“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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Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts.  He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.

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