¡Si Se Puede!

Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the United Farm Workers union in 1962, is pictured in an undated photo. Chavez, who died in 1993, began grass-roots organizing in the 1950s while working in the fruit and vegetable fields of California and defined the farmworker union movement. (CNS file photo)

 

Si se puede – yes we can! It was the mantra of the United Farmworkers Union (UFW) and the movement that they and its leaders, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, popularized. It captured an attitude that things, no matter how bad they appeared, could be changed.

At 24 years of age, I joined the United Farmworker’s movement on the staff of their national boycott. I went to work for the UFW as an organizer, not knowing what organizing was, only what some of the outcomes of the organizing had been. One of those outcomes was managing to convince millions of people to forgo eating grapes and lettuce from California. The UFW had organized a national boycott of grapes and lettuce, which brought striking farm laborers from California to tell Americans across the country of the meager wages and horrible working conditions they labored under. They waged their battle non-violently, embracing the tactics and vision of Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King.

I was impressed by the work of their founder, Cesar Chavez, a diminutive Chicano, born in Arizona to Mexican parents who had lost their small homestead in Arizona to foreclosure and then migrated to California to work as farm workers. Chavez dropped out of school in the 7th grade to work with his family in the fields picking peas and lettuce, cherries and beans, corn and grapes.

What attracted me and thousands of other volunteers and organizers to “the Union” was Chavez. He was a different kind of leader. He was not flashy; he did not wear a suit or drive big cars. He had none of the trappings of power. Instead what was attractive about Chavez was his honesty, his willingness to put others first, his hunger and thirst for justice in a state (California) and a country where agricultural workers had experienced precious little justice.

Chavez became a symbol of Si Se Puede. He showed that change was possible, not with guns and not with riots – both of which were being romanticized in the late 60’s and early 70’s and in some ways glorified by revolutionary movements throughout Latin America and in the streets of Detroit and Oakland and Buenos Aires – but with peaceful determination and organizing.  Chavez exemplified a life committed to non-violence, self-discipline, and service to others.

I recall a march to Modesto, California, in which I participated. At the front of the marchers were several priests beside Chavez and other UFW leaders. Someone was carrying an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. For me it was a vivid example of religious leaders accompanying their flock, in this case in a just struggle for their rights to decent wages and working conditions and equally important – to be treated with dignity and respect.

Chavez and the UFW melded religious values with democratic values, self- interest with a vision of the common good.  Blending elements of the Civil Rights Movement, labor organizing, and community organizing, Chavez and the unique group of organizers that formed the UFW leadership exemplified a quiet dignity and austerity. Those who went to work for the UFW as organizers were paid “room and board and $5.00 a week.”  For many of the hundreds of organizers who joined the Farmworker Movement at the time, it was an antidote to the growing materialism and consumerism of our culture and a way of channeling their anger at injustice into a positive initiative to improve our nation.

Immigrant agricultural workers remain among the lowest paid and poorest workers in our nation. They are still denied collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act, and are still confronted with anti-immigrant fear and hatred. Cesar Chavez may be gone but he and the work of the UFW inspired others to organize and fight for their rights and their dignity.  Struggles are now led by leaders such as Baldemar Velasquez of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Ohio, Michigan, and North Carolina, and Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida (who the bishops’ honored in 1998 with the prestigious Cardinal  Bernardin New Leadership Award), who is spearheading a national boycott of the Wendy’s fast food chain, seeking a penny a pound increase for tomato pickers. In Vermont, the group Migrant Justice, representing dairy workers, has negotiated an agreement with Ben and Jerry’s for “Milk with Dignity,” and the Workers Center of Central New York is working on legislation to establish collective bargaining rights for farm workers in the state of New York. The brave women and men risk much working for justice for these groups in environments not always supportive of strangers from foreign countries in their communities.

Pope Francis, speaking at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Vera Cruz, Bolivia, in the spring of 2015 said,

“In conclusion, I would like to repeat: the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change.”

I say, “¡Si se puede!”

Randy Keesler is the Area C grant specialist for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.


Going Deeper

Learn more about the dignity of work and the rights of workers.  See what Catholics are doing in Yakima, New York, St. Paul-Minneapolis, and South Texas to stand with migrants.

Immigration and Our Daily Task as Christians

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, second from left, links arms with other participants on stage after a panel discussion on migration issues Feb. 17 during the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif.(CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

I had the privilege of attending the United States Regional Meeting of the World Meeting of Popular Movements, Feb. 16–19, in Modesto, California.

I was accompanied to Modesto by one of our Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishops David O’Connell, and it was good to see friends from our local parishes and workers’ unions here in Los Angeles.

There were more than 700 people there from across the country and around the world,  and the conversations that we had were challenging and enlightening — we discussed the persistence of racial discrimination, the threats to our natural environment, and the struggle for affordable housing and jobs that pay a living wage.

For me, the meeting was a reminder again of the power of the Church’s social doctrine. As I have said before, the Gospel of Jesus Christ gives us a beautiful vision of human dignity and the sanctity of life. And he calls us to build a society where the good things of God’s creation are shared with all.

This is our daily task as Christians — to share our bread with the hungry, to shelter the homeless and clothe the naked, to open our hearts to the oppressed and the afflicted. But our challenge is more than material and it is more than to offer charity to those in need. We are called to build a society of compassion and justice and truth and love.

My own contribution during these days was to concentrate on the issue of immigration. I had the privilege to participate in a panel discussion on migration with Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, who is a papal under-secretary for migrants and refugees in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, undersecretary for the Migrants and Refugee Section of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, listens during a small group discussion on migration issues Feb. 18 at the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

In my remarks, I shared our experience here in Los Angeles, and especially the challenges we are facing with the new administration in Washington. This is a question that is on everyone’s mind — what are we doing to help our immigrant communities and our brothers and sisters who are undocumented.

And we are trying to help every day in every way possible. Because immigrants are not numbers, they are not statistics. They are our family.

Here in Los Angeles, we have been organizing parish teams and training individuals so they know their rights as immigrants. We have helping to prepare families so they know what to do in case they are stopped by authorities. And we are trying to mobilize immigration attorneys to help those who are detained.

I think it is important in this time for us to stick together, to draw strength from one another, and to keep our eyes on Jesus. And I think it is also important for us to keep calm and to make judgments based on facts, not politics.

Unfortunately, immigration raids and deportations are nothing new. We know that. They did not start with this new president. We need to be clear-eyed about this.

The previous president deported more people than anybody in American history — more than 2.5 million people were deported. Most of these were non-violent criminals and many of them were ordinary parents who were seized from their homes, forced to leave behind their children and their spouses.

So we need to keep that perspective. What we really need is immigration reform.

Right now there is bi-partisan legislation in Congress, the “Bridge Act.” This would help hundreds of thousands of “dreamers,” young people. We need to get that bill passed. We need to start there and then we need to keep working, piece by piece, until we have fixed every aspect of our broken immigration system.

We need to keep our eyes on the prize — and the prize is immigration reform and a compassionate solution for those who are undocumented and forced to live in the shadows of our society.

So let us ask Our Lady of Guadalupe to help us to continue to stand together and work to build a society where we respect the dignity of every person as a child of God.

José H. Gómez is archbishop of Los Angeles and vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  


Going Deeper

Around the country, Catholic faith communities are responding to the call to welcome the stranger.  In Los Angeles, the Church is acting to stand with immigrants. In the South Texas Rio Grande Valley colonias of Hidalgo County, religious sisters are helping immigrant women connect, educate and empower women to champion concerns such as safety, lighting, voting rights, citizenship pathways, infrastructure and drainage, and education for themselves and their children.

Sowers of Change, Protagonists for Social Justice, and Bold Leaders of Action

Attendees cheer a statement about justice for immigrants Feb. 16 during a the opening program of the U.S. regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif. (CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski)

Midway through the U.S. Regional Meeting of World Popular Movements in Modesto, California, a strong wind came up which almost blew off the metal protections of the roof of the beautiful new gym where we were meeting at Central Catholic High School.

The force and the noise of the wind reflected the force and noise of the gathering of over 700 inter faith delegates of community organizations from around the United States, with some international representation also. The force was a powerful wind of strong voices calling for the popular movements to be sowers of change, protagonists for social justice, and bold leaders of action in bringing down the walls that divide the struggles against the systems that Pope Francis mentioned in his letter of greeting to the gathering.  The Pope wrote about being confronted by “a system that causes enormous suffering to the human family, simultaneously assaulting people’s dignity and our Common Home in order to sustain the invisible tyranny of money that only guarantees the privileges of a few.”

Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., listens to a speaker Feb. 18 at the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif. His diocese hosted the event. (CNS/Dennis Sadowski)

Many voices then spoke from diverse perspectives but shared the urgency of being one people in one fight (one ‘witness’ as Cardinal Peter Turkson called it) “to rebuild society in which every person is seen as fully human, has a full voice in the decisions that shape their lives, and is able to thrive and reach their human potential.”  The noise was that of great enthusiasm for “disrupting oppression and dehumanization” as Bishop Robert McElroy, Archbishop Jose Gomez, and others spoke about and “rebuilding” systems that promote and protect justice in ownership of land, for working people, in housing, for immigrants, and in ending racism. One might wonder why the meeting was held in Modesto, California, and not some large city easily reachable by modern modes of transportation. The answer simply is that the planners felt that the great Central Valley in California provided a location that reflected the challenges being faced all over the country.

The Central Valley is one of the richest agricultural areas in the world but struggles with issues of water, clean air, higher unemployment, lower wages, thousands of annual migrant farm workers, large percentages of immigrant peoples, human trafficking, homelessness, and a host of other social issues including violent gangs, hunger, school drop outs, etc.   But at the same time there are so many who live in the Central Valley who want to make life better for all who live and work there. The Regional Meeting received a warm welcome and recognition by those who knew about its purpose. What made this meeting different from other church or community gatherings?

Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, poses for a photo Feb. 16 with Lira DeMoraes, a volunteer with the Merrimack Valley Project in Massachussetts at the start of the U.S. regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, Calif.

It was the first time in the United States that community organizers from across the land were invited by the Church to come together so that the Church might hear from the people experiencing exclusion, dehumanization, and the pain of poverty.  Pope Francis had previously convened three World Meetings of Popular Movements. He spoke at all three about overcoming the globalization of indifference by “placing the economy at the service of peoples; working for peace and justice; and defending Mother Earth.” To this regional gathering in the United States the Pope sent a written greeting wishing that the “constructive energy” of this meeting “would spread to all dioceses, because it builds bridges between peoples and individuals…that can overcome the walls of exclusion, indifference, racism, and intolerance.” The Holy Father acknowledged with gratitude the sponsors of this gathering: The Catholic Campaign for Human Development; the host bishops from the three dioceses in the Central Valley; and Cardinal Peter Turkson, who leads the new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and expressed his support of the popular movements.  What was different was that Catholic dioceses hosted and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development of USCCB sponsored the meeting, which was organized and run by the popular movements under the leadership of the PICO (People Improving Communities through Organizing) National Network and other organizing networks. Pope Francis highlighted PICO’s work for promoting this meeting.

Although representatives of the Churches did speak and were well received, the Church leaders, including over 20 Catholic bishops, were there to listen and to accompany participants in the dialogues.  The message from the delegates at the end of the meeting was addressed to the popular movements and leaders in the United States and globally and to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Pope Francis. The message quoted Pope Francis and Catholic bishops extensively but also laid out the challenge, urging “our clergy and faith communities to speak and act boldly in solidarity with our people.” The message quoted Cardinal Tobin in his video address to the gathering that “faith leaders need to walk out in front and show that they are not afraid.” Pope Francis was indeed the inspiration for this gathering. Cardinal Turkson, by his presence and in his words, gave strong witness for the Church’s commitment to the integral development of the human person. Every human person has been created in the image and likeness of God, and full human development gives glory to God.

Stephen E. Blaire is bishop of Stockton, California.


 Going Deeper

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development provides ongoing support for community groups that work to transform their communities. Visit our map to find out where this work is happening where you live—then get involved!

Opening Wide the Door of Gospel Nonviolence

Eli McCarthy, Director of Justice and Peace for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men

Eli McCarthy, Director of Justice and Peace for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men

Pope Francis continues to amaze. As far as I know, he has just issued the first high-level official Catholic statement focused on Gospel nonviolence in this year’s World Day of Peace message. The door has been opened for the Catholic Church to enter a deeper understanding and broader commitment to Jesus’ way of active nonviolence and just peace.

Francis said “to be true followers of Jesus today includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.” Thus, we are to “cultivate nonviolence in our most personal thoughts and values,” i.e. develop the habit or virtue of nonviolent peacemaking. He pledges “the assistance of the Church in every effort to build peace through active and creative nonviolence.”

Like Jesus, we encounter stories of nonviolent peacemakers in this message, such as Gandhi, Khan, MLK, and Gbowee. These icons of nonviolent force realized that both constructive peacebuilding and nonviolent resistance were necessary compliments to sustainable conflict transformation.

Khan was a Muslim nonviolent leader in India who both developed schools for women and the first nonviolent peace army (80,000 members) to resist the ruthless British occupation. In a similar vein, today the Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) offers unarmed civilian protection in many violent conflict zones. For example, in South Sudan NP has reduced sexual assaults and rape by all armed actors from regularity to zero in the areas they patrol. They also directly saved 14 women and children from armed militia when they refused three times to obey orders from the militia to leave during an armed attack.

These models, which combine constructive peacebuilding and nonviolent resistance, represent a just peace approach. This approach offers a vision of human flourishing which includes a commitment to the social conditions that illuminate human dignity and cultivate thriving relationships. Drawing on specific criteria, virtues, and practices to guide our actions, it focuses on transforming conflict, breaking cycles of violence, and cultivating sustainable peace.

Key nonviolent practices that reflect this approach include, for example, addressing the root causes of violence, transforming the different dimensions of conflict, nonviolent resistance, restorative justice, unarmed civilian protection, interfaith collaboration, trauma-healing, and nonviolent civilian-based defense. Core virtues would include nonviolent peacemaking, mercy, solidarity, and humility.

Several just peace criteria within the broader approach would guide our action choices and apply at all stages of conflict. There are examples of a just peace approach to nuclear weapons, lethal drones, Syria, and ISIS.  

What if the Catholic Church were to make a shift to an explicit just peace approach consistent with Gospel nonviolence? Would it not be more consistent with Jesus’ way and help us recognize that all killing or lethal force is a form of violence? Would it not also liberate us more for nonviolent practices that would better build just peace, prevent war, limit ongoing war, heal after war, and even draw society away from war sooner as we more effectively live up to our “duty to strain every muscle to outlaw war” (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes par. 81).

As Catholic leaders in our communities, we have a very unique opportunity to build on this movement of the Spirit.

Here are some suggestions:

1) share the World Day of Peace with your communities;

2) provide substantial education about active nonviolence in all levels of faith formation;

3) provide a regular Gospel-based training program in various nonviolent skills, as they have in the Archdiocese of Chicago;

4) join or develop a local peace team to deploy unarmed peacekeepers, provide nonviolent skill training, and scale-up restorative justice.

May God’s love and courage be with each of us as we walk further through the door of Gospel nonviolence.

Eli McCarthy is the director of Justice and Peace for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.


Going Deeper!

For more resources, visit USCCB’s World Day of Peace webpage, where you’ll find a two-page handout in English and Spanish, past World Day of Peace messages, and other tools to promote peace.

Bishop Blaire of Stockton Issues Strong Statement on Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Pilgrims hold up images of Our Lady of Guadalupe during an annual pilgrimage in her honor (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

Pilgrims hold up images of Our Lady of Guadalupe during an annual pilgrimage in her honor (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

The journey of life is difficult at this time for Hispanics in the United States.  Many have friends and family members who are without papers; many are without papers themselves; children in school are being bullied; and young immigrants who signed up for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) are anxious that they might lose their opportunity to work and their protection from deportation; racism has raised its ugly head in many communities; and so many of our neighborhoods and homes are plagued with violence. Many who have jobs often find themselves having to work two or three jobs in order to make ends meet.

To all of you this day I remind you that OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE COMES TO MEET YOU TO LEAD YOU TO JESUS.  She says to each of you what she said to St. Juan Diego: “Do not be disturbed in your heart; do not be afraid.  Am I not with you, I who am your mother?” We need to hear these words of comfort and strength when there is so much hostility in the public conversation about immigration and immigrants.

I wish to say loudly and clearly to all of you that as your bishop I am with you.  You are the Church.  I will walk with you no matter how hard it gets. Please God, things will go better than our worst fears about what might happen.  Regardless, the Church is with you.  I am here to accompany you.  I also wish to announce to our immigrants, to our refugees, to our migrants, from wherever you come, that we will do everything we can to help you through our Catholic Charities and the community organizations of which we are a part. As Catholics we embrace our American traditions of welcome, of unity in diversity, and our care for all.

I also wish to say to our Muslim brothers and sisters, and to our Jewish elder brothers and sisters, and to all our inter-faith friends that the hate which destroys the unity and solidarity of the human family cannot be tolerated in any way. The way of God is the way of love.

As you know so many of our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East have been slaughtered by ISIS or lost their homes in war torn areas and have suffered as refugees from their ancient lands.  I ask you to join with our Holy Father Pope Francis, in doing whatever you can in any way to support the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Christian and Muslim refugees at this time, and to bring calm to their homelands.

The causes of war and cruelty cannot be ignored.  The injustices that give rise to radical evils must be alleviated. The forces of evil must be stopped. Ultimately, evil will only be overcome by good, by the hard work of good people working together to bring about peace.  And there will be no peace if there is no justice which respects the dignity and worth of every human being.  As long as the gods of money and power and unrestrained impulses found in the idols of greed and corruption rule on the face of the earth there will be no lasting peace.  Sad to say, an even greater threat to peace that looms over our heads would be the unrestrained advance in nuclear weapons which could destroy all creation.

I sincerely believe that unless God is accepted as sovereign Lord over the earth and over our lives, communities will continue to deteriorate, the earth will be devastated, and family coherence will be diminished.  Your devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe keeps us close to her as our Mother.  She leads us to Christ Who is the all just One; the all merciful One; the Hope for the world when all seems hopeless.

The world does not need any more walls.  It needs bridges of compassion and mutual understanding.  Yes, proper respect for borders or boundaries, but not barriers of hostility and division.  Let there be peace at our borders.

The world cannot continue to endure more violence.  It needs restraint, words of peace and perseverance in the hard efforts to create the just structures that are the foundation for peace.  In our community the answer to gang violence is good education and decent jobs.

The world must not tolerate racism.   It needs to honor the diversity of God’s human family by building a unity which embraces and respects all races on the face of the earth.  Unity in diversity!

bishop-blaire-5x7Today we venerate Our Lady of Guadalupe who comes to meet us as our mother.  Nuestra Señora will show us the way to peace and goodness and justice.  Mary is the mother of all peoples.  She will give us the courage not to be afraid.  She will lead us to Jesus, the Lord of peace and justice.   Viva Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe!  Viva Cristo Rey!

Stephen E. Blaire is bishop of Stockton, California.


 

Immigration, Mercy, and the Vision of America

gomezThis is an excerpt of a lecture by Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez at Boston College Sept. 8, 2016 during an event sponsored by The Church in the 21st Century Center.

Immigration reform is one of the great issues of our day. It’s more than politics and economics. It is a struggle for justice, dignity and human rights. It is a challenge to the conscience of every individual. I believe immigration reform is a spiritual issue — it is a test of our faith, our humanity and our compassion.

I am not a politician, I am a pastor.  For me, immigration is about people — people I work with and live with; my neighbors and parishioners; my friends and family. It is also something personal for me. I came to this country as an immigrant from Mexico and I am a naturalized citizen. I have family and friends on both sides of the border.

The human face of immigration

It’s important to remember that behind every “statistic” is a soul — a soul who has dignity as a child of God, a soul who has rights and needs that are both spiritual and material.

The immigrants I know are people who have faith in God, who love their families, and who aren’t afraid of hard work and sacrifice. Most have come to this country for the same reasons that immigrants have always come to this country — to seek refuge from violence and poverty; to make a better life for themselves and their children.

When Pope Francis addressed the U.S. Congress last September he reminded us that he is the son of an immigrant.   Pope Francis said something beautiful that I think we should all reflect on:

“On this continent … thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.”

 A nation of immigrants
It is common to talk about America as “a nation of immigrants.” With the exception of our indigenous brothers and sisters, every American is the son or daughter of someone who came to this country from somewhere else.

Right now, the story we tell about America starts here on the East Coast — New York, Jamestown, Boston, Philadelphia. We remember the first Thanksgiving, the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War.  That story is not wrong. It’s just not complete.  And because it’s not complete, it gives the distorted impression that America was founded as a project only of Western Europeans. This misreading of history has obvious implications for our current debates.

America’s founders dreamed of a nation where people from every race, religion and ethnic background could live in equality — as brothers and sisters, children of the same God.

But it is also true that at various points in American history, our faith and commitment to this original vision has been shaken. There is a streak of nativism and racial discrimination that has always run through our history. It seems to flare up especially in times when people are fearful and uncertain about the future.

Mercy and the vision of America and the way forward

Many of our neighbors today are worried and anxious. They are worried about what the global economy means for their jobs, their wages; they are worried about the threat of terrorism. I think our neighbors’ fears are real [to them] and I think we need to take them seriously.

Since 2008, we have deported more than 2 million undocumented persons.

I’m worried that in our fear, we are closing in on ourselves, we are hardening our hearts. There is a cruelty in our policies and our public rhetoric.  I am worried that we are losing our sense of mercy, our ability to show forgiveness and kindness, to empathize and feel the pain of others.

There is a broad consensus that our nation has the obligation to secure its borders and determine who enters the country and how long they stay.  There is also broad agreement that we need to update our immigration system to enable us to welcome newcomers who have the character and skills our country needs to grow.

The good news is that the American people are far more compassionate and understanding than some of the loudest voices we are hearing today.  People do not cease to be our brothers and sisters just because they have an irregular immigration status.

We need to resist the temptations to nativism and discrimination.  We need to insist on public discourse and public policy that reflects our common humanity and promotes the dignity of the human person.

I think we have a duty to be the keepers of the American vision committed to human dignity, freedom and the flourishing of diverse peoples, races and beliefs.  We are to grow in empathy and mercy, by the grace of God.   We need to be working for a new America in which no one is a stranger. An America in which we encounter the “other” — as a brother, as a sister.

To read Archbishop Gomez’s full remarks please visit, http://angelusnews.com/articles/immigration-national-identity-and-catholic-conscience

Say “NO” to Torture

photograph of Bishop Oscar Cantu

Most Reverend Oscar Cantú, Bishop of Las Cruces

Mention the word “torture” and Abu Ghraib comes to mind. The images of naked detainees cowering as dogs lunge at them make us squirm with shame. But then we think, those were extreme circumstances; the United States doesn’t do this anymore.   Yet we still hear some advocate for waterboarding and “enhanced interrogation techniques” (a euphemism for torture) as a way of extracting information.

In the current environment of fear, we do well to remember Catholic teaching. It tells us that torture is always wrong. In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Saint John Paul II included physical and mental torture in his list of social evils that are “intrinsically evil” (No. 80). The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says the prohibition against torture “cannot be contravened under any circumstances” (No. 404).

Torture debases a human being and violates the inherent dignity of the human person, both victim and perpetrator, that is instilled by God in every person created in His image. Torture also degrades the moral fiber of any society that tolerates or sponsors it. Accepting torture undermines respect for everyone’s human rights and human dignity.

In addition to the moral arguments against torture, there are practical reasons to oppose this heinous practice. Experienced interrogators tell us that torture doesn’t work. Information gained through torture is generally useless or misleading since the victim will say what he thinks the torturer wants to hear, not the truth.

And knowing that a country practices torture can push those who suffer from it toward violence and extremism. It can even encourage violence in the wider culture. There is no doubt that the images of Abu Ghraib fueled anti-American sentiment in many countries and served as a recruitment tool for terrorists.

Earlier this year, I met an Iraqi refugee now uses a wheelchair as a result of being tortured. His journey from Iraq to safety in Lebanon was arduous. While relatively safe now, he continues to suffer from internal bleeding and needs regular transfusions. But getting medical care is expensive. There’s no money forthcoming from international agencies for anything besides surgery. Nonetheless he might be counted among the lucky ones – he survived torture.

Sometimes the scars of torture are not visible. But if you look into the faces of the victims, you see the shadows that haunt them. You see them avert their eyes when meeting strangers. You see their involuntary flinches at sudden movements. And if you were to look into their hearts, you would see the fear they are trying to overcome and the hope that they are struggling to nurture in order to rebuild their lives.

Abu Ghraib and the torture associated with that name have tainted so many people’s view of the United States. As I said in an interview with Vatican Radio, “We have placed ourselves through our history as a beacon of hope, a beacon of reason, of freedom: and so, this recent chapter in our history has tarnished that.”

It is time for all of us to urge our leaders to firmly acknowledge that torture constitutes a violation of basic moral principles and a betrayal of the U.S. reputation of being a defender of human rights. It is time for us to say “No” to torture.

You can learn more about torture and actions you can take to oppose torture by going to:

http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/torture/torture-is-a-moral-issue.cfm

http://www.nrcat.org

http://www.tassc.org/ 


Most Reverend Oscar Cantú is the Bishop of Las Cruces and Chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace.