The Meaning of Pope Francis’ Trip to Cuba

Two Previous Papal Visits

headshot of Archbishop Thoma Wenski

Most Reverend Thomas Wenski, Archbishop of Miami

Pope Francis arrives in Cuba at a time of renewed hopes because of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and United States. That the Pope played a key role in helping make this happen will not be lost on anyone in Cuba.

In 1998, Saint John Paul II said that Cuba should open itself to the world and that the world should open itself to Cuba.

Now, Pope Francis is flying to the U.S. – not directly from Rome but from Cuba. The Pope likes to make symbolic gestures – he carries his own bag, for example. His flight into Washington, D.C. from Havana is also very symbolic. As he told priests at an ordination a couple of years ago, priests are to build bridges not walls. He is building a bridge. And this bridge not only spans the distance between Cuba and the US, but – I think – is meant also to span the distance between the U.S. and Latin America. This is the distance between the most developed part of the world with those parts, in many cases, that are the least developed. Continue reading

America’s Prison System is a World of Pain and Despair

 The following article was originally published by the Sun Sentinel on August 19, 2015.

Next month, when Pope Francis visits the United States, one stop on his itinerary will be a prison outside of Philadelphia. He has visited prisons in Italy and other countriesheadshot of Archbishop Thoma Wenski to remind us of the dignity of even those convicted of crime. Pope Francis has said, “God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else — God is in this person’s life.”

While conditions in U.S. prisons might be a bit more humane than those in the notorious Palmasola prison he visited in Bolivia last month, our criminal justice system is nevertheless broken, and it needlessly continues to break up families and communities throughout our nation.

As a nation we incarcerate more of our population than any other Western country, more than even the Soviet Union did. Today, the United States has more than 2.2 million people in prison on any given day — and in the course of a year some 13.5 million passed through our correctional institutions.

In Florida, our state prisons, which house some 100,000 people, have been tainted by scandals in recent years — with various allegations of prisoner abuse and even murder by guards still being investigated.

How did this come about? There are lots of reasons, of course. The crisis in our families — the breakup and dissolution of American families, especially among the poor — certainly left many young people rudderless. Many did not only lose their way; they never learned the way.

Access to better legal counsel and resources often allow the rich and better-educated offenders to defer or avoid prison. The incarcerated tend to be those less educated, the mentally ill, drug addicts or the poor. And because of ill-considered tougher sentencing laws and tougher parole laws that seek more to punish than to rehabilitate, our prison populations continue to grow. “Three strikes” laws often end up sentencing minor criminals to a lifetime of jail for what are relatively petty third offenses.

Justice is supposedly blind — but given the inequities of the criminal justice system today, one could rightly say that justice is crippled.

Our Judeo-Christian tradition has always called for the humane treatment of prisoners and has emphasized that imprisonment should lead to the rehabilitation of the prisoner so that he can return to society and resume his place as a productive citizen. The reality of prisons today is far from this ideal.

While society needs to be protected from the worst among us, there is little effort to rehabilitate the nonviolent and the misguided. And while our Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, what we see happening in our prisons is cruel and inhuman. The spread of infectious diseases in prisons, including AIDS, and the sexual violence that occurs within prison walls point out just how inhuman conditions are in our nation’s prison system today.

All this reflects the sad reality of the incarcerated today, whether they are in a small county jail or a large federal prison. Their world is one of pain and despair. Because nobody wants to live next door to a correctional institution, they are usually built in isolated rural areas — and so prisoners end up “warehoused” far from their families — and so, “out of sight, out of mind,” the rest of society allows itself to simply ignore them.

Violence begets violence: Man’s inhumanity to man consists not only of crime itself but also how we as a society treat the wrongdoer. The inmate is our brother or sister in Christ, a child of God who, in spite of whatever crime he or she might have committed, does not forfeit his or her dignity as a child of God.

As a church we must proclaim and promote the respect of each person’s dignity — this must include the unborn, the handicapped, the migrant, the elderly … and it cannot fail to include the prisoner as well.

Here in the Archdiocese of Miami, many of our priests, deacons and faithful minister to the incarcerated. Their ministry is truly a work of mercy. They take to heart Jesus’ words in his parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25): “I was in prison and you visited me.”

After all, Jesus himself was imprisoned and suffered crucifixion, the means of capital punishment of his time. And from the cross, he beatified a common criminal whom history now knows as the “Good Thief” because he “stole” heaven — getting there even before the sinless Virgin Mary.

Pope Francis will remind us in his visit to a U.S. prison this September, “God is in everyone’s life.”

Most Reverend Thomas G. Wenski is Archbishop of Miami and is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

Links for April 21, 2015

Here are a few links for today.

“heed the voices of the poor who are impacted most by climate change … “
In his recent column in the Florida Catholic, Archbishop Thomas Wenski, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, writes about the challenge of climate change and how Pope Francis may address the issue in his upcoming eco-encyclical later this year. For more on the eco-encyclical and environmental justice, follow Cecilia Calvo, coordinator of the USCCB Environmental Justice Program, on twitter.

More on our great new children’s storybooks!
Merged Books
Lisa Hendey over at interviews our Jill Rauh on the great new storybooks, Green Street Park and Drop by Drop, meant to help parents and educators teach children to put their faith into action by pursuing both charity and service.

The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Questions of Free Trade

Mulloy and Coll

Tom Mulloy and Richard Coll of the USCCB.

Quick, take a look at the tag on your shirt.

Where was it made? El Salvador? Vietnam? China?

How about that fruit you ate for lunch? A banana from Costa Rica? An apple from Chile?

Do you have a neighbor or loved one who has lost a job because their plant closed?

Do you know where that phone or tablet came from? Even more than where they are assembled, the plastics, state of the art glass, and precious and other metals are all produced in hundreds of far off places.

When it comes to the immigration debate, have we really ever stopped to ask why so many people take the frightening and courageous step of leaving their home country to come to the United States in search of work?

The answers to these questions are determined, in large part, by the international trade agreements our country negotiates with others. Our country’s trade policies touch almost every aspect of our lives. What’s more, they touch the lives of almost every other person on the planet, many in very consequential ways. Despite this, most Americans are unaware of the importance of trade deals, and the current debate happening in Washington goes largely unnoticed.

Debate about a new trade agreement is raising these very questions. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) would create rules among a significant number of nations in North and South America as well as Asia.

This debate will have profound consequences on the lives of those in poverty and on vulnerable communities, both here in the United States and around the globe. This is why the Catholic bishops of the United States, taking a cue from Pope Francis, are following the conversation closely. Earlier this year, Archbishop Thomas Wenski and Bishop Oscar Cantú wrote to Congress, saying that:

Trade policies must be grounded in people-centered ethical criteria, in pursuit of the common good for our nation and people around the world.

They laid out criteria for just trade policy that would accomplish this, stressing that the question is not whether trade itself is good or bad; Catholic teaching affirms that trade, properly oriented, can be good. The real question is how to craft trade policies that affirm human life and dignity, encourage the development of peoples, and advance the common good. History tells us that many trade policies, as crafted and implemented, have harmed many and have actually contributed to the challenges of excessive economic inequality, migration, hunger and conflict.

As Archbishop Wenski and Bishop Cantú point out, a critical step in achieving a just framework is participation. As with any issue, trade agreements must be debated and constructed in a way

that will assure that voices from affected sectors of society can be heard and that their interests are reflected in whatever agreements emerge.

Historically, trade negotiations are granted special status, formerly known as ‘fast track’, now known as ‘Trade Promotion Authority (TPA)’. However, many have raised concerns that this process does not allow for all affected parties to have their voices heard.

Trade agreements may be complicated, but the criteria that should guide them are simple and rest on core tenets of Catholic teaching. A commitment to these criteria, laid out by Archbishop Wenski and Bishop Cantú, would be an important first step toward creating a more just world.

Richard Coll, Esq. and Tom Mulloy are policy advisors at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Go deeper:
Learn more about USCCB advocacy for just trade agreements.

Yes. The Church Is Opposed to the Death Penalty

“All Christians and men of good will are thus called to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty, whether legal or illegal, and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, with respect for the human dignity of the people deprived of their freedom”
Pope Francis, October 23, 2014

Anthony Granado, USCCB

Anthony Granado, USCCB

Last week, the chairmen of the USCCB Committees on Domestic Justice and Human Development and Pro-Life Activities, joining Pope Francis, reasserted their opposition to the death penalty. In their statement, Cardinal Sean O’Malley and Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court’s January 23, decision to review the drug protocols for lethal injections in Oklahoma. This comes after the April, 2014 botched execution of Clatyon D. Lockett, where witnesses recounted that he was seen in pain for some time before finally dying.

The case of Glossip v. Gross is being brought by three men on Oklahoma’s death row, Benjamin Cole, John Grant and Richard Glossip. They are asking the court to reject the three-drug protocol used in lethal injection in Oklahoma claiming this violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Court is expected to begin hearing arguments in April.

Pope Francis, building on the legacy of his predecessors, has called for the abolition of the death penalty. It was Pope Saint John Paul II in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, who was instrumental in urging society to reconsider the death penalty. He reminded us that the Lord is not a god of death but the God of the living. He spoke of the very limited means when recourse to capital punishment may be unobjectionable, such as when there is no other way to protect the common good of civil society (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2267). But such theoretical instances in modern society, he said, “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

With scandalous frequency, people on death row have been exonerated through DNA testing of crimes for which they were convicted. It is abhorrent to hear of innocent people being put to death by the State or that botched executions have taken place resulting at times, in the slow, painful death of a human being; a person created in the image and likeness of God.

Cardinal O’Malley and Archbishop Wenski’s statement is consistent with over 40 years of opposition to the death penalty by the American bishops. According to Archbishop Wenski, “the bishops continue to say, we cannot teach killing is wrong by killing.”

Cardinal Sean O’Malley echoes St. John Paul II in reiterating that there are better ways to protect society without taking human life. He hopes the Supreme Court’s review of Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocols will lead to the realization that that state’s actions erode a reverence for human life. The only logical and life affirming conclusion he sees, is that “capital punishment must end.”

We believe and put our trust in a merciful and loving God. We are conscious of our own brokenness and need for mercy. Our Lord calls us to imitate him more perfectly by witnessing to the inherent dignity of all persons, including those who have committed evil acts. Today, instead of repaying death with death, the Church is calling us to also witness to something greater and more perfect: a Gospel of life, hope and mercy.

Anthony J. Granado is a policy advisor at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Go deeper:
Listen to Anthony’s interview last week on the Catholic Church and the death penalty on the Drew Mariani Show.
Check out the work of our collaborator, Catholic Mobilizing Network, to end the use of the death penalty.

Parsing the Bishops’ Statement on the Senate Torture Report

On Tuesday, Bishop Oscar Cantú, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, marked the release of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s executive summary of its report on CIA interrogation methods with these words:

The Catholic Church firmly believes that torture is an ‘intrinsic evil’ that cannot be justified under any circumstance. The acts of torture described in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report violated the God-given human dignity inherent in all people and were unequivocally wrong. Congress and the President should act to strengthen the legal prohibitions against torture and to ensure that this never happens again.

The fact that the US government has engaged in torturous practices in prosecuting the so-called “War on Terror” has been known for some time. The Senate Committee on Armed Services detailed prisoner abuse in its 2009 Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody and President Obama’s succinct admission that “we tortured some folks” was clear enough.

However, last week’s release of the executive summary of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation methods has been a long time coming. Several times since 2012, Bishop Richard E. Pates urged Senators Feinstein and Chambliss to release the full report on CIA interrogation practices. The need to “allow the truth to see the light of day”, as he made clear on many occasions, was owed to the United States’ obligation “to take a clear stance against torture” in order to “regain our moral credibility and standing in the world as a defender of human rights for all.”

The bishops have long been concerned about the practices of the United States in its treatment of prisoners and have not hesitated to call torture what it is: an “intrinsic evil”. The bishops have long upheld the principles enshrined in international law that ban torture, including Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits the abuse of prisoners of war. However, their opposition to torture runs deeper than international law and is embedded in the deposit of faith. It could not be summed up in more lapidary fashion than by Pope Saint John Paul II: “Christ’s disciple refuses every recourse to such methods.” For John Paul II, nothing could justify torture, “in which the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer’s victim”.

This commitment to a core teaching of the Catholic faith has motivated the bishops in their advocacy to ensure that torture by the United States “never happens again”.

They have been anything but Johnny-come-lately’s to the issue.

In 2005, the bishops articulated the basic position they would continue to reiterate with respect to definitively prohibiting “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment of persons in the custody or control of the U.S. government. Bishop John H. Ricard SSJ, in a letter to the Senate, stated:

We believe that a respect for the dignity of every person, ally or enemy, must serve as the foundation of the pursuit of security, justice and peace. There can be no compromise on the moral imperative to protect the basic human rights of any individual incarcerated for any reason.

In the face of this perilous climate, our nation must not embrace a morality based on an attitude that “desperate times call for desperate measures” or “the end justifies the means.” The inherent justice of our cause and the perceived necessities involved in confronting terrorism must not lead to a weakening or disregard of U.S. and international law.

In 2006, then Bishop Thomas G. Wenski, in testimony before the Senate, lifted up the negative consequences of prisoner treatment in the struggle against terrorism:

Tragically, the abuse and humiliation of prisoners and detainees in U.S. custody has reinforced negative perceptions of the struggle against terrorism in Islamic countries. The conduct of the so-called “war on terrorism” merits careful and comprehensive review for its broader impact and consequences.

When news reports suggested that the Department of Defense was considering weakening policies so as not to incorporate Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, Bishop Wenski strongly urged Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to explicitly adopt them.

When proposals in the House and Senate arose to create military commissions and amend the War Crimes Act, Bishop Wenski urged lawmakers to “reject any proposed legislation that would call into question America’s commitment to Common Article 3.”

Bishop Wenski also signed on in 2006 to a common statement of National Denominational and Faith Group Leaders, noting that:

Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? Let America abolish torture now-without exceptions.

Several times in 2007 and 2008, the bishops urged lawmakers to outright “prohibit torture as an interrogation technique” in the Intelligence Authorization Act.  This advocacy culminated in a letter from the President of the USCCB, Cardinal Francis George OMI, to President George W. Bush, urging him to sign anti-torture provisions into law.

In 2008, the bishops, together with other religious, civic and military leaders, requested that the President of the United States issue an executive order banning torture. After his election, they reiterated the request to President-Elect Barack Obama, asking him to issue the order on Inauguration Day.

Since then, the bishops have continued to express their concerns about the situation at Guantanamo, including the forced feeding of detainees, and have asked that the President make good on his commitment to close that facility, which “has become a symbol of indefinite detention without trial.”

The bishops have worked with members of both parties on ending the use of torture. The effort to eliminate its use should transcend partisan lines; our nation’s approach to this question ought to reflect values that uphold the human dignity of all people, no matter how difficult the circumstance.

While subjecting torturous practices by the CIA to public scrutiny is a first step in ensuring that our government does not engage in torture again, the latest words of Bishop Cantú make clear that Congress and the President must still act to enshrine in law an absolute prohibition against torture.

Dylan Corbett is manager for mission & identity outreach at USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Go deeper:
Explore Torture is a Moral Issue: A Catholic Study Guide

Archbishop Thomas Wenski: Support the Catholic Campaign for Human Development

Thomas Wenski is the archbishop of Miami and chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

Today, 1 in 7 Americans, including 1 in 5 children in the United States, live in poverty. The scandal of poverty, hunger and other forms of injustice, remind us of our Gospel call to share the good news, and promote human dignity and the common good.

For over forty years, the Catholic bishops of the United States through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), have been working to break the cycle of poverty by empowering people, in their own communities, to be agents of change and engineers of justice.

With continued high levels of poverty and income inequality, talk of statistics and structures can be dehumanizing, numbing and easily dismissed in polite conversation. But poverty and injustice aren’t just for political talking points or academic debate, and as people of faith we can’t avert our gaze to the real struggles and suffering of our brothers and sisters in need. The reality of poverty and injustice is less visible in the news or out of the mouths of our country’s decision makers. But make no mistake, it’s there. Barriers to justice and thriving are found in the unrest in Ferguson Missouri, in the continuing break-up of immigrant families, and in persistent unemployment and non-family-wage jobs. For too many people, poverty means precious time away from family, job insecurity, no retirement, isolation, silent tears and stifled human dignity.

The bishops of the United States know that poverty can’t be simply reduced to graphs and charts, but must be challenged as an affront to people – loved ones, families struggling under the great weight of indifference, our neighbors. The only way out of this cycle of desperation is to work together to find just and lasting humane solutions. The answer to the problem of poverty in America today will not be affluence, but solidarity.

CCHD’s mission is to address the root causes of poverty in America by supporting the passion, creativity and imagination present in our local parishes and communities. In my home state of Florida, CCHD groups are working on disrupting the school to prison pipeline and empowering citizens returning from incarceration to integrate into local communities in healthy and productive ways.

With your support, CCHD brings Catholic social teaching alive by funding initiatives that empower communities. We do this with your help, giving them a voice in their future, providing them the opportunity to participate in society with dignity and giving people a chance to raise a family with confidence and security. Examples of stories of hope abound, and I invite you to take a look.

Pope Francis continues to draw our attention to the reality of exclusion in our society. He reminds us of our responsibility to disrupt it with tenacity, courage and love. As he said recently, “We have to return to making human dignity the center and on that foundation build the alternative societal structures that we need.”

CCHD supports groups working on the margins and building up their local communities. We all know that there is still much work to be done. Join us in making solidarity a reality for our Church, our neighbors, our family members and those who just need a fair shot. Please give generously to this important collection.