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Jesuit appointed head of US religious freedom commission

Washington D.C., Jun 23, 2016 / 05:00 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has a new chairman, and for the first time, the position will be held by a Catholic priest.

Jesuit priest Fr. Thomas Reese was first appointed to a two-year term as a member of the commission by President Barack Obama in 2014, and re-appointed in 2016.

Now he will take over as the chair of the organization, an independent, bipartisan commission that monitors and reviews religious freedom violations around the world, and makes policy recommendations to the Secretary of State, Congress and the president.

“I am honored to serve as USCIRF's Chair and work with my fellow Commissioners in support of freedom of religion or belief,” said Fr. Reese in a statement.

“World events underscore the importance of this fundamental right:  A key factor in many of the United States' foreign policy challenges, religious freedom is under serious and sustained attack across much of the globe,” he added.

Created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, the commission issues annual reports on the state of religious freedom around the world, and names countries that are guilty of severe religious freedom violations during the previous year. It also holds public hearings and conducts fact-finding missions to aid in its efforts.

In taking over as chair of the body, Fr. Reese replaces Princeton law professor Dr. Robert George.

Fr. Reese serves as the senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. Previously, he served as editor-in-chief at America Magazine – a publication of the Jesuit order – from 1998-2005 and its associate editor from 1978-1985. Fr. Reese also was a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center from 1985-1998, and again from 2008-2013.

In his time at America, the Vatican raised issues with several articles published at the magazine, including some on abortion and homosexuality. Fr. Reese resigned from the publication in May 2015.

This week, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also appointed two vice-chairs: Dr. Daniel Mark, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University and visiting fellow in the Department of Politics at Princeton University; and Dr. James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute, and Managing Director of Zogby Research Services, which conducts specialized public opinion polling within the Arab world.

Mark had been reappointed as a member of the commission Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in May 2016, and President Barack Obama has reappointed Zogby in May 2015.

Divided Supreme Court deals a setback to immigration advocates

Washington D.C., Jun 23, 2016 / 12:58 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A divided Supreme Court allowed a hold on the Obama administration’s immigration policy to continue, disappointing Catholic advocates of immigration reform.

The Court’s decision “shatters the hopes of millions of immigrants who might otherwise have obtained temporary relief from immigration enforcement under two Obama administration programs,” the Catholic Legal Immigration Network stated on Thursday.

With a 4-4 tie vote, the Supreme Court let stand the lower courts’ decisions in United States v. Texas. In 2015 the district court, had allowed a temporary block on the Obama administration’s executive actions on immigration. This was upheld by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court.

The executive actions initially came in the form of a 2012 program entitled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The program would allow children of undocumented immigrants – children who were born in the U.S. and had met certain conditions – to stay for up to two years without deportation.

In November of 2014, the administration expanded that program and created the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA.

Under the new program, certain undocumented immigrants – parents of children born in the U.S. and who met certain conditions – could stay in the U.S. for up to three years without deportation. To be eligible they had to have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, passed a background check, and would have to pay taxes.

“An estimated 5 million people could have potentially benefited from the two programs,” CLINIC stated.

Twenty-six states, led by Texas, asked that the 2014 actions – the creation of DAPA and the expansion of DACA – be checked from going into effect until the matter was decided in court. A district court granted the stay in 2015. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling. The administration then appealed to the Supreme Court to overrule the lower courts’ decisions.

In an amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court in March, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops argued that the administration’s immigration action keeps families together and prevents immigrants from living in the shadows to avoid deportation. “Family unification is an integral consideration in the application of immigration law,” the brief stated.

However, since the Supreme Court was divided in a 4-4 vote, it stated that the lower courts’ “judgment” was “affirmed by an equally divided Court.”

Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of CLINIC, said the organization was “extremely disappointed” over the court’s decision.

“The tied vote means millions of long-term U.S. residents continue to be blocked from the chance to live with their families without fear of deportation, while working legally and attaining a college education,” she stated.

These people are living “in fear of law enforcement and at risk of mistreatment in the workplace, by landlords and from abusers due to threats of deportation,” she continued.

Congress should work to pass long-term immigration reform to provide a lasting solution, to the problem she added, “ensuring that millions of families have a path to legal residency and eventually citizenship in their adopted country.”

Catholic bishops from Texas and New Mexico also expressed their disappointment over the Court’s vote.

“Our nation's immigration policies are broken,” stated the Texas Catholic bishops, adding that this ruling serves to keep many of our youngest and most vulnerable brothers and sisters “living in the shadows.”

President Obama’s executive actions came from “years of painstaking work and committed efforts by migrant advocates, grassroots organizations, some legislators and the faith community,” stated Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas.

“The scandal of a broken system that criminalizes and scapegoats immigrants who fight for a better life for their children and families that contribute every day to our economy and communities is laid bare once again by the decision of the Supreme Court,” they added.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston criticized Congress’ “piecemeal” attempts to pass “even the most basic of reforms” of the immigration system. “Respect for human life and dignity demands that our national leaders put people, especially children and youth, before politics,” he stated.

Trump met with Christians – so how did it go?

Washington D.C., Jun 23, 2016 / 10:07 am (CNA).- A meeting with Donald Trump in New York City on Tuesday was intended to answer the questions that some Christian leaders have about the presumptive Republican nominee.

But after the event, those in attendance had mixed reactions, with some saying it only raised further concerns.

“Donald Trump definitely won over the room, but the bigger story to me was why weren’t the big leaders there?” asked Christopher Hale, executive director at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, who attended the meeting.

“I think it’s important that a lot of the leaders within the Christian community are refusing to support him,” he told CNA, noting the absence of Christian leaders like Dr. Russell Moore, and adding that “I think they have the same concerns I do.”

The billionaire-turned-politician has run a presidential campaign brimming with controversy. He has drawn criticism for what many consider inflammatory rhetoric and derogatory comments aimed at women and minorities. His supporters say they find his blunt approach to politics refreshing.

Prominent Christian leaders, as well as influential members within the Republican Party, have been split on whether to support Trump, despite the fact that he has secured enough delegates to clinch the party’s nomination.

On Tuesday, he met with around 1,000 conservative and Christian leaders – mostly evangelicals – at his Manhattan hotel. He answered pre-selected questions from the audience on various issues like the family, abortion, guns, and foreign policy.

Some Christian leaders were noticeably absent from the meeting. Dr. Robert George, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, “declined to attend,” the Washington Post reported. Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, was not there.

One evangelical pastor in attendance, Dr. Jeremy Roberts, said that he entered the meeting with “skepticism” but came out “more optimistic.”

The candidate was “receptive” and “very conversational,” he said, and the meeting was not a “photo-op” but rather a “genuine conversation between Evangelical leaders and Donald Trump, for him to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

But according to another person in attendance, who wished to remain anonymous, the meeting was more a chance for Trump to say what he wanted rather than answer tough questions.

“There was a lot of teeing up,” the attendee told CNA, calling the questions asked of Trump “softball” and adding that he still “barely answered them.” Yet at the meeting Trump was compared to figures like Moses and David “who had great sins in their lives who turned out to be great leaders.”

On the family, “the only thing Trump said was that he told his kids not to do drugs, get in trouble,” the attendee continued, saying he “barely talked about abortion.”

“Going in my expectations were - I was open minded, but they were very low. But there was little of substance,” the attendee said, concluding that the meeting was “an enormous waste of time.”

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, told supporters in an email that Trump “related well, coming across confident and comfortable in such a large crowd of thought leaders whose opinions and actions will be so critical as we approach November.”

She said that she was encouraged when Trump reiterated a commitment to appoint pro-life justices to the Supreme Court.
Hale said that he did not doubt that Trump believes in pro-life policies, but added that “he doesn’t sound like someone who this is a bread-and-butter issue for.”

On religious liberty, which was also brought up at the meeting, Trump didn’t sound as if “he knows the specifics of religious liberty concerns” that are talked about by Catholics today, Hale continued.

He pointed to one incident, in which a photo of Trump with Jerry Falwell, Jr. – the president of Liberty University who endorsed Trump and has been named to his evangelical advisory committee – made headlines because of a Playboy magazine cover hanging on the wall of Trump’s office in the background of the photo.  

“I think that image epitomizes the difficult dance a Christian has supporting Donald Trump,” Hale said, voicing his agreement with Dr. Robert George who said that Trump is “manifestly unfit to be President of the United States.”

“Nothing he said yesterday changes my opinion of that,” Hale said.

Another Catholic in attendance, Joshua Mercer, co-founder of, said it was “good” that Trump met with Christian leaders, but recommended that he meet with Catholic leaders as well to “get advice” from them.

Eric Teetsel, who was the director of faith outreach for Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, protested the meeting with a sign saying that various practices like torture, racism, misogyny, and murdering the children of terrorists were “not pro-life,” implicitly accusing Trump of supporting or condoning these practices at some point in his life.

Teetsel “wasn’t invited” to the meeting, he later tweeted, but said if he had gone he would have asked Trump the following question:

“Mr. Trump, you are a very wealthy man. You claim to be a Christian. You say you are pro-life, pro-religious liberty, and pro-marriage. There are many fine organizations working on life, marriage and religious liberty. Which ones do you personally support financially?”

Brian Burch, president of, was in attendance at the meeting. He told TIME magazine that Trump “came across as reasonable, not reckless.”

“Probably the biggest takeaway was not what Trump will do for them as president, but what Christians can do if they throw off the perception that they are a significant minority that are not relevant,” he added.

Photo credit: Christopher Halloran via


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Can a Catholic in good conscience vote for Trump? #Election2016

— Catholic News Agency (@cnalive) March 17, 2016


Is Pope Francis' Armenia visit another step toward Christian unity?

Gyumri, Armenia, Jun 23, 2016 / 06:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Francis’ visit to Armenia is a chance to build on decades of productive ecumenical dialogue with the Armenian Apostolic Church, a local Catholic bishop has said.

“Now there is more friendship, more collaboration, a more open dialogue, and I am very optimistic about the future, from this point of view,” Archbishop Raphael Minassian, the Armenian Ordinary of Eastern Europe, told CNA.

The archbishop will be at the Pope’s side during his journey to Armenia, fifteen years after St. John Paul II visited in 2001.

Armenia’s national church is the Armenian Apostolic Church, an Oriental Orthodox Church to which 93 percent of the population belongs. Armenia prides itself on having been the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, which it did in the year 301.

For Archbishop Minassian, the separation between the Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church is due to human factors, not theological ones. On theological matters, “there is no difference.”

“No difference in sacraments, nor in theology, nor in the profession of faith,” he said.

Unlike national churches still linked to the universal Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church’s nationalism has “taken a different direction,” the archbishop said.

As an Oriental Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church separated from the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches over its rejection of the Christological definitions of the Council of Chalcedon, in 451. For the Armenians, the break was solidified when they held a local council in 554, in which they chose to become autocephalous.

Chalcedon defined that Jesus Christ has both a human and a divine nature. Because the Oriental Orthodox rejected this definition, both the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox historically considered them to be monophysites – those who believe Christ has only one nature.

But since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church have improved their relations.

Catholicos Vasken I, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, visited Blessed Paul VI at the Vatican in May 1970. There, the Pope gave Catholicos Vasken a relic of St. Bartholomew, who is considered to be one of the founders of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

During St. John Paul II’s pontificate, Catholicos Karekin I made two visits to the Pope, with whom he was a friend.

In December 1996 St. John Paul II and Karekin signed a joint declaration on Christology, recognizing that the Armenian Apostolic Church's Christological doctrine does not imply any confusion about Jesus Christ’s two natures in a single person – the belief held by the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox.

Pope Francis will visit Armenia June 24-26. Like St. John Paul II before him, Francis will stay at the Etchmiadzin Cathedral compound that is nicknamed “the Holy See of the Apostolic Church.”
This could give a new impetus to ecumenism, building on the good relations developed over recent decades.

Archbishop Minassian is a bishop of the Armenian Catholic Church – an Eastern Catholic Church that came into communion with the Bishop of Rome in 1742 – and is based in Gyumri, Armenia's second largest city.

He underscored that the possibility of a renewed ecumenism with the Armenian Apostolic Church will need the help of God:

“I believe in prayer. I believe in witness. I believe in the example given by these pontiffs. Then, God’s grace is called to work on the souls. We can only rely on Divine Providence,” he said.

At present, according to the archbishop, there had been no rapprochement between the two Churches because unity is seen as “the submission of the one to the other.”

“In fact, unity is rather a path toward a mutual aim, Christ,” he said. “Unfortunately, this separation is mostly given by a sort of immaturity.”

The astonishing secret history of the Pope who fought Hitler

Washington D.C., Jun 23, 2016 / 03:06 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Pius XII's secret support for the attempted overthrow of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler is the subject of a new book that draws on wartime documents and interviews with the American intelligence agent who wrote them.

“This book is the truth – as best I could establish it in a number of years of research – about the Pope’s secret operations in World War II,” historian Mark Riebling told CNA earlier this year.

“Its main premise is that Pius opted to resist Hitler with covert action instead of overt protest. As a result, he became involved in three separate plots by German dissidents to remove Hitler.”  

“I thought this idea – that the Church engaged in secret operations during the bloodiest years in history, in the most controversial part of its recent history – was not just a footnote; it was something worth pursuing,” he said.

Riebling tells this story in his book “Church of Spies: The Pope's Secret War Against Hitler,” published by Basic Books in September 2015.

In the late 1990s, debate over whether Pius XII did enough to counter the Nazis reached a high point with the publication of the deeply controversial book, “Hitler's Pope,” by British journalist John Cornwell. The book was highly critical of Pius XII, charging that he was culpably silent – if not an accomplice – in the rise of Nazism.

“If you read the fiercest critics of the Nazi-era Church, the major ones all concede that Pius XII hated Hitler and worked secretly to overthrow him,” Riebling said. “Yet they say this in their books in just a clause, a sentence, or a paragraph. To me, this episode merited more curiosity.”

“If 'Hitler's Pope' wanted to help rid the world of Hitler, what's the story?”

Riebling said there were several sources of inspiration for the book. During his Catholic upbringing, he learned the long history of the Church: in its first centuries, Christianity was an underground organization. In post-Reformation England, the Jesuits were involved in clandestine work.

This history prompted him to ask how a historian would document it and find evidence.
He also drew inspiration from the story of James Jesus Angleton, a famous U.S. intelligence officer who during World War II ran an operation to penetrate the Vatican for the Office of Strategic Services, the Central Intelligence Agency’s predecessor.

During research on his previous book, “Wedge: The Secret War between the FBI and CIA,” Riebling discovered wartime documents from Angleton's Rome section of the Office of Strategic Services.

“There were at least ten documents implicating Pius XII and his closest advisers in not just one, but actually three plots to remove Hitler – stretching from 1939 to 1944. These were typed up by someone using a very distinct nickname.”

That nickname, “Rock,” belonged to Ray Rocca. Rocca served as Angleton's deputy in Rome and for most of his later career. His career included responsibility for the Central Intelligence Agency's records concerning the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“So, here's a guy who had been in the Vatican; who had been charged with penetrating the Vatican; and who knew a thing or two about assassination probes. I thought: here’s an interesting guy to get to know,” Riebling said. Rocca did not violate his oath of secrecy, but his interviews with Riebling are among the book's sources.

According to Riebling, his book does not charge that the Pope “tried to kill Hitler.” Rather, the Pope’s actions were more subtle.

“Pius becomes a key cog in conspiracies to remove a ruler who is a kind of Antichrist, because good people ask for his help, and he searches his conscience, and he agrees to become an intermediary for the plotters – their foreign agent, as it were – and thereby he becomes an accessory to their plots.”

The historian described these actions as “some of the most astonishing events in the history of the papacy.”

Pius XII had connections with three plots against Hitler. The first, from October 1939 to May 1940, involved German military conspirators. From late 1941 to spring of 1943 a series of plots involving the German Jesuits ended when a bomb planted on Hitler’s plane failed to explode.

The third plot again involved German Jesuits and also German military colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. Although the colonel successfully planted a bomb near the Nazi dictator, it failed to kill Hitler. The priests had to flee after the failed attempt. Those unable to escape were executed.

During his research, Riebling discovered that Pius XII secretly recorded the conversations held in his office. Transcripts of the Pope's talks with German cardinals in March 1939 show that he was deeply concerned that German Catholics would choose Hitler instead of the Church.

“The cardinals asked Pius to appease Hitler, so that German Catholics won’t break away and form a state church, as happened in Tudor England,” Riebling said.

“Pius heeded the German episcopate's advice. Instead of protesting openly, he would resist Hitler behind the scenes.”

Pius XII's agents provided the Allies with useful intelligence about Hitler's war plans on three occasions, including Hitler’s planned invasion of Russia. In all three cases, the Allies did not act on the information.

For their part, the Nazis regarded Pius XII with suspicion since his election in 1939.

“He worked hard to allay those suspicions, to minimize persecutions of German Catholics. But the Nazis never dropped their guard,” Riebling said.

At one point Hitler planned to invade the Vatican, kidnap the Pope and bring him to Germany. Leading Nazi Heinrich Himmler “wanted to have the Holy Father publicly executed to celebrate the opening of a new soccer stadium,” Riebling said.

“Pius became aware of these plans, through his secret papal agents; and, in my view, that influenced the Holy Father’s decision to become involved with the anti-Nazi resistance.”

For Riebling, the assassination plots against Hitler were an admission of weakness, “because it’s saying that we can’t solve the problem by some other means.”

“Knowing what I do about Pius XII, and having researched him for many years, I believe he wanted to be a saint. He wanted people in Germany to be saints,” he added.

“When he heard that a priest was arrested for praying for the Jews and sent off to a concentration camp, he said: 'I wish everyone would do that.'”

“But he didn't say it publicly,” the writer acknowledged. The Pope's words were made in secret in a letter to a German bishop.

“So I think what really happened here is: Pius XII wanted to lead a Church of saints. But had to settle for a Church of spies.”

This article was originally published on CNA Feb. 5, 2016.