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Pope Francis meets with Legionaries of Christ leader

Pope Francis receives Fr. John Connor, general director of the Legionaries of Christ, in a private audience at the Vatican, April 22, 2021. / Vatican Media

Vatican City, Apr 22, 2021 / 14:00 pm (CNA).

Pope Francis received Fr. John Connor, the general director of the Legionaries of Christ, in a private audience on Thursday.

Following the meeting on April 22, Connor sent a note to the Legionaries in which he said that the audience “renewed in him the importance of filial love for the Holy Father as one of the principal characteristics of our spirit.”

A statement from the religious congregation said that the general director told Pope Francis about the “steps taken in the path of renewal” and “asked him for light and advice in the task that he has been entrusted with.”

/ Vatican Media.
/ Vatican Media.

Connor was elected to lead the embattled religious congregation in February 2020 during its general chapter in Rome.

The priest, who was born in Severna Park, Maryland, had served as the North American territorial director of the Legionaries of Christ since 2014.

The Legionaries of Christ presented a report last month, “Truth, Justice, and Healing,” on their fight against the sexual abuse of minors by members of the congregation.

Unlike a previous report released in December 2019, the new document included the full names of some of the priests who committed sexual abuse.

The congregation founded by Fr. Marcial Maciel -- who himself abused at least 60 minors -- promised to continue to publish an annual report on the progress being made, updating the data, and providing accountability in addressing abuse.

In 2006, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, removed Maciel from public ministry and ordered him to spend the rest of his life in prayer and penance. The Vatican congregation decided not to subject him to a canonical process because of his advanced age. Maciel died in 2008 at the age of 87.

In 2009, Benedict XVI ordered an apostolic visitation, or worldwide administrative review, of the religious institute. He then placed it under direct Vatican oversight. Benedict ordered the congregation to develop and implement new governing documents and policies after Church officials found substantial problems in the Legion’s formation and governance structures.

Pope Francis has continued pushing for reforms to the religious order. In a message to the Legion and to the lay consecrated members of Regnum Christi in January 2020, the pope told members to look toward the future as they continue to reform themselves, seeking continuous conversion under the guidance of the Church.

Regnum Christi is a Catholic movement made up of the Legionaries of Christ religious congregation of priests and seminarians, as well as consecrated and lay members.

There are fewer than 1,000 priests in the Legionaries of Christ, which runs schools in South America, North America, and Europe.

At the end of the private audience, Fr. Connor asked for the pope’s blessing for all of Regnum Christi.

Pope Francis: The biggest defeat for an athlete is to not play as a team

Pope Francis meets a delegation from the Pro Recco Waterpolo 1913 Team at the Vatican, April 22, 2021. / Vatican Media

Vatican City, Apr 22, 2021 / 13:00 pm (CNA).

Pope Francis met with a water polo team Thursday and shared a message about the importance of teamwork.

“Your sport, water polo, is not easy, but it is interesting. It takes discipline to move forward,” Pope Francis told Pro Recco, one of the most successful water polo teams in Italy, during a meeting in the Apostolic Palace April 22.

/ Vatican Media.
/ Vatican Media.

The team is made up of multiple Olympic athletes, including an American, Ben Hallock, who hopes to be a part of the U.S. men’s national team in the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

“When I speak with athletes, I say the same thing. I say two things. Teamwork is the first thing,” the pope said.

“In sport, the biggest defeat for an athlete is to work, to play alone.”

Pope Francis said that his second piece of advice to athletes was not to lose the amateur spirit of sport because this is the true source of the “mystique of sports.”

“That little bit of amateur that must always be there,” he added.

The water polo team from Liguria, northern Italy, gave Pope Francis a pennant signed by each of the athletes. One player also gifted the pope a water polo cap for the Argentine national team.

It was the second papal audience in the team’s history. Pope Pius XII also met with the Pro Recco team in 1957. Team president Maurizio Felugo also participated in that audience 64 years ago.

“It was a historic day that we will cherish forever. We thank the Holy Father for the profound words and affection with which he received us,” Felugo said after the audience, according to the Italian newspaper Settimana Sport.

/ Vatican Media
/ Vatican Media

“In such a difficult period, his figure is a beacon that illuminates our path, which is made up of joy, passion, but also of sacrifice. His testimony will strengthen even more the social values that accompany our commitments, both as athletes and as people, in everyday life."

On Earth Day, Pope Francis says the world is ‘at the limit’

Pope Francis delivers his message at the Vatican for Earth Day, April 22, 2021 / Vatican Media

Vatican City, Apr 22, 2021 / 12:00 pm (CNA).

In a message marking Earth Day, Pope Francis urged world leaders to “act with courage, operate with justice, and always tell the truth to people,” so that the destruction of the planet can be prevented before it is too late.

“The adversity we are experiencing with the pandemic, and which we already feel in climate change, must spur us, must push us to innovation, invention, to seek new paths,” the pope said April 22.

The pope’s video message was played during an Earth Day live stream on YouTube organized by EarthDay.org, which oversees the event held annually on April 22 since 1970.

In his message, Pope Francis said that we do not emerge from a crisis the same, but “we come out better or worse.”

“This is the challenge, and if we do not come out better, we go down a path of self-destruction,” he said.

“In this commemoration of Earth Day, it is always good to remember that the things we have been saying to each other for a long time must not fall into oblivion,” he continued.

Francis said that for some time people have been more aware of the need to protect nature, and that interactions with the biodiversity given to us by God must take place “with the utmost attention and respect.”

The coronavirus pandemic, he said, has taught us more about the impact our lives have on nature and climate change.

“And this shows us that global nature needs our lives on this planet. It involves us all, albeit in multiple, different and unequivocal forms,” he said.

“In summary, the COVID pandemic has taught us this interdependence, this sharing of the planet. And both global disasters, COVID and the climate, show that we don’t have time to wait any longer. That time is pressing us and that, as COVID-19 has taught us, yes, we have the means to face the challenge. We have the means. It is time to act, we are at the limit.”

Pope Francis recalled a Spanish saying: “God always forgives, we men forgive from time to time, nature no longer forgives.”

“And when this destruction of nature is triggered, it is very difficult to stop it. But we still have time. And we will be more resilient if we work together instead of doing it alone,” he said.

New Justice Department official opposed Little Sisters of the Poor in contraceptive mandate case

Christopher E Zimmer/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Apr 22, 2021 / 10:23 am (CNA).

An Obama-era Justice Department official with a history of pro-abortion and pro-transgender statements was confirmed to a top position at the agency on Wednesday.

The Senate voted 51-49 to confirm Vanita Gupta, former president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and former civil rights head at the Justice Department, as associate attorney general on Wednesday afternoon. Gupta, a daughter of Indian immigrants, will be the first woman of color to hold the position.

From 2014 to 2017, Gupta served as head of the civil rights division at the Justice Department. In her new role, she will be expected to address race relations and police reform at the Justice Department, but in overseeing the civil rights division she could also be in a position to advance transgender ideology and abortion.

At her March 9 confirmation hearing before members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gupta would not directly answer what restriction on abortion, if any, she supported. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) posed the question to her.

When Cruz followed up by asking Gupta if she believed the government could ban partial-birth abortion, she replied that “my duty, if confirmed, will be to federal laws and the Constitution.”

“Roe versus Wade is established precedent and has been reaffirmed numerous times by the courts,” she said.

Gupta was also grilled on religious freedom. Cruz asked Gupta if she supported a provision of the Equality Act which supersedes existing religious freedom protections under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

The provision would bar people from making religious freedom claims, when they are sued for discriminating against others based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Equality Act passed the House in March,

“Religious liberty is incredibly important to me. I am a person of faith,” Gupta said. Later, she said that “I support RFRA. I have enforced provisions of RFRA. And the Justice Department must enforce the law. The Justice Department enforces religious liberty and protects it. and it also enforces our nation’s anti-discrimination laws.”

However, in past statements Gupta has argued that religious freedom should, at times, give way to claims of LGBT or sex discrimination.

In the case of the Little Sisters of the Poor against the HHS contraceptive mandate, Gupta argued in 2020 that the sisters and others should not have a religious exemption to the mandate; the rule required health plans to cover contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacients.

“Religious freedom does not create a license to discriminate,” she said, arguing that women seeking contraceptives would be discriminated against.

“This troubling decision allows employers and universities to refuse to provide contraceptive coverage based on religious or moral opposition,” she said of the Catholic sisters being exempt from the mandate.

In 2017, Gupta argued that Christian business owners should be forced to serve events they are morally opposed to.

Colorado Christian baker Jack Phillips was at the Supreme Court after he was sued for not baking a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony. Phillips said that he could not in conscience serve a same-sex wedding ceremony, and said that he should not be forced to do so against his religious beliefs.

Gupta compared the case to segregation-era cases of racial discrimination where business owners flatly denied all service to people based on their race. She argued that religious freedom at times must yield to claims of discrimination.

“On that principle, there ought to be no question that Colorado’s law allowing Charlie Craig and David Mullins to buy a wedding cake from any bakery they choose – notwithstanding that they are gay – should trump claims by a bakery that providing the cake would violate the owner’s religious beliefs,” Gupta wrote in a SCOTUSblog symposium on the case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

“At times, the free exercise of religion yields to other foundational values, including freedom from harm and from discrimination,” she wrote.

While previously at the Justice Department, Gupta also praised the agency’s work on behalf of people identifying as transgender.

In a May 9, 2016 press conference announcing a Justice Department complaint against North Carolina’s bathroom bill, Gupta reiterated the agency’s support for people identifying as transgender.

”Here are the facts.  Transgender men are men – they live, work and study as men.  Transgender women are women – they live, work and study as women,” she said.

Gupta has also supported abortion in previous statements. After the Supreme Court struck down Louisiana’s abortion regulations last summer, she called for passage of federal legislation that would overturn many state limits on abortion.

“Despite this victory, depending on where they live, too many people in America face insurmountable obstacles to obtaining an abortion.  Congress must pass the Women’s Health Protection Act to ensure reproductive freedom is available to all,” Gupta stated. The proposed legislation would subject state abortion laws to increased legal scrutiny.

Cardinal Semeraro: Blessed Carlo Acutis was ‘an authentic apostle of the rosary’

Carlo Acutis. / carloacutis.com

Vatican City, Apr 22, 2021 / 09:00 am (CNA).

A Vatican cardinal has said that Blessed Carlo Acutis’ love for praying the rosary in his “short but full” life exemplified timeless wisdom.

Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, made the comment in a preface to a booklet containing guided meditations for the mysteries of the rosary in Italian with short reflections on the life of the recently beatified teen.

“Pope Francis has said that ‘the prayer of the rosary is the prayer of the humble and of the saints who, through its mysteries, contemplate with Mary the life of Jesus, the merciful face of the Father.’ Among these is Blessed Carlo Acutis,” Cardinal Semeraro wrote in the preface.

“Carlo loved the prayer of the rosary: an ancient prayer, which he refreshed every day on his lips; a prayer he learned and loved since early childhood,” he said.

Blessed Carlo Acutis was a young Catholic from Italy with a passionate devotion to the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and an aptitude for computer programming.

From the ages of 12 to 14, he designed a website cataloging Eucharistic miracles that have occurred around the world, which he launched in 2005. He died of leukemia a year later at the age of 15, offering his suffering for the pope and the Church.

Acutis became the first millennial to be beatified by the Catholic Church in October 2020. The live stream of his beatification Mass in Assisi went viral, with hundreds of thousands of people watching online.

The tomb of Blessed Carlo Acutis in Assisi, Italy.  /  Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.
The tomb of Blessed Carlo Acutis in Assisi, Italy. / Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

“Our Blessed was an authentic apostle of the rosary of the Blessed Virgin,” Semeraro said.

The cardinal highlighted that the young boy is known to have called the rosary “the shortest ladder to go up to heaven.”

The idea of Marian prayer as a “ladder to heaven” is a classic Catholic image, Semeraro said, noting that it can also be found in one of St. Aelred of Rievaulx’s sermons in the 12th century.

“In one of his sermons on the occasion of the feast of the Nativity of Mary, he said that to go up to God we need a light that enlightens us and is itself a ladder by which to ascend,” he said. “This light is Mary, whose name is interpreted: Star of the Sea; this ladder is still Mary and it is with her that we can begin to climb.”

Semeraro said: “If, as Tertullian well said, ‘caro salutis est cardo,’ that is, ‘the flesh is the axis of salvation,’ then praying the rosary means entering into this history of salvation and letting yourself be infected by it.”

“St. John Paul II wrote that the recitation of the rosary puts us ‘in living communion with Jesus by drawing towards the heart of the Mother,” he added.

The booklet of rosary reflections, “The shortest ladder to climb to heaven: The Rosary with Blessed Carlo Acutis,” was written by an Italian priest, Fr. Michele Munno.

Munno has recently written two other devotional booklets. One offers reflections on the Stations of the Cross with Carlo Acutis and the other is a novena prayer he wrote to the saint. Both are in Italian.

Cardinal Semeraro also wrote the introduction to Fr. Munno’s novena prayer booklet, in which he said that Acutis was like the “just one” described in the Book of Wisdom: “being perfected in a short time, he fulfilled long years.”

He said: “We find a nice comment on this wisdom saying in a letter from St. Bernard of Clairvaux: ‘True virtue,’ he wrote, ‘knows no term, it is not enclosed in time. The eternal hunger of the righteous deserves an eternal satisfaction and, even if it is consumed in a short time, it appears as if it had lasted for many centuries, given the permanence of the virtuous impulse.’”

Pope Francis hopes Lebanon can regain the ‘strength of the cedars’

Saad Hariri, Prime Minister-designate of Lebanon, meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican, April 22, 2021. / Vatican Media

Vatican City, Apr 22, 2021 / 08:00 am (CNA).

Pope Francis met the prime minister-designate of Lebanon in a private meeting at the Vatican on Thursday.

Pope Francis told Saad Hariri that he is close to the Lebanese people as they live “a time of great difficulty and uncertainty,” according to a message from Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See Press Office.

During the encounter April 22, which lasted around half an hour, Pope Francis again expressed his desire to visit Lebanon as soon as conditions allow.

According to Bruni, Pope Francis said he hoped that “Lebanon, with the help of the international community, will once again embody ‘the strength of the cedars, the diversity which from weakness becomes strength in the great reconciled people,’ with its vocation to be a land of encounter, coexistence, and pluralism.”

Hariri was prime minister of Lebanon for two terms, from 2009 to 2011 and from 2016 to January 2020, when he suddenly resigned. After two prime ministers resigned in 2020 after failing to form governments, Hariri was re-appointed prime minister by Lebanese President Michel Aoun on October 22, 2020. To date, Hariri has still not been able to form a government in the Middle Eastern country and remains prime minister-designate.

Hariri also met for an hour with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Gallagher.

/ Vatican Media
/ Vatican Media

In their meeting, Pope Francis recalled the responsibility of political forces to commit themselves to helping Lebanon as it faces multiple challenges.

Lebanon is suffering under 18 months of financial and economic crisis, which also impacts the country’s ability to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A devastating explosion at Beirut’s port on August 4, 2020, caused an estimated $15 million in property damage and left 300,000 people homeless. More than 200 people died in the blast and thousands were injured.

Pope Francis spoke about Lebanon during his return flight to Rome from Iraq last month.

Lebanon “has the weakness of the diversity which some are still not reconciled to, but it has the strength of the great people reconciled like the strength of the cedars,” he said.

The pope said March 8 that he promised Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai, leader of the Maronite Church, that he would visit Lebanon in the future.

Vatican unveils official prayer of 2022 World Meeting of Families

Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life. / Lucia Ballester/CNA.

CNA Staff, Apr 22, 2021 / 07:00 am (CNA).

The Vatican unveiled Thursday the official prayer of the 2022 World Meeting of Families in Rome.

The Diocese of Rome and the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life also released April 22 the official hashtag -- #WMOF2022 -- of the meeting that will take place June 22-26, 2022.

Commenting on the new prayer, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican dicastery, said: “Many families and communities have been waiting a long time to be able to set out on their way, at least spiritually, to Rome. Prayer will accompany them and help them to grasp the message of the gathering.”

The 10th World Meeting of Families will be held at the end of the Amoris Laetitia Family Year, which marks the fifth anniversary of Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on love in the family. The Year, which began on March 19, will last for 15 months, culminating with the gathering in Rome.

The meeting was originally scheduled to take place on June 23-27, 2021, but the Vatican announced in April 2020 that Pope Francis had decided to delay it by a year due to the coronavirus crisis.

Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the Vicar of Rome, said that prayer would be at the heart of preparations for next year’s meeting.

“It will guide our work and inspire the reflections to help us, in the light of faith, to discern the new challenges that the pandemic emergency poses to the ecclesial community with regard to families,” he said.

“I invite everyone to prepare for this event of grace that the Church of Rome has the joy of hosting, and to address this prayer to the Lord in the intimacy of their family, together with the parish and diocesan community.”

The official prayer was inspired by the theme selected by Pope Francis for the Rome gathering, “Family Love: Vocation and Path to Holiness.”

Farrell said that the vocation of families could be better understood by reading Amoris laetitia together with Gaudete et exsultate, Pope Francis’ 2018 apostolic exhortation “on the call to holiness in today’s world.”

“In an age fraught with trials and difficulties in which families are experiencing and coping with challenges and hardships, it might seem somewhat out of touch or inappropriate to talk about family holiness,” he commented.

“Hence the importance of prayer in living the sacrament of marriage to the full. A relationship with God enables Christian couples every day to rekindle the grace they have received, and this sustains them in their daily tasks and struggles. Our life can always be a path to personal, family and couple holiness, a way to grow in love for others.”

“All members of the family, including children, young people, parents, and grandparents, are called to discover in themselves a call to holiness.”

Quoting from Gaudete et exsultate, he continued: “In this sense, family life can become an expression of holiness as ‘the most attractive face of the Church.’ This shows us how useful it is to cross-reference Amoris laetitia and Gaudete et exsultate, as Pope Francis suggests in the theme of the meeting, in order to better understand family vocation.”

De Donatis said that Catholic families should seek inspiration from saintly couples such as Louis Martin and Marie-Azélie Guérin, the canonized parents of St Thérèse of Lisieux, and Luigi Beltrame Quattrocchi and Maria Corsini, who were beatified together in 2001.

“Christian couples are invited to walk their path of holiness together, following in the footsteps of illustrious saints and beatified couples and sustained by their intercession,” he said.

“Example is given by the parents of St Thérèse of Lisieux or the Beltrame Quattrocchi couple, people who trustingly accepted life’s painful trials and who saw the faithful presence of Christ in the story of their love.”

Citing Amoris laetitia, he concluded: “The surge of hope generated by God’s faithful love gives rise to a desire to proclaim God’s love and make the family ‘the way of the Church,’ the place where new vocations are nurtured.”

The official prayer of the 10th World Meeting of Families in Rome:

Family Love: Vocation and Path to Holiness

Heavenly Father,
We come before You to praise You
and to thank You for the great gift of the family.
We pray to You for all families
consecrated by the Sacrament of Matrimony.
May they rediscover each day
the grace they have received,
and as small domestic Churches,
may they know how to witness to Your presence
and to the love with which Christ loves the Church.
We pray to You for all families faced with difficulty and suffering
caused by illness or circumstances of which only You know.
Sustain them and make them aware
of the path to holiness upon which You call them,
so that they might experience Your infinite mercy
and find new ways to grow in love.
We pray to You for children and young people:
may they encounter You and respond joyfully
to the vocation You have in mind for them;
We pray for parents and grandparents: may they be aware
that they are signs of the fatherhood and motherhood of God
in caring for the children who, in body and spirit, You entrust to them;
and for the experience of fraternity
that the family can give to the world.
Lord, grant that each family
might live their specific vocation to holiness in the Church
as a call to become missionary disciples,
in the service of life and peace,
in communion with our priests, religious,
and all vocations in the Church.
Bless the World Meeting of Families.
Amen.

What Catholics should know about brain death 

Chaikom/Shutterstock.

Denver Newsroom, Apr 22, 2021 / 04:01 am (CNA).

 The Catholic Church is clear in its teaching on when life begins: at conception. 

On death— described as “the end of man's earthly pilgrimage”— the Church teaches in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that “life is changed, not ended;” that death represents the moment of “the separation of the soul from the body.”

While the moment of human conception— the beginning of life— is well-understood and observed from a scientific standpoint, the exact moment of death can be harder to pin down.

This is especially true thanks to various forms of modern technology such as ventilators, which make it possible for doctors to declare a patient dead based on the state of their brain, even if their body appears, to the untrained eye, still to be alive. 

Brain death, also called death by neurological criteria, is the practice of declaring a person dead based on the loss of brain function, rather than the stoppage of the heart and breathing. 

Brain death is, today, a commonly accepted standard for declaring a person dead. According to the 1981 guidelines of the American Medical Association, brain death entails the “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain.” 

Most people are unlikely to need to think about brain death until it affects a loved one— but on a nationwide scale, the phenomenon is more common than one might think. An estimated 42 people are declared brain dead throughout the U.S. every day. 

The issue is complicated by the reality of organ transplantation. Brain-dead donors are, today, the primary source of organ transplants. 

Organs such as the heart, lungs, and pancreas can be— and are— harvested from brain dead donors as close to the time of death as possible. Donors’ bodies are sometimes given painkillers to stop involuntary movements originating from the spinal cord. 

What Catholics should make of this

The term “brain death” is not found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But statements from popes and from the Vatican have made it clear that, if properly diagnosed, the complete and irreversible cessation of all brain function is a valid way to assess with moral certainty that a person has died. 

Moral certainty, St. John Paul II has said, “is considered the necessary and sufficient basis for an ethically correct course of action.”

Catholic doctors and ethicists today largely echo the Vatican in stating that brain death, when properly diagnosed, is not a “kind” of death; it is simply death, period. 

However, brain death remains a hotly debated topic among some Catholic medical professionals and ethicists.

One Catholic doctor told CNA he is concerned that proposed changes to U.S. law regarding brain death could make it easier for doctors to diagnose, and thus may remove some of the rigor that the Church requires for moral certainty about brain death. 

What brain death is

A Harvard Medical School Ad Hoc Committee introduced the concept of “brain death” in August 1968— less than a year after the first successful heart transplant, performed in South Africa in December 1967. 

That document from the Harvard committee introduced the idea that in addition to using “irreversible cessation” of cardiorespiratory function as a criterion for death, doctors also can use irreversible cessation of brain function to determine death. 

While legal standards for determining brain death differ from country to country, in the U.S. the law relevant to brain death is the Uniform Determination of Death Act

The UDDA, passed in 1981, states that an individual who has sustained “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead.” 

All 50 states have adopted the UDDA into their own laws, with a few variations in the language used. New Jersey allows the family or proxy of a patient declared brain dead to object to the diagnosis on religious grounds. 

The UDDA leaves the “acceptable diagnostic tests and medical procedures” for determining brain death to the “medical profession,” saying doctors remain “free to formulate acceptable medical practices and to utilize new biomedical knowledge, diagnostic tests, and equipment.” 

But above all, the act stipulates that a determination of death “must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards.”

It is worth noting that the “entire brain” provision of the UDDA differs from the law in some other countries, such as the U.K. 

In an illustrative case in February 2020, four-month-old Midrar Ali was disconnected from his ventilator after judges agreed with doctors that the boy’s brain stem was dead. “Brain stem death” is not accepted for a diagnosis of death in many parts of the world, including in the U.S.

What changes have been proposed

In a Jan. 21, 2020 article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a medical doctor and two legal scholars proposed several revisions to the UDDA.  

The proposed changes to the UDDA would bring the law in line with guidelines for diagnosing brain death put forth in 2010 by the American Association of Neurology.

To that end, the authors suggest a revision to the sentence in the UDDA mandating “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain,” most notably deleting the word “all.”

The revised version the authors propose would read: “Irreversible cessation of functions of the entire brain, including the brainstem, leading to unresponsive coma with loss of capacity for consciousness, brainstem areflexia and the inability to breathe spontaneously.”

Hormonal function, associated with the part of the brain called the hypothalamus as well as the pituitary gland, is not part of the “accepted medical standards” for brain death, the authors claim. 

The authors’ proposal to remedy this disparity is to add “with the exception of hormonal function” to the UDDA’s “entire brain” requirement. 

This is significant because in several high-profile brain death cases, patients declared brain dead have appeared to exhibit changes over time associated with puberty.

Excluding hormonal function from the definition of brain death would remove the ability to sue from families or proxies of patients who continue to grow despite being declared brain dead. 

Finally, the proposed revisions would remove any need for doctors to obtain consent from a patient’s family members before performing brain death tests. These tests can include the apnea test, whereby a patient is removed from a ventilator for several minutes to see if they are capable of breathing on their own. 

One of the reasons for the proposed changes, the authors write, is because of apparent confusion about what constitutes “accepted medical standards” for declaring a patient brain dead. 

The authors highlighted a case out of Nevada whereby Aden Hailu, a 20-year-old student, was declared brain dead in 2015, a diagnosis her father contested. 

The state Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that it was not clear that the hospital, which used the AAN criteria, had used the “accepted medical standards” in proclaiming the diagnosis, suggesting that the AAN criteria may not fulfill the UDDA’s “entire brain” requirement.

This is because the AAN guidelines— last updated in 2010— do not mandate tests for complete cessation of brain function beyond what can be diagnosed bedside, such as an electroencephalogram. 

In response to the Nevada ruling the AAN, along with several other medical organizations, rushed to publicly defend its guidelines. The Nevada legislature has since codified the AAN criteria as the “accepted medical standards” for declaring brain death in the state, the first state to do so. 

The authors contend that all other states should do the same. 

What the Catholic Church has said about brain death

In an Aug. 29, 2000 address to the International Congress of the Transplantation Society, St. John Paul II addressed the concept of brain death. 

The pope said that “the complete and irreversible cessation of all brain activity...if rigorously applied, does not seem to conflict with the essential elements of a sound anthropology.”

In 2008 the Pontifical Academy of Sciences stated that “brain death...'is' death,” and that “something essential distinguishes brain death from all other types of severe brain dysfunction that encompass alterations of consciousness (for example, coma, vegetative state, and minimally conscious state).”

“If the criteria for brain death are not met, the barrier between life and death is not crossed, no matter how severe and irreversible a brain injury may be,” the academy added.

Jozef Zalot, a staff ethicist for the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told CNA that if accepted guidelines for determining brain death are rigorously applied, then it is possible to determine with “moral certainty” that a person has died. 

Zalot pointed to a FAQ from the NCBC on the matter.

“The Catholic Church looks to the medical community to determine the biological signs that indicate with moral certainty that this event has already occurred. In recent years, medical research has indicated that the irreversible loss of brain function provides a firm indicator that death has already occurred,” the NCBC says. 

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in its 2018 Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Services, states that the “determination of death should be made by the physician or competent medical authority in accordance with responsible and commonly accepted scientific criteria.” 

Dr. Barbara Golder, a medical doctor and lawyer with the Catholic Medical Association, stressed that Catholics are not obliged to continue futile care. She told CNA that in general, for most situations, a brain death diagnosis is both “reliable and reasonable” when it is used to determine whether to cease care, such as a ventilator, to a patient. 

Golder noted, however, that the realities of a brain death diagnosis can leave doctors, family members, and observers uneasy. 

This is mainly because brain death often does not “look” like death, as a patient declared brain dead may still appear to be breathing, exhibit involuntary functions such as sweating, and may even grow and develop. 

Harvard ethicist Robert Truog, who does not believe that brain death necessarily represents biological death, has noted that “In some cases — particularly involving children and otherwise healthy young adults — patients diagnosed as brain-dead can actually survive biologically many years, provided they receive basic life support like mechanical ventilation and tube feedings.”

The bodies of brain-dead patients are sometimes given anesthetics while their organs are harvested, and may exhibit involuntary movements. 

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences addressed this in its 2008 paper stating that “the ventilator and not the individual, artificially maintains the appearance of vitality of the body. Thus, in a condition of brain death, the so-called life of the parts of the body is ‘artificial life’ and not natural life. In essence, an artificial instrument has become the principal cause of such a non-natural ‘life’. In this way, death is camouflaged or masked by the use of the artificial instrument.”

The NCBC agrees, stating that despite the complete loss of brain function, “artificial support may cause the victim to appear alive visually and to the touch.”

The media, in reporting on brain death cases, often focus on this fact.  

One highly publicized case is that of Jahi McMath, a 13-year old California girl who in December 2013 suffered a brain hemorrhage after complications following routine tonsil surgery. 

Five physicians- two at Children’s Hospital Oakland and three independent doctors requested by the family- declared McMath brain dead based on tests showing no blood flow to her brain and no signs of electrical activity after performing an EEG.

McMath’s family contested the diagnosis, and in January 2014 the hospital released her. The girl’s family took her to an undisclosed location— reportedly in New Jersey— for treatment where, the family claims, McMath continued to live and grow with the help of a feeding tube. Videos posted online show McMath occasionally exhibiting movement, such as twitching her foot. 

In June 2018, McMath’s family said that the teenager had died, citing “complications associated with liver failure.” 

The NCBC has said in the past that in cases where a patient declared brain dead has ultimately recovered or improved indicates an incorrect diagnosis of brain death in the first place.

“Stories of people continuing on a ventilator for months or years after being declared brain dead typically indicate a failure to apply the tests and criteria for determination of brain death with proper attentiveness and rigor,” said Fr. Tad Pacholczyk, director of education for the center, in a 2005 information sheet.

“In other words, somebody is likely to have cut some corners in carrying out the testing and diagnosis.”

Why Catholics should care about the proposed UDDA changes

Zalot said while in principle having uniform guidelines is a good thing, it is worth asking whether the AAN guidelines, as proposed by the authors of the revisions, are the best guidelines to use. 

The proposed changes to the UDDA seem, Zalot said, to militate against moral certitude that a person is dead by making certain confirmatory tests unnecessary. 

“It certainly gives the appearance of cutting corners,” he said. 

Joseph Eble, a private practice doctor and president of the Tulsa Guild of the Catholic Medical Association, told CNA he worries that a shift away from anything less than the most rigorous standards for diagnosing brain death could make it harder for Catholics to be morally certain that a person has in fact died. 

While the AAN guidelines do acknowledge that brain death diagnoses are complex and ought only be done by a doctor with considerable skill and experience, the guidelines also state that tests such as an EEG are not required for pronouncing brain death. 

“The AAN Guidelines require only clinical testing at the patient's bedside for a declaration of BD, even though more advanced testing could reveal persistent brain function which bedside testing could miss,” Eble said. 

Eble says he worries that making such tests optional under law will make it easier for doctors to diagnose brain death in patients who have a chance of recovery if their organs were not harvested and they were given additional time. 

In his 2000 address, St. John Paul II stressed the importance of only removing organs from people who have definitively died. 

The pope’s speech built upon his writing in the 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae, in which he decried any practice whereby “organs are removed without respecting objective and adequate criteria which verify the death of the donor,” calling such a practice a form of “furtive...euthanasia.”

Once again, the issue of organ transplantation, which is a lucrative business, complicates the matter. 

According to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which launched an investigation into corruption in the organ transplant industry in December 2020, many of the nations 58 organ procurement organizations have exhibited problems such as waste, “exorbitant executive pay,” and lobbying against reforms. 

While organ donation and acceptance is allowed and even laudable for Catholics, care must be taken to ensure that the patient is in fact dead. 

The NCBC states that it is acceptable for Catholics to receive transplanted organs from brain dead donors, as long as there is moral certainty that the diagnosis has been made with “rigor.”

'It's really important'

Eble said he hopes Catholics will carefully consider the topic of brain death.

“It would be most helpful if the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and ultimately the Magisterium, could issue a clarification of that Address based on a careful study of the medical aspects of BD (in particular the AAN guidelines) in light of the essential elements of the Church’s anthropology. Such a clarification would help to dispel the confusion among Catholics with respect to BD,” Eble wrote along with Dr. Doyen Nguyen in a March article for the Homiletic and Pastoral Review

Golder noted that making the decision to discontinue treatment and let an illness run its natural course— whether the patient has been declared brain dead or not— is never easy, and should be done in close collaboration with a trusted doctor, she said. 

“Don’t be shy about asking for someone to help guide and interpret. It’s really important,” she said. 

“Ask the doctor to explain how the process [of declaring brain death] works, as different places have different protocols. There are no ‘silly’ questions—ask whatever comes to mind.”

Catholic families should understand that most doctors are doing the best they can when it comes to diagnosing death. The rest, she says, is in God’s hands.

Quebec court upholds much of law barring religious symbols for public employees

Skylines/Shutterstock.

Quebec City, Canada, Apr 21, 2021 / 19:01 pm (CNA).

A Canadian court upheld this week part of a Quebec law that bans government employees from wearing religious symbols at work. 

With the only exception being existing employees, the law’s original language banned civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols at work. 

The April 19 court ruling created exceptions for English-speaking public schools, citing minority language education rights protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Members of Quebec’s provincial parliament are also exempted from the ban, under the principle that all persons are eligible for public office.

Auxiliary Bishop Marc Pelchat of Quebec told CNA April 21 that “like other groups and institutions in Quebec society, we take note of this judgement, which will be appealed. The issue is therefore not entirely settled.”

Bishop Pelchat said that everyone should be concerned for the vulnerable people affected by the law on laïcité. The bishop recognized the legitimate right of the government of Quebec to legislate on relations between the state and religions. However, he said that “the bishops would only have liked law enforcement to distinguish between teachers and other categories of state employees.

“We will follow the course of events with attention,” Bishop Pelchat said.   

The 2019 ban includes, for example, hijabs for Muslim women and crosses for Christians. It covers judges, police officers, teachers, and other public figures, the BBC reports.

The law follows a trend of increased scrutiny for religious symbols in Canada and elsewhere in recent years.

In 2019, Montreal’s City Hall announced that a crucifix taken down during renovations would not be returned to its display. City councilor Laurence Lavigne-Lalonde said the religious symbol was no longer relevant.

In 2012 an appeals court upheld a ruling forcing Catholic schools to teach a province-mandated religion and ethics course while restricting teachers presenting from a Catholic perspective. 

Europe, too, has also seen debate over religious symbols in recent years. In 2017, the Court of Justice of the European Union upheld a ban on religious symbols in the work place. The court ruled that it is not directly discriminatory for a workplace to ban “any political, philosophical or religious sign” if the ban is based on internal company rules requiring neutral dress.

A ban on teachers wearing religious headscarves was ruled unconstitutional in a German court in 2015. In Austria and the German state of Bavaria, full-face veils are banned in public. France banned religious symbols and veils in schools in 2004.

In 2013, four Christian British Airways employees won a legal case in the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled their employer engaged in illegal discrimination for telling them they could not wear their crosses.

Sri Lankan religious leaders condemn extremism two years after Easter bombing

Ambulances are seen outside the church premises with gathered people and security personnel following a blast at the St. Anthony's Shrine in Kochchikade, Colombo on April 21, 2019. / ISHARA S. K

CNA Staff, Apr 21, 2021 / 18:00 pm (CNA).

Numerous religious leaders gathered in Sri Lanka to mark the second anniversary of the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide bombings and to pray for an end to religious extremism. 

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, spoke at St. Anthony’s Shrine, along with Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim leaders. The service included prayers and two minutes of silence in remembrance of the dead.

Ranjith challenged the country’s Muslim communities to reject extremism and help Catholics identify those behind the 2019 bombings, which killed 269 people at two Catholic churches, a protestant church, and three hotels. 

“[B]e brave enough to reject extremism. You fully understand that there is no connection with religion and teachings to murder,” he said, according to the Associated Press. 

“We are surprised that even after two years, answers to the questions of who and why and what of these attacks have not been found by the relevant authorities.”

St. Anthony’s Shrine was the location of the first bomb explosion during Easter Sunday Mass two years ago. The attacks are believed to have been carried out by two local radical Islamist groups who had pledged allegiance to ISIS.

Muslim cleric Hassan Moulan also spoke at the service, the Associated Press reported. He said the Islamic faith does not justify crime and said Mulsims around the world condemned the attack. He added that to distance the suicide bombers who carried out the attacks from the religion of Islam, the the Sri Lanka Muslim community has not permitted their bodies to be buried in its cemeteries. 

Following the bombings, then-President Maithripala Sirisena created a five-person commission to investigate the attacks. The commission’s final report was presented to current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in February 2021.

Rajapaksa then appointed a new six-member committee to study the report but did not share the report with the Church or with the attorney general.

The refusal to release the contents of the report has led to criticism, with fears that corruption or negligence have prevented the prosecution of collaborators in the attack. The study committee is composed only of government ministers who are members of the ruling coalition.

In October 2020, five of seven suspects arrested in connection with the attacks were released by the government, on the stated grounds of lack of evidence.

At that time, Ranjith said security officials had confirmed to him that there was sufficient evidence against many of the suspects who had been arrested. The cardinal, along with friends and family of the victims, have said they fear the release of the suspects meant corruption, or a lack of a thorough investigation, on the part of the Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Department.