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Bishop lays out detailed policies for 'morally acceptable' tax reform

IMAGE: CNS photo/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters

By Dennis Sadowski

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In a new letter to members of Congress, Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, outlined a sweeping package of changes in pending tax reform legislation to ensure the final bill is "morally acceptable."

Bishop Dewane, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, also addressed positive aspects of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which members of both houses of Congress continued to hash out Dec. 6 to reconcile their respective measures for a final bill.

A vote on a final version was expected in the House of Representatives and the Senate before Christmas.

Bishop Dewane in his Dec. 6 letter reminded Congress that the country has long followed tax policy "that is good for workers, families who welcome life, families who are struggling to reach -- or stay in -- the middle class, and the very poor, (and) has been part of our tax code for years."

"Any modification to these important priorities of our nation should only be made with a clear understanding and concern for the people who may least be able to bear the negative consequences of new policy. For the sake of all people -- but especially those persons we ought, in justice, to prioritize -- Congress should advance a final tax reform bill only if it meets key moral concerns," he said.

The letter called for a reversal of the bill's plan to gradually increase taxes on taxpayers in the lowest income brackets while maintaining tax cuts for higher earners, including the most wealthy.

"No tax reform proposal is acceptable that increases taxes for families struggling to meet their daily needs in order to finance cuts for millionaires and billionaires. The final proposal must be amended to avoid this outcome," Bishop Dewane wrote.

He also called for restoring the personal exemption, which has been eliminated in both chambers' version of the reform package. Even with the doubling the standard deduction as included in the legislation, families with more than three children would be penalized, leaving them financially worse off, he said.

While lauding the elimination of the marriage penalty under the child tax credit for low-income working families, Bishop Dewane called for removing the bill's requirement that taxpayers provide Social Security numbers to claim the credit. Such a requirement would harm immigrant families, he said.

Bishop Dewane urged lawmakers to pass a final bill that does not include a Senate provision that eliminates the Affordable Care Act individual mandate requiring people to purchase of health insurance or face a penalty. He said dropping the mandate would lead to millions of people becoming uninsured and that the issue would better be addressed in broader comprehensive approach to health care policy.

The letter welcomed the legislation's bid to double the standard deduction, saying it should be retained. He called the plan "a positive change that will help some families, including many facing economic challenges, avoid tax liability."

However, other provisions of the House and Senate bills were cited in the letter for their negative impact on low-income taxpayers. The letter called for:

-- Retaining the deduction for medical expenses; the deduction is included in the Senate bill, but not the House version.

-- Retaining the adoption assistance incentive for employers; the provision was eliminated in the House bill, but remained in the Senate.

-- Ensuring that employer incentives for paid family and medical leave do not end in 2019.

-- Adopting an "above-the-line" charitable deduction that would be available to all taxpayers, whether they itemize on tax returns or not to encourage charitable giving.

-- Restoring provisions that were cut in the House bill that assist working families such as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, a credit for people who retire on disability, and deductions for tuition and student loans, state and local taxes, employee business expenses and moving expenses; restoring other provisions cut in the Senate bill including deductions for union dues and expenses, clothing and uniforms and work-related education.

-- Retaining the housing credit and housing bonds that support development of low-income housing and calling for additional measures so that both the credit and bonds are not significantly devalued because of the lower corporate tax rate, restricting such projects.

-- Adding a plan for the creation of "opportunity zones" for struggling communities.

-- Leaving in place the current alternative minimum tax and estate tax "to ensure that the risks taken in tax reform fall on those who stand to benefit most rather than on those who struggle on the margins of society."

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The full text of the letter can be found online at http://bit.ly/2BGkVPX.

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Follow Dennis Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

MOST REV. DOMINIC MAI LUONG, D.D., AUXILIARY BISHOP EMERITUS OF ORANGE, PASSES INTO ETERNAL LIFE

The Most Rev. Dominic Mai Luong, D.D., Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus for the Diocese of Orange, passed away December 6, 2017...

Update: Pope's letter to Argentine bishops on 'Amoris Laetitia' part of official record

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Describing them as "authentic magisterium," Pope Francis ordered the official publication of his letter to a group of Argentine bishops and their guidelines for the interpretation of "Amoris Laetitia," his apostolic exhortation on the family.

According to a brief note by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, Pope Francis wanted his letter and the bishops' document to be published on the Vatican website and in the "Acta Apostolicae Sedis," the official record of Vatican documents and acts.

The papal letter, dated Sept. 5, 2016, was written in response to guidelines published by the bishops in the Catholic Church's Buenos Aires region. Pope Francis said the bishops' document "explains precisely the meaning of Chapter VIII of 'Amoris Laetitia.' There are no other interpretations."

The letter is found on the Vatican website under letters written by the pope in 2016, and was published in the October 2016 edition of the "Acta Apostolicae Sedis," which also is available online: http://www.vatican.va/archive/aas/documents/2016/acta-ottobre2016.pdf.

Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, told Catholic News Service Dec. 5, "The fact that the pope requested that his letter and the interpretations of the Buenos Aires bishops be published in the AAS means that His Holiness has given these documents a particular qualification that elevates them to the level of being official teachings of the church.

"While the content of the pope's letter itself does not contain teachings on faith and morals, it does point toward the interpretations of the Argentine bishops and confirms them as authentically reflecting his own mind," the cardinal said. "Thus together the two documents became the Holy Father's authentic magisterium for the whole church."

Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, secretary of the pontifical council and a prelate of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court handling matters of conscience, told CNS that already in August, Pope Francis had ordered the Vatican newspaper to publish the Buenos Aires' bishops' guidelines and his response, which was "a clear manifestation of the pope's judgment that their interpretation was clear and correct."

The publication of both in the Holy See's official gazette even more strongly "indicates the thinking of the Holy Father and does so collegially: A group of bishops says something, and the pope associates himself with it."

While it is up to theologians to discuss the full meaning of "authentic magisterium," Bishop Arrieta said, for a canon lawyer like himself "this sets precedence for the whole church."

The history of the church's application of the Code of Canon Law, which provides general norms, is that specific applications of that law are refined through "precedence and analogy," he said.

Bishop Arrieta also noted that the Buenos Aires bishops' guidelines "carefully avoid one extreme and another." They do not say all Catholics are welcome to receive Communion no matter what their marital situation is, nor do they say no Catholic in a second marriage may access the sacraments.

The eighth chapter of "Amoris Laetitia" is titled, "Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness," and is the most debated chapter of the document. It urges pastors to assist those whose marriages have faltered and help them feel part of the church community. It also outlines a process that could lead divorced and civilly remarried Catholics back to the sacraments.

Some church leaders and theologians have insisted reception of the sacraments is impossible for such couples unless they receive an annulment of their sacramental marriage or abstain from sexual relations with their new partner.

The Buenos Aires document said the path of discernment proposed by Pope Francis "does not necessarily end in the sacraments," but should, first of all, help the couple recognize their situation, understand church teaching on the permanence of marriage and take steps toward living a more Christian life.

"When feasible," the guidelines said, divorced and civilly remarried couples should be encouraged to abstain from sexual relations, which would allow them to receive the sacrament of reconciliation and the Eucharist.

While there is no such thing as "unrestricted access to the sacraments," the bishops said, in some situations, after a thorough process of discernment and examination of the culpability of the individual in the failure of the sacramental marriage, the pope's exhortation "opens the possibility" to reception of the sacraments.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

Bangladesh, Myanmar youths are a sign of hope for Asia, pope says

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Young people in Myanmar and Bangladesh are a source of hope for a peaceful future in their countries after years of war and suffering, Pope Francis said.

As is customary, at his general audience Dec. 6, the first after his Nov. 27-Dec. 2 trip to Asia, Pope Francis reviewed his visit.

"In the faces of those young people, full of joy, I saw the future of Asia: A future that doesn't belong to those who build weapons, but to those who sow brotherhood," the pope said.

As temperatures in Rome hovered just above 40 degrees, the audience was held in the Paul VI audience hall to avoid the chilly weather.

The pope entered the hall, stretching his hands to each side of the aisle to greet people who reached out to touch him.

After telling the estimated 8,000 pilgrims that he wanted to speak about his recent visit, four Bangladeshi priests cheered loudly and held up a banner that read, "Thank you, Papa." The pope smiled and waved at the small group.

Noting that it was "the first time a successor of Peter visited Myanmar," the pope said he hoped to express "the closeness of Christ and the church to a people who have suffered due to conflict and repression and that now is slowly moving toward a new condition of freedom and peace."

The Catholic Church in Myanmar is "alive and fervent," he said, adding that he had "the joy of confirming them in the faith and in communion."

He also said his Nov. 29 meeting with a group of senior Buddhist monks was a moment to "manifest the church's esteem for their ancient spiritual tradition and the trust that Christians and Buddhists together can help people to love God and neighbor while rejecting every kind of violence and opposing evil with good."

Pope Francis said his visit to Bangladesh "followed in the footsteps of Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II" and "marked a further step toward respect and dialogue between Christianity and Islam."

He also praised the country's care for religious liberty and its welcoming of welcoming hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

"I wanted to express my solidarity with Bangladesh in their commitment to aid the Rohingya refugees flowing en masse in their territory, where the population density is among the highest in the world," the pope said.

The "most significant and joyful event" of ordaining 16 new priests in Dhaka, he said, was "the sign of a living community where the voice of the Lord resounds, calling on them to follow him."

This joy was also evident during his visit to the home in Dhaka where the Missionary of Charity sisters care for "so many orphans and people with disabilities," Pope Francis said.

"And they never lack a smile on their lips," the pope said. "Sisters who pray together, who serve the suffering continuously with a smile. It is a beautiful witness. I thank these little sisters so much."

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

TEAM ‘CAPTAIN’

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SCIENTISTS RECONSTRUCTED THE FACE OF ST. NICHOLAS – HERE’S WHAT THEY FOUND

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Court seems divided in cake case examining religious rights, expression

IMAGE: CNS photo/Rick Wilking, Reuters

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The U.S. Supreme Court seemed equally divided in the long-anticipated oral arguments Dec. 5 about the baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious beliefs.

Even Justice Anthony Kennedy's comments went right down the middle, from expressing concern for those who would be shut out of services to later stressing that "tolerance is a two-way street" and saying the state of Colorado, where the bakery is located, seemed to be "neither tolerant or respectful" of the baker's views.

The case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, pits anti-discrimination laws against freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression.

It drew strong feelings on both sides long before the court heard the arguments with the filing of 100 friend-of-the-court briefs months ago and the crowds lined up for days hoping to get into the court during the arguments. Crowds also gathered on the Supreme Court steps under cloudy skies and warm temperatures, chanting and holding aloft placards such as "Justice for Jack" (the baker) and "Open for All."

The U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops filed a friend-of-the court brief in support of the baker joined by the Colorado Catholic Conference, Catholic Bar Association, Catholic Medical Association, National Association of Catholic Nurses-USA and National Catholic Bioethics Center.

And after the hour and a half of oral arguments, chairmen of three USCCB committees issued a statement saying: "America has the ability to serve every person while making room for valid conscientious objection."

It also said it hoped the court would continue to "preserve the ability of people to live out their faith in daily life, regardless of their occupation," noting that artists "deserve to have the freedom to express ideas -- or to decline to create certain messages -- in accordance with their deeply held beliefs."

The statement was issued by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, chairman of the Committee for Religious Liberty; Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, chairman of the Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth; and Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, chairman of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

The case before the court at the end of 2017 was five years in the making, beginning in 2012 when Charlie Craig and David Mullins asked the Colorado baker, Jack Phillips, to make a cake for their wedding reception. Phillips refused, saying his religious beliefs would not allow him to create a cake honoring their marriage.

The couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which decided the baker's action violated state law. The decision was upheld by the Colorado Court of Appeals. The Colorado Supreme Court wouldn't take the case, letting the ruling stand. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

During oral arguments at the high court, many questions came up about what constitutes speech, since the baker claimed he should have freedom of speech protection.

Justice Elena Kagan asked if a florist, chef or makeup artist also should have the same protection and other roles also were called into question such as tailors, or invitation designers, as were other cakes; pre-made cakes, for example, would not be an issue of compelled speech.

And as Kristen Waggoner, the Alliance Defending Freedom attorney representing Phillips, said "not all cakes would be considered speech."

Amid the back and forth between what could be considered artistry and questions about how artists could be compelled to convey messages they disagree with, Justice Stephen G. Breyer asked: "Well, then, what is the line? That's what everybody is trying to get at."

"Obviously, we want a distinction that will not undermine every single civil rights law," he added.

The bulk of the defense for the baker focused on his freedom of speech rights, which attorneys argued would be violated by forcing him to make this cake.

Waggoner said the court was saying it had the discretion to decide what speech is offensive and what isn't, but it didn't "apply that in a fair way to Mr. Phillips." She also said that "what's deeply concerning" is how speech could be compelled of "filmmakers, oil painters and graphic designers in all kinds of context."

The arguments against the baker questioned if failing to provide services to same-sex couples was discriminatory.

David Cole, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, defending the couple, said discrimination against the couple who wanted the cake consigned them to "second-class status."

The last minutes of the oral arguments boiled down to the opposing views but also didn't reveal a clear path forward.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the nation's views about interracial marriages "didn't change on its own" but because of "public accommodation laws that forced people to do things that many claimed were against their expressive rights and against their religious rights."

"Whatever it is you choose to sell, you have to sell it to everyone who knocks on your door, if you open your door to everyone," she added.

In response, Waggoner said it would be a grave offense to the First Amendment to "compel a person who believes that marriage is sacred, to give voice to a different view of marriage and require them to celebrate that marriage."

Sotomayor suggested not participating in weddings or creating neutral wedding cakes but that refusing to offer goods to some goes against public anti-discrimination laws.

Waggoner in her last allotted minute said: "A wedding cake expresses an inherent message that is that the union is a marriage and is to be celebrated, and that message violates Mr. Phillips' religious convictions."

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

Indiana town embodies Santa Claus and his spirit of love, peace, joy

IMAGE: CNS photo/Katie Rutter

By Katie Rutter

SANTA CLAUS, Ind. (CNS) -- Belief in that iconic Christmas figure, the rotund merry man with a bag full of presents, inspires thousands of children to write letters addressed to "Santa Claus" each year.

Surprisingly, many of these wish lists actually do get delivered to Santa Claus. But rather than landing in a magical workshop at the North Pole, the notes wind up in a little Indiana town that bears the same name as the jolly old elf.

"We have already answered 5,000 and we'll be getting more this morning," Patricia Koch, founder of the Santa Claus Museum and Village, told Catholic News Service Dec. 2. "They come from the U.S.A. and from all over the world."

Koch and a dozen other volunteers work long hours to "help" Santa answer the letters that find their way to the Santa Claus post office. Koch calls this letter-writing a ministry and is dedicated to keeping the spirit of Santa Claus, the person, alive.

"Our world can become very self-centered and commercialized," she explained, "so I think Santa Claus has that spirit of love and forgiveness and peace and joy."

The town itself, with a population just over 2,400, seems to embody the persona of Santa Claus. Streets are named "Sleigh Bell Drive" and "Candy Cane Lane," or even "Melchior," "Balthazar" and "Kaspar" after the traditional names of the three wise men. Unsurprisingly, the Catholics of the town named their church after the man who inspired the myth: St. Nicholas.

"Just looking at his acts, we just see this kindness and seeing those who were less fortunate," said Father John Brosmer, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Dale, which encompasses St. Nicholas Church and two other nearby worship sites.

St. Nicholas, also known as Nicholas of Myra, was a bishop in present-day Turkey who lived from about A.D. 280 to 343. He was the orphaned son of wealthy parents, and one ancient story claims that he threw bags of gold through the window of an impoverished family in the dead of night.

"In later versions, he drops a bag of gold through the chimney where it lands in a stocking that was hung there to dry," explained Adam English, chair of the Christian studies department at Campbell University and author of the historical book "The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus."

"What's really memorable about it is that it's an absolutely ordinary act of charity, of goodwill. This is the kind of thing that anybody can do," English said.

That simple act of generosity inspired generations of anonymous gift-giving. Givers attributed mysterious presents to St. Nicholas and passed his story from culture to culture. In the Netherlands, his nickname was "Sinter Klaas," which evolved to "Santa Claus" when Dutch immigrants arrived in New York.

St. Nicholas' identity was forever established as a "jolly old elf" by the famous poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," penned by Clement Clarke Moore in 1822.

"(The poem) starts to change him from being a Christian bishop, stern and austere and presiding over the Eucharist, to being more of a gift-giver who's maybe more a magical creature," said English.

Today, the familiar images of this magical man are recreated throughout the town of Santa Claus. Huge statues that adorn the main highway and the town hall depict a smiling, rosy-cheeked figure with a large bag of toys, his red coat and hat looking nothing like clerical garb.

Still, for Santa enthusiasts, even this depiction echoes Christian beginnings that were simply transformed by American culture.

"I use the expression 'extreme makeover,'" explained Father Joseph Marquis, a Byzantine Catholic priest who runs the St. Nicholas Institute. His program, based in Detroit, teaches the saint's history to professional portrayers of Santa.

"They took away his miter and gave him a triangular cap and his bishop's coat was shortened and lined with fur. The candy cane is an evolution from the crosier," Father Marquis said.

Nicholas of Myra likely lacked the rounded figure characteristic of a diet of milk and cookies. His place in history would paint a stature hardened by persecution, perhaps even bearing the scars of torture. A contemporary of the emperor Diocletian, Nicholas lived through the most terrible persecution of the early church and was himself imprisoned.

"We know for sure his nose was broken," said Father Marquis, referencing historical research done on the bones of the saint.

"They tortured his priests who were members of his flock to make him recant and he wouldn't do it," Father Marquis said.

Nicholas of Myra also was hailed as a defender of justice, which might have led to Santa's common question to young children, "Have you been good?" and the naughty-nice list that he must "check twice." According to one legend, the bishop found out that a local judge had accepted a bribe and falsely condemned three men to death.

"Nicholas ran to the spot and literally grabbed the sword out of the executioner's hand," related Father Marquis.

"He pointed right at the guy for condemning them to death and the man actually confessed that he took money to condemn them," he said.

St. Nicholas Church hosted a visit from its namesake to anticipate his Dec. 6 feast day. A white-bearded man wearing a miter and long red robes made a surprise appearance at the Sunday Vigil Mass Dec. 2 and handed out ornaments to all the parishioners.

"You can't get away from Santa Claus here," laughed parishioner Deacon Jim Woebkenberg.

The voice of St. Nicholas likely pursues Catholics during every Sunday liturgy. Historical documents confirm that Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in 325. While his direct contributions, if any, are unknown, it was during this council that the Nicene Creed was written.

"You have echoes of the voice of St. Nicholas every Sunday when we recite the creed, which for me as a big St. Nicholas fan, indebted to him for so many things in my life, that's important to me," said Father Marquis.

Similarly, every bright-eyed child who rushes to the Christmas tree Dec. 25 is indebted to this saint for the legacy of giving. But just as the town of Santa Claus stays on the map even after the holiday season, the local pastor said that the true spirit of St. Nick leads Catholics to generosity all year long.

"Growing up as a Christian, you want to share your gifts you want to give of yourself," said Father Brosmer. "The true Christian is St. Nicholas, it's that generosity all the time."

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

BUILD PEACE BY WELCOMING MIGRANTS, REFUGEES, POPE SAYS IN MESSAGE

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SAINT ROFILE: FRANCIS XAVIER

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