Solidarity and Voting: Vote Your Conscience, Not Your Privilege

Donald Trump continues his scorched earth campaigning, this time by sinking to new lows: he attacked the father of a fallen US soldier who was killed in Iraq, along with the Gold Star mother of that very same soldier.  The repudiation of his attacks by other Republicans was swift and harsh, but, this is just latest in a slew of examples that demonstrate that Donald Trump does not have the temperament, empathy, or disposition to be President of the United States.

The #NeverTrump movement continues to gain steam, but the #NeverTrump movement is also joined by a robust #NeverHillary movement as well.  The “never” camps primarily consist of voters who feel left out of both major political parties—these voters feel they must vote for a third party as a way to “vote their conscience” or in order to lodge a “protest vote” against what they view as unsatisfactory options. This type of strategic voting, however, is a privilege that many Americans cannot afford.

The choice to vote for a third party candidate as an exercise of principle entails an inherent risk that your more-preferred major party candidate may lose the election. For many of the most vulnerable, the outcome of this election will carry very tangible and potentially catastrophic results that would make taking such a risk unacceptable. Read More


Replace Just War Theory with Nonviolence—What about Syria and Genocide?

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A historic conference recently wrapped up at the Vatican that addressed the continued relevance of the traditional Catholic doctrine of just war theory.

Just war theory outlines the moral requirements surrounding the decision to use force and the ethical limits on using force justly. The decision to use force requires a just cause, right intention, a reasonable probability of success, and proportionality. It must be undertaken by a legitimate authority and only as a last resort.

The Church’s criteria for the justness of the conduct during the war include: all military action must be necessary to achieve the just end, all actions are done for the right intention, the military actions demonstrate proportionality in the good achieved as compared the harm inflicted on the enemy, and innocent civilians should be protected from unnecessary harm (it is always immoral to directly and intentionally target the innocent). It is never about the ends justifying the means; the means must be as pure as the end being sought. Despite the carnage inherent in war, the Church has taught that certain moral obligations must be maintained for a war to be just.

Instead of seeking to modify this traditional Catholic doctrine, the conference pushes for an encyclical advocating for nonviolence to replace just war theory entirely. The participants at the conference argue that there is no longer such a thing as just war and “suggesting that a ‘just war’ is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict.”

Supporters of this theory claim that instead of limiting the conditions for war, just war theory has often been used to exacerbate conflict and provide a pretext for aggressive, interventionist actions. Of course, moral rules cannot be eliminated simply because they are ignored or abused at times; Church teaching explicitly rejects that type of consequentialism. Ultimately, they contend that war is not the solution to stopping conflicts of any type and that non-violent means have been used with great success throughout history to resolve conflicts and overturn oppression.

To this observer, the call to systematically dismantle just war theory when Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has viciously butchered hundreds of thousands of his own citizens and Daesh is engaging in the ruthless slaughter of thousands of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in territories they control sounds completely out of touch with reality.    Read More


You Can’t Defend Religious Freedom and Ignore Injustice toward Muslims

In the past few years, there have been a number of high-profile conflicts and debates surrounding religious freedom in the US. Specifically, Americans have debated the proper scope of what that freedom entails and whether or not our government has been trampling upon that right. Catholics have often been at the center of these debates. And one can’t help but notice that these have been primarily focused on particular cases that affect Christians—over conscientious objections to things like the HHS contraception mandate and same-sex marriage. Yet recent anti-Islamic actions and statements should cause these advocates of religious freedom, if their convictions are sincere and universal, to address Islamophobia in their advocacy.

Leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has spoken about his willingness to close down mosques that he evidently deems anti-American or somehow linked to an enemy of the United States. Even congressman Peter King from New York, often seen as a hardliner on such matters, refused to go as far as Trump, but argued that what is said and what happens inside Mosques need to be monitored by the United States government. Presidential candidate Ben Carson, meanwhile, has argued that Muslims who refuse to renounce the “tenets” of their faith should be ineligible for the presidency and that the principles of Islam are incompatible with America.

We are also seeing it in callous responses to the refugee crisis, one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades. People fleeing ISIS terrorists and Assad’s barrel bombs have been denounced as invaders, terrorists, jihadists, and diseased. Trump said these refugees could be a “trojan horse” for ISIS.

This anti-Muslim sentiment is not, however, only an American problem. Great Britain’s David Cameron has also indicated his willingness to close mosques. According to Trump, this is what inspired him to make the statement that the United States should be investigating and forcefully closing places of worship. Read More


Catholic Universities Should Be Pro-Union

For one month Teaching Assistants at the University of Toronto and York University in Toronto were on strike in the hopes of gaining better wages, fairer hours, more robust tuition assistance, and improved benefits. About two weeks ago, CUPE 3902, the union that represents the striking Ph.D and Master’s students at the University of Toronto, rejected a potential agreement with the universities because the proposed deal does not, in the words of CUPE 3902 spokesman Craig Smith, “achieve the gains that are necessary for long-term financial security as student workers.” This past week, however, the strike officially ended with the University of Toronto and CUPE 3902 agreeing to go to binding arbitration to end the labor dispute.

The striking students in Toronto garnered little international attention, and, unless you read the Canadian press (as I sometimes do), you probably did not hear about the strikes at the most prestigious university in Canada. However, the striking members of CUPE 3902 (there are 6,000 employees represented by the union) were a shining example of the power of unions in an age where once-mighty unions are under siege.

This is especially true when it comes to unions that represent educators in the United States. With flawed documentaries like Waiting for Superman pointing the finger at those pesky teachers’ unions for keeping our low-income children stuck in failing schools, and with governors across the country (like potential presidential hopeful Scott Walker) proudly taking their big stick to unions, unions are under attack in ways never before seen. According to USA Today, fewer than 50% of teachers are currently represented by unions, and the trend-line is pointed down. With the retirement of baby-boomer era teachers and an increase in charter schools, unionization is in a downward spiral.

What’s even more alarming, however, is the mere 23% of college/university level educators who are represented by unions. Unlike in Canada where graduate students and adjuncts are represented by unions, in the United States the vast majority of graduate students and adjuncts are unrepresented, making them the most vulnerable among educators when it comes to exploitation and unjust wages.

70% of all educators at colleges and universities in the United States are adjuncts who receive no healthcare benefits, cannot file for unemployment, and often teach 3 or more courses a semester just to live above the poverty line. They are the underappreciated educators who teach the introductory classes that help to shape and sharpen the minds of freshmen and sophomores at prominent colleges and universities. Yet, they are among the most vulnerable educators; they are hired and fired based upon university budgets and have no employment security despite the fact that universities are moving away from hiring full-time tenure-track professors and becoming reliant upon adjuncts to teach undergraduates.

Nevertheless, these adjuncts are not alone. Teaching assistants are the other group that is enlisted to teach introductory courses for little pay and minimal-to-no benefits. Or, in many cases, the professor plays the role of the great scholar while the TA plays the role of servant—grading papers, answering emails, dealing with the students. At some of the larger public universities, TAs teach as much as 60% of the introductory classes, while earning stipends that put them well below the poverty line. Some have healthcare benefits, but others do not. When benefits get slashed for graduate students, like for graduate students at the Catholic University of America who lost healthcare coverage for dependents—healthcare for which they had to pay out of pocket—there is no recourse.

Extending far beyond the scope of secular and public schools, there are egregious un-Catholic efforts of Catholic universities and colleges to prevent the unionization of teaching assistants and adjuncts at their schools.   Many Catholic schools like Duquesne University, Manhattan College, and Saint Xavier University have openly fought against unionization of adjuncts, arguing for religious protections to National Labor Relations Board rules. Despite clear Catholic teaching in support of unions and the right to unionize, Catholic universities across the country are combatting efforts of adjuncts and graduate students to unionize.

Workers have a right to unionize and to collectively bargain for wages and benefits. This is what the Catholic Church teaches. US Catholic universities and Catholic students need to stand up for the rights of their educators. We only need to look north to see students in Toronto on the front-lines of this fight for bettering the conditions of our educators. Their example is one that we can emulate.


A Bittersweet Canonization: Junipero Serra and His Mixed Legacy

Kids growing up in California spend their 4th grade history classes learning about the history of their state—from its inception as a Spanish colony to the Bear Flag Revolt to becoming the modern-day 8th largest economy in the world. A major part of the curriculum is devoted to the Spanish Mission system—a system of 21 religious and military outposts that stretch from San Diego up to Sonoma (just north of San Francisco) started by the “Columbus of California,” Blessed Junipero Serra. Pope Francis has recently announced that the Franciscan Father Serra will be canonized in September 2015 during the Holy Father’s trip to Washington DC.

In announcing his decision, Pope Francis described Father Serra as a man with saintly virtues, who exemplified piety and perseverance in his determination to evangelize the Native Americans who inhabited California. The PBS series The West describes Father Serra’s devotion in the following way: “His Herculean efforts subjected him to near-starvation, afflictions of scurvy, and hundreds of miles of walking and horse riding through dangerous terrain. Moreover, he was notorious for his mortifications of the flesh: wearing heavy shirts with sharp wires pointed inward, whipping himself to the point of bleeding, and using a candle to scar the flesh of his chest. His sacrifices bore fruit for the missionaries; by his death in 1784, the nine missions he had founded had a nominally converted Indian population of nearly 5,000.”

Pope Francis proclaimed Serra to be “the evangelizer of the West in the United States.” Reactions from California have been sharply divided between those who support the Pope’s decision to canonize Father Serra and those who see the canonization as a serious error.

Gregory Orfalea, a biographer of Serra, called the Franciscan missionary an example that Pope Francis wants to put forward for others to follow—he was a former academic who left his lofty ivory tower for the dangerous life of missionary work. Orfalea also claims that Serra modeled his behavior on the gospel of love: Serra was never motivated to go to the “new world” for wealth or glory; rather, he went for God.

Steven Hackel, Professor of History at the University of California at Riverside and a biographer of Serra, thinks of Serra as one of the “founding fathers” of the United States due to his contributions to the State of California. He explains, “Every region had its missionaries who were founding fathers of another sort.”

While Serra has his enthusiastic defenders, there are those that have strongly voiced opposition to Pope Francis’ decision. “Serra was no saint to us,” bluntly stated Ron Andrade, director of Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission. Andrade notes that from the start of the Mission system, which Serra started, to the end of the Mexican rule of California, over 90% of the Native population was lost.

How involved Serra was in the widespread mistreatment and loss of life of Native Americans and the destruction of their cultures and customs is hotly debated. Ruben Mendoza, coordinator of California mission archaeology at California State University, Monterey Bay, argues that Serra fought against Spanish authorities who pushed for the enslavement of Native Americans and defended them against mass killings. However, ample evidence points to his complicity in a deeply unjust system.

By law, all baptized Native Americans were segregated from the unbaptized and put under the absolute authority of the Franciscans in the missions. Missionaries used the military to “recruit” Native Americans at gunpoint for conversion. They were whipped, chained, and imprisoned for showing any disobedience towards the missionaries. Father Serra justified the beatings of the Native Americans, writing “that spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows appears to be as old as the conquest of [the Americas]; so general in fact that the saints do not seem to be any exception to the rule.”

If these “converts” fled the compound, they were hunted down. A Native American who converted and ended up in the mission could expect to live only another ten or so years. As one Franciscan noted, the Indians “live well free but as soon as we reduce them to a Christian and community life… they fatten, sicken, and die.”

Despite the harsh criticisms, Thomas Rausch, Professor of Theology at Loyola-Marymount University in Los Angeles, warns against judging Father Serra with our 21st century values—we have to view him as an 18th century missionary whose work was spreading the Gospel. Nevertheless, it is difficult to overlook the role the mission system (and Father Junipero Serra) played in the destructive European treatment of native peoples. Should he, and by extension the system he created, be celebrated with sainthood? Pope Francis thinks so; as for me (a native Californian and a Catholic), the best way to describe this decision is “bittersweet.”


Torture and the Utilitarian Default

As a Ph.D. candidate in political science, I have been offered the opportunity to teach my own introductory courses. This past semester, I had the pleasure of teaching Introduction to Political Theory; it is a course that I have taught before, but every class is different because the individual students are different. However, one thing never changes: when the class reaches the end of the semester and we discuss utilitarianism and Kantian ethics, students almost always gravitate towards Bentham and JS Mill; they embrace the idea of sacrificing one for the benefit of the many. I take advantage of the overused example of the bomb about to go off in Time Square, with the FBI holding the individual who planted the bomb. I pose the question to my students, “Should the FBI torture the bomber to get the information?” The students respond, “Of course!” “If it works to get valuable information to save the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people, then why not do it?!” argue some of my students.

Given that this occurs in the context of Mill versus Kant, I respond with a Kantian argument that torture cannot ever be justified because it fails to treat human beings with the dignity that they deserve as human beings. Students tend to not buy the Kantian argument. While David Cloutier at Catholic Moral Theology has rightly pointed out the “libertarian default” that is typical of college students, I have found another disturbing default—the utilitarian default. What matters is if something works, not if it’s right or wrong, just or unjust; what matters is if it provides utility to the community, not if it’s potentially destructive to human rights or the dignity of people; what matters is if the cost-benefit scale tips in the right direction.

The utilitarian default is what is so disturbing about the release of the torture report, and the various responses to it. On the side of delusional conservative defenders of various torture techniques, there is Dick Cheney, who emphasizes that what matters is that the techniques worked to keep the United States safe from future terrorist attacks. Despite the fact that innocent people were tortured, Cheney claimed that he had no problem with the use of torture because it helped America achieve her objectives in the war on terror. On the other side seem to be self-congratulatory liberals who seem content to point out that torture did not work, something many liberals have been arguing for years, and that this is the lesson to be learned from the torture report. It is not working, it did not work, it could not work, so there was no point in doing it because it has damaged our credibility—utilitarian arguments all around.

While there have been some who publically point to the moral aspects of the torture debate, they have been few and far between. In fact, a majority of Catholics support the use of torture because of the potential benefits they believe it can deliver. This is highly disturbing, because the Catholic Church teaches that torture is intrinsically evil; moreover, the Church, along with St. Thomas Aquinas, teaches it is never about the ends justifying the means, but the means must be as pure as the end being sought. The problem with torture is not that it has degraded America’s standing in the world (though that is a problem, of course), rather, the most significant problem is that it is degrading to the human person; it is an open assault on the dignity of human life as a whole. It degrades the torturer as well as the tortured. The United States of America tortured innocent people. The United States of America implemented a policy of breaking the religious faith of detainees by using religion as a weapon in psychological warfare.

The problem with torture is not that is has damaged America’s image; the problem is that the United States, Americans, and American Catholics became complicit in acts of evil because the perceived costs were seemingly outnumbered by the apparent benefits. The ethical dilemma was swept aside because what mattered was the end result, no matter how we got there. Unlike some American exceptionalists who believe that America is exceptional, there are some of us who are exceptionalists because we believe that America ought to be exceptional. She ought to be the beacon of hope and be that shining light.

Some may ask, why is it morally wrong to torture suspected terrorists in order to get crucial information which might save the lives of innocent civilians, but it is perfectly acceptable to kill terrorists with targeted drone strikes? This issue is a controversial and complicated one that requires further exploration and analysis, and, while this article cannot do full justice to the ethical dilemma, the problem must be addressed. The Catholic Church has laid out Her ethical roadmap for what constitutes just actions in war—jus in bello. The Church’s criteria for the justness of the conduct of the war include: all military action must be necessary to achieve the just end, all actions are done for the right intention, the military actions demonstrate proportionality in the good achieved as compared the harm inflicted on the enemy, and innocent civilians should be protected from unnecessary harm.

The use of drones to target specific individuals who are identified as a direct and serious threat to US civilians or military personnel, such as top al Qaeda commanders, does a good job of passing the jus in bello test, if the strikes are discriminate. Msgr. Stuart Swetland compares the use of drones to police attacks on kidnappers: “In fact, the intent is to sever the command, control and communication (CCC) ability of these terror groups by striking at their key leaders and command posts. Each terror leader is a walking CCC nerve center vital to the enemy’s ability to continue their threat to innocent human life. The intent of any attack in these cases is morally similar to a police attack on kidnappers in a hostage situation who refuse to surrender and continue to threaten others. There seems to be a right intention here.” His analysis is persuasive. Torture, on the other hand, can never be justified under just war theory and Catholic teaching, nor could it be justified under the international laws of war (which is quite similar to Catholic just war theory). It is neither a civilized nor ethical means for achieving the ends it is designed to achieve.

In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the Brother Zossima, before he dies, urges his followers to take responsibility for the sins of all men because “as soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that it is really so and that you are to blame for every one and for all things.” We are all culpable and all have equal share in the sins that are committed. We must all ask for forgiveness and work to ensure that such evil never happens again.


Syria: The Peace That Never Was

The papacy of Pope Francis has been filled with great hope, joy, and exuberance. Catholics have this giddy feeling that we have something truly special in Pope Francis. It appears that this great and holy man can do anything. He has done so much good that it’s easy to forget what might be the biggest failure of the Pope Francis “revolution.” In September 2013, Pope Francis, The Vatican, and the USCCB urged Catholics to pray for peace in Syria. They urged governments not to rush into a conflict in Syria because violence could not stop violence. What was needed was prayer for the people of Syria and prayer to stop the slaughter that was going on during the civil war.

The United States elected not to intervene on behalf of the rebels fighting Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad, instead opting for negotiations to stop Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The Vatican and USCCB praised the decision to not pursue a course of military intervention. Pope Francis’ Secretary of State hailed the decision as a victory for peace in Syria.

However, there has been no peace in Syria. Instead, there has been death and destruction with no end in sight. While Western allies have begun rendering assistance to the mainstream rebels fighting Assad (too little, too late), the Vatican and Pope Francis have remained silent about the plight of the Syrian people who continue to face mass atrocities at the hands of Assad. Pope Francis, who has condemned ISIS and said they must be stopped, has not called on the international community to stop Assad’s crimes against humanity and for the removal of his murderous, criminal regime. John Allen, Associate Editor of Crux, wrote that the only “accomplishment” of the prayers for peace in Syria is that Assad has been allowed to remain in power, in part because of the efforts to oppose Western intervention in Syria.

A recently published article in Der Spiegel demonstrates the stomach-turning and gut-wrenching violence that the people face daily. The violent bombings of homes and town squares by Assad’s military forces, as described by the heroic efforts of journalist Christoph Reuter in his article “Waiting to Die in Aleppo,” only further demonstrates the abject failure of the Vatican’s (and USCCB’s) position on intervention in Syria. The indiscriminate slaughter of families, the demolishing of whole blocks with bombings, and the utter devastation caused to one of the most historic cities in the world by Assad’s forces will not be stopped by prayer alone. That much should be obvious at this point.

With all the attention that ISIS has garnered (and we certainly should be concerned with ISIS), Assad’s crimes no longer seem to capture our national attention. However, this article by Reuter should put Syria and the plight of the Syrian people who live surrounded by the sounds of death at the hands of Assad back on our radar. And the reality is that ISIS is unlikely to be defeated if Assad retains power, given how many Syrians justifiably hate him and his brutal regime. This article—and the brutality it describes—should put Syria on the front burner for the USCCB, the Vatican, and Pope Francis.

Pope Francis’ failure to defend human rights and condemn the murder of innocent civilians whose only crime is living in cities not controlled by Assad is a moral failing. The time has come, Pope Francis, for you to take a stand in favor or human rights and to chastise those who would violate the rights of men, women, and children by committing mass atrocities. The time has come for you to explain that we have a responsibility to protect these innocent victims. When Pope Francis speaks, Catholics and men and women of goodwill listen. The Vatican has a powerful role to play in international relations; it ought to help provide a moral compass for the rest of the world. The Vatican needs to exercise that power. It is time for the Pope to raise his voice in defense of those who cannot defend themselves.

Daniel Petri is a PhD student in Politics at Catholic University and a graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies.