Recent Posts

Sabrina Miller, right, fills up a Miriam’s Cup during the annual women’s seder at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Bethesda, Md., on Sunday, March 22, 2015. Religion News Service photo by Sait Serkan Gurbuz

The Passover seder, designed by and for women

Lauren Markoe Mar 26, 2015

BETHESDA, Md. (RNS) On the first night of Passover, Jews ask aloud, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

For a group of 150-plus women gathered Sunday (March 22) at Congregation Beth El north of Washington, D.C., that traditional question was followed by an alternative: “Why is this seder different from other seders?”

Answer: “At other seders, men traditionally lead the service. At this seder, women are the leaders.”

Women’s seders are not new. The women who gathered at Beth El on Sunday, 12 days before the holiday begins on April 3, have been at it for 19 years. These seders began, in or near cities with substantial Jewish populations, about a generation ago, when fewer women played leading roles in synagogues and other institutions of Jewish life.

Today, women in the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements of Judaism in the U.S., which account for about 90 percent of synagogue-affiliated Jews, lead congregations as rabbis, cantors and synagogue presidents. Still, women’s seders proliferate, and each year, their guest lists grow.

A young boy wears a crown during the King Richard III procession at St. Nicholas Church. Photo by Beth Walsh, courtesy of the Diocese of Leicester

Catholics and Anglicans prepare ecumenical burial fit for a king

Trevor Grundy Mar 25, 2015

CANTERBURY, England (RNS) Tens of thousands of people in Leicester — England’s most religiously diverse city — are getting ready to honor the memory of a long-despised English king with a ceremony that testifies to the already warm relationship between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.

The bones of King Richard III — who was slain in battle in 1485 and vilified in the writings of William Shakespeare, who described him as a “poisonous bunch-back’d toad” — will be interred at Leicester Cathedral on Thursday (March 26) at a ceremony led by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and attended by leading Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews, as well as members of England’s royal family.

Richard was the last king of England to die in battle while attempting to defend his throne from Henry VII. The latter went on to establish the Tudor dynasty, whose most memorable monarch was Henry VIII.

After the battle, Richard’s remains were hastily buried by Franciscan monks. In 2012, archaeologists digging in a parking lot found his remains and had the DNA checked with a known survivor of the king’s family.

(RNS) Pope Francis last week (March 20) issued his most forceful call yet to abolish the death penalty, one that seemed to go even beyond current church teaching. Francis’ latest moves could signal a further development in Catholic teaching against capital punishment — and in his relationship with some U.S. Catholics.

“Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed,” Francis wrote in a detailed argument to the president of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, based in Madrid.

The pope said capital punishment “contradicts God’s plan for man and society” and “does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.”

Francis added that executing a prisoner can no longer be justified by a society’s need to defend itself, and he addressed two issues prominent in the American context: He declared that the death penalty “loses all legitimacy” because of the possibility of judicial error, and he said “there is no humane way of killing another person.”

Several recent botched executions have given anti-death penalty advocates more ammunition for their arguments.

In his letter, the pontiff also repeated his view, expressed last October, that keeping inmates isolated in maximum security prisons is “a form of torture” and that life sentences are “a hidden death penalty” that should be abolished along with capital punishment.

These are unusually categorical and expansive statements, and they come on the heels of a campaign to abolish the death penalty worldwide, which gained Vatican support at a United Nations meeting in Geneva earlier this month.

In addition, four national Catholic journals from across the ideological spectrum — the National Catholic Reporter; America; Our Sunday Visitor; and the National Catholic Register — earlier this month published an unprecedented joint editorial calling for an end to the death penalty in the U.S. in the wake of those botched executions and increasing doubts about the fairness of the justice system.

“There’s been a growing consensus among the public and especially among Catholics of the need to bring an abolition, or at least a moratorium, to the death penalty in the country,” National Catholic Reporter Editor Dennis Coday told Catholic News Service.

Yet several Catholic commentators in the U.S. chafed at the abolition pleas. For some, a chief complaint was that the pope showed poor judgment and faulty logic.

“It is distressing that a prepared statement by the Roman Pontiff — which would inevitably be interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as an expression of the teaching magisterium — would make such unconvincing arguments,” Philip Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, wrote Monday.

Patrick Callahan, emeritus professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, agreed: “The pope’s position should catalyze debate but it fails to acknowledge sufficiently the weight of the reasons for the continuation of capital punishment,” he wrote at the Real Clear Religion site.

A number of other critics focused on the fact that, as canon lawyer Edward Peters wrote in a trenchant blog post, the Catholic Church has “never crossed the line into banning” capital punishment “as a right of the state.”

In fact, following a sweeping revision of the church’s official catechism in the 1990s, St. John Paul II had the section on the death penalty amended to narrow, but not entirely close, the possibility of capital punishment, saying that the cases in which a prisoner must be executed “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

Even though the catechism still held out capital punishment as an option for the state, that’s a possibility that Francis now seems to be foreclosing. That could signal a significant shift in tradition and a possible change in doctrine.

“(T)he Catholic Church’s Magisterium does not and never has advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty,” the Rev. C. John McCloskey, a prominent conservative commentator, wrote in a response to the joint editorial titled “The Traditional Case for Capital Punishment.”

What will this pushback mean for the Catholic Church in the U.S., and for Francis’ popularity? Probably not much.

Critics of abolishing the death penalty or tightening church teaching to include a total ban tend to come from the Catholic right. But Catholic conservatives — bolstered by no small number of like-minded bishops — are also among the most vocal opponents of capital punishment, which they see as consistent with the church’s teaching against abortion and other “life” issues.

Instead, Francis’ remarks, and initiatives like the joint editorial are likely to become just another irritant, and perhaps an occasional flashpoint, for those already feeling disoriented under this papacy.

It could also be troublesome for Catholic politicians who stray from church teaching on the death penalty. For example, when Jeb Bush was governor of Florida, the state executed 21 prisoners, the most since the death penalty was reinstated in Florida in 1976.

It’s also not clear that the pope’s words will have an impact on the wider discourse about capital punishment in the U.S., a country he will visit for the first time in September.

In his remarks last week, Francis said the public has shown “a greater moral sensibility in relation to the value of human life,” which has led to “an increasing aversion to the death penalty and support in public opinion for various provisions that lead to its abolition.”

That may be true in some places, but in the U.S. support for the death penalty has remained fairly constant, despite the objections and problems in executions; the Gallup Poll shows that more than six in 10 Americans consistently back capital punishment — a rate that is about the same for Catholics.

One intriguing wrinkle revealed by the polls is that while white Catholics tend to be even more supportive of capital punishment than the general public — about 68 percent say they favor the death penalty, according to a Pew Research Center survey — just 43 percent of Latino Catholics feel that way, while 45 percent oppose the death penalty.

They may be the one audience most receptive to the new hard line against executions taken by this Argentine pope, the first pontiff from Latin America.

Pope Francis takes a dim view of the death penalty, but not all Catholics are convinced

David Gibson Mar 24, 2015

Pope Francis last week (March 20) issued his most forceful call yet to abolish the death penalty, one that seemed to go even beyond current church teaching. Francis’ latest moves could signal a further development in Catholic teaching against capital punishment — and in his relationship with some U.S. Catholics.

“Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed,” Francis wrote in a detailed argument to the president of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, based in Madrid.

The pope said capital punishment “contradicts God’s plan for man and society” and “does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.”

Francis added that executing a prisoner can no longer be justified by a society’s need to defend itself, and he addressed two issues prominent in the American context: He declared that the death penalty “loses all legitimacy” because of the possibility of judicial error, and he said “there is no humane way of killing another person.”

Several recent botched executions have given anti-death penalty advocates more ammunition for their arguments.

Members of Rensselaerville Presbyterian Church show their support for the LGBTQ community at the Capital Pride Parade in 2007. Creative Commons image by Selbe B

Local congregations firm on values after Presbyterian Church (USA) endorses same-sex marriage

Ruth Serven Mar 23, 2015

Though the Presbyterian Church (USA) became the biggest mainline Protestant denomination to endorse same-sex marriage March 17, ministers in Missouri said the decision won’t fundamentally change how they conduct their ministries.

Rev. Dave Henry, an associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jefferson City, said he has long supported a change to the PC(USA)’s definition of marriage. He said the broader definition of marriage represents Christianity’s message and values.

“I believe that we are called to be people of compassion and love for all,” Henry said. “As a Presbyterian church, we are welcoming to all. Those who come to our church deeply committed to each other and seeking marriage, regardless of whether the couple is a man and a woman, or a man and a man, or something else — we have an obligation to respect that desire.”

The wording of the denomination’s constitution, formerly calling marriage “between a man and a woman,” was changed March 17 to “between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.”

Henry said he came to support same-sex marriage in the 1990s, when he and his wife became friends with several same-sex couples.

RNS gay marriage graphic by Tiffany McCallen and Lauren Markoe. Click to view larger size.

With Presbyterians in the yes column, mainline Protestants solidify gay marriage support

Lauren Markoe Mar 19, 2015

With the largest Presbyterian denomination’s official endorsement Tuesday (March 17), American mainline Protestants have solidified their support for gay marriage, leaving the largest mainline denomination — the United Methodist Church — outside the same-sex marriage fold.

Methodists, with more than 7 million members, rejected same-sex marriage at their last national conference, in 2012. They are likely to revisit the question at their next conference, in 2016, but a growing membership in Africa, where there is little acceptance of homosexuality, makes it unlikely the denomination will accept gay marriage.

Another denomination generally considered mainline, the American Baptist Churches USA, does not allow same-sex marriage, nor do a handful of smaller mainline denominations. But the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ and now the Presbyterian Church (USA) sanctify the marriage of two men or two women. The 3.8 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America gives congregations the autonomy to decide for themselves.

“There is no group that has moved more quickly or more dramatically on this issue than white mainline Protestants,” said Dan Cox, research director of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit that studies trends in American religion.

In 2003, 36 percent of white mainline Protestants supported gay marriage, compared with 62 percent in 2014, Cox said.

And though there is not one Protestant on the Supreme Court, the fact that an increasing number of the nation’s churches are inviting gay couples to the altar is likely to weigh on the justices as they consider upcoming cases that would allow them to make gay marriage a right.

RNS gay marriage graphic by Tiffany McCallen and Lauren Markoe. Click to view larger size.
RNS gay marriage graphic by Tiffany McCallen and Lauren Markoe. Click to view larger size.

Cox notes that among white mainline Protestants, Presbyterians and Methodists in the pews hold strikingly similar views on gay marriage. In that same 2014 PRRI survey, 69 percent of Presbyterians approved of same-sex marriage, while 67 percent of U.S. Methodists did.

Mark Delp teaches formal logic to Zaytuna College freshmen. Photo courtesy of Zaytuna College

Zaytuna College recognized as first accredited Muslim college in the US

Jonathan Merritt Mar 18, 2015

A college that requires the study of both Wordsworth and the Quran for graduation is now the first fully accredited Islamic university in America.

Zaytuna College, a 5-year-old institution in Berkeley, Calif., was recognized earlier this month (March) by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, an academic organization that oversees public and private colleges and universities in the U.S.

The accreditation means Zaytuna, which owns only two buildings and has 50 students, is a legitimate institution of higher learning, only a few blocks from its esteemed neighbor, the University of California, Berkeley.

“Being accredited puts us at the same table” as other accredited colleges and universities, said Colleen Keyes, Zaytuna’s vice president of academic affairs. “It makes us equal partners.”

Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles greets legislators and fellow supporters of Utah Bill 296 which balances religious freedoms and LGBT rights. Photo courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

Mormons free to back gay marriage on social media, LDS apostle says

Peggy Fletcher Stack Mar 17, 2015

An LDS apostle reaffirmed recently that Mormons who support gay marriage are not in danger of losing their temple privileges or church memberships — even though the Utah-based faith opposes the practice.

In an interview Friday (March 13) with KUTV in Salt Lake City, Elder D. Todd Christofferson said that individuals in the 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be in trouble only for “supporting organizations that promote opposition or positions in opposition to the church’s.”

Backing marriage equality on social media sites, including on Facebook or Twitter, “is not an organized effort to attack our effort, or our functioning as a church.,” Christofferson said in the interview.

The KUTV interviewer asked further if a Latter-day Saint could “hold those beliefs even though they are different from what you teach at the pulpit?”

Yes, the apostle answered.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York greets a New York City firefighter while reviewing the 253rd annual St. Patrick’s Day in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on March 17, 2014. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

Debate over gays in St. Patrick’s parades roils Irish on big day

David Gibson Mar 16, 2015

St. Patrick’s Day is associated as much with Roman Catholicism as it is with Irish-Americans, but this year some of the faithful aren’t happy with the inclusion of gays and lesbians marching under their own banner for the first time in parades in Boston and New York.

The Knights of Columbus of Massachusetts and a local Catholic school declined to take part in the Boston parade on Sunday (March 15) after two LGBT groups — the military veterans service group OutVets and Boston Pride — were invited following decades of lobbying and court battles.

“The saint’s venerable name should not be cheaply misappropriated by nominally Catholic politicians and anti-Catholic organizations with a same sex agenda,” said Catholic Action League head C.J. Doyle, a leader of the opposition.

The New York parade marches down Fifth Avenue on Tuesday (March 17), the saint’s feast day, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan is facing renewed calls from conservative Catholics to step down as grand marshal because an openly LGBT group is taking part for the first time.

Friday Morning Meme, featuring the Hillary EmailGate

Greg Perreault Mar 13, 2015

ispz6Happy Weekend and Happy EmailGate!

VIDEO: Once was blind, but now I see: US doctors bring hope to Haiti

Heather Adams Mar 12, 2015

SAINT LOUIS DU NORD, Haiti (RNS) Judith Mesadieu has dreams of becoming a doctor, but her poor eyesight and partial blindness makes it hard to study.

A corneal transplant could fix the problem, but the procedure remains rare in Haiti, which has just six eye surgeons for every 1 million people, according to the International Council of Ophthalmology.

Fortunately, Mesadieu snagged a spot on the recent surgery docket of a U.S.-based eye surgery missions group called the iTeam.

The iTeam, based out of Kansas City, Mo., has been traveling to Saint Louis du Nord for about 16 years. They preform eye surgeries twice a year alongside local ophthalmologists, teaching them new skills and improvements.

Lydia Allen, 66, is a nonmedical staff member of iTeam and said the Bible calls on her to continue to go these trips and help in any way possible. “’Go ye therefore into all the world,’” Allen said, quoting Jesus’ Great Commission.

The independent U.S. missions group also works with Northwest Haiti Christian Mission, which aims to eventually leave the work all in the hands of locals. The Kansas City group pulls together eye specialty volunteers from across the continent.