Washington D.C., Jul 5, 2015 / 04:32 pm (CNA).- Imagine being woken up in the middle of the night by a dark figure in your room. He presses a gun to your head and demands that you get up. You and your family are dragged out of bed and led to a mining field, where you are forced to dig for hours on end.

They may be the proverbial “girl’s best friend,” but diamonds are far from friendly for many of those involved in the mining process.

With abuses ranging from forced labor to the funding of child soldiers, many diamonds still carry the shadow of blood and conflict, even decades after the first attempts to address some of the more troubling practices in getting the stones from their rocky deposits to a glittering setting.

What – if anything – can Catholics do to counter the immense human cost still attached to some of these gems?

Plenty, according to Max Torres, business professor and Director of the Management Department at The Catholic University of America.

“In this economy, the consumer is king,” he told CNA. “The day that consumers want to get worked up over diamonds, this will stop, whatever abuse it is we’re trying to eradicate, it will stop.”

While there are many steps in the process and levels of moral responsibility from consumers to the diamond exporters themselves, Torres maintained that ordinary people can still work to change large-scale moral problems in the industry.

“Do not underestimate the power of the consumer to move supply-chain decisions throughout the economy,” he stressed.

Clear stones; Blood-red controversies

Despite the 2006 hit film “Blood Diamond,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, many consumers are still unaware of the controversy surrounding the diamond industry. Meanwhile, the need for accountability and higher ethical standards is still sorely felt by many working to mine the precious gems.

In recent decades, the conversation surrounding diamond mining has focused on the so-called “blood diamonds” – those mined in conflict areas whose profits are used to fund the bloody war efforts.  Also called “conflict diamonds,” these previous stones are most associated with the illicit industries backing of civil wars in Angola, Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Liberia.

These countries all now have, at least in theory, legitimate diamond mining industries subject to international standards.

The most well-known international standard, the Kimberley Process, was set up in 2003 following a United Nations resolution against the sale of blood diamonds, to ensure that any given shipment of diamonds does not finance rebel groups. Certified shipments of rough diamonds must be transported in tamper-resistant containers and must be accompanied by a government certificate verifying their compliance.

But many advocates say the process is inadequate at addressing the problems underlying the diamond industry. For starters, there is no guarantee beside the exporting government’s assurance that a given shipment of diamonds is, in fact, conflict-free. Issues of corruption and bribery surrounding some governments’ certification, and a lack of transparency has led some key groups to pull out of the process altogether.

The 2003 National Geographic special “Diamonds of War” found that despite the early efforts of the Kimberley Process to regulate the industry, illegal transactions at the time were still rampant in some areas. A Sierra Leone official said that some 60 percent of the diamonds exported from the country were smuggled rather than going through officially regulated channels. One expert in the documentary estimated that 20-40 percent of the global rough diamond trade at the time was done illicitly.

Another complaint about the Kimberley Process is that while it works to combat funding of conflicts, it does not deal with other issues in the diamond industry, including forced labor and violence against workers, substandard and exploitative working conditions, the use of child labor and environmental concerns.

These problems show that the current definition of “conflict-free” is “far too limited in scope,” said Jaimie Herrmann, director of marketing for Brilliant Earth, a San Francisco-based jeweler that focuses specifically on providing ethically-sourced diamonds, gemstones and metals.

What the Kimberley Process “doesn’t include is human rights abuses, violence, sexual abuses, and severe environmental degradation, as well as corruption,” Herrmann continued.

“For that reason, we go above and beyond the Kimberley Process’s definition of conflict free,” she said. Brilliant Earth gets its diamonds from select sources in Canada, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Russia. “We feel like those diamonds really do go above and beyond that guarantee and they are untainted by human rights abuses.”

The chance to establish a legitimate and ethical source of diamonds has also been an economic opportunity for some countries. In Botsawna, the government and DeBeers diamond company each own half of the Debswana mining company, and the nation has seen a rapidly growing economy and increasing economic freedom thanks in part to its booming mining industry and trusted industry standards.

Canada too has invested heavily in its mining infrastructure and increased production, quickly becoming a key diamond-producing country since the discovery of large diamond deposits in the 1990s.

Synthetic diamonds too offer promise for more ethically-produced diamonds, though currently the lab-produced stones comprise only two percent of the diamond gemstone market, with the remainder of the synthetic stones used in industrial settings.

The Ethics of Luxury and Necessity

Dr. Christopher Brugger, professor of moral theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado, told CNA that in the diamond industry, as in any other work, Catholic social teaching instructs employers that “people come before profit.”

For businesses, he said, this means “pay employees a fair wage; respect the integrity of the marriages and families of employees; respect the faith of employees; permit labor to organize in socially constructive ways; work for fair access for all to goods and services necessary to living a dignified life.”

“Do producers who use their profits to fund conflicts or who use forced labor fulfill those duties?” he asked. “Emphatically no.”

Sustained abuses ranging from the funding of bloody conflicts to mining practices that exploit and demean workers not only fail to fulfill the moral duties of employers, Brugger said. The unjust practices also affirm that the high profits coupled with neglect for moral obligations have been “attracting scoundrels” to the industry.

But business leaders are not the only people with moral stakes in the diamond industry, he continued.

“It seems to me that morally conscientious people have an increasing responsibility to ‘shop ethically,’ i.e., to keep in mind where things come from, the conditions of those who supply things, the processes by which they are supplied,” Brugger suggested.

While it may not be possible to know the sourcing behind every product in every store, he said, it could be easier to find information on larger suppliers and specific industries.

Furthermore, he elaborated, there is a “greater responsibility on a person who is buying luxury items not to cooperate in the immoral actions of suppliers than there is on persons who are purchasing products for basic subsistence.”

“Ordinarily I do not need diamonds or chocolate,” Brugger said. “If we are dealing with luxuries, I think our obligations are still pretty strong to avoid purchasing from sources that do really bad things.”

“As one becomes aware of the ethical conditions surrounding an industry, one's duty to factor that knowledge into one's moral decision making becomes greater,” he added, noting that not everyone has the same access to the facts on abuses in a given industry.

“As knowledge of the ethical deficiencies become more widely known and the knowledge becomes easily available, our responsibility to use that knowledge in our shopping becomes greater,” he said. Knowledgeable customers should “inquire into the origins of the diamond they purchase; if shopkeepers are coy and not forthcoming about their sources, consumers ordinarily should look elsewhere.”

A Good Place to Start

Lack of information is “a big part of the problem,” according to Herrmann. She recommended that jewelers seek to trace the origin of their diamonds to countries and mines known for more ethical practices.

“Most jewelers know that their diamond is certified as conflict-free by the Kimberley Process, but do not know any more information about where their diamond is coming from,” she said.

Stephen Hilbert, a foreign policy adviser specializing in Africa and Global Development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, seconded the suggestion that people looking at diamonds ask where they come from. He added that customers should also ask electronics dealers to check for conflict minerals, which face many of the same concerns as the diamond mining industry.  

“Dealers may not be able to tell you whether their devices have been checked, but at least this raises the profile of the issue and this may trickle up,” he told CNA.

Consumer instance could be the force that leads to tighter standards and improved processes aimed at preventing abuse.

Still, Torres insisted, “no process is perfect.”

The Kimberley Process is a reputable starting point that could “be broadened and be brought more into line with human rights,” he said, and asking about the origin of diamonds “seems to be a rather painless method of at least garnering some amount of accountability.”

But in the end, the moral issues surrounding the industry are fundamentally a problem of human sin, which no process or regulations can erase.

“The only thing that can ensure moral behavior is the heart is human beings,” Torres said. Ultimately, “Jesus Christ is the answer.”
 

Washington D.C., Jul 4, 2015 / 02:35 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Religious freedom is absolutely necessary to implement the teachings of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Laudato Si, said the U.S. bishops’ domestic justice spokesman on Independence Day.

The Pope’s recent encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, demands that Catholics “engage the world and witness to our teachings,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami said in a homily for the closing Mass of the Fortnight for Freedom on July 4. However, he added, this public action can only be accomplished with true religious freedom.

“Religious freedom is the human right that guarantees all other rights – peace and creative living together will only be possible if freedom of religion is fully respected,” the archbishop said.

Archbishop Wenski is the chair of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. He gave the homily at the July 4 Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. More than 1,000 people were estimated to be in attendance.

The Fortnight for Freedom is an initiative started by the U.S. bishops in 2012 to educate Catholics about the importance of religious liberty and to bring awareness to current threats to the practice of religion in the U.S.

The first fortnight was held amidst deep concerns about the state of religious freedom relating to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. Other concerns since then have included small business owners being forced to serve same-sex weddings against their religious beliefs, adoption agencies having to close rather than place children with same-sex couples, and churches being prevented by states from ministering to undocumented immigrants.

More recently, the  bishops expressed serious concerns about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

The majority opinion in Obergefell did not guarantee sufficient protections for the religious liberty of persons and organizations who believe marriage to be the union of one man and one woman, said Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore in a June 26 conference call with reporters following the decision. Archbishop Lori chairs the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty.

The theme of the 2015 Fortnight for Freedom was “Freedom to Bear Witness.” Archbishop Lori explained in his homily at the opening Mass for the fortnight, that “we seek the freedom to bear witness to Christ’s love, not just in church but in our service to the wider community through works of justice and charity, education, social services, and health care.”

One of the key threats to religious freedom in Western countries is the privatization of religion, Archbishop Wenski said in his homily for the closing Mass, because religion is inherently public in practice.

In Western countries, “we see the courts chipping away at the original understanding of religious freedom,” he said. “In order to fit new political agendas, religious freedom is being reinterpreted narrowly to mean merely ‘freedom to worship’ but excluding the freedom to serve and the freedom to witness.”

This is already manifested in a “soft despotism,” he explained, where “ridicule, ostracism, and denial of employment opportunities of advancement are being used to marginalize us.”

“We see this when butchers, and bakers and candlestick makers are being put into the legal dock for refusing to renounce their religious beliefs,” he added. For example, Christian owners of an Oregon bakery have been forced by the state to pay a lesbian couple $135,000 in damages for refusing to serve their same-sex wedding.

In addition, the owners were told not to publicly discuss their faith-based refusal to serve the wedding, as reported by the Daily Signal.

The recent encyclical Laudato Si gives Catholics a mandate to practice their faith publicly, Archbishop Wenski said, by promoting an “integral ecology” of both care for the human person and for creation. Yet Catholics can only do this if their freedom to practice their religion publicly is protected, he added.

“An integral ecology demands that rain forests be protected – because of what they do potentially and actually for the flourishing of the human species on this earth,” the archbishop explained of the recent encyclical.

“Likewise, an integral ecology tells us that marriage, understood for millennia as a union of one man and one woman, ought to be respected and protected.”

If Catholic institutions that care for the environment and the human person are shut down because they cannot in good conscience comply with new laws and mandates, then Catholics cannot promote the common good of an “integral ecology.”

The Supreme Court’s recent redefinition of marriage has threatened this human ecology, he said, and the “radical autonomy” promoted by this decision was condemned in Laudato Si.

“Today, some hold for a radical autonomy by which truth is determined not by the nature of things but by one’s own individual will,” he said, stressing that the court’s redefinition of marriage does not change the nature of marriage no matter how much humans may desire to do so.

“As Pope Francis has written so eloquently in Laudato Si, such thinking has also brought about the degradation of both our natural and our human or social ecologies,” he continued.

Like freedom of speech, religion is expressed publicly and not just privately, Archbishop Wenski said.

Freedom of speech is expressed through public institutions like media outlets, political parties, and libraries, he said, and not only through one individual stating his opinion.

Similarly, religion is practiced publicly as well, not just through one’s personal beliefs but “those institutions that nourish the individual’s free exercise of religion,” he said. These institutions include not just churches but Catholic schools, hospitals, adoption agencies, and other charities and ministries.

Religious practice holds a proud tradition in the U.S., Archbishop Wenski added, especially when religious leaders marched at the forefront of the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King as they pushed for equal rights for black people.

“Some today resent the public advocacy of religious people and communities. They accuse us of trying to impose our views on others,” Archbishop Wenski acknowledged.

“Yet, as St. John Paul II explained, the Church does not impose, she proposes. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his movement for racial justice could not impose their views on the American people. They understood this – and, for this reason, they opted for non-violence. But they made a proposition that touched the conscience of a nation.”
 

Norfolk, Va., Jul 4, 2015 / 04:41 am (CNA/EWTN News).- An immigrant parish, burnt down, with only the crucifix remaining. A parish rebuilt, transformed and a key part in giving back to the community. In a sense, one parish’s story of struggle, pressure and rebirth is metaphor for the American Catholic experience.

St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, Virginia, is the only black Catholic church in the United States that is also a basilica. Its dramatic history captures both the broader American Catholic history of persecution, growth and acceptance, but also a witness to the unique challenges faced by black Catholics over the centuries.

Founded originally as St. Patrick’s Parish in 1791, it is the oldest Catholic parish in the Diocese of Richmond, predating the foundation of the diocese by nearly 30 years.

“Catholicism was not legal to practice” in Virginia when the colony was founded, said Fr. Jim Curran, rector of the basilica. In much of Colonial America, before the Revolution and the signing of the Bill of Rights, churches that were not approved by the government were prohibited from operating, he told CNA.

The land originally bought in 1794 for the parish is the same ground on which the basilica today stands. From the beginning, according to the parish’s history, Catholics from all backgrounds worshiped together: Irish and German immigrants, free black persons and slaves.

However, by the 1850s, the parish’s immigrant background and mixed-race parish drew the ire of a prominent anti-Catholic movement: the Know-Nothings.

Largely concentrated in northeastern states where the immigrant influx was greatest, the movement rose and fell quickly. Concerned with maintaining the Protestant “purity of the nation,” it worked to prevent immigrants – many of whom were Catholic – from gaining the right to vote, becoming citizens, or taking elected office.

“I consider the Know-Nothings to be a sort of gatekeeper organization, by which I mean that they were both anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic at the same time,” said Fr. Davis Endres, an assistant professor of Church History and Historical Theology at the Athenaeum of Ohio.

He told CNA that the Know-Nothing Party was able to bring together both pro- and anti-slavery voters in the mid-1800s, united in the common “dislike of foreign-born and Catholics.”

While most anti-Catholic activities took the form of defamatory speeches and public discrimination, the prejudice sometimes turned to violence and mob action, Fr. Endres explained.

The anti-Catholic discrimination and threats found their way to St. Patrick’s doorstep, where the Know-Nothings were unhappy that the pastor was allowing racial integrated Masses, said Fr. Curran.

The pastor at that time, Fr. Matthew O’Keefe, received so many threats directed against the Church and himself that police protection was required to stop the intimidation of the Catholics worshiping at the church, according to the locals.  

Despite the threats, however, Fr. O’Keefe did not segregate the Masses. In 1856, the original church building burned down, leaving only three walls standing. Only a wooden crucifix was left unscathed.

More than 150 years later, it is still unclear exactly who or what caused the fire, but since the days following the blaze, parishioners have had their suspicions.

“We don’t know for sure if they were the ones who burned it, but it’s widely believed, it’s a commonly held notion that it’s the Know-Nothings who burnt the Church,” Fr. Curran said.   

Fr. O’Keefe and the parishioners worked hard to rebuild the church, seeking donations from Catholics along the East Coast. A new church building was constructed less than three years after the fire and is still standing today.

After the church was rebuilt, the parish renamed itself in 1858 in honor of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which was proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854. It claims to be the first church in the world named for Mary of the Immaculate Conception following the declaration.

In 1889, the Josephites built Saint Joseph's Black Catholic parish to serve the needs of the black Catholic community, and the two parishes operated separately within several blocks of one another. However, in 1961, St. Joseph’s was demolished to make way for new construction, and the two parishes were joined, reintegrating – at least in theory – St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception.

But the merger was not popular with many of the white parishioners and conflicted with the segregation policies of local government institutions and public life, Fr. Curran said. “St Mary’s became a de facto black parish.”

During this demographic shift, many parishioners of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception had to draw deeply upon their faith. Black Catholics had to be stalwart, facing prejudice from both some white parishioners, who did not view them as fully Catholic, and some black Protestants, who did not support their religious beliefs.

“They were devoted, and still are,” the rector said. “You have to be very devoted to be a Black Catholic.”

This devotion and witness of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception was formally celebrated when, in 1991, Saint Pope John Paul II elevated the 200-year-old church to a minor basilica.

“Your black cultural heritage enriches the Church and makes her witness of universality more complete. In a real way the Church needs you, just as you need the Church, for you are a part of the Church and the Church is part of you,” Pope Saint John Paul II proclaimed at the elevation.

Today, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception plays a vital role not only as the only Catholic basilica in Virginia, but also as an important anchor of the neighborhood. The basilica operates a “robust” set of outreach ministries to local families, including rent assistance and food aid, serving thousands of people.

“The Church standing proudly and beautiful in the midst of the poor is where we need to be,” Fr. Curran said.

He also pointed to the basilica’s history as an example of one way communities can aid churches affected by violence, such as the - such as the half dozen black churches across the South that have burned since late June.

“The reason why we were able to raise so much money so quickly was because there were so many people that were appalled at the burning of St. Patrick’s,” the rector said.

Tragic events like the burning of a church can actually help bring people together in a common cause, he continued.

“It unites people of faith. If people of faith who are appalled by this stand up and assist and let our voices be heard, we can do something wonderful.”