Top NYC ecumenist to give Nyack College commencement talk

The Rev. A.R. Bernard Sr., president of the Council of Churches of the City of New York — the nation’s oldest ecumenical group — will be the commencement speaker for Nyack College and Alliance Theological Seminary on May 9.

Bernard, who has a master’s of divinity from ATS, will also receive an honorary doctorate.

The ceremony will be at the Westchester County Center in White Plains.

Bernard is the founder and CEO of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, one of New York’s only real megachurches with 30,000 members.

He’s been a high-profile figure in NYC life for a long time, especially when it comes to ecumenism and interreligious relations. Several Jewish groups gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2007.

Alliance Theological Seminary is the seminary of the Christian & Missionary Alliance, an evangelical denomination.

Bang!: When moral beliefs and public policy collide

Sounds like a real timely program at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus this Tuesday (April 28) at 6 p.m.:

Matters of Conscience: When Moral Precepts Collide with Public Policy

Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture describes the forum like this:

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What happens when individuals or institutions are called upon to cooperate with actions that they consider gravely immoral but that the law and public policy allow?

Recent legislative and judicial developments touching on life, death, sexuality, and family have stirred deep conflicts about traditional moral and religious norms.  Abortion has deeply divided American society, so have physician-assisted suicide and same-sex marriage.  Sometime these developments are said to pose a threat to individuals or institutions asked to participate in actions that they consider immoral. In some circumstances exemptions have been created for those holding conscientious objections of a religious or moral nature—most notably in the case of abortion. In turn, these exemptions have been criticized as threats to social or individual rights and needs.

Should “conscience clauses” or other safeguards protect individuals or institutions from being compelled—by licensing laws, prohibitions against discrimination, or withdrawal of public funding or tax exemption—to cooperate with conduct that violates religious or moral principles? Can protection for conscience be balanced against the rights of those seeking morally controversial but lawful and possibly momentous services?

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Here’s the line-up:

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Moderator: Russell Pearce holds the Bellet Chair in Legal Ethics, Morality, and Religion, Fordham University School of Law.

Panelists:

Nadine Strossen, professor of law at New York Law School, was president of the American Civil Liberties Union (1991-2008). She has written, lectured, and practiced extensively in the areas of constitutional law, civil liberties, and international human rights. She is author of Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex and the Fight for Women’s Rights and Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex: Hate Speech, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

Marc D. Stern, now acting co-executive director of the American Jewish Congress, has long served as a leading expert on church-state issues.  As the Congress’s general counsel, he litigated, prepared amicus curiae briefs, drafted legislation and gave public testimony on religious freedom questions for three decades.  He is the author of Religion and the Public Schools: A Summary of the Law, co-author of Your Right to Religious Liberty: A Basic Guide to Religious Rights, and contributor to the book Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty.

Douglas Kmiec is professor of constitutional law and Caruso Family Chair in Constitutional Law at Pepperdine University. He also served as dean and St. Thomas More Professor of Law at The Catholic University of America and on the law faculty at the University of Notre Dame. He is co-author of three books on the Constitution — The American Constitutional Order; Individual Rights and the American Constitution and The History, Structure and Philosophy of the American Constitution.

Robert Vischer, associate professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School, has written extensively on law, religion, and public policy, focusing in particular on the religious and moral dimensions of professional identity.  His forthcoming book, Conscience and the Common Good: Reclaiming the Space Between Person and State, addresses the communal dimensions in which the dictates of conscience are shaped, articulated and lived out.

Visit a Blue Mass in West Harrison tomorrow to pray for cops, firefighters

When Father Christopher Monturo first organized a Blue Mass last year at St. Anthony of Padua Church in West Harrison, he got some surprised reactions.

Someone asked him if there would be rhythm and blues. Some else joked about the Blue Man Group.

But no, a Blue Mass is a Mass for police, firefighters, EMS workers and others who put themselves in harm’s way. It’s an opportunity to pray for their well being.

The church will hold its second annual Blue Mass at 7 p.m. tomorrow (April 24). About 200 men and women in uniform are expected, including representatives from some 20 fire departments in central and southern Westchester.

“Many dioceses and parishes around the country celebrate a Blue Mass to honor and pray for our police, firefighters, EMS workers and other uniformed officials,” Monturo told me. “This is an opportunity to honor the good guys — for lack of a better term — and to ask for God’s blessing, to keep them safe and guide them in their duties.”

The first Blue Mass is believed to have been celebrated in Boston during the 1930s, Monturo told me.

“They went through a difficult year of fires and crimes and so forth,” he said.

After Monturo was assigned to St. Anthony of Padua in 2007 and became chaplain of the West Harrison Volunteer Fire Department, he got the idea of starting a Blue Mass.

“It’s a wonderful way to bring the community together and give spiritual support to those who support us — and are usually unsung and unrecognized,” he said.

The picture is of Monturo in 2003, when he was a seminarian at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers.

Clergy at the courthouse (but nothing bad happened)

Today is “Westchester Clergy Day” at the Westchester County Courthouse.

According to a release, the program is “designed to educate and inform the leaders of Westchester’s religious communities of the services offered by the Judiciary, the District Attorney’s Office, and other governmental agencies operating in Westchester County.”

The release goes on to say that the day will focus on the “interactions” that clergy most commonly have with the court system. Some of these are said to include: “privileged communications with congregants, clergy’s obligation to report criminal matters, housing issues, immigration issues, and pressing family law issues (including domestic violence, abuse/neglect, and adoption).”

Here’s the bottom line, I guess: “The more familiar members of the clergy are with the criminal and civil court process, the better equipped they will be to assist members of their congregation if the need should arise.”

God attends church, stays for coffee

God recently visited First Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, N.C., The Onion reports.

It was a surprise visit, the Lord announced: “I AM the God of Abraham, the LORD MOST HIGH, who brought you forth from the bondage of Egypt. Thought I’d just pop in and see how things were going. Please, pretend like I’m not even here.”

It’s a typically amusing piece from The Onion — and not overly irreverent, I might add.

I like this quote from a church member:

“I wanted to ask the Lord what heaven is like, and if my mother is there, but I wasn’t sure if it’s still considered taking His name in vain when you address Him directly. And I didn’t dare draw attention to myself with two teenagers wearing blue jeans to church. I could barely look at Him, I was so ashamed.”

How many suburbanites wouldn’t be in the same shoes if God showed up to their church or synagogue?

The church’s pastor had his own concerns:

“Although, you’d think an all-knowing deity unbound by time and space would be able to give us some warning so we could at least put a bulletin in the church newsletter. Not that I’m complaining or anything. All praise be to God. Is He still hanging around the parking lot?”

And, yes, God did stay for coffee and donuts.

Dolan unsure of priest morale problem

Today, Archbishop Dolan gets to the real inside stuff.

He’ll hold the first of two meetings with the priests of the archdiocese — at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers.

Tomorrow he meets with the Priests Council at Dunwoodie.

The morale of the Catholic priests of New York has been a much discussed subject in recent years. I’ve had many priests tell me of their disenchantment with Cardinal Egan’s leadership — and of a general sense of the New York church being “out at sea” in recent years.

At Dolan’s press conference last week, hours before his installation, I asked him about priestly morale and what he could do to pick his priests up.

His answer was quite interesting.

He said that priests get a bad rap for having poor morale. Even priests, he said, seem to think that their brother priests are feeling low.

But Dolan said he hasn’t seen evidence of low morale. He seemed to think that he’s fighting a perception problem.

I just wonder if priests show their brightest sides to their new archbishop. Who wants to complain to the new boss?

Regardless, every priest I’ve communicated with in recent weeks has been buoyed by Dolan’s choice, arrival and presence. He may be able to lift morale without even trying.

Additionally, the new boss has started to schedule visits to the 19 vicariates — or regions — of the archdiocese.

At each stop, he’ll have dinner with clergy, lead a prayer service and visit with folks at a reception, not unlike what Egan did for the bicentennial of the archdiocese.

What we know so far:

April 27: St. Joseph’s Church, Kingston (for Ulster County)

May 5: St. Francis of Assisi, West Nyack (Rockland County)

May 20:  Sacred Heart Church, Newburgh (Orange County)

June 1: St. Mary’s Church, Wappingers Falls (Dutchess County)

Batting first…lifting you up…Joel…Osteen

Joel Osteen’s big night at the NEW Yankee Stadium is only three days away — and my advance about him is on LoHud today and in the Journal News.

I’ve already received several comments asking me whether Osteen’s inspirational approach is sincere and whether he will last.

Hard to say.

I do think he’s sincere. After all, he is very honest about who he is and what he does — he is the son of a preacher who became a preacher himself and believes that his gift is to lift people up.

And that’s that.

Will he last? I don’t see why not. I was just saying to a colleague that these are dark and cynical times in many ways. Maybe Osteen provides a spiritual salve that works for people?

7 p.m. at the Stadium. Doors at 5:30 p.m. Tickets here.

If you missed it, I used my FaithBeat column this past Saturday to compare Osteen with Archbishop Tim Dolan, in terms of their comfort with the media and their rare ability to communicate with the masses.

And, hey, is it just me, or does Osteen have a striking resemblance to Martin Short? Imagine Short with the hair gel and a less goofy smile.

Maybe it’s me.

Two religious views on draft stem cell guidelines hit my email at once

At exactly 2:40 p.m., I received two statements about the new draft guidelines for embryonic stem cell research that were put forth Friday by the National Institutes of Health.

One statement came from Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

The other came from the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents Orthodox rabbis.

The timing was a coincidence.

First, here’s the lead from AP’s story Friday:

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WASHINGTON (AP) — When President Barack Obama eased limits on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, the big question became how far scientists could go. Friday, the government answered: They must use cells culled from fertility clinic embryos that otherwise would be thrown away.

Draft guidelines released by the National Institutes of Health reflect rules with broad congressional support, excluding more controversial sources such as cells derived from embryos created just for experiments.

“We think this will be a huge boost for the science,” said Acting NIH Director Raynard Kington. “This was the right policy for the agency at this point in time.”

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Rigali isn’t happy. His statement, says, in part:

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Despite supporters’ constant claim that this agenda involves only embryos that “would otherwise be discarded,” the guidelines provide that the option of donating embryonic children for destructive research will be offered to parents alongside all other options, including those allowing the embryos to live. For the first time, federal tax dollars will be used to encourage destruction of living embryonic human beings for stem cell research – including human beings who otherwise would have survived and been born.

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The Orthodox rabbis group, meanwhile, is satisfied. Their statement (addressed to Obama):

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We write to you on behalf of this nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish rabbinical organization to congratulate you on the decision you have taken to remove barriers to federal funding of responsible scientific research involving human stem cells.

We reaffirm the position we took in 2001 following consultations with rabbinic authorities in our community and with scientists cognizant of and sensitive to traditional Jewish values, in expressing our firm support for embryonic stem cell research conducted with appropriate scientific guidelines and careful ethical oversight. That position, as subsequently reconfirmed by the RCA on October 22 2004, can be seen at http://www.rabbis.org/news/article.cfm?id=100553.

At the same time we emphasize that vigilance must be taken to protect against the erosion of the value that American society affords to human life, including potential human life, in the execution of such research.

We admire your courage in taking a difficult decision on an issue which divides loyal Americans with different legitimate perspectives and we wish you the continued paramount blessing for political leaders that the Jewish tradition offers – wisdom.

‘Senior’ Staten Island priest in trouble

An 85-year-old Franciscan priest based on Staten Island was indicted yesterday on charges of forcing an adult female relative to perform a sex act in the rectory of a Texas church where the priest had served.

That’s 85 years old.

Father Stephen Valenta, a Franciscan for more than 57 years, had been temporarily assigned to a Rockdale, Texas, church when the crime allegedly occurred last year. He was indicted yesterday by a grand jury in Texas.

Authorities said they worked for a year to build enough evidence to indict the senior priest.

The Staten Island Advance reports that Valenta, who resides at the St. Francis Center for Spirituality on the Island’s Todt Hill, was indicted “on one count each of felony sexual assault and prohibited sexual conduct, a charge formerly known as incest.”

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests — SNAP — reacted:

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We urge the hierarchy of the church to set an example for other churches by (1) publicly pleading for anyone with relevant information to contact the police, and (2) proactively reaching out to any other possible victims with an offer of independent counseling.

Rarely do sexual predators strike only once. So we believe there could be others who may have been hurt by Fr. Stephen Valenta.