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California’s limit on home religious gatherings too strict, US Supreme Court says

U.S. Supreme Court building / Steven Frame/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Apr 12, 2021 / 13:49 pm (CNA).

California’s coronavirus restrictions on home-based religious gatherings like Bible studies, worship and prayer meetings were more strict than the constitution allows, the U.S. Supreme Court said in a 5-4 court order late Friday.

Citing an appeals court decision in a different case, the unsigned majority’s court order said the state cannot “assume the worst when people go to worship but assume the best when people go to work.”

California had said its restrictions on social gatherings was “entirely neutral.” Its current coronavirus mitigation rules have limited indoor social gatherings to no more than three households, and attendees must wear masks and keep physical distance from each other.

These rules were challenged by Rev. Jeremy Wong and Karen Busch,  two residents of Santa Clara County, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They wanted to host small, in-person Bible studies in their homes, the Associated Press said. In the case known as Tandon v. Newsom, they objected that the limits interfered with their free exercise of religion.

“There is zero evidence that an indoor Bible study is riskier than a trip to the movies, dinner in a restaurant, a workout in a gym or a gathering with dozens of friends at a winery, brewery, distillery or bowling alley,” the plaintiffs said in their appeal to the Supreme Court, the New York Times reports.

The Supreme Court’s order critiqued the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, saying “instead of requiring the State to explain why it could not safely permit at-home worshipers to gather in larger numbers while using precautions used in secular activities, the Ninth Circuit erroneously declared that such measures might not ‘translate readily’ to the home.”

The order faulted the appellate court’s series of decisions on California rules.

“This is the fifth time the Court has summarily rejected the Ninth Circuit’s analysis of California’s COVID restrictions on religious exercise,” said the order. “It is unsurprising that such litigants are entitled to relief.”

“California’s Blueprint System contains myriad exceptions and accommodations for comparable activities, thus requiring the application of strict scrutiny,” the Supreme Court said. Under this standard, the state must pursue its interest through laws that are “narrowly tailored.”

David Cortman, senior counsel and vice president of U.S. litigation with the Alliance Defending Freedom legal group, welcomed the decision.

“With this fifth rejection of California’s COVID-19 restrictions on religious exercise, the Supreme Court has made abundantly clear that the government has a duty to respect the First Amendment in this context and many others,” Cortman said April 10.

“As the court explained, the government can’t single out religious activities for harsher treatment than non-religious ones,” he added. “The court also rejected the idea that such unfair treatment is okay, in this instance, because people gathering for religious purposes in homes somehow can’t be trusted to take the same precautions as people do in other places.”

The court order did draw disagreement from Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and a written dissent from Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

“California limits religious gatherings in homes to three households. If the State also limits all secular gatherings in homes to three households, it has complied with the First Amendment,” Kagan said. “And the State does exactly that: It has adopted a blanket restriction on at-home gatherings of all kinds, religious and secular alike.”

Kagan objected to claims that in-home religious gatherings should be treated “the same as hardware stores and hair salons.” She said “the law does not require that the State equally treat apples and watermelons.”

The court majority however, said comparable secular activities treated “more favorably than at-home religious exercise” under California rules included private suites at sporting events and concerts as well as indoor restaurant dining, where more than three households were allowed to gather.

“Where the government permits other activities to proceed with precautions, it must show that the religious exercise at issue is more dangerous than those activities even when the same precautions are applied,” the Supreme Court said.

Public health officials have said anti-coronavirus health precautions for gatherings include limited attendance capacity, physical distance between households, the use of face coverings or masks, and good hand hygiene. Good ventilation for indoor gatherings has also been stressed.


London police express regret over upset due to halting Good Friday service at Polish parish

DS Andy Wadey of the Metropolitan Police addresses parishioners at Christ the King parish, Balham, south London, April 11, 2021. Credit: Mazur/ via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

London, England, Apr 12, 2021 / 13:46 pm (CNA).

The Archbishop of Southwark and representatives of the Metropolitan Police visited London's Christ the King Polish parish on Sunday, expressing a desire for renewed collaboration and engagement after offers of the police force had halted a Good Friday service there.

“We are all aware of the events that happened here in the afternoon of Good Friday. The intention of the MPS is to protect and support communities in staying safe during the pandemic. We know, however, that many people were very upset by what happened on Good Friday and we deeply regret that,” Detective Superintendent Andy Wadey told the congregation following a Mass on April 11.

“Since then, there has been significant reflection and learning,” he said, by himself and the superintendent responsible for policing teams in the neighborhood, as well as “our colleagues who work with us locally, and also Senior Leaders at New Scotland Yard.”

Wadey said that “the Metropolitan Police truly wishes to serve and protect you in the best possible way. I truly hope that today marks the start of a renewed deep and lasting relationship, with the Parish of Christ the King, Balham and also the wider Polish communities.”

Police officers had interrupted the Good Friday liturgy at Christ the King parish in Balham, south London, April 2, ordering worshippers to leave or face a fine or possible arrest.

A video posted on YouTube showed a police officer addressing the congregation from a pulpit in the sanctuary of the church, informing them that the gathering was “unlawful” under current coronavirus restrictions.

The Archdiocese of Southwark stated April 11 that “Together with the Metropolitan Police Service, a process of reflection has taken place resulting in the commitment of all parties to work together for healing through renewed collaboration and engagement in a spirit of friendship.”

Christ the King parish had said April 3 that “we believe … the police grossly exceeded their powers by issuing their order without adequate reason, as all government requirements were met.” It added, “We believe that borough police officials have been misinformed regarding the current guidelines for places of worship, claiming that the reason for their intervention is the continuing ban on public celebrations in places of worship in London, due to the lockdown introduced from Jan. 4, 2021. We regret that the rights of worshipers have been harmed on such an important day for every believer and that our worship has been profaned.”

After the April 11 Mass, Archbishop John Wilson of Southwark said that since the Good Friday incident “the genuine concerns of the Polish Catholic Mission, and Christ the King Parish community, have been heard directly by the Metropolitan Police Service. We all share the same desire to move forward in friendship, working together for the common good. We are committed to enabling freedom of worship for everyone, in safe and secure environments.”

He indicated that he, Wadey, and Superintendent Roger Arditti were at Christ the King that day at the invitation of Msgr. Stefan Wylężek, vicar for the Polish mission in England and Wales, and Msgr. Władysław Wyszowadzki, the parish's pastor.

“I thank them for their kindness and the very fruitful conversations we have had together with the Police this past week,” Archbishop Wilson said.

He added that Arditti and Wadey would be meeting shortly with him and with clergy and representatives of the parish “to begin a conversation about how the Polish Catholic Community in Balham and the Metropolitan Police Service can work to enhance communication and engagement with each other.”

Msgr. Wyszowadzki commented that while the interruption of the liturgy on Good Friday was very painful, “we willingly extend our hand to the representatives of the Police authorities in order to further build a deep and lasting relationship between us, based on mutual respect and regard for the rights of worshippers to freely practice their faith.”

The Metropolitan Police had said April 3 that officers had been “called to a report of crowds of people queuing outside” Christ the King the previous day.

“Officers attended and found a large number of people inside the church. Some people were not wearing masks and those present were clearly not socially distanced.”

“We are particularly concerned about the risk of transmission of the COVID-19 virus as a result of large indoor gatherings at which people are not socially distanced and some are not wearing masks. As such, officers made the decision that it was not safe for that particular service to continue.”

The statement continued: “Understanding the sensitivity of the situation, officers engaged with the priest outside the church and were invited inside to address the congregation. No fixed penalty notices were issued.”

“This was one of a series of numerous events taking place at the church over the Easter period. We are engaging with church authorities today and will continue to do so in the coming days.”

Tabernacle, Eucharist desecrated in Mexican chapel

Eucharistic Adoration. / Elisa Pires via JMJ Rio 2013/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

ACI Prensa Staff, Apr 12, 2021 / 12:01 pm (CNA).

The Diocese of Querétaro, Mexico, reported that Holy Family Chapel in Saint Sebastian Parish was robbed last week, its tabernacle desecrated, and the Eucharist thrown to the ground.

In an April 9 statement, the diocese expressed its “sadness and concern” that the church “was violated” the night of April 8.

“They destroyed some things and sacred objects. They threw the Eucharistic Species on the floor and stole some of the pixes,” the diocese said.

The statement, signed by the chancellor, asked “the Christian community to join together to offer God a Solemn Eucharistic Vigil, as an act of reparation for the sacrilege against the Most Holy Body and Blood of Our Lord.”

The statement also called on the episcopal vicar for pastoral ministry, Fr. Rogelio Olvera Vargas, “to increase the security of the churches and chapels, and to continue promoting perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.”

“Let us pray to God for the repentance and the conversion of those who, without the fear of God, dare to carry out such sad and painful actions, which attack the sanctity of the Eucharist, but above all are detrimental to those who commit them,” they said.

The Mexican diocese also noted that Canon 1367 of the Code of Canon Law warns that “A person who throws to the ground the consecrated species or takes or retains them for a sacrilegious purpose incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.”

“May this type of aggression and offense against Our Lord Jesus Christ and his Holy Name, encourage us, in an organized manner, to strengthen our efforts to guard and watch over of the tabernacles in our churches, so that no tabernacle is left unattended,” the Mexican diocese urged.


Missing El Paso priest found safe

CNA Staff, Apr 12, 2021 / 11:11 am (CNA).

A Catholic priest of the diocese of El Paso who went missing last week has been found safe. 

The diocese reported Father Antonio Martinez Ceballos, assistant pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in El Paso’s Lower Valley, missing to the police on April 8. 

Martinez, who is originally from Colombia, was last seen the evening of April 6 at his parish. 

Early April 9, the diocese reported that thanks to efforts by the police and the community, Father Martinez had been found safe. 

The diocese told local news that they would provide no further comment about his disappearance or the circumstances surrounding how he was found. 

The police department's missing flyer stated that Martinez was “possibly wanting to head to Colombia.”

Italian judge issues arrest warrant for Gianluigi Torzi, who brokered Vatican property deal

Police officer on duty at St Peter's square in Vatican City. / Maciej Matlak/Shutterstock

Rome Newsroom, Apr 12, 2021 / 10:05 am (CNA).

An Italian magistrate has issued an arrest warrant for Gianluigi Torzi, a broker who is under investigation due to his involvement in the Vatican’s controversial London property purchase.

Judge Corrado Cappiello signed the warrant for Torzi based on the investigation by police in Rome into his suspected fraudulent billing, money laundering, and other financial crimes in collaboration with three of his associates, the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero reported April 12.

Torzi is currently located in the United Kingdom and has not been served with the warrant.

The Italian broker is under investigation by the Vatican for his role in facilitating the Secretariat of State’s purchase of a London property on 60 Sloane Avenue in 2018. The Vatican alleges that in doing so, Torzi was part of a conspiracy to defraud the secretariat of millions of euros.

“It is alarming how easily Gianluigi Torzi and his collaborators managed to organize fraudulent operations,” Judge Cappiello wrote, according to the Italian newspaper.

“In addition to the criminal proceedings pending within Vatican City State for which he was recently arrested, Gianluigi Torzi, has police records for unlawful financial activities, fraud, issuing and using invoices for non-existent transactions and is also being investigated for fraudulent bankruptcy … within the Tag Communications group,” he said.

Torzi was arrested by the Vatican last summer and held in custody for a little more than a week on charges of two counts of embezzlement, two counts of fraud, extortion, and money laundering.

Last month, a British judge reversed the seizure of Torzi’s accounts that had been requested by Vatican prosecutors. 

Judge Tony Baumgartner of Southwark Crown Court stated that the Vatican’s “non-disclosures and misrepresentations are so appalling that the ultimate sanction” to reverse the seizure of the assets was appropriate.

The secretariat bought the property at 60 Sloane Avenue in London in stages between 2014 and 2018 from Italian businessman Raffaele Mincione. Torzi brokered the sale, earning millions of euros for his role in the final stage of the deal.

Torzi sold the secretariat the 30,000 majority shares in Gutt SA, the holding company through which the London property was purchased, while he retained the 1,000 shares with voting rights.

The Vatican claims Torzi was “secretive and dishonest” when he retained the voting shares, while Torzi argues that everything was transparent and communicated to Vatican officials in conversation and in documents signed by them.

In his ruling, Baumgartner sided with Torzi, who has denied wrongdoing, saying that the claim that the broker was “secretive and dishonest” was not supported by the evidence before him and a “misrepresentation” by Vatican prosecutors.

Reuters reported that a separate arrest warrant states that Torzi billed the Vatican for a total 15 million euros for work that it said was not carried out. It also stated that it remains unclear whether Italian authorities will issue an international warrant for Torzi’s arrest.

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Vatican summit on 'theology of the priesthood' will look at questions raised in recent synods

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. / Franco Origlio/Getty Images News.

Vatican City, Apr 12, 2021 / 07:00 am (CNA).

Cardinal Marc Ouellet announced Monday that the Vatican will host a theological symposium on the priesthood that will touch on questions raised in recent synods, including priestly celibacy, dwindling vocations, and the role of women in the Church.

“Insight from Divine Revelation on the priesthood of Christ and the participation of the Church in this priesthood is a crucial question for our time,” Cardinal Ouellet said at a Vatican press conference on April 12.

“During the synods on the family, on young people, and on the Church in Amazonia, questions regarding the priesthood and synodality were raised in all their magnitude, with an insistence on the reality of baptism, the basis of all vocations,” the cardinal said.

“The time has come to prolong the reflection and to promote a vocational movement facilitating the sharing of the various Church experiences all over the planet.”

The international theological symposium organized by the Congregation for Bishops will take place February 17-19, 2022 at the Vatican.

Cardinal Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, said that the symposium, entitled “Toward a Fundamental Theology of the Priesthood,” will be open to all, but is especially intended for bishops and those interested in the theology of the priesthood. 

“Given the scope of this symposium, we hope it will mark a stage in the research of the Church  and encourage new initiatives and publications,” Ouellet said.

In his presentation of the 2022 theological summit on the priesthood, the cardinal said that the symposium will serve to clarify “a fundamental relationship between the priesthood of the baptized, which the Second Vatican Council has enhanced, and the priesthood of ministers, bishops and priests, which the Catholic Church has always affirmed and specified.”

“This rapport is not to be taken for granted in our time, because it entails pastoral readjustments, and it involves ecumenical questions not to be ignored, as well as the cultural movements that question the place of women in the Church,” he added.

When asked at the Vatican press conference whether the symposium will return to the debates from the 2019 Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region on the ordination of mature, married men, sometimes called “viri probati,” Ouellet responded that priestly celibacy will not be the main focus of the summit, but said that the topic will be addressed.

“We are very aware that the celibacy issue is important and it will be dealt with, but it will not be the central issue of the symposium,” Ouellet said.

“It is not a symposium on priestly celibacy, as if this question had to be fundamentally taken up again, it is a broader perspective, starting with baptism.”

Ouellet published a book on the uninterrupted tradition of priestly celibacy in the Latin rite in 2019: Friends of the Bridegroom: For a Renewed Vision of Priestly Celibacy.

"We are all aware of the scarcity of vocations in many regions, as well as tensions on the ground due to divergent pastoral visions, challenges posed by multiculturalism and migrations, not to mention the ideologies that condition the witness of the baptized and the exercise of the priestly ministry in secularized societies," Ouellet said at the press conference.

"In this context, how can we live a missionary conversion of all the baptized without a new awareness of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church and to the world through the Risen Christ?"

The cardinal said that the Second Vatican Council put the “priesthood of the baptized back in the foreground,” but that the “synthesis made by the Council has not entered the life of the Church.”

“The symposium will serve to deepen this question. It is not just a question of the way of organization and division of functions, but of the mystery of the Church,” he said.

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