National Catholic Reporter
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January 16, 2004

LettersRacism and housing project

I am responding to the Nov. 28 article by Bob McClory titled “Racism thwarts building project in NW Indiana” to clarify the misstatements and inaccuracies set forth. I am a member of the Griffith, Ind., Plan Commission and a member of the Griffith, Ind., Town Council. I am appalled that Mr. McClory did not take the time to contact anyone from the Griffith Plan Commission or the Griffith Town Council prior to submitting his article for publication. I am equally appalled the editors of NCR did not check the facts prior to publication. The facts are as follows:

1) It was the Griffith Plan Commission that rejected St. Mary’s Church petition to build multi-family housing on its property, not the zoning board.

2) St. Mary’s Church property is currently zoned single family residential, not multi-family. St. Mary proposed not only a 60-unit facility but also an additional 40-unit facility. Sound town planning cannot allow for the creation of spot zoning for 100 units in the middle of a single family residentially zoned area.

3) The Griffith Plan Commission has not, in the past, rejected proposals for townhouses and condominiums that were properly zoned.

4) It was Fr. Mens who first raised the issue of racism only after the proposal was denied. Race was never mentioned in the public meeting. The concerns raised by the public were drainage and flooding, ecology, traffic ingress and egress, safety of schoolchildren and the potential decrease in property values. I personally question the validity of Fr. Mens’ accusation that race was brought to his attention by a student within the school system. Fr. Mens has made statements throughout this event that have been verified as misleading, deceptive and/or totally inaccurate. The Plan Commission based its decision to deny the project solely on good, sound planning with regard to a parcel of land and its location within the community and surrounding area.

5) The last paragraph in your article regarding the town seizing the church property via eminent domain is completely false. The town has no such plans of acquiring this land.

Fr. Mens believes he has a right to do whatever he desires with the church property, no matter what the effect is on the surrounding area, no matter what the effect is on the community, no matter what the zoning is. He believes the church should be exempt from any and all restrictions with regard to uniform planning statues and zoning issues. Fr. Mens is incorrect. Churches must adhere to the same zoning and sound planning requirements as everyone else. Churches are not immune from the laws.

The requested housing development is not a moral issue, as your publication and Fr. Mens have attempted to make it. Because Fr. Mens did not get his way, it is unfortunate he has decided to make this a race issue. Griffith town officials made it clear this development was not about St. Mary, not about senior independent housing, not about race, nor about religious freedoms. It is about location, location, location.

Griffith, Ind.

McClory responds:

I did not contact Griffith town officials because I thought it was clear from the story that the parish was seeking a variance on zoning regulations to allow for a multi-use complex in an area currently not zoned for such, and the petition was denied. In retrospect, I believe I should have contacted Mr. Konopasek so he could have made even clearer the town’s adherence to existing zoning laws. The adherence is so firm, it seems, that Griffith officials would not budge even though a valuable piece of church property was being offered free of charge for the needs of limited-income senior citizens of whom Griffith has a large and growing number. Mr. Konopasek does not directly address the claim of many people in northwest Indiana, including the bishop of Gary, that racism is prevalent and that legal barriers are used in some municipalities to keep blacks out. But I think he means to deny the existence of any racist motive in this case; as he reiterates, the petition for an exception to zoning rules was denied solely because of “location, location, location.”

* * *

I don’t doubt that racism fuels some opposition to Fr. Mens’ senior housing project, but church plans clearly deviate considerably from existing zoning laws. Unless these laws were themselves enacted primarily to ensure segregation, I suspect there’s more to the story. Environmental degradation, pollution, population “congestion, increased traffic, uprooting trees, and declining real estate values” were exactly the things my neighbors and I raised at meeting after meeting when developers unveiled plans for higher density housing on a plot in our neighborhood. Here the majority of residents and of our opposition committee were black. If we were majority white, perhaps our concerns would have been dismissed as racist too. There are quality-of-life issues that even bigoted white people can legitimately care about.

In our case, we felt unfairly targeted by developers and town administrators because we’re a minority community. This may or may not have been true. As developers seek maximal profits, towns strive to increase tax bases and ordinary people look for affordable housing, communities all over are experiencing pressure to develop residual land, often without regard to the effect on existing communities, the capacity of infrastructure to absorb and service the increase, environmental impact or an optimal ratio of developed/undeveloped space.

While racism must be confronted, it won’t help to dismiss legitimate issues as solely a veil for bigotry. Unless all concerns are acknowledged and addressed with a view to the long-term picture, real solutions will not be forthcoming and the destructive polarization that I sense from your coverage will only get worse.

Upstate New York

Liturgical reform

The always readable John Allen outdid himself in his wonderful analysis piece on liturgical reform in the Dec. 12 issue.

I read with amusement two quotes in it, both from Cardinal [Francis] Arinze, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship: 1) “The mother tongue has come to stay, and it has brought good. ... Obviously, if we understand what is said, it helps us worship.” 2) “If you are in a city where you have six or seven Masses every weekend, why not have at least one of them in Latin? It’s unfortunate that this doesn’t happen more often.”

Is that weekly Latin Mass for the Latin speakers in the city, or is it for those who don’t need help in worshiping?

Palmyra, Va.

War in Iraq

The American public is expected to be reassured that Iraqis are beginning to provide for their own security. But we have been here before. Mr. Rumsfeld was newly made a member of President Nixon’s Cabinet in 1969 when Nixon gave his famous “Vietnamization” speech. Under President Ford in 1975, Rumsfeld became our nation’s youngest secretary of defense, the year the United States pulled out of Vietnam. He would do well to refrain from promoting “Iraqization” in 2003.

The simplified appraisal of this type of strategy is that it attempts to have us occupy a country by force of arms, and then train the people there to occupy themselves. It didn’t work then; it won’t work now. As an Iraqi farmer, in a Nov. 7 National Public Radio report put it, “What you call democracy, I call violent, humiliating occupation.”

We have invaded a sovereign (though sordidly ruled) country, for preemptive self-protection against weapons of mass destruction of unproven existence. We’ve trapped ourselves, and the Iraqi people, in an unjust war of occupation, where violence piles upon violence. It’s time to have the wisdom to place the situation under the control of the United Nations, to move towards true Iraqi self-determination, with special input from all the nations who have played important roles in the recent history of the Middle East.

Port Huron, Mich.

* * *

The U.S. occupation of Iraq has contributed, to no small degree, to growing anti-American sentiments around the world, and certainly in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

Many questions remain: Where are the weapons of mass destruction, the premise upon which the invasion was based? Will the new Iraqi government be able to prevent pro-Saddam loyalists from starting a protracted civil war?

But there is another troubling issue related to Iraq which the antiwar protesters and others, including the Vatican, have yet to address in any meaningful way: the plight of the tens of thousands, possibly millions, of Iraqis that Saddam and his sadistic entourage tortured, maimed, raped and killed.

Within days of Hussein’s capture, Cardinal Renato Martino, speaking on behalf of the Vatican, said he was “saddened to see [Saddam Hussein] destroyed, reduced in this way.”

The post-capture video of Hussein showed him, in Martino’s words “being treated like a cow. We should have been spared these images.”

It is admirable that Cardinal Martino toed the antiwar line of the Holy See, but his comments are troubling, as are the issues he omitted.

Did Martino ever say he was “sad to see” the mass graves of Iraqi civilians, the torture chambers of Saddam & Sons? Did the cardinal ever say we should be spared those images too? The Allies in World War II never got to Hitler in time to bring him to justice before he committed suicide. Would Cardinal Martino have been “saddened to see” Hitler destroyed?

There is no contradiction between opposing war and praising success in freeing a huge population from a murdering, psychopathic thug. Unfortunately, the cardinal should take a look at some of the sobering images from Iraq, images of the legacy of the man for whom he “feels saddened.” It is even more unfortunate there was nobody to speak out about how sad it was that Iraqis were summarily imprisoned, tortured and executed.

Perhaps now is the time for the church to stop trying to defend its antiwar stance and admit the obvious. If anyone should be pitied it is Hussein’s victims and their families and those who might still be suffering this very day had Hussein not been captured. To ignore them and their suffering is to turn a blind eye to the very people the church purports to help around the world. This is not at odds with being critical of war as a means of resolving conflict.

Oakville, Conn.

* * *

Today as we occupy Iraq, a new colonialism based on myths is taking place. While our policymakers proclaim us liberators and friends of the Iraqi people, we keep no official record of Iraqi dead and wounded. Asked last spring about Iraqi military and civilian casualties, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated, “That is a number in which I have no interest.” Again, a huge disconnect between what is said and what is done!

Regarding our own casualties, we hear the Pentagon and media spin. What seldom is reported is the number of our troops wounded. That figure, as of mid-October, is over 1,800. Noncombat casualties including suicides, accidents and illnesses are over 6,000, according to a recent report from The London Observer.

Another cost not considered is the psychological damage done to our troops as well as the Iraqi people. A recent report, again by a British newspaper, The Independent, reveals that our government is now engaged in the policy of “collective punishment” against Iraqi civilians. This includes bulldozing ancient groves of fruit trees in central Iraq to punish farmers who did not give information about rebels attacking U.S. troops. This collective punishment policy is a violation of international law put forth by the Geneva Conventions. These tactics will only increase the ill will against America and lead to more rebel attacks.

LaCrosse, Wis.

Language wars

I assume that John L. Allen Jr. is accurate when he reports in the Dec. 26 NCR that an “influential chorus” of Catholic philosophers argue that “the church needs to speak in a philosophical language that took shape in a Catholic ambience -- specifically Thomism.” They call for “the recovery of some form of Thomism, whose concepts and vocabulary were explicitly inspired by Catholicism.” If Allen’s report is indeed accurate, one should wonder how this chorus can sing this song with straight faces.

Let me point out just two of the problems with this song. First, there is no good reason to think that St. Thomas himself would have joined this chorus. He drew crucial parts of his vocabulary and set of concepts from the one to whom he gave the honorary title “the Philosopher,” namely the pagan Aristotle. He also relied heavily on St. Augustine, among others, who did not live in the same 13th-century Catholic ambience that Thomas did.

Second, does the chorus really mean that Eastern Uniate and Orthodox churches ought to reformulate their theologies in “some form of Thomism”? That, unless they do, we Westerners can ignore them without significant loss? That would be a barbarous claim.

In short, this chorus has tin ears.

Watkinsville, Ga.

* * *

I appreciate John Allen’s article “Language becomes Catholic battleground” in your Dec. 26 issue. Sadly, the leaders of Vatican II failed to design, develop and deliver a systematic, practical implementation plan for that council’s reforms. That is true especially in regard to Catholic social teaching, the church’s “best kept secret.” This omission has resulted in 40 years of strong cognitive dissonance within the church as we know it today. Now Allen reports that these conflicts are marked by a deadly game of “wordsmithing” among the various factions within the church. Allen clearly points out the irony between Pope John Paul II’s own “personalist” views and the fact that he “has set forces in motion inside the church at odds with his own vision.”

I would hope that the church leadership soon consults the experience-based wisdom of management research as the church belatedly attempts to resolve serious, self-destructive inner conflicts that have developed since Vatican II.

As things now stand, it seems that today’s actions by the church in regard to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, for example, may be akin to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” To wit, Allen mentions the current high-level quibbling about some perhaps esoteric distinctions between “values” and “verities.”

East Grand Rapids, Mich.

Letters to the editor should be limited to 250 words and preferably typed. If a letter refers to a previous issue of NCR, please give us that issue’s date. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Letters, National Catholic Reporter, P.O. Box 419281, Kansas City, MO 64141. Fax: (816) 968-2280. E-mail: Please be sure to include your street address, city, state, zip and daytime telephone number.

National Catholic Reporter, January 16, 2004