Benedict to make first papal visit to Cyprus

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Benedict XVI’s overseas travels typically involve vast crowds of adoring Catholics, often squeezed into sports stadiums or public venues for large-scale Masses. But when Benedict makes the first official papal visit to Cyprus next weekend (June 4-6), his total flock will number just 25,000, and his main speech will be held in the sports field of an elementary school. Even so, Benedict’s words and gestures during his brief visit are likely to resonate far beyond the divided island nation. The momentous issues on his agenda include the Catholic Church’s relations with Orthodox Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and the plight of Christians throughout the Middle East. On Sunday (June 6), Benedict is scheduled to with a group of Catholic bishops from the Middle East in the Cypriot capital of Nicosia, where he will receive the official agenda for a special October synod on the region.

The Excommunication of Sister Margaret

Nicolas Kristof takes up cudgels today on behalf of Sister Margaret McBride, the administrator at St. Joseph’s hospital in Phoenix who last December was excommunicated by Bishop Thomas Olmstead for agreeing to the termination of a pregnancy in order to save the mother’s life. The story, broken by the Arizona Republic this month, already has its own Wikipedia entry, which provides a sufficient guide to the casuistical debate over whether the Bishop had to do what he did. It’s a species of debate familiar in religious traditions with highly articulated systems of law (e.g. Rabbinic Judaism, Shiite Islam). In the Christian world, it’s what gave casuistry a bad name.

Judge allows clergy housing tax case to proceed

(RNS) A federal judge has rejected a motion filed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury to dismiss a California lawsuit that challenges tax breaks ministers can receive on housing. Section 107 of the Internal Revenue Code allows housing-related tax breaks for clergy. The tax write-offs have been permitted for ministers of all faiths since the 1950s. In a May 21 ruling, U.S. District Judge William Shubb stated that “plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts which, if accepted as true, `leave open the possibility’ that … Section 107 goes too far in aiding and subsidizing religion by providing ministers and churches with tangible financial benefits not allowed secular employers and employees.”

Diocese dismisses call to keep tighter reins on accused bishop

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (RNS) Catholic officials rebuffed calls from a victims group to control the movements of retired Bishop Thomas L. Dupre, who fled to a Maryland treatment center after being confronted with abuse allegations in 2004. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) on Tuesday (May 25) announced that Dupre was no longer living at the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., and had moved to a Catholic retirement home in Washington. The group said allowing Dupre unsupervised living conditions was tantamount to letting a “serial predator” move about unfettered.

Obama sides with Vatican in abuse lawsuit

WASHINGTON (RNS) The Obama administration has made a rare foray into the Catholic sexual abuse crisis, backing the Vatican’s claim it is immune to lawsuits in the U.S. because it is a sovereign nation. In a brief filed on Friday (May 21) before the Supreme Court, the acting solicitor general argued an appellate court erred in 2009 when it ruled the Vatican could be held liable for the alleged sexual abuse of a Seattle-area man in the 1960s. The Supreme Court is considering the Vatican’s appeal of “Holy See v. John V. Doe.” Lawyers from the Department of State and Department of Justice joined the acting solicitor general’s brief, which asks the high court to send the case back to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Lawyers for the unnamed man argue that the Vatican transferred the allegedly abusive priest from Ireland to the U.S., despite knowing of accusations against him.

Churches race to support members impacted by oil spill

(RNS) As oil continues to spill into the Gulf of Mexico, churches and religious organizations along the Louisiana coast are providing food, money and support to parishioners whose livelihoods hang in the balance. More than 7 million gallons of oil have contaminated the Gulf since an oil rig explosion on April 20, pulling the region’s fishing industry to a screeching halt. It’s been particularly hard for churches like St. Patrick Catholic Church in Port Sulphur, La., where many parishioners are fishermen. The Rev. Gerard Stapleton and his staff at St. Patrick’s have distributed food and $100 vouchers to 300 families in his congregation affected by the oil spill.

Wednesday’s roundup

Jewish leaders are gathering in Washington to meet with Congress ahead of a rumored summit between President Obama and Israeli PM Netanyahu. Wonder if Bibi will make it to the White House Jewish American Heritage party on Thursday? Rahm Emanuel won’t be there, he’ll be in Israel to celebrate his son’s bar mitzvah and to kibitz with Israeli leaders. The WaPo asks what’s become of Dems much ballyhooed faith outreach. A NYC community board backed plans to build a Muslim cultural center near the WTC.

COMMENTARY: Tossing the women overboard

(RNS) If you think the Catholic soap opera will go off the air soon, think again. We may be watching another Reformation at work — except this time, the Catholics who don’t walk away are getting excommunicated. Some date the Reformation to Martin Luther’s 1510 trip to Rome. The Catholic Church was raising funds to build St. Peter’s Basilica by selling indulgences.

Pastor with no tongue still has a lot to say

SAINT CHARLES, Mo. (RNS) The Rev. Scott Schmieding sat in an examination room at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston 13 years ago as a surgeon examined a malignant tumor in the center of his tongue. The tumor was spreading rapidly, the doctor told him, and most or all of the preacher’s tongue would need to be removed. He might never be able to swallow on his own. His speech would likely be unintelligible.

RNS EXCLUSIVE: 10 minutes with … Miss USA Rima Fakih

(RNS) Rima Fakih’s path from Lebanon to Las Vegas, where she was crowned Miss USA on May 16, is not unlike other immigrant success stories, but she stands out because of one notable first: she is very likely the first Miss USA who is Muslim. At a time when many Americans view Muslims with suspicion and hostility, Fakih, 24, sees herself as a testament to America’s promise as a land of opportunity. While she insists religion does not define her, the erstwhile Miss Michigan also recognizes she can challenge stereotypes of the cloaked and dour Muslim woman. While some people think Muslims are obsessed with modesty, Fakih strutted down the Miss USA catwalk in a bikini and says she has received nothing but support from Muslims. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity: Q: What role did religion play in your and your family’s life? A: We’re more of a spiritual family.

Catholic “Marriage”

One of the little tics that Catholic opponents of same-sex marriage have developed is to refer to it as “marriage.” As in this from the USCCB’s latest letter to Congress:The movement to redefine marriage to include two persons of the same sex
(a.k.a. same-sex “marriage”) has changed the law substantially toward
that end, at both the state and federal level, and it has become
increasingly clear that laws like ENDA have been instrumental to those
changes.The point would seem to be that because marriage by definition cannot be between persons of the same sex, it is necessary to use quotation marks lest anyone imagine that we are acknowledging that such a thing can or could exist. And, moreover, that since marriage is a sacrament in the Catholic church (this year’s very Catechetical Sunday theme), the word itself must be kept free from pollution.But soft. If all that were the case, why not use the quotation marks when it’s a question of, say, polygamous marriage? As in a recent letter from the Maryland Catholic Conference that refers to “same-sex ‘marriage’ legislation” but then goes on to say:Thus, prohibiting polygamous marriage, incestuous marriage, and possibly even marriage involving a minor will be considered bigoted and discriminatory.

Update: Mother in starving case released from prison

NEWARK, N.J. (RNS) A New York woman convicted earlier this year of starving her four children was released from prison because of “substantial issues” related to her pending appeal, one of her attorneys said Monday (May 24). Estelle Walker, was released from the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, N.J., on May 7 on $200,000 bail pending appeal, under a decision of a state appeals court. Walker, 51, of New York City, was sentenced to eight years in prison on March 30; the judge had previously rejected a defense motion to release her pending appeal. During her trial, Walker’s attorney had said the woman failed to provide food for her children — ages 8, 9, 11 and 13 at the time — because she was praying for divine intervention. Public Defender David Nufrio said Walker was freed because the appellate court found there were enough significant legal questions raised by his office in its appeal of Walker’s conviction.

Arizona tax-tuition program goes to Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (RNS) The U.S. Supreme Court will review the constitutionality of an Arizona program that provides state tax breaks for donations to private school scholarship programs. As part of the 13-year-old tax-tuition program, taxpayers receive a dollar-for-dollar reduction in state income taxes for their donations to not-for-profit school-tuition organizations. Last year, 91.5 percent of the $52 million collected in Arizona went to religious schools, according to The Arizona Republic. Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union and others, argue the program violates the First Amendment, which prohibits government establishment of religion. “Arizona’s convoluted scheme is a backdoor way of subsidizing religious education,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The Christian legal group Alliance Defense Fund will defend Arizona’s tax-tuition program.

Preacher, mistress charged in forcing teens to tape sex sessions

NEWARK, N.J. (RNS) A Newark pastor who authorities said was meeting a female congregant for sex has been arrested and charged with numerous offenses, including endangering the welfare of a minor, after he allegedly forced two teenage girls to videotape the sessions. Authorities say Moises Cotto, 55, had been meeting for the past two years for sex with a parishioner, Brenda Pabon, at a motel in Linden, N.J. Pabon, 37, has been charged with kidnapping and endangering the welfare of a minor. The assistant pastor of the church, Yahweh Templo El Candelero, said he is convinced the pastor is innocent and called Pabon a “problematic parishioner” who had been threatening the pastor. “I do think that an injustice is being done, based on my friendship with the minister,” said Assistant Pastor A. Diaz. “There’s no truth to the allegations.

Churches tread carefully on Arizona boycott

WASHINGTON (RNS) The push for immigration reform has united many faith groups in a fervor not seen since the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, much of it directed at Arizona’s new get-tough immigration law. Yet a central feature of the apartheid fight — a church-led boycott against South Africa — hasn’t been fully embraced by religious groups who are treading carefully on whether to withhold spending in the Grand Canyon State. “Without any debate, we have come to the same side of this issue,” said the Rev. John Dorhauer, who heads the United Church of Christ’s Phoenix-based Southwest Conference. “We don’t do that when we talk about abortion or gay marriage. Those have been very painful dialogues.”