Catholic archbishop issues pastoral letter on violence
San Salvador Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas has issued a major Catholic teaching document, called a pastoral letter, on the subject of the gang violence plaguing El Salvador, which has given the country one of the world’s highest homicide rates. [Click here for a complete translation of the document.]
The pastoral letter, called “I see Violence and Strife in the City” is Escobar’s first, and is being whispered about in San Salvador Catholic circles as possibly constituting the most important pronouncement from the Church in decades. [Read about the letter’s inspiration in Oscar Romero.]
In the Letter, Archbishop Escobar concludes that El Salvador’s violence is driven by systematic social injustice and that it “has roots that can be traced back to colonial days” (Violence and Strife, par. 63.). Power groups in El Salvador have imposed unjust arrangements over other groups through violence, creating a dynamo of violence that has operated continually through the conquest, the colonial period, insurrections in the 19th and 20th century, and the recent civil war, Escobar analyzes.
Escobar, who in the past has irritated Pres. Salvador Sanchez Ceren by suggesting that El Salvador faced the risk of becoming a “failed state” is candid in describing the dire situation. “The criminal violence that plagues our country is not a war per se, as we commonly understand the term” Escobar writes. But the country may be experiencing “a kind of social war” (par. 110).
Escobar does not mention the controversial question of negotiating with the gangs, or the recent “gang truce” that the Church had originally supported, nor does he mention the IPAZ initiative that Protestant churches have promoted. Nevertheless, Escobar rejects any approach to suppress crime through law enforcement actions alone, saying that “it is not sufficient only to treat the effects. We must tear out the roots” (par. 19). “It does us no good to attack the perpetrators of such violence if we do not pull out the roots” (par. 113).
Although Escobar appears initially sympathetic to gang-members—recognizing that they have been subjected to social exclusion, and suggesting they should re-integrated into society with “mercy” (par. 188), he also subjects their conduct to a Thomist “Just War” analysis and concludes that their “criminal violence cannot be countenanced and must be combatted—but without ignoring the roots that cause it” (par. 113).
Thus, Escobar posits that,
The Salvadoran State, helped by the private sector, must … take care that cultural, social, and educational conditions will increasingly be to the benefit of a greater number of our people (even if it means bucking the neo-liberal visions in vogue … ) and not simply serve a miniscule portion of the population. (Id.)
But Escobar doesn’t stop there. He also calls doing away with impunity with “historic trials” that set aside the 1993 Amnesty Law, “otherwise no ruler, no prosecutor, no lawyer or person in charge of upholding the law will have the moral standing to demand their enforcement” (par. 61). “A state that allows impunity,” he challenges, “is hardly a state at peace” (par. 107). “Perhaps this will involve demystifying many of our emblematic figures and role models,” he admits, but it would allow the country to begin to “walk in the truth” after centuries of impunity (par. 140).
He also slams consumerism and calls for going “against the grain” of “neoliberal” economic policies.
It remains to be seen how different interest groups will react to the letter once it filters out.
This post was written by Carlos Colorado, author of the Super Martyrio blog concerning all things related to Oscar Romero, and the translator into English of the pastoral letter.