Image: A shift in the Catholic Church position on deterrence and possession of nuclear weapons


Pat Gaffney of Pax Christi writes this week's blog on her involvement in the recent vatican conference on nuclear weapons.

I have to admit to a real excitement when, from the heart of our Church, I heard Pope Francis condemn nuclear weapons and affirm the Christian obligation to nonviolence. 

As a member of Pax Christi, it was a privilege to be invited to a Vatican-hosted conference on the theme “Perspectives for a world free from nuclear weapons and for integral disarmament”. It is not often that students, diplomats, theologians, activists, Hibakusha (survivors of the atomic bomb) and Nobel peace laureates from around the world meet to reflect on how, together, we can work for a nuclear free world.  It was encouraging, too, that Bishop William Nolan, President of the Justice and Peace Scotland Commission, took part in the Conference. 

An unexpected highlight was the personal greeting we received from Pope Francis.  That he made himself available to meet this group of over 350 people was a witness and sign of his great humanity and solidarity with the people of the world.

A key ‘take-away’ for me was, of course, the shift by the Church from a position held since 1982 that nuclear deterrence was only morally acceptable as part of a process to nuclear disarmament to today’s position of condemnation of their threat, use and possession.

Building on years of excellent work to make clear the humanitarian and environmental impact of nuclear weapons and nuclear testing that has been undertaken by organisations such as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), CND, and Pax Christi, Pope Francis was able to say, “if we also take into account the risk of an accidental detonation as a result of error of any kind, the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.  For they exist in the service of a mentality of fear that affects not only the parties in conflict but the entire human race.”

The 30 contributions to the Conference were not all from those ‘on our side’. Rose Gottemoeller, NATO Deputy Secretary General, cautioned the need for verifiable, progressive disarmament - wanting a nuclear free world but without jeopardising security.  Dr Emily Landau, research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel suggested that paths to peace are determined by states and not by weapons. She said that for seven decades, nuclear weapons have been weapons of deterrence.

Overwhelmingly, however, speakers affirmed the need to move away from policies of fear, deterrence, militarism towards human, integral peace and security. Cardinal Turkson reminded us “nuclear weapons reduce the ability to invest in real security”.   Mohamed el Baradei, (former Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency) elaborated on this theme, saying that a security based on nuclear weapons is a ‘contradictory’ security, causing more suspicion and fear. There is no shortage of money, but there are skewed priorities.

I also took away a strong resolve to find even better and more effective ways of sharing this powerful message.  Several times we heard of the importance of civil society and faith based groups in particular. Beatrice Finn of ICAN spoke of the role of people of faith as a ‘constant life-light’ in support for her own campaign – which has rightly been awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

We have to both amplify the message of the Church and be an advocate for it at national level – with governments and with Bishops’ Conferences.  A passionate plea came from Bishop McElroy of San Diego, “The ministry of the Church in the promotion of peace must at its core be one of conversion to new ways of thinking in the hearts of individuals and the international system.”

Our campaigning toolbox has been enhanced by this Conference and its messages. How creative and persuasive can we be in turning these powerful words into policy?
Pat Gaffney is General Secretary of the British Section of Pax Christi
Photograph courtesy of National Catholic Reporter.

Image: Calais in 2017


Alex Holmes writes this week's blog, a very powerful account of his time living and working with refugees in Calais.  Don't miss this first hand account of life in Calais.  

Calais, a sunny autumn afternoon, the trees beginning to change colour, the grass in Saint-Pierre Park a rich green. The slight breeze carries downwind a diaphanous mist from the centrepiece of the park: the bronze fountain of the Three Graces. Between the tiers of the fountain stand the slim figures of the Three Graces. Protected by a curtain of falling water, they stare out into the all but empty park. Thalia, representing youthful beauty; Euphrosyne, laughter; and Aglaea, elegance.
How many of the citizens of Calais, I wonder, are aware of the graces in their midst? Because in this economically depressed city, where smiles amongst its resident citizens are as rare as hens’ teeth, where refugees experience harassment, intimidation and violence from police and local racists, it is amongst the community of several hundred refugees, most of whom live 24/7 outdoors, that the Three Graces abound.
Let me bear witness to the group of young Eritreans and Ethiopians amongst whom I have lived for many weeks this year. We’ve eaten together, cleaned together, prayed together. The small house in a back street of Calais offers sanctuary to a very small number of refugees. The priority: minors and those discharged from hospital. Habte was in hospital for two weeks after being badly beaten on the head by the police. Samuel walks awkwardly on crutches, his ankle truncheoned by a member of the French riot police. Michael returns to the house at 7.30 in the morning, his jeans saturated in blood just below his left knee after a beating from the police. He describes the weapon used: a telescopic truncheon with a steel ball on the end. Yet Michael is someone who can have the whole room in laughter, the living embodiment of the spirit of Euphrosyne.
Each Sunday half a dozen or so young Eritreans come to the house. One of them is a Deacon in the Orthodox Church who will lead a service of Christian worship in Tigrinya, the language of most of the Eritreans in Calais. The energy they bring is palpable. Despite months of living outdoors in the wastelands of the town, they smile and laugh. There are hugs all round. The house is flooded with the spirit of “The Three Graces”, youthful beauty, laughter, and elegance. There’s elegance in their politeness, in their gratitude, in their gentle reverence during prayer. And, with a bit of licence, elegance in their attire. These young guys, mostly still teenagers, want to look cool. Incongruous it might seem as winter approaches, but many wear fashionable skinny fit ripped jeans.
Amongst the young Ethiopians and Eritreans Christians I met, faith seems as second nature as breathing.

On their way to the kitchen to eat some breakfast many of the boys go first to the chapel to pray. As they leave the house, many ask Br Johannes for a blessing.
Last January, I arranged for a Belgian journalist and his cameraman colleague to meet two Eritrean boys who had just arrived back in Calais. The journalist said he would buy us all a meal. What would the boys like to eat he asked. Pizza they said. Off we went to Pizza Hut. After a long wait, the food eventually arrived on our table. The journalist, the cameraman and myself immediately tucked in. I then looked across at the boys. The boxes their pizzas were in remained unopened. The boys’ heads were reverently bowed, they were making the sign of the cross, praying in Tigrinya, then once more making the sign of the cross. Only then did they begin to eat. In my shame, I made a quick sign of the cross before continuing with my food.
“A Christian’s light can’t be hidden; such a bright lamp can’t be concealed. So, let’s not neglect this.”  St John Chrysostum.  How true these words are as a reflection of the young Eritreans and Ethiopians in Calais.

Image: The Death Penalty


Justice & Peace Scotland’s vice chair, Marian Pallister, reflects on the death penalty, as President Trump and Pope Francis adopt diametrically opposing views.

Youngsters in Scottish schools seeking a topic for their Higher English discursive essay submissions are pondering the issue of the death penalty. The topic is hot because President Trump has tweeted more than once that the death penalty should be administered to 29-year-old Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, the man suspected of driving a truck into bystanders in New York.
In October, however, Pope Francis came out unequivocally against the death penalty. So – if students are looking for pointers, Googling President Trump and Pope Francis will offer opposing views. They could also search for Sr Helen Prejean, possibly the world’s foremost campaigner against the death penalty.
Prejean would point out from her decades of experience as spiritual adviser to the guilty - and the innocent - on death row in the US, that taking a man’s life on an ‘eye for an eye’ basis gets us nowhere.
Henry Burnett offers a point of reference here in Scotland. At the age of 21, Burnett was hanged for the murder of merchant seaman Thomas Guyan. It was the outcome of a messy love triangle that left Guyan dead on a kitchen floor in Aberdeen.
Although three psychiatrists testified that Burnett was insane at the time of the crime (he had attempted suicide in the past and jealously kept his girlfriend locked up), Burnett was sentenced to death. The young lad’s life came to an end at 8am on Thursday, August 15, 1963.
Two years later, the death penalty was abolished in the UK. In the 20th century up to Burnett’s death, there had been just 33 men and one woman hanged in Scotland.
The appetite for such a drastic sentence had clearly waned since both Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray reported on public hangings. Indeed, when Thackeray went to witness a hanging at Newgate prison in London in 1840, it was because there were already calls for an end to the death penalty. Abolition was a long time coming.
Thackeray condemned the UK’s ‘Christian government’ for maintaining the penalty and wrote ‘The whole of the sickening, ghastly, wicked scene…is an awful one to see, and very hard and painful to describe.’ A psychiatrist who witnessed Burnett’s execution said much the same.
In the US, however, the death penalty prevails in a number of states. Pope Francis has won no fans on the conservative right in America for seeking to end the death penalty worldwide. But how can Catholics talk about the sanctity of life yet demand that a man be strapped to a gurney and injected with three lethal poisons to bring his life to an end?
The movie ‘Dead Man Walking’ tells Prejean’s story. It isn’t an easy watch. Statistics in Prejean’s book of the same name demonstrate the penalty’s futility. Today, aged 77, she continues the fight on Facebook and Twitter, arguing that executing the rejected, the abandoned, the bullied, the mentally ill, and the dependant doesn’t deter crime. Instead, Prejean believes, it serves to brutalise the community that demands execution. She has said ‘Its practice demeans us all’.
Today, 141 out of 199 countries have abolished the death penalty. Most executions are carried out in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In 2016, the US ranked sixth in the number of executions effected.
In condemning the death penalty, Pope Francis prayed ‘for those on death row, that their lives may be spared, that the innocent may be freed and that the guilty may come to acknowledge their faults and seek reconciliation’ and ‘for civic leaders, that they may commit themselves to respecting every human life and ending the use of the death penalty’.
Worryingly, as the UK government extricates us from European law, those sitting their Highers now may in the future face a real debate on bringing back the death penalty. I hope the arguments of Pope Francis and Sr Helen Prejean prevail against the practice that ‘demeans us all’.

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