Catholic birth control decree remains controversial

c. 2008 Religion News Service (RNS) Some say Pope Paul VI predicted the dangers of loosening sexual morals: widespread divorce, disease and promiscuity. Others say he cracked open a culture of dissent that has seeped into every corner of the church. Either way, 40 years after Paul VI released “Humanae Vitae'' on July 25, 1968, the papal encylical banning most forms of birth control continues to be a flashpoint in the Catholic Church. Earlier this year, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said Humanae Vitae set up “a direct conflict between many people's experience … and the authority of the church.'' “We have then the beginning of the dissolution of the teaching authority of the church, with consequences we still live with,'' said George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Christmas pageant evolves but endures

PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS) Clearly, the length of gold tinsel draped around her neck was not what Melinda Smith was hoping for. “Is this all I get?” she pleaded with Beth Keys, director of the annual interactive Christmas pageant at Portland’s Presbyterian Church of Laurelhurst. Keys disappeared and returned with a long, white gown, its collar ruffled, its sleeves long and sweeping.

10 minutes with …Jack Brown

(RNS) Redeemer Covenant Church in Caledonia, Mich., decided on a different set of Christmas decorations this year: Instead of fresh poinsettias and artificial greens, Redeemer’s sanctuary is filled with canned goods and clothing that will be donated to the needy. The Rev. Jack Brown, who pastors the congregation with his wife, Sharon, explained why they made the change. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Q: Your church has been known for a big Christmas presentation in years past. How big or extravagant was it?

COMMENTARY: The Christmas gift you can give to yourself

(RNS) The following is an actual exchange, unedited, except to remove the profanity. The setting: Mid-morning at a suburban gift boutique. The time: The week before Christmas. The players: The pleasant store clerk, a 40-something soccer mom-type and me (browsing for stocking stuffers). Enter the frazzled soccer mom.

GUEST COMMENTARY: An unconscionable oversight

WASHINGTON (RNS) Conscience protection — or perhaps, the lack of it — is a key issue in health care reform. Forcing someone to violate his or her conscience is an act of violence no civilized society should tolerate. U.S. Catholic bishops are seeking conscience protection for two groups: Catholic and other institutions (especially health care institutions), so they can to be true to their mission; and all health care personnel, so they can be true to their conscience. The most obvious concern is the right of hospitals not to perform abortions. The Weldon Amendment, which is attached to the annual Health and Human Services funding bill, protects hospitals that do not provide, refer for or pay for abortions.

SLIDESHOW: Salvation for religious properties

In 1949, an order of Dominican Sisters opened a school on an old orchard in Plainville, Mass. Sister Chris Loughlin explains why the sisters had no choice but to close the school after just 25 years, and how their religious mission has evolved since. Right-click here to download the video file.

Lutheran conservatives delay decision to leave ELCA

(RNS) Conservatives upset over the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s recent decision to allow non-celibate gay clergy have voted to create a free-standing synod and study for a year whether to leave the denomination. “Basically, what we’re saying is that a year from now, we’re going to have a proposal of some form,” said the Rev. David Baer of Whitewood, S.D., a member of Lutheran CORE, which hosted the meeting of 1,200 conservatives in an Indianapolis suburb last week (Sept. 25-26). The group approved a constitution for CORE and asked a steering committee to return in a year with recommendations on whether to leave the ELCA, merge with another Lutheran denomination, or start their own. Ultimately, the group hopes to “reconfigure” Lutheranism in North America to accord with traditional views of Scripture and homosexuality.

Famed Unitarian preacher Forrest Church dies at 61

(RNS) The Rev. Forrest Church, perhaps the nation’s best known Unitarian Universalist preacher, died Thursday (Sept. 24) after a three-year battle with cancer that shaped his final years of ministry into an extended reflection on death and dying. Church, 61, had been pastor of New York’s Unitarian Church of All Souls for more than 30 years, transforming a once-sleepy parish of 100 worshippers into a flagship pulpit that regularly attracted crowds of 1,000 or more. Church died of esophageal cancer, a condition that caused him to step down as senior pastor in 2006 and take on the title of minister of public theology. During his illness, he wrote two books, including his most recent, “Love and Death.”

Irish seminarians reach 10-year high after record lows

DUBLIN (RNS/ENI) The number of Irish men entering the seminary to become Roman Catholic priests has risen to a 10-year high following years of dwindling vocations. The Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors for the Catholic Church in Ireland said that 36 new seminarians were about to begin studying for the priesthood in Irish dioceses. The announcement came against the backdrop of a recent damning government report about the abuse of children in Catholic institutions. “Despite ongoing challenges to the gospel values in the modern world, it is encouraging to see evidence that God continues to inspire people to answer his call of service in the priesthood,” said the Rev. Patrick Rushe, national coordinator of diocesan vocations. The number of seminary entrants represents the highest intake of new students since 1999, and is almost double the number that entered in 2003.