After 70 years, It's (still) a Wonderful (Catholic) Life in Frank Capra's epic

After receiving 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus, Judas Iscariot repented, threw the money away and hanged himself.

Religious authorities used the money, according to St. Matthew's Gospel, to buy the "potter's field, to bury strangers in," which became known as the "field of blood."

Anyone who thinks it was a coincidence that the slums owned by bitter banker Henry F. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life" were called "Potter's Field" isn't paying attention to the gospel according to Frank Capra.

"There's no question that Capra's great enough" to be listed among Hollywood's greatest Catholic filmmakers, said critic Steven D. Greydanus of DecentFilms.com and The National Catholic Register. He also serves as a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark.

"It's a Wonderful Life," he stressed, is also Capra's greatest film and the one that best captures his Catholic view of life. Capra directed, co-wrote and produced the film, which was released on Christmas Day in 1946. The movie's 70th anniversary will be celebrated Dec. 9-11 in Seneca Falls, N.Y., the model for the fictional Bedford Falls.

"Capra worked harder on this film than any other," said Greydanus. "He was passionate about it and the themes in it. …  I think his worldview was shaped by his Catholic upbringing and, whatever idiosyncrasies he added as an adult, that faith shaped this movie."

Religious liberty experts stand together, on cases inside prison walls

Religious liberty experts stand together, on cases inside prison walls

When it comes to fine cuisine, few gourmands would fight to be served peanut butter, sardines, beans and some other canned goods -- often cold.

While these foods are not very appealing, they are kosher. Thus, they are common items on the menu the Florida Department of Corrections has offered prisoners requesting kosher meals.

First Amendment activists have repeatedly clashed in federal courts with Florida officials who insist a kosher-food option would be too expensive.

"These aren't prisoners who have made up some kind of religion that requires them to eat lobster every day, claiming they're members of the Church of the Lobster," noted attorney Daniel Blomberg of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket team filed an amicus brief backing the prisoners' rights, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

"No one goes to a lot of trouble to eat bread and beans," he added. "The prisoners are making these requests because this is what they believe God wants them to do. … The 'religious' diet these prisoners are being served is, frankly, unpalatable."

Federal and Florida officials have been haggling over these dietary details since 2011, leading to six federal-court decisions backing the prisoners. The state says a kosher-foods program costs about $12.3 million a year, compared to a U.S. government estimate of roughly $384,000.

Believe it or not: 2016 was a rather normal election year when it comes to a 'pew gap'

Believe it or not: 2016 was a rather normal election year when it comes to a 'pew gap'

No doubt about it, most mainstream pollsters thought the vote totals that rolled in during Election Night 2016 were intriguing, then stunning and, as dawn approached, almost unimaginable.

How did the chattering-class insiders miss what was clearly widespread heartland support for New York billionaire Donald Trump?

But there was one surprise left in the details of the early exit polls. In a race packed with soap-opera conflict and fiery rhetoric about personal ethics, morality and even faith, the experts looked at the role that religion played in 2016 and discovered -- to their shock -- that it was a rather normal modern election year.

"Actually, that's astonishing news," said Gregory A. Smith, who helps coordinate religion polling at the Pew Research Center. "If you consider all of the tumultuous events during this election year and how much tension there has been and all of the other stuff that's been up in the air, it's amazing that things were so steady" in terms of religion and voting, with "only a few numbers up or down a bit.

"Religious groups that have consistently supported the Republicans gave every indication they would back Donald Trump and that's how things turned out. The religious groups that traditionally back Democrats did so, but the turnout was down a bit. The religious groups that are usually divided were divided."

The so-called "God gap" (also known as the "pew gap") held steady, with religious believers who claimed weekly worship attendance backing Trump over Hillary Clinton, 56 percent to 40 percent. Voters who said they never attend religious services backed Clinton by a 31-point margin, 62 percent to 31 percent.

Let's face it: 2016 felt like the start of a cultural civil war, right?

Let's face it: 2016 felt like the start of a cultural civil war, right?

It's been nearly a quarter of a century since foreign correspondent David Aikman wrote a novel about a second American Civil War, with a government led by urban socialists going to war with heartland conservatives.

Alas, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

About a year ago, the bitter events unfolding on cable-TV political news made it rather clear that it was time for a new edition of that post-Cold War thriller, "When the Almond Tree Blossoms."

"No matter who wins … there are people out there who think we are headed toward some kind of civil war," said Aikman, in an interview just before Election Day.

"It's disappointing that our nation really hasn't come to terms with all of its internal problems. Right now, it feels like it would take a miracle -- some kind of divine intervention -- to heal the divisions we see in American life today."

Aikman was born in Surrey, England, and came to America in the 1960s to do a doctorate in Russian and Chinese history, after his studies at Oxford's Worcester College. After contemplating a career in diplomacy -- he speaks German, French, Chinese and Russian -- he moved into journalism and became senior foreign correspondent at Time magazine. Among his many adventures, Aikman witnessed the 1989 massacre in China's Tiananmen Square and introduced readers to a Russian politico named Boris Yeltsin.

Ironically, Aikman wrote "When the Almond Tree Blossoms" -- the title is rebel code drawn from Ecclesiastes -- while preparing to become a naturalized United States citizen in 1993. In the novel, the liberal "People's Movement" -- backed by Russia -- rules the East and West coast power centers, as well as the industrial Midwest. The "Constitutionalists" control most of the Bible Belt and have dug into the Rocky Mountain West. But who will the pragmatic Chinese support?

Donald Trump and his angry, working-class Catholic men in the Rust Belt

The Diocese of Rockville Centre had to know the calls were coming, after Bishop William Murphy's letter was read in Sunday Masses.

"Support of abortion by a candidate for public office, some of whom are Catholics, even if they use the fallacious and deeply offensive 'personally opposed but …' line, is reason sufficient unto itself to disqualify any and every such candidate from receiving our vote," the bishop advised Catholics in Long Island and other communities east of New York City.

Murphy added, "Let me repeat that," and did so -- word for word.

The bishop also said he believes America is "heading in the wrong direction" -- especially on religious freedom -- and asked each believer to "examine your conscience" before voting.

A diocesan spokesman stressed that Murphy was "absolutely not" signaling support for Donald Trump for president.

This unusual Rockville Centre salvo was news, in part, because U.S. Catholic leaders have been surprisingly quiet in 2106 -- even with Sen. Tim Kaine, a Catholic progressive, in the vice-president slot for the Democrats. Some Catholic leaders have even received flak, from left and right, for noting that both major-party nominees have disturbing track records on matters of character and honesty.

Meanwhile, many Catholic voters will remember an earlier war of words between Trump and Pope Francis on immigration, with the pope noting that "a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel."

All of this matters, of course, because it's almost impossible for Republicans to take the White House without winning the "Catholic vote" in Ohio, Pennsylvania and other swing states.

Life after 2016 and the 'lesser of two evils' wars among religious conservatives

Life after 2016 and the 'lesser of two evils' wars among religious conservatives

As the 2016 White House race unfolded, the Facebook home of one of Princeton University's best-known scholars was packed with cries for help.

The battle lines were clear. Religious conservatives wanted to know if they had to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Was picking the "lesser of two evils" still evil? Was it morally wrong to refuse to choose?

Robert P. George made his own convictions clear.

"If you truth bomb Trump but go silent on Clinton, shame on you," wrote George, an outspoken Catholic and distinguished professor of jurisprudence at Princeton. "If you truth bomb Clinton but go silent on Trump, shame on you. Whole truth!" In another salvo he added: "A ghastly choice for Catholics & others: One will taint and bring disgrace on our moral values. The other will wage unrelenting war on them."

With Election Day drawing near, George finally republished a note from June, pleading for charity in these arguments.

"Friends, we are in a terrible fix here. And it is putting some of us at each other's throats. It must not be permitted to do that. Donald Trump is dreadful. Hillary Clinton is horrible. One called for the killing of the innocent family members of terrorists. The other promises to protect the killing of unborn babies up to the point of birth," he wrote.

"For some of us, it just isn't obvious which of these two scoundrels would do greater harm in the long run," he argued. Whatever happens, those "who believe in limited government, constitutional fidelity and the Rule of law, flourishing institutions of civil society, traditional principles of morality, and the like are going to have profoundly important work to do. And we will need to do it together."

Yes, Republicans face what many are predicting will be a "civil war" between Trump insurgents and the party establishment, said George, in a telephone interview.

Heart of the problem: Why so many men think church is for women (Part II)

Heart of the problem: Why so many men think church is for women (Part II)

Sunday after Sunday, believers stand and sing at the start of worship. Here is the question author Leon Podles wants church leaders to ponder: Which of these two entrance hymns would inspire the most fervor in men?

First, consider these modern lyrics: "I am God of the Earth like a Mother in labor I bring all to birth. With all the Earth we sing your praise! We come to give you thanks, o lover of us all, and giver of our loving. … We are your work of art, the glory of your hand, the children of your loving."

Now for something completely different: "The Son of God goes forth to war, a kingly crown to gain; his blood red banner streams afar: who follows in his train? Who best can drink His cup of woe, triumphant over pain, who patient bears his cross below -- he follows in His train."

Yes, times have changed and the second hymn is rarely heard today. However, Catholic and Protestant churches -- especially in the Western world -- have been struggling with masculinity issues for centuries, noted Podles, in recent lectures at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in Baltimore. In most pews, women now outnumber men by ratios of two or three to one.

"The attitude toward church among the majority of men in Western cultures varies from, 'It's OK for women and children' to general indifference to a hostility that has on occasion led to mass murder," he said, referring to the slaughter of priests and monks during the Spanish Civil War.

"Why are men more distant from Christianity? Men and women are equally fallen, are equally in need of healing grace. Why are men more resistant to the ministrations of the church?"

Speaking to Latin American bishops in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI openly worried that "this kind of distance of indifference by men, which strongly calls into question the style of our conventional ministry, is partly why the separation between faith and culture keeps growing."

A problem with deep roots: Why so many men think church is for women (Part I)

A problem with deep roots: Why so many men think church is for women (Part I)

It was conventional wisdom, in the Middle Ages, that women were more pious than men and that women went to Confession and took Communion during great church feasts "while few men do," as a Dominican priest observed.

Austrian theologian Johann B. Hafen saw this trend in 1843: "During the year who surrounds most frequently and willingly the confessional? The wives and maidens! Who kneels most devoutly before our altars? Again, the female sex!"

Early YMCA leaders found that one out of 20 young men claimed church membership and that 75 percent of men "never attend church" at all. A Church News study in 1902 found that, in Manhattan, the ratio of Catholic women to men was 3 to 1.

What about today? To see what is happening in Catholic sanctuaries worshippers just have look around.

"You may have noticed that in many Catholic churches everyone in the sanctuary except the priest is female and sometimes the masculinity of the priest is doubtful. I remember a 50-year-old priest with a page-boy haircut," observed author Leon J. Podles, speaking at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in downtown Baltimore.

"Most Catholic pastoral ministers in this country and elsewhere are female, so often there is not a male in sight during Communion services. ... There have been recent changes in some countries in the ratio of women to men in the church, but it has not been a result of more men, but fewer women attending."

Seeking Christian solidarity in, for starters, a few American voting booths

Seeking Christian solidarity in, for starters, a few American voting booths

Michael Maturen is a Catholic writer, a businessman, a grassroots political activist, a former evangelical Anglican priest and a professional magician.

Seeking the presidency of the United States may not have been the next logical move for this self-proclaimed "nobody" from the tiny town of Harrisville, on Lake Huron in Northeast Michigan.

"I'm a magician, I sell cars and I'm running for president," said Maturen, laughing. "I am not delusional. People in the American Solidarity Party don't think we can win the presidency. Our goal is to promote the ideas behind our party and the idea that it's time to change our political system. … Two parties are not enough when you look at the reality of modern America."

This would have been more obvious if the party's founders had kept its original name, as in the Christian Democracy Party-USA. That would have linked it to major political parties -- primarily in Europe and Latin America -- with the "Christian Democrat" label.

Maturen said the name was changed because, while the party is built on Catholic social teachings, America has become such a diverse culture. The new name does offer a nod to Saint Pope John Paul II and Poland's Solidarity movement.

"Lot's of people are pretty disgusted with where we are in America," said Maturen. "What changed my own thinking was the ugliness of this election cycle. As a simple matter of ethics, I knew that I couldn't support Donald Trump and, since I am pro-life, I knew I couldn't vote for Hillary Clinton."