“Access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights” (Laudato Si’, 30). The problem of the scarcity of clean drinking water in many regions illustrates the need for an international organization with “real teeth” that can properly serve, with the consent of nations, as an agent for justice (cf. Caritas in Veritate, 67).

Recently, Pope Francis addressed the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in celebration of World Water Day. Francis recognizes the work the FAO is already doing with regard to water access and he challenges them to constantly give the “other” a face. (This is a prominent theme as well in his encyclical Laudato Si’.) Francis wants to be sure that our work and the work of the FAO never neglects the actual human beings at the root of this problem. Only then “will the measures adopted will take on the flavor of encounter.”

One can see this approach clearly in the piece written by John Cavanaugh-O’Keefe who described his own experiences visiting a local community that had a need for water. In this instance, with the resources and support of many others, one man was able to be a catalyst for much good as he lived among those he was serving.

As illustrated by Cavanaugh-O’Keefe, water is an especially difficult issue because, while it is portable, the dignity of local communities typically requires easy, cheap and reliable access to clean drinking water. In many parts of the world, water is a limited resource. At the same time, water resources are so essential and so integrated into our daily living that without regulation, education, and proper investment, they can easily be wasted or become polluted and unsafe.

Take this hypothetical example. Assume there is an industry that supports a domestic and global economy. Also assume that this industry is seriously polluting the water resources of a local community. Because of this pollution, there is no safe drinking water for the people who live and work there.

This industry may indeed be necessary for the economic welfare of hundreds or thousands and their families. Effective regulations could work to clean up the pollution with minimal impacts on the business, but regulations typically have costs and those costs make products more expensive and less attractive to a foreign consumer.  Unfortunately, therefore, we know that for too many political authorities, the choice is often between the economic welfare of their country and the safety and health of their citizens. (See this, or this, or this.)

Those interested in ensuring the welfare of the local community must look beyond merely investment or education. That may not be enough. What is required is an intensively collaborative effort between nations, private companies, and indigenous peoples to ensure justice for all parties now and into the future. This hypothetical illustrates the complexities of one issue, which point to the need for an international authority capable of adjudicating the issue with respect to the rights, freedoms and responsibilities of all involved.

To this end, in his message to the FAO, Francis reiterated the need for all peoples to join together in “investing in the tomorrow of our planet.” Francis said, “Joint work is essential to eradicate this evil [i.e., lack of access to safe drinking water] that afflicts so many of our brothers and sisters.”

In Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII put this most succinctly when he said:

Today the universal common good presents us with problems which are world-wide in their dimensions; problems, therefore, which cannot be solved except by a public authority with power, organization and means co-extensive with these problems, and with a world-wide sphere of activity. Consequently the moral order itself demands the establishment of some such general form of public authority. (Pacem in Terris, 137).

In an extended paragraph (Caritas in Veritate, 67), Pope Benedict XVI developed John XXIII’s thought and reiterated the importance for an international organization with “real teeth” that has actual power “to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights.”  

One existing international organization that approaches this ideal is the United Nations. It need not be stated, however, how the United Nations has both its virtues and failings. Pope Benedict warned that without effective structures, any effort to establish legitimate international law would be “conditioned by the balance of power among the strongest nations.” One clearly sees this dynamic at play within the UN.  

In his address to the United Nations, Pope John Paul II challenged the organization to a deeper foundation: “The United Nations Organization needs to rise more and more above the cold status of an administrative institution and to become a moral centre where all the nations of the world feel at home and develop a shared awareness of being, as it were, a ‘family of nations’.”

Pope John XXIII too acknowledged that the organization was not immune from problems, even at its founding, but that it was a “step in the right direction.” He wrote that, “It is… Our earnest wish that the United Nations Organization may be able progressively to adapt its structure and methods of operation to the magnitude and nobility of its tasks.”

Pope Francis, in his own address to the full body of the UN, stated,

When the Charter of the United Nations is respected and applied with transparency and sincerity, and without ulterior motives, as an obligatory reference point of justice and not as a means of masking spurious intentions, peaceful results will be obtained. When, on the other hand, the norm is considered simply as an instrument to be used whenever it proves favourable, and to be avoided when it is not, a true Pandora’s box is opened, releasing uncontrollable forces which gravely harm defenceless populations, the cultural milieu and even the biological environment.

Later, Francis said,

The praiseworthy international juridical framework of the United Nations Organization and of all its activities, like any other human endeavour, can be improved, yet it remains necessary; at the same time it can be the pledge of a secure and happy future for future generations. And so it will, if the representatives of the States can set aside partisan and ideological interests, and sincerely strive to serve the common good.

When it is functioning well, the UN should be able to get all nations to agree, most especially impoverished nations, on ways that they will combat problems, such as access to water, together. Otherwise, the danger, Pope Francis warns, is a mentality dictated solely by impersonal forces, most especially that of the marketplace.

It can be easy to think that what is done most cheaply, what raises the standard of living for some, is always good or best. Conversely, Francis describes the lack of access to clean drinking water as a “grave social debt” which needs to be paid. In other words, if our wealth is predicated on the denial of this basic human right of others, then what has been created, ultimately, is not wealth but a grave injustice which must be corrected.  

Who will pay this debt? Who will right this wrong? The myriad objections one may raise in response to the question itself (e.g., “I am not responsible” or “Some other nation is clearly at fault” or “They need to take care of themselves” or “That’s just the way it is”) makes clear that we are incapable, as individuals or as nations, to pay these debts unilaterally–that is, without some mechanism to properly defend the rights of those abused by “the system.”

It cannot be understated how the consumerist mentalities of those in wealthier nations often contributes, through the invisible hand of markets, to the pollution of water in local communities thousands of miles away. We must be mindful that our choices can have far reaching impacts, and we can help build up justice on a global scale by choosing well.

Pope John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus, “[E]ven the decision to invest in one place rather than another, in one productive sector rather than another, is always a moral and cultural choice.” Pope Benedict XVI echoed this point in Caritas in Veritate when he said, “[E]very economic decision has a moral consequence.” Later, Pope Benedict says, “Consumers should be continually educated regarding their daily role, which can be exercised with respect for moral principles without diminishing the intrinsic economic rationality of the act of purchasing.”

Quoting Pope Benedict, Pope Francis explains this point more fully in Laudato Si’:

A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power. This is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products. They prove successful in changing the way businesses operate, forcing them to consider their environmental footprint and their patterns of production. When social pressure affects their earnings, businesses clearly have to find ways to produce differently. This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers. “Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act”. Today, in a word, “the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle”.

Unfortunately, even as it is essential to have solidarity with others in our personal virtue and the choices we make on a daily basis, it’s clear that we, as individuals, are incapable of addressing issues that go far beyond any one person to solve. Francis says:

[S]elf-improvement on the part of individuals will not by itself remedy the extremely complex situation facing our world today. Isolated individuals can lose their ability and freedom to escape the utilitarian mindset, and end up prey to an unethical consumerism bereft of social or ecological awareness. Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds.

Perhaps many, like myself at one time, see the gross failures of the UN and believe that any international organization would not be worth the time or trouble. In fact, populist movements around the world, which tend to be much more critical of foreign aid and international organizations, have risen up in part in response to these failings. I’m thinking specifically of those groups in the United States, France, Britain, and Italy which have had varying degrees of political success in recent years. But as various studies lead us to believe that the problem of water will only be worse in the near future, possibly contributing to global conflict, Catholics must be especially mindful today of their Church’s call for an effective international authority, one that is legitimately designed to protect basic human rights, including among other things the right to life and the right to safe drinking water.

 

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5 Responses

  1. Avatar Joaquin Mejia says:

    The capital region of my country is facing a water crisis. I’m glad you talked about Pope Francis’s stance on this issue.

  2. Avatar Jane says:

    I love ‘Laudato Si’ because it addresses those things that are very important for the basic bodily needs our neighbors all around the world, as well as we ourselves, possess . This article, along with the document reminds me of the words of Almighty God to Adam and Eve from the very beginning to tend and care for the earth. From the Douay-Rheims, it says: “And the Lord God took man, and put him into the paradise for pleasure, to dress it, and keep it” (Gen 2:15).
    Today, in many places, we do not tend and care for the earth. We do not care for one another with regards to basic bodily needs. We trample all over the earth and ultimately each other. We use the things of the earth and then throw them away. We use each other and then throw each other away. Which harkens, for me, back to Pope John Paul II’s ‘Theology of the Body’.
    I really think that Pope Francis is seeking to convert the entire world and I am thankful to Almighty God for that, and for him.
    Thank you for this article. God Bless you

  3. Avatar carn says:

    “Perhaps many, like myself at one time, see the gross failures of the UN and believe that any international organization would not be worth the time or trouble. … Catholics must be especially mindful today of their Church’s call for an effective international authority, one that is legitimately designed to protect basic human rights, including among other things the right to life and the right to safe drinking water.”

    While it is correct to call out the error, that from UN failure one concludes that no international organization is worthwhile,
    it would also be an error to conclude, that Catholics must be opposed against weakening/abolishing the UN and must be in favor of strengthening it.

    Just because some international organization would in principle be good and worthwhile and a blessing to the world, it does not follow that this UN is good, worthwhile and a blessing to the world and/or can be made into one.

    While i am still in favor of having this UN and trying to make it into something good (which currently it isn’t in my view; some parts good, some parts bad), the Church cannot teach that i must support this UN and that i must not work against this UN or even work for abolishing/destroying it.

    Accordingly, any catholic is free to be active in such efforts:
    “populist movements around the world, which tend to be much more critical of foreign aid and international organizations, have risen up in part in response to these failings. I’m thinking specifically of those groups in the United States, France, Britain, and Italy which have had varying degrees of political success in recent years.”
    if they are of the certain and carefully thought opinion that currently the international efforts/organizations are bad beyond repair and that therefore currently opposing/weakening them is the best way to serve the common good.

    Nobody is required to agree with a Pope about politics.

    • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

      I think your second to last point was the essence of what I was getting at in my piece, that what’s required is balance and not absolute suspicion regarding efforts to increase international cooperation. I am somewhat skeptical, however, that these populist movements have “carefully thought opinions” that are really in line with Catholic teaching. It’s important to call to mind what the Church’s teaching is on the need for an international organization especially now that these movements in growing in influence..

      Catholics certainly aren’t required to agree with a Pope’s own prudential judgments, but lumping this into “politics” generally can be misleading. We are obliged to follow the Church’s teachings, even those pertaining to politics (e.g. socialism/communism/etc.). It is required to agree with the Pope’s teaching “on politics,” but not necessarily the specifics of what has been proposed. We may not disagree but I just wanted to clarify that last point.

      I myself am personally very skeptical of the UN. I think the Pope’s comments about power structures were right on. I don’t think it’s the Catholic idea that a few countries with their veto power would have the ability to basically run the show, for example.

      • Avatar carn says:

        “, but lumping this into “politics” generally can be misleading.”

        Ok, i concede that.

        “I am somewhat skeptical, however, that these populist movements have “carefully thought opinions” that are really in line with Catholic teaching.”

        Agreed. But i am sceptical in that regard with nearly any political group, cause they all differ in this or that respect from Catholic teaching; no problem for non-catholic members; but be they Green, Social or Christian Democrats, moderate Republicans, Democrats or anything else and Catholic, i have a hard time being convinced that anyone of them ever spend much thought about the numerous issues regarding which they disregard Church teaching (e.g. the moment you are a member of a party having “socialism” even as an abstract political idea mentioned in primary party platform documents, one should as Catholic already have good reason to agree to that; and then there is abortion, marriage and numerous other things).

        So the right-wing populists do not stand out in that regard in my view.

        What only stand out in my view is that quite a number of Priests and Bischops call out the right-wing populists as unchristian or at least as a political group which no catholic could in good conscience be a part of, while being silent about all other political groups which on close inspections a catholic also should have hesitation to join.

        “I don’t think it’s the Catholic idea that a few countries with their veto power would have the ability to basically run the show, for example.”

        The currently only available alternative is visible in the human rights council of the UN; that is the Islamic countries vote en bloc and thereby dominate a lot, thereby having Saudi Arabia as a human rights council member.

        Democracy works only, if the voters have some minimal standards of decency; i doubt that about many UN members; hence, a “one land, one vote” approach would at the moment in my view make things worse and not better. The main reason the UN is actually any good, is because it is dominated by the veto nations and the decency of the veto nations is – surprising as it seems, but still – marginally better than the average of the member states in my view.

        I describe that, so you understand that i do not see here any direct application of Catholic principle; just cold calculation whether the world is better off with Russia, China, Europe and US running the show or the OIC.