Log in
    

Hungering for Justice

Life issues and social justice

As a child in the 1950s, I recall the Church being insular and sharply divided from
the world around us. That began to change as we approached Vatican Council II. We heard words like “ecumenism,” “social justice” and “liturgical renewal.” There was even a daring concept of celebrating the Mass in the vernacular, the language commonly spoken in the location of the Mass.
 
As the council unfolded, laypersons were invited to take on new roles in the Church, both liturgical roles and in various ministries in the Church. Both men and women could now serve in the sanctuary as lectors and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. Mass could be celebrated with the priest facing the people instead of with his back to the congregation.
 
After Vatican II, we saw the Church engaging the world around us in a completely different way.
 
We recognized the need to enter into dialogue with other Christian denominations to explore the possibility of reunification of Christianity. We began to hear about topics like racism, discrimination and social justice. The Church was more open in its criticism of injustice in society.
 
Topics like war, disparate treatment of minorities by the criminal justice system, treatment of undocumented immigrants, the natural environment and a living wage became topics addressed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and local bishops.
 
Yet within the Church, we saw dissent emerge. Some sought to radically change certain moral teachings on issues of sexuality, contraception and abortion. With Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”), Catholic understanding of sexuality and the teaching on contraception were beautifully affirmed. Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae” (“Gospel of Life”) again affirmed those teachings and emphasized that moral law given by God cannot change.
 
Human life issues (abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia and capital punishment) continued to receive prominent attention from the bishops and Catholic laity in local and political arenas.
 
The Church needs to engage society on both human life issues and issues of social justice; it is not one or the other.
 
Catholics know from scripture that the human person is created in the image and likeness of God. Hence, all human beings have an inherent dignity: There is something about each person that is a reflection of God to those around them.
 
Catholics must hold in their heart two great commandments: Love of God above all else and love our neighbors as ourselves. The Church must continue to proclaim that message not merely as an abstract concept, but in concrete terms: Life is sacred. Human beings are to be treated as a precious image and likeness of God; they are to be accorded full human dignity, and this includes just treatment in all particulars of their existence in a just society.
 
As members of the Church and followers of Jesus Christ, we must act to further those teachings and to incorporate them into our own attitudes and behaviors.
 

Fatima’s message still relevant

In 21st-century arrogance, some might say, “Seriously! You are bringing up Fatima when there is strife around the world; when there is incredible division in the country; when poverty and problems in the healthcare system abound! And moral standards are deplorable.”
 
Yes. That is right. Are we any different from the world a century ago toward the end of  “The Great War?” The message of Fatima, given to three children tending sheep in a town in Portugal beginning in May 1917, is really quite simple: Pray and repent; do penance. Without such a conversion, there would be another great and tragic war. That prophecy surely was fulfilled in World War II.
 
The world has not undergone the conversion that was called for at Fatima. In fact, conflict and hostility have grown. Terror attacks happen somewhere in the world almost daily. A number of nations now have at least some nuclear weapons capability. Sporadic use of chemical weapons has continued despite international treaties banning them. Conventional anti-personnel weapons have been directed at civilian populations. Multiple genocides have plagued the world over the last century. Disrespect for the sanctity of human life and human dignity abound in most parts of the world. Rather than an increase in prayer, repentance and conversion there has been a significant apostasy throughout the world, especially in the industrialized West.
 
Accompanying that apostasy have been pervasive exploitation of persons through social and economic systems that enrich a small segment of the world population and impoverish others. The natural environment has undergone significant devastation, increasing the burden on the poor.
 
So what does Fatima have to do with us today? In a word: Everything! And Fatima still beckons us, as a world, to repent. It will only be with prayer, repentance and conversion that the world will realize peace.
 
Questions of justice and peace were prominent themes in the prophets. Isaiah wrote, “Justice will bring about peace; right will produce calm and security” (Is 32:17). These themes appear throughout both the Old Testament and the New Testament, along with charity, truth and freedom.
 
Church teaching has repeatedly pointed out the inextricable links among truth, justice, charity, peace and freedom. Pope Paul VI said it very succinctly and directly: “If you want peace, work for justice.” (1)
 
Vatican Council II teaches, “The social order…must be founded on truth, built on justice and animated by love; in freedom it should grow every day.” (2) And the U.S. bishops have affirmed: “We are all called to be a Church at the service of peace, precisely because peace is one manifestation of God’s word and work in our midst.” (3)
 
Some, very properly, might ask what concrete things they can do to have a positive impact on a world in turmoil. I suggest four specific steps:
 
1. We can pray daily for peace, justice, truth and charity and for the conversion of sinners. We can do some penance, some sacrifice in reparation for our own sins and those of others.
 
2. We can model moral behaviors in our own lives through truthfulness, justice, love, peace and purity.
 
3. We can share our faith with others.
 
4. As citizens, we can communicate with our elected representatives, senators and other public officials regarding specific matters of justice, peace and the common good; and we should hold them accountable if they fail to deliver.
 
Finally, we need to bear in mind that it is 100 years since The Blessed Mother’s Fatima messages. God may bless us with a profound transformation in the direction of world peace or with a series of incremental improvements over a period of years, culminating in a more peaceful and secure world. Our participation in all of this simply requires that we remain true to our prayer and our other efforts.
 
Ultimately, the outcome is in the hands of God.
 
      _________
 
 
1 Message of His Holiness Pope Paul VI, for the Celebration of the Day of Peace, Jan. 1, 1972.
 
2 “Gaudium et Spes” #26.
 
3 “God’s Promise and Our Response,” U.S. Catholic Bishops, 1983

-- Originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.
 

Inequality of basic needs

Pope Francis noted in “Laudato Si’” how environmental degradation has a disproportionate adverse impact on the impoverished of the world.
 
That is quite easy to see in the developing world. However, it is a little more subtle here in the United States and in the rest of the industrialized West.
 
Take the city of Flint, Mich., and its crisis of lead in the city water. By every measure, this community is a poor and primarily minority population. Unemployment in Flint runs about 1 percent above the national rate. More than 40 percent of the population lives in poverty. In 2015 the median household income was under $25,000 -- less than half of the national median household income. Less than 83 percent of its residents are high school graduates and only 11.2 percent are college graduates.
 
The combination of population characteristics in Flint is often associated with a relatively powerless population.
 
In contrast, more than 91 percent of Vermont residents are high school graduates and more than 40 percent have higher levels of education.
 
Flint has been in the news because of its water problems.
 
Prevention of lead poisoning has long been an essential aspect of running public water systems.
 
Lead poisoning was recognized in ancient Roman and Greek times; it was known to be toxic to the human body and to have an adverse effect on the human mind.
Without rehashing all the details from Flint, changes made to the water system resulted in lead being leached from antiquated lead pipes.
 
The process lacked due diligence for the safety of the residents. There was also a failure by public officials to alert the community to the hazard after the problem was recognized. Delays in remediation and communication of the hazard were costly to the health of many children.
 
A child’s brain is particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning; lead poisoning results in reduced intellectual and emotional growth along with behavioral problems. Those health and social problems will continue impose burdens on these impoverished families and society for decades to come.
 
Flint’s poverty clearly played a role in this tragedy. City officials, perhaps operating in very good faith, saw an opportunity to reduce the cost of its water system and moved to take advantage of the savings without having done a sufficiently thorough engineering analysis that would have identified the potential problems and prevented the disastrous consequences. A more prosperous city might not have seen the need to take the risk or revamping the water system.
 
This is but one example of lead or other toxic chemicals in the drinking water, the air or the soil in less-affluent communities in the United States. Lead has been ubiquitous in paint on the walls of older housing stock in poor communities. Lead can even be carried in dust and transported by wind. The consequences of these hazards fall on the impoverished residents of those communities. According to a report from Reuters News Service, high levels of blood lead in children have recently been identified in nearly 3,000 other U.S. locations, including large cities and small towns.1
 
In Vermont, the chemical PFOA2 has migrated in ground water to North Bennington from a manufacturing plant in Hoosick Falls, N.Y. PFOA is suspected of causing cancer. Vermont officials and company officials have endeavored to respond appropriately to the needs of local residents, but in this situation it is hard to predict what the final economic and health burdens for residents will be.3 These burdens are worse for the poor since limited financial resources limit options to remedy a problem.
 
The moral imperative is clear. Health effects of hazardous materials must be properly and pro-actively addressed by public officials and private sector decision makers. There can be no excuse for exposing human beings to risk of significant harm, whether by overt action or by failure to act. With deteriorating infrastructure and increased budgetary pressures, I fear the problem may even get worse. The effects will disproportionately harm the impoverished and the voiceless.
 
 
Footnotes:
1 www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa- lead-testing/
2 PFOA: Perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical used in producing Teflon.
3 www.nytimes.com/2016/03/15/nyregion/vermont-town- is-latest- to-face- pfoa-tainted- water-scare.html?_r=0


--------------------
Originally published in the 2017 spring issue of Vermont Catholic Magazine.
 

Of Immigrants and Refugees

American history has always fascinated me. We are a nation of immigrants and refugees. All of us, except for those descended from the Native American tribes, have immigration in our background. And with the exception of those descended from African American slaves, our families immigrated either seeking refuge from oppression or seeking economic and social freedom.
 
In history, a number of cycles of “nativism” have emerged over the years. Nativism is built on fear of the unknown, fear of those who are perceived as different. Among the groups of immigrants that faced opposition were Catholics (Irish, Italian and Eastern European), Jews (Russian, Eastern European and German) and Asians. It is ironic that with each wave of immigration, high achievement arose over one to two generations. That high achievement benefited not only the immigrant families but the broader community as well.
 
On Feb. 21, Pope Francis made a compelling statement that we all need to think about. EWTN News reported that on Feb. 21: “Defending (migrants’) inalienable rights, ensuring their fundamental freedom and respecting their dignity are duties from which no one can be exempted.”
 
We have to take his message very seriously.
 
Against this background, let us examine the current debate on immigration and refugees. Recent executive actions are playing into and exacerbating nativist fears and suspicions about two groups: Muslims and Latin Americans, especially the 11 million or so “illegal aliens” now living in the United States.
 
The current plan for “extreme vetting” plays well in the minds of many and would seem to be reasonable except for one thing: The average refugee admitted to the U.S. has already gone through about two years of vetting by U.S. agents. A moratorium that allows for a review of the current vetting process, again, sounds reasonable.
 
This is something that was discussed throughout much of the recent presidential campaign. But does this mean that the present vetting process should necessarily be suspended while this review takes place? The unfortunate decision to suspend all immigration from particular countries has lead to unnecessary human suffering.
 
Legitimate refugees continue to suffer in camps that fail to meet the basic human needs of the refugees. MOST of the illegal immigrants in this country work hard at agricultural jobs and whatever jobs they can find. Much of the food we eat is produced and picked by their hands. They are in the shadows of the economy. Some of them are our neighbors here in Vermont.
 
They have come to the U.S. with the same motivation that our own ancestors had -- to seek a better life for themselves and their children. They desire refuge from oppression and danger.
 
Does deportation really make sense? Not as a blanket policy that makes no distinctions based on individual situations. Perhaps some form of legalization makes more sense on a practical level.
 
We cannot morally turn our backs on these immigrants and on the refugees. Making it impossible for them to enter or remain in the U.S. under the ruse of security and legality simply is wrong! It is time for a better solution.
 
____________
 
Deacon Pete Gummere is Director of the Permanent Diaconate for the Diocese of Burlington and serves at Corpus Christi Parish in the St. Johnsbury area. He is adjunct faculty at the Josephinum Diaconate Institute where he teaches moral theology and medical morality.
 
 

Transforming faith into action

Jesus uses the wonderful parable about the rich man and Lazarus to prod us into awareness of those around us who are in desperate need; He is specific about the evil of ignoring the poor person who is hungry. In the parable, Jesus tells us that Lazarus was lying at the rich man’s door, and the rich man had to know he was there but did nothing to help.
 
Jesus is speaking about more than hunger. There are many effects of poverty — poor health, hunger, thirst, inadequate clothing, inadequate shelter, despair, discouragement, depressed spirits, social isolation, marginalization and even oppression. Despite an enlightened social services network in Vermont, all of these effects of poverty are experienced by people in our own communities, throughout Vermont and the nation.
 
Even worse, the level of poverty in developing countries is unimaginable. And one of the worst effects of poverty is that no one seems to care that there is no end, no hope in sight; yet there is plentitude in the world.
 
Just as our prayer expresses what we believe, our actions tangibly demonstrate what we believe. Our faith should move us to be evermore charitable.
 
Blessed Oscar A. Romero, a late archbishop of San Salvador, reflecting on the depth of poverty and injustice in his native land commented: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and do it very well. It may be incomplete, but at least it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”
 
In addressing the problems of poverty in Vermont, the United States and the world, the Church long has been in a leadership position. Programs operated at the parish, diocesan and national levels are significant sources of help to the impoverished. In Vermont, The Bishop’s Fund and The Bishop deGoesbriand Appeal
for Human Advancement support many such activities.
 
Catholic Relief Services has a presence in more than 100 countries and annually delivers emergency
relief supplies to about 100 million people suffering the effects of natural disasters. It works with local
people on tangible development and redevelopment projects, enabling transformative improvement in people’s lives.
 
Although charitable giving is part of charity, there is more to it. We must not think that the solution is simply to throw money at a problem. The core of charity is love. How do we love someone? We spend some time with that person. Ordinary acts of kindness and genuine concern, being involved in the lives and the wellbeing of others and providing encouragement all are simple illustrations of that kind of charity. It is particularly charitable when such acts are done for those marginalized by society and when we are conscious of them as Christ in disguise.
 
Many Vermont Catholics actively engage in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy through formal channels. Others perform them quietly. I applaud the many who are doing those works of mercy.
 
Jesus reminds us, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). Would He be happy with what we are doing? Or would He suggest how we might do a little more in caring for His people who are suffering?
 
As we become more involved in some concrete aspect of caring for God’s people, we transform our faith into action and delight the Lord.
 
 

The Peacemakers

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Mt 5:9)
 
As Catholics, how we live our faith can have a great impact on the violence and injustice that surround us.
 
The escalation of violence and shooting of unarmed African Americans by police and subsequent retaliation against police have shocked the conscience of the nation.
 
These were not acts of foreign terrorists. In July, two victims were African American men who were killed during an interaction with local police in Louisiana and Minnesota. Five were Dallas police officers fatally shot by a lone gunman expressing anger toward police officers.
 
These incidents in Louisiana and Minnesota are not isolated incidents. They are part of an ongoing nationwide epidemic in which police have shot unarmed African Americans. More recently the tragedy was repeated in Tulsa, Okla.; Charlotte, N.C; and San Diego, Calif.
 
Today, with the ability to capture everything on video via cell phones and police body cams, the public is able to examine these incidents closely, which has led to public protests throughout our country.
 
Police stopped the Minnesota victim because a taillight that was out on his vehicle. In Louisiana, the victim was selling CD’s on the sidewalk. For reasons that are not clear, the interactions escalated to the point of an officer shooting the victim.
 
The central question is: Are police dealing with the African American segment of the population in a manner inconsistent with the treatment accorded the white population?
 
To be true to our vocation as Christians, we need to hunger and thirst for righteousness in our society. We must also be peacemakers and always seek the truth by critically evaluating the facts both nationally and in our own community.
 
While we have not encountered the same type of racial incidents here in Vermont, we have seen an increase in violent crime and three fatal confrontations involving law enforcement since December. A well-publicized report commissioned by the Vermont State Police and conducted by the Institute for Race and Justice and the Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research revealed that troopers were more likely to stop African American drivers than white drivers. African American drivers who were stopped were more likely to receive a ticket or to be arrested for relatively similar offenses.
 
Records from the Department of Corrections, Census Bureau and the Department of Justice also show that people of color are incarcerated at a higher rate than the white population. A report from the research and advocacy group, The Sentencing Project, reveals that one in 14 black men in Vermont are incarcerated. In fact, Vermont is one of just five states incarcerating its black population at about 10 times the rate of white residents.
 
Before concluding that racism fully explains the above statistics, we would have to know more about all confounding factors such as the objective behaviors that resulted in a traffic stop and make a thorough analysis of all information pertaining to each encounter. Sentencing decisions are complex and include many variables. However, it appears bias may be a factor.
 
At the same time, society needs to understand that police, in Vermont and elsewhere, have an extremely critical and difficult role. It is essential for the public to be protected from criminal activity, whether violence against persons or property, or crimes such as harassment, or hazards like drunk driving. Every veteran police officer can share accounts of unimaginable tragedies encountered on the job.
 
Yet police officers are human and make mistakes. If these mistakes are motivated or enabled by racial bias, they need to be extinguished.
 
This too is a matter of justice.
 
Race is such a polarizing force in American culture that most of us have at least some tint of racial bias in our thinking. Individual Catholics must first confront their own biases. We must realize that all human beings are God’s beloved children, made in His image and likeness. We need to share that vision in the broader community.
 
With the Year of Mercy nearing an end, now is the perfect time to reinvigorate the spirit of mercy by working to eliminate racism from our culture. Fair, unbiased policing and sentencing and justice in the social and economic arenas are all essential to overcoming injustice. But also getting to know and engage with our neighbors is essential if the racial divide is to be broken down.
 
Those able to break down those barriers and so foster peace -- Jesus proclaims them blessed.
 
 

God and Brexit

Ever since the United Kingdom decided in June to leave the European Union, contending (and sometimes overlapping) explanations have been offered for a vote that stunned the world’s opinion-makers: a perceived loss of national sovereignty to a transnational organization; concerns over current EU immigration policy and the effect of open EU borders on jobs and the rule of law; aggravations with petty bureaucratic regulation by EU mandarins in Brussels. Together, these amount to what’s often called the EU’s “democracy deficit,” which seems to me real enough.

I’d like to suggest another, perhaps deeper, answer to the question of the EU’s current distress, though: to put it bluntly, the “democracy deficit” is a reflection of Europe’s “God-deficit.” Let me connect the dots.

The founding fathers of today’s European Union – which began with the European Coal and Steel Community before morphing into the European Common Market and then the EU – were, in the main, Catholics: Italy’s Alcide de Gasperi, West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer, France’s Robert Schumann. Appalled by the self-destruction that Europe had wrought in two world wars, they sought an answer to aggressive nationalism in economic partnerships that would bind the West Franks (the French) to the East Franks (the Germans) so that war between them would be inconceivable. It was a practical idea, it worked, and it was understood to be the first step toward forms of political partnership and integration.

The wager underlying this project, as these men conceived it, was that there was enough of Christian or biblical culture left in Europe to sustain democratic pluralism in a “union” of sovereign states that would respect national and regional distinctiveness. And that Christian or biblical “remainder” involved the Catholic social-ethical principle of “subsidiarity:” The idea that decision-making should be left at the lowest possible local level (as in classic American federalism, where local governments do some things, state governments do other things and the national government does things that local and state governments can’t do). 

“Subsidiarity” is a check against the tendency of all modern states to concentrate power at the center: which explains why the principle was first articulated by Pope Pius XI in 1931, as the shadow of totalitarianism lengthened across Europe. Respect for the social-ethical principle of “subsidiarity” also implies respect for cultural difference. And that, in turn, assumes that human beings get to universal commitments – like respect for basic human rights – through particular experiences, not through generalized abstractions. Or as Polish editor Jerzy Turowicz said to me 25 years ago, John Paul II was a “European” because he was a Cracovian, the heir of a particular experience of pluralism and tolerance, not despite the fact that he came from a unique cultural milieu. 

When biblical religion collapsed, as it manifestly has in most of Old Europe and too much of New Europe after 1989, commitments to subsidiarity and its respect for difference imploded as well. The vacuum was then filled by a monochromatic, anti-pluralist notion of “democracy.” Embodied in EU law and enforced by unaccountable bureaucrats and EU courts, the results of this decayed democratic idea went far beyond idiotic regulations on the shape of tomatoes and bananas to include a concerted attempt to impose a single political culture in Europe, best described as the culture of personal autonomy – the Culture of the Self. That pseudo-culture is the hollowed-out shell of the Christian personalism that once inspired de Gasperi, Adenauer, Schumann, and the mid-20th-century Christian
Democratic parties of Europe. And its political by-product is the EU’s “democracy deficit.” 

Forty years ago, German constitutional scholar Ernst-Friedrich Boeckenfoerde argued that the modern, liberal-democratic state faced a dilemma: It rested on the foundation of moral-cultural premises – social capital – it could not itself generate. Put another way, it takes a certain kind of people, formed by a certain kind of culture to live certain virtues, to keep liberal democracy from decaying into new forms of authoritarianism – more pungently described in 2005 by a distinguished European intellectual, Joseph Ratzinger, as a “dictatorship of relativism.” The Boeckenfoerde Dilemma is on full display in the European Union, which is in deep trouble because of a democracy deficit that is, at bottom, a subsidiarity-deficit caused by a God-deficit. 

Americans would be very foolish to think ourselves immune to a similar crisis of political culture.

     

The eugenic mindset today

Seldom discussed in Vermont’s history is the Eugenics Project of the early 20th century. While only formally in practice during the 1920s and 1930s, there is clear evidence that the eugenic mindset survives today. In fact, eugenic thinking has expanded beyond the dictionary definition of controlling who is born to also include the act of controlling who dies.

The Eugenics Project was actively promoted by University of Vermont Professor of Zoology Henry Perkins, who undertook to cleanse the Vermont gene pool of people he called “feebleminded, stupid and shiftless,” characteristics he attributed to their “defective genes.” His work led to a program of surveys to identify families that met Perkins’ criteria; they tended to be poor and belong to ethnicities he considered undesirable, with a focus on people of Abenaki and French-Canadian descent. The project began under private funding but expanded with the direct participation of state government to remove those persons from the reproductive population by forced sterilization. 

Perkins, who later served as president of the American Eugenics Society, used his survey data to persuade the Vermont Legislature to expand the Vermont State School for the care and training of feebleminded children (5-21 years old). It soon assumed the eugenic function of segregating from society “feebleminded women” of childbearing age and coercing their consent for sterilization in exchange for their release from the school.  

The project earned national and international attention from early eugenics advocates, including Margaret Sanger, founder of what is now Planned Parenthood.  Sanger went on to publish and edit a volume of articles on the eugenic aspects of birth control, including, “Sterilization: A Modern Medical Program for Human Health and Welfare,” (June 5, 1951), which advocated for a program of sterilization of the vulnerable and disabled.     

The Catholic Church and Catholic Daughters were vocal opponents of this movement, yet, in 1931, the Vermont legislature passed “A Law for Human Betterment by Voluntary Sterilization.” Section 1 read:

“Henceforth it shall be the policy of the state to prevent procreation of idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded or insane persons, when the public welfare, and the welfare of idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded or insane persons likely to procreate, can be improved by voluntary sterilization as herein provided.”

What does “eugenic thinking” look like in our culture today? Consider Vermont’s recently-passed Act 120 (formerly House Bill H.620), the contraceptive mandate law of 2016 which expands Vermont’s existing contraceptive mandate to include sterilization.  Under this law, women will be offered sterilization during the highly vulnerable time immediately after giving birth, a strategy designed to encourage Medicaid subscribers to stop having children, and a goal lauded by Gov. Peter Shumlin in his January Budget Message. The term “Medicaid subscriber” in this context appears to be a code phrase for “poor woman.”  To achieve control of Medicaid expenditures by demeaning the rights, the dignity and the status of a relatively powerless group, is simply wrong. 

Another example of eugenic thinking can be found in Act 39, the Vermont Legislature’s Physician Assisted Suicide law, passed in 2013, which mandates that physicians raise the option of assisted suicide with their terminally ill patients. Vulnerable people, contending with the financial and emotional burdens their illnesses may have on their families and others, must be “educated” about the option to end their lives. Intended or not, this “education” comes with the implicit suggestion that perhaps their lives are no longer worth living – that their humanity no longer matters. How is that a dignified way to die?  

The abuses of assisted suicide and euthanasia laws in other countries are enormous and include involuntary euthanasia of mentally challenged and disabled persons. In April 2002, the Netherlands became the first country to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide. Although the law’s intent was to end the suffering of terminally ill patients, a growing number of physically healthy people with psychological illnesses have been granted “the right to die.” According to the Royal Dutch Medical Association, 13 patients suffering from mental illness were euthanized in 2011; by 2013 this number had risen to 42 patients. Even more disturbing, in 2013, as many as 650 babies were killed by doctors because they were deemed to be in pain or facing a life of suffering. Even in the United States, 90 percent of all babies diagnosed with Down syndrome in the womb are killed by doctors through abortion procedures.

Regardless of the frugal or humanitarian intent, the underlying eugenic thinking is unmistakable.

When government disregards the rights and the dignity of any marginalized community, we all become vulnerable to arbitrary decisions of the powerful. We all become complicit in the evil that is done in our name. The Church must continue to be vigilant in speaking for the marginalized, including the terminally ill, the unborn and the poor. We must advocate on behalf of the voiceless for the inherent dignity and worth of every single human life.

Article written by Deacon Pete Gummere and Carrie Handy.

Hungering for Justice: Homelessness and hunger in Vermont

The Gospel clearly states where Jesus was born – in Bethlehem in a hastily improvised shelter. A place where animals were kept: a stable, in fact. Yet that night, that humble space became the birthplace of the King of Kings. After the visits from the shepherds and the Magi, Joseph was forewarned, in a dream, of Herod's plan to kill the child. He was instructed to flee Bethlehem with the child and his mother to Egypt, where they remained for about two years.

As a carpenter Joseph expected to be able to find work in Nazareth. But, relocating a family then was probably no more comfortable or secure than it is for families today. No doubt Mary and Joseph experienced a period of uncertainty with homelessness and hunger.

Homelessness and hunger continue to plague society. Here, in Vermont, the needs of the poor and working poor have become commonplace. Some communities have worked tirelessly to cope and address these issues while others are working to catch up. Some resist efforts to address the fact that people are without basic human needs: shelter, food and warmth.

First the good news: Vermont Catholic Charities, Inc. is actively engaged in assisting the homeless and those who seek emergency aid, along with providing counseling for individuals and families. In many cases such counseling is an essential component of enabling someone to overcome the severe adversity they are confronting.

Burlington area residents have organized and operated the Committee on Temporary Shelter for years. That has required a great deal of collaboration on the part of numerous people. It has required the support of the city government. And it has required financial support that residents have willingly given. Part of the success of the COTS program is a function of the size of the Burlington area population and the social conscience that the Queen City community exhibits.

Other Vermont towns have implemented services on a smaller scale while relying on social service agencies to arrange lodging for the homeless at local motels.

Sadly, some communities have resisted efforts to address the problem out of complacency or fear that the homeless may cause an adverse impact on businesses in town, property values, public safety, etc.

The reality is that Vermont, naturally beautiful as it is, can be dangerously cold. With average winter temperatures in the low 20s and snowfall totaling 120 inches, we can be certain that people unable to stay warm and dry would succumb to these life-threatening conditions.

The issue of hunger is being addressed by many religious and secular organizations. Numerous churches operate their own food shelves and collaborate with other churches or agencies to maintain a food shelf in the community. This is supplemented by efforts of such agencies as the Vermont Food Bank and regional community action and anti-poverty agencies funded by state or federal support.

In some towns, there are soup kitchens and hot meal programs operated by one church or another. In St Johnsbury, a "community meal" is provided three days per week on a rotating basis at three different churches. St. John the Evangelist supplements that with a once a month community soup, bread and fruit meal, of course topped off with desserts. (Soup and desserts are courtesy of generous and talented cooks in the parish.) And the Sunday morning coffee hour after Masses is open to the broader community.

The St. Johnsbury community has launched a temporary homeless shelter during the winter months. The shelter operates at a facility supported by the hospital; it is also supported with professional and volunteer staff from Northeast Kingdom Community Action. Included in the program is a counselor who will offer assistance to clients to help them find permanent housing and develop plans to emerge from homelessness.

In this Year of Mercy, the Catholic community needs to prayerfully examine its response to the problems of homelessness and hunger. Parishes and individual Catholics would do well to expand their response. Stepping up efforts to support the local food shelf is an excellent starting point. Efforts to support a soup kitchen, community meal or a homeless shelter are other important steps. It would be important for all of us, individually and as the Church, to stretch to see how much we really can help. But merely wishing the hungry and homeless well is not acceptable. (See Jas 3:15-16.)

Deacon Pete Gummere, M.S., M.A. lives in St. Johnsbury and serves at Corpus Christi Parish. He is a bioethicist and an adjunct faculty member at Pontifical College Josephinum, where he teaches courses in medical morality and moral theology in the Josephinum Diaconate Institute.

 

Hungering for Justice...of Human Dignity


What is Marriage? Marriage is a sacrament: an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. Marriage is the commitment pledged, freely given before God and community, of a man and a woman to live faithfully – one to the other – for life.

Catholic teaching on marriage is one of the most inspiring parts of all of our theology because it is a part of our very existence. It is through marriage that lives are created in love and families are formed. In a sacramental marriage the couple commits to welcoming children, raising them in the faith, as they strive to be examples of Catholic life.

The Church rejoices when couples seek a sacramental union and recognizes that marriage as a vocation often reaches highs and lows that present great joys and difficult challenges. Marriages are oftentimes tested daily with family strife, job advancements or losses, problems with the children, illnesses, financial strain and deaths of extended family members. A marriage may be imperfect and yet, couples seek to endure and remain faithfully committed to each other and to their divinely decreed purpose.

In contrast, abusive relationships are not built upon respect for the inherent dignity of the other person, but upon domination and fear. These relationships are anything but supportive of the human person. They involve emotional abuse or physical violence. Hardly a day goes by when we do not read, hear or view reports of domestic abuse. The relationship involves an abusive partner member, typically the man. Victims so used to being abused may even be unable to recognize the need for protection from the danger in which they live. The abuser may apologize manipulatively after an episode of abuse, promising "never" to repeat it. And yet, they do.

The Church neither ignores the reality of domestic violence nor minimizes the human tragedy in those relationships. We all have an obligation to care for the vulnerable. Clergy and others trained in family ministry, in particular counselors at Vermont Catholic Charities, Inc., assist marital/domestic abuse victims by offering help to rebuild damaged self-esteem, as well as to secure other forms of additional assistance.

Beyond the physical and emotional pain, social and economic hardships are inflicted as well. The isolation to which the abuser subjects the victim prevent her from maintaining healthy friendships with others. Such actions serve to increase the victim's vulnerability and increase their reliance upon the abuser.

A victim leaving the abusive situation is often without a place to turn, even a place to live and to focus on moving ahead. In fact, about 25 percent of all homeless individuals are victims of domestic abuse attempting to start over again.

Throughout Vermont social service agencies work with abuse victims. Most of these agencies are able to provide a "safe house" on short notice. This is an excellent resource for people trying to escape abuse.

A key step towards helping victims is to recognize signs of domestic violence and emotional abuse. These go far beyond an unexplained bruise. They usually include chronic isolation. There may be verbal hints of being belittled or needing permission from their abuser to do anything.

Long term resources are often needed to help a victim to get settled and to make a fresh start. As a Church, we need to consider carefully what more we can do to assist victims. Are there resources such as vacant housing that could be deployed to help on an interim basis? Are there other resources that can be deployed to minister to victims?

There is a world of difference between a happy, holy and fulfilling marriage and an abusive marriage or domestic relationship. The difference is respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.

Can we more effectively proclaim the message of human dignity both to adults and to young people? Prevention through effective education is a powerful deterrent. Long before they are ready to date, children need to know that emotional and physical abuse of another is gravely wrong and cannot be tolerated.

We should ponder this during the upcoming celebration of National Marriage Week, Feb. 7-14 and World Marriage Day on Feb. 7. The result of this reflection should be a positive and engaged response as the only merciful response.

Deacon Pete Gummere, M.S., M.A. serves at Corpus Christi Parish. He is a bioethicist and an adjunct faculty member at Pontifical College Josephinum, where he teaches courses in medical morality and moral theology in the Josephinum Diaconate Institute.

 
Subscribe to this RSS feed
Bishop's Fund Annual Appeal