US Catholics stand up against drones, cite teachings

Every week, members of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker in Washington, D.C. gather outside the Pentagon to pray.

They pray for many things, and also pray against the United States' use of drones.

"The U.S. extends its unrelenting violence in Afghanistan, and has escalated its military intervention in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan through the use of killer Drones," reads a flyer the group passed out earlier this year.

"'Kill Lists' have been secretly drawn up to assassinate anyone the U.S. deems a threat … The victims cry out for justice. The earth groans in travail."

As the discussion about drones becomes increasingly audible and increasingly heated, area progressive Catholics are making sure their voices heard.

On Saturday, the metropolitan D.C. and Baltimore arm of the international peace and justice movement, Pax Christi, held its annual assembly with the theme: "Drone Killing – Not in Our Name."

The assembly's keynote speaker was Medea Benjamin, author of the book "Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control," and co-founder of the human rights organization CODEPINK, which held vigils for Pakistani drone victims last month in front of the Pakistani Embassy.

James Salt, director of the D.C.-based Catholics United, issued a statement after Senator Rand Paul's anti-drone filibuster earlier this month, saying Paul had honored "human dignity" and respected the "value of all human life."

"Our elected leaders must recognize the damaging and dehumanizing effect the use of drones has had in our prosecution of wars," Salt continued. "We thank Senator Paul for fighting for the Common Good."

Next month, Pax Christi Metro DC will join other area faith groups to witness against the United States' "killer drone program" at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

Currently, the U.S. has two parallel drone programs run by the CIA and the Department of Defense, respectively. (However, rumors abound that the Obama administration plans to unite the programs under the sole direction of the Defense Department.)

The government does not release data on the number of drone strikes or on the number of casualties, but last month, The New America Foundation estimated that since 2004, between 1,953 and 3,279 Pakistanis had been killed by drones – about 20 percent of which were civilians.

For many Catholics, the theological basis for the opposition to drones lies in the Church's teachings on the sanctity of life. Outspoken Catholic anti-drone advocates have stated the numerous loss of innocent lives caused by drones that cannot discriminate between combatants and civilians.

The Vatican has yet to make a statement about drones, though its position against nuclear weapons is well documented. Additionally, in 2011, Vatican Radio aired an interview with one of the authors of an Oxford Research Group report questioning the legality of drone usage.

The Rev. Joseph Nangle, a priest at Our Lady Queen of Peace in Arlington, Va., believes drones should be a point of particular concern for all Catholics and people of faith.

"I think it's a dreadful use of military power," he said.

For the past two decades, Nangle has attended an Ash Wednesday "Witness for Repentance" service outside the White House. During the service, Christians pray for the sins of the state, and mark the street outside the White House with ashes.

This year, the 30 people gathered for the service gave particular attention to the military's use of drones. Nangle said Christians are called to take on the sins of the state by strong biblical and traditional mandate.

"I think that's exactly what Jesus did," he said. "Isaiah talks about a messiah that will take on the sins of the people, and that's why Jesus died. Dietrich Bonhoeffer could have kept his ministry to a very personal level, but he went back to Nazi Germany because he thought he had an obligation to the people and to his country as a minister of the gospel."

And many D.C. Catholics seem to agree. This year's event was co-sponsored – along with Witness Against Torture and TASCC International – by Pax Christi USA; the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns; and Jonah House, a nonviolent Catholic intentional community in Baltimore.

Although Nangle says thus far U.S. military policy has been little effected by his prayers, a sense of optimism remains among the faithful.

Art Laffin of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker helped plan this year's Ash Wednesday "Witness of Repentance" and also prays weekly at the Pentagon.

"Whenever we pray and bear witness in the name of Jesus, I believe, as the scripture informs us, that God is present," he said. "Over the years, as we have witnessed in front of the White House – the symbolic center of power of the U.S. empire – I have felt the presence of God in a powerful way with the gathered community."

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