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Catholic Wokers and pipeline protesters Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya  (Facebook: Mississippi Stand)Catholic Wokers and pipeline protesters Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya  (Facebook: Mississippi Stand)

Two women who admitted recently to vandalizing parts of a controversial oil pipeline say their actions should be viewed through the lens of Catholic anti-war protests—and that climate change is the next chapter of that movement.

Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya both live in a Des Moines Catholic Worker community named after Philip Berrigan, a one-time Catholic priest and anti-war activist who had engaged in acts of civil disobedience such as burning draft cards and vandalizing nuclear warheads.

They announced during a press conference last month that they were responsible for vandalism that delayed construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline, which on June 1 began transporting oil from North Dakota to Illinois. Because it cuts through land sacred to Native Americans and is located near water sources, the nearly $4 billion project inspired months of protests that ended last winter when activists wereforcibly removed from their camps.

Both women were part of those protests but carried out the pipeline actions on their own. Now, both await trial and could face years in prison.

“We chose to take these actions after seeing the continued desecration of the Earth, which we are to be stewards of,” Ms. Montoya told America.

They say they began their protest on Election Day by burning several pieces of construction equipment. Over the next few months, they used oxyacetylene torches to cut through pipeline valves and used gasoline-soaked rags to burn electrical equipment. Their actions delayed construction by several weeks, and they stopped when they learned the oil flow had begun.

“We chose to take these actions after seeing the continued desecration of the Earth, which we are to be stewards of,” Ms. Montoya told America.

They held the press conference admitting to the vandalism to inspire others to act.

“Coming forward was really an empowering moment for us to share with others in the movement a diversity of tactics, tactics that we feel can be embraced by others,” Ms. Reznicek said.

Both women have been active in other protest movements, including Occupy Wall Street and anti-war activism in the Middle East. They both said their activism is informed by their faith—albeit in slightly different ways.

Ms. Montoya attended Catholic schools as a child and she has questioned both her faith and her church. But today she says she is rooted in the Catholic tradition and that Scripture inspires her social justice work.

“The Catholic Worker has given me the opportunity to walk in a way that has integrity with the scriptures and with what Christ has taught,” she said.

The Des Moines Catholic Worker movement does not have direct ties to the church, and it has clashed with the Diocese of Des Moines, including over the group’s support for women’s ordination. More recently, Frank Cordaro, a former priest who is part of the Catholic Worker community, urged bishops to be more forceful in their condemnation of drone warfare.

“I realized that Catholic Workers were at the forefront of the struggle, and not just during Occupy,” she recalled.

Ms. Reznicek was also raised Catholic, but she said she drifted away from the church as a teenager. When she returned to Des Moines and immersed herself in the local activist community, she was introduced to a side of Catholicism that had been unfamiliar to her.

“I realized that Catholic Workers were at the forefront of the struggle, and not just during Occupy,” she recalled.

She read about leftist Catholic activists, including Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement who is now being considered for sainthood, as well as her collaborator Peter Maurin and other activist figures such as Father Berrigan. That led her to join one of Des Moines’ Catholic Worker houses, where she helped run a soup kitchen and day shelter.

“I began to understand through the work that we do with people everyday on the streets how it’s a microcosm of a greater problem we have culturally in our society,” she said. “There are people everyday out on the streets fighting to feed their children, feed themselves, clothe themselves.”

She then moved on to resistance work—the Berrigan House is devoted to social action—which led her to plan and undertake the pipeline action.

“I took the model of the Plowshares movement and tried to make it my own,” she said. At 36, Ms. Reznicek said she does not identify as Catholic today, but that her activism is guided by a “deep, deep faith in God” and Christian principles.

The Plowshares movement refers to anti-war protesters in the 1980s who took their inspiration from the prophet Isaiah. He spoke of beating “swords into plowshares.” Several members of the movement that included brothers Philip and Daniel Berrigan, dubbed the Plowshares Eight, broke into a weapons facility and damaged the nosecones of several nuclear warheads in 1980.

Ms. Reznicek and Ms. Montoya say they represent “the next generation” of that movement, a claim supported by at least one of the late priest’s disciples. Anna Brown, a political science professor and director of the social justice program at St. Peter’s University who also co-editeda book about Daniel Berrigan, said the pair’s actions fit neatly within the Plowshare tradition.

She told America that climate change makes drastic change necessary because it is leading to “mass violence against the Earth.” This includes “mass suffering of its inhabitants and even potentially mass death to the same magnitude that you would have if you were to make use of the nuclear weapons.”

The goal of the anti-nuclear weapon movement and the environmental movement, she said, is the same.

“Because at the base of these movements is always saying yes to life and trying to discern what is it that is stamping out that life, destroying that life, killing that life,” Ms. Brown said. “Pope Francis’ ‘Laudato Si’’ may encourage folks in the Catholic communities to awaken to the reality of what we’re actually doing [to the planet] on a daily basis.”

Critics have said Ms. Reznicek and Ms. Montoya engaged in violence and should thus be held accountable. Writing in theWashington Examiner, for example, Tom Rogan called them “violent criminals” and “low-level terrorists” who put the safety of construction workers at risk.

The pair rejects that characterization.

“Both myself and Jessica acted safely,” Ms. Montoya said. “The fires that we started, those were very contained. These were empty construction sites, they had already desecrated the trees by clear-cutting. There was a lot of prairie land and that was all cleared. There were no workers on site at any time.”

Ms. Brown, who was onceprofiled in The New York Times for her own social justice activism, said that historically these types of actions have always led to criticism, sometimes from across the political spectrum.

“When people are out in the streets dying, or when people can’t get health care and they die, or when people are dying for lack of food, why don’t people get upset at that kind of violence? Why is it this symbolic violence that is so upsetting to people?” she asked.

As for the charges of property destruction, she said people must look more closely at what was being destroyed—and what it represents.

“They are almost like an embodied form of violence. They always represent a system, they represent powers within that system, they have already inflicted violence because they have stolen so many of society’s resources that could have gone to life-affirming means,” she said.

As for the arson committed by the pair, the Jesuits might be partly responsible. Ms. Montoya said that as she and Ms. Reznicek planned the protests, she had been reading about the founder of the order and came across a quote that is closely associated with him.

“During the time period Jessica and I were taking these actions, I remember reading something about St. Ignatius of Loyola which said that he would sign many of his letters, ‘Go and set the world ablaze,’” she recalled. “That was really inspiring to me.”

Correction August 5, 2007, 1:04 p.m., EDT: The Des Moines Catholic Worker house was misidentified as the Daniel Berrigan house; it is the Phil Berrigan House. 

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Susan Mountin
6 years 11 months ago

While I respect the fervor of these young women, what they have done is not in the tradition of the Catholic Worker. The history and tradition of the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day, and Peter Maurin would not allow for violence or destruction of any kind. Dorothy believed in peaceful and non-violent protest and civil disobedience. And she was deeply connected to the Catholic Church even as she struggled with some of its practices and teachings. That is an inspiration that leads to very different response, regardless of the value of the cause.

Margaret Gould
6 years 11 months ago

To cry foul just because they aren't D. Day clones is missing much that the Catholic Worker offers. Direct action, from draft card burning to pouring blood on missile silos are part and parcel of todays CW. D. Day, a devout Catholic readily worked with non-Catholics - think Ammon Hennesy. She encouraged an autonomous, decentralized structure, where communites adopted what worked in their own communities.

Christopher Lochner
6 years 11 months ago

But the CW Movement is of a bizarre fairy tale as in we'll all live on farms, grow our own food, make our own clothes, an attempt to run from the world by living in a type of hippy commune with the fantasy of a reality based only on expectations. I've met people there. They are very good but highly misguided as they believe in the Cult of Dorothy. Perhaps I should pay more attention to the photos of Dorothy in prayer. A question: is prayer valid when one is not photographed or otherwise celebrated?

Christopher Lochner
6 years 11 months ago

It is always very disturbing to hear the word "faith" used as an excuse to justify a political stance, that is, Christ co-opted for worldly opinions. In no way, shape, or form is this connected to religion but uses religion as a point of pseudo superiority. Would the flames of a full-sized pickup truck set alight somehow be considered Ignatian? Of course not. Remember, Dorothy Day was a vocal anarchist who supported many questionable causes. Yes, she did good but also supported great evil. The related Catholic Worker Movement should not be given a pass in this regard. And one wonders if this is about good works as much as personal notoriety, you know, people who are arrested so as to put a notch in their Halo for their eternal glory.

Margaret Gould
6 years 11 months ago

Their argument is not so different than Pope Francis himself has used in Laudato Si. Faith informs our politics, impossible to disentangle the two.

Kevin Murphy
6 years 11 months ago

These are the people America now holds up as heroines? (I liked the bit about the fires they started - "those were very contained.") America now writes puff pieces about individuals who do violence, destroy property, and put people at risk, all in the name of "social justice." The Jesuits have truly jumped the shark.

Randal Agostini
6 years 11 months ago

When we start to believe that this sort of behavior is acceptable, then we accept harming abortionists. Secularism has the habit of moving the goalposts slowly, until we do not recognize ourselves.

James Haraldson
6 years 11 months ago

If prudential morality were approached more soberly, honestly, and without the need for self-aggrandizement, they might realize that the pipeline greatly improves the efficiency of transporting a necessary energy source thus creating a large net reduction in energy consumption, a benefit to the environment.

Stanley Kopacz
6 years 11 months ago

Rubbish. The addition of the CO2 to the atmosphere will cause environmental shifts that will negate any short term benefit of the pipeline by an order or orders of magnitude. But I'm probably replying to a glazed over recruit to the lemming denialist cult, so what's the use. The pipeline is a gigantic act of vandalism against the balance of the atmosphere. Kill all pipelines.

James Haraldson
6 years 11 months ago

What do you mean “short term benefit?” The benefit is permanent. The reduction of CO2 into the atmosphere of oil being transferred almost entirely without the consumption of energy, almost entirely by gravity, from the high altitude production areas to the low altitude refinery areas via pipelines, as compared to transporting crude by rail via tanker cars pulled by multi-tandem diesels that burn fifty gallons of oil per mile for a typical 75 car tanker train over the course of two thousand miles is a dramatic improvement in efficiency as common sense would indicate. The use of oil production, as the one and only portable energy, is an absolute necessity for continuing life on earth.
It seems that the America Magazine screener may have been asleep to allow venomous insult to pass for commentary. It is a violation of the Eighth Commandment to treat assumptions about motivations as factual. I do not deny climate change. No one denies climate change. It has been happening since God first created the earth. Climate change is part of God’s continuous plan.
But many deny that there is a hyperactive spiritual need for those who have sided with a social ethos that is given to regarding inconvenient life as suitable for extermination (pro-aborts) to exaggerate environmental catastrophes in order to assuage their repressed guilt where they can make the elimination of inconvenient human life seem benevolent to the “balance of nature,” which only illustrates they never really exercised any coherent moral thought at all. It is not presumption, since we are all guilty of it, to say the sin of pride runs rampant among “Catholics” whenever they side with pro-aborts.

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