Vaccines, the Fear of Autism, and the Globalization of Indifference

For those of us who have been following the debate about childhood vaccinations, we’ve heard many arguments about medical evidence, individualism versus the common good, proposed legislative changes to personal belief exemptions, and the terror of parents whose babies are too young to vaccinate. However, lost in this discussion is an analysis of the key motivating factor leading parents to not vaccinate their children—a warped vision of the value of people with autism. Somehow, the belief is that having a child with autism is so terrible that it is worth jeopardizing one of the greatest advances in all of modern medicine. A viral comment by a Facebook user identified as Miranda that appeared on a Facebook group for siblings of people with severe disabilities put it succinctly:

Even if I humor anti-vaccine activists and for a second believe that vaccines cause autism in 0.01% of children they’re administered to (spoiler alert: vaccines don’t cause autism), I am still deeply disturbed that these people are more afraid of people with disabilities than they are fatal, painful and endemic diseases. If cognitive disabilities are more threatening to you than children never getting to grow up because polio makes a comeback, you have priorities to reevaluate my friend. Shame on you for brainwashing mothers and fathers into believing that autism is the absolute worst thing that can happen to a person.

In our world, “the temporarily able-bodied” too often let their vision be clouded by their fears and refuse to see the reality in front of them. In the US, this is precisely what the Supreme Court focused on when it acknowledged the dehumanizing role that inaccurate information plays in our society in a seminal decision interpreting a precursor law to the Americans with Disabilities Act:

Society’s accumulated myths and fears about disability and disease are as handicapping as the…limitations that flow from actual impairment. –US Supreme Court. School Bd. Of Nassau County v. Arline, 480 U.S. 273, 284 (1987).

The Supreme Court rightly found that Congress intended to protect people like Gene Arline from misplaced fear. Ms. Arline was a schoolteacher who, when she was much younger, had been hospitalized for acute tuberculosis. Ten years into her teaching career, and twenty years since her bout of tuberculosis, she suffered multiple relapses and was fired on the basis of her condition, without any real assessment of whether she could do her job. The facts are not irrelevant to the current conversation. The law was enacted to prevent ignorant employers from unjustly excluding people with impairments as much as to directly help people with impairments themselves.

In light of our current situation, Pope Francis’ words to the newly installed Cardinals should be our touchstone. Discussing Jesus’ outreach to leapers, Francis doesn’t focus on the supposed inherent problems of those who have been excluded. Rather, he calls out those doing the excluding and marginalizing:

Compassion leads Jesus to concrete action: he reinstates the marginalized!  These are the three key concepts that the Church proposes in today’s liturgy of the word: the compassion of Jesus in the face of marginalization and his desire to reinstate.

Marginalization:  Moses, in his legislation regarding lepers, says that they are to be kept alone and apart from the community for the duration of their illness.  He declares them: “unclean!” (cf. Lev 13:1-2, 45-46).

Imagine how much suffering and shame lepers must have felt: physically, socially, psychologically and spiritually!  They are not only victims of disease, but they feel guilty about it, punished for their sins!  Theirs is a living death; they are like someone whose father has spit in his face (cf. Num 12:14).

In addition, lepers inspire fear, contempt and loathing, and so they are abandoned by their families, shunned by other persons, cast out by society.  Indeed, society rejects them and forces them to live apart from the healthy.  It excludes them.  So much so that if a healthy person approached a leper, he would be punished severely, and often be treated as a leper himself.

The purpose for this rule was “to safeguard the healthy”, “to protect the righteous”, and, in order to guard them from any risk, to eliminate “the peril” by treating the diseased person harshly.  As the high priest Caiaphas decreed: “It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Jn 11:50)…

…For Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family!  And this is scandalous to some people!

Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal!  He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity.  He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp (cf. Jn 10).

I do not suggest any intrinsic equivalence between leprosy and autism. Rather, the similarity is in the marginalization faced by people who are not considered “ideal” for any discriminatory reason (whether on account of disability, race, gender, etc.). Pope Francis does not sugarcoat the experiences of people living with disabilities, and he empathizes with their families. I’m sure that he even sympathizes with parents who are terrified of their children having autism. But I believe he would encourage us to go beyond this simple fear and ask if it is warranted. Is it the condition itself that is so terrifying, or is it also the way in which society causes so much additional unnecessary pain for people with autism and their families–by blaming parents for the person’s condition; by refusing to provide adequate parental leave; by turning a blind eye to bullying by staff and students at school; by cutting off virtually all support upon adulthood, as if a person’s needs magically disappeared upon reaching the age of majority; or by focusing so much on the “cure” that the dignity of the person living with autism is all but forgotten?

Whatever the conversation about vaccination may bring, we cannot forget that fear of people with autism is at the root of the debate. What would we prefer (assuming counterfactually that there is a risk of autism from vaccines): a world without autistic people (who are amazing contributors to our families, schools, and communities), but under the constant threat of contracting deadly diseases and seeing our children die before they can be vaccinated? Or should we rather strive for a world in which we can listen to people with autism and their families and find ways of reintegrating them fully into our society, and, finally, not exclude them in the first place?


Note: For the best resources on autism, please get to know the amazing work of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, whose motto is “nothing about us without us.” I do not have autism, but I am privileged to collaborate with people who do.


Crisis at the Border: A Personal Story and Practical Solutions

This month, as I have been hearing of the thousands of children fleeing Central America, the story of one mother and her murdered son keeps coming to my mind. About ten years ago, when I worked as an immigration paralegal while serving as a Jesuit Volunteer in Los Angeles, I met with a Salvadoran woman—I’ll call her María—whose son had just been killed in El Salvador. I wasn’t able to help her, but I promised that I would tell her story when I could.

Around 1985, Maria, a new mother, fled the civil war raging in her country. She fled carrying her baby Isaac with her and, after a treacherous journey, she reached Los Angeles. She had no choice but to live in the shadows, finding whatever work she could. She couldn’t apply for asylum because she knew that at that time, the US government was systematically rejecting the asylum claims of Salvadorans and Guatemalans (while routinely granting the asylum claims of Cubans and Nicaraguans for ideological reasons). At the time, our government supported the Salvadoran and Guatemalan regimes, while opposing the Cuban and Nicaraguan regimes. This prevented people like Maria from getting a fair day in court. Over the course of the wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, about 75,000 Salvadorans, mostly civilians, were killed by their government, and about 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly civilian indigenous Mayans, were killed or disappeared by their government. In Guatemala, the military admitted to razing 500 villages, purposely burning fields to cause widespread starvation. In El Salvador, a generation grew up finding tortured bodies of men, women, and children killed by the death squads on the streets each morning.

So, like countless Central American mothers, she survived in the undocumented world. She worked several jobs at a time, hoping to make a better life for herself and, most importantly, her children. Although she was able to bring in enough money to keep a roof over her family’s head and put food on the table, she didn’t have the capacity to protect them. When these child refugees were alone in their neighborhoods after school, the African-American and Chicano gangs started to attack the Central American kids. So the Central American kids began to band together to protect themselves, and quite soon, these groups morphed into more violent gangs that in turn preyed on their neighbors– the most well-known being the Mara Salvatrucha 13 and 18th Street gangs.

During this time, religious organizations were stepping up to demand that refugees not be deported to their deaths. In 1991, this resulted in the American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh settlement, which gave Salvadorans and Guatemalans a real chance for their asylum claims to be heard. Maria was able to get a work permit and start emerging from the shadows. However, the process was so slow that claims didn’t start being seriously adjudicated until around 2000, through another law, the Nicaraguan and Central American Adjustment Act (NACARA).        But before NACARA could have its intended effect of providing legal status to the Central Americans who fled their governments, white supremacist Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Taking advantage of this national tragedy, Congress slipped in draconian changes to the immigration system that had very little to do with the real threats of domestic terrorism. It stripped away most of the discretion judges had to decide whether a person deserved to stay in the United States and made a whole class of non-serious crimes for which probation and fines were the normal punishment into automatically deportable defenses.

Concretely, this meant that the same crime had a radically different punishment depending on if you were a citizen or not. A US citizen would be monitored by the criminal justice system for a little while. For the exact same crime, a non-citizen would be deported. Imagine two brothers, the older one who fled on his mom’s back as a baby, and the younger, born a year after she arrived in Los Angeles. Both are convicted of joyriding together. The younger kid might do a few months in jail, get a slap on the wrist, complete probation, and get on with his life. The older kid who fled on his mom’s back before he had any memories of El Salvador would be sent back to a country of which he had no knowledge. Quite possibly, all his relatives would be dead or gone, and he might not be able to speak Spanish. Very often, kids with no gang involvement whatsoever found themselves in San Salvador without the slightest clue as to how to survive. Many connected with the gangs because, again, the gangs gave them protection in their new environment. Now, gangs started to spread throughout Central America and Mexico as deportees started their own gang outposts, still centrally managed by gang leadership in Los Angeles. But unlike in the United States, law enforcement in Central America is essentially non-existent. While gangs in the US make life horrible for countless neighborhoods, they do not compete against the government for power and control. In Central America, they do.

While the NACARA application for her and Isaac was pending, and the gangs were spreading throughout the continent, Maria continued raising her son in a rough part of LA. He was friendly with the neighborhood boys who had joined a gang, but he never got involved. Isaac, 17 at the time, did something stupid—I forget the details, but it was something like simple theft or joyriding—and ended up in jail. While serving his sentence, he took advantage of the available programs and completed his GED. The facility allowed a graduation ceremony, complete with a rented satin blue cap and gown.

While a US citizen would have been released after those few months, as an immigrant, this conviction meant nearly automatic deportation. He was transferred to an immigration prison and was housed with members of the same gang that controlled his neighborhood. Representing himself without the assistance of a lawyer, like the majority of immigrants in detention, he pled with the judge for his life, telling him that he would certainly be killed if he were returned to El Salvador. The judge told him that he didn’t believe him, that he wasn’t credible. He was deported. When he landed in the airport, he made his way to his grandmother’s place–to family who were, more than anything, strangers to him. Members from a local gang were informed by their California contacts that Isaac was associated with a rival gang. Less than two days after arriving, he was fatally shot.

A few months before Isaac was deported and killed, Maria had finally received her permanent residency, her green card. This meant that for the first time in nearly 20 years, she could finally travel to El Salvador. So she traveled to the country she had fled in order to bury the son she had carried on her back so many years ago. She brought photos of her son along with his immigration papers, including the transcript of his deportation hearing. When returning to the US through Texas, because of these papers, she was detained for three days by immigration officials before finally being released.

As an American citizen who believes strongly in our Constitution and rule of law, I have never felt more powerless than I felt listening to her. She wanted to hold the government accountable for refusing to listen to the pleas of her son. I could offer her nothing. I sat in silence and grief with her as we looked at a picture of her son celebrating his GED, and then the pictures of this young man in his casket.

We can do better now. We can listen to the children fleeing for their lives, who are terrified by the prospect of returning. We can believe their accounts of the dangers they face in their home countries. The policy changes under consideration by President Obama and many Republicans and Democrats in Congress seek to fix the problem of this influx by limiting access to the courts and, in one proposal, allowing Customs and Border Patrol Agents to screen Central American children for possible refugee status. Imagine if you are a 10-year old Salvadoran girl who has been raped by the police in her country; are you going to immediately reveal your trauma to a police officer, or will you be too scared to show that you may have a claim for relief? If our country makes changes like this, we will be returning to the dark strategies of the 1980s, when we deported Central Americans not by giving them their day in court, but by refusing to hear them out.

To fix the immediate problem in a way that is consistent with our values of equal protection under the law, the government should do three things. First, it should significantly increase the number of immigration judges. Right now, 250 immigration judges each have an average of more than 10,000 cases. Increasing the number of judges will give them the time they need to consider all their cases, and processing time will be cut down by years.

Second, all children should have access to a lawyer. The current process is that an unrepresented child, sometimes as young as four, is called up to the judge, who tries to explain the law to the child, listens to the child, and then, in consultation with the government attorney, tries to decide what to do. On July 15, TRAC Immigration published a report analyzing data on unaccompanied children in immigration court, underscoring the need for representation. These statistics show that many children, for lack of an attorney who can tell their story, are being denied relief to which they may be entitled:

  • In almost half (47%) of the cases in which the child was represented, the court allowed the child to remain in the United States. The child was ordered removed in slightly more than one in four (28%) of these cases. And in the remaining quarter (26%) the judge entered a “voluntary departure” (VD) order.
  • Where the child appeared alone without representation, nine out of ten children were ordered deported — 77 percent through the entry of a removal order, and 13 percent with a VD order. One in ten (10%) were allowed to remain in the country.

Third, for Guatemalan children, many of whom seem to be coming from indigenous Mayan regions of the country, competent indigenous interpreters and legal assistants need to be available. Many of these children have a basic understanding of market Spanish, but cannot articulate the basis of their need for protection in Spanish. They need to have Mam, Quiché, Ixil, and other interpreters.

Ultimately, the answer to the new refugee crisis on the border is to support efforts for peace in these countries. But in the meantime, we need not further destroy our Constitutional principle of due process under the law.

Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent revolt of violent repression.
Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity.
It is right and it is duty.
Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980)


Pope Francis and a Closer Look at Argentinian Capitalism

Those who dismiss Pope Francis’ concerns about unfettered capitalism on the grounds that being from Argentina makes him naive need to brush up on their history. Paul Ryan has dismissed them on the grounds that “this guy is from Argentina, they haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina…they have crony capitalism in Argentina. They don’t have a true free enterprise system.” Larry Kudlow, economist and commentator, dismisses the Pope by saying, “I hope sincerely that the pope does not believe that his native Argentina was an example of capitalism. That was state-run fascism, and that was cronyism and stealing.”

Rather than being backwaters disconnected from the global economic system, the relatively advanced economies of the Southern Cone—Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay—were some of the first testing grounds of the extremist libertarian ideology that Kudlow, Ryan, and many others now promote. Living through Argentina’s transition to this form of individualistic capitalism and several subsequent economic crises puts him in an ideal position to understand the harm of idolizing this type of capitalism and warn against it.

Here’s a bit of background: Argentina’s neighbor Chile was one of the first to embrace this economic ideology. Starting from 1956, the US government provided 150 scholarships for young Chileans to study at the University of Chicago with Milton Friedman, the intellectual architect of neoliberal capitalism and a man deified by many rightwing libertarians. Students from other Latin American countries also came to study this economic model.

After carrying out a coup against democratically-elected Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973, General Pinochet gave free reign to the “Chicago Boys” to implement their economic program, free from any civil society dissent. These policies were soon implemented by the dictatorships in Argentina and Uruguay in the 1970s and 1980s, with their own neoliberal technocrats. Judged on the basis of friendliness to foreign investment, market stability, and integration into the global economic system, they were pronounced a success. The perceived economic success of South America was a significant factor leading to the promotion of a particular set of neoliberal economic policies that prioritized profitability for foreign investors.

Far from being seen as examples of “crony capitalism,” worldwide economic institutions including the IMF and World Bank saw in the “success” of the Southern Cone a model to be replicated throughout the world. (To be clear, this ideology is not the same as the generally pro-business capitalism of moderate Republicans of decades past. Those Republicans often believed that strong investment in public works and social capital, moderate regulations, a solid tax base, and a social safety net were compatible with, and indeed necessary for, a strong market-based economy. The neoliberal model was something quite new.)

Further, the success of this economic “shock treatment” (as Milton Friedman called it) can’t be separated from how it was implemented with supreme contempt for human dignity. These same countries were also innovators in the use of forced disappearance and torture—frequently by electric shock—as political weapons. The comparatively strong social safety nets in these countries were systematically weakened, and to speak out against extreme poverty became a crime. To work with the poor was often a death sentence for priests, nuns, catechists, union members, teachers, and students.

It is not realistic to pretend that the events in Argentina have nothing to do with the rest of the capitalist world. In particular, it is an undisputed fact that the United States government and big business were connected to this history—both the economic changes and the bloody repression. The exact extent to which the US turned a blind eye, was complicit in, or was the chief protagonist in the military and economic affairs of these countries is a matter of heated debate. But it is clear is that Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Santiago shared a common project in cooperation with Washington. These countries were far from backward third world regimes stuck in their ways—they were key protagonists in the creation of our current global economic system.

Pope Francis’ lived experience of this extremist economic ideology and what he experienced as a human being makes it impossible to dismiss him as simply naive. As a young lab technician, he met and became friends with Esther Careaga, an atheist feminist Marxist. They developed a deep friendship. In 1977, she was disappeared because of her Marxist ideals and her involvement in the Madres de la Plaza del Mayo, a group of mothers who protested for the return of their disappeared children:

Careaga was one of thousands of people who “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983, a bloody spree that stopped only after Argentina entered into a losing war with Britain in 1982 over the Falkland Islands. Victims were taken to secret camps, tortured and thrown from military planes – drugged but still alive – into the South Atlantic Ocean…Careaga had been taken to the ESMA Navy School of Mechanics – which doubled as a detention centre – where she was brutally tortured, and then flown to her watery death, along with two other Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and two French nuns who helped them…Bergoglio, ordained Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, was in shock. “I was badly pained, I tried to communicate with some relatives but I couldn’t, they were in hiding,” Bergoglio testified at the ESMA trial in 2010.

Rather than dismissing the Pope because of his experience in Argentina, United States Catholics smitten with free market ideology need to learn from him, and from the Latin American experience. They need to look at this interconnected global system as it actually exists, not as a reflection of the abstract ideal that exists only in their own minds. Pretending that Argentina isn’t relevant to the discussion is obscene.

But, more importantly, they need to understand that absolutizing any materialist system—whether neoliberalism or socialism—is dangerous idolatry. Uruguayan Jesuit theologian Juan Luis Segundo, writing in exile at the height of the dictatorships, suggested a new way of thinking about faith and ideologies that may be helpful. He said that faith is what we put out ultimate trust in, what we center the meaning of our lives around. And ideologies are the tools and techniques we use to actualize this faith. For example, a person may have faith that Christ is present in “the least of these” and so work to ensure that all people have access to food, water, clothing, health care, and human companionship, even in prison (Matthew 25). In many cases, free market tools may be the best to bring this about, while in others, state intervention will be necessary. In Segundo’s meaning, all ideology needs to be judged by its fidelity to one’s ultimate faith and used when conducive to that end, and reevaluated or discarded when it is not. In that sense, ideologies can be positive or negative. However, it gets dangerous when ideologies displace faith—when the specific means for accomplishing something are absolutized over the ultimate criterion. The prophets of unfettered capitalism have done just that—rather than recognizing that the proper role of the market is to serve humanity, they have idolized certain economic tools at the expense of human dignity.

Francis is not a Marxist because he refuses to absolutize anything except God and the building of the Kingdom of God. For the same reason, he is not a Capitalist. Instead, he looks at human reality. The Pope is not rejecting all the specific tools of market economies—he recognizes many can be quite useful—but he refuses to let anything displace the ultimate criterion that “as you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” Pope Francis wants us to unflinchingly and honestly look at the reality of the current economic situation. He wants us to judge whether this corresponds to our dignity as human beings. Finally, he is calling us to take action, similarly grounded in the real world, to change the situation. It is a challenge because we are called to lay aside our entrenched idolatries and prejudices, but it is a prerequisite for building a humane and humanizing economy that enables the sons and daughters of God to flourish.


In Defense of Sarah Palin

While Sarah Palin’s statement that “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists” is nauseating, at least she is not keeping silent about this war crime. One of the greatest catastrophes of the War on Terror is how we have first permitted the Bush-Cheney administration to define torture out of legal existence so as to torture with impunity, and then failed to make the Obama administration and Congress hold these torturers to account. Worse than Palin’s statement is that currently the CIA is obstructing the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s definitive 6,200 page report on torture, despite Chairwoman Senator Diane Feinstein’s public excoriation of the agency for its refusal to allow the American people to know the truth.

Sarah Palin may have spoken obscenely about baptism. But those of us who are baptized into the torture and death and life of Jesus Christ have remained too silent. St. Paul exhorts us to remember what our baptism means:

“Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.” Romans 6:3-5.

Jesus’ death was through torture, plain and simple. Each time a baptized Christian participates in the Eucharist, we proclaim that our life comes through the Resurrected One who is none other than the Tortured One.  This is a mystery. But what isn’t a mystery is that God did not enter our world in order to bring more torture. Rather, by his resurrection, he won a definitive victory over all torture. Instead of diverting our attention to a political has-been, we must redirect our attention to our baptism and the Eucharist, and then demand that our political leaders never again return to an official policy of torture.

While James Bond and 24 provide riveting entertainment and a mythology in which one individual can save the world through torturing, the ‘ticking time bomb’ theory is a far-fetched scenario. The evidence shows that those most likely to have high-level intelligence are the least likely to provide any useful information through torture.

But that is not to say that torture is ineffective. Quite the contrary. Torture has another more insidious purpose for which it is uniquely effective: it disconnects people from themselves, destroying their relationship with themselves, with their family, with their community, and with their society. In his magnificent book on the Chilean Church’s resistance under Pinochet, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, theologian William Cavanaugh writes, “Pain is the great isolator, that which cuts off in a radical way from one another. With the demolition of the victim’s affective ties and loyalties, past and future, the purpose of torture is to destroy the person as a political actor, and to leave her isolated and compliant with the regime’s goals…Wherever two or three are gathered, there is subversion in their midst.” Torture can destroy societies, entirely closing off normal ways of working through conflicts. A retreat into apathy may occur, or, conversely, state torture may serve as a singularly effective recruiting tool for ruthless insurgents and terrorists. When civil society is destroyed, isolation and terror remain.

In A Miracle, a Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers, Lawrence Weschler writes that there “are entire societies—entire polities—which might themselves be considered torture victims…When individuals are being tortured and everyone knows about it and no one seems able to do a thing to help, primordial mysteries at the root of human community come under fundamental assault.” Weschler details the torture methods used by authorities in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay during the so-called Dirty Wars: sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, isolation, mock execution, forced medication, temperature extremes, and psychological manipulation—the same techniques that US authorities would later use in the War on Terror (the rest of the world does not take seriously the attempted distinction between “enhanced interrogation” and “torture”). The United States, by being drawn into a situation in which violent assault on the personhood of others is justified and held up as a positive ideal, has become a tortured/torturing society itself. This harm extends far beyond the individual harm done to one admitted terrorist (waterboarded 186 times) or to dozens of detainees in Abu Ghraib.

We must also recognize that our government’s ability to cooperate internationally to protect the common good has been damaged. Because our government aggressively helped to dismantle a common consensus in international law—that the prohibition against torture is a preemptory norm always and everywhere to be enforced—it has lost significant standing to hold grave abusers of human rights to account. Nowhere is this more apparent than Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. Starting in 2002, Syria was one of the most common destinations for US-captured suspects to be interrogated in its extraordinary rendition program, and its uniquely brutal torture was an open secret. Now, Assad has plunged Syria into the abyss of a uniquely brutal civil war. In May of 2011, 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb was tortured to death. This was a “red-line” event for the Syrian opposition to Assad. But international action against Assad did not materialize when the preemptory norm being violated was just torture and intervention could likely have spared much suffering. Three years on, the world remains immobilized as it watches the death toll rise above 150,000 and more than 2 million Syrians flee their homeland. There is evidence that the Assad regime has tortured and executed about 11,000 detainees. In the past few days, video has emerged of a rebel group, ISIS, too extreme for al-Qaeda crucifying Muslims it deems treasonous. We cannot remain resigned to this state of affairs.

Rather than mock Sarah Palin, we must recognize that we have the power and responsibility as baptized Christians to confront torture and to rehabilitate our ability to act for good in the world. Martyred Salvadoran Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuria reformulated St. Ignatius Loyola’s classic questions, and requested that all of us ask “What have we, as a world, done that all these people should be crucified? What are we doing about their daily crucifixions? What can we do to bring the crucified people down from the cross?” We can’t let the media, academics, lawyers, and even friends and family members get away with contorting the truth about torture. Torture is not an effective method to prevent terrorism. It is a powerful way to destroy the bodies and spirits of people created in the image and likeness of God. But the last word is hope and resurrection—abundant life and an end to both waterboarding and crucifixion.


How to Create a Church of the Poor

“This is the hour of the poor, of the millions of poor throughout the earth. This is the hour of the mystery of the Mother Church of the Poor, this is the hour of the mystery of Christ above all in the poor.” –Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, December 6, 1962.

“How I would love a church that is poor and for the poor.” –Pope Francis, March 16, 2013.

As we close in on the end of the first year of Francis’ papacy, we are drawing closer to a Church of the Poor. We are finding unexpected beauty because Pope Francis is helping us explore the totality of what it means to be poor. Poverty doesn’t just have economic and ethical dimensions, but is at the heart of the sacramental mystery we are called to live. We follow a God whose decisive action in history was to become poor, to be with all of us, in the many types of poverty we all experience, but, particularly, socioeconomic poverty. To focus on social justice at the exclusion of the mystery and beauty of the Church is to deny the divinity of Jesus Christ, but to focus on the mystery and beauty of the Church at the exclusion of working for social justice is to deny the humanity of Jesus Christ.

When reflecting upon this, I came across a powerful speech given by Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro of Bologna during the first session of the Second Vatican Council. It had an electrifying effect on the listeners as they began to envision how a Church of the Poor could be created. Particularly for Latin Americans, it became a reference point for how to implement Vatican II. As it was then, today the speech is still spellbinding. (Note: this is my translation, based on a Spanish translation of an Italian text, graciously provided to me by Spanish-Latin American theologian Teófilo Cabestrero).

If we can draw any conclusion from the end of this session of our council, it is this: two months of toil and truly generous, humble, free, and fraternal searching, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, have led us to understand better what Vatican II should bring to the people of our time to illuminate their hearts with a light of truth and grace. What we should bring to them, without a doubt, is the intimate mystery of the Church as the “great sacrament” of Christ, the Word of God that is revealed, inhabits, lives, and acts among men and women.

However, we all feel that the Council has lacked something until now: many precious elements remain fragmented without having yet found a vivifying and unifying principle.

Where will we find that vital impulse, that soul, let’s say that fullness of the Spirit? Only through a supernatural act of obedience by each of us and of all the Council to a sign that is becoming increasingly clear and imperative. This is the hour of the poor, of the millions of poor throughout the earth. This is the hour of the mystery of the Mother Church of the Poor, this is the hour of the mystery of Christ above all in the poor.

I. First of all, I agree with what Cardinal Suenens asked about, and with the clarifications made yesterday by Cardinal Montini [later Pope Paul VI] about the purpose of this Council, the agenda of future work, the order and focus of issues, and, above all, the necessity of a doctrine De Ecclesia(…).

II. But the more specific purpose of my speech is to call attention, even more than has already been done, to an aspect of this mystery of Christ in the Church, which I think is not only perennially essential, but also of supreme current historical relevance. What I mean is that the mystery of Christ in the Church has always been—but today even more so—the mystery of Christ in the poor. Inasmuch as the Church, as the Holy Father John XXIII has said, is indeed the Church of all, today it is especially “the Church of the Poor.”

Reading the analytical index of the framework that was distributed to us yesterday, this gap startled me: in the matters that have been submitted or will be submitted for our consideration and discussion, this essential and primary aspect of the mystery of Christ has not been taken into account in the conscious and explicit way that our historical context makes necessary: the aspect foretold by the prophets as an unmistakable sign of the consecration and messianic mission of Christ (Is 61:1-2 and Lk 4:18); the aspect magnified by the same mother of the Savior in the incarnation of the Word (Lk 1:52-53); the aspect promulgated by the birth, childhood, hidden life, and public teaching of Jesus (Lk 1-4); the aspect which is the fundamental law of the Kingdom of God; the aspect that conditions the entire flow of grace and the life of the Church, from the apostolic community until the hours of the best interior renovation and expansion outside of the Church (Acts 2: 44-45, 4:32-35; 2 Cor 8:9-14); the aspect, ultimately, which will be sanctioned for eternity with reward or punishment in the glorious coming of the Son of God at the end of times. (Mt 25:31-46.)

III. Because of this, in concluding the first phase of our Council, I think we have a duty to solemnly recognize and proclaim that we will not do our duty, nor will we know how to understand the will of God and the hope of men and women for this Council, if we do not center the doctrinal teaching and work of salvation of the Church on the mystery of Christ in the poor and the proclamation of the Gospel to the poor.

This is the most clear, most concrete, most relevant, and most imperative duty of a time when, more than any other, the poor do not seem to be evangelized and their hearts seem distant and foreign to the mystery of Christ in the Church. And this in an era in which, on the other hand, human consciousness is questioning and investigating with anxious and dramatic questions the cause of poverty and the destiny of the poor as individuals and as peoples who are becoming newly conscious of their rights. This in an era in which the poverty of so many (two thirds of humanity) is an affront to the excessive wealth of the few, and in which, as never before, poverty is feared and despised by the instinct of the multitudes.

IV. But by pointing out—as others have done—the problem of the evangelization of the poor, I do not intend to add yet another topic to the very long list of topics that the Council has to study.  I feel the duty to say that we will not respond to the deepest and truest exigencies of our time, including our great hope of promoting the unity of all Christians—but rather elude them—if we let the Council deal with the problem of evangelization of the poor of our time as one topic added to the other topics. We are not dealing with one topic, but, rather, in a certain sense, the only topic of Vatican II.

If, as I have said several times—including yesterday—in this hall, the subject of this Council is the Church, we can and should clarify that the formulation most in conformity with the eternal truth of the Gospel and the most appropriate for our current historical situation is this: the theme of the Council is the Church inasmuch as it is particularly the Church of the poor, of all the millions and millions of the poor individually, and of the poor peoples of the whole earth collectively.

V. With the principal and immediate object of the Council specified in these terms, let me make some concrete proposals in view of the work of the next session:

1) That in the work that the Council undertakes from now on, the formulation of the evangelical doctrine of the holy poverty of Christ in the Church find not only a place, but the primary place: the mystery of the divine election that has chosen poverty as a sign and a mode—sacramentum magnum, dico, in Christo et in ecclesia (Eph 5:32)—a preferential sign and mode of the presence and operative and salvific force of the Word Incarnate among men and women.

2) That in our work we give priority to the development of the evangelical doctrine of the eminent dignity of the poor as members of the Church, because they are the members in whom the Word of God Incarnate preferentially hides the radiance of his glory to the end of times.

3) That in all our work and in the new direction of our framework—as many urge—we always make clear and present the very close ontological connection that exists between the presence of Christ in the poor, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist that constitutes and provides the foundation of the Church, and the presence of Christ in the hierarchy that teaches and pastors the Church. These are three aspects of one sole mystery.

4) That in every practical problem of the renewal of ecclesiastical institutions and forms of evangelization, we always keep in mind and strive to clarify the historical connection between sincere and consistent recognition of the eminent dignity of the poor in the Kingdom of God and the Church, and the realism of the possibilities and limits of evangelization in our time, including new forms and methods to men and women of our age.

5) If we are obedient to the call of Providence that makes us affirm and seek the primacy of evangelization of the poor, it will not be difficult, with the help of the Spirit of the Lord and of Mary, when considering each practical and doctrinal issue, to find an “authentic” mode of fully presenting—without any trimming—God’s eternal and immutable Gospel. This can be presented in such a way that there will be a union of the human family just as the Father and Christ are one. It will touch hearts and fill with hope the people of our time, especially the poor in the Church of Christ, who being rich became poor in order to enrich us with his grace and glory. (2 Cor 8:9.)”

For further reading, Teófilo Cabestrero’s article, The Primacy of the Poor in the Mission of Jesus and the Church: The Influence of Vatican II in the Episcopal Magisterium at Medellin, Puebla and Santo Domingo, is excellent. It is available by freely downloading Getting the Poor Down from the Cross.


Michael Argenyi’s Victory and How Universities Should Respond

Twenty years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, some exceptionally talented people are still not able to use their talents to heal. Frequently it is the attitude of “normal” people that prevents this, not the actual condition of the people these laws seek to protect. As the Supreme Court put it, “Society’s accumulated myths and fears about disability and disease are as handicapping as are the physical limitations that flow from actual impairment.” Catholic professional schools have a unique opportunity to combat this discrimination and thereby serve the core of their mission. They are in a position to recognize that by welcoming deaf and hard of hearing people and people with disabilities, they can contribute to a more vibrant and humanizing society for all.

The recent victory of deaf medical student Michael Argenyi is a game-changer for medical schools and other professional schools. These schools have been some of the most resistant to opening up their programs to people who are deaf and hard of hearing or have disabilities. Until now, the courts have done little to address anti-discrimination laws within these schools, focusing their efforts on K-12 schools and undergraduate programs. Argenyi v. Creighton should make every professional school question their policies.

Michael Argenyi was born deaf and from a young age learned to find very effective ways to communicate, including the use of a cochlear implant and cued speech, culminating in his graduation from Seattle University with a 3.87 GPA. After being admitted to Creighton University Medical School, another Jesuit institution, he was surprised when he was refused the accommodations that had permitted him to succeed throughout his life. Because Creighton denied them, he felt he had no choice but to withdraw; however, he did not give up on his dream of becoming a pediatrician. He filed a lawsuit against the school, and after many years of contentious litigation, finally prevailed, with a federal grand jury finding that Creighton had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This past December, the judge ordered Creighton to readmit Argenyi and pay for the necessary accommodations, so he should be well on his way to becoming a doctor as he had dreamed.

Medical schools often argue that doctors must be able to hear and speak to their patients. However, the essential function a doctor must be able to perform is to communicate effectively, with or without reasonable accommodations. This hit home when I was in Mexico with my mother recently. She injured herself and needed to obtain an emergency minor surgery. We were fortunate to be treated by a wonderful local doctor who didn’t speak English, to complement my mother’s complete lack of Spanish. I stepped in as an interpreter and was able to ensure that there was excellent communication between the doctor and patient. My mother commented afterwards that the communication with the doctor was some of the best she had ever had because of his attentiveness, patience, and willingness to answer her questions. His skills as a doctor—not as a speaker of English—came through in a critical time.

The number of doctors who themselves are members of the deaf and hard of hearing community or have disabilities is vanishingly small. While medical interpreters can provide a wonderful service, the widespread absence of doctors who themselves are fluent in sign language and other methods of communication also cuts down on the quality of care that the deaf and hard of hearing receive. A doctor who knows from life experience what it means to be deaf can be a profound gift at these times of struggle for families. They can also help advocate for patients who are not provided the services that they need.

Patients who are deaf and hard of hearing are frequently denied any way of communicating with their doctors and nurses. At one of the most critical times in life, deaf and hard of hearing patients find themselves with no way to communicate with the people who hold their life in their hands. Despite being required to provide “effective communications,” health care providers frequently choose not to do much to meet such a basic obligation. To cite one example, the Henry Ford Health System failed to provide sign language interpretation for seven weeks to a patient in one of its residential facilities. Medical errors caused by failures such as these claim the lives of deaf patients every year.

One of the most unfortunate things about this particular situation was how Creighton University—which, on the whole, is a wonderful school—fought tooth and nail against this young student. Rather than seeing a talented person who is full of compassion and a has a proven track record of success, some faculty members and officials only saw perceived burdens. Instead of trying to avoid serving this student, the university could have reflected on how educating this young man was fully consonant with its Jesuit identity and mission.

As schools across the country consider how to proceed in the wake of Argenyi, I hope that this is not a conversation confined to the general counsel’s office about new tactics of abdicating responsibility under civil rights laws. Instead, administrations should sit down with their student services, strategic planning, and general counsel’s offices to determine how best to open up their schools to people in the deaf and hard of hearing community and those with a wide range of disabilities.

Jesuit institutions in particular should engage their offices on Jesuit mission and identity, recognizing that, fundamentally, this isn’t about complying with rules and regulations but about educating and respecting the dignity of the whole person, allowing more people to use their skills and talents to heal the world. Jesuit institutions can use the words of Superior General of the Jesuits Fr. Adolfo Nicolás as their guide:

In the understanding of St. Ignatius, the principal function of a leader is to help the members of a community grow to become the living presence of God in the world. In the Ignatian concept of service, there is always the very important fact that growth leads to transformation. If there is no transformation, the process has failed.

How will they transform themselves in order to promote the inclusion of people with all types of differences and disabilities in the ministry to serve the world?


Believing in the God of Life or Serving the Idols of Death

“Either we believe in the God of life, or we serve the idols of death”—Oscar Romero

In the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, November 16, 1989, a group of armed men forced their way into the rectory of the University of Central America in El Salvador. The elite special forces of the Salvadoran military dragged six Jesuit priests—the country’s most credible voice for peace—from their rooms and executed them, leaving their bodies in the back garden. They burned as many of the Jesuits’ books as possible, and, to show their contempt for the rector who had put his intelligence to use for the service of others, splattered Fr. Ellacuria’s brains on the grounds. They also murdered the housekeeper, Elba Ramos, and her young daughter, Celina, who had spent the night in the rectory, thinking they would be safe there.

Twenty-four years later, in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, November 14, 2013, a group of armed men forced their way into the offices of Pro-Búsqueda, an association dedicated to finding children forcibly disappeared during the civil war.  These children were often adopted by members of the military who had massacred their families or adopted abroad under false pretenses. Pro-Búsqueda was founded by Fr. Jon de Cortina, SJ, who would have been the seventh Jesuit priest killed in 1989 if not for the fact that members of the community where he was pastoring refused to let him return to the city that night. This organization stepped in to begin to stitch together families broken apart by systematic terror.

Now, these armed men proceeded to torch the irreplaceable legal files containing evidence of war crimes. On their way out, they took several computers containing critical evidence and the personal contact information of the hundreds of families that had contacted Pro-Búsqueda in the hopes of reuniting with their families. While the precise culprits are not yet known, it is almost certain that they are affiliated with the same dark forces behind the repression in the 1970s and 1980s. For anyone who lived through this time, or who grew up without their disappeared loved ones, it seems clear that the attack is intended to evoke the state terror of that era.

The attack comes after recent developments in the contestation over whether impunity will continue. In the negotiations of the 1992 Peace Accords that ended the civil war, the military and the FMLN guerillas agreed to a National Reconciliation Law that provided a general amnesty, but specifically did not grant amnesty to those responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity, or to those named in the UN Truth Commission Report. However, in March 1993, within a week of the publication of the Report—which attributed 85% of the crimes to state-allied agents, 5% to the guerillas, and 10% to unknown culprits—the legislature, controlled by the party of notorious death squad leader Roberto D’Aubisson, immediately passed a new Amnesty Law which pardoned all crimes. For more than 20 years, this legislation has prevented the domestic prosecution of war crimes, including the murders of Oscar Romero, the four American churchwomen, the Jesuits and Elba and Celina Ramos, and the tortures, rapes, kidnappings, and massacres that left about 75,000 Salvadorans dead and forced over a million into exile. Far from being punished for their actions, the perpetrators still move among Salvadoran society with impunity. The involvement of right-wing politicians and military and commercial leaders in the most notorious crimes is an open secret.

But, over the past few years, it has started to look like this amnesty law may be challenged, allowing the truth to be revealed:

  • December 10, 2012: The Inter-American Court on Human Rights ruled that the Amnesty Law cannot be used to protect those who massacred more than 1000 men, women, and children at El Mozote.
  • August 27, 2013: In the United States, Colonel Orlando Montano was sentenced to prison on immigration fraud charges for lying about his role in the murder of the Jesuits. He now may be extradited to Spain to undergo prosecution for his part in this crime.
  • September 21, 2013: The Constitutional Chamber of the Salvadoran Supreme Court agreed to hear the Central American University’s challenge to the constitutionality of the Amnesty Law.

In the midst of these positive developments, worryingly, on September 30, 2013, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Jose Luis Escobar, abruptly closed the Archdiocese’s Tutela Legal, the church’s legal aid organization that was handling the most important massacre cases. Initially his office stated that the office no longer had any reason to exist. Subsequently, the Archbishop has backtracked somewhat and is in negotiations with well-respected individuals to determine how the work of the organization can continue and how to safeguard all evidence.

But the theatrical attack on Pro-Búsqueda shows that the dark forces within Salvadoran society are willing to use any means necessary to keep the truth hidden. The flames, the pre-dawn silence, the destruction and disappearance of evidence, the darkness—powerful rituals of terror that had fallen into disuse are being revived. These rituals—along with others including torture, systematic rape, and forced disappearance—were used in previous decades to fragment Salvadoran society in order to consolidate the power of the military dictatorship. The attack—years after the military and death squads allegedly lost their power—is an attempt to immobilize those who are still seeking to reconstruct their society and to reunite with their family members. Upon hearing the news, my good friend who grew up with the palpable absence of the disappeared wrote:

They want to burn our memory, and keep the truth hidden, and, in the meantime, pain keeps tearing apart the hearts of the victims. The facts, the barbarity, the sorrow remains latent in the hearts and minds of all those who still have not found their disappeared family members.

She saw clearly that this act was in the service of the idols of death. But Catholics believe in the God of Life. We participate in the liturgy of the Eucharist to proclaim the ultimate reality that the Resurrection, not death, has the last word. Our historical memory is that we belong to one family that extends throughout the earth and throughout the generations. Through the Eucharist celebrated down the ages, we are heirs, and have shared the same table as Jesus and Peter, Mary and Martha, Paul and Augustine, Ignatius Loyola, Ignacio Ellacuria and Celina Ramos, our Salvadoran friends’ murdered siblings, children, and parents, and our immediate friends and families. In the global sanctuary of the universal church, we know to Whom we belong.

As in 1989, our prayers must be with the people of El Salvador. And, as in 1989, our prayers must be converted into action to serve and support our sisters and brothers struggling to heal their society.