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Thousands rally to break silence on war


As Catholics from throughout the nation joined others for four days of antiwar protests in the nation’s capitol, it was clear that the shadow cast over the church by the sex-abuse scandals was at least a distraction as Catholic activists tried to direct attention toward what they see as another scandal -- the U.S. bishops approval of the war on terrorism.

The sex abuse scandals have a relationship to the church’s blessing of the war in Afghanistan, according to Jesuit Fr. John Dear, one of the organizers for the days of peace that drew an estimated 75,000 people to Washington in the largest peace presence since the war began last fall.

“As long as the church leaders are supporting the just war theory, rejecting the gospel, the Sermon on the Mount and Christ’s way of nonviolence and blessing the bombing of Afghanistan, you’re going to have all kinds of other aberrations including these horrific scandals of child abuse that we’re seeing,” Dear said. “The bishops supported the bombing of children in Afghanistan -- they blessed it -- which is massive child abuse. And the culture and the media and even church people still don’t see that. It’s all forms of violence and child abuse, and until the church rejects war and violence it will never, never move toward reforms, or healing or ending the scandal. The church has got to embrace complete nonviolence.”

Fordham University philosophy student Mark VanHollebeke, who held aloft a sign saying, “Da Bronx: Real People for Real Peace,” said the sex-abuse scandal is omnipresent, but the people working for peace remain vibrant.

“It’s a hard time for the institutional church,” said VanHollebeke, standing near the Washington Monument. “It’s not a hard time for the body of the church. The people of the church are alive and well. It’s just amazing to see so many folks walking down the street here. We all stand for peace, all the different colors, all the different creeds, and we all stand together.

“I don’t think that true Catholics are waiting for the bishops to lead. I think that true Catholics are always in the lead, and the bishops will follow us where we take them. The spirit of the church is with the people, not with the clerics, not with the institution. I think that’s evident right now.”

Suzanne Shanley of the Agape Community in Massachusetts said Catholic activists are experiencing “a tremendous sense of outrage” at the bishops’ pro-war position, which is in contrast to the Vietnam War when the institutional church, for the most part, chose silence over overt support.

“Silence is better than a vote of such overwhelming, scandalous proportion,” she said, quoting peace activist Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan.

Many voices of dissent are being heard in the church, Shanley said. “Catholic women are beginning to speak with one another, and to say as Catholic women we have a voice.”

Shanley said the Catholic peace community has its hands full trying to get the attention of a church mired in “the pedophilia scandal.”

At the rally, Shanley circulated a petition to the bishops titled: “A Catholic Call to Peacemaking in a Time of War.”

“The challenge now is to get the bishops and the church -- if the bishops have any credibility left at all -- to say something about their vote [in support of the use of force against Afghanistan], and to undo the vote, to write a new pastoral,” she said.

At an April 20 rally on the Mall, Martin Luther King III and peace activist Philip Berrigan were the only speakers with name recognition on the program. Dear said he invited 40 other celebrities; all turned down the invitation to address a rally that also included strong opposition to Israeli attacks on Palestinians. Dear said fear likely kept the Hollywood folks away.

“These are really good people who have done a lot of good work for peace and justice, but the times have changed, and they’ve paid a price for speaking out,” Dear said. “I suspect a lot of people are afraid to speak out because it might hurt their careers because this war is so popular, and the celebrities don’t want to appear unpatriotic.”

Before taking the stage, King said the signs of the times are ominous, and peacemakers must make their voices heard despite a press bias in favor of war. “Sept. 11 made us as a nation kind of grow silent,” King said. And those who have been willing to speak about peace have been “blacked out” by the U.S. media.

“I want us to rid our world of terrorism, but I disagree with the approach that we’ve taken, the strategies, the bombings,” King said.

While the crowd was large, King said it wasn’t large enough. “It should be even bigger,” he said, “because it’s so serious. ... We’re on the brink of destroying our world.”

Berrigan asked the gathering, “How can the No. 1 terrorist nation wage any sort of realistic war against terrorism? What do we do about this can of worms? Well, we love God and we love our neighbor, and we strive to identify our enemies, which are not sisters and brothers abroad, but our own barbarian people -- those at the top.”

Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.

National Catholic Reporter, May 3, 2002