Why Pro-life and Pro-choice Advocates Should Find the Common Ground

In his first major interview as pope and in his papacy as a whole, Pope Francis is giving us a unique opportunity to hit the reset button on our approach to abortion. He is rejecting the culture war mentality of many members of the hierarchy. At the same time, he has shown no intention to change the Church’s doctrine on this issue. Despite conflicting opinions on the right and the left, this isn’t an irreconcilable paradox. Rather, he is showing that there is an opportunity for both pro-life and pro-choice people of good will to leave our fortified castles and start working together in the “field hospitals” that surround us:

“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.”

For the pro-life movement, which has focused most of its energies on seeking legal restrictions on abortion, this is an invitation to reexamine its deepest foundations. The most solid foundation is not that abortion is legal, or that it is condemned by Humanae Vitae, or even that it is a sin. Rather, the pro-life movement should be primarily rooted in the belief that God’s fundamental desire is that all should have life and have it in abundance.

Stemming from this fundamental belief in the dignity of human life, the biggest problem seems to be the disturbing frequency of abortion, rather than the legality or number of restrictions placed on abortion. From this perspective, working with avowedly pro-choice people on areas of common cause to reduce the incidence of abortion can and should be seen as pro-life activity. Of course some will view this as getting our hands dirty, but this is precisely what the Good Samaritan did. He got his hands dirty and saved a life. Who were the Samaritans? A despised group that Jews were urged by their leaders to avoid at all costs.

Today, too often, pro-lifers grossly mischaracterize those with pro-choice beliefs. They are vilified as dangerous, since they are only interested in ensuring that abortion is as widely available as possible. As a women’s college graduate and civil rights lawyer, I am privileged to know countless pro-choice men and women who center their lives on the promotion of women’s dignity, who get into the trenches and live on the peripheries, and spend most of their talent and treasure on work far removed from abortion activism. I recognize with gratitude the accomplishments of many people in this group have played a role in achieving:

  • In just a generation, they helped establish that women are entitled to equal protection under the Constitution;
  • They have helped drag “domestic violence” out of the shadows and silence, showing us that it isn’t a private matter, but an unacceptable crime;
  • Many are consistently strong advocates for people with disabilities to live their lives with autonomy, dignity, and respect, e.g., not seeking to “cure” autism, respecting deaf culture, and recognizing the desires and dreams of people with Down syndrome.
  • Many lend support to countless other efforts to improve the lives of individuals and communities, pursuing greater economic, immigrant, racial, and environmental justice;
  • Many know how to engage with, learn from, accompany, and be accompanied by women and men throughout the world,, often placing service to others above material wealth.

And they also happen to support access to safe and legal abortions.

They do so for many different reasons—some because abortion is simply not a moral issue for them. Some support it because they feel that each woman is in the best position to make her own decision, based on her own religious and ethical beliefs, as illustrated by the first abortion case the Supreme Court agreed to hear, Struck v. Secretary of Defense. In this case, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the ACLU represented a Catholic Air Force Captain challenging a policy that required single women to abort or be discharged (adoption wasn’t permitted). Ginsburg was prepared to argue that Captain Struck had the right to follow the dictates of her faith, which made abortion impossible, but the Air Force settled before she had the opportunity to do so.

Some support continued legalization because they do not believe that prohibition or further restrictions are an effective, let alone the most effective, way to lower the abortion rate. Throughout history, women have had abortions regardless of its legality—it is not a new problem.  Some remember what it was like before Roe v. Wade and have seen too many women suffer or die from unsafe clandestine abortions. Others see a disturbing lack of correlation between strict abortion laws and low abortion rates. As an illustration, despite having some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the hemisphere, between 20% and 40% of pregnancies in Argentina end in abortion, and 30% of maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortions, which is about triple the world average. In the United States, about 18% of pregnancies end in abortion.

It is ridiculous to pretend that a huge stumbling block between the pro-choice community and Catholic doctrine doesn’t exist. But pro-life Catholics should not think that by working alongside pro-choice advocates, their ultimate doctrinal position on abortion will somehow be called into question. Rather, Catholic pro-life activists should be willing to energetically work with pro-choice activists when their interests coincide, as they very often do.

Both pro-life and pro-choice advocates should work together for the following specific policy changes, which have enjoyed a history of support from many pro-choice advocates, as well as many in the pro-life camp:

1.       Make sure that detained women, whether in civil immigration detention, awaiting trial, or serving their sentences, are not shackled when they give birth. There is now pending legislation to stop this practice in DC.

2. By passing the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act, ensure that the approximately 32,000 women who become pregnant due to rape each year do not need to have anything to do with their rapist if they decide to raise their child.

3. Ensure that all pregnant workers have access to accommodations, such as not being required to lift more than 20 pounds (especially when previous heavy lifting may have caused a miscarriage) or using the bathroom when needed. The courts have so twisted and distorted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act that the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is now necessary.

There is a very real possibility that working together will do more to reduce the incidence of abortion than the current culture war strategy. While the intent of pro-choice advocates may never be expressed as an effort to reduce the incidence of abortion, nevertheless their good intent to further the dignity of marginalized women may have just that effect.

Pro-life extremists need to end what Pope Francis rightly called an “obsession.” For decades, they have been partners with many pro-choice extremists in creating a Manichean war zone in which doctrinal purity is prized above all else, even over the very goals that they claim to embrace—life in abundance, and the dignity of women. They have commandeered resources for this zero-sum game—resources that could have been spent in improving the conditions of life for all women so that abortion becomes much less common. They have made it dangerous for the plurality of Americans who are morally uncomfortable with abortion but are against further restriction of abortion to step forward into this ideological wasteland.

Pro-life and pro-choice advocates should start working together and getting to know each other and working towards understanding the experiences and beliefs that have brought them to their respective positions without needing to agree with one another—in order to start transforming this battlefield into a field hospital that we can all enter. Here we will find a middle ground, rather than being forced into one camp or another. As a result, there is a huge opportunity for all men and women of good will to put their deepest held beliefs into action without needing to compromise those beliefs.


Breaking: General Efrain Rios Montt Convicted of Genocide in National Courts of Guatemala

The Maya Ixil community, with the support of the Guatemalan community, and the international community, has just won a monumental achievement in the development of international human rights law. Thirty-one years after the Guatemalan military wiped more than 500 indigenous villages off the map, General Efrain Rios Montt, the head of state at the time of the worst violence, has been successfully prosecuted for genocide by the country’s own equivalent of the Department of Justice. The trial has been an amazing labyrinth of procedural manipulation, but, at the end of the day, Guatemala–at times nearly a failed state–has set an historic first as the first country to prosecute genocide in its national courts. One of the most common criticisms of international human rights law is that by circumventing local courts, it lacks legitimacy. Today, a group of courageous men and women who have been waiting over 30 years for their truth to be acknowledged, have given the entire world an example to follow. Today the memory of martyred bishop Monseñor Gerardi, thousands of church workers, and, most importantly, tens of thousands of people whose names are lost to history shines brightly. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The genocide was allowed to occur in large part because of the silence of the international press. Villages burned in silence. Today, with this verdict announced, there is a very real chance of civil unrest or even violence. We didn’t keep our eyes on Guatemala in 1982, but let’s do it in 2013.  For coverage, check out the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala and riosmontrial.org, or follow Xeni Jardin’s excellent twitter feed.


Pope Francis Begins to Address the Sexual Abuse Crisis

On Thursday, for the first time since his election, Pope Francis addressed the sexual abuse crisis:

Vatican City, 5 April 2013 (VIS) – This morning the Holy Father received in audience Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A communique released by that dicastery reads that, during the course of the audience, various issues pertaining to the Congregation were discussed. In particular, the Holy Father recommended that the Congregation, continuing along the lines set by Benedict XVI, act decisively with regard to cases of sexual abuse, first of all by promoting measures for the protection of minors, as well as in offering assistance to those who have suffered abuse, carrying out due proceedings against the guilty, and in the commitment of bishops’ conferences to formulate and implement the necessary directives in this area that is so important for the Church’s witness and credibility. The Holy Father assured that victims of abuse are present in a particular way in his prayers for those who are suffering.

These words are consistent with his earlier outright dismissal of the US hierarchy’s approach, which sought to avoid scandal by shuffling priests from parish to parish.  Pope Francis was direct in his criticism as he stated, “this is stupid, because in this way, the priest just carries the problem with him in his backpack” (Sobre el Cielo y la Tierra, my translation.) It is good that this problem is being discussed so quickly, but as St. Ignatius reminds us, “love ought to be expressed more in actions than in words.”

I am hopeful that this represents his commitment to side with the victims. We now wait to see what concrete steps will be taken. While the victims must be the center of the Church’s concern, that can only authentically be the case if the Pope, Cardinals, and Bishops demonstrate absolute courage in tackling this problem at all levels. All can agree that the priests who actually committed these crimes have betrayed their vocations, but those who have covered up these crimes have likewise betrayed their vocations. A “no tolerance” policy must extend beyond the priests who abuse the victims and encompass bishops and cardinals who have looked the other way.

Cardinal Bergoglio criticized the “corporative spirit” that led to this crisis. I hope that he now, as Pope Francis, has the courage and strength and ability to command a new “corporative spirit” that always focuses on the victims, on this cross. This will mean a great loss of power for the complicit cardinals and bishops and other authorities, and it will not make the past suffering disappear. But it will mean a return to a Church that has its eyes centered on the Crucified and Resurrected One.

I pray that members of the hierarchy who have participated in the cover-up will find themselves converted by Jesus’ earliest apostles, the women who, when all had abandoned him at the cross, stayed with him, like Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles. These same women, at the tomb because of their love and grief, were the first witnesses of the Resurrection. Addressing the sexual abuse crisis as it needs to be addressed will turn the Church upside down, but ultimately it will emerge better able to serve the God of life who chose to resurrect the Crucified One.


Pope Francis: Side with the Victims and Heal This Church

The week before Pope Benedict announced his resignation, I found myself at my parish on both Saturday and Sunday without quite managing to go to Mass. I did facilitate a workshop with a good friend on Saturday and attended yet another planning meeting on Sunday, but didn’t take the few steps upstairs to the sanctuary, where a good friend was presiding. Walking home, I realized I didn’t make it to the sanctuary because I didn’t feel reconciled to the Church, and therefore not prepared to participate in something as significant as the Eucharist. I realized that typically when I’m not feeling reconciled, it is connected to something within myself, and I address it through reflection, seeking a resolution with the person with whom I have a conflict, speaking with good friends, or making use of the sacrament of reconciliation. Then I can be fully present to the Eucharist.

But in this case, the obstacle was the weight of newly compounding revelations of how leaders of the Church hierarchy—all the way up to John Paul II and Benedict XVI—have covered up violent sexual assaults on children for decade upon decade, choosing to protect fellow clerics rather than the Body of Christ. This criminal cover-up has fragmented our church and likewise calls for reconciliation so that our community throughout the world can truly be present to the Eucharist.

I quickly recognized (with the help of good friends and honest priests) that I do belong in the sanctuary, but that part of my presence should be directed to using whatever voice I have to invite the hierarchy itself to repentance. So I am trying.

I am hopeful that Pope Francis will take the opportunity this Holy Week to ask for forgiveness on behalf of the hierarchy, and that in the coming weeks we will see concrete actions that will begin to heal the Church. In his first Angelus address, he spoke of human resistance to asking for forgiveness:

God never, ever gets tired of forgiving us!…The problem is that we get tired, we don’t want to, we get tired of asking forgiveness. He never gets tired of forgiving, but we at times, we get tired of asking forgiveness. May we never tire, let us never tire of it! He’s the loving Father who always forgives, who has a heart of mercy for all of us. And even we can learn to be merciful with others.

Let us hope that Francis will never get tired of asking for forgiveness for the crimes of the Church against its most vulnerable members.

Los Angeles

In this context, we need to face up to the recent developments in Los Angeles. In late January, Cardinal Roger Mahony, the retired Archbishop of Los Angeles, finally lost his battle to hide files that provided further evidence of his brazen failure to protect the faithful. These new revelations were painful to me because the Los Angeles Archdiocese has held a special place in my life ever since I had the privilege of volunteering with immigrant survivors of sexual, physical, and emotional violence. Placed as a paralegal at a Salvadoran community center in Los Angeles, I explored my faith through helping women tell their stories of how they were molested, raped, stalked, and beaten by trusted family members. Being connected to the Church community gave me the strength to stay present to them, allowing me to witness their courage as they fought to create futures for themselves and their children that would reflect their dignity as human persons. One day, my client Xiomara, who had just received her green card through the immigration provisions of the Violence Against Women Act, brought me to La Placita Olvera to share a celebratory lunch. In the 1980s, this plaza and its church, Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles, became a sanctuary for Central Americans fleeing repressive regimes that indiscriminately killed and disappeared several hundred thousand men, women, children, and babies. It embodied what it means for the Church to take care of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. In this place, talking with Xiomara about the new future opening up for her, I was tangibly connected to the Body of Christ.

So when I saw how Cardinal Mahony had actively protected a priest who preyed on undocumented children while publically acting as a protector of immigrants, I felt nauseous. Records made public by the courts and published by the LA Times solidified my disgust:

[T]he memos written in 1986 and 1987 by Mahony and Msgr. Thomas J. Curry, then the archdiocese’s chief advisor on sex abuse cases, offer the strongest evidence yet of a concerted effort by officials in the nation’s largest Catholic diocese to shield abusers from police[.]

One such case that has previously received little attention is that of Msgr. Peter Garcia, who admitted preying for decades on undocumented children in predominantly Spanish-speaking parishes. After Garcia’s discharge from a New Mexico treatment center for pedophile clergy, Mahony ordered him to stay away from California “for the foreseeable future” in order to avoid legal accountability, the files show. “I believe that if Monsignor Garcia were to reappear here within the archdiocese we might very well have some type of legal action filed in both the criminal and civil sectors,” the archbishop wrote to the treatment center’s director in July 1986.

The following year, in a letter to Mahony about bringing Garcia back to work in the archdiocese, Curry said he was worried that victims in Los Angeles might see the priest and call police. “[T]here are numerous — maybe twenty — adolescents or young adults that Peter was involved with in a first degree felony manner. The possibility of one of these seeing him is simply too great,” Curry wrote in May 1987.

Reading this, I felt a tremendous disconnect between my lived experience of a church that incarnates itself within the most painful realities of its people, and a church that uses its privilege to evade accountability at all costs.

Mea Maxima Culpa

On February 4, HBO aired Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, a documentary of the sexual abuse cover-up leading to the highest reaches of the Vatican. It is framed by the courage of four deaf men who unsuccessfully fought for decades to obtain justice for themselves and over 200 children sexually abused by Fr. Lawrence Murphy of Milwaukee’s St. John’s School for the Deaf. In his review, Andrew Sullivan writes that “the detail I cannot quite recover from is that he picked out for abuse those deaf boys who had parents who could not use sign language – so that even if the boys had the courage to say what had happened to them, their parents would not understand.”

Even though the now-adult deaf victims went to the police, the district attorney, their archbishop, and Rome, Murphy was never arrested or defrocked. The case was presented to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the 1990s. While he initially ignored requests to take action against Murphy, eventually a canonical trial was begun. But when Murphy personally asked for clemency from Ratzinger due to his poor health, the Cardinal intervened to halt the proceedings against him. Murphy remained a priest until his death.

In 2010, when the sexual abuse scandal erupted in Europe, Cardinal Angelo Sodano—who as Dean of the College of Cardinals presided over the Conclave that elected Pope Francis—addressed new evidence of the cover-up at the highest levels by telling Pope Benedict XVI, “The people of God are with you and do not allow themselves to be impressed by the petty gossip of the moment.” As of this writing, the hierarchy at the highest levels still refuses to accept full accountability for these wounds to the Body of Christ, instead proffering an endless stream of excuses: it is a result of the cultural tumult of the 1960s and 1970s; it is the fault of gay priests; it is blown out of proportion; it is an attack on the church, since others also prey on children; or it is only the responsibility of individual priests, and not their enabling superiors. But long before the inaction of Mahony and Ratzinger, the church hierarchy had been put on notice that this was a problem that could not be ignored. Since the 1940s, church authorities have known of the crimes of priests:

I myself would be inclined to favor laicization for any priest, upon objective evidence, for tampering with the virtue of the young, my argument being, from this point onward the charity to the Mystical Body should take precedence over charity to the individual, […] Moreover, in practice, real conversions will be found to be extremely rare […] Hence, leaving them on duty or wandering from diocese to diocese is contributing to scandal or at least to the approximate danger of scandal. –Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald, 1947

In 1963, Fr. Fitzgerald met personally with Pope Paul VI to warn him of this threat to the Church. Fifty years is enough.

Facing up to the Scandal

Paul writes, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” 1 Cor 11:27-29. We most often read his warning to mean that we shouldn’t receive communion if we haven’t gone to confession or continue to persist in committing the same sin. This interpretation isn’t all bad, but it doesn’t get at the power of Paul’s argument. Paul is talking about something much deeper than whether I got into a fight with my mother or forgot and ate meat on a Friday during Lent, and then failed to go to confession on Saturday afternoon.

Rather, he is exhorting us to make sure that we, as the entire Body of Christ, are living in honest, right relationship with one another as a community. If we aren’t, we shouldn’t pretend that we’re honoring Jesus’ sacrifice, or even really participating in it: “I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you…So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?” 1 Cor 11:18-22. Today, our universal church is like the assembly in Corinth, with divisions and factions motivated by self-interest and self-protection. In Corinth, the poor were humiliated when they went hungry. Today, victims of abuse and their families are those who are being humiliated.

I do not believe that the hierarchy engaged in cover-up in order to enable criminal activity or to extend the suffering of children. I take the hierarchy at its word that its secrecy has been an attempt to avoid “scandal.” But this is a response based on shame and fear, on the all-too-human instinct to hide and “hold the truth shackled in injustice” (Rom 1:18). It is not a response based on the freedom we have as members of the Body of Christ. We need to understand what scandal really is. Paul tells us that we shouldn’t avert our eyes from skandalon. The better response is to proclaim its reality: “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block (skandalon).” 1 Cor 1.23.

My hope is that Pope Francis will not avert his eyes or become immobilized. As a person formed by St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, he was brought face to face with the sin of his society and world and then his own personal sin during the first week of his retreat as a Jesuit novice. The purpose of this week was not to make him fall into immobilizing shame and despair, but to experience that beyond the absolutely real evil that he has become aware of, grace, life, and redemption ultimately have the last word. The week was designed to give Francis (and everyone who has completed the exercises) the strength to act with compassion and honesty in the very worst of circumstances.

As this Holy Week closes, I hope that Francis will use this strength to pray, perform penance, and engage in concrete actions to begin to heal these wounds of the Body of Christ, caused by the criminal behavior of priests against our most vulnerable members, and exacerbated by the unwillingness of bishops, cardinals, and popes to look upon this injured body with honesty.

As a Cardinal, he stated:

When [pedophilia] happens, we must never turn a blind eye. You cannot be in a position of power and destroy the life of another person. In the diocese it never happened to me, but a bishop once called me to ask me by phone what to do in a situation like that and I told him to take away the priests’ licenses, not to allow them to exercise the priesthood any more, and to begin a canonical trial in that diocese’s court. I think that’s the attitude to have. I do not believe in taking positions that uphold a certain corporative spirit in order to avoid damaging the image of the institution. That solution was proposed once in the United States: they proposed switching the priests to a different parish. It is a stupid idea; that way, the priest just takes the problem with him wherever he goes. The corporate reaction leads to such a result, so I do not agree with those solutions.

Now is his time to unequivocally place himself at the side of the victims, to prohibit dioceses from spending money to hide abuses, to hold criminals accountable, and to institute a “no tolerance” policy for cardinals, bishops, and all others in positions of leadership who are anything less than fully transparent.


Pope Francis and the Dirty War: Why His Role Then Matters Today and Reasons for Hope

The media has been full of stories about Pope Francis’ alleged complicity with the junta that ruled Argentina between 1976-1983. Some have claimed that, as the young Jesuit Provincial of Argentina, he was complicit in the kidnapping, torture, and imprisonment of two Jesuit priests at the junta’s most infamous torture center. (Fr. Tom Reese and Eduardo Peñalver and their commenters give excellent run-downs of this controversy.) For many years, both Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics believed that the then-provincial had denounced them. Yorio went to his grave believing this, and his family members still maintain this position. However, according to the New York Times in a statement issued March 20, Father Jalics wrote he that he “tended to believe that we were the victims of having been reported…By the late ‘90s, however, it became clear to me after many conversations that this assumption was unfounded.” It now seems clear that the worst charges can be rejected.

However, exploring Pope Francis’ actions or failures to act during Argentina’s Dirty War is entirely appropriate. Although Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi, SJ lashed out against “anti-clerical left-wing elements” for raising questions about Pope Francis’ role during this time, the fact is that during this period, members of the Argentine hierarchy and many priests were complicit in the torture, disappearance, and murder of 30,000 Argentines. Here’s the testimony from Argentina: Nunca Mas [Never Again] about Catholic priest Cristian Von Wernich, who is now serving a life sentence for his crimes:

The three ex-subversives who were still alive were taken out. They were thrown on the grass, the doctor gave them two injections each, directly in the heart, with a reddish poisonous liquid. Two died but the physician left all three for dead. They were loaded on to a van belonging to the unit and were taken to Avellaneda. We went to wash and change our clothes because we were bloodstained. Father Von Wernich left in another car. We immediately went to the Police Headquarters where Chief Inspector Etchecolatz, Father Von Wernich and all the members of the group involved in the operation were waiting for us. Father Von Wernich saw that what had happened had shocked me, and spoke to me telling me that what we had done was necessary; it was a patriotic act and God knew it was for the good of the country. Those were his very words … (Testimony of Julio Alberto Emmed, file No. 683.)

The priest returned several times; on one occasion he ordered me to remove the blindfold from my eyes, and when I refused to do so, he removed it himself. He told me he came from the parish church of Nueve de Julio in the Buenos Aires province. I once overheard Christian Von Wernich reply to a detainee who was begging for his life to be spared that ‘the life of men depends on God and your collaboration’. On another occasion he came to me and touching the hair on my chest smiled and said, ‘They burned the hairs …’ I also heard him defend and justify tortures, acknowledging that he had on occasion witnessed them. (Testimony of Luis Velasco, file No. 6949.)

And here’s a quote from Cardinal Juan Carlos Aramburu, the archbishop of Buenos Aires during the Dirty War:

In Argentina there are no common graves… Everything was recorded in the regular fashion in the books. The common graves belong to people who died without the authorities being able to identify them. Disappeared? Let’s not confuse things. You know that there are ‘disappeared people’ who live quietly in Europe.

Mainstream human rights activists in Argentina view Aramburu, along with Cardinal Raul Francisco Primatesta, as having been complicit with the crimes of the regime. This regime threw tortured, still-alive political prisoners out of helicopters over the Rio Plata. It imprisoned pregnant women, tortured them during their pregnancy, waited for them to give birth, killed the mothers, and gave the babies to childless military families. About 150 Catholic priests, along with thousands of other Catholics, were victims of the regime. The Argentine hierarchy did not fight to find out what happened to them after the regime was thoroughly defeated in 1983, something that Church leaders did in other countries. We don’t need to be “anti-clerical left-wing elements” to support those who demand accountability for these crimes. Minimizing these crimes as something that happened in the 1970s and 1980s is obscene, for any Christian, or any human being.

Perhaps the past is the past, but as a young adult, I am the age that the victims of the Dirty War were, and now the age of many of the children who were stolen from their parents—my generation, throughout Latin America is struggling through the residue of these crimes today.  Because of the work of human rights activists, millennial Argentines like Maria Eugenia Sampallo Barragan, raised by “adoptive” parents who were part of the regime that murdered her parents, have found out the truth of their origins, have demanded accountability, and are being reunited with their biological families, or what is left of them. Through the truth and reconciliation process, they are able to start knitting back together the social and family fabric that was destroyed in the torture chambers they were born into.

Given this context, I am encouraged by the initial reactions to Pope Francis from several of the leading human rights activists and theologians who have made defending the Church of the Poor their life’s work, including two of the most prominent founders of liberation theology, Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino, as well as Nobel Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel. These men have never kept silent in the face of the crimes against humanity committed in Latin America in the name of a cruel and blood-thirsty God.

Leonardo Boff, the most well-known liberation theologian to be sanctioned by the Vatican, is generally happy to criticize the Vatican. A former Franciscan priest, he is surprisingly hopeful:

Why did Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio choose the name Francis? I think it’s because he realized the Church is in ruins because of demoralization due to the various scandals that have affected the most precious thing it had: morality and credibility. He avoided all spectacle in the figure of Pope. He didn’t extend both arms to greet the people. He remained still, serious and sober, even frightened, I would say. One only saw a white figure who greeted the people affectionately. But he radiated peace and confidence. He showed his mood by speaking without official-sounding rhetoric, like a pastor speaks to the faithful. It’s worth mentioning that he’s a pope who comes from the Great South, where the poorest of humankind are and where 60% of Catholics live. With his experience as pastor, with a new view of things, from below, he will be able to reform the Curia, decentralize the administration, and give the Church a new and credible face.

Regarding the role of Pope Francis in the Dirty War, he said, “Until now they haven’t found anything concrete. To the contrary, (he) saved and hid many people persecuted by the military dictatorship.’

Jesuit priest Jon Sobrino, who was away from El Salvador when six of his companions, their housekeeper, and her young daughter were murdered by the Salvadoran army at the University of Central America, rarely minces words. Also a founder of liberation theology, and criticized by the Vatican as well, he is not as optimistic as Boff, but he recognizes a certain progression and development in Pope Francis:

It doesn’t seem right to talk about complicity, but it does seem correct to say that in those circumstances Bergoglio had a distance from the Popular Church that was committed to being with the poor. He wasn’t a Romero—celebrated for his defense of human rights and assassinated in the exercise of his pastoral ministry. I don’t have sufficient knowledge and I say this fearful I may be mistaken. Bergoglio was not like Monsenor Angelelli, the Argentine bishop assassinated by the military in 1976…

On the other hand, since 1998, as the archbishop of Buenos Aires he accompanied in different ways the sectors mistreated by the large city, and with concrete acts…For some, perhaps the greatest virtue and strongest force that may carry forward his current ministry as Pope is that Bergoglio is a man open to dialogue with the marginalized, from their pain.

Perhaps most importantly, within a day of his election, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, a torture survivor who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his work documenting the crimes of the regime, defended the new pope, telling Radio de la Red that “perhaps he didn’t have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship…Bergoglio was no accomplice of the dictatorship. He can’t be accused of that.” And, to underline the point, this past Thursday, Pope Francis received Perez Esquivel in an audience.

In 1976, Jesuit Provincial Jorge Bergoglio and Bishop Oscar Romero, in Argentina and El Salvador respectively, had not found the courage to speak out against the atrocities of their governments. They both were wary of the social involvement of the Jesuits they were responsible for. In 1977, when his friend Rutilio Grande, SJ was murdered for working with the poor, Romero found his voice, and it cost him his life a few years later. As Provincial, Bergoglio never found a strong voice.

As a bishop and then archbishop, he didn’t find the same voice as other bishops who played pivotal roles in demanding a full accounting for the crimes perpetrated against the people of their countries. Cardinal Paolo Evaristo Arns helped to bring down his country’s dictatorship through his work producing Brazil: Never Again. Bishop Juan Gerardi was bludgeoned to death, so disfigured that his corpse was identified by his episcopal ring, two days after his office published Guatemala: Never Again.

However, it is clear that Bergoglio later began to find his own voice, one dedicated to dialogue and the defense of the poor. In a fascinating book of conversations between Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka and himself, Sobre El Cielo y La Tierra, he says:

Approaching things in black and white is a dangerous tendency that always privileges conflict over unity…Humility…is what levels the path for an encounter; to privilege conflict only puts obstacles in the path. And the spirit of God is revealed in this leveling. George Handel beautifully expresses this at the beginning of The Messiah, in a baritone voice with the text of Isaiah: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, so that the path may be made smooth in order to prepare the way of salvation.” Seeking paths is a prophecy towards unity.

How much of this rejection of black and white comes from his own struggles making sense of his country, his church, and himself in light of the repression? To how he may have reacted with rigidity and confusion as a young Provincial? Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti writes of this time that:

The truth is that urgencies

Although ferocious

Always end up deforming us

And in this way they wear away our presumptions and pride

Or, on the contrary, they grow like tumors

And in this way hatred and love are concentrated in us

In this hard geography that is the Manichaeism of the heart

The purpose of regimes of torture is to distort and break down societies, to isolate and alienate, to make it impossible to tell up from down, night from day, friend from enemy, to deform us all. But, through addressing this dark night, and with the mercy of God, men and women can be born anew. We know that the voice of Jesuit Provincial Bergoglio and Cardinal Bergoglio was sometimes silent, and to some, this was an inexcusable silence in the face of terror. But, we know that as the years wore on, he began to find a voice very much his own.

The question now is what Pope Francis’ voice will be. We have real reason to hope that Francis’ presumption and pride have been worn down and that he has learned to refuse the geography of division. While it is not one of prophetic denunciation like Angelelli’s or Romero’s or Gerardi’s, it may be that his voice of dialogue is what we need to cut through the polarization and fundamentalism that tears apart our church and our world today.


Efraín Rios-Montt on Trial

Yesterday in Guatemala City, Efraín Rios-Montt, the former military dictator of Guatemala went on trial for his role in the genocide that claimed the lives of 200,000 men, women, children, and babies.

Here is a small glimpse into what life was like under his rule:

Then they took me to another door, and there were planks along the top of that doorway. Have you seen the crucifixion? Well here, very nearly, was Jesus Christ; there was a man, there was half of a man—the most horrendous thing I had ever seen—a man totally disfigured. He already had worms, he had no teeth, no hair, his face was disfigured, he was hanging, I mean, by his hand. (Woman quoted in Guatemala: Never Again.)

The start of this trial represents a huge victory for the many human rights activists who have fought for decades for justice. It is a victory for the Archbishop’s Office for Human Rights, which through the Recovery of Historical Memory Project has worked to reveal the truth of this era. It also is a victory for the memory of Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was bludgeoned to death—so disfigured that his corpse was identified by his episcopal ring—two days after his office published Guatemala: Never Again.

It is a victory for human rights law. According to Reuters, “This is the first time a country has prosecuted an ex-head of state in a national court on [charges of genocide and crimes against humanity].” That this prosecution is occurring in a national court is truly groundbreaking. Sometimes human rights law can seem amorphous and fake, not connected to the day-to-day realities of local and national governments. This case shows that human rights violations also have a place in our normal court systems.

But, most especially, it is a victory for the indigenous Mayan men and women who (since civilian rule returned in 1986 and peace accords were signed in 1996) have been determined to be witnesses, testigos, martyrs to the truth. I had the immense privilege of working with the Guatemala Accompaniment Project more than a decade ago, when it was anything but clear that we would see this trial happen. By the request of Guatemalans returning from exile, since 1995, accompaniers have gone to Guatemala—from Guatemala City to hamlets far removed from passable roads—to be with the men and women who want the full truth to be known. So much of this work was exceptionally slow—after fast-paced life in the US, learning the rhythm of the countryside. Some of it was painful—seeing communities tear each other apart due to the divisions that the military had exploited decades earlier. Some of it was joyous—kicking out the ceremonial first kick of a soccer tournament (that my village won!).

I can’t predict the outcome of this trial and don’t need to.  But, reflecting upon the day I first arrived in Guatemala in 1998 and found myself at the 40-day commemoration of Monsenor Gerardi’s martyrdom, I see the trust in the process that these extraordinary Guatemalans have come to embrace:

Trust in the Slow Work of God

Above all, trust in the slow work of God

We are quite naturally impatient in everything

to reach the end without delay

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way to something

unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress

that it is made by passing through

some stages of instability-

and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.

your ideas mature gradually – let them grow,

let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on,

as though you could be today what time

(that is to say, grace and circumstances

acting on your own good will)

will make of you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new spirit

gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing

that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself

in suspense and incomplete.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.


A Better Response to Mental Illness

The events in Newtown snapped me back to the first few months of the onset of my sister’s severe mental illness, when I learned that mental disorders were not individual diseases, but family ones, community ones. All of a sudden, I was twelve again, reading the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and locking up knives stored in a heavy-duty red toolbox in my family’s pantry, wondering why our neighbors were nowhere to be found…

There is simply no adequate explanation or response to the murder of twenty children and six teachers—the loss can never be replaced. Nothing will drown out the silence of the new graves in Newtown. But, in the aftermath, we need to take action. One step we can all take is to confront our fear of serious mental disorders, a fear that destroys individuals, families, and communities. Families who struggle to care for their mentally ill children, siblings, or parents should not have to live in the shadows. When they are no longer isolated, it makes us all safer.

The descriptions of the Lanza family’s social isolation terrified me: nobody could really say anything specific about what was going on with Adam, and his older brother Ryan hadn’t seen him in two years. I know what this isolation feels like, how dangerous it can be, and how unnecessary it is.

Growing up, I learned that when someone in your community got sick, you held a car wash to raise money, watched the kids, walked the dog, or offered rides. But more than anything, you baked hotdishes (Minnesotan for casseroles—usually involving tater tots or tuna and often accompanied by a green Jello salad). You knew that when someone in your neighborhood was in the hospital, the rest of the family needed sustenance. You got together with other neighbors and worked things out so that the family didn’t also need to think about feeding themselves. Whether it was leukemia, a stroke, a heart attack, a death—the hotdishes were a constant. Even if you just dropped it off frozen, this homemade food was a tangible reminder of the communion and community that you shared. It was different than the Eucharist celebrated on Sundays, but nevertheless, it was work of human hands that united you to the larger community.

So, when my sister was hospitalized for a mental illness, I was confused and disoriented by the absence of our neighbors. Where were the hotdishes? Mind you, she had not hurt or threatened anyone. Where was the network of support that I had seen mobilized so often before? From the DSM, I learned that her mental disorder had a biological component, just like cancer or a heart defect. Why was it being treated differently then? This community suddenly disappeared into the woodwork. Not out of malice, but out of fear, out of guilt, and out of shame. At the precise moment we needed the most support, our community withdrew, and we received the message that we should remain silent.

Somehow, whether by grace or by the innate belligerence of adolescent girls, or some combination thereof, I recognized that the absence of hotdishes was complete and total BS, and I made the decision to actively reject the rule of silence. (While I independently named this the “disappearing hotdish phenomenon” at the time, many others have put nearly the same words on this common community response.) This led to some awkward situations, notably when I confronted high school classmates about their off-handed use of the word “crazy.” But by college, it started to bear fruit. I didn’t hesitate to tell friends about this aspect of my life. So when the sister of one of my best friends started displaying signs of the same illness my sister had, she already knew that she could talk to me without any hesitation. She was a vegetarian, there was no oven, and we were pulling all-nighters, so I made her coffee instead of a hotdish.

Today, the red toolbox is long gone. I am thankful that my sister’s first mental health care team was spectacular, simultaneously making her and us aware of the seriousness of her disease—we locked up the knives not because she had ever shown signs of violence, but because that was just what you did with a teenager diagnosed with this disease and not yet stable—and emphasizing that this was a disease that was treatable with patience, medication, and continual support. No judgment, just a simple living out of the oath they took as doctors. Many years later, I am in constant awe of how my sister has fully embraced the life that has been given to her, limitations and all. And I am in awe of the way my mother has continued to help her through each and every day of her life.

But I keep wondering how things might have been different if Adam’s struggles were not so thoroughly hidden? If someone had known the family well enough to pick up on warning signs? If Nancy had not been taught by our society to keep her challenges hidden? In her essay “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” Liza Long writes of the tremendous difficulty of obtaining adequate mental health care for children. Improvements to the overall mental health system will take some time. But we can start to end the silence surrounding mental disorders today so that families no longer feel ashamed to ask for help.

As a Church, we can start with hotdishes, or the regional variant thereof. As the Body of Christ, we are called to take care of one another, including those who are broken through the challenges of mental disorders. One way we can do this is to explicitly welcome families struggling with mental disorders into our parishioner-to-parishioner meal ministries. Parishioners know that they can get a homemade meal brought to them if they are recovering from cancer or a major surgery or are welcoming a new baby. What if we advertised that those recovering from schizophrenia, or those that are exhausted from working full time, visiting their child in the psychiatric hospital, and taking care of their other children should also contact us? Many of us feed people with mental disorders living on the streets of our cities. What if we start feeding the men, women, and children, worn down by the challenges of living with mental disorders, sitting in the pews next to us?

We can make this a reality through dialogue with our pastors, parish councils, and all parish staff and volunteers, creatively channeling the existing generosity of our parish communities in a new way.

* To be clear, Adam Lanza’s mental disorder, described by many family members and friends as Asperger’s, did not cause him to become a mass murderer. It is obscene to suggest this—because it is factually wrong that Asperger’s makes people violent; because it further engenders prejudice against an already cruelly treated group; and because all people, no matter their circumstances, are ultimately morally responsible for their actions.