Friday, February 19, 2010

Haiti: A Test for Humanity

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)

The disaster that hit Haiti, levelling Port-au-Prince and killing thousands of people, and depriving the people of the minimum structures for survival, is a test for humanity. According to forecasts by those who continue to systematically monitor the Earth, it will not be long before we are faced with several Haitis, with millions and millions of climate refugees, caused by extreme events that may cause real ecological devastation and the destruction of countless human lives .

In this context two virtues, linked to human essence, must become particularly relevant: hospitality and solidarity.

Hospitality, as the philosopher Kant saw it, is a right and a duty for all, for we are all inhabitants, or rather, sons and daughters of the same Earth. We have the right to move about her, to receive and offer hospitality. Will nations be willing to meet this basic right of the multitudes who can no longer live in their superheated regions, without water or crops? The survival instinct does not respect the boundaries of nation states. The barbarians of old toppled empires and the new "barbarians" of today will not do anything else, if not exterminated by those who usurped the land for themselves. I will stop here because the likely and not impossible scenarios are Dante-esque.

The second virtue is solidarity. It is inherent in the social essence of the human being. The classics in the study of solidarity such as Renouvier, Durkheim, Bourgeois and Sorel have emphasized the fact that society does not exist without solidarity with one another. It represents a collective conscience and sense of belonging for all. Everyone naturally accepts co-existence in order to make policy together, which is the common pursuit of the common good.

We should critique the concept of modernity that comes from the absolute autonomy of the subject in the solitude of his freedom. It is said that everyone should do their own thing without needing others. For such solitary human beings to be able to live together, they in fact need a social contract, such as the one developed by Rousseau, Locke and Kant. But that individualism is false and illusory. The real and undeniable fact must be recognized that the human being is always a relational being, a being-with-others, always woven into a fabric of all types of connections. Never alone. The social contract doesn't found society, it only arranges it legally.

Moreover, solidarity has a cosmological background. All beings, from the the top quarks on up but especially living organisms, are relational beings and no one lives outside the network of inter-retro-connections. Therefore, all beings are mutually supportive. Each one helps the other to survive -- this is the meaning of biodiversity -- and they are not necessarily victims of natural selection. At the human level, rather than natural selection, because of solidarity, we introduce caring, especially for the most vulnerable. Thus, they do not succumb to the exclusive interests of groups or a fierce kind of culture that puts ambition over life and dignity.

We have reached a point in history in which we all find ourselves intertwined in a single geosociety. Without the solidarity of all with all and also with Mother Earth there will be no future for anyone. The woes of a people are our misfortune, their tears are our tears, their progress, our progress. Their dreams are our dreams.

Che Guevara said it well: "Solidarity is the tenderness of the peoples." It is the tenderness that we must give our suffering brothers and sisters in Haiti.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sr. Teresa Forcades: Online Chat on Diario de Ibiza

Sr. Teresa Forcades participated in an online chat today organized by Diario de Ibiza in Mallorca where she is due to give a presentation tonight. We are not going to translate the entire exchange which took place in both Spanish and Catalan, but here are some of Sr. Teresa's responses:

On the relationship of science and faith:

It's very important to recognize the independence between the areas of faith and science. Both are limited. Faith is not useful for answering scientific questions and it is not the role of science to give existential answers.

Faith and reason are not incompatible as can be demonstrated from the fact that most explorers, inventors and scientists in ancient times and currently, such as Einstein, have been believers.

On the relationship of prayer and intellectual work:

The best known Benedictine motto is "Ora et Labora." In my monastery, we devote 5 hours a day to prayer and 6 hours to work, which can be manual or intellectual. I believe that prayer, as a space of freedom and interior silence, helps greatly in intellectual work, creativity, and inner freedom.

On the Catholic Church's position on homosexuality:

Barely one century ago the Catholic Church considered slavery to be compatible with Christian doctrine. We have evolved on this, thanks be to God. I hope that on the subject of homosexuality we will also evolve.

On the Catholic Church's position on AIDS:

Although there have been attempts to argue that AIDS is a punishment from God, this has never been nor is now the official position of the Catholic Church. As I said earlier, science and faith are complementary fields, but their autonomy must be respected. The study of AIDS is a scientific subject. The moral assessment of promiscuity is another matter.

On the use of condoms:

I disagree with preventing the use of condoms.

On sex, religion, and celibacy:

I think the radical nature of the Gospel is perfectly compatible with living with a partner and enjoying sexuality. I also think it's very important that people who have no partner not feel "amputated" because of this or let themselves be convinced by society that their personal happiness depends on "catching" someone.

I believe that celibacy freely lived is not only compatible with human nature, but you can experience it fully as well as you can living with a partner. For me, the most important thing is not to reduce the possibility of fulfillment to one of these 2 options. (Sr. Teresa also refers the questioner to her 2009 video "El plaer en perspectiva teològica"; transcript in Catalan)

I suppose that yes, there would be fewer (when asked whether allowing clergy to marry would decrease the number of sex abuse scandals). What I find most interesting about celibate life is the communal aspect. The fact of stating that you don't have to live in a couple to be fulfilled as a person.

On the use of veils by women:

Most of the discussions that I know about on this subject concern veils that cover part of the face or keep girls from being able to exercise in school. I don't believe that a cloth that covers the head, regardless of who wears it, is any problem. With respect to veils that cover part of the face, the ideal would be that no one should feel obliged to wear them nor get upset because someone else wears them.

On fans and critics:

My perception is that the criticisms have not been personal nor primarily because I am a nun, but above all because I have stated something that is against certain very powerful political and economic interests.

What matters to me is that the appraoches and arguments arouse interest, since at the personal level we all have our limitations and it's easy to be a fan of someone we don't live with.

On the H1N1 influenza A vaccine:

I believe it is essential to create the necessary legal framework to prevent any vaccine from being mandated and I think the open investigation at this time in the Council of Europe can help in this regard. The most important step to avoid a declaration of a pandemic such as we experienced this year is to decouple it from economic interests.

In the influenza A video, I explain the case of Baxter pharmaceutical company that sent material contaminated with the deadly avian flu virus to 16 European laboratories with the label that it was material for the vaccine. This information is public because I obtained it from the minutes of the parliamentary session of the Austrian Parliament with the Minister of Health of that country. In these minutes there is talk about the 72 kilos of contaminated material and an inquiry is requested. The investigation was initiated and has been adjourned without further explanation. I believe this issue should be thoroughly investigated. The drugmaker Baxter has admitted that it sent contaminated material but has denied that it was to make vaccines. As regards the alleged manufacturing of the 2009 H1N1 virus, I rely on the study of Professor Adrian Gibbs in the 'Journal of General Virology'.

On the pharmaceutical industry:

I observe a tendency in large enterprises to privatize profits and socialize losses. We have seen it in banks and now also with the drug companies. The deficit has not been borne by private enterprise, but by the public purse.

(in response to a question about drug company reps): My professional practice has been in public and private hospitals. In the public ones, there was no room in my work schedule to attend to representatives, so that if I did, it would have taken away from time I should be devoting to patients. By responding this way, I got all the representatives off my back and I was lucky that the secretary at the reception desk understood this too.

We can't trust WHO as long as it is over 50% financed by the companies that would benefit from its decisions. (when challenged on this assertion, Sr. Teresa referred the viewer to Wolfgang Wodarg's Web site)

On the human papillomavirus vaccine:

An article appeared recently in JAMA [Journal of the American Medical Association] on the side effects of the vaccine against the papillomavirus. These side effects include thromboembolism and over 20 deaths. It is wrong to promote this vaccine without talking about these possible side effects. Nor is it correct to minimize the effectiveness of the Pap smear every two years. The cases of cervical cancer occur in women who, for various reasons, have not had good access to preventive cytology. That's why the balance of risk/benefit of mass vaccination against papillomavirus falls against this vaccination. It is also true that this vaccine only protects against certain strains of the virus and it is not clear that these are the most prevalent ones in Spain.

In response to whether being Catholic obligates one to courageously denounce injustice:


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday at the White House

President Barack Obama issued the following statement on Ash Wednesday:

Michelle and I join Christians here in America and around the world in observing Ash Wednesday. We mark this solemn day of repentance and promise, knowing that Lent is a time for millions to renew faith and also deepen a commitment to loving and serving one another.

Outside his door, members of Pax Christi issued their own statement:

Maribel Perez Vargas Still Needs Our Support

Those of us who prayed for and donated to Maribel Perez Vargas, the young Peruvian mother in need of a lung transplant, woke up this morning to the shocking news courtesy of the Washington Post (Faith complicates a young mother's life-or-death decision on lung transplant) that when the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center finally told her she was eligible for a transplant, Maribel initially declined. Maribel had become a Jehovah's Witness and no longer was willing to sign a paper saying that she would accept blood transfusions, which are forbidden by her new faith.

The article documents her struggle with the issue, her husband's anger, her family's anguished pleas, and ultimately Maribel's decision to go against the Jehovah's Witnesses and resume her path towards the lung transplant that she needs.

Many people reacted with anger to the article. How could Maribel do this after all we had done for her? How could she jeopardize her one chance at life? Why would she be so "stupid" (this word is frequently used in the comments on the Post article) as to follow a "cult" like the Jehovah's Witnesses with their rejection of standard medical science? Anyway, she is ungrateful and undocumented so she should just be sent back to Peru to die. This is the kind of racist vitriol that the article provoked.

It's time to take a deep breath. I have supported Maribel and prayed for her. I still support her and pray for her. She is still a frightened young mother who wants desperately to live for her family's sake. She did not lose the right to live when she became a Jehovah's Witness (the sect, however, is now shunning Maribel since she chose to agree to a transfusion, which should serve as ample warning to anyone who feels tempted to join it).

To Lorenzo, Maribel's husband, I want to say: Your anger is understandable but Maribel is still your wife and the mother of your children. Even if she has joined a different faith, your marital obligation to be with her in good times and bad doesn't end. I pray that you will stay with her through this roller-coaster ride, because that is what God wants from you. It may not be easy but if you stay with it, you will have no cause for regret later on, regardless of the outcome.

To Maribel: You have again chosen life and I hope and pray that you will continue to fight for your life with the help of God and all of us who support you. Have that transplant, the transfusions, and give yourself a chance to live. That is all God can ask of you and if, in spite of everything, He chooses to call you home to Himself, you will know that you did all you could do for your family on earth. God has not abandoned you and never will, regardless of whatever organized religion you choose to join.

Let's keep our hearts focused and compassionate during this season of Lent and not abandon Maribel because she did not turn out to be the "perfect" recipient of our charity. She is still a daughter of God and needs our support.

Monday, February 15, 2010

"Por Tu Matrimonio" Site Launched

The Spanish version of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops "For Your Marriage" Web site. called "Por Tu Matrimonio" is now live at There are a few residual linking problems and while it's easy to find the "candlelight and roses" stuff, it's a little difficult to find the FAQs, what to do when there are problems, etc...I started by asking "What are the requirements to get married in the Catholic Church?" and "How do I get an annulment of my first marriage?" and it took too many clicks to get the answers.

Por Tu Matrimonio
Also, the site needs to be fleshed out in terms of the problems that immigrant couples seeking matrimony might face, e.g. what to do with undocumented people who might want a Catholic wedding but not be able to get a civil marriage license, the fact that you cannot file for an annulment of a marriage contracted in a foreign country in a diocesan tribunal in the US unless your ex-spouse is also living in the area, what resources the Church provides for people who might not be able to get proof of baptism because of the situation in their home parishes (if the parish even still exists, which in some war torn areas it may not), etc...

This being said, it's a good start...