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October 1, 2011

The human dignity of the imprisoned -
The church and prisoners' families -
Preaching on human toll of financial turmoil -
A reignited death penalty debate

In this edition:

1. Urgent pastoral priorities: unemployment, poverty.
2. Rising poverty among U.S. Hispanic children.
3. Current quotes to ponder:
a) What one diocesan pastoral council discussed;
b) Georgia's bishops on Troy Davis execution. 4. Catholic academics oppose death penalty.
5. The human dignity of the imprisoned.
6. The church, prisoners and their families.
7. Bringing ecology front and center.

1. Urgent Pastoral Priorities: Unemployment, Poverty

Homilists and educators in the church should play a role in lifting up "the human, moral and spiritual dimensions of the ongoing economic crisis," Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, proposed in a Sept. 15 letter to all bishops in the nation.

Current "economic turmoil" reflects an "urgent pastoral challenge," he suggested.

His letter was sent at the request of the USCCB Administrative Committee, whose Sept. 13 meeting in Washington opened the very day the U.S. Census Bureau released a major report showing that in 2010 incomes declined in U.S. households and the number of people living in poverty rose to 46 million. High unemployment clearly contributed to the dismal picture drawn by the Census Bureau.

"I hope we can use our opportunities as pastors, teachers, and leaders to focus public attention and priority on the scandal of so much poverty and so many without work in our society," Archbishop Dolan said to the nation's bishops.

The Catholic tradition, he observed, "begins with respect for the life and dignity of all, requires a priority concern for poor and vulnerable people, reflects the ties and bonds of solidarity, respects the mutual relationships of subsidiarity, and promotes the dignity of work and protection for workers."

The archbishop reported that the Administrative Committee asked the national bishops' conference to provide all the bishops, diocesan staffs and other leaders "with resources and materials for preaching, educating the faithful and advocating on behalf of the poor and jobless."

The "widespread unemployment, underemployment and pervasive poverty" of these times "are diminishing human lives, undermining human dignity, and hurting children and families," Archbishop Dolan said.

This is not a time for making excuses or placing blame, he wrote. He said, however, that the "economic failures" underlying today's unemployment and poverty statistics "have fundamental institutional and systemic elements that have either been ignored or made worse by political and economic behaviors, which have undermined trust and confidence."

Current statistics on poverty and unemployment "bring home to us the human costs and moral consequences of a broken economy that cannot fully utilize the talents, energy and work of all our people," Archbishop Dolan said. The situation today is taking a "terrible toll" on families and communities.

Poverty and unemployment statistics are more than numbers, the archbishop said. They represent "parents who cannot feed their children, families that have lost their homes and jobless workers who have lost not only income, but also a sense of their place in society."

Archbishop Dolan called attention to the 16 million children in the U.S. who are growing up poor, "almost one out of four." And it is "particularly disheartening," he said, "that African-Americans and Hispanics live with unemployment and poverty at far higher rates than others. Immigrant workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation and unfair treatment."

Those realities "contradict our national pledge of 'liberty and justice for all.' They also contradict the consistent teaching of our church," the archbishop wrote.

2. Rising Poverty of U.S. Hispanic Children

More Hispanic children in the U.S. "are living in poverty - 6.1 million in 2010 - than children of any other racial or ethnic group," the Pew Hispanic Center reported Sept. 28. This development "marks the first time in U.S. history that the single largest group of poor children is not white."

The Pew center said that "in 2010, 37.3 percent of poor children were Latino, 30.5 percent were white and 26.6 percent were black."

The recent recession and the increased poverty it gave birth to "hit one fast-growing demographic group especially hard: Latino children," according to the Pew center's report. It said the recession, which began in 2007 "and officially ended in 2009, had a large impact on the Latino community."

As the recession set in, "the unemployment rate among Latino workers increased rapidly, especially among immigrant workers," according to the report. Today, it said, "the unemployment rate among Latinos, at 11.1 percent, is higher than the national unemployment rate of 9.1 percent."

The number of their children living in poverty is a "negative milestone" for Hispanics and "is a product of their growing numbers, high birth rates and declining economic fortunes," the Pew center said. It noted that "Hispanics today make up a record 16.3 percent of the total U.S. population. But they comprise an even larger share -- 23.1 percent -- of the nation's children."

During the recession, the numbers of white children and black children living in poverty grew, but grew more slowly than the number of Hispanic children living in poverty. To be precise, the center said that -

"Between 2007 and 2010, an additional 1.6 million Hispanic children lived in poverty, an increase of 36.3 percent. By contrast, even though the number of white and black children living in poverty also grew, their numbers grew more slowly - up 17.6 percent and 11.7 percent respectively."

Who are these Hispanic children? The Pew center said that of the 6.1 million Hispanic children living in poverty, "more than two-thirds (4.1 million) are the children of immigrant parents. The other 2 million are the children of parents born in the U.S."

The report also clarified that "among the 4.1 million impoverished Latino children of immigrants, the vast majority (86.2 percent) were born in the U.S."

3. Current Quotes to Ponder

Listening to a Diocesan Pastoral Council Session: "A number of members [of the diocesan pastoral council] expressed the need to listen compassionately to the pain of individuals and families who are experiencing serious economic stress and who face dire circumstances, having lost jobs or homes. We talked about how children especially are being impacted, sometimes even blaming themselves for their families' struggles. One member suggested that we have forums in which we can listen to and pray with those struggling in these difficult economic times. The council will consider some alternatives for doing that at our next meeting. Some members felt that we could gather together people in these circumstances to pray. Others felt maybe we might be available just to listen to their hurts and worries. Some suggested we add prayers at next month's rosary conference for those suffering. Some felt a workshop at next March's diocesan ministry conference could give pastoral leaders a chance to explore alternatives for assisting people in their difficulties." (From a report on a recent Tucson diocesan pastoral council meeting; the report appeared in the Sept. 26 online Monday Memo to the diocese by Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tuscon, Ariz.)

Georgia Bishops on Capital Punishment: "First, we want to express our profound sympathy to the family and friends of Officer Mark Allen MacPhail, whose life was taken in a criminal act. We believe that the state of Georgia has the right to punish the person who is responsible for this crime. We also believe that punishment and compensation can be achieved by incarceration with strict laws concerning parole. Second, the death penalty is irreversibly wrong when there is an execution of a person who may possibly be innocent. The conviction and death sentence of Mr. Davis was based on testimony of key witnesses and did not result from physical evidence. The Gospel that Christians proclaim is a Gospel of mercy, love and forgiveness. We believe that the death penalty is not compatible with the Gospel. The common good and public security can be achieved in other ways. The Gospel calls us to proclaim the sacredness of human life under all circumstances." (From a Sept. 12 letter by the Catholic bishops of Georgia requesting clemency for Troy Davis, who was executed Sept. 21)

4. Catholic Academics Oppose Death Penalty

More than 200 Catholic theologians, academics and social justice advocates have signed a statement opposing the death penalty. Titled "A Catholic Call to Abolish the Death Penalty," the statement is one of many signs that the debate over capital punishment has reignited in U.S. society. The statement was posted Sept. 26 on the Catholic Moral Theology website.

Two recent actions prompted many commentators and concerned groups to write and speak out on capital punishment. During a recent debate among Republican Party presidential candidate hopefuls, some members of the live audience applauded and cheered after Gov. Rick Perry of Texas indicated his very strong support for the death penalty in the state and said he did not lose sleep over the executions.

Later, the Sept. 21 execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, a black man convicted in the murder of a police officer but whose guilt was doubted by many, prompted many death-penalty opponents to speak out.

"We believe that a grave miscarriage of justice took place with Davis' execution," said the signers of "A Catholic Call to Abolish the Death Penalty." They said they mourned the police officer's death, and they expressed their "deepest sympathies to his family for their tragic loss." They also said that "serious doubt remains about Davis' guilt."

The statement said that "since 1973, 138 persons have been exonerated from death row" in the U.S., and most of them "were people of color and economically poor." Execution, the statement noted, is "irrevocable, and innocent people have likely been victims of it."

Capital punishment was opposed on both theological and practical grounds in the statement; practically speaking, for example, there are other effective ways to punish criminals and protect society.

Also, it said, "studies have shown that black defendants are more likely to receive the death penalty. In many states with capital punishment, defendants are from three to five times more likely to be executed if their victim was white."

Theologically speaking, the statement viewed capital punishment as a violation of respect for life, as well as of Gospel teaching on forgiveness and love for enemies, which "presents a difficult challenge, especially to those who have lost loved ones at the hands of a murderer."

The statement also recalled words of Blessed Pope John Paul II, who said that "the new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life." He said that "a sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken way, even in the case of someone who has done great evil."

5. The Human Dignity of the Imprisoned

The human dignity of imprisoned people and ways in which local Catholic communities can serve them, their families and children, are the focus of the 2011-2012 social justice statement issued in mid-September on behalf of the Australian Catholic bishops by their Social Justice Council.

"All of us are called to respect the human dignity of every person, including those who have committed serious crimes," insists the statement, titled "Building Bridges, Not Walls." The Lord, it says, "did not give up on the person before him, no matter how challenging their behavior or demanding their need."

Incarcerated people "are still members of our community, including our church community," the statement says. It asks, "How can we reach out to prisoners and their families?"

The statement exhorts Catholics "to see the face of Christ in every prisoner and to remember those who are in prison as though we were in prison with them."

It invites Catholics to reflect on the large numbers of imprisoned people today. "If our prison population per capita is increasing, chances are that we are becoming a less fair society," with people "on the lower rung of the ladder" finding life tougher than previously," it proposes.

The statement's viewpoint is that "being tough on crime will be wasteful, unjust and even counterproductive unless we are also tough on the factors that contribute to crime." It says: "We know the pathways to prison, and we know those groups who are most vulnerable to incarceration. It is time to act now."

6. The Church, Prisoners and Their Families

The roles of prison chaplains, the needs of a prisoner's family members and the challenges an ex-prisoner meets when attempting to re-enter society are among central points of focus in the Australian church's 2011-2012 social justice statement.

-- Chaplains: The statement urges Catholics and others to recognize that "the vital work of prison chaplains is demanding and often goes unrecognized." It says Catholics might ask themselves, "What could you and your parish do to assist a prison chaplain trying to help a released prisoner find a job or a home?"

Prison chaplains are viewed by the statement as "the face of the church for those most in need." It points out that chaplains "spend hours with prisoners, some of whom, after many years, have come to the point of remorse," wondering "how to forgive themselves or even if God can forgive them."

The ministry of these chaplains "reveals a central truth, that there is more to even the most brutal offender than the crimes he or she has committed," says the statement.

-- Prisoners' family members: For children, the repercussions of a parent's imprisonment "can be terrible," the statement notes. A parent's imprisonment means that the children also are "exposed to prison life and, if the family is separated, to the possibility of having to live with strangers or enter the care of the state."

Special concern is expressed in the statement for women prisoners, "the vast majority of whom are mothers and around 80 percent of whom are the sole providers for dependent children." It asserts that "in very many cases these women should be receiving treatment for addiction or mental illness rather than being incarcerated."

Catholic communities are encouraged in the statement to ask, "How can we offer a supportive environment for any member of our community, particularly young people, who may be at risk of offending and entering the criminal justice system?"

-- Leaving prison, re-entering society: The statement calls attention to the fact that "many people leaving prison do not have skills that we take for granted such as paying bills, buying food, banking or finding work." It says that "many people leaving prison have little social support, little education or training and very little opportunity to gain access to these things," and they probably will "have few friends other than ex-prisoners."

Affordable accommodation, mental health services, and drug and alcohol treatment" are important needs of former prisoners trying to re-enter society, the statement makes plain. It recommends that people "maintain and act on the hope that with appropriate support, ex-offenders have the capacity to become productive, law-abiding members of society."

Local faith communities might ask themselves "what comfort and support a person leaving prison would be likely to find" in their parish church and how such a person can be made to feel welcome, the statement suggests.

It needs to be understood, the statement says, that "without family, friends, a job or a home, it will be difficult for any released prisoners not to reoffend and return to jail."

7. Bringing Ecology Front and Center

"The world we live in is not the paradise we would like it to be, quite the contrary," according to a major paper on ecology published in mid-September by the Social Justice Secretariat at Jesuit headquarters in Rome. When speaking today of the environment, "we are dealing with an issue that challenges the very future of humankind," the paper states.

Titled "Healing a Broken World," the special report on ecology was developed by an international task force of five Jesuits and a laywoman. It calls for biblical and spiritual reflection on creation as God's gift. But it cautions that awareness of creation's theological import and its place in God's plan of salvation is not, in itself, sufficient to motivate people to action. Conversion is what is called for, the report insists.

The paper holds that protecting the environment is, for Christians, a matter of social justice. For, it is the poor who suffer most when the earth is pillaged.

"Creation, the life-giving gift of God, has become material, extractable and marketable," the paper says. It comments:

"Justified by technological prowess and consumed by greed, too many human beings continue to dominate and rape nature in the advance toward progress; too few reckon with the consequences of our actions."

Today, "rational and technical answers to the physical and biological challenges of this world dominate our experience, blunting our sensitivity to the mystery, diversity and vastness of life and the universe," says "Healing a Broken World." However, its authors add, "if we want to respond to the searching questions of the women and men of our time, we need to go deeper and increase our communion with creation."

The paper calls upon Jesuit communities to "participate in social movements that generate environmental awareness" in order "to influence public policy both at the national and international level." The religious order is urged to examine its "pattern and levels of consumption," and to make a firm commitment to reducing consumption.

Construction projects under Jesuit auspices should utilize the services of "architects and engineers who are conscious of environmental issues," the paper advises. The use of bottled water is discouraged, and Jesuit houses are called upon to reduce the waste of food.

Among its many recommendations, the paper asks that "the establishing of right (just) relationships with creation" be made "a theme of prayer in Jesuit communities."

While religious communities may lack the technical skill and resources needed to clean up the environment, the moral values they espouse are needed to promote new relationships with the world God created, the paper asserts.