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Whitmer ought to back school choice bill, not veto it, Michigan Catholic Conference says

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signs a state budget in Lansing, Mich., Sept. 29, 2021. / Photo courtesy of the Office of Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Lansing, Mich., Oct 27, 2021 / 17:01 pm (CNA).

The Michigan Catholic Conference has welcomed the passage of legislation that would help fund scholarships for private and religious K-12 schools and pay some expenses for public school students, though Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has promised to veto the bills.

“The legislation will provide parents with greater tools to ensure academic success for their children regardless of the educational setting, represents an important and meaningful policy change, and is a step forward toward helping Michigan catch up to dozens of other states--including almost every state in the Midwest--that are much further along in offering school choice options to parents,” Tom Hickson, the Michigan Catholic Conference vice president for public policy and advocacy, said Oct. 27.

“Parents are the primary educators and have the right to determine which school is best for their children,” Hickson added. “We commend the leadership of the Michigan legislature for passing these bills and encourage the governor to sign them into law, thereby providing parents with an important tool to help toward their children’s educational success.”

The legislation would create Educational Savings Accounts that would give students access to the financial resources to use towards qualified expenses in public and non-public schools, the Catholic conference said.

Private donors could give money to specially created organizations, which would then give funds to qualified students for educational purposes. Donor contributions would be entirely tax-deductible.

Eligible private school students could receive over $7,800 per year from scholarship programs set up under the law, the education news site Chalkbeat reports. Eligible public school students could receive up to $500 or $1,100 if they are in special education programs for various purposes including tutoring, extracurricular activities, books, computers, summer programs, speech therapy, or eligible transportation costs.

There are about 1.8 million Catholics across seven Michigan Roman Catholic dioceses in a state whose population totals just under 10 million. The state’s 36 Catholic high schools have about 12,500 students, while 166 elementary schools have over 33,200 students. Catholic school teachers employ about 3,300 lay teachers and about 50 priests or religious, according to the Catholic conference.

Overall, there are about 150,000 students enrolled in the state’s K-12 private schools. By comparison, nearly 1.5 million students are enrolled in the state’s K-12 public schools, according to a September report on education statistics from the Education Data Initiative.

The nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency said the bill would reduce state revenue “by as much as $500 million in the first year it was effective, with the potential for the revenue loss to increase 20% per year in later years.”

The revenue would not affect the annual school aid budget, now totaling a record $17.1 billion, which was approved in a bipartisan agreement earlier this year, the Detroit Free Press reports.

The relevant bills are House Bills 5404 and 5405, respectively sponsored by Republican State Reps. Bryan Posthumus and Phil Green, and Senate Bills 687 and 688, respectively sponsored by Republican State Sens. Tom Barrett and Lana Theis.

“No matter a student’s background, we should be doing more to support parents, so they can have a more active and impactful role in their children’s education,” Theis said, according to the Detroit Free Press.

The House bills were first approved in the Republican controlled legislature last week. They passed Oct. 27 by a final vote of 55-49, the Associated Press reports. The Senate has also passed the bills.

Hickson said the bills were “introduced and acted upon quickly”, but after evaluating the bills the Michigan Catholic Conference is now supporting them.

However, Bobby Leddy, a spokesman for Whitmer, said the legislation was a “nonstarter.”

“The Michigan Constitution sets up a system of school funding designed to ensure the quality of free public education in Michigan,” Leddy said, according to the Detroit Free Press. “This legislation undermines that constitutional guarantee, permitting the diversion of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars annually to private institutions. Michiganders are tired of the attempts to force a Betsy DeVos-style voucher program that drain resources from our public schools.”

DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education under President Donald Trump, was cited by every Democratic legislator who argued against the bill. They said it served her interests.

DeVos is a wealthy Michigan resident. She and her family are major donors to many Republican-leaning causes and she is a major backer of school choice programs.

Foes of the legislation include the Michigan Association of School Boards, whose membership includes over 600 boards of education.

Critics like Democratic State Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a former teacher, said the proposal was unconstitutional.

In 1970, Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment that bans public funds and public credits for any non-public school. The amendment also bars indirect payments and is considered the strictest ban in the U.S., according to the Associated Press. In the 2000 election, voters strongly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have declared a constitutional right to school vouchers.

However, the Michigan Supreme Court recently upheld a court ruling that allows the state to reimburse the costs of private schools’ compliance with state-mandated rules, including recordkeeping and background checks for teachers.

According to Chalkbeat, the Michigan legislation is similar to that which passed in Montana, whose ban on state programs for private school tuition was narrowly overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2020.

The Second Vatican Council's 1965 declaration on Christian education, Gravissimum educationis, said that parents "must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools."

"Consequently, the public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children."

Catholic students from Texas universities unite for prayer and worship

Inaugural intercollegiate Catholic Student Summit at Victoria Park in Irving, Texas, Oct. 8, 2021. / Zack Weiss

Washington D.C., Oct 27, 2021 / 16:20 pm (CNA).

Catholic students from multiple Texas universities recently gathered for an evening of prayer and worship that, organizers say, is the start of something new.

“We reserved a park for a couple of hours, just told everyone, ‘Bring a dinner, bring your friends, show up,” said Zack Weiss, a junior pastoral ministry major at the University of Dallas and co-organizer of the event, to CNA.

An estimated 100 young adults attended the first-ever intercollegiate Catholic Student Summit at Victoria Park in Irving, Texas, Weiss said, with roughly 60 of them from the University of Dallas. 

Students from eight other universities also participated in the Oct. 8 event: Southern Methodist University, Texas Christian University, the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of North Texas, Baylor University, the Baylor University School of Nursing, Texas Woman’s University, and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. 

On a Friday night, they met in a public park for fellowship, games, a talk by UD chaplain Fr. Joseph Paul Albin, and prayer.

“It was just beautiful to see so many young Catholics who were on fire for their faith show up,” Weiss said. “It just showed that there are so many other young Catholics like me who want something more and who just want to grow in faith as a large community.”

Weiss organized the event, together with UD senior pastoral ministry major John Paul O’Brien, after a club meeting of Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord. The club, created by the university’s pastoral ministry students, encourages spiritual conversations on campus. At the meeting, Weiss suggested inviting friends from another university to attend their events. His idea quickly expanded to include other universities.

Now, Weiss and O’Brien are planning for the future. After meeting with leaders from Texas Christian University and the University of North Texas last week, Weiss said that they want to organize monthly summits beginning next semester. They also plan to host a special intercollegiate event this winter. 

“We are hopefully going to be doing a winter supply drive and putting together bags for the homeless or meals or something along those lines – coming together as a community to make these things, and then bringing these things back to our respective communities,” Weiss said. 

Right now, Weiss said, he’s placing the summit in God’s hands.

“We just kind of see this as God can take this anywhere that he wants to, and we are going to be open to whatever the Holy Spirit tells us that he wants us to do with the summit,” Weiss said. 

Other students agreed that the first summit was a success. Collin Bass, a sophomore at Baylor University and a professional selling (sales) major, remembered the “evening full of fun, fellowship, and worship.”

“For a first-time event, it was super impressive as well as encouraging to see over 100 students show out just to bond over the love of Jesus!” he exclaimed. His favorite moment, he told CNA, was watching several Dominican priests and brothers walking up and capturing the attention of everyone at the park.

According to Madison Williams, a senior pastoral ministry major with concentrations in theology and Spanish at UD, the event turned out better than she could have imagined.

“I was blown away by the number of students that came out, even students from my school that I didn't expect to be there,” she told CNA. “I had a wonderful time chatting with other Catholic college students from the DFW metroplex, but my favorite moment was witnessing the nascence of a beautiful faith community.”

The summit also impacted her faith, she said. 

“This event was affirming for my faith and gave me hope for the future of our Church,” she stressed. “It is easy to become distressed about the status of young Catholics when you look at social media and modern perceptions of religion. However, this event and the faith that I witnessed assured me that young Catholics are everywhere and they are seeking to build the Church.”

While Weiss says that he and organizers want to focus on the Dallas-Fort Worth Catholic community for now, they are open to expanding their reach.

“We would love to have bigger colleges from the state join us because a lot of us here at UD have mutual friends at these big state schools,” Weiss said. “And of course, if God wants to make this something national, we think that that would be incredible.” 

Founded in 1956, the University of Dallas is located in Irving, Texas. The Cardinal Newman Society, dedicated to defending and promoting faithful Catholic education, recognizes the private Catholic college for its “national reputation for excellence in both its fidelity to Catholicism and its academics.”

White House: Pope Francis ‘has spoken differently’ than Biden on abortion

Pope Francis greets then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the Vatican in this April 29, 2016. / Vatican Media

Washington D.C., Oct 27, 2021 / 14:00 pm (CNA).

Ahead of President Joe Biden’s Oct. 29 meeting with Pope Francis, a White House spokeswoman acknowledged on Wednesday that “the pope has spoken differently” than Biden on abortion.

Biden, a Catholic, “is somebody who stands up for and believes that a woman’s right to choose is important,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at an Oct. 27 briefing with reporters.

“The pope has spoken differently,” she added, in response to a question by EWTN News Nightly White House correspondent Owen Jensen.

Pope Francis will meet with President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden on Friday at the Vatican.

Psaki on Wednesday said that areas of agreement between the two will feature as the “centerpiece” of Friday’s meeting, including the issues of “poverty, combatting the climate crisis, ending the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“These are all hugely important, impactful issues that will be the centerpiece of what their discussion is when they meet,” she added.

Pope Francis has previously called abortion “murder,” compared abortion to “hiring a hitman,” said that unborn victims of abortion bear the face of Jesus, and decried efforts to promote abortion as an “essential service” during the pandemic.

Biden and his administration have taken a number of steps to either fund abortion outright or loosen regulations against funding of pro-abortion groups.

He pushed for taxpayer-funded abortion in Medicare by excluding the Hyde amendment from his FY 2022 budget request to Congress. In a Jan. 28 executive order, Biden repealed the Mexico City Policy, allowing for U.S. funding of international pro-abortion groups. His administration has changed regulations to allow funding of abortion providers in the Title X family planning program.

When Texas’ pro-life “heartbeat” law went into effect on Sept. 1, Biden promised a “whole-of-government” response to maintain legal abortion in Texas. The Justice Department filed a lawsuit in federal court over the law, and the Department of Health and Human Services announced increased family planning funding of groups impacted by the Texas law.

In addition, Biden has issued statements supporting legal abortion in the United States and internationally.

Later in Wednesday’s briefing, Psaki expounded upon the president’s “faith” when asked about the meeting at the Vatican.

I think the president’s faith, as you well know, is quite personal to him. His faith has been a source of strength through various tragedies that he has lived through in his life,” she said, noting that “he attends church every weekend.”

“We certainly expect it to be a warm meeting,” she said.  

March for Life announces 2022 theme of 'equality'

2020 March for Life, Washington, D.C., Jan. 24, 2020 / Peter Zelasko/CNA

Washington D.C., Oct 27, 2021 / 12:18 pm (CNA).

The theme for the upcoming March for Life will be “Equality Begins in the Womb,” event organizers announced at a press conference on Oct. 27. 

“The pro-life movement recognizes the immense responsibility this nation bears to restore equal rights to its most defenseless citizens in the womb,” March for Life president Jeanne Mancini said at the Wednesday press conference. 

The 49th annual March for Life will be held on Friday, Jan, 21, 2022, in Washington, D.C. According to organizers, it is the world’s largest annual human rights demonstration. 

“Since Roe v. Wade, scientific advances have undeniably confirmed the humanity of the unborn, and today most Americans agree there should be significant limits on abortion,” Mancini said. 

“To this end, we hope the Supreme Court honors the existing constitutional protections for the unborn as they hear arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization,” she added, citing the major abortion case before the high court. Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for Dec. 1. 

Equality, said Mancini, has been a hotly debated topic in the United States as of late. 

“These discussions are crucial for America, for the health of our country,” said Manicini. “There’s little agreement on the definition of what ‘equality’ is and who it applies to.” 

“We want to expand this rigorous debate about equality to unborn children, who are often overlooked because they cannot speak for themselves,” she added.  

“Each of us is a human being, and we have inherent human dignity because of who we are in our essence,” said Mancini. And human beings, she added, “should be protected from the moment of conception or fertilization.” 

Mancini said the Dobbs case at the Supreme Court has the potential to make a “major impact on the unborn and on equality.” The cases focuses on Mississippi’s law restricting most abortions after 15 weeks. The question at hand is whether all pre-viability state abortion bans are unconstitutional.

“Our hope and our prayer is that this year’s theme, ‘Equality Begins in the Womb’ will allow not only for hearts and minds to be changed,” she said, “but that there will also be, included in this robust debate, the topic of the unborn child.” 

The coming year, she said, has the potential to be “historic” for the pro-life cause. 

“There’s so much ahead of us this year, and I think this will be a special March for Life,” she said.  

The consistently large crowds of the March for Life are proof, explained Mancini, that abortion policy in the United States is anything but “settled law.” 

“It shows them that it’s not settled law,” she said. “We don't get smaller, we don’t draw less of a line in the sand, we get bigger every year.” 

March for Life also announced on Wednesday that the rally preceding the 2022 march will feature speeches from actor Kirk Cameron and Fr. Mike Schmitz, a podcast host and priest of the Diocese of Duluth. The rally will also feature music from Grammy-nominated Matthew West. 

The 2021 March for Life was held virtually due to the ongoing pandemic, with a small group of pro-life leaders walking through the streets of the city to lay roses outside the U.S. Supreme Court building. A small number of pro-life activists came to the city despite the march being officially closed to the public. 

Catholic doctor honored for service during COVID-19 pandemic

Major Daniel E. O'Connell, MD, MPH, receives the 2021 Catholic Doctor of the Year Award on Oct. 24, during the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ annual Mass for Catholic Healthcare Professionals. / Mission Doctors Association.

Los Angeles, Calif., Oct 26, 2021 / 18:39 pm (CNA).

A neurologist who responded to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City in 2020 has been awarded this year’s Catholic Doctor of the Year Award. 

Major Daniel E. O'Connell, MD, MPH, received the award Oct. 24 during the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Mass for Catholic Healthcare Professionals. 

“Dan had shared his journey at the height of COVID in New York, and his service really stood out,” said Elise Frederick, Executive Director of the Mission Doctors Association, which bestows the award. 

“Being able to let one’s faith lead in an environment where you are surrounded by others who share your faith is one thing, but doing so, quietly witnessing your values in such critical and challenging times takes a true leader.”

O’Connell was raised in the Catholic Church, and he said his Catholic faith is integral to his medical career. 

“I certainly cannot see myself doing medicine without my Catholic Christian foundation,” he said. “I think that is a major driver— if not the ultimate driver— for me doing it, because I can’t imagine being a physician without that foundation.”

He attended public schools until medical school.

“I specifically sought out a Catholic medical school, which I think is somewhat unique in the modern era,” O’Connell said. “I never had that Catholic school experience, and...I wanted my grounding as a physician to be of Catholic origin.”

He attended medical school at the University of Loyola in Chicago. O’Connell said he found that Loyola emphasized ethical treatment of patients, with a grounding in Catholic spirituality. 

He recalled the first day of an anatomy class. Medical students learn anatomy from individuals who have donated their bodies postmortem to the school. O’Connell remembers a Catholic priest blessed the cadavers, and prayed for the souls of the individuals who had donated their bodies. 

“And there was a pledge to treat these cadavers … with the utmost respect,” O’Connell said. “I thought that was a great initial grounding, moving forward in our training as physicians with that Catholic mindset of respecting the human person, the dignity of the human person.”

Today, O’Connell is a practicing neurologist, with a specialization in neuro-oncology and pain management. He is also a medical officer in the U.S. Air Force Reserves.

He first got involved in the military in college, through Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. After college, O’Connell enrolled in the Individual Ready Reserve. 

His first assignment with the IRR was in 2019 to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, in response to a shortage of medical personnel in the state. 

On April 4, 2020, O’Connell was asked to deploy within 24 hours to New York City, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He met with other reservists at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey. 

“And from there, within a day's time or so, we took buses up to a deserted Times Square,” he said. 

O’Connell was familiar with New York City, because he did his internship in internal medicine at New York Medical College. 

“It [did] not even feel like New York,” he said. “It totally changed my perception of the city. It was a ghost town when we arrived, and entirely deserted.”

O’Connell assumed he would serve at the Javits Convention Center, which had been converted into a makeshift hospital for COVID-19 patients. But active duty military were helping to run that. 

“The greatest need turned out to be in the surrounding community hospitals, and the various boroughs of New York City, which are extremely dense in population, and — especially in areas where we were assigned— are disproportionately impacted by the COVID crisis for a number of reasons,” he said.

O’Connell was assigned to serve at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, which he said was the second-most hit hospital in the city at the time. His work was limited to the ninth floor, which was a medical surgical unit that had been converted into a medical ICU. 

He said the floor had about 30 rooms that held about 60 patients. He remembers the hospital drilled holes into the walls for wires to pass through from patients in the rooms to machines in the hallway. 

“That's how sort of desperate the situation was,” O’Connell said. “Temporary ventilators had to be put into the rooms, and they had to put IV lines— because there was no space in the rooms themselves, they're not built to be a medical ICU — in the hallway outside.”

O’Connell is a neurologist, but his training included a year of internal medicine and three years of inpatient neurology. Still, he wasn’t certain how his skill set would translate to the needs of the patients before him. 

“I did not know what to expect initially, but I was assigned to a floor team along with residents,” he said. “And, believe me, the last thing I wanted was to be a resident again. For anyone who knows anything about medicine, they can understand why. It was certainly a humbling experience.”

“The nurses and the respiratory therapists, in my opinion, did the bulk of the work, because the care [was] largely supportive.”

He said the majority of his time was spent doing essentially grunt medical work, though he did perform the occasional neurology exam. Between four and six days a week, O’Connell would check on patients, and help treat any conditions they suffered in addition to COVID-19. Many of his initial patients were older, and had medical conditions that were frequently exacerbated by the coronavirus. 

O’Connell spent two months at Lincoln Hospital in New York City, and he estimates several dozen of his patients died from COVID-19 related respiratory compromise, or from worsening comorbidities in the setting of COVID-19 infection, during that time. By the end of his deployment, the number of COVID-19 patients on his floor had dropped substantially, allowing for a smooth transition of military reservists out of the hospital.

It has been more than a year since O’Connell’s deployment for the COVID-19 pandemic, and he is still processing the experience. 

“My analogy is the 100 year flood,” he said. “It's something that you don't expect at all, but that you try to have some level of preparation for.”

“But one of the reasons why I joined the military reserves is to have an opportunity to assist, should something like this happen, as a military medical doctor.”

O’Connell said he struggled to accept the Catholic Doctor of the Year Award, because he believes respiratory therapists and nurses were the true heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic, and he dedicated the award to them. 

“They're really the ones assisting us with the COVID crisis, because...there is no cure for COVID, so to speak,” he said. “There's no treatment that you can give, in real time, for an acute COVID infection that will kill the virus immediately. Because of that, the needs are one of making the patients as otherwise healthy as possible, to diminish the likelihood of multisystem organ failure and other comorbidities.” 

Still, O’Connell hopes his witness will encourage other doctors to let their faith guide their careers. 

“Serving in a mission doctor capacity doesn't always mean traveling to the opposite side of the world, to a remote location and helping individuals,” he said. “You can also do that locally.”

Mission Doctors Association will begin accepting nominations for its 2022 Catholic Doctor of the Year Award in January. 

Past recipients of the Catholic Doctor of the Year Award include general surgeon and active missionary sister, Sr. Deirdre Byrne, who was a first responder on 9/11; and Dr. Tom Catena, a Catholic international missionary doctor. The award was given to ‘All Catholic Healthcare Workers’ in 2020.

Orthodox leader discusses religious freedom, climate change with Biden

null / Orhan Cam/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Oct 26, 2021 / 13:40 pm (CNA).

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I discussed religious freedom and climate change with U.S. leaders on Monday in Washington, D.C., and announced an interfaith initiative to encourage vaccination against COVID-19.

After the Orthodox patriarch met with President Joe Biden on Monday, Oct. 25, the White House stated that the two leaders “discussed efforts to confront climate change, steps to end the global COVID-19 pandemic, and the importance of religious freedom as a human right.” 

Bartholomew also met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday. A State Department spokesperson said afterward that the two “discussed the U.S. commitment to supporting religious freedom around the world.” Their discussion also included the situation of Christians and other religious minorities in Turkey.

“Secretary Blinken reaffirmed that the reopening of the Halki Seminary remains a continued priority for the Biden Administration,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price. 

Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople since Oct. 22, 1991, is viewed as “first among equals” of the various Eastern Orthodox churches. On Monday, President Biden congratulated him on his 30th anniversary as patriarch, and Pope Francis in an Oct. 22 letter expressed gratitude for his “profound personal bond” with Bartholomew. 

The 81-year-old Orthodox leader was hospitalized on Sunday as a precaution, after suffering from exhaustion upon arriving in the United States, but he was released on Monday. Bartholomew is scheduled to be in the United States until Nov. 3, and on Oct. 28 he will be receiving an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame.

The Orthodox patriarch also announced a new interfaith initiative to encourage COVID-19 vaccination on Monday.

After meeting with Biden, Bartholomew told the press that Biden is “a man of faith and vision" who “will offer to this wonderful country and to the world the best leadership and direction within his considerable power.” 

Bartholomew said that he would be working alongside Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Muslim and Jewish leaders to encourage vaccination against COVID-19. 

“We shall make an appeal to the whole world to facilitate the vaccination of everybody,” he said, emphasizing the need to vaccinate the world’s poorest, “so that everybody may be safe.” 

"The president accepted our common initiative with great satisfaction,” he said. 

Speaking with Secretary Blinken, the patriarch said that he was “grateful to the American administration, the administration of the United States, for the continuous support for the Ecumenical Throne and its ideas and values which we try to protect, struggling at the same time to survive in our historic seat in Istanbul.”

Bartholomew met with Biden ahead of Friday, Oct. 29, when Biden and his wife Jill will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

Head of Christian advocacy group resigns over ties to illegal campaign donations

Toufic Baaklini at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, 2016 / In Defense of Christians

Washington D.C., Oct 26, 2021 / 09:15 am (CNA).

The president of an advocacy group for Middle Eastern Christians has resigned from the organization over his connection to illegal contributions to the campaign of a now-indicted congressman.

On Sunday, Oct. 24, the Washington, D.C.-based group In Defense of Christians announced that it had accepted the resignation of president and board chairman Toufic Baaklini. The organization noted “allegations of wrongdoing recently reported in the media in connection with campaign contributions.”

Earlier this year, Baaklini admitted to serving as a willing conduit for illegal donations by the billionaire Gilbert Chagoury to the re-election campaign of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.). Both Fortenberry and Chagoury have ties to In Defense of Christians, and Fortenberry last week was indicted on charges of lying to federal prosecutors about the illegal contributions.  

In Defense of Christians stated on Sunday that “Any contributions made by, or through Mr. Baaklini to Members of Congress or candidates were in his personal capacity.”

The group did not respond to CNA’s request for comment on Monday. On Oct. 26, the group announced that vice president Tonia Khouri would assume the role of president, effective immediately. 

In Defense of Christians was founded in 2014 and has advocated for policies to protect Middle Eastern Christian minorities, such as congressional resolutions recognizing ISIS genocide of Christians in Iraq and Syria, and emergency relief for Christian genocide victims. The group has also advocated for policies to support stability in Lebanon and resolutions recognizing the Armenian Genocide.

Nearly seven months prior to the announcement of Baaklini’s resignation from the group, he signed a March 31 deferred prosecution agreement with federal officials stating that he had knowingly helped Chagoury, a Nigerian-born billionaire of Lebanese descent, illegally contribute money to a federal campaign that was later reported to be Fortenberry’s re-election campaign.

Currently serving his ninth term in Congress, Fortenberry, a Catholic, was twice questioned by federal investigators about the illegal contributions in March and July of 2019. Last week, he was indicted by a federal grand jury on two charges of making false statements to the investigators and one charge of concealing information.

In a federal court in Los Angeles on Oct. 20, Fortenberry pleaded not guilty to all the charges. A pretrial conference has been set for Dec. 7, with a jury trial scheduled for Dec. 14. Fortenberry was ordered to post a $50,000 bond, according to news reports.

Chagoury and Fortenberry both have ties to In Defense of Christians. Fortenberry has been recognized by the group for his work in 2015 and 2016 to help pass a congressional resolution recognizing the genocide of Iraqi Christians at the hands of ISIS. He also served as a co-chair of the group’s 2020 virtual summit.

Around the time the illegal contributions were made to his campaign, Fortenberry appeared at a California chapter event of In Defense of Christians on Feb. 20, 2016, according to the group’s March 2016 newsletter. On Feb. 21, he was inducted into the Vatican Order of St. Gregory - an order which Chagoury is also a member of - according to the newsletter 

Chagoury was previously a major donor to the Clinton Foundation, and his philanthropic causes include education and health care in Lebanon. In 2014, he helped organize and finance the inaugural summit of In Defense of Christians in Washington, D.C., according to his website.

Chagoury has served as Ambassador to the Vatican for the Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia, and according to his website, he has received a number of honors from the Vatican. He was made Commander of the Order of Saint Gregory the Great by Pope John Paul II in 1990, and was given the order’s Grand Cross by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Pope Francis made him Knight Commander with Star in the Order of Pope Pius IX, in December 2016.

He has drawn controversy in the past for his connection to former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, and was reportedly denied a visa by the State Department in 2015 because of his alleged support for Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party designated by the United States as a terror organization. According to the website OpenSecrets, he denied support for the group, but had reportedly funded a Lebanese politician who then funneled the money to Hezbollah.

Baaklini, according to court records, knew that Chagoury, a foreign national, was ineligible to contribute directly or indirectly to U.S. federal candidates. He nonetheless received $50,000 from Chagoury in January 2016, understanding that part of it would be used for federal campaign donations.

According to his signed statement, Baaklini provided $30,000 in cash to “Individual H” in Los Angeles, who then hosted a February 2016 fundraiser for a federal campaign, and recruited other donors to contribute to the campaign. The group did so knowing they would be reimbursed with Chagoury’s money. 

The campaign in question was later reported to be Fortenberry’s, and Fortenberry’s indictment matches the details of the illegal transactions with those listed in court records for Chagoury and Baaklini.

In a conversation with Baaklini in late February 2016 after the fundraiser, Fortenberry appeared to notice the suspicious nature of the transactions, according to Baaklini’s signed statement. He allegedly asked Baaklini if he thought anything was wrong with the fundraiser. When Baaklini replied that nothing was wrong, but asked Fortenberry the reason for his question, Fortenberry allegedly said “something to the effect of, ‘because it all came from the same family,’” according to court records.

According to his indictment, Fortenberry lied to investigators in 2019 by claiming he was not aware of illegal contributions to his campaign by a foreign national, and that he was not aware of Baaklini’s involvement in the illegal contributions. 

According to federal prosecutors, he was informed by “Individual H,” the host of the 2016 fundraiser, of Baaklini’s involvement in the contributions in 2018. Furthermore, the fundraiser host allegedly told Fortenberry of having received $30,000 from Baaklini and distributing it to other individuals to donate to Fortenberry’s campaign, and that the money “probably” came from Chagoury.

By that time, “Individual H” had already acted as an FBI and IRS informant on the illegal contributions, having done so by September 2016, according to court documents.

According to the indictment, the individual said that Chagoury “probably” provided the money for the contributions “because he was so grateful for your support [for] the cause.”

However, Fortenberry allegedly did not file an amended report with the Federal Elections Commission after having been informed of the illegal contributions, according to his indictment. He did not try to return the illegal contributions until July 2019 when his campaign disgorged them - after his interviews with FBI investigators - his indictment notes.

Furthermore, Fortenberry allegedly continued to ask the individual to host another fundraiser, the indictment stated.

In a video posted to YouTube on Oct. 18 before the indictment was announced, Fortenberry said he let the FBI investigators into his house at the 2019 meetings and spoke with them to cooperate with them.

“We thought we were trying to help,” he said.

Chagoury illegally contributed a total of $180,000 to four federal campaigns, including Fortenberry’s, during the 2012, 2014, and 2016 election cycles. He reached a settlement with federal prosecutors for his actions in March 2021, agreeing to pay $1.8 million.

According to an analysis of court records by the website OpenSecrets, the illegal contributions listed in Chagoury’s deferred prosecution agreement match those listed in Federal Election Commission records for the joint fundraising committee for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid, as well as to the re-election campaigns of House candidates Lee Terry and Darrell Issa in 2014, and Jeff Fortenberry in 2016. 

Chagoury’s signed statement lists eight contributions to Fortenberry’s campaign dated March 12, 2016, which were reimbursed with his money.

Court records reveal that Chagoury in 2014 expressed an interest in contributing to politicians with whom he shared a “common cause.”

According to his signed statement, he was told by “Individual H” – who served as a conduit for his 2012 contributions to Romney’s re-election – that, by donating to candidates from “less populous states,” his contributions “would be more noticeable” and would thereby result in “increased donor access to the politician.” Chagoury then set about sending the individual money and directing him to donate to two 2014 congressional campaigns. 

According to his signed statement, Chagoury directed “Individual H” to donate $20,000 to a federal campaign in 2014, and the individual then found several other people to donate to the campaign. 

Chagoury and “Individual H” met again “at a conference in Washington, D.C. in September 2014,” where Chagoury suggested that the individual that host a fundraiser for “Candidate C” and contribute $30,000 to the candidate’s fund, which Chagoury would then reimburse for. It is unclear if the conference named in the documents was the In Defense of Christians summit, held from Sept. 9-11 in Washington, D.C. that year.

Chagoury’s statement notes that “Individual H” contributed $30,000 to the “Candidate C Fund” on Sept. 28, 2014.

Abortion is failing women: An interview with Angela Wu Howard

Angela Wu Howard, a legal scholar with Becket, a nonprofit organization that focuses on religious liberty issues. / Courtesy Angela Wu Howard

Denver Newsroom, Oct 25, 2021 / 15:50 pm (CNA).

Part of a continuing series examining the U.S. Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a direct challenge to the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion throughout the United States.

On Dec. 1, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in the abortion case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Many legal experts say the case presents the most momentous test yet of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide. At issue is the constitutionality of Mississippi’s 2018 law banning most abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy.

As with any high-profile Supreme Court case, dozens of amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” briefs have been filed both in support of and in opposition to the Mississippi law.

Angela Wu Howard, a legal scholar who has practiced law in the U.S. and internationally, is one of the signers of an amicus brief supporting Mississippi’s pro-life law. The brief argues that women’s “social, economic, and political opportunities” were already increasing before Roe, and that abortion is not necessary for women’s socioeconomic success. 

The following is a transcript of CNA’s interview with Howard. It has been edited for length and clarity.

CNA: What is your personal and faith background? 

My parents immigrated here [to the U.S.] from Taiwan, and I grew up in Queens, New York, and in the suburbs of New Jersey. I’m a Catholic convert. I became a Christian as an adult and was baptized in the Church of England in Brussels during a year abroad, and then became Catholic about 12 years later.

CNA: How did you come to the place where you are professionally?

I studied modern intellectual history during undergrad and was always interested in the way people think. Eventually, I went to law school, and then I studied European law after getting my J.D. I had a career in international religious freedom law, and then went back to school to get my doctorate in legal philosophy.

CNA: What brought you to the place of signing the amicus brief with the 239 other women?

I work for Becket, which is a nonprofit public interest law firm that defends the religious freedom of people of all faiths. Our clients have included Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Becket filed an amicus in this case focused solely on the religious freedom implications, making the argument that the constitutional structure of Roe and Casey [the landmark 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which affirmed a right to abortion] escalated religious freedom conflicts where there did not need to be any, and urging the Court to replace the Roe framework so that religious freedom needn’t be such a proxy for abortion. 

Separately, I know one of the authors of [women scholars and professionals] brief, Erika Bachiochi. She asked me to sign this brief filed on behalf of women scholars and professionals with terminal degrees. I read it, and I agreed with it, so I signed it in my personal capacity. I don’t think our nation’s laws should be based on a lie, and this brief corrects the record.

CNA: The amicus lays out an argument that, contrary to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, abortion has not facilitated women’s advancement, and in reality has hurt women. Can you explain why you agree with this argument?

Roe and Casey were premised on certain ideas about women in society, and about the necessity of abortion for women's advancement. This brief attacks the faulty premise that women have what the Court in previous cases called a “reliance interest” on the availability of abortion, that abortion supposedly ensured women's capacity to participate equally in the economic and social life of a nation.   

The brief points out that the political scientist whose work is at the heart of this premise — she did not herself claim any causal link between abortion and women's improved economic and social status. In fact, contrary to the way the Court used her work, she specifically said that abortion was actually a result of the changing economic and social status of women, and not the cause. The brief spends quite a lot of time deconstructing that argument and looking at the [48] years since Roe and what has actually happened to women in society and in the workplace. 

Although women in the workforce rose [as abortion increased] in the few years after Roe, in subsequent years, women's status in society and access to economic and social opportunity also continued to rise when abortion levels dipped precipitously. So, there wasn't even a correlation, much less causation. 

The brief also outlines how wide access to abortion, and the assumption that abortion is not only available, but seen as necessary, has actually done damage to women. It severed sex from any idea of a joint future between the man and the woman who have sex, an act that often naturally leads to parenthood, and to children. It also enabled this idea that single parenthood is a woman's choice, and solely the woman's choice, and that it's solely the woman's burden, because she could get an abortion, but she elected not to. It really ties into the feminization of poverty. 

[The brief] very succinctly outlines how abortion has enabled corporate actors, and public, private, and social actors to basically avoid accommodation for women with children, and avoid accommodation needed for the flourishing of the family. The brief points out that the U.S. lags behind almost every other developed country in providing basic workplace accommodations for family, for parenthood, and for paid parental leave.

CNA: What do you think is missing from the mainstream conversation around this topic with regards to what you just shared?

I was not always pro-life, even as a Christian. There was a moment in time when I realized that my position was untenable. I volunteered as a rape crisis counselor and at an overnight homeless shelter, I worked in domestic violence, and I helped to pass the Violence Against Women Act as an intern. My views on abortion have been deeply colored by that work, and, even when I thought that abortion should be legal and was uncertain about what kind of limits should be placed on it, I knew that our society was failing women. 

Now, I have the view that abortion is one of the signs of how badly we are failing women. The vast majority of women who choose abortion choose it for reasons that are entirely within our grasp to address and to ameliorate, and we, as a society, choose not to. The vast majority of women choosing abortion — sometimes multiple times — are doing it for social and economic reasons. Those reasons do not justify the taking of a life, and it's on us to fix them.

When you look at the vast majority of women choosing abortion, what they want is not to have to sacrifice their children. What they want is to have their children and have the emotional, social, and economic means to support and love their children. We’re failing, we are telling them that the only option for advancement is to take the life of their own child. Then, we’re taking a further step to diminish what is actually happening by characterizing the child as a clump of cells, and it’s a scientific lie. 

CNA: We hear a lot about the pro-life position being “anti-science.” How do you respond to that argument and what would you want women to know?

This is a major problem that we're coming up against as a society, that when we talk about anything remotely complex, we immediately go to these tropes and these ad hominem attacks. We're not looking at the facts as they really are. We’re not looking at what women really want. 

Women deserve to know what abortion actually does, the mechanics — many women have no idea how abortion is actually performed. Women deserve to understand the stages of fetal development, that a child can have a heartbeat within weeks, and arms and hands that touch the face within 10 weeks. And they deserve to know that there are alternatives to taking that life, that there are many stable, loving couples that would love to welcome their children in adoption, and that they, themselves, have access to material, psychological, emotional, and social support if they decide to keep the baby. 

That's not what's happening. When they go to Planned Parenthood, they’re not told any of this. They’re only given one option.

And there’s an enormous misunderstanding of what abortion actually is, what constitutes abortion. Doctors have always had a duty to save both lives, to save the lives of both mother and child, and when a child is lost in that process, that’s what moral theologians call double effect — a grievous harm that results from pursuing a good end. It’s not abortion; it’s not the intentional taking of an innocent human life.  

So, I think that this idea that pro-lifers are unscientific and don’t understand the science is frankly, really ironic, because it is often people who are for unfettered abortion that seem not to understand the stages of fetal development or what abortion actually is. 

CNA: You mentioned that you were not always pro-life. How did your perspective change?

I had always thought that abortion would be, for any woman, an incredibly difficult choice, and I still believe that. In an age where women are “shouting their abortion,” I still hope that it is a difficult decision. But, underlying that idea was something that I didn't want to think about, which is why

Because of the background I had had working with women in very painful circumstances, I always thought it just doesn't seem right to force a woman to carry a child to term. It seemed like such a physical burden. So, I thought I was just going to remain pro-choice while doing everything I could to support women in other ways, by making it possible for her not to have to choose abortion. 

I found myself doing all of this work, but I remember sitting in the office of a particular Dominican priest before I became Catholic and this topic came up. I remember stating my position, and he kind of sussed out that I did think a human life was at stake, and that I didn't, at that point, believe that it was just a clump of cells. I believed, both from a faith perspective and what I had learned in biology — things like that the baby's DNA is completely there from the beginning, that it was a human life at stake.

But I felt I could not impose that burden on another woman. It is very common that a lot of women say, ‘Well, I would never choose the abortion, but how can I make somebody else not choose it?’ 

The priest said to me, “What if there was a particular class of persons, of human persons, and you never saw them or heard from them, and perhaps they pose some sort of a burden on others, and you found out that they were systematically being eliminated. Is there any other class of human beings where you would think this could be justified?” 

I couldn't say “Yes” to that. It was a very defining moment where I thought, “I can't defend this anymore.” 

CNA: Was there anything else that convicted you to be pro-life moving forward?

When I had my first child. Pregnancy is really beautiful, and it can be quite difficult. You are carrying a child, and your body is in full participation in creating this other life. I remember thinking when I was pregnant that I had so much more sympathy for women who found themselves unexpectedly pregnant, for women who were afraid. 

Angela Wu Howard with her family in Alexandria, Virginia. The legal scholar cites her experience having her first child as a major turning point in her becoming strongly pro-life. Photo by Erin Donner.
Angela Wu Howard with her family in Alexandria, Virginia. The legal scholar cites her experience having her first child as a major turning point in her becoming strongly pro-life. Photo by Erin Donner.

I also became so much more passionate about defending the unborn because I knew that this was a life, I knew this was a vulnerable human being that I had a sacred duty to protect, even though it required sacrifice on my part. I grew in my empathy for women who find themselves in difficult or painful situations, and also in my empathy for unborn children, for the life that they carry and how much we, as a society, not just women alone, owe to them. 

CNA: What are your hopes for the future of the pro-life movement?

Whether or not Dobbs succeeds, and regardless of what happens at the legislative level, if that's where abortion law goes, I think the pro-life movement has a duty to women, to children, to fathers, and to families to create a pro-life culture, a whole life culture. That means providing the circumstances where families can flourish, and where human dignity is respected in all aspects of life. I think the movement as a whole can do a great deal better in actively presenting women with alternatives to abortion, and we can do that regardless of whether or not abortion is illegal. 

In every city we lived in, we have, in our small way, supported or volunteered with pro-life ministries that help pregnant women and mothers, long after birth. There are always so many women who need help — they want to keep their babies — and these crisis pregnancy centers and homes are amazing, but they are always underfunded. 

This emphasis on material and spiritual support does not diminish the legal case for limiting or banning abortion, because there is something really critical at stake there, and that is the inherent value of every human life, an accurate understanding of the science of life, and our willingness as a society to sacrifice for the vulnerable. But the principles that you see at stake in Dobbs and in all of these abortion cases bleed over into many areas of life that people who are not particularly concerned about abortion should be and are concerned about. I would think that even if you are not pro-life, you would want to help women keep their babies.

Religious actors, in particular, should do all the more to present women with viable alternatives. There should be publicly and privately funded alternatives for women in every city in America.

There’s another aspect to our witness, too, which we talked about earlier — creating a society that welcomes and supports families. Seamus Hasson, the founder of Becket, is deeply Catholic and has seven children. He set out to create a workplace where families could flourish, where he wouldn’t lose lawyers as soon as they had families to support. We have great maternity and paternity leave. Part-time and remote work has always been common for at least a season. 

I am consistently impressed by what a non-issue parenthood and being a mother is in the quality of work produced. The firm searches for excellence, and has largely eliminated lifestyle barriers such that parents, and mothers in particular, can continue to be within the field of consideration.

The pro-life movement needs to be the leader in supporting people who come with relationships, families, obligations. Your job is not just supporting you and your ambitions, it’s supporting you as a whole human being. It can be a real witness in the pro-life movement to say, You do not have to leave your children behind to be successful here.

CNA: If somebody was considering an abortion and was talking with you about it today, what would you say to them?

I would ask for her story. I would want her to feel seen and heard. I would hope that she knows how deeply loved and valued she is as a human being, and I would want her to know that she is strong enough to choose life. 

There are people waiting to be there for her, whether she chooses adoption or chooses to rear the baby on her own. There are people who want to help. She doesn’t have to sacrifice her children in order to flourish in life.

US bishops warn against ‘extreme’ abortion provisions in budget bills

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, chair of the USCCB religious liberty committee / Catholic News Agency

Washington D.C., Oct 25, 2021 / 15:02 pm (CNA).

Spending bills introduced last week in the U.S. Senate would force employers and insurers to cover and pay for abortion, and do not include longtime protections for conscience rights, the U.S. bishops’ conference warned on Friday.  

"The bills released by the Senate Appropriations chairman this week represent a radical departure from the will of the American people and the principle of justice for all,” said a statement released Friday, Oct. 22 by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas. 

Dolan leads the U.S. bishops’ religious liberty committee, while Nauman is the chairman of the conference’s pro-life committee. 

“By proposing to eliminate the Hyde and Weldon Amendments, among other longstanding, bipartisan pro-life provisions, the Senate is staking out an extreme position of forcing taxpayers to pray for the taking of innocent unborn human life and forcing health care providers to participate in this injustice,” they said. 

The Hyde amendment prohibits the use of federal dollars to pay for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. The Weldon amendment bars federal agencies, programs, state governments, and local governments from receiving federal money if they discriminate against health care entities that do not provide, pay for, cover, or refer for abortions. 

Each of these amendments is typically included each year in the appropriations bills that apportion funding for the Department of Health and Human Services. Neither policy is included in this year’s appropriations bill, the text of which was released on Tuesday, Oct. 19. 

While the bills contain “many life-affirming provisions that help vulnerable people, including pregnant moms, refugees, low-income families, and the elderly,” Dolan and Naumann said that this level of concern “must also extend to our vulnerable brothers and sisters in the womb.” 

“We reiterate the fact that funding the destruction of innocent unborn human lives, and forcing people to participate, are grave abuses of human rights,” they said. “We call on the Senate to prevent this injustice by passing appropriations bills that fully support and protect human dignity and the most vulnerable among us.” 

The House in July passed appropriations bills without the Hyde and Weldon amendments included. If the final version of the appropriations bill excludes the Hyde amendment, it would mark the first time in decades that the federal budget allowed funding of abortion in Medicaid.

Human rights begin in the womb, Cardinal Dolan says

Cardinal Timothy Dolan. / Stephen Driscoll/CNA

New York City, N.Y., Oct 23, 2021 / 14:45 pm (CNA).

The first step to ending all forms of violence in society— whether related to crime, racism, or poverty— is ending the violence of abortion, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York wrote in an Oct. 20 column. 

“I propose [violence] will not end until we stop the presumed untouchable radical abortion license that seems to have captivated a segment of our society,” Dolan wrote in his Catholic New York column.

“As Mother Teresa wrote, ‘We must not be surprised when we hear of murder, of killings, of wars, of hatred. If a mother can kill her own child, what is left for us but to kill each other?’”

In a politically and culturally divided society, the one thing that seems to unite all sides, Dolan wrote, “is the worry that our world has lost a basic respect for life.”

Dolan cited several compelling examples of lamentable treatment of human life, including the plight of millions of destitute refugees and migrants; the recent horrific scenes during the American withdrawal from Afghanistan; disregard by some for vulnerable lives during the coronavirus pandemic; violent crime, including the murder of George Floyd; the rise in suicides, especially among the young; and the frequent spectre, in so many places, of mass shootings. 

These examples, he wrote, show how “human life is now treated as useless, worthless, disposable.” He cited Pope Francis’ words on the subject, that such things are part of a “throwaway-culture.”

Dolan argued that laws allowing for the killing and dismemberment of innocent babies in the womb send a powerful anti-life message that threatens everyone. 

“Think about it: if the fragile life of an innocent baby in the womb of her/his mother— which nature protects as the safest place anywhere—can be terminated, who is secure?” Dolan wrote.

“If conveniences, ‘choices,’ or ‘my rights’ can trump the life of the baby in the womb, what human life is unthreatened?...When the law allows vulnerable life to be destroyed, forces health care workers to do it against their consciences, and demands that our tax money subsidize it, what message are we giving about the dignity of the human person and the sacredness of life?”

Dolan noted Robert F. Kennedy’s observation that “the health and moral fiber of society is gauged by the way we protect the most helpless and vulnerable.” 

“Who is more fragile and unable to defend herself/himself than the tiny infant in the womb?” he asked. 

“To suck that baby out of the womb, dismember it, or poison it is, as Pope Francis describes, like hiring a ‘hitman’ to assassinate a victim.”

Dolan urged all men and women, with faith or without, to speak up for the “defenseless” unborn babies and to denounce the “right” to abortion as “inhumane, violent, and contrary to human rights.”