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Pope advocates for 'globalization of empathy' in curing rare diseases

Vatican City, Apr 29, 2016 / 07:34 am (CNA/EWTN News).- On Friday Pope Francis told participants in a Vatican stem cell summit that a renewed sense of empathy ought to fuel their work and research, ensuring that no person goes without access to proper care.

“It is fundamentally important that we promote greater empathy in society, and not remain indifferent to our neighbor’s cry for help, including when he or she is suffering from a rare disease,” the Pope said April 29.

While it’s not always possible to find a fast cure to complex diseases, it is possible to be prompt in caring for the people that suffer from them, who often feel “abandoned and ignored,” Francis said.

He stressed the need to attentive to all, regardless of their culture, social standing or religious beliefs, and expressed his hope that individuals in developing countries would also have access to the care they need.

Pointing to his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” the Pope noted how in it he emphasized the value of human progress made in fields such as health care, education and communications, while at the same time stressing the need to oppose “an economy of exclusion and inequality.”

This mentality “victimizes people when the mechanism of profit prevails over the value of human life,” he said, adding that “this is why the globalization of indifference must be countered by the globalization of empathy.”

Pope Francis spoke to participants in an April 28-30 conference at the Vatican entitled “Cellular Horizons: How Science, Technology, Information and Communication Will Impact Society.”

Co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the U.S.-based Stem for Life Foundation, a non-profit based in New York that promotes healing treatments with the use of adult stem cells, the event is the third conference that has been organized in the Vatican on regenerative medicine. The first was held in 2011, and the second in 2013.

A large part of this year's discussion is focused on rare diseases that affect children, as well as how to make top-of-the-line treatments available to people in developing countries.

The conference gathers scientists, physicians, patients, religious leaders, philanthropists and government officials to discuss healing options that involve different forms of stem cell therapy, specifically with the use adult stem cells.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, whose son Beau passed away from brain cancer last year, was also present as a VIP guest and speaker as part of his “Moonshot” campaign tour to promote a cure for cancer.

Pope Francis spoke to participants after Biden’s keynote speech on the second day of the conference, recognizing how in in their discussions, the participants have been sure to take ethical, anthropological, social and cultural questions into consideration, as well as “the complex problem of access to care for those afflicted by rare conditions.”

Many patients “are often not given sufficient attention, because investing in them is not expected to produce substantial economic returns,” he said, noting that he frequently meets people suffering from these diseases in his ministry.

“These illnesses affect millions of people throughout the world, and cause suffering and anxiety for all those who care for them, starting with family members.”

Francis said that in addition to the sense of empathy for those who suffer from rare diseases and ensuring that each person has access to the care they need, another aspect of treatment involves research, which is carried out through both “education and genuine scientific study.”

“Today more than ever we see the urgent need for an education that not only develops students’ intellectual abilities, but also ensures integral human formation and a professionalism of the highest degree,” the Pope said.

He said that coming from this “pedagogical perspective,” it is necessary in both medical and life sciences to offer interdisciplinary courses which provide the needed space “for a human formation supported by ethical criteria.”

“Research, whether in academia or industry, requires unwavering attention to moral issues if it is to be an instrument which safeguards human life and the dignity of the person,” he said.

Pope Francis stressed that each person throughout the world is called to draw attention to the issue of rare diseases, to invest in education and to increase funding for research on causes and cures.

It’s also important to promote necessary legislation “an economic paradigm shift,” he said, because “in this way, the centrality of the human person will be rediscovered.”

The Pope concluded his speech by encouraging the participants to continue to integrate more people and institutions throughout the world into their work, and prayed that during the Jubilee they would be “capable and generous co-operators with the Father’s mercy.”

How will faith-based partners fare under new White House rules?

Washington D.C., Apr 29, 2016 / 06:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The Obama administration’s new rule for faith-based partnerships has drawn various reactions: one observer warned they could cause problems for partnering religious groups, while another said the action also strengthens these groups’ protections against government abuse.

H. James Towey, the president of Ave Maria University, was a strong critic of the new rules.

“They will seek to secularize all faith-based providers that want to play ball with the government,” he told CNA.

Towey directed the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives from 2002 to 2006, under President George W. Bush. He said the rules would have a “chilling effect” on organizations that “really care about the souls of the people they serve.”

Melissa Rogers, special assistant to the president and executive director of the White House Faith-based Neighborhood Partnerships, summarized the new federal rule in a March 31 statement.

The rule applies to nine federal departments, and aims to clarify that faith-based organizations are eligible to take part in federally funded programs “on the same basis as any other private organization.” All decisions of federal funding to faith-based organizations must be based “solely on merit” and “free from political interference, or the appearance of such interference.”

The rule also aims to clarify that “explicitly religious activities” cannot be supported with direct financial assistance. The organization must separate privately funded religious activities from federally funded activities.

The rule bars faith-based organizations that receive federal assistance from discriminating against beneficiaries based on “religion, a religious belief, a refusal to hold a religious belief, or a refusal to attend or participate in a religious practice.” The rule requires these faith-based organizations to notify beneficiaries of these protections.

Towey said the rule should be read in a broader political context.

“If this were all they have done, you could hope to take them at face value. But this is part of an eight-year campaign,” he said. “They drove the bishops’ conference out of refugee resettlement. They attempted to get faith-based organizations into the business of promoting abortion if they wanted to resettle refugees. This has been a drumbeat out of the Obama administration.”

In early 2011, political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office issued instructions indicating there would be a “strong preference” for grants to organizations that refer for the “full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care.” The U.S. bishops’ program would not refer for abortions and other procedures and drugs that violate Catholic ethics.

Later that year the federal government declined to renew a $19 million grant to the U.S. bishops’ program for human trafficking victims. Political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services decided against the grant, though the department staff had recommended the grant renewal based on the scores of an independent review board.

The rule change has other consequences. Beneficiaries must be told that they can report rule violations to the federal agency or intermediary in charge of the program. If a beneficiary or potential beneficiary who objects to a funded organization’s religious character, the organization must take “reasonable efforts” to refer them to an alternative provider.

In Towey’s view, the new rule could easily be abused.

“If you’re a faith-based group, you’re now wondering is it worth partnering with the government and having these handcuffs on.”

“Faith-based groups knew where the lines and boundaries were. But there wasn’t bureaucratic red tape,” Towey added.

Brian W. Walsh, a religious freedom advocate who is the president of Civil Rights Research Center, was more positive about the rule.

He told CNA that the new regulations “reaffirm a large majority of the even-handed standards for faith-based partnerships that were established by both the Clinton and second Bush administrations.”

“The rules help prevent federal agency demands that faith-based partners deny their religious identity simply because they are using federal grants to care for the needy,” he said. “Partners need not, for example, purge their facilities of all religious symbols.”

The rules also protect faith-based organizations’ rights to hire staff who adhere to their religion.

However, Walsh noted that federal rules already allow a needy person with federal benefits support to choose a service provider.

“It is therefore questionable why the rules open the door for a recipient to pick and choose which portions of a faith-based provider’s program he does not want to participate in,” he said.

Stanley Carlson-Thies of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance said the rule was positive, though he saw cause for concern in the rule’s new regulations for programs that receive indirect funding.

In an April 4 commentary at the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, he said that previous regulations forbade religious discrimination against beneficiaries. The new rule expands this regulation to programs that receive indirect funding, such as a federal voucher for a job training program.

If any parts of such a program are framed and taught from a specifically religious perspective, a beneficiary must be allowed to opt out of these portions even if they are considered integral to the program.

Carlson-Thies, who served at the White House Office of Faith Based & Community Initiatives from 2001-2002, also served on a task force under President Obama to draft recommendations on how to clarify church-state rules and federal funding.

The new rule becomes effective 30 days after April 4, while recipients of federal funding have 90 days after April 4 to comply. The rule is intended to implement a Nov. 17, 2010 executive order from Obama.

That executive order explicitly allowed groups that receive federal funding to display religious iconography in their facilities, maintain religious references in the names of their programs, choose board members on the basis of their religion, and make reference to faith in their mission statements and internal documents.

CNA sought comment from Catholic Charities USA, which was not able to comment as it was in the process of reviewing the regulations and their impact on its agencies.

What might save us from 'victimhood' culture

Denver, Colo., Apr 29, 2016 / 03:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

This quote from British author Evelyn Beatrice Hall (often misattributed to Voltaire) might sound rather foreign on many college campuses throughout the country today, who in many ways seem to prefer to be defended from the First Amendment rather than to defend it.

Last month, students at Emory University in Atlanta protested that their safety was threatened by chalk messages showing support for Donald Trump for president. The president of the University agreed.

In early March, two student government representatives at Bowdoin College faced impeachment proceedings for attending a fiesta-themed party with mini sombreros, since the event was deemed an example of “ethnic stereotyping.”  

This week, North Carolina’s Lt. Gov. Dan Forest proposed a policy for the state’s public university system that would punish “those who interrupt the free expression of others," such as hecklers during a speech.

The rise of a culture designed to protect students from words and ideas that seem threatening has some experts questioning the effect that this hyper-sensitivity could be having on higher education and society at large.

Defining the terms

In a long-form piece in The Atlantic in Sept. 2015, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explored this phenomenon that they dubbed “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Words like ‘microaggressions’, which are small, seemingly harmless words or actions that can be perceived as threatening, and ‘trigger warnings’, which are alerts that professors are expected to issue for potentially offensive or provocative material, haved moved from obscure terms to everyday language on campus, they said.

“This new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion,” they wrote.

Another recent piece in the Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf explored a new scholarly paper by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, who say that this new cultural phenomenon is different from previous cultures that have come before it, such as cultures that valued dignity or honor when faced with an aggrievance.

Now, the new cultural norm is “victimhood culture”, which values immediately and publicly airing one’s grievances, in hopes to “provoke sympathy and antagonism” toward the initial offender by “advertising (one’s) status as an aggrieved party,” Friedersdorf wrote.    

A Catholic college perspective

While many public universities are in the throes of grappling with the consequences of victimhood culture, some Catholic liberal arts schools say they have not seen the same cultural shift on their campuses.

Anne Forsyth is the Director of College Relations and Assistant to the President at Thomas Aquinas College (TAC), a Catholic liberal arts school in Santa Paula, California. She said she found it concerning when, for the first time a few years ago, she started hearing about “free speech zones” on college campuses.

“I remember thinking ‘What is this? The whole country is a free-speech zone, what are they talking about? This is America, we all have the freedom to speak.”  

But while she was aware of the culture of victimhood picking up speed on other college campuses, Forsyth said the student body of Thomas Aquinas seems to be untouched by the phenomenon.

“What we see here is endless conversation on all subjects, on which people can really disagree,” she said.

The reasons for the differences are complex, she added. One of the reason is the Christian faith of most of the students, she said, and that “where charity and love prevail, hopefully things will go a little bit better, so hopefully feelings won't be so hurt, people won't seem so doctrinaire,and those things are somewhat muted.”

Other reasons are likely the differences in pedagogy and curriculum, she said. Every class at TAC is in the form of a conversation-based seminar where the students are able to engage with their subjects on a level that wouldn’t be as possible in a large lecture class of hundreds of students, she said.

This engagement allows students to be able to grapple with differing opinions and ideas in ways that other students may not be being equipped to do, she said.

“I think it’s the advancing of an idea different or contrary to your own is what is triggering this (victimhood cultures), precisely because they just don't have the tools to deal with it,” she said.

The school also takes steps to reduce “emotional reasoning” in the classroom by requiring students to address each other during discussions as “Mr.” or “Miss”, she added.

“We're trying to minimize the personal part of it,” she said. “Not that everybody doesn't have a personal stake in these arguments or discussions, because we do, but we don't want to be personal about it in the point of feelings.”

Thomas Aquinas College also provides students with a classical education, with required courses in areas of philosophy, theology and literature that used to be the bread and butter of higher education.

What's God got to do with it?

Dr. William Fahey is the president of Thomas More College, a small, Catholic liberal arts school in New Hampshire. He said that the recent articles about “victimhood culture” are identifying something that’s been happening for several decades in higher education and the culture at large.

“If you have what Benedict XVI called ‘the emancipation of man from God’ in the public square, then it means certain things are going to be absent, certain things are going to become more prominent,” he said. “So if you're not allowed to talk about God at the center, then you can't have traditional ethics, you simply can't. You can't have virtue, you can't have justice, you can't have transcendent things because they actually require some sense of the transcendent.”

“So it’s no surprise if you have a college or university or a country where there is either no discussion allowed or a very perverse discussion of God allowed, you can't have ethics, you can't have real solidarity, because there's nothing that unites everyone,” he added.  

If there is no God, Fahey said, then the only thing that matters is gaining power, and many students have realized the power that comes with claiming victimhood status in today’s world.

But like Thomas Aquinas College, the student body at Thomas More has also not experienced the cultural shift seen at larger public universities for various reasons.

“We have a very traditional Catholic culture here that unifies everyone and we have a sense of justice, so if someone actually feels aggrieved, the categories for understanding that are virtue ethics, you could only understand your irritation as something significant because you perceive there's a violation of justice here, not merely annoyance,” he said.

Thomas More College is also a unique model in that is has less than one hundred students, allowing the student body to become a very tight-knit Catholic community.

“It would be comical at Thomas More College to talk about being marginalized, because one small single Catholic community, we're united in our faith, so we're not going to be prey to the same kind of feeling of alienation that most people in modern society and certainly most college students feel,” he said.

Also similarly to Thomas Aquinas College, Thomas More requires students to take many courses in the humanities and literature, which allow them to see the world through many different perspectives, he said.

“Someone who might be feeling marginalized is going to have a tough time seeing that as significant when they're reading tragedy and hardship, vice and virtue, they're reading kind of the broad sweep of human experiences across many different time zones, many different cultures, many different races,” he said. “And you realize, ‘Huh, there is something called humanity, and it’s foolish to say I'm going to define myself and my actions by (a more narrow category).’”

A Catholic psychologist weighs in

Dr. Gregory Bottaro is a clinical psychologist practicing with Catholic Psych Institute in Connecticut. He said that while it’s necessary and important to recognize that some people have experienced real trauma in their lives, the solution is not to shut themselves off to any experience that might be uncomfortable for them.

“The reality is that real trauma happens,” he said. “If you have somebody who’s been raped and they’re hearing a story about (rape)...a trigger warning essentially can be a positive thing to give people a heads up that we’re approaching an area that may trigger something for you, but the fact of the matter is that we are going to approach it,” he said.

“So that’s the intent, to just give people the awareness that if there’s something here you may have struggled with, get ready, get yourself ready for what we’re about to do.”  

But when awareness takes the form of censorship of differing opinions, then it’s gone too far, he said. For example, trigger warnings, which can be used as an appropriate way to alert someone that certain material may trigger something for them, are often used as an excuse to not engage with material at all.

“The problem is that people take them as permission to avoid or stay away from the material that’s being warned about,” he said.

One of the fundamental definitions of overall health, Dr. Bottaro added, is flexibility, and that applies whether one is referring to biological, physical, spiritual or emotional health.

“Flexibility is an intrinsic quality of overall health, and that means that you can have the ability to talk to different kinds of people, have different opinions, dialogue with different people with different perspectives or different cultural views, different world views, and that’s ultimately what’s healthy,” he said.

Therefore, the inability to handle differing opinions could be a sign of psychological sickness or disorder.

The solution?

A Catholic worldview can be extremely helpful for people encountering differing ideas and opinions, because they are grounded in something fundamental, Dr. Bottaro said.

“A Catholic worldview gives us a stable foundation that goes to the very root of what it is to be human,” Dr. Bottaro said. “So if our foundation is at the deepest root, then we don’t have t be afraid to dialogue with other people from different perspectives, we don’t have to be afraid of what other people might say to us, because we’re grounded on the deepest foundation possible.”

“And that’s ultimately what’s missing in our culture, that’s why they need these safe spaces, because they don’t have any kind of deeply rooted foundation, they’re not grounded, and so they need to stop people from saying scary things because it’s going to knock them off balance,” he added.

Some secular universities and institutions are recognizing the “culture of victimhood” as a threat to the First Amendment right to the freedom of speech, and are taking action. A new group at Princeton University, called the “Princeton Open Campus Coalition”, who wrote in an open letter to the University’s president that they “are concerned mainly with the importance of preserving an intellectual culture in which all members of the Princeton community feel free to engage in civil discussion and to express their convictions without fear of being subjected to intimidation or abuse.”

The Arizona state senate has also decided to take action against victimhood culture by passing a bill that would prevent colleges and universities from restricting free speech in a public forum. The Senate approved the bill on a 21-8 vote, and it now goes back to the House for a final vote.

However, Dr. Fahey said, until secular universities and society as a whole once again recognize God and some sense of the transcendent as the center, then there’s no way to escape the rising culture of victimhood as an institutionalized part of society.

“The culture of victimhood can't really come out of a religious society,” Dr. Fahey said.

“I would go so far as to say that if you have an authentically religious culture of any of the traditional religions, you're not going to have this sense of victimhood.”

“In the United States, the religious tradition is Christianity. If you don't recognize that and have some sympathy for the other great religions, then you're never going to escape this problem, instead you're going to build an office to deal with victimhood, and in that action, as long as you have that office, you’ve now made it part of your culture, you've now made it systemic.” 

Photo credit: www.shutterstock.com.

Colo. baker faces 're-education' training after state court refuses to take case

Denver, Colo., Apr 29, 2016 / 12:08 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The lawyers of the bakery owner who made headlines for declining to make a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding is “evaluating all legal options” to preserve the man’s First Amendment rights after the state’s highest court declined to take the case.

“We asked the Colorado Supreme Court to take this case to ensure that government understands that its duty is to protect the people’s freedom to follow their beliefs personally and professionally, not force them to violate those beliefs as the price of earning a living,” Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Jeremy Tedesco said in an April 25 statement.

On April 25 the Colorado Supreme Court declined to review an earlier decision from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission requiring Jack Phillips and his staff at Masterpiece Cakeshop to undergo re-education training and file quarterly compliance reports for two years.

“Jack, who has happily served people of all backgrounds for years, simply exercised the long-cherished American freedom to decline to use his artistic talents to promote a message and event with which he disagrees, and that freedom shouldn’t be placed in jeopardy for anyone,” Tedesco continued.

Now Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit legal organization that advocates for the rights of citizens to live out their faith freely, says that they are “evaluating all legal options to preserve this freedom for Jack.”

The baker made headlines when in 2012 he declined to bake a wedding cake for a couple’s same-sex wedding ceremony, citing his religious beliefs about gay marriage in an exchange that lasted less than a minute, according to Phillips. The baker told the clients he’d gladly make them any other kind of cake, just not one celebrating their same-sex marriage.

At the time, same-sex marriage was not legally recognized in the state of Colorado, but the two men filed a legal complaint against him.

As a result, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ordered Phillips and his business to have his staff staff to undergo anti-discrimination training while submitting quarterly reports on how his company is changing its policies to comply.

Since then, Phillips’ shop has stopped baking wedding cakes in order to continue operating his business without violating his religious beliefs, he says.

Why there's no freedom without religious liberty

Washington D.C., Apr 28, 2016 / 04:16 pm (CNA).- It is perhaps not surprising that an American priest, Fr. John Courtney Murray, was one of the key contributors to Dignitatis Humanae, the most important document in modern times on the Catholic Church and religious freedom.

Together with then-Bishop Karol Wojtyla, another champion for religious freedom who would go on to become Pope John Paul II, Fr. Murray and the Second Vatican Council spelled out the Catholic Church’s support of religious freedom as one of the most basic rights necessary for human dignity.

In a new video, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops argues that understanding and promoting the Church’s teachings on this most basic freedom is now more important than ever, in light of recent threats to this right both at home and abroad.

“Religious freedom is one of the basic freedoms of the human person, because without religious freedom and freedom of conscience, all other freedoms are without foundation,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development for the USCCB.

The video points to the ongoing legal battle between the Little Sisters of the Poor and the United States government as a prominent example of the threat to religious freedom in the United States. The federal government has exempted many other organizations’ employee health care plans from a requirement to provide contraception and drugs that can produce abortions. But it has no exemption for the Little Sisters of the Poor, who help run houses to care for the elderly poor.

“The Little Sisters of the Poor are being harassed by the United States government for a particular regulation in which the Obama administration deems it necessary that these sisters be compelled to participate in an insurance program that is against the precepts of their faith,” Archbishop Wenski said.

In the video, many supporters of the Little Sisters, including those whose family members have been residents in nursing homes run by the Sisters, said that it would be a great loss should the government force these religious institutions to close, as the Sisters provide something beyond just practical care.

“There’s a spiritual component in the way that they live their lives that adds to not only the enrichment of the residents lives, but those who are in contact with them, who work with them, who just hear about them,” said Carmel Kang, whose family member was a resident with the Little Sisters.

“The high point of our life is to be with the dying,” Sr. Mary Bernard, LSP, said in the video.

“Life is a precious gift that we’ve each received,” she added. “And with that is the right to life, pursuit of happiness, liberty to practice your religion.”

Other experts in the video weigh in, warning that governments that lack religious freedom soon become manipulative and negligent of other freedoms.

“Reason divorced from faith – rationality – is simply an instrument to manipulate nature, and other human beings, and reality,” said Rev. Eugene Rivers II, a Pentecostal pastor and American activist.

“Which is why we’ve got to have faith, which gives us the ability to see beyond more limited conceptions of reason.”

Rick Garnett, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, warned that “governments that try to squash religious freedom tend to face political fragmentation, political disunity.”  

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chair of the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, said that threats to religious freedom have started small in the United States. People might start to notice that what they do in Church is fine, but that it is socially unacceptable to bring their faith into the workplace or their business or the public square in any capacity, he said.

But the more violent forms of religious persecution that are happening abroad in places like China, Africa and the Middle East are all the more reason for people in the United States to strongly defend religious freedom, said Helen Alvare, a professor at George Mason University Law School.

“If we don’t have religious liberty, then there’s lots of people struggling with these issues who will never see a model to live out these teachings with integrity,” Alvare said.  

Pope Francis, like his predecessors, continues to speak about religious freedom in a way that is shaped by Dignitatis Humanae, Archbishop Lori said. It is a “document of hope,” he added, because it speaks not only of the human person’s right to be free of coercion from the government, but of the right to religious freedom as fundamental to human dignity.

“It is in accordance with their dignity as persons – that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility – that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth,” the document reads.

Understanding religious freedom through the teachings of the Church is important and necessary if it is to prevail in the United States, Archbishop Lori concluded.

“If we cherish it, protect it, know about it, and proclaim it, it will triumph.”
 
The full video and a corresponding discussion guide are available on the USCCB’s website.
 

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