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Utah bans transgender surgery for minors, places hold on hormone drugs

null / Image credit: ADragan/Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jan 31, 2023 / 11:50 am (CNA).

Transgender surgery for minors is now prohibited in Utah and the prescription of transgender medicine for minors has temporarily been placed on hold under new legislation signed into law by Gov. Spencer Cox.

Under the measure, referred to as Senate Bill 16, doctors in Utah cannot perform surgeries that remove male reproductive organs on boys or female reproductive organs on girls unless the patients are at least 18 years old. They cannot perform surgery to change those organs to make them resemble the organs of the opposite sex. The legislation also prohibits other surgeries, such as the removal of the breasts on girls or chest surgery on boys to make them resemble girls. Facial surgery that is intended to make one’s face appear more similar to the opposite sex will also be prohibited for minors.

The legislation puts a temporary halt on prescribing gender transition drugs to minors, but the moratorium does not outright ban them for good. Instead, it directs the state Department of Health and Human Services to conduct a review of these medicines and provide recommendations to the Legislature. At that point, lawmakers will decide whether they want to make the prohibition permanent or lift it. These drugs include puberty blockers as well as estrogen used to feminize a boy or testosterone used to masculinize a girl.

The bill includes exemptions for individuals who are born intersex, such as those whose sex is ambiguous at birth or those born with both male and female body parts. It also includes an exception for surgery or drugs when they are medically necessary and are not done as an attempt to change the child’s gender. 

In a statement after signing the bill, Cox said the legislation was a “nuanced and thoughtful approach to this terribly divisive issue” and any bill “that impacts our most vulnerable youth requires careful consideration and deliberation.”

“We will continue to push the Legislature for additional resources to organizations that work to help this important Utah community,” Cox continued. “While we understand our words will be of little comfort to those who disagree with us, we sincerely hope that we can treat our transgender families with more love and respect as we work to better understand the science and consequences behind these procedures.” 

State Rep. Katy Hall, who sponsored the bill in the House, told CNA that the final bill was the result of several months of conversations with stakeholders on how to best protect the health of children. Sen. Michael Kennedy, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, could not be reached for comment. 

“I am thankful to Sen. Kennedy and many other colleagues in the Utah House of Representatives who stood with me to push back on a radical agenda to perform novel and irreversible transgender surgeries on minors,” Hall said. “We can’t allow social policy to outpace science, especially when the scientific evidence is still emerging and lacking in consensus. I hope we can continue working together to provide our struggling children with the kindness, love, and care they need to grow and thrive.”

Jay Richards, who serves as the director of the DeVos Center for Life, Religion, and Family at The Heritage Foundation, told CNA that the legislation provides “some protection against these ghoulish practices,” but he felt that the bill could have been better. 

“Utah is to be commended for putting the focus where it should be: on the evidence,” Richards said. “The bill is unduly modest, however. After all, there are already good systematic reviews. We know there’s no reliable evidence for the benefits of these treatments, let alone that the long-term benefits outweigh the harms. Therefore, if the Utah health board is honest with the evidence, the state Legislature will have to follow up with a prohibition on these procedures for minors.”

The legislation passed the Senate 21-7 and the House 58-14. Both chambers have a strong Republican majority and the bill was passed nearly along party lines, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats opposing it. 

Four states restricted transgender health care for minors last year, but judges in two of the states — Alabama and Arkansas — blocked those bills from going into effect. Nearly a dozen other states are considering similar legislation this year. Most states do not have any similar restrictions on the books. 

Spanish bishops lament low participation in Synod on Synodality, especially by young people

Materials from the Synodal Final Assembly in Spain. / Credit: Spanish Episcopal Conference

CNA Newsroom, Jan 31, 2023 / 11:30 am (CNA).

The Spanish bishops consider “synodality to be advancing in our Church” although they report low participation, especially among young people, to whom the Church must learn to listen and modulate the way of communicating the Gospel, they say.

The Spanish Bishops’ Conference has presented the Synthesis for the European Continental Stage of the Synod on Synodality, which will be used in preparing the final document to be taken to the Continental Assembly.

The text notes that the diocesan work at this stage “has been short and  participation less” than the previous phase. This is especially true of young people, both “in the synodal process” and “in the life of the Church.”

Despite this and the fact that attitudes of “skepticism, fear, and even rejection” are identified, the bishops’ conference affirms that “synodality is advancing in our Church that is on pilgrimage in Spain.”

The document is divided into three sections, compiling the so-called “intuitions,” the “tensions and divergences,” and the “priorities” for future analysis within the synod.

Regarding “intuitions,” the bishops identify “the positive evaluation of the experience of the journey undertaken up to now” although they admit that there are contrary or at least disinterested attitudes.

The bishops also stress that the synodal process is not “the solution to the problems that the Church has” but “a gift of the Holy Spirit” that requires “continuous personal conversion.”

According to the prelates, the ecclesial consultation “is helping to raise awareness of the common dignity of all the baptized” and to reinforce the idea of a “Church that reaches out in the context of secularization.”

In addition, there is a greater agreement “on the importance of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue,” the appreciation of popular religiosity, and “the fundamental role that family ministry should have.”

Tensions and divergences

The bishops note that “the same existing polarizations in society are found within the Church”: diversity-unity, tradition, and renewal or pyramidal or synodal organization.

Among the impediments to communion, participation, and co-responsibility, identified are “the resistance of the clergy and the passivity of the laity” as well as a strong “tension of clericalism that leads to confusing service with power.”

In addition, the “divergences” about the synod are expressed in the form of mistrust, skepticism, fear, disinterest, confusion, and obstruction.

The synthesis identifies “the difficulty and sometimes the rejection in encountering the diverse, the different.” Specifically mentioned are the poor, marginalized, and people with disabilities or with “various family or affective situations.” 

“The scandal of sexual abuse also produces tension,” and the prelates noted the repeated mention of “the scarce participation of young people in the synodal process and in the life of the Church.”

Faced with this issue, the bishops feel challenged “to learn to listen to them” and to change the way of communicating the Gospel, “which must be creative, understandable, inclusive, and generate intergenerational dialogue.”

The summary document also includes the call for greater liturgical formation and the call to “show the relationship between the liturgy and life” through “a renewal of forms and language.”

Synodal priorities

Finally, the synthesis prepared by the Spanish bishops raises several “specific priorities that must be the object of further discernment in the Synodal Assembly.”

The first is “promoting welcoming in our communities, particularly of those who feel excluded due to their origin, their affective situation, sexual orientation, or other reasons.”

Second is the call to “promote the real and effective co-responsibility of the people of God, overcoming clericalism, which impoverishes our being and mission.”

Recognizing definitively “the role of women in the Church and promoting their full participation and in conditions of equality, at all levels of ecclesial life” constitutes the third priority.

In addition, the bishops point to the integration and participation of young people, making formation more dynamic, promoting “dialogue with the world and culture, with other religious denominations and with nonbelievers.”

Finally, they point out the need to “attend to the liturgy through formation and a greater comprehensibility of its rites and contents.”

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

‘Hands off Africa!’ Pope Francis says in Democratic Republic of Congo

Pope Francis is greeted at the N’Dolo Airport in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Jan. 31, 2023. / Credit: Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Jan 31, 2023 / 11:11 am (CNA).

In his first speech in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Tuesday, Pope Francis urged the international community to give the central African country its autonomy while not turning a blind eye to exploitation and violence.

“This country and this continent deserve to be respected and listened to; they deserve to find space and receive attention,” the pope said Jan. 31 in the garden of the Palais de la Nation in Kinshasa.

“Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo!” he continued, as spectators cheered and applauded. “Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa: Africa is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered.”

Pope Francis speaks at an audience with the Democratic Republic of Congo's authorities, diplomats, and representatives of civil society in the  on Jan. 31, 2023, on the first leg of a six-day trip that will also include South Sudan. At right is President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Vatican Media
Pope Francis speaks at an audience with the Democratic Republic of Congo's authorities, diplomats, and representatives of civil society in the on Jan. 31, 2023, on the first leg of a six-day trip that will also include South Sudan. At right is President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Vatican Media

Pope Francis landed in Kinshasa, the capital city of the DRC, in the afternoon on Jan. 31; the visit is the first leg of a six-day trip that will also include South Sudan.

The streets of the pope’s five-mile drive from the N’Dolo Airport to the presidential residence were lined with thousands of locals who cheered and waved flags.

Francis met privately with President Felix Tshisekedi before an audience with the country’s authorities, diplomats, and representatives of civil society.

Pope Francis meets with President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo on Jan. 31, 2023, on the first leg of a six-day trip that will also include South Sudan. Credit: Vatican Media
Pope Francis meets with President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo on Jan. 31, 2023, on the first leg of a six-day trip that will also include South Sudan. Credit: Vatican Media

“May Africa be the protagonist of its own destiny!” the pope said. “May the world acknowledge the catastrophic things that were done over the centuries to the detriment of the local peoples, and not forget this country and this continent.”

The pope continued, “We cannot grow accustomed to the bloodshed that has marked this country for decades, causing millions of deaths that remain mostly unknown elsewhere.”

Pope Francis’ speech noted the DRC’s endurance of political exploitation, what he called “economic colonialism,” child labor, and violence.

“This country, so immense and full of life, this diaphragm of Africa, struck by violence like a blow to the stomach, has seemed for some time to be gasping for breath,” he said.

“As you, the Congolese people, fight to preserve your dignity and your territorial integrity against deplorable attempts to fragment the country, I come to you, in the name of Jesus, as a pilgrim of reconciliation and of peace,” the pope said.

“I have greatly desired to be here and now at last I have come to bring you the closeness, the affection, and the consolation of the entire Catholic Church.”

Violence in eastern DRC has created a severe humanitarian crisis with more than 5.5 million people displaced from their homes, the third-highest number of internally displaced people in the world.

Pope Francis is scheduled to meet with victims of violence from the eastern part of the country on Feb. 1 in Kinshasa following a Mass that is expected to draw 2 million people. Roughly half of the 90 million people in the DRC are Catholic.

Pope Francis arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Jan. 31, 2023. The streets of the pope’s five-mile drive from the N’Dolo Airport to the presidential residence were lined with thousands of locals who cheered and waved flags. Credit: Vatican Media
Pope Francis arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Jan. 31, 2023. The streets of the pope’s five-mile drive from the N’Dolo Airport to the presidential residence were lined with thousands of locals who cheered and waved flags. Credit: Vatican Media

“I am here to embrace you and to remind you that you yourselves are of inestimable worth, that the Church and the pope have confidence in you, and that they believe in your future, the future that is in your hands, your hands,” Francis emphasized, “and for which you deserve to devote all your gifts of intelligence, wisdom, and industry.”

The pope added: “The heavenly Father wants us to accept one another as brothers and sisters of a single family and to work for a future together with others, and not against others.”

God, he said, “is always on the side of those who hunger and thirst for justice. One must never tire of promoting law and equity everywhere, combating impunity and the manipulation of laws and information.”

Minnesota Senate sends far-reaching abortion bill to governor’s desk

The Cathedral of Saint Paul in Saint Paul, Minnesota. / Sam Wagner/Shutterstock.

St. Louis, Mo., Jan 31, 2023 / 09:40 am (CNA).

The state Senate of Minnesota on Saturday morning narrowly passed a bill that would allow abortions in the state throughout pregnancy and for any reason. The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, who has said that he will sign it into law.

Catholic leaders had strongly denounced the bill, proposing instead a slate of pro-family measures that they say will reduce demand for abortions in the midwestern state.

Known as the Protect Reproductive Options (PRO) Act, H.F. 1/S.F. 1 would codify into law a constitutional right to “reproductive freedom,” ensuring the right to abortion in Minnesota up to birth for any reason. Separate bills under consideration in Minnesota would remove parental notification requirements for minors procuring abortions as well as remove state protections for babies born alive after an abortion.

The bill had cleared the Minnesota House on Jan. 19, also by a narrow margin, 69-65. The party-line vote in the state Senate took place following 15 hours of contentious debate, MPR News reported. The controversy among Minnesota lawmakers is reminiscent of the fight over a similar bill in Colorado last year; that bill, which passed in Colorado, spawned two marathon debates, one lasting 23 hours — the longest such hearing in at least 25 years of Colorado history.

Abortion already is available in Minnesota throughout pregnancy for most reasons because of a 1995 state Supreme Court ruling, Doe v. Gomez, which found that certain abortion restrictions infringed on a “fundamental right of privacy” found in the state constitution.

The state’s Catholic leaders lamented the haste with which the bill is advancing and implored lawmakers to “pause” and consider the broader implications.

“When contemplating policy on any issue, we must consider all those who will be affected. In this case, that includes the mother, father, and most especially, the unborn child whose life is being taken,” Minnesota’s bishops said in a Jan. 26 statement.

“In a post-Dobbs world in which states that allow abortion have the responsibility to both regulate the practice and protect nascent human life, we should be working to find common ground on the challenges before us in Minnesota. We stand firm that every child should be welcomed in life and protected by law.”

The bishops’ concerns about H.F. 1/S.F. 1 go beyond abortion, however. They warned that an enshrining of “reproductive freedom” in the state could open the door to additional unintended consequences, including the ability of minor children to undergo sex-transition therapies and sterilization without parental consent. Also of concern is the potential infringement on the conscience and religious liberty rights of individual and institutional medical providers who do not wish to provide these treatments, the bishops said.

The Catholic leaders offered suggestions for legislative priorities that they said would help to offer support to mothers in need, reducing the demand for abortion. They noted that the Minnesota Catholic Conference has compiled a set of pro-family policy proposals at a dedicated website under the banner of a project called Families First.

Summarizing their proposals, “this support means, among other things, policies that fund: nutritional aid for expectant mothers; health care coverage during and after pregnancy for both mother and child; child care assistance; and adequate housing. Enacting reasonable paid family and caregiver leave laws would help people retain work and care for their newborns. Reconsidering whether our adoption policies are unreasonably burdened by excessive costs or barriers to participation is also an imperative,” the bishops said.

“We also contend that there is a social duty to remove unnecessary barriers to contracting marriage, having children, and being able to raise them well. By raising the family to the top of our state’s policy priorities, we can help restore the family to its proper position as the foundational building block of society where children best flourish.”

Minnesota is the latest U.S. state to make moves in its Legislature to enshrine a right to abortion following the overturning of Roe v. Wade last year. In addition to the impending codification of abortion as a right, Minnesota’s governor is poised to end state funding for crisis pregnancy centers amid activist pressure. According to MPR News, pro-life pregnancy centers outnumber abortion clinics in the state by 11 to 1.

Since 2005, Minnesota has given over $3 million in taxpayer money every grant cycle to 27 pro-life pregnancy centers as part of an abortion alternatives grant program, MPR News reported. Walz has proposed ending that funding in his latest budget proposal, contending that pregnancy centers do not provide “necessary comprehensive, unbiased, and accurate medical information in a manner consistent with national standards of care.” This follows a Minnesota attorney general report in 2021 that concluded that pregnancy centers “seek to prevent people from accessing abortion care as well as contraceptives.”

Pope Francis meets Order of Malta as it turns ‘a very important page of history’

Pope Francis meets with the Order of Malta on Jan. 30, 2023, as the sovereign state and religious order turned a new page in its history. / Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Jan 31, 2023 / 09:15 am (CNA).

Pope Francis met with the Order of Malta on Monday as the sovereign state and religious order turned a new page in its history.

On Jan. 25-29, 111 members of the Order of Malta assembled to elect new leadership in an extraordinary chapter general convened by Pope Francis last year.

“You have written a very important page of history for the Order of Malta; thank you, you can be proud of it,” the pope told the capitulars in a Jan. 30 audience at the Vatican.

The Order of Malta held elections to choose nine councilors of the Sovereign Council as well as the four High Offices: grand commander, grand chancellor, grand hospitaller, and receiver of the common treasure.

The leader of the Order of Malta remains Lt. Grand Master Fra’ John Dunlap, who was appointed by Pope Francis after the sudden death of his predecessor, Fra’ Marco Luzzago.

This month’s chapter general was overseen by Fra’ Dunlap, the pope’s special delegate Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, and the interim Sovereign Council appointed by Pope Francis last year.

Francis had also approved the order’s new constitutional charter and regulations last year.

With the Sovereign Council elections completed, the Order of Malta can now hold The Council Complete of State to elect the 81st grand master.

The position of grand master of the Order of Malta has been vacant since the death in 2020 of Fra’ Giacomo Dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is both a lay religious order of the Catholic Church and a sovereign state subject to international law. In 2017, Pope Francis ordered reforms of both the order’s religious life and its constitution.

Concerns have been raised throughout the reform process that some of Pope Francis’ actions threaten the Order of Malta’s sovereignty.

Pope Francis addressed the topic of the order’s sovereignty in the Jan. 30 meeting, noting that it “is an entirely singular sovereignty, assumed over the centuries and confirmed by the will of the popes.”

“It enables you to make generous and demanding gestures of solidarity, putting yourselves close to those most in need, under international diplomatic legal protection,” he added.

Francis also commented on the forthcoming election of the grand master, in whom, he said, “you will find a sure guide, a guarantor of the unity of the whole order in fidelity to the successor of Peter and the Church.”

Pope Francis also sent a written message to the Order of Malta on Jan. 25 at the opening of the extraordinary chapter general in which he referred to the group’s challenges during the last few years’ reform process.

The reform was a necessary, if at times “arduous,” journey, the pope said.

“Forgive the offenses!” he urged. “I heartily ask you to come to sincere mutual forgiveness, reconciliation, after the moments of tension and difficulties you have experienced in the recent past.”

He also encouraged the Order of Malta to strengthen its unity in order not to compromise the fulfillment of the group’s charitable mission.

“The Evil One” encourages division, he said. “Let us be careful not to compromise with the tempter, even unintentionally. He often deceives under the guise of good, and what may appear to be for the glory of God may turn out to be our own vainglory.”

“Conflicts and opposition harm your mission. Lust for power and other worldly attachments turn you away from Christ; they are temptations to be rejected,” Pope Francis said. “Let us remember the ‘rich young man’ in the Gospel, who, though moved by good intentions, failed to follow Jesus because he was attached to his own things and interests.”

The Order of Malta’s sovereignty must also be at the service of works of mercy, he said.

“It is necessary to be vigilant that it may not be distorted by a worldly mentality.”

EWTN restructures domestic news outlets, aims to further US and global growth

From left to right: Shannon Mullen, editor-in-chief of the National Catholic Register; Kelsey Wicks, executive director of the ACI Group; and Jeanette De Melo, executive director of the National Catholic Register and Catholic News Agency. / EWTN News

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jan 31, 2023 / 09:00 am (CNA).

The National Catholic Register and Catholic News Agency will operate under single executive leadership as part of an organizational restructuring of EWTN’s two U.S.-based news outlets.

EWTN Chairman and CEO Michael P. Warsaw announced Tuesday the appointment of Jeanette De Melo, the longtime editor-in-chief of the Register and the newspaper’s current executive director, as executive director of both the Register and CNA.

CNA was previously under the longtime executive leadership of Alejandro Bermudez, who was also the executive director of EWTN’s ACI Group, an international network of media agencies covering global Catholic news in seven languages — Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, French, English, and Arabic. Bermudez retired from EWTN Dec. 31.

Kelsey Wicks, who previously served as the ACI Group’s operations manager and, for the past six months, as CNA’s interim executive director, will become ACI’s new executive director, Warsaw announced.

As a part of this reorganization, Warsaw has named Shannon Mullen, a more than 30-year veteran in journalism and Catholic News Agency’s editor-in-chief since July 2021, editor-in-chief of the National Catholic Register.

The restructuring comes on the heels of EWTN’s recent appointment of Montse Alvarado as the president and chief operating officer of EWTN News.

Alvarado comes to the role from her position as executive director and chief operating officer at the Becket Fund, a renowned nonprofit public interest group that defends religious freedom legally as a human right at the U.S. Supreme Court and elsewhere. She also serves as the founding host of the TV news program “EWTN News In Depth.”

Alvarado will assume her new post on March 6.

Improved coverage, greater efficiency

The pairing of the Register and CNA aims to bolster both platforms’ domestic and international coverage of Catholic news, Warsaw said. Each outlet will continue to maintain its distinct identity and scope within EWTN News.

CNA is a national and international wire service primarily focused on breaking news and daily coverage of the pope and Vatican, with journalists based in the U.S. and Rome.

CNA also provides articles and photographs to diocesan news outlets and other subscribers through its Editors Service. The Register, which specializes in in-depth reporting and commentary, publishes a biweekly broadsheet print edition and produces daily news online at NCRegister.com.

“I am confident this new structure will provide an opportunity to strengthen our news teams, our coverage, and our reach as well as allow us to better share valuable resources across platforms,” Warsaw said. “By improving the efficiency of our operations, we will be able to focus more on our editorial mission both here in the U.S. and across the globe.”

De Melo has been involved in Catholic media for more than 20 years, first as a diocesan communications director and general manager and most recently leading the Register for more than 10 years.

The newspaper, founded by Monsignor Matthew Smith in Denver in 1927, was acquired by EWTN in 2011. The Register earned the Catholic Press Association’s Newspaper of the Year award in 2022.

In De Melo’s expanded role as executive director of both the Register and CNA, the focus will be on ensuring the quality of the journalism and faithfulness to reporting from a distinctly Catholic lens, as well as attracting new audiences to the newspaper and websites.

“For several years now the Register has depended on CNA for its Vatican coverage and breaking daily news. Uniting under one umbrella to strategize and share resources will only increase our coverage footprint and our effectiveness in serving our audiences. I look forward to greater collaboration between the CNA and Register teams,” De Melo said.

In addition, she said, “I know through partnership with the ACI Group we’ll be able to expand our work to bring even more news from the universal Church to our domestic readers.”

Wicks is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the Augustine Institute. She worked as a legislative assistant on immigration- and refugee-related issues for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops before she turned down a scholarship to Notre Dame Law School to join the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia. Shortly after discerning out of the convent, she began her career in media and helped EWTN News expand the ACI Group by participating in the foundation and launching of ACI MENA, the Catholic news agency in Arabic for the Middle East and Northern Africa.

The ACI Group, acquired by EWTN in 2014, has expanded EWTN News’ reach as an international leader in Catholic news. With offices located across the world — ACI Prensa in Lima, Peru; ACI Digital in São Paulo, Brazil; CNA Deutsch in Munich, Germany; ACI Stampa in Rome, Italy; ACI Africa, in Nairobi, Kenya; and ACI MENA in Erbil, Iraq — the news agencies focus on covering local, continental, and international news from a Catholic perspective.

“From Latin America to the Middle East and Northern Africa, these agencies, staffed by local Catholics who speak and write in the language of the regions, present news that matters to the people closest to them,” Wicks said.

“Additionally, the flow of news coming from the other agencies worldwide helps keep local audiences in tune with what’s happening internationally, allowing them to read and pray for the most important events and stories in other parts of the world,” she said.

“We have a truly global Church and ours is a global work,” Wicks added. “I’m grateful for this opportunity to lead our team of dedicated editors and journalists who connect so many different people with each other through news of the Church, Christian witnesses, and defense of the faith.”

Before coming to CNA, Mullen was a features writer, investigative reporter, and editor with the Asbury Park Press, a Gannett Co. newspaper, in New Jersey, where he was a member of a reporting team that was named a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.

“Over the last 18 months, Shannon has demonstrated a passion for journalistic excellence, a commitment to serving the Church, and a deep dedication to his team at CNA,” De Melo said. “His transition to the Register plays into his creative strengths and capitalizes on his long experience in the newspaper industry.”

The search for an editor-in-chief for Catholic News Agency is currently underway.

In its 42nd year, EWTN Global Catholic Network is the largest Catholic media organization in the world. EWTN’s 11 global TV channels and numerous regional channels are broadcast in multiple languages 24 hours a day, seven days a week to over 400 million television households in more than 160 countries and territories.

EWTN platforms also include radio services transmitted through SIRIUS/XM, iHeart Radio, and over 600 domestic and international AM and FM radio affiliates; a worldwide shortwave radio service; one of the most visited Catholic websites in the U.S.; and EWTN Publishing, its book publishing division.

In addition to its digital and print news outlets, EWTN News, headquartered in Washington, D.C., produces the television shows “EWTN News Nightly,” “EWTN News In Depth,” “EWTN Pro-Life Weekly,” and “The World Over with Raymond Arroyo.”

Pope Francis meets with refugees from Congo and South Sudan before flight to Africa

Pope Francis meets with refugees from Congo and South Sudan before his flight to Africa on Jan. 31, 2023. / Centro Astalli

Vatican City, Jan 31, 2023 / 06:15 am (CNA).

Before departing on his flight to Africa on Tuesday morning, Pope Francis met with a group of refugees and migrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan at the Vatican.

Among the refugees who met with the pope was Bidong, who spent much of his childhood from the age of 9 onwards in a refugee camp in Ethiopia after fleeing the war in his home of South Sudan.

Bidong is currently studying International Developmental Cooperation at Rome’s Sapienza University and receives support from Centro Astalli, the Italian branch of the Jesuit Refugee Service.

He is one of 2.3 million displaced refugees from South Sudan, over half of whom are children, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.

In an interview with ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner, a spokesperson for the Centro Astalli shared that nine of the refugees that the center works with in Rome were able to meet the pope at his residence at the Casa Santa Marta in Vatican City on Jan. 31.

Cedric, a Congolese refugee, lives in Rome with his wife and three young children. He was an actor and human rights activist who was jailed for his civil activism in Kinshasa before seeking asylum in Italy, according to the Centro Astalli.

Two of the young migrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo have albinism, a condition that affects the pigmentation of the skin and has been a cause of violent discrimination in the Congo.

Pope Francis meets with refugees from Congo and South Sudan before his flight to Africa on Jan. 31, 2023. Centro Astalli
Pope Francis meets with refugees from Congo and South Sudan before his flight to Africa on Jan. 31, 2023. Centro Astalli

“It was a significant moment before a trip in which, once again, Pope Francis focused on the existential and geographical peripheries of the world, crisis areas from which thousands of people flee every day in search of salvation,” the Centro Astalli representative said.

The suffering of migrants and refugees was still on the mind of the pope as he traveled to the first leg of his journey to Africa, the Congolese capital of Kinshasa.

While on board the papal flight to Kinshasa, which departed Rome’s Fiumicino International Airport at 8:29 a.m. with more than 70 journalists, Pope Francis asked everyone on the plane to spend a moment in silent prayer thinking of those who cross the Sahara Desert seeking a better life.

Pope Francis speaks to journalists on the flight to Kinshasa on Jan. 31, 2023. Elias Turk/EWTN
Pope Francis speaks to journalists on the flight to Kinshasa on Jan. 31, 2023. Elias Turk/EWTN

“Right now we are crossing the Sahara. Let’s spend a short moment in silence, a prayer for all the people who, looking for a little bit of comfort, a little bit of freedom, have crossed and did not make it,” Pope Francis said.

“So many suffering people who arrive at the Mediterranean and after having crossed the desert are caught in the camps and suffer there. We pray for all those people.”

Pope Francis also expressed disappointment that he was unable on this trip to visit Goma, a city in eastern Congo, due to the ongoing violence.

The violence in eastern Congo has created a severe humanitarian crisis with more than 5.5 million people displaced from their homes, the third-highest number of internally displaced people in the world.

The pope is scheduled to meet with victims of violence from eastern Congo on Feb. 1 in Kinshasa following a Mass that is expected to draw 2 million people.

South Sudan’s security situation also poses significant challenges to the papal trip. The U.N. reported last month that an escalation in violent clashes in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state had killed 166 people and displaced more than 20,000 since August.

Pope Francis will visit Kinshasa Jan. 31-Feb. 3 before traveling to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, Feb. 3-5.

The pope is scheduled to arrive in the Democratic Republic of Congo at 3 p.m. local time after a nearly seven-hour flight traveling more than 3,350 miles, a route that will fly over eight countries: Italy, Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, Chad, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, and the Republic of the Congo.

Upon landing in Kinshasa, Pope Francis will meet with President Felix Tshisekedi and address the DRC’s civil authorities in a speech at the Palais de la Nation.

The pope’s trip to Congo and South Sudan is Pope Francis’ third visit to sub-Saharan Africa. At the end of his 40th apostolic journey this week, the pope will have visited 60 countries.

Biden administration seeks to remove moral objection exemption from Obamacare contraceptives mandate

null / 279photo Studio/Shutterstock.

Washington D.C., Jan 30, 2023 / 17:15 pm (CNA).

The Biden administration Monday announced a proposal to eliminate employers’ ability to object to the Obamacare contraceptives mandate on moral grounds.

This change only proposes rescinding the moral objection exemption, not the religious exemption. The 2020 Supreme Court case Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania guaranteed that religious employers objecting to contraceptives on religious grounds would not be forced to provide birth control in contradiction to their beliefs.

The Health and Human Services (HHS) Department estimated that the proposed rule change would impact more than 100 employers and 125,000 employees, CNN reported.

While retaining the religious exemption policy, the Biden administration proposal would create a new way for employees of religiously objecting employers to obtain contraception with no out-of-pocket costs. 

The Biden administration's proposal states that workers of employers with religious objections will be able to obtain contraception “without any involvement on the part of an objecting entity.” Under the proposal, an insurance provider providing free birth control services would be “reimbursed for its costs by entering into an arrangement with an issuer on a Federally-facilitated Exchange or State Exchange on the Federal platform.”

The pathway to obtain free contraception also will be available to students at universities with religious objections, the proposal states.

Under the Trump administration, the Obamacare policy was amended to allow employers with religious or moral objections to contraception to opt out of offering it in their insurance policies without penalty.

The Biden administration's change won't take effect until the completion of a 60-day public comment period, which is set to begin Feb. 2 once the proposal is filed in the Federal Register.

Kristi Hamrick, chief media and policy strategist for the pro-life group Students for Life of America, told CNA that the proposal was part of “a vicious cycle with life-and-death implications” and that the Biden administration is “ignoring Constitutional rights of conscience that should be protected.”

“Students for Life of America does not take a position against birth control per se,” she said. “We oppose forcing people to buy or fund drugs and devices against their beliefs, such as nuns, and we oppose forcing people to pretend that abortifacients mislabeled as contraception should also be paid for.”

The rule proposal comes as the Biden administration has vowed to expand access to both birth control and abortion in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, which overturned nationwide legalized abortion, freeing states to regulation abortion as they see fit. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services tweeted that it “is committed to protecting & expanding access to reproductive health care, including abortion & contraception.”

Pro-life advocates and lawmakers react to news of Mark Houck’s acquittal

Mark Houck talks to reporters outside the U.S. District courthouse in Philadelphia with his lawyers, Peter Breen (left), Brian McMonagle (right), and Andrew Bath (background) following his acquittal on two charges of violating the FACE Act, Jan. 30, 2023. / Joe Bukuras/CNA

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jan 30, 2023 / 16:09 pm (CNA).

Pro-life lawmakers and activists are celebrating after a jury acquitted pro-life activist Mark Houck Monday on federal charges stemming from an altercation with a volunteer escort outside a Planned Parenthood facility in Philadelphia. 

Although Houck, a Catholic father of seven, acknowledged he shoved the volunteer twice, he said he only did so because the person was harassing his 12-year-old son. Local law enforcement refused to file charges against him, but the Department of Justice (DOJ) dispatched a team of FBI agents to arrest him at gunpoint in front of his family.

He could have served up to 11 years in prison if he had been found guilty on two counts of violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, better known as the FACE Act. 

Several lawmakers praised the legal victory but chastised the DOJ for filing charges in the first place. 

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Arizona, tweeted that the news “marks a win” for the pro-life community. He also alleged that the charges were brought to intimidate pro-life advocates.

“[President Joe] Biden’s DOJ raided Mark’s home — in front of his children — on sham charges. They treated Mark like a domestic terrorist because of his faith. This type of intimidation has no place in America.”

Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, echoed some of those concerns. 

“Mark Houck never should have been prosecuted, let alone treated like a terrorist in an early-morning FBI raid with a SWAT team,” Cotton tweeted. “[Attorney General] Merrick Garland should be ashamed for using [the] DOJ as a political weapon to target pro-life activists.”

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky, also congratulated Houck on his legal victory and warned that this case demonstrates how politicized the DOJ has become. 

“Some folks might mistakenly interpret this as an embarrassing loss for the politicized DOJ, but that would be ignoring their modus operandi, which is to punish people by putting them and their families through this process,” Massie tweeted. “In any case, congrats to Mr. Houck for prevailing.”

Many pro-life activists also expressed excitement about the win along with concerns about the power of the DOJ. 

The pro-life group 40 Days for Life, which organizes peaceful protests outside abortion clinics, hailed the verdict as a “major win.” Shawn Carney, the founder of 40 Days for Life, called the case a “well-deserved embarrassment for the FBI and DOJ and an abuse of power by the Biden administration.”

“Being pro-life is not illegal,” Carney noted. 

Lila Rose, the founder and president of the pro-life group Live Action, also reacted to the verdict. 

“Pro-life father and sidewalk advocate Mark Houck has been found NOT GUILTY of violating the FACE Act,” Rose tweeted. “Last [fall] he was raided at gunpoint by the Biden FBI in front of his 7 children & faced up to 11 years in prison.”

Ryan Bomberger, a pro-life activist and speaker, called it “great news” that Biden’s Justice Department “fails to carry out its injustice.”

“Peaceful pro-life father, Mark Houck, is found NOT GUILTY of violating ridiculous #FACE Act,” Bomberger tweeted.

UPDATE: Mark Houck cleared of FACE Act charges in rebuke to Justice Department’s aggressive prosecution

After being acquitted of federal charges by a jury in Philadelphia on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023, Mark Houck embraces and kisses his wife, Ryan-Marie Houck. Also with Houck are his son Mark Houck Jr., 14, and his daughter, Ava Houck, 12. / Joe Bukuras/CNA

Philadelphia, Pa., Jan 30, 2023 / 15:20 pm (CNA).

Pro-life activist Mark Houck was found not guilty Monday on federal assault charges stemming from a shoving incident outside a Philadelphia abortion clinic.

Supporters of the Catholic father of seven cried and hugged one another after the verdict was read in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.

Following his acquittal, Houck told reporters outside the courthouse that “it’s a relief,” adding that he feels “overjoyed” and “blessed.”

“We couldn’t have done it without faith,” he said.

Peter Breen, Thomas More Society executive vice president and head of litigation, told reporters that the Department of Justice’s prosecution of Houck was “abusive” and added that the FBI raid on the Houck family home back in September was “absolutely outrageous.”

Breen said that he hopes the U.S. Congress will ask Houck and his family to testify to the suffering that they went through at the hands of the Justice Department.

Following Breen’s comment, Houck said: “We’ll be there.”

The prosecutors declined to comment after the verdict.

The jury began deliberations on the case on Friday but said they were deadlocked and would not come to a decision that night. They resumed deliberations Monday, and an alternate juror took the place of one of the original jurors at about 1:30 p.m. After a brief deliberation, the jury found Houck not guilty on both counts.

McMonagle spoke briefly on the implementation of the alternate juror.

“Early this morning, we were notified that there was an issue with the jury, and one of the jurors had to be excused, who was not participating, quite frankly, in the deliberation process,” McMonagle said.

“And we quickly worked to try and bring in an alternate juror. He came in and within an hour of him getting here, there was a unanimous not guilty verdict,” he said.

Fourteen-year-old Mark Houck Jr., who testified as a witness, told CNA outside the courthouse that “it feels really great to have the not guilty verdict. I was a little nervous to be on the stand. But I feel really good after it. I just feel really good in general.”

When asked if he felt justice has been done for his father, he replied: “Not yet, but it will be.”

Mark Houck Sr. said the first thing he was going to do was to go get some ice cream with his family. He could be seen praying and thanking God with supporters outside the courthouse. In his prayer, he prayed for Bruce Love, the abortion clinic escort who made the initial allegations against Houck.

Houck, 48, of Kintnersville in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, acknowledged that he twice pushed a volunteer escort outside a Planned Parenthood facility on Oct. 13, 2021, though Houck maintained he did so because the clinic volunteer was verbally harassing Houck’s 12-year-old son.

After local authorities declined to press charges, the U.S. Department of Justice stepped in, dispatching a team of FBI agents to arrest Houck at gunpoint in front of his terrified wife and children.

The morning raid on Sept. 23, 2022, at the family’s home sparked outrage within pro-life circles and swift condemnation from many federal lawmakers, who blasted the FBI’s heavy-handed tactics and the Justice Department’s use of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. Though the 1993 federal law, known as the FACE Act, was written to also prosecute crimes at pro-life pregnancy facilities and places of worship, it has been used almost exclusively against pro-life activists.

Houck was charged with two counts of violating the act and possibly faced 11 years in federal prison if convicted.

Houck was doing sidewalk counseling outside the clinic at the time of the 2021 incident in connection with his work with The King’s Men, a national men’s faith formation apostolate he runs.

Much of the testimony during the three-day trial focused on whether or not Houck pushed the clinic escort, 73-year-old Bruce Love, specifically because Love was providing reproductive health services, as detailed in the FACE Act. In his testimony, Love repeatedly denied verbally provoking Houck.

The FACE Act prohibits “violent, threatening, damaging, and obstructive conduct intended to injure, intimidate, or interfere with the right to seek, obtain, or provide reproductive health services.”

The verdict is a victory for pro-life advocates who rallied to Houck’s defense and a rebuke to the Biden administration’s Justice Department, which has pledged to aggressively enforce the FACE Act in the wake of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.

U.S. District Judge Gerald Pappert himself raised the possibility that the case should never have been brought to trial, asking the prosecution Thursday whether the federal FACE Act didn’t “seem to be stretched a little thin here.”

Following the uproar over his arrest, an online fund drive launched and has raised more than $405,000 as of Monday. Twenty-two U.S. House members and at least a dozen U.S. senators have also championed his cause.