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How a new Utah law is promoting marriage prep classes

Salt Lake City, Utah, Apr 20, 2018 / 12:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Utah is encouraging its citizens to better prepare for marriage by discounting the cost of marriage licenses for couples who complete marriage preparation classes.  

The law, signed March 20 by Utah Governor Gary Herbert, will discount marriage licenses by $20 for couples who complete at least three hours of premarital counseling or six hours of premarital classes at least 14 days before applying for a marriage license. These services may be provided by either religious or secular organizations.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Senator Allen Christensen, said it is an effort to counter the high divorce rate.

“Typically, in Utah, we have 25,000 marriages a year. About 10,000 of those are going to end up in divorce,” he said, according to the Brigham Young University student publication.

The co-chair of the Utah Marriage Commission, Alan Hawkins, said the premarital services ought to address marital commitment, the factors within successful marriages, and communication skills.

In a blog post on the Institute for Family Studies, Hawkins emphasized the importance that these premarital services have on lasting marriages.

“A substantial body of research has shown that premarital education can help newlywed couples get off to a stronger start and reduce the risk of divorce in the early, high-risk years of marriage,” he said.

Hawkins said the Utah Marriage Commission is partnering with the state to help spread the word, and encouraged wedding retailers to show support for the bill by matching the $20 discount.

The Commission will initiate a study to determine the success of the project over the next five years, when the law will be up for renewal. Hawkins said the goal of the law is to increase participation in premarital services from its current 30 percent of marrying couples to 50 percent.

Nine other states have created similar laws to promote marital counseling. While the discount is small, Hawkins said, “anecdotal data from other states that have adopted a similar marriage-license-discount policy suggests that lower-income couples are especially responsive to these discounts.”

“Ultimately, however, the discount is less a financial incentive and more a cultural nudge for couples to take seriously the need for marriage preparation.”

 

Vietnamese pastor who was jailed for faith says it was 'God's gift to me'

Washington D.C., Apr 19, 2018 / 04:09 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- After surviving six years of imprisonment and torture, Vietnamese pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh told CNA that prayer sustained him through his physical suffering and pain.

In 2011, the evangelical pastor was charged with “undermining national solidarity” for conducting his Christian ministry with the Montagnard ethnic minority groups that live in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.

Chinh had long been an outspoken critic of the government’s ban on preaching in the region and a pro-democracy advocate.

During his imprisonment, Chinh spent nearly one month in solitary confinement and his health quickly deteriorated. He was denied treatment or access to medication, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), who advocated on his behalf.

Chinh told CNA that he experienced consolation in knowing that his suffering was in imitation of Christ.

"Even though I suffered physical suffering and pain, I felt in my soul happiness,” Chinh told CNA through an English translator at the USCIRF summit April 18.

"I viewed it as God's gift to me,” said Chinh. “It was like what Jesus Christ went through, the same suffering that his disciples experienced, and now I'm going through the same experience. That is how the good news comes out."

Chinh explained his hope that sharing his experience will help increase the faith of other Christians.

Prayerful communion with Christ “gave me courage to survive the prison conditions until the day that I saw freedom,” Chinh explained.

The Vietnamese pastor was released from prison July 28, 2017, about halfway through his 11 year sentence. His release came with the condition that he leave Vietnam, so Chinh currently resides in the U.S.

Several months before his release, Chinh’s wife, Tran Thi Hong, was beaten and interrogated because she met with the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the time, David Saperstein, who was advocating on her husband’s behalf.

At the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom summit, Chinh was the only released prisoner to take part in a panel highlighting the specific cases of prisoners of conscience detained throughout the world. USCIRF is currently advocating for the release of prisoners of conscience in Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, China, Turkey, and Pakistan.

Several other prisoners of conscience were released in 2017, including Maryam Naghash Zargaran, an Iranian Christian convert from Islam who was arrested and imprisoned in 2013.

"Every time you return a prisoner of conscience to his family that truly is a victory,” former USCIRF Chair Robert George told CNA.

The USCIRF has actively advocated for Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical pastor incarcerated in Turkey since 2016. His trial in Istanbul this week was attended by Sam Brownback, the current U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Brunson will face another hearing in Turkey May 7.

“Since my release, the government has arrested more prisoners of conscience,” said Chinh on the prisoners of conscience panel.

Although religious freedom has improved in Vietnam since the 1970s, USCIRF still designates the country as a “country of particular concern” due to ongoing violations of religious freedom within the country.

David Adams, the Cross Catholic Outreach vice president for missions, explained the current situation in Vietnam to CNA.

“On the one hand, churches are allowed to operate with some freedom, depending on where they are located, like in the urban areas. But in other areas, like the Central Highlands where Pastor Chin was ministering to in this case a minority, the Montagnards … the government can get quite repressive and forbid any proselytizing or evangelization or even worship,” said Adams.

Cross Catholic Outreach actively supports Catholic ministries in Vietnam, with an emphasis on potable water, medical aid, and educating young people in the faith.

"Even in the most repressive societies, we have to keep hope alive. There are ways to support freedom, including religious freedom at the grassroots level,” said Adams.

Five things Catholics can do to support international religious liberty

Washington D.C., Apr 19, 2018 / 03:09 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- At the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Summit on Wednesday, Robert George shared five steps Catholics can take to support religious freedom at home and abroad.

“We need to remember we are our brother's keepers,” George, a Princeton professor who has twice served as chairman of the commission, told CNA.

“That is true whether our brother is someone here at home who is being persecuted and discriminated against or whether that person is in the Sudan or in Syria or Iran or in Vietnam or in China or in North Korea,” he continued.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) marked the 20th anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act this year with a summit in Washington, D.C., focusing on the challenges and progress made in the state of religious freedom around the world.

USCIRF is a bipartisan federal commission that monitors global religious freedom violations.

"Whenever I speak about international religious freedom across the country, people always ask me what they can do to help. I always tell them first, to pray,” said current USCIRF Chairman Daniel Mark in his closing remarks at the summit April 18.

“First, pray … I want to second that motion,” George told CNA. The first step Catholics must take to address violations of religious freedom is prayer.

“Make your voice heard,” George pointed to as the second way to aid the cause of religious freedom. “Make clear to your elected representatives that religious freedom is a priority to you – domestic religious freedom and international religious freedom.”

“Third, there are wonderful organizations, including some that are Catholic, that deserve our financial support. People ask, ‘What can I do with my charitable giving? I'm not a millionaire. I don't have a lot of money, but I want to give back. I want to thank God for my blessings. I want to help others,’” said George, “I hope that some people think about religious freedom as a cause to support.’

Fourth, “educate yourself and then talk about these issues to people in your parish, people in your family, people in your community,” said George, “We now have the internet. Anybody can learn about religious freedom issues. Go to the USCIRF website.”

Finally, George recommends that religious leaders and communities work together for their shared values. He encourages leaders across historic, theological, and religious divides to communicate and to work together to make a positive impact on civil society.

Former USCIRF chairs Katrina Lantos Swett, Leonard Leo, and David Saperstein spoke on a panel along with George about the current state of international religious freedom.

The panel discussed current threats to religious freedom posed by non-state actors abroad,  such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and al-Shabaab. The mistreatment of Rohingya Muslims in Burma and the Uyghurs in China were also highlighted.

“While we focus on extinguishing the flames of sectarian conflict and oppression in countries like these, we cannot ignore the less-physical deeply religious freedom violations in our own backyard,” said Leonard Leo, who served as the USCIRF chair from 2009 - 2012.

“To maintain our standing in the world as a beacon against oppression, we also must put our own house in order by addressing subtler forms of coercion,” continued Leo.

George told CNA after the panel that the U.S. currently faces serious religious freedom challenges.

“Catholics now are in many cases victims of discrimination from the forces of secular progressiveness in our own country,” said George. “You see efforts to try to coerce Catholics and other pro-life physicians into performing abortions or to shut-down Catholic adoption agencies because they insist on places children with a mom and a dad. Or closing Catholic hospitals because they won't perform abortions. These are serious violations of conscience.”

The current USCIRF chairman, Daniel Mark, is a political science professor at Villanova University. Mark told CNA he is encouraged that the world is “increasingly coming to understand the critical role that religious freedom plays in peace, stability, and prosperity.”

“It is such a foundational freedom,” said Mark. “We see that religious freedom, perhaps more than anything else, is the right that people are most willing to suffer and die for.”

He continued, “There is always the argument that we need to start with democracy and then build toward human rights. We've seen some cases, like Burma, where that hasn't really worked. Maybe it turns out that the direction is the other way … that we need to start by pushing in these countries the core human rights, and from there, the right kind of culture and the right kind of governance will develop.”

Appeals court blocks Ohio law defunding Planned Parenthood

Cincinnati, Ohio, Apr 19, 2018 / 02:07 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- An Ohio law which blocked federal taxpayer funding to Planned Parenthood clinics in the state was struck down by a federal appeals court on Wednesday.

The law, which was signed by Governor John Kasich in 2016, prohibited federal taxpayer money from going to clinics that perform abortions in the state of Ohio. That money, about $1.5 million, would be reallocated to organizations that do not perform abortions.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit unanimously overturned the Ohio law on April 18, saying that it overstepped Planned Parenthood’s “due process rights,” since Planned Parenthood would allegedly be using funds from six federal health programs for preventative health measures that are unrelated to abortion.

One of the panel judges, U.S. Circuit Judge Helene White, said that Planned Parenthood was simply claiming the “right not to be penalized in the administration of government programs based on protected activity outside the programs,” according to Reuters.  

White was joined by two other judges: Eugene E. Siler Jr. and Eric Clay.

However, the state of Ohio argues that Planned Parenthood is seeking “a constitutional guarantee to public funding – a guarantee that forces Ohio, against its own judgment, to give public money to large abortion providers. The Constitution contains no such guarantee.”

Last year, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a regulation allowing states to choose whether to give federal funding to health clinics that perform abortions. Shortly before leaving office, former President Barack Obama’s HHS Department had issued a rule prohibiting states from denying funding on the grounds of a facility performing abortions.

A spokesman for the Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine, who defended the lawsuit in court, said they were reviewing the ruling to see if they should pursue further appellate review, Reuters reports.

The Ohio law was originally passed in February 2016 after a series of undercover videos were released the previous year, appearing to show Planned Parenthood engaging in misconduct, including the illegal sale of aborted baby tissue.

Kasich, has signed the original law, has also introduced other pro-life legislation in Ohio, including a 20-week abortion ban and a prohibition of abortions due to a Down syndrome diagnosis within the state.

 

Catholic communicators urge greater respect in public discourse

Vatican City, Apr 19, 2018 / 12:42 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- This week, Catholic communicators gathered in Rome to discuss the need for more respectful dialogue in the public sphere, saying that fake news and polemics must be overcome with truth, mercy and openness.

When it comes to modern day public discourse, Irish Archbishop Eamon Martin said, “we have to be aware of our language, because nowadays people switch off, they don't hear, and we cannot get the Gospel message out simply condemning everyone who lives their lives contrary to what we believe in.”

Now more than ever when emotions are high, polemics are strong, and digital communication is increasingly more impersonal, mutual respect is needed in order to effectively communicate with those we don't agree with, both within the Church, and outside of it, he said.

This is also true “in the kind of culture wars which we are engaging in sometimes even within the Church; they simply drown out any opportunity for people to make that personal commitment to Christ, which is really what the Gospel is about.”

“This is a challenge for us within the Church, and it's exemplified by blogs countering blogs, Twitter countering Twitter, where everyone is shouting and absolutely no one is hearing anything.”

The remedy, Martin said, is to focus, in every exchange, on communicating the fact that “God loves you, he loves you personally, he's calling you to conversion in your own personal life story.”

Archbishop Martin spoke on the first day of an April 17-19 conference for Catholic communicators in Rome. Co-organized by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and EWTN, the three-day seminar was dedicated to the theme of “Dialogue, Respect and Freedom of Expression in the Public Arena.”

Speakers and panelists included media representatives and experts from around the world who touched on issues such as polarization, fake news, defamation and how to promote values through the media.

Michael Warsaw, Chairman of the Board and CEO of EWTN Global Catholic Network, gave a keynote speech on fake news and the responsibility of journalists on the final day of the conference.

Warsaw pointed to a recent example of a fake story that gained a lot of steam during the U.S. presidential election of 2016.

During the campaign season, a fake news site published an article titled “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement,” which gained more than 100,000 comments, shares, and reactions on Facebook alone, and nearly 1 million Facebook engagements, making it “the single biggest fake news hit of the U.S. Election.”

Shortly after, another fake news article appeared saying Pope Francis had endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, he said, noting that it is thanks to articles like this that modern society has come to be known as the “post-truth” or “post-fact” world.

Warsaw cited various studies showing that consumers of fake news are no small minority, and, quoting the pope, said that because of this, journalists in particular are called to be “the protectors of news.”

“Pope Francis, in his 2018 message, rightly condemns that 'spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions, and serve economic interests,'...But, the challenges facing journalism and the public at large today go deeper than the 'fake news' phenomenon,” he said.

Rather, the real crux of the matter is growing general distrust of media, as well as a loss of trust in data, analysis, and objective facts, he said.

Because of this, those who work in social communications must be offered ongoing formation, both spiritual and professional, so that both individual journalists and media outlets “become more trusted by the public, and are seen as objective and reliable.”

Quoting Pope Francis' message for the World Day of Social Communications, Warsaw said the most “radical antidote” to the phenomenon of fake news is “purification by the truth.”

“As Catholic communicators and media, we are called to do our part to be truth tellers,” he said, and “we must take heart in knowing that we are not the first Catholics to live in a 'post truth' era.”

In his comments to CNA, Archbishop Martin stressed the importance of fostering an environment where true and honest dialogue can take place, and where media can help “engage in a culture of encounter.”

“We meet people where they are at, some of whom are completely against what we stand for, others who are open to conversation,” he said, explaining that when things get heated, “pacifying” one's tone is a good place to start in terms of having a fruitful exchange.

“I think this conference has courageously opened up a sort of middle-ground where we can engage in a type of court of the gentiles, where we enter that space in which there are some people who are diametrically opposed to what we stand for.”

And this, the archbishop said, can only happen “out of respect, and it can only happen when there is a culture of freedom to speak.”

For those involved in communication, “we can only hope that with the help of the Holy Spirit and by the grace of God, that we can invite people, that we can win them for Christ, by our witness, by our example, and by the strength and courage of our message.”