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 May 5, 2008   •   VOL. 46, NO. 9   •   Oakland, CA
Bishop's Column

Causes of youth violence
and taking action to stop it

Dear friends,

On April 29, I participated in the annual Bishop’s Public Policy Breakfast. This year’s topic was youth violence. The aim of our gathering was to bring together leaders in order to strategize about actions we can take to help stop youth violence which has become so prevalent in many of our East Bay communities. I want to share with you here the text of my remarks to that gathering.

Before I begin my remarks, I want to express my gratitude to all of you who have come to participate in this latest of the Bishop’s Policy Breakfasts. I am particularly indebted to those who have planned the event and worked to make it happen.

This is also an appropriate moment to pay tribute to my predecessor, Bishop John Cummins, who wisely began these breakfasts as a way to help the leadership of the Church and our civic community give focused attention to challenges that we must take on in order to advance the common good.

“The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of people today, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts” (GS, 1). These words, from the opening of the Second Vatican Council’s “Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” have from the very day of its promulgation served as an eloquent statement of the Church’s whole-hearted commitment to respond generously to the lessons taught her by her Lord in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

This morning, as we consider the youth violence that is such a scourge in our communities — most particularly in West Contra Costa County and Oakland — these words from the Fathers of the Council find a deep resonance in my heart and, I am sure, in the hearts of all of you.

When was the last time we in the East Bay passed a week without seeing on television the weeping of a mother who lost her child to violence in our streets? Their griefs certainly have become ours as well. They raise a profound echo in the hearts of every one of us. All the more so because most often these mothers and their murdered children live in poverty on the margins of our society.

Our first, our spontaneous, response is to stand with those who bear the cross which comes to them from the violent death of those they love. Insofar as it is possible, we make their sorrows our own. Let us, then, here at the beginning of our gathering, pause to remember the young of our communities who have died by violence, and let us stand in solidarity with those who mourn them. (Stand in silence.)

In this regard I want here to pay particular tribute to my brother priests who, with quiet heroism, go about the unbelievably painful duty that falls to them in leading the burial rites for the families of those who have died violently.

And, of course, along with them, I have in mind their devoted co-workers and the faithful of their parishes, who, rather than turn away, willingly set their faces to share the force of grief’s tempest. In the context of this meeting I extend this tribute also to the clergy of all the congregations in the East Bay who together minister to those who mourn the murdered.

All persons of good will, believers and unbelievers alike, know that, while it is necessary for us to share with our neighbors the grief that comes from the violent deaths of children, youth and young adults, we must do more. We must act. We must act to stop the violence. That is the principal aim of our gathering this morning. We have come together, yes, to renew our commitment to end youth violence, but more importantly to consider practical steps which we can take together for that purpose

However, while I want to keep the focus of our agenda this morning on moving into action, in this first major half of my remarks, I am going to hold back a little longer from considering plans of action. We need to spend some time in thinking, in analyzing.

In order for the actions we propose to be effective, they must be thoughtful, thought through. We must think about the causes of youth violence first, in order then to determine what are effective remedies.
A thorough analysis of the causes which give rise to youth violence requires far more attention than I can give here. My goal just now is to make some strategic distinctions about the kinds of causes, of which I will identify three: first, the deep causes; second, mediate causes; and third, proximate causes.

Deep causes of youth violence

To speak of “deep causes” is to focus on the very root of this evil. This root can simply be identified as the rejection of the sacredness of human life and the denial of the intrinsic dignity of the human person. To act violently towards another, especially to murder, is to say that the life of the other is of no account in itself, but is only of worth in so far as that life serves me.

To murder another is to say that what the murderer wants is of greater worth than his victim’s existence. This is a lie. Every murder is a great lie. As Pope John Paul II put it, “Violence is a lie, for it goes against the truth . . . of our humanity” [Address at Drogheda, Ireland (29 September 1979), 9: AAS 71 (1979), 1081]. The lie of violence is known by both faith and reason.

We who are disciples of Christ, along with all our neighbors who claim the status of Abraham’s children, know that the source of this lie is sin. Sin is, if you will, the “root of the root.” This is clear from the account of Cain’s murder of Abel in the Book of Genesis: “Following upon the voluntary act by which [Adam and Eve] altered the divine order, the world experienced the shedding of blood and division. Violence made its appearance in interpersonal relationships (cf. Gen 4:1-16) and in social relationships (cf. Gen 11:1-9) [The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, n. 496].

Mediate causes

By “mediate causes” I have in mind those evils, personal and social, that are the fruit of the lie embodied in violence. Mediate causes are all of the ways the great lie finds expression in the lives of individuals and in society.

Some of these mediate causes are vices, like anger, envy, pride or lust. Others of these mediate causes are those social attitudes and structures which undermine human solidarity; here we need to be particularly mindful of racism and the experience of poverty that bleeds hope out of the fabric of existence. In the East Bay the latter is of great concern in Oakland, Richmond, San Pablo, the Monument Corridor of Concord, Pittsburg, Hayward, San Leandro, Union City, and other communities of need.

Proximate causes

To speak of “proximate causes” for youth violence is to recognize that the mediate causes such as I mentioned above do not by themselves explain the murder of children and young people. These mediate causes and factors need some sort of catalyst to spark acts of violence. Here I have in mind the circumstances that make violence a thinkable option. Perhaps it is something as simple as seeing at home or in some form of entertainment acts of violence as the ordinary way to handle difficulties.

Consideration about action

In moving on to the second principal part of my remarks — the promised consideration about action — I want to underscore the value of Catholic Social Teaching for all the plans of action we might consider. At each level of response, we need wisdom to guide our actions. The Church’s Social Teaching is of particular value because of its insight into the ways of solidarity, its unfailing concern to sustain human dignity and its identification of actions required to quell violence and foster peace. Here we have particularly in mind, quelling youth violence and fostering peace in our cities’ streets and neighborhoods.

We Catholics are convinced that in the effort to end youth violence, the Church’s Social Teaching is particularly valuable because, while it is confirmed by our faith, it is for the most part accessible to reason. It is a resource we gladly bring to the table.

Being educated in sound principles, while necessary, is, of course, not sufficient. We must learn all that we can about the facts of the case, what is really going on, what are the concrete social dynamics and dysfunctions at work in the rise of youth violence.

For example, one current report shows that there are clear correlations between religiosity and good outcomes for young people, while also pointing to young people’s need for connections to caring adults and authoritative communities.*

My remark just above about the reasonableness we Catholics claim for our Social Teaching leads me to reaffirm the commitment of all the parts of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland to be ready to partner with members of other faith communities and citizens of good will in every sound effort to stop youth violence.

In considering plans of action to address each class of causes for youth violence, we ought to keep in mind the principle of subsidiarity. According to this sage axiom, the advance of the common good, including the resolution of social problems such as youth violence, is best accomplished when these efforts take place as close as possible to the grass roots.

Keeping the principle of subsidiarity in mind will help us determine what we can best do in our neighborhoods and community groups, and what issues we need to address through political action with our local, state and national government leaders. Or, to put it another way, we must decide when we should take hands-on action and when we should act through petitions, initiatives, voting and all the other mechanism by which citizens direct the levers of the organs of government.

In regard to actions that address the “proximate causes” of youth violence, I want to call your attention to the City of Oakland’s Measure Y Violence Prevention Initiative, in which the Diocese of Oakland, especially through our Catholic Charities, is a strong partner.

And I know that there are many such initiatives in place or under consideration. Part of our work today should be to identify ways to support such programs that are on the frontlines in the struggle against youth violence.

In regard to actions that address the “mediate” or “ambient causes” of youth violence, I want to pick up again on my earlier mention of racism and poverty as examples of such causes. As we deepen our understanding of the role that poverty and racism play in establishing a ready context for youth violence, we will want to increase our efforts to find ways to heal these social ills.

As we consider how to address the ambient causes of youth violence, I am convinced of two social institutions that have be made stronger if we are, not only to treat the symptoms of youth violence, but to really heal this blight. They are families and schools.

As Pope Benedict reminds us: It is first at home, especially from one’s parents, that a person learns to love peace and leave aside violence as a way to solve conflict. And the evidence is overwhelming that young people from strong and stable homes, and who fulfill their potential to become educated, are the least likely to be caught up in the matrix that spawns the awful twins of poverty and violence. Therefore, any plan of action for a long-range solution to youth violence must strategize about strengthening families and improving education.

Recommitting ourselves
In regard to actions that address the “deep causes” of youth violence, we must recommit ourselves to all the forms of action we undertake in order to confirm the dignity of every human person, from conception to natural death. And we, who are members of the Church in Oakland, must take up the Gospel’s remedies for the sin of violence.

To that end, I, as the Bishop of Oakland, pledge myself to these actions in order to defeat the spirit of evil which feeds and foments the fear, hatred and acrimony that finds its expression in violence:

a) To lead in each quarter of the year a day of prayer and penance for an end to youth violence. For as the Lord said, “This kind can be cast out only by prayer and fasting” (Mk 9:29).

b) To ask all parishes to include regularly at the Holy Eucharist on the Lord’s Day a petition for the end of youth violence.

c) To invite the faithful to make their First Saturday devotions, especially their rosary, a special prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who in our own time showed herself so powerful as a protector against the violence, namely the violence of tyrants.

Finally, about the whole complex set of actions that we will consider as means to end youth violence, I am resolved as the principal Pastor of the Catholic Church in the East Bay, to direct and support my brother priests, our deacons, parish leaders and all our institutions in identifying and carrying out actions that will, with God’s help, rid our communities of youth violence and heal the wounds such violence has inflicted on us and our neighbors.

* See “Hardwired to Connect: The New Scien-ti-fic Case for Authoritative Communities,” A report to the nation from the Commission at Risk. Institute for American Values.


Previous "In His Light" Columns by Bishop Allen H. Vigneron

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