Europe may have believed it abolished slavery more than a hundred years ago, but according to Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, “it’s as deep as ever, just in different forms.”
Pope Francis has made the fight to end human trafficking and abolish modern slavery one of his signature pastoral concerns, and Nichols has been one of his chief allies over the past five years through the Santa Marta Group.
The Santa Marta Group, an initiative founded by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference for England and Wales, brings together law enforcement officers and the Church to combat what has been described as “one of the gravest criminal challenges facing the international community.”
Francis has not only given it his official backing - but during their inaugural meeting, he said to Nichols: “This meeting is far more important than most I go to, so please keep it going.”
Nichols was in Rome last week to participate in a conference organized by the Vatican’s section on migrants and refugees, centered on the department’s newly released “Pastoral Orientations on Human Trafficking.” The Santa Marta Group co-sponsored the conference, which brought together more than 200 leading activists and experts in the fight against trafficking.
Nichols, who has been hard at work on this issue over the past five years, told Crux that “as we confront new problems or new areas of problems that have been there for a long time, what you see is how deep-rooted and complex these human tragedies are.”
In particular, he said that he was particularly shocked by some of the discussions that took place during the conference over the harvesting of organs - an area where the Church has been explicit in its condemnation of organ trafficking as an emerging frontier in the exploitation of vulnerable individuals.
While surveying the issue of trafficking, Nichols diagnoses a broader cultural problem where he believes that “some of the basic cement of society seems to be crumbling” and that human relationships, on the whole, are fractured.
Part of the challenge of fighting trafficking, he believes, will be restoring those broken bonds and reclaiming a deeper understanding of the person within society at large.
“In English public discourse, we’ve always talked a lot about tolerance and respect for the person and the rule of law, but it’s long occurred to me that those two things - respect and tolerance - are like the fruit on the tree. Yes, we need them for the well-being of society, but unless we tend to the roots of that tree, it will run out of fruit and cease producing the fruits of tolerance and respect,” he said.
“We have to ask ourselves, what is it that nurtures the root of that tree? And there you have to have a vision of what it is to be human and make a society that has that vitality, that has the fruit in it of tolerance and respect,” he continued. “For me, as a Catholic, the roots of the tree lie in the great virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Those virtues come to us through the working of the Holy Spirit of God.”
Back at home, Nichols faces a divided nation over Brexit, and the country’s failed efforts to agree if and how to leave the European Union, and he said that such uncertainty is “highlighting the insecurity that migrant communities and minorities feel, and there’s no doubt that insecurity spills over into feeling threatened.”
Part of his response, he believes, is helping to restore a vision of the common good. He told Crux that a definition that he recently heard, that appeals to him is that of “giving other people the vision of a common good, a shared goal and an understanding of things where everyone can contribute.”
Part of rebuilding a society that reflects that will be one that embraces differences, and weaknesses, in particular, to provide mutual self-respect and recognizing that “everybody out of their own particular strengths and abilities has something to contribute, but also from their weaknesses because a great deal about being able to live with differences is being able to live with weaknesses.”
“In weakness we realize our need for others, and others are different to us and we begin to understand the mutual need, which is one of the roots of respect,” he added.
Looking ahead at the next steps for the Santa Marta Group, he says the entity has witnesses “the gradual evolution of regional hubs” that help build bridges between the Church and law enforcement. Recently, the Group has organized conferences in Nigeria and Argentina, and he believes that the group will look next to Northern Europe, the Philippines, and Myanmar.
With an estimated 40 million people being trafficked around the globe, he recognizes that there is need for strong commitments on behalf of the Church and the government for collaboration but he says one of the strengths of the Santa Marta Group is being nimble and not overrun by bureaucracy.
“I would like to see the overall managing of the Santa Marta Group, which at present rests with the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales…become more reflective of the very international character of the group, so maybe eventually it’s broad, without it becoming bureaucratic, without it becoming stuck in structure,” he told Crux.
As he looks to grow the Group’s efforts and continue in the fight, the one thing for certain is that he’s not backing down.
“One of the great things about Santa Marta is that it’s flexible, it’s responsive, and it’s very personal and has a lot to do with personal contacts, relationships, and trust,” he said. “As we move forward, we will have solidity that guarantees continuity.”