Saturday, January 16, 2010

One in 20 Million: A Response to Archbishop Donald Wuerl on Abortion

As one of the estimated 20 million women who have had abortions since the procedure was legalized in this country in 1973, I would like to respond to Archbishop Donald Wuerl's article "Dealing with the Pain of an Abortion" published in this week's Catholic Standard first by saying that I am grateful to the Archbishop for showing concern for women like me. All too often it seems like the Church only cares about the aborted fetus, not the woman who chose to abort it.

About ten years ago, I chose to abort a child that was developing within me. The child was about 2 months in gestation. It was a typical, extremely painful but not particularly eventful first trimester abortion with no complications except a slightly longer recovery period due to my age. It was a free choice but by the time I made it, in my mind there was no other viable option. It was free in a legal sense, less so psychologically.

I chose to abort my baby. I repeat these words because now it is popular to use victim language to describe women who have had abortions. You speak of "anguish" and "grief", "trauma", the need for "healing". Others talk about the woman as a "victim of abortion" or an "abortion survivor". Such language may make others feel more sympathetic towards women who have chosen to abort, but it is not helpful to us. It diminishes the woman's moral culpability and her free will -- parts of her identity as a mature adult Christian and essential to the reconciliation process. If I am a "victim", then I do not own my sin. If I am not responsible (e.g. my social condition "forced" me into an abortion), why should I have to seek divine forgiveness?

I am not a victim. I am a mature Catholic woman who, when it mattered most, was not strong enough to live according to her faith and convictions in the face of pressure from others to take the "easy" way out. As a result, an innocent life -- my unborn child -- was lost.

What bothers me about your article, Your Excellency, is that it is disingenuous (and inaccurate) with respect to our Church's teaching on abortion. You say that women who have had abortions "mistakenly believe that they have committed an unforgivable sin and have become forever separated from their relationship with God." Your article implies that all they need to do is go to confession and do penance. This is doctrinally inaccurate and simplistic.

Women who believe they are completely and irredeemably separated from the Church by abortion come to that conclusion because they read in the Catechism that as a result of their abortion they have been excommunicated latae setentiae or "automatically" (CEC 2272/CIC 1398) and they know that excommunication (a word that appears nowhere in your article) not only means that they don't get to take communion but that they are barred from all of the sacraments of the Church. The little disclaimer at the end of CEC 2272 that "the Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy" provides little comfort, overshadowed as it is by the enormity of the sanction that precedes it. According to Canon Law, excommunication may be lifted only by the Pope or a bishop or someone designated by a bishop. And, given the strident anti-abortion rhetoric that comes from most prelates in this country, can you truly blame women for concluding that they have no way out?

As an aside, it should be noted that not every person who has an abortion is excommunicated. The Code of Canon Law provides for a number of circumstances such as age, acting under extreme fear, diminished mental capacity, ignorance of Church teachings, etc. which limit the individual's moral culpability (CIC 1323).

If the Church really wants to welcome back women who have committed the sin of abortion, an important step would be to change Canon Law so that abortion is no longer treated differently from most other forms of killing. Does it really make sense that if I have an abortion I am excommunicated while if I commit infanticide after the child has been delivered from my womb, I am only guilty of committing a grave or mortal sin? The only other form of murder that is punished by automatic excommunication is the murder of a pope (CIC 1370).

The reality is that abortion is so ubiquitous that most bishops have delegated the power to lift excommunication for first abortions to the priests who work under them. Once the excommunication is lifted, we are in the same place as any other murderer and reconciliation with the Church is achieved through the Sacrament of Penance, as you correctly point out.

Yet the hostile environment that prevails in the institutional Church towards anyone involved in abortion makes many women reluctant to tell their secret and seek reconciliation. We fear being despized and ostracized. Until this article, I have shared my secret with only a few people. I waited five years after the abortion before I finally met a priest I could trust not to add to my spiritual pain. He was a visiting priest from another country, not a diocesan. I could not trust any of the priests I knew locally and, although I have shared my secret with a couple of them since then, I have regretted it because I often feel that my sin is still being held against me. God forgives us; the Church, unfortunately, does not always do so.

If we want to welcome post-abortion women back into the Church, we need to be more careful about how we talk about abortion. I remember one priest who taught at the Apostolado Hispano saying that women who have abortions don't really believe that the fetus is a human being. Nothing could be further from the truth and such remarks are not helpful. They rub salt into the wounds of post-abortion women rather than invite them to reconciliation.

We also need to remove the policies and attitudes that push women to seek abortions. Some examples:

  • The single women who teach in Catholic schools under morals clauses and who, when faced with an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, are forced to choose between their baby and their job. In doing a basic Web search, one can find any number of examples of women who have been fired from Catholic institutions for becoming unwed mothers. Do Catholic institutions under your jurisdiction have such provisions, Your Excellency?
  • An immigrant friend who had an abortion because she was convinced (and, I think, rightly so) that the upright Catholic diplomatic corps family for whom she worked as a babysitter would dismiss her and send her back home to a life of destitution if they found out she was expecting.
  • A college friend who aborted so that her extremely conservative Catholic parents would not find out that she had had premarital sex. Are we helping our Catholic families learn how to share their faith with their children in a way that encourages them to communicate and be supported even when they have strayed? Our attitudes can help or hinder women from making the right choice.
In the end, I was "sentenced" to life, literally and figuratively. I tend to think in legal terms, so I was expecting a penance such as 300 hours of community service in a crisis pregnancy center. Instead, I was told to spend the rest of my life seeking ways to give life. It was the perfect penance. A year later, I added a dimension to it, one that the priest deliberately said he would not impose: I chose chastity -- the only way to be 100% sure I would never recreate the conditions that led to the abortion in the first place.

Freely choosing chastity was my first step to personal freedom. This response is the second step. Having written these words, I am free from this secret. If anyone wants to look down on me, ostracize me, or suggest that I am not fit to serve in the Church because of one cowardly act, so be it. This one among 20 million women will look you in the eye and say: "You're right. Ten years ago, I made a choice that was terribly, terribly wrong. I want to move beyond that. Can you?"

Friday, January 15, 2010

Obama Administration Grants TPS to Haitians!

Good news this afternoon, courtesy of USA Today:

The Obama administration is allowing Haitian nationals who were in the United States at the time of Tuesday's earthquake to over-stay their visa for the next 18 months.

Here is a statement from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano:

As part of the Department's ongoing efforts to assist Haiti following Tuesday's devastating earthquake, I am announcing the designation of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitian nationals who were in the United States as of January 12, 2010. This is a disaster of historic proportions and this designation will allow eligible Haitian nationals in the United States to continue living and working in our country for the next 18 months. Providing a temporary refuge for Haitian nationals who are currently in the United States and whose personal safety would be endangered by returning to Haiti is part of this Administration's continuing efforts to support Haiti's recovery.

Napolitano added:

"It is important to note that TPS will apply only to those individuals who were in the United States as of January 12, 2010. Those who attempt to travel to the United States after January 12, 2010 will not be eligible for TPS and will be repatriated.

Marching for Life...ALL Life!

As a lifelong Democrat and nonviolent radical Catholic, I tend to feel dread when the National March for Life descends on DC. Even more so this year when the health care reform debate seems to have brought the most conservative, racist, and xenophobic elements of the pro-life movement to the front of the national debate. I see the busloads of mostly white, mostly Republican kids from expensive private Catholic institutions chaperoned by priests and nuns in their clerical collars and religious habits. It angers me that we never see them when the right-to-life in question is anyone's other than an unborn American baby's. You never see them at anti-war marches, you never see them defending the rights of immigrants...

A part of me just wants to sit home and say: If you are only going to defend SOME lives, if your only response to abortion is to criminalize it, why should I participate? I've had my fill of shrill anti-abortion rhetoric, grotesque photos of aborted fetuses, and overblown comparisons of abortion facilities to Nazi death camps. None of this is going to "take away the occasion for abortion", to modify the old Quaker saying about war.

However, January 22nd is an important day, abortion is an important life issue, and there are groups out there who will be participating who actually believe that the right to life doesn't end at birth. If you want to hook up with like-minded folks, here are some suggestions:

1. Consistent Life: This is what used to be known as the Seamless Garment of Life Network. They will have a banner and will be gathering between 11:30 AM and Noon in front of the Sculpture Garden, on Constitution Ave. NW near 7th Street (Metro: Archives). Pax Christi is a member of this group.

2. Democrats for Life of America: They will be gathering for breakfast from 10 am to 12 noon on January 22nd at the Holiday Inn Washington-Capitol, 550 C Street SW, Washington, D.C. 20024. (One block from the L'Enfant Plaza Metro Station). The breakfast costs $30, payable at the door, and will include remarks by Rep. Joe Donnelly (D, IN-2) on how elements of the Pregnant Women Support Act have been included in the health reform legislation (Senate version) and strategies for keeping them there during the upcoming reconciliation process. As long-time readers of this blog may recall, PWSA is a bill that attempted to address the abortion problem in a positive way through helping pregnant women so that they would have an added incentive to carry their pregnancies to term. Breakfast participants will then join the main March for Life as a contingent.

There may be more options and we welcome any suggestions submitted as commentary.


We believe life is threatened in today’s world by war, abortion, economic injustice, racial violence, human oppression, euthanasia and the death penalty.

We believe in the protection of all life - minorities, the unborn, the condemned, the enemy, the elderly, the poor. We see no one group as less or more important than another group.

We understand that each of us, as participants and shapers of democracy, plays a role in the violence of the world, and we are complicit.

We believe that this protection of the vulnerable against violence can only come about through non-violence.

Cultural Poverty: Disappointment and depression

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

In 1930 Sigmund Freud wrote his famous book Civilization and Its Discontents and in the first line he complained: "It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement - that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life." Today, these factors have reached such a magnitude that the discontent has become poverty in the culture. COP-15 in Copenhagen gave us the most complete demonstration: to save the system of profits and national economic interests there was no fear of endangering the future of life and the equilibrium of the planet which has been subjected to warming that, if not addressed quickly, could wipe out millions and liquidate much of the biodiversity.

The poverty in the culture, or rather, of the culture is revealed through two verifiable symptoms throughout the world: the widespread disappointment in society and a deep depression in people. Both have their raison d'etre. They are caused by the crisis of faith the world system is going through.

Which faith? The faith in unlimited progress, in the omnipotence of scientific technology, in the economic and financial system with its market, which act as the structuring core of society. The faith in these gods had its creeds, its high priests, its prophets, an army of acolytes and an unimaginable mass of faithful.

Today those faithful are deeply disappointed because such gods have been revealed as false. Now they are dying or have simply died, and the G-20 are trying in vain to resuscitate the corpses. Those who profess this fetishist religion now find that unlimited progress has devastated nature dangerously and is the main cause of global warming. Scientific technology which, on the one hand, has brought many benefits, has created a death machine that in the 20th century alone has killed 200 million people and is now able to exterminate the whole human race; the economic-financial system and market collapsed, and had it not been for the money of the contributors, through the State, would have caused a social catastrophe. The disappointment is stamped on the perplexed faces of political leaders who no longer know who to believe and what new gods to enthrone. There is a kind of sweet nihilism.

Max Weber and Friedrich Nietzsche had predicted such effects when they announced secularization and the death of God. Not that God is dead, since a God who dies is not "God". Nietzsche is clear: God did not die, we killed him. That is, for secularized society God does not count either for life or for social cohesion. Instead he entered the pantheon of gods that we mentioned earlier. As they are idols, one day they will show what they produce: disappointment and death.

The solution does not lie in simply returning to God or religion, but in salvaging what they mean: the connection to the whole, the perception that life, not profit, should occupy the center, and the affirmation of shared values that can provide social cohesiveness.

The disappointment is accompanied by depression. This is a late fruit of the youth revolution of the 60s in the 20th century. There, it was about challenging a society of repression, especially sexual, and full of social masks. A general liberalization was imposed. Everything was tried. The motto was "live without dead time, enjoy life without barriers". That led to the removal of any interval between desire and its fulfillment. Everything had to be immediate and quick.

The result was the breaking of all taboos, the loss of right measure, and complete permissiveness. A new oppression emerged: having to be modern, rebellious, sexy and having to undress inside and out. The greatest punishment is aging. Wholistic health was conceived and beauty models were created based on thinness to the point of anorexia. Death was abolished, turned into a horror.

Such a postmodern project also failed, as you cannot do just anything with life. It has an intrinsic sacredness, and limits. If they are broken, depression sets in. Disappointment and frustration are recipes for aimless violence, for the high consumption of anxyolitic agents and even suicide, as happens in many countries.

Where are we going? Nobody knows. We only know that we must change if we want to continue. But everywhere there are noticeable blossoms representing the perennial values of the human condition: marriage with love, sex with affection, caring for nature, win-win rather than win-lose, the search for "living well", the basis for happiness, which today is the fruit of voluntary simplicity and wanting to have less in order to be more.

This is encouraging. We should advance in this direction.

In Memoriam: Dr. Zilda Arns

One of the victims of the earthquake in Haiti was Brazilian doctor Zilda Arns Neumann, sister of Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns and founder and coordinator of the Pastoral da Criança ("Children's Pastoral"). Dr. Arns has been called the "Mother Teresa of Brazil." This obituary from The Telegraph (1/14/2010) gives the details:

One of 13 children, Zilda Arns was born to devout German-speaking parents in rural southern Brazil on August 25 1934. Two of her earliest memories were of seeing her father go door-to-door on his horse to help contain a smallpox epidemic and watching her mother arrange for a sick neighbour to be taken to the nearest hospital on the back of a cart, a journey of three hours.

Those selfless acts inspired her to contemplate life as a doctor, even though most of her siblings became priests or teachers.

Having studied Medicine, she graduated from university in 1959, working in local hospitals tending to infants; she was then given charge of a string of clinics on the impoverished outskirts of the southern city of Curitiba.

Zilda Arns quickly saw that many common ailments were preventable, and began teaching mothers basic pre- and post-natal care, as well as useful tasks such as sewing and cooking. It turned out to be the perfect preparation for work that would make her famous.

In 1970s Brazil, the Roman Catholic Church ran a few Pastoral Commissions – organisations designed to offer support and spiritual guidance to marginalised groups such as landless peasants, prison inmates and migrant workers. In 1983, with the encouragement of her brother, by then a bishop, Zilda Arns was asked to set up the Children's Pastoral.

She took to the role with gusto, expanding her work in the clinics. Much of it was elementary stuff, but it was new to millions of uneducated mothers. Under her guidance, and with the help of trained volunteers, they were taught the importance of vaccinations and nutrition and shown how to spot and prevent potentially deadly ailments such as diarrhoea and dehydration.

In one of the most successful and copied moves, the Pastoral distributed millions of plastic measuring spoons to help prepare sugar and salt solutions to combat diarrhoea. Another key initiative was the monthly Celebration of Life day, on which babies are weighed to check they are growing satisfactorily. All of the work is faith-based.

"I felt like God was calling me to take on my life's mission," Zilda Arns said. "I knew if we did it right we could save millions of lives."

Her decision to rely on the Roman Catholic Church was vital, because Brazilians – and especially the poor – trust people of faith more than they trust people in government. As a result the Pastoral's volunteers get access that state health workers might not.

Today, the Pastoral is one of Brazil's best-known organisations, and Zilda Arns was one of the nation's best-known faces. The organisation is present in 42,000 Brazilian communities, with 260,000 trained volunteers attending to 1.8 million children under the age of six. In communities where the Pastoral is present, the infant mortality rate is 11 per 1,000 births; in Brazil overall it is 22.5.

At the age of 75, Zilda Arns was too fragile to run the Pastoral on a daily basis; but she continued to visit communities across Brazil as well as many of the 20 countries into which it has expanded. She was in Haiti visiting a missionary organisation when the earthquake struck.

In 2004 she set up the Pastoral for the Elderly, and her leadership of both brought her dozens of awards, including several nominations for a Nobel Peace Prize.

She suffered her own tragedies, too. Her firstborn child died at just three days old, and her husband, Aloisio Neumann, drowned while rescuing a girl from rough seas in 1978. One of her five other children died in a car accident in 2003.

The largest mass conversion in history

Ouch! I'm not sure that what O'Hagan asserts is 100% true, but it is sufficiently true that I'm going to reprint it here and suggest that we who support liberation theology need to give it some consideration and ask ourselves why. Or, more to the point, why have we allowed a dichotomy to develop between good social gospel analysis and the charismatic renewal (which is the main thing Catholics look for in their flight to the pentecostal denominations)?

by Steve O'Hagan
The Guardian

This weekend, the government of El Salvador will issue a formal apology for its persecution of the Jesuit order during the bloody civil war of the 1980s. This comes a couple of months after the honouring six priests, killed 20 years ago. For all the murdered priests, nuns, catechists and ordinary churchgoers it's all a little late, but it's still pretty incredible news given the scale of the search for reconciliation and justice that this country still faces nearly 20 years since the shooting stopped.

The Jesuits have been torch bearers of liberation theology in Latin America, and in a wider sense the accolade was a recognition of not just them, but their controversial belief system. Emerging in the 60s as a fusion of socialist theory and religious devotion, liberation theology put the poor at the heart of the church's mission. It aimed to remake society in the image of Christ's example, confronting injustice and inequality. It offered utopia, the construction of a socialist paradise on earth. But while filming in Central America for a documentary looking at the religious map here, despite the belated recognition for the Jesuits, I've had to ask the question: what has become of those hopes?

For a brief period in the early 1980s, it looked like liberation theology might be on the verge of creating the just, egalitarian society it envisaged. The revolutionary Sandinista government that took power in Nicaragua in 1979 included several liberation theology priests. In El Salvador, even the conservative Archbishop Oscar Romero began preaching against his country's gross injustices – for which he was murdered by rightwing forces in 1980.

But stereotyped as pulpit communism, this rebellious theology has been subjected to a prolonged ecclesiastical counter-insurgency campaign by an implacable matrix of hostile powers.

Beginning in the 1980s, the Vatican under John Paul II denounced its political alignment, and began appointing conservatives across the region. Ronald Reagan's administration stepped up support for the savage military regimes of El Salvador and Guatemala, and the cross-border Contra terror campaign against Nicaragua. Local and foreign evangelical churches branded it communist heresy and preached obedience to state power. And all the while the entrenched ruling elites plumbed new depths of savagery.

By the end of the 1990s, all the countries of Central America had been returned to peace, but not the peace envisaged by the liberation theologians. The US military training academy for the rightwing armies of Latin America, the School of the Americas, proudly declared that liberation theology had been defeated. Today, 75% of Guatemalans live below the poverty line. And in El Salvador, while the state terror has largely gone, the murder rate has risen to 12 per day, the highest per capita in the world.

Even in Nicaragua, a relative oasis of social cohesion despite being the second poorest nation in the hemisphere after Haiti liberation theology no longer thrives. Its most famous exponent – priest, Nobel prize nominated poet, and former government minster Ernesto Cardenal – is now a punchbag of the rightwing press over an ugly financial row involving ownership of a hotel.

On the ecclesiastical plane, the Vatican continues to reassert its authority under Pope Benedict (who led the curia's campaign against liberation theology in the 1980s). But of greatest concern to many Catholics is the ongoing triumph of the Central American religious market's newest big-hitter, Protestant pentecostalism.

An entrepreneurial web of institutions that began franchising out of California in the 1900s, Latin American pentecostalism in the last few decades has effected what has been described as the largest mass conversion in history. Estimates suggest as much as 40% of Central America has turned to this new faith – mostly the very same poor people liberation theology stood up for. Some figures put the ratio of pentecostals in Guatemala at an extraordinary 60%.

As the maxim goes, as long as there is poverty, there is a need for a theology of liberation. Well, the poverty is still here, but the poor of Central America are turning in their droves not to the faith that wants to build justice and equality, but the one that's often more concerned with building TV stations and mega-churches.

Rise up/Levantate

Jesus immediately knew in his mind what they were thinking to themselves, so he said, "Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, pick up your mat and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth"--he said to the paralytic, "I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home." He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone. (Mark 2:8-12)

The Scripture for today now makes me think automatically of one of my favorite "pick us up" songs from Alfareros so here it is for all to enjoy its infectious energetic beat and lyrics:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Why poverty and wealth remain the issue

Nothing to add but "AMEN"...

By Simon Barrow
14 Jan 2010

Some years ago the Latin American theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, was addressing a large international Christian audience on the subject of biblically-informed responses to poverty. Someone got up from the audience and asked pointedly, ‘But really, professor, who are the poor these days?’

This was a question he was often confronted with, Gutierrez noted. But it was invariably asked by a particular kind of person. Namely, someone who was not in any sense in danger of falling into poverty themselves!

Sit a group of wealthy people down and ask them to identify the poor, suggested the Peruvian “father of liberation theology” (who has spent a good deal of his own time and ministry working among the most vulnerable, oppressed and on-the-edge), and “they will argue about it until the cows come home, or until the kingdom of God comes, whichever is first.”

They will split opinions over ‘relative’ and ‘absolute’ poverty. They will earnestly ask whether someone living in a shack who has a small TV can really be classed as poor. They will debate measurements, guidelines, axes and thresholds for arriving at an adequate definition of 'the poor'… before deciding, in all probability, that it is too complicated, that no-one really knows the solution, and perhaps that “poverty isn’t the only or even the most important issue” when confronting human need today.

Then they will most likely retire back to their own comfortable lives and put some money into a charity box dedicated to “those less fortunate” than themselves (ourselves).

By contrast, remarked Gutierrez, if you were to get together a group of people who know themselves to be poor – who struggle for daily survival, who are left out, who are made dependent because of their lack of resources – it will usually take them only a matter of seconds to answer the parallel question, “Who are the rich?” They will take one look at you, in comparison to themselves, and point their fingers of recognition.

This anecdote has come back to me on a number of occasions recently. I thought of it particularly when I listened to Conservative leader David Cameron telling struggling parents who have to live on low incomes in immensely difficult circumstances that money does not matter that much when you are bringing up children. It is “warmth” that counts and the amount of time you can devote to them. To those who are “competent and committed”, he suggested, financial circumstances made no “significant” difference to family prospects.

I am sure that Mr Cameron is a loving father and that he wants the best for the country’s children. But he is also a multimillionaire, I'm told, and in some of the remarks he made to a Demos think-tank event in South London, it showed. Poverty doesn’t really register with him, not at a gut level – just as it doesn’t with those earnest ‘debaters’ Gutierrez parodied.

Kathleen Kiernan, Professor of social policy and demography at the University of York, has considered Mr Cameron’s smooth assurances about the unimportance of money to parenting opportunities in the light of a little forensic inquiry, using data from the Millennium Cohort Study, which is monitoring over 10,000 children born in 2000/2001.

“Our analysis,” she said, writing in the Guardian (Thursday 14 January 2010), “compared the impact of poverty, parental resources and parenting on children's early educational attainment. 60 per cent of children who had never experienced poverty achieved a good level of achievement. Only 26 per cent of children in persistent poverty reached this level. When we looked at the impact of positive parenting, we found that it did, indeed, reduce this gap – but only by about half.” And only, of course, for those with the time and resources to transcend the other severe limitations of their circumstances.

Meanwhile, Imran Hussain of Child Poverty Action declared, on the basis of CPAG’s considerable practical and campaigning experience: “Poverty is a key factor in making the job for parents more difficult. The best thing Mr Cameron can do to safeguard all children is to put money in the pockets of the poorest families who need it most.” This is not the only thing that needs to occur, for sure. But it is a vital one.

However, it is not going to happen without massive countervailing pressure, for several reasons. First, the Conservatives, in particular, want to shrink government (that is, publicly funded) commitment to social welfare in order to protect the pockets of the better off who vote for them in large numbers. This will make consistent and even provision more and more difficult to achieve.

Second, all three ‘main’ (that is, best-financed) political parties are now embarked on a frenzied strategy of trying to out-do each other with promises of cuts – not for global investment bankers, who are about to trouser another £50 billion in ‘the bonus season’ (as the BBC’s business editor put it on Newsnight), but for those least able to support themselves.

For example, the Liberal Democrats’ leader Nick Clegg, congratulating himself publicly for his ‘realism’ (that is, for his electorally-charged rapid response accommodation to ‘the powers that be’) has just ditched the party’s key policies to help students, pensioners and, yes, parents. These are now ‘aspirations’ rather than foreseeable commitments, he says, because we all have to buckle down to tackle the recession. Well, yes, but I’m guessing that the Clegg household will probably not bear the severest burden of this.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding its massive promised reductions in funding for tertiary education, which will damage the social fabric in other ways, the Labour Party appears least willing to engage in this ‘downtrading welfare’ war. But in following the essential neo-liberal economic narrative established in the 1980s (the same one that ended in the terrible debt and credit wreckage all governments are now trying to claw their way out of) New Labour has presided over a deepening of economic inequality since 1997 and has failed to meet targets on child poverty, among others.

On that latter point, the Rev Paul Nicholson of the Zaccheus 2000 trust (named after a biblical character who repented of wealth built on corruption), recently hit the nail on the head. “The [current] child poverty bill is deficient,” he declared, “because it requires government to identify the numbers of children who live in households that cannot afford a range of basic activities or goods, but has no requirement on government to have regard to research which will show the minimum weekly income for a variety of households which will provide the items of which they are deprived, and so end their income poverty”– before adding: “Baroness Finlay of Llandaff has tabled an amendment which will require government to take this essential information into account.”

Some political players, like the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens are, whatever their own shortcomings, trying to pull the public debate about wealth and poverty in different, more socially and ecologically sustainable directions. But the values of the dominant political party system remain deeply warped by non-recognition of the real distortions that massive gaps between the rich and the poor, those with much power and those with little power, make in the real, workaday world. There is an air of profound unreality about our prevailing ‘realisms’, as there was about the ones that got us into a massive economic and environmental hole in the first place.

The one thing that can be guaranteed is that the most vulnerable are always in danger of being asked to bear the heaviest burden proportionately – in the same way that those at the bottom of a ladder engulfed in water will always have the most to lose from ‘everyone needing to step down a rung’. The impact of an appeal for ‘the same sacrifice from everyone' is not equivalent, fair or just when the starting points and levels of exposure are so at variance.

This is most starkly evident in the horrific scenes we are witnessing from the Haitian earthquake zone right now. For the unspeakable catastrophe unfolding in one of the poorest places on the planet is not, pace the headlines, “a natural disaster” alone, and certainly not “an act of God.” On the contrary, while many would die in a 7.3 scale ’quake anywhere in the world, it is in a city built for and by the poor that the most people are destined to suffer beyond all measure. So, long after the initial horror, people are languishing and dying needlessly in Port au Prince simply because there is no infrastructure (social or otherwise) to speak of, there are virtually no foundations (literally), there is no insurance, there are no ambulances, no emergency supplies and no reserve resources to fall back on. Just misery and dependence on outside charitable assistance, in the short term at least. It is scandalous as well as humanly (and spiritually) harrowing to behold.

Back in the 1970s, I recall, the radical charity War on Want got into hot water for describing the seismic impacts in the Ancash region (Peru), in North Pakistan and in other poor regions as “class quakes” compared to those in developed countries, because economic vulnerability made such a huge difference to the size and extent of the resultant human suffering and death. They were quite right, however.

This is why, in so many areas of life, the rich-poor divide matters deeply, unfashionable though it is to say this in a world where many politicians consider themselves ‘post ideological’ -- and by that mean that they see such 'divisive' talk as ‘rabble rousing’. Which brings us, by a circumlocutory route, to the Bible.

The biblical texts of Christians and Jews have more to say about the iniquity of wealth and the oppression of poverty than they do on any other ethical issue. When liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez first spoke of God’s corrective ‘bias to the poor’ and the corresponding ‘option for the poor’ required of the church, it was not Marx they were referencing but the deep wells of scripture.

Yet today, when it comes to the Bible, many Christians choose to argue about a handful of texts allegedly concerning sexuality (a concept that was actually unknown in the ancient world from which they derive), rather than focusing on a multitude of verses describing and condemning the lesions of those who suffer injustice and deprivation – sometimes on a scale, as in Haiti, which modern secular vernacular still ironically refers to as being “of biblical proportions.”

The American evangelical social activist, Jim Wallis, sometimes still tells the tale of how, upon realising the scale of biblical concern for the gap between rich and poor, he decided, as a student, to try removing with scissors every single scriptural phrase about wealth and poverty. What he ended up with was a ‘hole-y Bible’, one shredded of both content and meaning.

Faced with deprivation, marginalisation, inequality, injustice and the shrinking of life circumstances wherever they may occur (‘poverty’ is a word that points to a host of these symptoms of exclusion, all with a root in economic life), Christians today should recognise a clarion call to action, to the building of alternatives, to the holding of power to account, and to the development of different viewpoints and practices from 'the norm'.

For as Leo Tolstoy once put it (and here again, I paraphrase): “food purely for my own contentment is a material concern; but food for my hungry neighbour – that’s a spiritual issue.” The same aphorism may be applied in many different situations, wherever deprivation and disadvantage reigns: in absolute poverty, and in the relative kind too. In Africa and Asia, and in an American ghetto or a European sink estate as well. Dividing the poor from one another is wrong. What we need to do instead is to share the wealth around.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Prayer and aid for Haiti

UPDATE 1/15/2010: The Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, has announced this afternoon that any Haitian who can prove that they were in the United States BEFORE the January 12, 2010 earthquake in that country is granted temporary protective status for 18 months. This provision does not apply to Haitians who come after 1/12/2010.

I would like to join those who are calling for immediate aid for our brothers and sisters in Haiti who are suffering from the devastating earthquake yesterday that killed so many people, including Msgr. Joseph Serge Miot, the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince.

I would also like to join with members of Congress and others who are calling on President Obama to extend temporary protective status to Haitians living in the United States. The application of TPS to Haitians is long overdue and if this is not a situation that cries out for TPS, I don't know what is. This afternoon we did receive the good news that the Obama administration is temporarily suspending deportations of undocumented Haitians who are in the United States.

ACT NOW: You can act now to call on Congress and the White House to support TPS for Haiti.

MAKE A DONATION: Here are some Catholic organizations to which you can donate online to help alleviate the suffering in Haiti:

If you don't like to give money online, many Catholic parishes in this country will be taking up a special second collection this Sunday to help Catholic Relief Services' efforts in Haiti. My pastor, Fr. Tim, reports: "The [Arlington, VA] diocese has asked that all parishes hold this collection in an effort to help with relief aid to Haiti. I [Fr. Tim] have spoken with one of the Spiritans who works at CRS and he told me that CRS mobilized last evening and are sending aid workers to join those CRS personnel who are already on the ground in Haiti." So come prepared to be very generous, brothers and sisters! Many churches, including the main cathedral, and parochial schools and other Catholic institutions in the Port-au-Prince area have been completely destroyed.

PRAY: And a prayer, courtesy of the Diocese of San Jose:

A Prayer After the Earthquake in Haiti

Lord, at times such as this,
when we realize that the ground beneath our feet
is not as solid as we had imagined,
we plead for your mercy.

As the things we have built crumble about us,
we know too well how small we truly are
on this ever-changing, ever-moving,
fragile planet we call home.
Yet you have promised never to forget us.

Do not forget us now.

Today, so many people are afraid.
They wait in fear of the next tremor.
They hear the cries of the injured amid the rubble.
They roam the streets in shock at what they see.
And they fill the dusty air with wails of grief
and the names of missing dead.

Comfort them, Lord, in this disaster.
Be their rock when the earth refuses to stand still,
and shelter them under your wings when homes no longer exist.

Embrace in your arms those who died so suddenly this day.
Console the hearts of those who mourn,
and ease the pain of bodies on the brink of death.

Pierce, too, our hearts with compassion,
we who watch from afar,
as the poorest on this side of the earth
find only misery upon misery.
Move us to act swiftly this day,
to give generously every day,
to work for justice always,
and to pray unceasingly for those without hope.

And once the shaking has ceased,
the images of destruction have stopped filling the news,
and our thoughts return to life’s daily rumblings,
let us not forget that we are all your children
and they, our brothers and sisters.
We are all the work of your hands.

For though the mountains leave their place
and the hills be tossed to the ground,
your love shall never leave us,
and your promise of peace will never be shaken.

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
Blessed be the name of the Lord,
now and forever. Amen.

Teresa Forcades: "We must avoid arguing that everything is bad and resigning ourselves"

By Esther Vivas (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Teresa Forcades is a Benedictine nun at the Monastery of Sant Benet, a doctor, a theologian and a doctor in public health and medicine. She is studying and working at Humboldt University in Berlin and is the author of La Trinitat, avui (PAMSA, 2005), Els crims de les grans companyies farmacèutiques (Cristianisme i Justícia, 2006), La Teología feminista en la historia (Fragmenta, 2007) and the video Campanas por la Gripe A.

Esther Vivas - Your video 'Campanas por la Gripe A' has had a great response. What were your objectives in making it?

Teresa Forcades: As I have explained again, making the video was not my idea. It was coincidental. When we taped it with Judit Abadias and Alícia Ninou we did not think it would have this impact, but I did think Ihad something to explain and it was worthwhile since it would have an impact. What I explain in the video is the result of two months of research on the subject, which I started to do because some people had asked me what I thought and which I summarized in a four-page document.

EV - How do you analyze the policies of the European Union governments on influenza A?

TF - We are in a context where decisions are made at levels ever more removed from the citizenry. With the Lisbon Treaty that will happen even more. It is a process that is happening faster than our awareness of it. In the case of influenza A, there have been some strange agreements and a lack of debate in the political arena, which only broke down a little when the Polish minister came out challenging these policies.

In countries like Germany or the United States there has been more debate however, and publications like The Atlantic or Der Spiegel have published critical research articles and representatives have also issued critical opinions. In Catalonia and Spain that has not happened. The only one who spoke with his own voice from the beginning was the president of the Spanish College of Doctors, though we would certainly not agree on many things. The Bioethics Committee of Catalonia delayed publishing a document a long time and finally published a very watered-down text, and it seems that its main purpose is not to interfere in government campaigns.

EV - Is the design of health policies driven by the interests of the pharmaceutical industry?

TF - The pharmaceutical industry is one of the most powerful. In the ranking of companies that move the most capital, we find several drug companies. They have many mechanisms to influence policy. For example, by lobbying practices and pressure, either through the positive path of persuading politicians, or through blackmail which can be done at many levels.

A report by the House of Commons of the British Parliament, which studied the influence of drug companies for two years, concluded that this was improper and was being carried out through direct and indirect promotions, gifts to doctors, advertising of drugs, etc. An important issue is who finances medical journals. One of the recommendations of this report was to promote transparency, that what a given doctor receives from a firm be made public. Now, this policy of transparency does not exist.

EV - What is the impact of privatization of health and education in this dynamic?

TF - The process of privatization of education and health has progressed. At the Clinic, where I studied, each department is responsible for its own funding and, at the economic level, the criterion of productivity and effectiveness comes first. This reality, since the Bologna Process, made a leap and infiltrated the medical school. Agreements between businesses and educational institutions subordinate lines of research to economic interest.

There is an attempt to discredit public health and public funding of research. Until now it was clear that health or education could not be comodified. Now, on the other hand, there is an effort to make it seem normal to us. However there is still great resistance and it is crucial that this resistance continue to increase.

EV - Faced with this situation, what can we do?

TF - The first step is becoming aware. You have to disclose the information. Public information is lacking. Promoting transparency is the first task that I see. You act differently when you know that the European Medicines Agency, in three parts, is funded by the pharmaceutical industry. The group of influenza experts, which initially presented itself as independent, is entirely funded by drug companies.

At a basic strategic level it is very important to spread the idea that we are not facing something that is as well established and locked in as it seems, that controls everything and that there is no possibility of response. It absolutely has feet of clay. This is my perception. The fragility of the system is very large, it is based on ignorance, not moral, but a lack of information. You will swallow one thing when in fact the opposite is true. We must avoid the argument that everything is bad and resign ourselves. That is a paralyzing argument.

Sometimes it seems like we think that it is normal for everything to go well in life and that when something goes wrong, then, that is when we must fight. The reality, however, is that life is a struggle. You've got to win your freedom every day. Saint Benedict says that every day is like Lent. You go out to fight every day. The norm is not that everything goes well, it is normal that I have to earn my space of freedom every day. This is a distance race, a long-term struggle.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Saints You Should Get to Know: Bl. María Dolores Rodríguez Sopeña

I didn't know about this beata until EWTN happened to flash a notice saying that today was her feast day. The brief paragraph made me want to know more and, in reading up on her, she sounded to me like an excellent role model for modern Catholic lay women. Not a lot of mystical stuff or extra-special holiness, just a sincere life devoted to helping the neediest. Here is her biography from the Vatican Web site (en español):

Dolores Rodríguez Sopeña was born in Velez Rubio, Almería, Spain, on December 30, 1848, the fourth of seven siblings. Her parents, Tomas Rodríguez Sopeña and Nicolasa Ortega Salomon, had moved from Madrid to Velez Rubio due to employment. Don Tomas had received his law degree at a young age, and because of this, could not work as a lawyer. He was able to find employment as an administrator of the Marqueses de Velez farms.

She grew up in the Andalucía region where her father began to work as a magistrate, an even though he was transferred often, she defined this time of her life as a “lake of tranquility”.

In 1866, her father was named Judge of Almería. Dolores was 17, and was formally introduced to society, though she did not enjoy the parties or the social life. Her interest was in doing good for others. In Almería, she had her first apostolic experiences: she attended, materially and spiritually, to two sisters who had typhoid fever, and to a leper. She kept this hidden from her parents because she was afraid that they might forbid her from continuing her work. She also visited the poor of Saint Vicent de Paul with her mother. Three years later her father was sent to Puerto Rico. There he traveled with one of his sons while the rest of his family moved to Madrid. Dolores chose a spiritual advisor, and began teaching the Catholic doctrine to women in prison, in the Princess Hospital, and in the Sunday Schools.

In 1872, the family reunited in Puerto Rico. Dolores was 23 years old and would remain in the Americas' until she was 28. She began her contact with the Jesuits and Father Goicoechea became her spiritual advisor. In Puerto Rico, she founded the Association of the Sodality of the Virgin Mary and the schools for the disadvantaged where she taught reading and writing, as well as catechism.

In 1873, her father was named state attorney of Santiago de Cuba. These were difficult times, because a religious schism was raging on the island. Because of this, her actions were curtailed to visiting the sick in a military hospital. She requested admission into the Sister of Charity community but was not admitted due to her poor eye sight. At the age of 8, Dolores had an eye operation and this disability remained with her the rest of her life.

At the conclusion of the schism, she began working in the poor neighborhoods and founded the “Centers of Instruction”. There she taught catechism, general instruction, and provided medical assistance to those in need. For these efforts she was able to get much assistance and was able to establish the centers in three different neighborhoods.

Her mother died in Cuba, and her father requested his retirement. The family returned to Madrid in 1877. In Madrid she organized her life on three fronts: her home and the care of her father, her apostolic work (the same work she did before leaving Spain) and her spiritual life (she chose a spiritual advisor and annually participated in Saint Ignatius Spiritual Retreat). In 1883 her father died, and once again she began to struggle with her vocation.

At the advice of her spiritual advisor, Father López Soldado, S.I., she entered the convent of the Salesians, even though she had never thought of devoting her whole life to contemplation. After 10 days she left the convent as she came to the realization that this was not her vocation. She then began to give all of her attention to her apostolic work.

In 1885, Dolores opened a center similar to modern social work centers. There, the poor and the needy were able to take their issues and concerns were addressed and resolved. During one of her visits, to one of the women prisoners that had just being released, she gets to know the neighborhood of the Injurias.

When she saw the moral, material and spiritual condition of the people, she began visiting this neighborhood every week and invited many of her friends to help her with her work. There she began the organization “Works of the Doctrines”, later named “Center for the Workers”.

In 1892, at the suggestion of the Bishop of Madrid, D. Ciríaco Sancha, she founded the Association of the Apostolic Laymen (which today is known as the Sopeña Lay Movement). The following year she received approval from the government which allowed her to expand her work to 8 neighborhoods of Madrid.

In 1896 she began her activities outside Madrid. In 4 years she took 199 trips all over Spain to establish and consolidate the “Works of the Doctrines”. At the same time she accompanied Father Tarin to Andalucía to help in the missions.

In 1900, Dolores participated in a pilgrimage to Rome for the celebration of the Holy Year. There she took part in a retreat at the Saint Peter's tomb and received approval to establish a Religious Institute that would provide continuation of her “Work of Doctrines” and help to sustain spiritually the Sopeña Lay Movement. Cardinal Sancha, then Archbishop of Toledo, proposed founding it there.

The “Ladies of Catechistical Institute” was founded On September 24, 1901. Dolores with 8 companions had just participated in Spiritual Exercises, in Loyola, where St. Ignatius was born and in the city of Toledo, on October 31 they started living as a religious community.

One of the greatest inspirations that Dolores had was to establish at the same time, the Civil Association which today is known as OSCUS or Social & Cultural Work Sopeña. In 1902 the Association was officially recognized by the Spanish government.

In 1905, the Institute received from the Holy See the Degree of Praise. Two years later, on November 21, 1907, Dolores received the approval directly from Pope Pius X. Today the Institute is known as the “Sopeña Catechetical Institute”.

During these years, her “Works of the Doctrines” were slowly changed to Centers for Workers' Instruction. These occurred because many of the workers that participated in the Centers were influenced by the anti-cleric sentiments and the instruction could not be called religious out right. The anti clerical sentiment was an important facet in the decision for the religious community of this Institute not to wear a ‘habit' and did not to wear any outward sign of religion. These changes were made with the end result in mind: to get close to the workers who were “alienated from the church”, that had been unable to receive any cultural, moral or religious instruction and to unite those socially distant.

One of the main objectives of the centers were to bring people together to give them an opportunity to learn from each other. These encounters would result in mutual respect and a desire to help each other.

Her deep faith, rich in spirituality was the reason for her commitment to the service to others. Her commitment to the dignity of people was born through her experience that God the Father of all, who loves us with infinite tenderness and who wishes for us to live as sons and brothers and sisters, was the driving force behind all that she did. From there, she had a great desire to “Make of all, one family in Christ Jesus”. Her total immersion in Christ allowed her to see Him in everything and feel Him in everyone, especially in those that were in the most need of dignity and love.

Towards the end of the 19th century, it was inconceivable to find a woman, who would go out to work in the poor neighborhood. The secret of her fearlessness was her deep faith, her confidence without limit. She recognized this as her greatest treasure, and it made her feel that she had become the instrument of God's work, the instrument of love, hope, dignity, and justice.

In a few years, she was able to established communities and centers in industrialized cities. In 1910 the community celebrated the first General Chapter and Dolores was reelected Superior General. In 1914 she founded a community in Rome and in 1917 opened their first house in the Americas.

The following year, on January 10, 1918, Dolores Sopeña died in Madrid. Talk had already began of her being a saint.

On July 11, 1992, John Paul II declared Dolores' life work heroic and on April 23, 2002 he certified the miracle attributed to Dolores Sopeña which advanced her to beatification status.

Currently the Sopeña Family which encompasses the three institutions founded by Dolores Sopeña are: the Sopeña Catechetical Institute, The Sopeña Lay Movement and the Sopeña Social and Cultural Work, can be found in Spain, Italy, Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

Aspects of her spirituality

The spirituality of Dolores Sopeña has four especially relevant aspects: it is a Christocentric, Eucharistic, Marian, and Ignatian.

Her Christological experience emphasizes two fundamental aspects of Jesus: Jesus as God incarnate and Jesus as redemptor. God has assumed the human condition and he comes out to encounter each person in his or her sorrows and joys, needs and aspirations, offering his unconditional love and his entire life in a gratuitous manner. He is the center of her life and of her heart.

She dialogues with Jesus through her entire long journey, but recognizes a special presence in the Holy Eucharist. Her habitual practices includes: the visits to the Blessed Sacrament, the Holy Hour, and the Liturgy of the Hours. She calls Holy Thursday the Institute's day because it is a feast of Love when the Eucharist was instituted. In front of the tabernacle she makes the most important decisions; in front of him, each morning when she wakes up she “fixes the day's agenda,” receives comfort, strength and inspiration.

Her relationship with God is expressed in a filial attitude filled with trust.

She recognizes the presence of the Blessed Mother on her journey, in her heart, and in important personal events, and the events of the Institute.

Her contact with the Ignatian spirituality dates back to when she was very young, through her spiritual directors and the practice of the Spiritual Exercises, and it gives to her spirituality and to the Sopeña family a clear Ignatian character, where it is possible to discover:

– a strong apostolic character. Her whole life is moved by her desire to travel the entire world so others can come to know God.

– a dialectic synthesis between action and contemplation, accepting the grace of seeing God present in everything and everyone, especially in the face of the working man and woman, who are in need of progress, and to whom no one has shown the gentle face of God who loves them with infinite tenderness.

– a continued effort to discover the will of God. And once she knew His will, great fortitude, will power, and capacity of selflessness and sacrifice to do His will, no matter the cost.

Her life is a “constant doing” but a doing with a clear conscience of being an instrument in God's hands. This experience develops in her such a sense of complete trust, that it makes her be courageous, capable of overcoming obstacles and to develop an apostolate incredibly risky for a woman of her time.

More information: Instituto Catequista Dolores Sopeña (this site is in Spanish and includes additional biographical information and photos of this saint as well as quotations and other writings by her, as well as information on her canonization process)