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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.

U.S. bishops urge Congress to pass No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act

Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall plenary assembly in Baltimore, Nov. 16, 2022. / Katie Yoder/CNA

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jan 30, 2023 / 12:50 pm (CNA).

The U.S. bishops are urging Congress to permanently ban the use of taxpayer dollars for abortion through the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act.

Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virgina, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pro-Life Committee, issued a letter Friday to House and Senate leaders supporting the legislation to permanently ban taxpayer funding of abortion.

In his letter, Burbidge said that the “government should never fund the destruction of innocent preborn children” and that “congressional action is required.”

This month Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, both Republicans, introduced legislation (H.R. 7 and S. 62) to permanently ban the use of federal taxpayer dollars for abortion.

“As chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, I write in support of your bill,” Burbidge said in his letter.

According to Burbidge, “protecting taxpayers from being forced to pay for abortion in violation of their conscience is a principle that has enjoyed historically broad support among Americans.”

Various federal restrictions on taxpayer abortion funding have been in place for decades. Chief among these restrictions is the Hyde Amendment, which is estimated to have saved more than 2 million lives from abortion, according to the pro-life research group Charlotte Lozier Institute.

The Hyde Amendment, first passed in 1976, has been applied to federal spending packages for 45 years, blocking the use of federal tax dollars for abortions in government programs such as Medicaid. Yet the amendment has never been made permanent law and thus must be passed for every spending bill brought before Congress.

Abortion spending restrictions such as the Hyde Amendment have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support, with even President Joe Biden, a Catholic, voting for it as a senator.

Now, recent years have seen Democratic leaders, including Biden and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, attempting to exclude Hyde and similar abortion spending restrictions from federal appropriations packages.

In a 2021 statement, Pelosi cited her Catholic faith for opposing federal restrictions on abortion spending.

“As a devout Catholic and mother of five in six years, I feel that God blessed my husband and me with our beautiful family — five children in six years almost to the day. But that may not be what we should — and it’s not up to me to dictate that that’s what other people should do, and it’s an issue of fairness and justice for poorer women in our country,” Pelosi said.

Hyde and its abortion spending restriction companions have remained in federal spending packages thus far, despite Democrat efforts. Yet, efforts to dismantle restrictions on taxpayer spending on abortion continue.

“Each of the existing funding limitations affect only a particular funding stream, and many have to be reenacted every year in annual appropriations. This puts them — and subsequently women and their children — at risk in a polarized climate,” Burbidge said.

Passing the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act in Congress would protect the lives of the unborn by “making permanent and government-wide the long-standing policy of preventing federal taxpayer funding of elective abortions,” Burbidge said.

Speaking with CNA just before the March for Life, Burbidge said that though the USCCB is “thankful” for the overturn of Roe v. Wade, “we are very much aware that this is just the beginning, our work is just beginning. It’s a new moment in the pro-life movement. But we have to be as tireless in that work as ever before because as we know abortion remains legal in most of the country.”

Mark Houck trial update: Alternate chosen to replace juror

Mark Houck and his wife, Ryan-Marie Houck, prior to entering the federal court house in Philadelphia on Jan. 25, 2023. / Credit: Thomas More Society/Vimeo

Philadelphia, Pa., Jan 30, 2023 / 12:20 pm (CNA).

One of the 12 jurors deciding the fate of the pro-life father of seven Mark Houck in Philadelphia federal court has been replaced by an alternate.

The alternate took the place of the original juror at approximately 1:30 p.m. Monday, when deliberations began again. Defense lawyers for Houck could not comment on the reason for the replacement.

The jury began deliberations on the case on Friday but said they were “deadlocked” and would not come to a decision that night.

Many of Houck’s family members were present in the courtroom Monday and were praying the rosary together. There was a notable media presence as well.

Houck, 48, is charged with two counts of violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, better known as the FACE Act.

The allegations in the case relate to two incidents that occurred at a Philadelphia abortion clinic on Oct. 13, 2021. The federal indictment alleges that Houck twice shoved an abortion clinic escort, Bruce Love, once when Love was attempting to escort clients and again during a verbal altercation with Love in front of the clinic.

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 prosecution has argued that Houck pushed Love because he was trying to interfere with Love’s provision of reproductive health services.

Houck has maintained that Love was harassing his son, and he pushed Love in order to protect the boy.

Pope Francis entrusts trip to Congo and South Sudan to Blessed Virgin Mary

Pope Francis visits the Basilica of St. Mary Major on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023, to entrust his upcoming trip to Africa to the Blessed Virgin Mary. / Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Jan 30, 2023 / 12:00 pm (CNA).

Pope Francis visited the Basilica of St. Mary Major on Monday to entrust his upcoming trip to Africa to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The pope will depart Rome on Tuesday morning for the capital city of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country home to more than 52 million Catholics.

It will be the first papal trip to Congo in 37 years, since John Paul II visited Kinshasa in 1985 when it was the capital of Zaire.

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

Francis has called his visit to South Sudan “an ecumenical pilgrimage of peace.” The pope will travel together with the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the moderator of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields.

Pope Francis will be the first pope to visit South Sudan, the world’s newest country, which declared independence from the Republic of the Sudan in 2011.

The pope’s trip to Congo and South Sudan was scheduled to take place last year but was postponed for six months for health reasons.

A stop in the eastern Congolese city of Goma was cut from the pope’s updated schedule amid a resurgence of fighting between the army and rebel groups. 

Earlier this month, Islamic State claimed responsibility for a deadly bombing of a church service in the eastern Congolese town of Kasindi that killed at least 14 people. Another armed rebel group, the M23, executed 131 people “as part of a campaign of murders, rapes, kidnappings, and looting against two villages,” the U.N. reported in December.

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 crashes in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state had killed 166 people and displaced more than 20,000 since August.

Pope Francis has been personally involved with South Sudan’s peace process, inviting formerly warring leaders for a spiritual retreat at the Vatican in 2019. Tens of thousands of people were killed in South Sudan’s civil war, which ended with a peace agreement in 2018.

The pope asked people to pray for his trip to Congo and South Sudan, his first apostolic journey of 2023, in his Sunday Angelus address ahead of the trip.

Pope Francis greets South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir at the Vatican on March 16, 2019. Vatican Media.
Pope Francis greets South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir at the Vatican on March 16, 2019. Vatican Media.

“These lands, situated in the center of the great African continent, have suffered greatly from lengthy conflicts. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, especially in the east of the country, suffers from armed clashes and exploitation. South Sudan, wracked by years of war, longs for an end to the constant violence that forces many people to be displaced and to live in conditions of great hardship,” he said.

“In South Sudan, I will arrive together with the archbishop of Canterbury and the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Together, as brothers, we will make an ecumenical pilgrimage of peace, to entreat God and men to bring an end to the hostilities and for reconciliation,” Pope Francis said. “I ask everyone, please, to accompany this journey with their prayers.”

German bishops’ president rebukes Pope Francis for criticism of Synodal Way 

Bishop Georg Bätzing, chairman of the German bishops’ conference, meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican, June 24, 2021. / Vatican Media.

CNA Newsroom, Jan 30, 2023 / 11:45 am (CNA).

Bishop Georg Bätzing has criticized Pope Francis and dismissed the pope’s recent words that the controversial German Synodal Way is unhelpful, damaging, and ideologically poisoned, saying the Germans had “fundamentally different views of synodality” than Rome. 

In an interview published Jan. 27, the president of Germany’s Bishops’ Conference said he considered the pope’s “way of leading the Church by way of interviews” as “extremely questionable,” reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner. Bätzing was referring to comments Pope Francis made about the Synodal Way, among other subjects, in a wide-ranging interview last week with the Associated Press. 

Bätzing, the bishop of Limburg, noted that the German bishops had their ad limina visit with Pope Francis in November.

“Why didn’t the pope talk to us about this when we were with him in November?” Bätzing asked. “There would have been the opportunity, but he did not take the opportunity for discussion then.”

Previously, Bätzing’s co-president of the German Synodal Way accused the Vatican of “snubbing” German Catholics by raising “fundamental criticism” of the controversial process and resolutions at the November meetings.

In the interview published Friday, Bätzing said Pope Francis understood synodality to mean “a broad gathering of impulses from all corners of the church, then bishops discuss it more concretely, and in the end there is one man at the top who makes the decision.” 

This was not “the kind of synodality that is viable in the 21st century,” Bätzing added.

Pope Francis and other Church leaders have expressed serious concerns about plans to create a permanent synodal council for the German Church. Such a body would function “as a consultative and decision-making body on essential developments in the Church and society,” according to a Synodal Way proposal.

More importantly, it would “make fundamental decisions of supra-diocesan significance on pastoral planning, questions of the future, and budgetary matters of the Church that are not decided at the diocesan level.”

In response to warnings from Rome about taking such a step, Bätzing suggested he would pursue a “fallback option.”

“We in Germany are looking for a way of truly deliberating and deciding together without overriding the canonical regulations that affect the authority of the bishop,” the German prelate said.

“In Germany, we have already had the so-called Joint Conference since the 1970s, in which the Bishops’ Conference and the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) consult with each other, i.e. laypeople and bishops,” he continued. “This Joint Conference has been given certain tasks. So the fallback option is: We stay with this model and just add important tasks to it that are feasible under Church law.”

As to the objections raised at the meetings in the Vatican — and confirmed in the January letter approved by Pope Francis — Bätzing repeated his public dismissal of these concerns — and vowed the Synodal Way would continue pursuing its controversial agenda in the face of these.

‘This is not Catholic’

Confirming the Vatican’s warnings, the prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, said in no uncertain terms that the German push for a synodal council was unacceptable, CNA Deutsch reported

“If this is to be the way the Church in Germany is to be governed in the future,” he said, “I have already told the bishops very clearly [during the ad limina visit in November]: This is not Catholic.”

Speaking to the Spanish magazine Omnes, Ouellet said a synodal council “may be the practice of other churches, but it is not ours.” 

Such a German council would “not correspond to Catholic ecclesiology and the unique role of bishops, which derives from the charism of consecration and which implies that they must have the freedom to teach and to decide.”

Regarding attempts to bring German bishops to “renounce” voluntarily their authority to a new council or other overseeing body, Ouellet said: “The truth is that this is not possible; it would be a renunciation of the episcopal office.” 

On Jan. 30 the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had accepted Ouellet’s resignation at the age of 78, more than three years past the usual retirement age for bishops. He will be succeeded by Bishop Robert Francis Prevost, 67, effective April 12. How Prevost will handle the German controversy remains to be seen. The American prelate has served as a bishop of the Diocese of Chiclayo in Peru since 2015. As prefect he will lead the Vatican office responsible for evaluating new members of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy.

‘The brink of schism’

Cardinal Walter Kasper also warned the German bishops that they could not sidestep “the authority of the pope and ultimately the Second Vatican Council” or be undermined by “tricky reinterpretation.” 

A bishop cannot “subsequently renounce, in whole or in part, the authority conferred sacramentally in the succession of the apostles” by binding himself to a synodal council “without violating the responsibility conferred on him personally,” Kasper emphasized, according to CNA Deutsch

“Resistance to the letter from Rome, or attempts to slyly reinterpret and avoid it, despite all well-intentioned protestations, inevitably lead to the brink of schism and thus plunge the people of God in Germany into an even deeper crisis.”

According to Ouellet, it was now important for the Holy See to continue the dialogue with the German bishops. 

“We will see how the dialogue will continue,” the cardinal said, adding it was now the obligation of Bätzing to respond to the letter approved by Pope Francis.

“Then we will see how to continue the dialogue, because it is obvious that we must continue it, also to help them remain in the Catholic channel,” Ouellet stressed.

Nuncio in Spain explains the Holy See’s position on the UN’s Agenda 2030

The apostolic nuncio in Spain, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, together with the Grand Chancellor of the Abat Oliba CEU University, Alfonso Bullón de Mendoza. / Credit: Abat Oliba-CEU

CNA Newsroom, Jan 30, 2023 / 11:15 am (CNA).

The apostolic nuncio of the Holy See in Spain, Archbishop Bernardito Cleopas Auza, explained the Holy See’s position on the United Nations Agenda 2030, from the preliminary discussions to its application.

The reflection on the role of the Holy See regarding Agenda 2030 took place during a ceremony held at the Abat Oliba CEU University in Barcelona on the occasion of the Jan. 25 feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, patron saint of the academic center.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is “the most comprehensive blueprint to date for eliminating extreme poverty, reducing inequality, and protecting the planet,” according to the United Nations website.

Auza detailed how the Holy See participated “very intensely” in the preliminary discussions held in 2013 and 2014 for the preparation of Agenda 2030.

However, he stressed that “by its own choice” the Holy See has not voted for the adoption of the document that contains the 16 Sustainable Development Goals.

Main objections

In addition, the nuncio highlighted that among the many caveats raised by the Holy See is the consideration that the declared goals are too numerous and that they entail “excessive idealism,” even more so when they have to be met in 15 years, since they were approved in 2016.

Auza noted that Pope Francis himself has criticized the “declarationist nominalism” found in Agenda 2030, which involves the risk of “assuaging consciences with solemn declarations.”

The Holy See also points out that the formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals often poses “an a priori solution, a response to all challenges in all countries.”

This implies that the will of the donors prevails over the real needs of the countries receiving aid.

The nuncio in Spain also recalled that the Holy See has identified as problematic the risk of having a common document but that each country should make its own interpretation, as well as the issue of ideological colonization.

“The Holy See has promptly and clearly made known its reservations about some aspects of the Agenda 2030,”  the prelate stressed, noting that “there are many people who think that the Holy See is completely in agreement with the Agenda 2030. Not so, of course.”

However, he pointed out, “it must be recognized that the goals of Agenda 2030 are widely shared. Who is not going to share the issue of ending poverty or hunger, providing education to all, strengthening peace and justice, strengthening dialogue, saving the planet, etc.?”

Controversial concepts

Archbishop Auza pointed out that “although the Holy See agrees with most of the objectives and goals listed in the agenda,” in accordance with its “nature and particular mission” it has made clarifications and made reservations about some concepts.

These are mainly those referring to man, his nature and dignity, sexuality, the right to life, the family and the importance of the foundations of international law in the interpretation and implementation of Agenda 2030.

To illustrate it, the prelate addressed some relevant issues such as the concept of gender, the idea of empowerment and the so-called right to sexual and reproductive health.


Auza recalled that there is an “old debate” on the use of the term “gender” that goes back to the Conference on Development held in Cairo in 1994 and the Conference on Women in 1995 that took place in Beijing.

The nuncio explained that in its note expressing its reservations, the Holy See “emphasizes that any reference to gender, gender equality, and the empowerment of women and girls is understood according to the generally accepted common use of the word gender based on biological criteria.”


The nuncio also explained that “by using the term promotion instead of empowerment, the Holy See seeks to avoid a disordered vision of authority as power instead of service.”

The apostolic nuncio in Spain, who was the representative of the Holy See to the U.N. for seven and a half years, explained that the term empowerment has only been used since the 1990s.

Right to reproductive and sexual health

Auza acknowledges that the term sexual and reproductive health “is one of the most controversial because it implies abortion.”

This was used for the first time in 1995 at the Women’s Summit in Beijing. There, the prelate recalled, “there was a great struggle between the Holy See” especially with the United States, whose delegation was headed by Hillary Clinton.

The term was introduced in the final document, but with an interpretation that “thanks to the support of many other countries” could remain in the document and which Auza noted “does not imply abortion.”

This consideration is reflected in the text of the agreement and “is not an interpretation,” the nuncio pointed out.

“It does not include the right to abortion and even less abortion as a fundamental right,” the archbishop said and then “emphasized that no United Nations document has ever mentioned abortion as a right.”

What happens, he argued, is that many countries and U.N. agencies like the World Health Organization and UNICEF do take it this way.

Thus, some nations “have given 67% to 70% of their aid for the implementation of Agenda 2030 only for this term: the right to sexual and reproductive health. This means promoting population control,” he said.

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

Exiled priest says bishop on trial in Nicaragua created secret human rights office

Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. / Credit: Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua (CC BY-SA 4.0)

CNA Newsroom, Jan 30, 2023 / 10:20 am (CNA).

Exiled Nicaraguan priest Uriel Vallejos recounted how the bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Álvarez, who has been held under house arrest since Aug. 19, created a secret human rights office to address the persecution coming from the dictatorial regime of President Daniel Ortega.

In an interview with the Spanish Catholic weekly Alfa y Omega published Jan. 26, the priest first clarified that there is no international warrant for his arrest.

“You’re not going to believe it, but it was a hoax by the government. They said that they had asked Interpol for my capture, but a contact within the U.N. confirmed to me that the Ortega regime had not officially issued any request against me,” the priest told the weekly at an undisclosed location.

Vallejos explained that both Álvarez and he “are accused of conspiracy to undermine national sovereignty and security and spreading fake news to the detriment of the State.”

In a hearing held Jan. 10 amid complaints of irregularities in the proceedings, the court determined that the bishop’s case will go to trial.

Three days later the justice system issued a “fabricated” list of witnesses against the prelate, some of whom had nothing to do with the case and didn’t even know beforehand that their names were on that list.

Vallejos said that the persecution against the Catholic Church worsened with the anti-government protests in 2018, when bishops and priests responded by “telling the truth about what was happening and siding with the people.”

At that time, people began to come asking for help, the priest explained.

For example, the priest said “one had their son imprisoned, another had been killed, a third had had to go into exile.”

Given the situation, Álvarez called together his priests and told them that he would open a secret human rights office to help these people and make their cases known.

“At that meeting he asked who freely wanted to participate and warned that whoever did could end up in jail or in exile,” Vallejos told Alfa y Omega.

Arrest and escape

The priest said that at his Divine Mercy parish in Sébaco in the Diocese of Matagalpa, soldiers arrived to record his homilies to later use against him.

He also was the director general of the Sébaco Catholic Channel and Radio, which operated on the parish premises. The station was forcibly shut down by the dictatorship on Aug. 1, 2022. Riot police prevented Vallejos and a group of the faithful from leaving the rectory.

The police “settled into the chapel and our power was cut off. We also had no food,” the priest recounted. The parish remained under siege for three days until Aug. 4, when Vallejos was arrested and taken away.

“The president of the bishops’ conference told me that the government wanted me in jail, but Rolando Álvarez began to negotiate and got them to accept my going to the seminary in Managua in exchange for my silence,” the exiled priest related.

Shortly after, the priest fled the country to Costa Rica, where he received help from the local Church.

“I cannot silence the truth, although I’m afraid that because of this interview they may torture the priests who are in jail,” Vallejos concluded.

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

Synod organizers tell Continental Assemblies not to ‘impose an agenda’ on discussions

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, archbishop of Luxembourg, (left) and Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops / Daniel Ibáñez/CNA

Rome Newsroom, Jan 30, 2023 / 09:18 am (CNA).

Cardinals organizing the Synod on Synodality have written a letter to all of the world’s bishops sharing urgent considerations for the Continental Assemblies, seven of which are set to take place by the end of March.

In the letter published by the Vatican on Jan. 30, Cardinal Mario Grech and Cardinal Jean Claude Hollerich stressed that the Synod of Bishops is not meant “to address all the issues being debated in the Church.”

“There are in fact some who presume to already know what the conclusions of the synodal assembly will be. Others would like to impose an agenda on the synod, with the intention of steering the discussion and determining its outcome,” the cardinals wrote.

“However, the theme that the pope has assigned to the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops is clear: ‘For a Synodal Church: communion, participation, mission.’ This is therefore the sole theme that we are called to explore in each of the stages within the process.”

The cardinals added that “those who claim to impose any one theme on the synod forget the logic that governs the synod process: we are called to chart a ‘common course’ beginning with the contribution of all.”

While the North American Continental Assembly has already begun to meet virtually, other continents are hosting in-person meetings in February and March:

  • Europe and Oceania will both begin their Continental Assemblies on Feb. 5.

  • Two hundred delegates will meet in Prague, Czech Republic, for the first part of the European Continental Assembly Feb. 5-9 followed by a meeting of the 39 European bishops, who each serve as the president of his country’s bishops’ conference, from Feb. 9-12 with an additional 390 delegates participating online (10 for each bishops’ conference.)

  • Bishops from Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea will join together with delegates from other parts of Oceania for a five-day meeting in Suva, Fiji, for the Oceania Continental Assembly Feb. 5-9.

  • The Middle East Continental Assembly will take place in Beirut, Lebanon, Feb. 12-18, with the participation of clergy from at least seven Eastern Catholic Churches.

  • Bishops and delegates from across Asia will meet in Bangkok, Thailand, Feb. 24-26 for the Asian Continental Assembly with 100 expected participants.

  • The African Continental Assembly will take place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with the participation of 95 laypeople, 12 religious sisters, 18 priests, 15 bishops, and seven cardinals, a total of 155 delegates, March 1-6.

  • The Latin American and Caribbean Continental Assembly will be held as four separate meetings across the region. The first will be in El Salvador Feb. 13-17 with participants from Mexico and Central America. The second for the Caribbean is in the Dominican Republic Feb. 20-24. The third is in Quito, Ecuador, Feb. 27-March 3, and the fourth is in Brasilia, Brazil, March 6-10.

The General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops describes these Continental Assemblies as a meeting to “reread the journey made and to continue the listening and discernment … proceeding in accord with the socio-cultural specificities of their respective regions.”

The discussion at the Continental Assemblies will be guided by a 44-page working document officially called the DCS (Document for the Continental Stage).

The text calls for “a Church capable of radical inclusion” and says that many local synod reports raised questions about the inclusion and role of women, young people, the poor, people identifying as LGBTQ, and the divorced and remarried.

In the letter signed by Grech and Hollerich on Jan. 26, the cardinals stressed that the themes proposed in the document guiding the synod’s continental phase discussions “do not constitute the agenda” for the Synod of Bishops assembly in October 2023.

“The decision to restore the DCS to the particular Churches, asking that each one listen to the voice of the others … truly manifests that the only rule we have given ourselves is to constantly listen to the Spirit,” it said.

The synod organizers added that it will be the task of the Continental Assemblies to identify “the priorities, recurring themes, and calls to action” that will be discussed during the first session of the Synod of Bishops Oct. 4-29.

Each Continental Assembly is required to submit a final document of no more than 20 pages providing the region’s response to three reflection questions based on the DCS by March 31:

  1. Which intuitions resonate most strongly with the lived experiences and realities of the Church in your continent? Which experiences are new or illuminating to you?

  2. What substantial tensions or divergences emerge as particularly important in your continent’s perspective? Consequently, what are the questions or issues that should be addressed and considered in the next steps of the process?

  3. Looking at what emerges from the previous two questions, what are the priorities, recurring themes, and calls to action that can be shared with other local Churches around the world and discussed during the First Session of the Synodal Assembly in October 2023?

The final, universal phase of the Synod on Synodality will begin with the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican in October 2023 and continue in October 2024.

The feedback from the seven Continental Assemblies on the Document for the Continental Stage (DCS) will be used as the basis for another instrumentum laboris, or working document, that will be completed in June 2023 to guide the Synod of Bishops’ discussion.