Monday, January 31, 2011

Wester Revisited

This morning brought with it, among the various appointments of bishops from around the world to posts on different Vatican committees, the announcement that Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City has been named a member of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. In other words, Bishop Wester is now part of the Vatican office that oversees migration/immigration issues.

This doesn't mean Bishop Wester is leaving Salt Lake City. A post such as this would involve meetings in Rome but would not be a full time relocation. What is notable about this appointment is that it comes on the heels of Bishop Wester's stint as chairman of the USCCB Committee on Migration.

Elected to the post in 2006, Bishop Wester was the lead voice on immigration concerns for the bishops for three years (November 2007-November 2010). During that time, he spoke out on a range of migration-themed issues, including the need for comprehensive immigration reform and the role immigration played in the health care debate.

His advocacy often brough Bishop Wester into the worlds of news and social media, including this piece in Politics Daily and a video outlining the bishops' priorities for immigration reform.

Bishop Wester passed the migration torch last fall to Coadjutor Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who is already speaking out on issues like providing a path to citizenship for people who were brought across the border as children. But even with his most public work on this issue for the U.S. bishops behind him, the Vatican clearly intends Bishop Wester to have a part to play in shaping the Church's global response to this issue.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Bishops Seek Health Care That's Universal

The health care reform discussion goes on and on and seems to be the same political football it was leading up to its passage. Its approval last spring came after a fierce legislative fight, and there has been little consensus since government set out to implement it.

Whatever one feels about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the fact is that tens of thousands of Americans are without health care insurance. This creates a health-care crisis for the nation.

This nation needs universal health care, which the U.S. bishops have argued for, for decades. The bishops’ objections to the bill that passed stemmed from its lack of universality. For one thing, the bishops found that the bill did not protect the life of the unborn child. The bishops’ concern was borne out afterwards as some states sought to use newly-available health care funds for elective abortions. After some cried “foul,” the Secretary for Health and Human Services advised these states that such funding was not permitted. Any cleaning up of the bill now ought to guarantee that funds for health care should not be used for elective abortions.

Another concern of the bishops is protection of the conscience rights of institutions. Most people understand the need to respect the conscience of an individual, a conscience correctly formed through education and prayer. An institution also has conscience rights, including the right to follow the teachings of its sponsoring organization. No religious organizations should be forced to purchase coverage for procedures it does not approve of, such as contraception and sterilization. No government should force an institution to practice medicine or purchase medical services that run contrary to its basic tenets. Not just the institution but a pluralistic America would suffer if such a right were denied.

The bishops also seek to protect access to health care for immigrants. The right to health care is a basic right. Every individual has a right to defend his or her life, even against disease. There also are practical reasons to support providing health care for immigrants in our country, including the fact that a contagious illness in one person can quickly become illness in others. The bill that was passed last spring would not even allow some immigrants to purchase health care insurance.

A few lawmakers have proposed legislation that could clean up the bill now. Reps. Joseph Pitts (R-PA) and Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) introduced a bill in the last Congress to guarantee that current decades-old federal policy that precludes using federal money for elective abortions would apply to health care reform legislation. The bill did not receive active consideration then, but the congressmen are expected to reintroduce such legislation for this Congress. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) offered legislation to allow organizations to provide health care insurance that is consistent with their values. That also did not receive active consideration and Rep. Fortenberry is expected to bring forth this issue again in this Congress.

Right now the effort to obtain universal health care continues and the bishops stand behind it. They seek universality, a health care that protects everyone, the immigrant, the unborn and the weak at all stages of life. It is a position that can only help the nation. It’s a position that, in the least, protects pluralism and, most importantly, protects human life.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Why We Must Not Give Up on Haiti

Our guest blogger today is Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, chairman of the USCCB's Haiti Advisory Group. Forupdates on the Catholic Church's outreach to Haiti, visit

One year ago, the worse single urban catastrophe in modern history befell Haiti, the poorest nation in our hemisphere. Goudou-goudou, the Creole word for the January 12, 2010 earthquake, took some 300,000 lives and cost billions in destroyed property and infrastructure.

In the immediate aftermath of the region’s biggest disaster in 200 years, the island nation avoided the expected outbreak of disease and social disorder. Yet, by the end of 2010 the Haitian people ended with both - a still uncontained cholera epidemic that has claimed more than 2,000 lives and wide-spread civil disorder due to uncertainties from the elections. It seems as though, a year later, Haiti is getting worse, not better.

With such results, it would be easy to throw up our hands in despair. But it would not be in the long-term interests of the United States to begin minimizing Haiti out of frustration with a weak government and an absence of progress in its recovery. Such a policy would have long-term adverse consequences throughout the region.
What we need to do is reconsider what needs to be accomplished to make Haiti a functioning country again. While the earthquake has created new challenges, it has also laid bare for all to see those that have piled up over a very long time. This explains why there is so little evidence of Haiti rising from the dust and ashes of the earthquake one year ago.

The goudou-goudou was more than just a natural disaster - stronger quakes hit Chile and New Zealand in the same year with less destruction and loss of human life. What brought Haiti to its knees was not so much the shifting of its tectonic plates but Haiti’s grinding poverty-an issue never fully addressed by its government and the international community---which has limited its ability to easily recover from an event of this magnitude.

Notwithstanding the immediate need to rebuild infrastructure and meet the basic survival needs of the Haitian people, a clear, long-term commitment to Haiti’s economic and political development is needed. As usual, the United States must take leadership in this effort.

To start, the new Congress should re-introduce legislation similar to the Haiti Empowerment, Assistance and Rebuilding Act (HR 6021) in the previous Congress. Such legislation would provide a framework to guide long term assistance to Haiti. At the same time, it would encourage both the Haitian government and civil society to look beyond immediate needs and plan for the future.

Any assistance plan must be accompanied by a new and strengthened U.S. resolve to hold Haitians (and their foreign partners) in both the public and private sector accountable, while at the same time training them in democratic governance. U.S. policy should be guided by a mix of generosity and hard-nosed realism, forcing the Haitian political class to reduce corruption and govern transparently.

In addition, U.S. migration policies toward Haiti should reflect the dire situation on the ground, not compound it. As a start, the Administration should use its humanitarian parole policy to bring into the United States the immediate family members of Haitians medically evacuated after the earthquake. In addition, another 55,000 Haitians who have already been approved to enter the United States to join family members could be allowed to enter as they await their priority date. Temporary Protected Status (TPS) should be extended to Haitians who arrived in the United States in the chaotic months aftermath of the earthquake. As a result of these straightforward policies, remittances to the country, so desperate for income generation and economic activity, would be strengthened.

What the United States should not do is to cause more harm by resuming deportations to Haiti, a move being considered by Administration officials and already being decried by human rights organizations. The Haitian government at this time does not have the capacity to accept and accommodate deportees, especially ones with criminal records. The United States also should pressure neighboring countries, such as the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic, to cease their deportations.

As we have learned the hard way, recovery from natural disasters has been slow even in the resource-rich United States. It took years for Florida to recover from Hurricane Andrew and five years later New Orleans is still struggling to overcome the impact of Katrina. It is no wonder that a third world country near our doorstep is still reeling from its own catastrophe.

We cannot walk away from Haiti-a neighboring country of nine million people only 800 miles away from the United States. We must work with the new Haitian government to not only rebuild the national infrastructure, but also to rebuild a sense of national identity and unity. This will not be an easy road, but it is the only path forward.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tucson: Time to Wake Up and Tone Down

The violence in Tucson is one more wake-up call to an increasingly violent U.S. society.

While no one knows what made a man decide to spray bullets at a simple political event for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords January 8, one only has to read newspapers, listen to talk radio, surf the Web and watch “reality television” to come away concerned about the violent imagery and demonization of so-called enemies that have entered into public discourse.

How does an ordinary citizen deal with this situation?

Part of the answer may lie in Scripture, where we learn that we are all children of God, and brothers and sisters to one another. Cain and Abel are not our role models.

The answer lies in the image of Jesus, who boldly said to love your enemies. It lies in New Testament images which herald caring figures, such as the Good Shepherd and Good Samiaritan, not Rambo or mass murderers.

On a practical level, are there things we can do as individuals to reduce violence overall?

Perhaps we can promise to not participate in violence even as an observer. We can eschew, for example, the verbal sparring on TV where the rule is take a one-sided position and ridicule the opposition, without being open to the fact that even a scintilla of truth may lie in another’s view. We can ignore the talk radio hosts who are more famous for put downs than intelligent commentary. A drop in their audiences would be a message to be heeded by media management and advertisers. We can refuse to follow blogs that demean individuals and toss about half-truths and lies.

We can educate ourselves in modern media. The Web that gives everyone access to the masses is not necessarily a great equalizer, unless you consider the informed and ignorant to be on a par. With nearly everyone having access to the Web, editors and fact-checkers are in short supply. That means users have to bring skepticism to what they read. If it seems unbeleivable, it probably is.

We can protect the young. Bullying has been a part of young lives for as long as we can remember. Now, with the Web, it has a huge impact. Someone making fun of you to a few people when you’re a teen is troublesome; having someone bad mouth you to half the world via Twitter and Facebook is overwhelming. The huge impact of such bloodless violence calls for stepped up protections, perhaps safeguards or monitoring for the Web. Parents and educators need to assert themselves in this regard. Just as they wouldn’t permit children to beat one another to a pulp on the front lawn, they have to be sure their children aren’t pummeling one another in cyberspace.

In the entertainment realm, parents also may be called to act against violent video games, movies and so-called reality shows, which de-sensitize us to violence overall. Surely the more we expose ourselves to direspectful treatment of others even in the make-believe world, the less horrified we will be of violence in ordinary life. Remember when saying “damn” was shocking? Now we’re so used to bad language that only the vilest seems to disturb us. Rememeber when young men settled things with a punch? Now a response to feeling dissed seems to be a gun.

Another way to combat violence is to look at our own attitudes toward those with whom we disagree. When faced with such a person can we pause to see if he or she has a point? Can we dismiss the impulse to disregard someone and try to understand what life is like in his or her shoes? Can we bring a voice of reason to what may seem like an unreasonable situation?

The violence in our society affects all of us. We can’t hide from it. It behooves us to see what we can do to tone it down.