to support only traditional marriage between a man and a woman has taken a licking. Both states are heavily Catholic — in the case of Rhode Island, the most Catholic in the nation — and church leaders had lobbied hard against the legislation. (Read our coverage of the New York bill passage here and here.) Yet, opinion among Catholics in the pews about same-sex marriage and civil unions remains divided between support and opposition, and surveys indicate that it likely will remain so.

Other religious bodies also have struggled over the issue. In New York, which has one of the largest Jewish populations in the U.S., the new law has thrown the division among the three major Jewish movements into the spotlight.

In the July 8 issue of the The Jewish Daily Forward, newspaper of New York’s Jewish community, reporter Naomi Zeveloff examines the effect of the new law permitting same-sex marriage and how the three movements — Orthodox, Reform and Conservative — are coming to terms with this new challenge to religious practice. Check out her piece, “Gay Marriage in New York Puts Conservative Rabbis on the Spot,” to see that sweeping new social legislation is not an easy ride for other religious groups either.

Catholic Charities disaster assistance grants increase in 2011

Volunteers work to repair a levee that protects the Church of St. Therese, the Little Flower, in Minot, N.D., as floodwater from the Souris River spills over levees and dikes June 25. (CNS/Reuters)

Natural disasters in the form of tornadoes and flooding have hit many regions of the U.S. since January. The damage has been so extensive  that Catholic Charities USA has provided almost as many disaster assistance grants through the first six months of the year as in all of 2010.

Since January the agency has provided 36 $10,000 grants to diocesan Catholic Charities programs, providing assistance to people who have  lost their homes in spring storms or had to evacuate in advance of flooding.

In 2010, the agency provided 46 grants to local Catholic Charities agencies in response to disasters.

Kathleen Rae King, senior vice president for external relations, said the agency has collected more than $1 million for disaster assistance, but more money is needed to meet the widespread need.

“Once the immediate needs of the Minot residents are met, with all the rebuilding that will be needed, it will require ongoing support,”  King told Catholic News Service. “It’s where Catholic Charities comes in because we’re in there for the long-haul. We’re gearing up for the need to help families put their lives back together.”

Catholic Charities work continues in North Dakota as floods from melting snows and heavy rainfall continue to affect the  city of Minot. Catholic Charities staff members also remain in several Alabama communities and in Joplin, Mo., areas hit by violent tornadoes in the spring.

Contributions can be made through the agency’s website.

Cardinal Scola to head Milan Archdiocese

(CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Angelo Scola was named this morning as the new head of the Archdiocese of Milan, Italy’s largest diocese.

The 69-year-old cardinal, a native of Milan, has been patriarch of Venice since 2002, where he made a reputation as a very active pastor and developed a type of Catholic think-tank on Middle Eastern issues.

During the last conclave, Cardinal Scola’s name was on the short list of papabili. Today’s appointment will no doubt keep him in the mix when that topic comes up again.

In 2004, I visited Venice several times to do an in-depth profile on Cardinal Scola. I found him to be as energetic as advertised on a pastoral level, and certainly one of Italy’s more intellectual church leaders. In Milan, an archdiocese of nearly 5 million Catholics, he’ll face a whole new set of challenges.

Activists disrupt House session to call for Guantanamo closing

A small number of anti-torture activists interrupted a session of the House of Representatives for several minutes Thursday, calling for the closure of the U.S. Army detention center in Guantanamo, Cuba, before being whisked away by authorities.

Thirteen members of the group Witness Against Torture were taken into custody and charged with unlawful conduct as they stood to read a three-paragraph statement as House members gathered for a vote on other legislation.

Matt Daloisio, a Catholic Worker from New York and spokesman for the group, told Catholic News Service that the activists pointed to provisions in the defense appropriations bill pending in Congress that would make permanent the Guantanamo prison.

The activists called the provisions a “crime” and said the bill grants the U.S. “powers over the lives of detained men fitting of a totalitarian state that uses the law itself as an instrument of tyranny.”

Twelve of the 13 were released from jail in the early morning hours of Friday and are scheduled to be arraigned July 12. One person, who took the name of a detainee, was not released until Friday afternoon and will be arraigned with the others.

The group has sought Guantanamo’s closing since 2005.

The protest occurred in the midst of a week of activities in Washington by several faith-based and political organizations opposed to torture as part of Torture Awareness Month.

Guantanamo continues to hold 171 men the U.S. suspects of having ties to terrorist groups.

Catholic press ‘relic’ visits with communicators in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH — U.S. Cardinal John P. Foley, always in fine humor, visited with Catholic communications professionals in his first trip since returning to Philadelphia from the Vatican in February.

The cardinal, who has leukemia, joined the gala at the Carnegie Museums as the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada celebrated its 100th anniversary. The cardinal sat in a chair to deliver his remarks after a glowing introduction by former CPA President Bob Zyskowski.

“It’s nice to be canonized without the inconvenience of dying,” the archbishop said, adding, “Pardon me for sitting, but I’m usually in bed by this time.”

The cardinal, who served as head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications for more than 23 years, first worked at The Catholic Standard and Times in Philadelphia in the 1960s and served as its editor 1970-84, when he was called to the Vatican. He told the gathering he had been involved in the CPA for 51 of its 100 years.

“I’m a relic,” he quipped.

The cardinal interspersed his prepared remarks with anecdotes from his career, sending Catholic communicators from the U.S., Canada, South Africa and even Australia into fits of laughter. But between the one-liners and tales of near-disasters on live radio and cafeteria duty for 800 high-school boys, the cardinal said he believed “the Catholic press continues to have a very important role to play in the work of the church in North America today.”

“Like the crucifix above the bed in every Catholic home, a Catholic publication in the living room or the family room is a continuing reminder of our identity as Catholics,” he said.

He added that “the Catholic press continues to have an important role in the work of information, formation, inspiration and continuing Catholic education.”

The cardinal also saluted the work of Catholic News Service.

“I continue to think that it is the best and most complete source of Catholic information in the world today,” he said seriously, then added, “I’ve accepted no payment for that statement.”

Bid to curb toxins in air wins praise in Catholic circles

The federal Environmental Protection Agency recently issued proposed standards to limit the amount of mercury and other toxins emitted by power plants into the air. That move has won praise from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Health Association and the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change.

CNS photo by Reuters

“Children, inside and outside the womb, are uniquely vulnerable to environmental hazards and exposure to toxic pollutants in the environment,” said a letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson from Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. “Their bodies, behaviors and size leave them more exposed than adults to such health hazards. Furthermore, since children are exposed to environmental hazards at an early age, they have more extended time to develop slowly progressing environmentally triggered illnesses.”

“Our position on controlling pollution from power plants is rooted in the Catholic Church’s teachings on the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life — especially in regards to the poor and vulnerable who disproportionately bear the brunt of environmental degradation,” said Sister Carole Keehan, a Daughter of Charity and CHA’s president and CEO, in her letter to Jackson supporting the proposed standards. “We encourage the EPA to adopt strong air quality policies in order to protect the health and welfare of both people and the planet, and we oppose industry and congressional pressure to weaken the proposed rules.”

“The links between mercury and human development, especially in the womb, are clear, and consistently pro-life Catholics should welcome these rules as a way to reduce the harm for our youngest citizens,” said Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, in an email to Catholic News Service. “As climate change unfolds, I hope more Catholics will begin to make the connection between the way the U.S. generates most of its electricity and the need to conserve God’s beautiful creation.”

Approaches to improving criminal justice

Two recent articles from California focus on criminal justice, and how it can be made better.

CNS photo by Tim Hunt

In San Diego, The Southern Cross, the diocesan newspaper, zeroed in on restorative justice. According to Deacon Jim Walsh, director of the diocese’s Office for Social Ministry and director of its Restorative Justice Program, explained that restorative justice “first expresses real concern for victims, families and their needs,” but also “tries to address the needs of offenders and their families” in order to “get at the root causes of crime.”

Restorative justice “emphasizes offender accountability and responsibility,” Deacon Walsh added. “Restorative justice aims to put things right. … It asks the questions: Who has been harmed? What active steps can be taken to repair harm to the victim and the community? Can victims achieve some healing when an offender works toward making things right?”

In the Archdiocese of San Francisco, a former warden at San Quentin State Prison, who has presided over four executions, is working now to abolish capital punishment, offering life in prison without the possibility of parole as an alternative. “Just imagine asking public servants to wake up every day and heave them go to work planning to kill somebody,” Jeanne Woodford, a Catholic now heading Death Penalty Focus, told Catholic San Francisco, the archdiocesan newspaper.

Woodford said the organization wants to make the case that the cost of capital punishment, the potential for executing an innocent person, the lack of assistance to victims, and the belief that the death penalty does not deter crime are among the “practical reasons” to end the death penalty. Moral concerns also come into play, although Death Penalty Focus doesn’t dwell on those.

The U.S. Catholic bishops noted in a 2000 statement on criminal justice that “the status quo is not really working.” The year before, they said the death penalty promotes “a sense of vengeance in our culture.”