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Yet More on Health Care

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It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the Senate’s language on abortion coverage in the health care reform effort is actually better than the Stupak language that passed the House.

The Stupak Amendment has the advantage of clarity: If you get a federal subsidy, you can’t buy a plan that includes abortion coverage. The Stupak Amendment foresaw the likelihood of insurance companies offering “riders” for abortion coverage, to be purchased by individuals with their own funds. The Stupak Amendment was silent about plans purchased through the exchanges that are not subject to a federal subsidy. The chief actuary for the insurance companies said, however, that the pool of people would be too small to offer such coverage, which is what drove the pro-choice groups crazy. In the event, if the exchanges grow in popularity, as seems likely, that pool would increase in size and insurance companies would offer abortion services and nothing in Stupak prevented that.

U.S. death sentences fall, executions up in 2009

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The country is expected to finish 2009 with the fewest death sentences since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, according to a report released Dec. 18 by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Eleven states considered abolishing the death penalty this year, a significant increase in legislative activity from previous years, as the high costs and lack of measurable benefits associated with this punishment troubled lawmakers.

“The annual number of death sentences in the U.S. has dropped for seven straight years and is 60 percent less than in the 1990s,” said Richard Dieter, the report’s author and center's executive director. “In the last two years, three states have abolished capital punishment and a growing number of states are asking whether it's worth keeping. This entire decade has been marked by a declining use of the death penalty." There were 106 death sentences in 2009 compared with a high of 328 in 1994.

Kneel or not? Vote for it.

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The Morning Briefing contains a link to this story from Belleville, Ill.: Controversy continues as more Belleville churchgoers are told to get on their knees.

Briefly, Belleville Bishop Edward K. Braxton has sent letters to three pastors ordering them to tell their parishioners they must cease standing and instead, kneel during the reading of the Eucharistic Prayer.

The Web site of the local newspaper, the Belleville News-Democrat, has an online poll about this issue. Here's the poll as I saw it this morning:

Should Bishop Braxton be telling parishioners whether to kneel or not?

Yes. As head of the Catholics in the diocese, it's his responsibility.

76% of respondents; 1878 votes

No. It should be up to the parishioners and their priest.

23% of respondents; 566 votes

Who can say? It's too hard for me to decide.

1% of respondents; 33 votes

Total Votes: 2477

Blessed Jacopone da Todi, Franciscan Poet

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O King of the Gentiles, and the Desired of all, you are the cornerstone that binds two into one. Come and save mankind, whom you formed out of clay.

--Antiphon for Vespers, Dec. 22

Today is the feast of Blessed Jacopone da Todi.

"The first real outburst of Christmas joy in a popular tongue is found in Italy, in the poems of that strange 'minstrel of the Lord,' the Franciscan Jacopone da Todi (b. 1228, d. 1306)."

From the fourth through the thirteenth centuries, Christmas was in the hands of monastics. Their hymns were theological, "stately and severe". Ordinary people were illiterate, and their religion "was in many respects merely a survival of the old paganism thinly disguised."

December's Embers: Burning thoughts about new films

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These past few weeks has seen the release of several surprisingly good films (though some will receive wide release in January). We could bicker about what makes a film "good" forever, but for the sake of argument, let's define say that a good film as one with images and sound so well integrated that the story satisfies, inspires, is through-provoking, entertaining, and sometimes offers a glimpse into the soul.

Update: Abortion & Health Care

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The health care bill that passed the Senate in the wee hours of the morning is much, much better on the issue of abortion funding than the original bill it amended. The most important new provision is that which requires a woman who has purchased a plan that includes abortion coverage in the federally-managed exchanges to write two premium checks, one for the basic plan and the other for the part of the plan that covers abortion services. This is very similar to the “abortion riders” that the Stupak Amendment foresaw in the House-passed bill.

Does a rider by any other name smell as sweet? Yes. The purpose of the “riders” was to demonstrate two things, both of which are important. First, a rider paid for entirely out-of-pocket would show that the federal subsidies are not paying for the abortion coverage. Here the funds are not arbitrarily segregated for accounting purposes, as the original bill decreed properly raising the charge that it was an accounting gimmick. Here the funds are not segregated because they are never combined in the first place.

Denver pastor learns the price for being open

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Disagreements over homosexuality and the Bible have divided mainline Protestant churches for years. In evangelical churches, though, the majority view has held firm — the Bible clearly condemns homosexual acts. The common refrain at evangelical churches: "love the sinner, hate the sin."

This makes the Rev. Mark Tidd an outlaw pastor of sorts. His Denver congregation, less than a year old, is an evangelical Christian church guided both by the Apostle's Creed and the belief that gay people can embrace their sexual orientation as God-given and seek fulfillment in committed same-sex relationships.

Read the full AP story here: Evangelical church opens doors fully to gays - and learns the cost of being a renegade

The quickie confirmation

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A friend of mine is thinking of getting a "quickie confirmation" for her son down in Mexico. For decades, Californians have raced across the border for quickie divorces in Baja -- but fast-n-easy sacraments are something new.

An article in Monday's Los Angeles Times spotlights one priest from Baja California who's gotten in trouble with his archbishop. Seems Fr. Raymundo Figueroa from Rosarito Beach in Mexico's Baja California has a special way of raising funds for his parish: he comes over the border to the U.S. and sells sacraments to time-stressed Americans. According to the Times, Fr. Figueroa charges up to $180 for fast-tracked confirmations, baptisms and first communions.

No one accuses the priest of pocketing these proceeds -- he plows the funds back into his parish, which now has a stunning church that is the envy of all the surrounding towns. And maybe this would not be much more than an amusing tale -- except that it is apparently not at all unique.

Mary Ward named 'venerable'

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Religious women today facing the disapproval and scrutiny of officials in Rome might take some consolation from the life of the Venerable Mary Ward, founder of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, known in the United States as the Loreto sisters. In the 17th century, when she wanted to form an unenclosed order of women, she was too far ahead of her time. Rome not only balked at the idea, but at one point accused her of heresy.

Recognition of her efforts came slowly. On Dec. 19, Pope Benedict declared her venerable, an early step on the way to sainthood.

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