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Deacon Pete Gummere, M.S., M.A

Deacon Pete Gummere, M.S., M.A

Deacon Pete Gummere, director of the Permanent Diaconate for the Diocese of Burlington, serves at Corpus Christi Parish, St. Johnsbury. He is a bioethicist and an adjunct faculty member at Josephinum Diaconate Institute where he teaches courses in medical morality and moral theology. Website URL:

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


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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.
 
 
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