WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court's June 28 decision upholding the health reform law makes it even more urgent for Congress to act to fix the law's "fundamental flaws" on abortion funding, conscience protection and immigrants' access to health care, the U.S. bishops said.

The court found that although the individual mandate in the 2010 health reform law does not pass constitutional muster under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, it can be upheld as an acceptable exercise of Congress' taxing powers.

Published in International

WASHINGTON - Federal funding for foreign poverty-focused development and humanitarian aid programs must be preserved as Congress continues debating the fiscal year 2013 budget, said officials from two church agencies.

In particular, officials from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services called for support of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, because of high levels of success in the prevention and treatment of AIDS around the world under the program.

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ATLANTA - The Year of Faith set to begin in October will give Catholics the chance to experience a "conversion" by turning back to Jesus and entering into a deeper relationship with him, the chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis said June 13.

Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Wis., told the spring meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that the 2012-13 observance stems from Pope Benedict XVI's call for a new evangelization and will incorporate television, radio, social media and numerous online resources to better connect -- or reconnect -- Catholics with their faith.

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ROME - Celebrating Mass in Pope Benedict XVI's cathedral, Rome's Basilica of St. John Lateran, a group of U.S. bishops prayed for the Pope and reflected on what they need to do to respond to his call for a new evangelization.

Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs was the homilist and principal celebrant of an evening Mass May 3 during the "ad limina" visit of bishops from Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming.

On the eve of the bishops' meeting with Pope Benedict, Bishop Sheridan led his fellow bishops in a reflection on the Pope's insistence that strengthening the faith of Catholics, reviving the faith of those who have fallen away and sharing the Gospel with others means they must preach that Jesus is the son of God and continues to live in the church and the Eucharist.

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WASHINGTON - The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has appealed a federal judge's ruling that the Constitution forbids religious accommodation in the delivery of services under a federal contract.

The appeal challenges the decision of District Court Judge Richard Stearns, who said in a March 23 ruling that the Department of Health and Human Services violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution in delegating to the bishops' conference the decision on which services to offer or not offer to foreign-born victims of human trafficking under a federal contract.

Published in International

The right of religious freedom means much more than merely being allowed to hold faith beliefs and go to church. Those are essential, of course, but a society that truly endorses religious freedom goes further. It also allows citizens to outwardly live their faith through the public activities they take up and, equally important, through those their conscience informs them to avoid.

In defence of that traditional understanding of religious freedom, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a bold statement four days after Easter. Titled “Our first, most cherished liberty,” the 12-page document is a manifesto for religious freedom that is blunt, provocative, timely, commendable — and worthy of export beyond American borders. Canadians should take note.

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WASHINGTON - While Iran's secret nuclear program has raised serious questions about that country's intentions, a military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would not be justified under Catholic teaching in the eyes of the U.S. bishops and other Catholic leaders.

Further, any attack on Iran by Israel or the U.S. would greatly destabilize an already volatile Middle East, setting the stage for retaliatory military strikes that would place innocent civilians at risk and serve little more than to lead to an expanded arms race in the region, several Catholic observers told Catholic News Service.

The concern lies in what is seen as a preventive attack meant to stop Iran from furthering its nuclear program, which Iranian officials claim is for peaceful purposes.

Such a preventive attack -- as opposed to a pre-emptive strike meant to head off an imminent attack under just-war principles -- also poses moral questions because Iran's research is legal under international agreements and to date falls within the limits set by the Non-Proliferation Treaty regarding the development of nuclear weapons, the Catholic observers said.

"The problem with preventive war is that it lowers the barrier to war too low," explained Stephen Colecchi, director of the bishops' Office of International Justice and Peace.

"Using military action for a vague and gathering threat is very different than using military force in the face of an immediate threat," he said.

In February, reports surfaced that Israel was nearing a military attack on Iran in an effort to knock out some of Iran's key research and military facilities. While the rhetoric has quieted in recent weeks, reports continue to surface that the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu considers an attack necessary.

President Barack Obama reportedly has worked to deter any such strike in the hope that economic sanctions and world pressure might force Iran to scale back its nuclear program, become more transparent about its intentions and allow wider access to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

Acknowledging the tensions in a March 2 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on behalf of the bishops, Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, cautioned against any military action.

"Discussing or promoting military options at this time is unwise and may be counterproductive," wrote Bishop Pates, who chairs the bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace. "Actual or threatened military strikes are likely to strengthen the regime in power in Iran and would further marginalize those in Iran who want to abide by international norms."

What observers such as Gerard Powers of the University of Notre Dame, theologian Franciscan Father Kenneth Himes and longtime peace advocate Marie Dennis propose is a measured approach that relies on diplomacy on the road to a solution.

They point to the 2003 preventive attack on Iraq by the U.S. and its allies based on what today is widely considered erroneous information that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had harbored an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. No weapons were ever found in Iraq and the end result is that after more than eight years of occupation the country remains highly unstable with various religious and political factions maneuvering for power and control.

"If you go down that road it blurs that fundamental distinction between legitimate defense and aggression," said Powers, director of policy of studies at Notre Dame's Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. "It would make a turbulent and unstable Middle East even more so.

"It would be inconsistent with moral certainty that is required before you use military force because it is often speculative about what might happen in the future. In the end it is an endorsement of a notion that might makes right," Powers said.

Father Himes, associate professor of theological ethics at Boston College, agreed with the U.S. bishops' that any attack on Iran under current circumstances constitutes a lowering of the threshold for war.

"Given the state of the devastation of war, we should be raising the bar for going to war," he told CNS.

He also sees Iran possibly acting through its proxies -- Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon -- in mounting attacks on civilian targets in southern and northern Israel, respectively.

Father Himes said he would welcome direct negotiations between American and Iranian delegations. Doing so would give Iran a level of respect it seeks in the international community, he said.

Despite the secrecy surrounding Iran's nuclear program, Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International, said she is concerned that any attack will hasten the expansion of an arms race in the region. Some countries likely seek nuclear weapons contrary to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

She called for the U.S. lead the effort to make the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone.

"Pax Christi feels very strongly that the danger of Israel will be exacerbated by preventive war on Iran," she said. "The best way to provide for security for Israel, which it has a right to expect like Iran, is by eliminating the possession of nuclear weapons so that we ratchet down this kind of threat and that we work for greater regional and global understanding."

The church also can play a role to reducing the threat in the region.

"We can -- the U.S. church and Catholic churches in other nuclear weapons possessing states -- take the lead and be really serious about the consequences of continuing reliance on nuclear weapons," Dennis said. "We've never moved as a church to a place where we as a pastoral imperative challenged the engagement of Catholic people in nuclear weapons production and the strategies of using nuclear weapons.

"We could help move with other Christian and other religious traditions to be clearer about what does it mean in terms of moral decision-making for individuals, for companies and for our government if having nuclear weapons is considered a grave sin," she said.

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WASHINGTON - American Catholics must resist unjust laws "as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith," a committee of the U.S. bishops said in a new statement on religious liberty.

Titled "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty," the 12-page statement by the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty also calls for "a fortnight for freedom" from June 21, the vigil of the feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, to July 4, U.S. Independence Day.

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WASHINGTON - Just in time for Mother's Day, U.S. Catholics parishes will be able to celebrate the new Rite for the Blessing of a Child in the Womb.

The Vatican has given its approval to publication in English and Spanish of the new rite, which was approved by the U.S. bishops in November 2008, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced March 26.

The blessing will be printed in both languages in a combined booklet.

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WASHINGTON - U.S. church leaders pledged to redouble efforts to support religious freedom after the Senate voted to table the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act March 1.

Introduced as an amendment to a highway funding bill, the bill was tabled by a 51-48 vote, effectively killing it.

Known as the Blunt amendment, so-named because its chief sponsor was Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the bill was defeated largely along party lines. It drew the support of three Democratic senators, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine was the lone Republican to vote against the measure.

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WASHINGTON - In an move that appears unlikely to end the controversy over a federal mandate that all health insurance plans include contraception and sterilization free of charge, President Barack Obama outlined a plan that would allow religious employers not to offer such services to their employees but would compel insurance companies to do so.

The president announced the policy in a brief statement Feb. 10 but took no questions.

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It’s rare that a bishop indicates publicly how he intends to vote. But recent events provoked just such a response in the United States.

President Barack Obama announced on Jan. 20 that his health care plan would require all employers to purchase health insurance for their employees which would cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. While churches with a moral objection would be exempt, universities and hospitals would not be. The upshot would be that Catholic institutions would be forced to purchase products directly contrary to the dictates of a conscience properly formed by the teaching of the Church.

Published in Fr. Raymond de Souza

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI warned visiting U.S. bishops that "radical secularism" threatens the core values of American culture, and he called on the church in America, including politicians and other laypeople, to render "public moral witness" on crucial social issues.

The Pope spoke Jan. 19 to a group of U.S. bishops who were in Rome for their periodic "ad limina" visits, which included meetings with the Pope and Vatican officials, covering a wide range of pastoral matters.

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