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Planned Parenthood coronavirus loans could face DOJ investigation

CNA Staff, May 21, 2020 / 12:30 pm (CNA).- More than two dozen senators asked the attorney general on Thursday to investigate Planned Parenthood affiliates that have received emergency federal loans.

A letter from 27 senators, led by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), asked Attorney General William Barr to investigate 37 Planned Parenthood affiliates that reportedly applied for and received $80 million in emergency small business loans in recent weeks, during the pandemic.

The senators noted that “it seems clear that Planned Parenthood knew that it was ineligible for the small business loans under the CARES Act long before its affiliates fraudulently self-certified that they were eligible,” the senators stated.

“As you know, fraudulent loan applications can trigger both civil and criminal penalties,” their letter stated.

The loans under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) were initially set up in March under the CARES Act, as an emergency measure to help eligible small businesses and non-profits keep employees on payroll during the pandemic. The loans could become grants if certain conditions were met.

To be eligible for PPP loans, businesses and non-profits could not have more than 500 employees. If they were affiliated with a larger national organization under existing Small Business Administration (SBA) rules, then they would be counted together with the larger organization and all its affiliates.

Faith-based groups were exempt from the affiliation requirement, which meant that Catholic parishes and schools—while part of a larger diocese—were not all lumped together and counted as a single entity that would be ineligible for PPP loans. Thousands of parishes have applied for and received PPP loans.

Other national organizations such as Planned Parenthood, which says it has 49 affiliates around the country, were meant to be subject to the affiliation rules and thus were considered ineligible for the emergency assistance.

Funding of Planned Parenthood was part of the negotiations for the CARES Act in March, and the bill passed reportedly with Planned Parenthood locked out of the PPP loan program. On March 27, when the bill passed the House, Planned Parenthood Action decried the “attacks on reproductive care”

“The latest coronavirus relief package expands the Hyde Amendment to a new pot of funds and attempts to target Planned Parenthood health centers — a cruel disservice to the millions of people across the country who are already struggling to access care,” Planned Parenthood’s acting president Alexis McGill-Johnson stated.

Yet on Tuesday, Fox News reported that 37 Planned Parenthood affiliates applied for and received $80 million in PPP loans. The SBA was seeking for the affiliates to return the loans, Fox News reported.

The letter from the 27 senators cited Planned Parenthood’s “clear ineligibility under the statutory text” of the CARES Act which set up the first round of PPP loans.

“It was also well-publicized at the time that the CARES Act did not allow Planned Parenthood affiliates to utilize these loans,” the letter stated.

Some publicly-traded corporations received PPP loans. CNBC reported in April that more than 245 public companies applied for nearly $1 billion in PPP loans.

US fertility rates fall again, and coronavirus could make it worse

CNA Staff, May 21, 2020 / 08:15 am (CNA).- The birth rate in the United States fell to a record low last year, with the fewest babies being born in 35 years. Experts are predicting the trend to continue, and warn the coronavirus could cause an even sharper decline in future years.

Statistics released May 19 by the Centers for Disease Control National Center for Health Statistics show that, in 2019, 3.75 million children were born – a drop of 1% from 2018. The figures also show a 2% drop in overall fertility, with only 58.2 births registered for every 1,000 women between the ages of 15-44. This is the lowest rate since records began in 1909.

The overall fertility rate now stands at 1.7, well below the 2.1 needed for population replacement.

Birthrates have been in steady decline for more than a decade following a peak before the 2008 financial crisis. The 2019 statistics show falling fertility across all age groups except one, women in their 40s.

Dr. Catherine Pakaluk, Assistant Professor of Social Research and Economic thought at the Catholic University of America, told CNA that the data confirms the ongoing trend seen over the last decade, and that the current coronavirus pandemic is likely to further depress fertility.

“The downward trend in birth rates observed in the last several years is not a flash in the pan,” she told CNA. “Unfortunately, the economic devastation ushered in by COVID-19 is likely to make late 2020 worse, and 2021 worse still.”

Many have speculated that months of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders could result in a mini “baby boom,” and that 2020 figures might show a spike in births towards the end of the year. But, Pakaluk warned, this optimism could prove to be unfounded.

“You'll hear lots of people joke about couples on lockdown with nothing better to do than 'make a baby'. But that's just wishful thinking.”

“Plenty of evidence says that unemployment is one of the best predictors of negative fertility shocks. With new jobless claims approaching a staggering 40 million, there are many couples, sadly, who will choose not to have a baby that they already conceived -abortion- and certainly many more who will postpone a baby they were hoping to have this year or next,” she said.

“For some fraction of those, that postponement will end up being permanent. Expect 2020, but especially 2021, to be far worse than what we see here.”

Several trends continued in the data, suggesting that long term fertility rates will continue to drop. Teenage pregnancies have been in sharp decline for decades, with births among women under 20 dropping a further 5%, and declining by 73% overall since a peak in 1991.

Birthrates among Hispanic women also continued to drop, registering 20% fewer births than 2008 projections anticipated. Hispanic women account for nearly 25% of U.S. births.

Experts have long warned about the wider societal and economic problems associated with declining birth rates, especially below the population replacement rate. Programs like social welfare and subsidized medical care rely on growing populations which can contribute to the care of aging generations.

Commenting on these trends in an interview with CNA last year, Pakaluk said that the problems were obvious.

“We see immediately that it is not socially optimal from any rational social planning perspective because you know you cannot support the generous social programs that we like to think are good for society,” Pakaluk said.

“Things like a decent social security system, MediCare, MedicAid, you just cannot sustain them in the long run with a total fertility rate of 1.7.”

But, she warned, the problems caused by declining births was individual, not just societal.

“While the wider societal problems are well known,” Pakaluk said, “what is fascinating is that is seems that it isn’t individually optimal either.”

“What we do know, which is not often raised in media coverage, is that over the last several decades every survey in a Western country that asks women to describe their ideal family size – every single one everywhere – gives you a number about one child more than women end up having.”

Pakaluk said that the connection between parenthood and individual happiness is well known but rarely considered in relation to the fertility gap.

“We do know that children are a tremendous source of satisfaction for both men and women and if you take the net effect of [available data] on happiness and wellbeing - even in very controlled studies - we know that children contribute a tremendous amount of happiness.”

“I would certainly say that we need to look at [how] we have the lowest birthrates on record and the highest rates of addiction and depression on record. I’m not ready to say that is causal, but I think we need to think about it,” Pakaluk said.

“We are living in a fascinating paradox. In the post-feminist age of women’s right and control of reproduction they are not getting what it is that they say they want.”

California can't omit churches from re-opening plans, Justice Department says 

Washington D.C., May 21, 2020 / 12:50 am (CNA).- California Gov. Gavin Newsom's efforts to lift some anti-coronavirus restrictions cannot single out churches for stricter treatment than other similar public activities, the U.S. Department of Justice has said.

“Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” Eric S. Dreiband, head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, said in a May 19 letter to Newsom joined by four U.S. attorneys for California.

“Religion and religious worship continue to be central to the lives of millions of Americans. This is true now more than ever,” the letter continued. “Religious communities have rallied to protect their communities from the spread of this disease by making services available online, in parking lots, or outdoors, by indoor services with a majority of pews empty, and in numerous other creative ways that otherwise comply with social distancing and sanitation guidelines.”

California’s rules allow restaurants and other businesses to reopen under social distancing guidelines, the Associated Press reports. Churches, however, are still limited to online services and similar efforts.

The letter to Newsom objected that this is a double standard.

“California has not shown why interactions in offices and studios of the entertainment industry, and in-person operations to facilitate nonessential e-commerce, are included on the list as being allowed with social distancing where telework is not practical, while gatherings with social distancing for purposes of religious worship are forbidden, regardless of whether remote worship is practical or not.”

Dreiband’s letter said this is an “unfair burden” on religious groups and “unequal treatment” that violates their civil rights protections. The letter does not threaten immediate legal action. It recognizes the duty “to protect the health and safety of Californians in the face of a pandemic that is unprecedented in our lifetimes,” but said leaders must balance competing interests and evaluate the changing information about the coronavirus.

“Laws that are not both neutral toward religion and generally applicable are invalid unless the government can prove that they further a compelling interest and are pursued through the least restrictive means possible,” the letter said.

Newsom has indicated religious institutions could start in-person services in the near future, with improvements in measurements of testing, infection, and hospitalization.

“I want to just express my deep admiration to the faith community and the need and desire to know when their congregants can once again start coming back to the pews, coming back together,” Newsom said May 18, Politico reports.

Two Republican legislators have introduced a resolution to limit the governor’s emergency powers. Assemblymember Kevin Kiley said such powers are meant for “conditions of extreme peril” and are not intended to “give a single person the ability to remake all of California law indefinitely.”

In Sacramento County, health officials have received state approval for a more rapid lifting of limitations. The county will allow “drive-through” religious services. San Diego County supervisors have asked the state for permission for a more rapid reopening, including outdoor religious services with restrictions, the Associated Press said.

Some churches in the U.S. and South Korea are believed to be at the center of so-called “super-spreader” events, when numerous infections from the novel coronavirus result. On May 12, the Centers for Disease Control said 53 of 61 choir members who took part in a March 10 choir practice at a church in Skagit County, Washington contracted a confirmed or probable case of the coronavirus. Three singers were hospitalized and two died, E.W. Scripps News reports.

Dreiband’s letter to Newsom cites the Department of Justice’s promise to act on any abuses of religious freedom after some state and local governments sought to enforce tough restrictions on Easter services during the coronavirus pandemic.

Attorney General William Barr issued a statement in mid-April saying that governments cannot put special burdens on religious practice that they do not also impose upon other activities. While state and local governments may enact public emergency restrictions, these regulations cannot impede religious practice while allowing exemptions for similar public activities.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco spoke about epidemic restrictions on churches during a May 13 online briefing “The Church, the State and the Pandemic,” hosted by the San Francisco-based Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship. Stanford Law School professor Michael McConnell, a former federal appellate court judge, was the main speaker at the briefing.

The archbishop, citing his interactions with government leaders, suggested public officials “don’t understand what we can do to keep people safe.” Church leaders need to reach out to officials and inform them what is possible, he said.

“When they think of a worship service they think of something like a megachurch, 1,000 to 2,000 people jammed in a crowded area,” he said. “They don’t think that we can have distance in our churches, or that we can have outdoor services.”

Cordileone cited suggestions from the Thomistic Institute of the Dominican House of Studies, which published guidance on coronavirus and churches composed by a working group of theologians, liturgists, and health care experts.

“It’s a very thorough and detailed document about what we can do to open up for Mass,” Cordileone said.

The California bishops sent a letter to Gov. Newsom with the Thomistic Institute document attached. A few days later the governor “spoke positively about worship and the necessity of faith” and appeared “more favorable to churches opening up for worship,” said the archbishop.

 

Minnesota bishops will reopen public Masses, defy state order

CNA Staff, May 20, 2020 / 05:05 pm (CNA).- The bishops of Minnesota have permitted parishes to resume public Masses, and to defy a statewide order prohibiting religious gatherings exceeding 10 people.

“An order that sweeps so broadly that it prohibits, for example, a gathering of 11 people in a Cathedral with a seating capacity of several thousand defies reason,” the bishops of Minnesota’s six dioceses said in a May 20 statement.

“Therefore, we have chosen to move forward in the absence of any specific timeline laid out by Governor Walz and his Administration. We cannot allow an indefinite suspension of the public celebration of the Mass,” the bishops added.

“We can safely resume public Masses in accordance with both our religious duties and with accepted public health and safety standards.”

The bishops’ letter permits parishes to resume public Masses May 26.

Parishes are not obliged to begin public Masses that day, the bishops said, and those which do will need to meet stringent requirements established by the Church, including a plan to limit attendance to one-third of church capacity, and follow sanitation protocols. They also said that Catholics remain dispensed from the Sunday obligation.

A May 13 executive order began Minnesota’s second stage of statewide response to the coronavirus pandemic. The order, issued by Governor Tim Walz, reopens retail businesses and will gradually reopen restaurants and bars, but limits religious services to 10 people or fewer, with no timeline for loosening religious restrictions.

The bishops’ decision to contravene a statewide executive order is the first made by U.S. bishops since the coronavirus pandemic began.

But Minnesota’s bishops said the state’s prohibitions on religious gatherings of more than 10 people does not respect the right to the free exercise of religion.

“It is now permissible for an unspecified number of people to go to shopping malls and enter stores, so long as no more than 50 percent of the occupancy capacity is reached. Big-box stores have hundreds of people inside at any one time, and the number of goods that are being handled and distributed in one store by many people—stock staff, customers, cashiers—is astounding. Workers are present for many hours per day, often in close proximity. There is no state mandate that customers wear masks in those malls or stores, wash their hands consistently, or follow any specific cleaning protocol,” the bishops wrote.

“In these circumstances, and given the well-researched protocols that we have proposed (and that are being followed successfully elsewhere in our nation) how can reason require us any longer to keep our faithful from the Eucharist?”

The bishops said they had made efforts to work with state leaders, but will move forward in reopening Masses despite the state’s decision to continue limiting religious services.

“We have attempted to engage in dialogue with the Administration. We have twice sent the Governor letters asking for a dialogue, most recently last Saturday. Though public health and public safety officials have listened to our concerns and have created opportunities for input and conversation, we have not received a concrete timeline and roadmap for resuming public worship that includes reasonable guidance on congregational size,” the bishops wrote.

“The human cost to this pandemic has been extraordinary, not just in terms of lives lost to the virus but the rapidly growing problems of job loss, depression, crime and violence, and substance abuse. As Pope Francis has said, the church must be a field hospital, ministering to all, but especially the poor and vulnerable. He has cautioned that overly drastic measures that limit church life will have a disproportionate impact on “the little ones” and those who have no one to rely on,” they added.

“As we work together, we can provide for the essential sacramental life of our faithful, fulfill our duty to worship God, and do so in a way that also protects the common good of our state.”

 

Pennsylvania bishops urge governor not to divert emergency funds from private schools

CNA Staff, May 20, 2020 / 05:01 pm (CNA).- The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is urging Governor Tom Wolf not to divert federal emergency funds, appropriated to help K-12 schools amid the pandemic, away from the state’s private schools.

“That money has been earmarked for ALL schools in our state. Yet, there are efforts underway by the Wolf administration to try to exclude private schools from the benefits of the CARES Act,” Eric Failing, executive director of the PCC, wrote in a May 19 op-ed.

The CARES Act, which Congress passed in March, appropriated $13.2 billion in aid for K-12 education across the country. Approximately $524 million of that aid went to Pennsylvania.

The US Education Department, in guidance issued in April, stated that under the terms of the CARES Act, school districts that receive CARES Act funding must provide “equitable services” to both public and non-public schools.

The American Federation of Teachers, a Washington D.C.-based union, on May 6 issued a statement urging school districts to ignore the Education Department’s guidance, arguing that it is “inequitable, generates dollars for wealthy students in private schools”, and “denies public schools the recovery they desperately need.”

On May 7 Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Education wrote a letter to the assistant US Education Secretary, contending that the current formula for appropriating the funds would lead to huge increases in funding for “more advantaged students” at the expense of “most disadvantaged students” across Pennsylvania.

According to PCC Education Director Sean McAleer, Governor Wolf’s administration, under their own formula for appropriating the funds, is calling for roughly $19 million to go to Catholic and non-public schools students, compared to $66 million using the formula put forth by the Education Department.

Failing noted that while some private schools in Pennsylvania are doing well economically, as are some of the state’s public schools, many serve children in economically disadvantaged areas, and in many cases students depend on financial aid in order to attend.

“There are continued stories of private schools having to close or consolidate because, while they are saving students from failed public school systems in financially distressed communities, they also must address rising costs,” he continued.

Failing also urged Pennsylvania’s officials to consider that if non-public schools shut down or if parents are forced to pull their children out, it will mean an even greater burden on the state’s public school system.

“We are urging the U.S. Department of Education not to give in to these demands to squeeze out private school communities, many of which are serving vulnerable children in economically distressed communities throughout the state,” Failing said.

Pope Francis’ ‘journalism for peace’ starts with you

Is it just me or is the truth getting harder to find? It seems there is an increasing disagreement in our country over how to interpret both the news and the Good News.

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It’s OK if kids play church

A joyful squeal erupts from the hallway outside of the kitchen as I prepare dinner.

“En garde!” shouts my son in the deepest, throatiest voice his 8 years can dig up.

“En garde!” volleys his 3-year-old sister in a voice far less successful at impersonating a pirate.

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How can I keep them singing?

There are many ways my husband and I differ, but perhaps the most significant is that I come from a family prone to spontaneous outbursts of song while he comes from a family prone to subtle nods as they listen to the car radio together.

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Flint’s holy water

In the spring of 2016, as a graduate student at Michigan State University, I spent some time in Flint interviewing residents and business owners on how they were dealing with the lead crisis. I attended Ash Wednesday Mass at St. Michael Catholic Church  in Flint and was heartbroken to see the drinking fountains and faucets covered with signs saying not to use them. No one living in the church’s rectory could use tap water, either. The holy water bowls were empty, but the hallway was full of donated bottled water for parishioners to take home.

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How to talk to your children about Jesus’ death

“Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” blares from the Echo Dot sitting on our kitchen counter. We listen to it so much, my 3-year-old daughter Dahlia perfectly mimics the announcement of it in that sing-songy computer voice of Alexa’s. “‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’ by Gene Autry,” they report in unison, with the first syllable in Autry drawn out as though Alexa might be a little Southern. It’s the 11th time we’ve listened to “Rudolph” today, which would be fine but for the fact that it’s March and we’re in the middle of Lent.

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