Unites States Catholic Conference on Violence in Today's World
Today our families are torn by violence. Our communities are destroyed by violence. Our faith is tested by violence. We have an obligation to respond.
Violence -- in our homes, our schools and streets, our nation and world -- is destroying the lives, dignity and hopes of millions of our sisters and brothers. Fear of violence is paralyzing and polarizing our communities. The celebration of violence in much of our media, music and even video games is poisoning our children.
Beyond the violence in our streets is the violence in our hearts. Hostility, hatred, despair and indifference are at the heart of a growing culture of violence. Verbal violence in our families, communications and talk shows contribute to this culture of violence. Pornography assaults the dignity of women and contributes to violence against them. Our social fabric is being torn apart by a culture of violence that leaves children dead on our streets and families afraid in our homes. Our society seems to be growing numb to human loss and suffering. A nation born in a commitment to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is haunted by death, imprisoned by fear and caught up in the elusive pursuit of protection rather than happiness. A world moving beyond the Cold War is caught up in bloody ethnic, tribal and political conflict.It doesn't have to be this way. It wasn't always this way. We can turn away from violence; we can build communities of greater peace. It begins with a clear conviction: respect for life. Respect for life is not just a slogan or a program; it is a fundamental moral principle flowing from our teaching on the dignity of the human person. It is an approach to life that values people over things. Respect for life must guide the choices we make as individuals and as a society: what we do and won't do, what we value and consume, whom we admire and whose example we follow, what we support and what we oppose. Respect for human life is the starting point for confronting a culture of violence.The Catholic community cannot ignore the moral and human costs of so much violence in our midst. These brief reflections are a call to conversion and a framework for action. They propose neither a sweeping plan nor specific programs. They recognize the impressive efforts already underway in dioceses, parishes and schools. They offer a word of support and gratitude for those already engaged in these efforts. We believe the Catholic community brings strong convictions and vital experience which can enrich the national dialogue on how best to overcome the violence that is tearing our nation apart.We know these reflections are not enough. Words cannot stop weapons; statements will not contain hatred. Yet commitment and conversion can change us and together we can change our culture and communities. Person by person, family by family, neighborhood by neighborhood, we must take our communities back from the evil and fear that come with so much violence. We believe our faith in Jesus Christ gives us the values, vision and hope that can bring an important measure of peace to our hearts, our homes, and our streets.
A Culture of Violence
Decades ago, the Kerner Commission called violence "as American as apple pie."1 Sadly, this provocative statement has proved prophetic. No nation on earth, except those in the midst of war, has as much violent behavior as we do -- in our homes, on our televisions, and in our streets:
While crime statistics vary year to year, we face far higher rates of murder, assault, rape and other violent crimes than other societies. One estimate is that crime costs us $674 billion a year. Violent crime quadrupled from 161 reported crimes per 100,000 in 1960 to 758 in 1992.2
The most violent place in America is not in our streets, but in our homes. More than 50 percent of the women murdered in the United States are killed by their partner or ex-partner. Millions of children are victims of family violence.3
The number of guns has also quadrupled from 54 million in 1950 to 201 million in 1990. Between 1979 and 1991, nearly 50,000 American children and teenagers were killed by guns, matching the number of Americans who died in battle in Vietnam. It is now estimated 13 American children die every day from guns. Gunshots cause one out of four deaths among American teenagers.4
Our entertainment media too often exaggerate and even celebrate violence. Children see 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence on television before they leave elementary school.5
We must never forget that the violence of abortion has destroyed more than 30 million unborn children since 1972. Behind these numbers are individual human tragedies, lives lost, families destroyed, children without real hope. Violence in our culture is fed by multiple forces -- the disintegration of family life, media influences, growing substance abuse, the availability of so many weapons, and the rise of gangs and increasing youth violence. No one response can address these diverse sources. Traditional liberal or conservative approaches cannot effectively confront them. We have to address simultaneously declining family life and the increasing availability of deadly weapons, the lure of gangs and the slavery of addiction, the absence of real opportunity, budget cuts adversely affecting the poor, and the loss of moral values.Increasingly, our society looks to violent measures to deal with some of our most difficult social problems -- millions of abortions to address problem pregnancies, advocacy of euthanasia and assisted suicide to cope with the burdens of age and illness, and increased reliance on the death penalty to deal with crime. We are tragically turning to violence in the search for quick and easy answers to complex human problems. A society which destroys its children, abandons its old and relies on vengeance fails fundamental moral tests. Violence is not the solution; it is the most clear sign of our failures. We are losing our respect for human life. How do we teach the young to curb their violence when we embrace it as the solution to social problems? …………………………………..
We cannot ignore the underlying cultural values that help to create the environment where violence grows: a denial of right and wrong, education that ignores fundamental values, an abandonment of personal responsibility, an excessive and selfish focus on our individual desires, a diminishing sense of obligation to our children and neighbors, a misplaced priority on acquisitions, and media glorification of violence and sexual irresponsibility. In short, we often fail to value life and cherish human beings above possessions, power and pleasure. This growing culture of violence reflected in some aspects of our public life and entertainment media must be confronted. But it is not just our policies and programming that must change; it is our hearts. We must condemn not only the killing, but also the abuse in our homes, the anger in our hearts and the glorification of violence in movies and music. It is time, in the words of Deuteronomy (30:19), to "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live ..." We must join with Pope John Paul II to "proclaim, with all the conviction of my faith in Christ and with an awareness of my mission, that violence is evil, that violence is unacceptable as a solution to problems, that violence is unworthy... Violence is a lie, for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity."………………………………..Around the globe, we are seeing the promises of a new world lost in deadly conflict and renewed war. Too often the world, we have watched as sisters and brothers were killed because of their religion, race, tribe or political position. In today's world violence has become a tumult of savage attacks on the innocent. Unprepared for this disorder and confused about what to do to resolve ancient rivalries, the international community has too often stood by indecisively as hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have been slaughtered and millions more have been maimed, raped and driven from their homes. Peacekeeping and peacemaking are the most urgent priorities for a new world.Not all violence is deadly. It begins with anger, intolerance, impatience, unfair judgements and aggression. It is often reflected in our language, our entertainment, our driving, our competitive behavior, and the way we treat our environment. These acts and attitudes are not the same as abusive behavior or physical attacks, but they create a climate where violence prospers and peace suffers. We are also experiencing the polarization of public life and militarization of politics with increased reliance on "attack" ads, "war" rooms and intense partisan combat in place of the search for the common good and common ground.Fundamentally, our society needs a moral revolution to replace a culture of violence with a renewed ethic of justice, responsibility and community. New policies and programs, while necessary, cannot substitute for a recovery of the old values of right and wrong, respect and responsibility, love and justice. God's wisdom, love and commandments can show us the way to live, heal and reconcile. "Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal" are more than words to be recited; they are imperatives for the common good. Our faith challenges each of us to examine how we can contribute to an ethic which cherishes life, puts people before things, and values kindness and compassion over anger and vengeance. A growing sense of national fear and failure must be replaced by a new commitment to solidarity and the common good.
Catholic Tradition, Presence and Potential
In this task, the Catholic community has much at stake and much to contribute. What we believe, where we are, and how we live out our faith can make a great difference in the struggle against violence. We see the loss of lives. We serve the victims. We feel the fear. We must confront this growing culture of violence with a commitment to life, a vision of hope and a call to action. Our assets in this challenge include:
the example and teaching of Jesus Christ;
the biblical values of respect for life, peace, justice, and community;
our teaching on human life and human dignity, on right and wrong, on family and work, on justice and peace, on rights and responsibilities;
our tradition of prayer, sacraments, and contemplation which can lead to a disarmament of the heart;
a commitment to marriage and family life, to support responsible parenthood and to help parents in providing their children the values to live full lives;
a presence in most neighborhoods -- our parishes and schools, hospitals and social services are sources of life and hope in places of violence and fear;
an ethical framework which calls us to practice and promote virtue, responsibility, forgiveness, generosity, concern for others, social justice and economic fairness;
a capacity for advocacy that cuts across the false choices in national debate -- jails or jobs, personal or social responsibility, better values or better policies;
a consistent ethic of life which remains the surest foundation for our life together.
Across our land, parishioners and priests, men and women religious, educators and social workers, parents and community leaders are hard at work trying to offer hope in place of fear, to fight violence with programs of peace, to strengthen families and weaken gangs. A Framework for Action
Much is being done, but more is required. Our community is called to reorganize our priorities and recommit our resources to confront the violence in our midst. This challenge will have many dimensions including:
the call to pray for peace in our hearts and our world; the ability to listen -- to hear the pain, anger and frustration that comes with and from violence;
the duty to examine our own attitudes and actions for how they contribute to or diminish violence in our society;
the call to help people confront the violence in our hearts and lives;
the capacity to build on existing efforts and the strengths of our community: the work of parishes, schools, Catholic Charities and Campaign for Human Development, etc.;
efforts to hold major institutions accountable, including government, the media and the criminal justice system;
an advocacy strategy which moves beyond the often empty rhetoric of national debate, including: confronting the violence of abortion; curbing the easy availability of deadly weapons;
supporting community approaches to crime prevention and law enforcement, including community policing, neighborhood partnerships with police and greater citizen involvement;
pursuing swift and effective justice without vengeance;
support for efforts to attack root causes of crime and violence -- including poverty, substance abuse, lack of opportunity, racism, and family disintegration;
promoting more personal responsibility and broader social responsibility in our policies and programs;
building bridges and promoting solidarity across racial and economic lines;
pursuing economic justice, especially employment;
working for legislation that empowers parents to choose and afford schools that reflect their values; overcoming the tragedy of family violence and confronting all forms of violence against women; promoting education, research, and training in nonviolence;
respond to victims of violence, hearing their anguish and defending their dignity;
strengthening families by putting the needs of children and families first in our national priorities;
continuing to work for global disarmament, including curbs on arms sales, and a ban on the export of land mines.
Unless we are able to cut through divisive rhetoric and false claims which suggest that more prisons are the only answer, more brutality the cure, or more violence the solution, we will not succeed. Our criminal justice system is failing. Too often, it does not offer security to society, just penalties and rehabilitation to offenders, or respect and restitution to victims. Clearly, those who commit crimes must be swiftly apprehended, justly tried, appropriately punished, and held to proper restitution. However, correctional facilities must do more than confine criminals; they must rehabilitate persons and help rebuild lives. The vast majority of those in prison return to society. We must insure that incarceration does not simply warehouse those who commit crimes, but helps them overcome the behaviors, attitudes and actions which led to criminal activity. The answer is not simply constructing more and more prisons, but also constructing a society where every person has the opportunity to participate in economic and social life with dignity and responsibility. People must answer for their actions. Those who harm others must pay the price, but all our institutions must also be held accountable for how they promote or undermine greater responsibility and justice. We also need to encourage a commitment to civility and respect in public life and communications -- in the news media, politics and even ecclesial dialogue. The search for the common good is not advanced by partisan gamesmanship, challenging other people's motives, or personal attacks. The focus on the sensational, the search for conflict, and the assumption of bad will are not the basis for dialogue, and hurt the search for common ground. ConclusionPerhaps the greatest challenge is the call for all of us to examine our own lives, to identify how we can choose generosity over selfishness, and choose a real commitment to family and community over individual acquisition and ambition. In many small ways, each of us can help overcome violence by dealing with it on our block; providing for the emotional, physical and spiritual needs of our children; dealing with our own abusive behavior; or, even treating fellow motorists with courtesy. Violence is overcome day by day, choice by choice, person by person. All of us must make a contribution.
We Can Be More Than We Are
The Catholic community is in a position to respond to violence and the threat of violence in our society with new commitment and creativity. More of the same is not sufficient. Business as usual is not enough. Our faith and facilities can be beacons of hope and safety for those seeking refuge from violent streets and abusive homes. People can become peacemakers in their homes and communities. Parishes can organize mentoring programs for teens/parents. The Church can be the first point of referral for spousal abuse. We can incorporate ways to handle family conflict in our religious education and sacramental preparation programs. We can work for public policies that confront violence, build community and promote responsibility. Finally, we can join with other churches in developing a community wide strategy for making our neighborhoods more safe, welcoming and peaceful. Here is a possible outline for action: Above all, we must come to understand that violence is unacceptable. We must learn again the lesson of Pope Paul VI, "If you want peace, work for justice." We oppose lawlessness of every kind. Society cannot tolerate an ethic which uses violence to make a point, settle grievances or get what we want. But the path to a more peaceful future is found in a rediscovery of personal responsibility, respect for human life and human dignity, and a recommitment to social justice.
The best antidote to violence is hope. People with a stake in society do not destroy communities. Both individuals and institutions should be held accountable for how they attack or enhance the common good. It is not only the "down and out" who must be held accountable, but also the "rich and famous." Our society needs both more personal responsibility and broader social responsibility to overcome the plague of violence in our land and the lack of peace in our hearts. Finally, we must realize that peace is most fundamentally a gift from God. It is futile to suggest that we can end all violence and bring about full peace merely by our own efforts. This is why we urge the Catholic community to join all our anti-violence efforts with constant and heartfelt prayer to Almighty God through Jesus, the Prince of Peace.We close these reflections with a word of support and appreciation for those on the front lines -- parents, pastors, parish leaders, youth workers, catechists and teachers, prison chaplains, men and women religious. At a time when heroes seem scarce, these people are real heroes and heroines, committing their lives to the service of others, standing against a tide of violence with values of peace and a commitment to justice. We commend peace officers who daily confront violence with fairness and courage and we support those who minister to them and their families. We also offer a word of encouragement to parents who daily confront the cultural messages that influence their children in a way that is so contradictory to basic values of decency, honesty, respect for life and justice. We believe silence and indifference are not options for a community of faith in the midst of such pain, but we recognize words cannot halt violence. We hope this message has helped to outline the moral challenge, affirm the efforts already underway, share the framework we have as Catholics and call our community to both conversion and action. Let us embrace the challenge of Saint Pope John Paul II in his message to young people, when he calls them and all of us, to be "communicators of hope and peace." Let us hear and act with new urgency on the words of Jesus: "Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called children of God."