Category: Vatican

Thanks to George McGraw, Executive Director of DigDeep Right to Water Project, for his kind and thoughtful Counterpoint to my original post.  He and his organization are clearly dedicated to the noble cause of providing clean water and sanitation to all, a cause which everyone can and should support.  It is also a very sensible objective that would aid the world’s poor much more than trendier causes such as “climate change” and “population control” which tend to view the human person and his industriousness as fundamental problems to be solved through central planning, birth control, sterilization and abortion.

McGraw is certainly right to say that the Holy See does not believe that water should be free for all, despite the purposely provocative title of my post.  And the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace document does indeed presuppose market mechanisms for the distribution of water resources.  My fear, however, is that while paying lip service to the validity of market economics and the role of profit, many religious-minded people still have a low opinion of business and fail to recognize that markets have been and remain the best way to allocate resources, especially absolutely necessary ones such as food and water.  The profit motive may not be the most high-minded way of caring for the poor, but it has proven to be the most reliable and effective one.  No one claims that markets are perfect; they are still more likely to meet human needs that the alternatives, whether these are government services or private charity.

I agree that there are circumstances in which food and water must be provided to those who cannot pay for them, but this does not make them “free” or without cost.  Someone else still has to produce and deliver them to the poor, and it will be the government who does the commanding at some level.  This is necessary in emergency situations, though still not always the best solution, as the relief efforts in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath proved.  My main concern is that introducing a legally-recognized “right to water” shifts the focus from the rights and duties of the private sector to those of the government, and away from the individual and toward the collective.  It should also be recognized that the public, subsidized provision of a good often displaces or “crowds out” private sector providers, to the detriment of the development of local businesses, a sine qua non if countries are to escape poverty.

Having worked for the Holy See at the United Nations, I witnessed all sorts of perverted thinking on the issue of human rights.  The UN was where, for instance, the Soviet Union and its satellites continually pushed for “economic, social and cultural rights” at the expense of the political and civil rights promoted by the West.  This was yet another cynical ploy to deny individual rights and collectivize society.  Since the end of communism, many of these “new” rights, also called “second- and third-generation” rights, have become less obviously ideological but remain problematic.  As the very notion of “generational” development makes clear, there is no clear standard by which to measure or order these rights.  This is the “progressive” rather than the truly liberal understanding of human rights and it ought to be rejected as such.  Two of my graduate-school professors, Clifford Orwin and Thomas Pangle, put it well in a 1982 essay on “The Philosophical Foundation of Human Rights”:

[Economic, social and cultural rights] are merely things that most people want, and that the poorer countries wish they could persuade the richer ones to give them. They are open-ended and hence often unreasonable.  There is no way, for example, that an underdeveloped country can provide adequate education or medical care for all its citizens.  By proclaiming these as universal human rights, however, such countries arm themselves with the most respectable of reasons for pressing for global redistribution of wealth.  No one can blame them for that; but we can question the status as “human rights” of what are, in a sense, letters to Santa Claus.

I have to admit to being a bit surprised by the Catholic World News report on my blog post that placed me in opposition to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.  It’s not every day that I have to prove my Catholic bona fides, so I should clarify my understanding of what the Church means by the “right to water.”  (The RealClearReligion website may have contributed to the problem by titling its link to my piece “There is No Right to Water.”)  All Catholics and indeed all people of good will should believe that human beings are entitled to the necessities of food and water as human beings; in no way do I support depriving anyone of these at any stage of life.  And the Church is not wrong to identify “rights” that are due to the person as a result of his ontological dignity.  My point was that calling for a legally-recognized international human right to water may not be the best way to ensure that everyone actually has access to it; results should matter just as much as putting some nice-sounding words on paper.  The difficulty results, in my opinion, from the long-standing abuse of the term “human rights” that I previously mentioned and a lot of subsequent incoherence, not least coming from academics looking for justification for their soft-left-wing policy preferences.

The Church is, nevertheless, a pre-modern institution that has a different understanding of human rights and human nature than liberals and progressives do, and the presuppositions of Church teaching on human dignity are crucial.  As the late Cardinal Avery Dulles once put it, “The Catholic doctrine of human rights is not based on Lockean empiricism or individualism.  It has a more ancient and distinguished pedigree.”  Without emphasizing the presuppositions made by this pedigree, any call for new rights is likely to be misconstrued and misapplied.  We need to recover the fullness of Catholic moral and social teaching without exacerbating the problem, while also appreciating the role that private enterprise has within the liberal tradition.

Does the Vatican think water should be ‘free’?” asked Kishore Jayabalan in his post examining the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s latest document on water. Although he is now the director of Istituto Acton, the Acton Institute’s Rome office, Jayabalan formerly worked for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as the lead policy analyst on sustainable development and arms control.

In his post, Jayabalan referenced the analysis of George McGraw, the Executive Director of DigDeep Right to Water Project, a human rights and development NGO headquartered in Los Angeles. Mr. McGraw asked if we’d be interested in providing a counter-argument from a conservative perspective, so we’ve decided to publish his response below:


Not surprisingly, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP)’s latest document on water has garnered scant media attention. Why, after all, would journalists, already notorious for their professional Attention Deficit Disorder and dislike of abstract disputation, report on something named “Water: An Essential Element of Life,” especially when it is nothing more than an update of a document originally released in 2003, and then updated in 2006 and 2009, with the exact same titles?

Back then, First Things editor-in-chief Fr. Richard John Neuhaus mischievously remarked, “There is an unconfirmed report that under discussion at the UN is an International Year of Air. If that ambitious step is taken, informed observers say, the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace will be ready with a major statement, ‘Air, An Essential Element of Life.’” If nothing else, the PCJP, where I worked from 1999 to 2004, needs to hire a marketing specialist to come up with snazzier titles for their publications.

So you could be forgiven for thinking that reading such a document would make a spiritually-beneficial type of intellectual mortification during this Lenten period. But skipping it altogether would also mean neglecting the serious questions contained therein on how the Holy See thinks about important matters such as human rights and economics. In fact, one may wonder if those responsible for the document have taken them as seriously as they should have.

Thanks to the invaluable Real Clear Religion website, I came across this analysis by George McGraw of DigDeep Water. It’s a mainly positive appraisal of the Holy See’s call for an internationally-recognized “right to water” but it also draws attention to some problem areas:

[T]here is one aspect of the Vatican’s position on water that makes its international intervention decidedly controversial. In this year’s “Water, an Essential Element” the Holy See will defend water access as an essential human right, one still hotly debated in international law.

When legal human rights were first introduced in 1948, the right to water wasn’t included in either the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or in the treaties derived from it. Many scholars believe that water was considered so basic, that it was quite simply overlooked. Since then, other water-related obligations have found protection in international law, but the closest thing we have to formal recognition of a human right to water is a (non-binding) 2010 UN resolution.

It seems states have generally failed to acknowledge the right to water for two reasons: either due to a concern that it would make them liable for water provision (a costly endeavor), or because such a right might challenge traditional property rights.

The Vatican’s position is doubly controversial because it’s couched in a criticism of “an excessively commercial conception of water” which the Holy See insists isn’t just another “for-profit commodity dependent on market logic.” This language was used to announce the new position paper at last week’s World Water Forum in Marseille — a gathering that suffered criticism for allowing corporate interests and dissenting states to weaken consensus on the human right to water.

So, assuming the importance of water and sanitation has not been simply neglected, there are at least two reasons why the “right to water” doesn’t exist: 1) States are neither able nor willing to pay for “free” water, and 2) it would interfere with the property rights of those who, for example, own land with abundant supplies of water. These would seem to be quite understandable, but not insurmountable, concerns for those who care about the common good. There are many ways for necessary goods to be produced, distributed and consumed through a novelty called commerce, the supposed “excess” of which is criticized by the Holy See. In fact, the Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen has argued that calamities such as droughts and famines are most devastating where local markets and effective protections of private property do not exist.

One has to ask: Does the Holy See really believe that water is any less of a commodity, or any less necessary to human life, than food, normally considered the most common form of commodity? If markets don’t exist for important things like food and water, why should they exist at all? Wouldn’t markets be truly useless if they only traded “non-goods”?

If States are reluctant to recognize the “right to water,” why does the Holy See insist on it so regularly? One likely explanation is that most States and the Holy See have very different understandings of human rights. Does a right fundamentally entail freedom from state coercion or entitlement to a government-provided benefit? Should all human goods and needs, which obviously go beyond basic rights such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” be considered human rights? If so, who will protect and provide them, i.e., the State, civil society or individuals? Is accommodation or synthesis possible among these divergent understandings of rights, some of which would limit the scope and reach of governmental (and ecclesiastical) power while others would expand them? More basically, aren’t these notions of rights and government based on fundamentally different understandings of human nature, on which we are unlikely to agree at anything approaching a universal level?

It ought to be clear that such questions are central to our understanding of the liberal human rights project, much larger than that of providing “free” water for all. But I wonder if the idea of limited government that allows individuals and voluntary associations to provide for needs beyond those ensured by certain enumerated rights is adequately understood by those who promote previously-unrecognized human rights. Some will say that these new rights are proof of an increasing awareness of human dignity, but I am not convinced. Many of these “rights,” in fact, are not based on a fixed idea of human dignity or human nature, but a denial of it; man is nothing more than a historical, “progressive” being whose wants and needs are constantly evolving. And it is, of course, these “progressives” who are constantly calling for new “rights” to be delivered by the state, rather than the private sector (exhibit A: Obamacare).

In my opinion, the continual expansion and discovery of new “rights” to cover all human needs have a particular appeal to religious believers because it institutionalizes and universalizes our social obligations to care for our fellow human beings. But we must also realize the particular, albeit partial, truths of liberalism and economics, especially with regard to the distribution of resources such as water. (The socialist paradise of Cuba, after all, recognizes the “right to water” as well as those to “health”, “religious freedom,” etc.) God did indeed create the world with enough goods for all. He also gave us the freedom and responsibility to cultivate and share these goods with each other, though we all too often fail at doing so. But let’s not assume He commands us to toss international law, private property, and economic good sense out the window as well.

Blog author: dpahman
Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Journal of Markets & Morality is planning a theme issue for the Spring of 2013: “Integral Human Development,” i.e. the synthesis of human freedom and responsibility necessary for the material and spiritual enrichment of human life. According to Pope Benedict XVI,

Integral human development presupposes the responsible freedom of the individual and of peoples: no structure can guarantee this development over and above human responsibility. (Caritas in Veritate 17)

There is a delicate balance between the material and the spiritual, the institutional and the individual, liberty and responsibility undergirding this concept.

This tension can be felt in a similar sentiment from the Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights:

A society should establish mechanisms restoring harmony between human dignity and freedom. In social life, the concept of human rights and morality can and must serve this purpose. At the same time these two notions are bound up at least by the fact that morality, that is, the ideas of sin and virtue, always precede law, which has actually arisen from these ideas. That is why any erosion of morality will ultimately lead to the erosion of legality. (3.1)

And, again, among Protestants The Cape Town Commitment confesses a failure “to regard work in itself as biblically and intrinsically significant, as we have failed to bring the whole of life under the Lordship of Christ.” Indeed, in addition to the theoretical difficulty in articulating a coherent, Christian model for integral human development, there is the equally daunting task of practical implementation.

Read the full Call for Publications here.

Submission guidelines, subscription information, and digital archives are available at:

For an example of the sort of submission we are looking for, see Manfred Spieker, “Development of the Whole Man and of All Men: Guidelines of the Catholic Church for Societal Development,” Journal of Markets & Morality 13.2. (Click on title to view PDF.)

The Journal of Markets & Morality is a peer-reviewed academic journal published twice a year–in the Spring and Fall. The journal promotes intellectual exploration of the relationship between economics and morality from both social science and theological perspectives. It seeks to bring together theologians, philosophers, economists, and other scholars for dialogue concerning the morality of the marketplace.

Kishore Jayabalan, the Acton Institute’s Rome office director, was interviewed by the Zenit news agency in an article titled, “Is Taxing the Church a Real Solution for Italy?” In the article, Jayabalan discusses the history of the Italian state and its imposition of property taxes on the Roman Catholic Church’s land holdings, residences and non-profit businesses.

Sometimes in the past, particularly under Napoleonic rule and before the Lateran Pacts, the institution of property tax was often a subject of state persecution of the Church in economic terms. Mr. Jayabalan answers critical questions about the reasons behind Italy’s evolving (or rather “revolving”) fiscal policies and historic land expropriations to the Church’s detriment.

The Church has traditionally been exempt from paying ICI [property tax] on non-commercial entities because they serve a social purpose. The old law actually exempted entitles that were ‘predominantly’ non-commercial. The new law exempts simply non-commercial entities, so there will be some re-defining of what is non-commercial or not by the Italian Ministry of the Economy. Jewish, Muslim, and other religious, and for that matter secular, non-profits were also ICI-exempt, so this was not a case of special pleading for the Catholic Church in Italy, even though Catholic institutions dwarf the others numerically…

Of course this is not the first time the Church has been muscled out of land. Napoleon’s massive cash taxes upon his conquest of Italy were designed to force noble families (generally with very close ties to the Church) out of their lands and titles. Napoleon spared the Church the niceties of taxes, choosing to simply expropriate the property. The unification of Italy as well saw Church lands, art and lives lost as the new nation was formed. But even this was nothing new. After all Nero had blamed the Christians for a fire he set to clear some land in downtown Rome, so in the end Sts. Peter and Paul and 900 other Christians were killed for a real estate deal.

To read Jayabalan’s full interview, go here.

In a new analysis in Crisis Magazine, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg examines “the shifting critiques” of the pontificate of Benedict XVI including the latest appraisal that the world is losing interest in the Catholic Church particularly because of its declining geopolitical “relevance.” But how do some of these critiques understand relevance?

On one reading, it involves comparisons with Benedict’s heroic predecessor, who played an indispensible role in demolishing the Communist thug-ocracies that once brutalized much of Europe. But it’s also a fair bet that “relevance” is understood here in terms of the Church’s capacity to shape immediate policy-debates or exert political influence in various spheres.

Such things have their own importance. Indeed, many of Benedict’s writings are charged with content which shatters the post-Enlightenment half-truths about the nature of freedom, equality, and progress that sharply constrict modern Western political thinking. But Benedict’s entire life as a priest, theologian, bishop, senior curial official and pope also reflects his core conviction that the Church’s primary focus is not first-and-foremost “the world,” let alone politics.

Read “Benedict XVI and the Irrelevance of ‘Relevance’” on the website of Crisis Magazine.

While working on an article today, I read Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2005 homily right before the was elected Pope.

I wanted to recall a section about truth that cannot be repeated enough. It is especially pertinent in light of the Obama Administration’s so-called compromise on the HHS mandate. The compromise changes nothing. It is political sophistry. It still forces people to act against their conscience and support moral evil. The truth about good and evil cannot be swept away by an accounting trick.

The HHS mandate is a further example of the growing intolerance of liberalism that sees as a threat any vision of life which has transcendent ends and adheres to clear moral standards beyond current fashion. Liberalism is pro-choice only insofar as you stay within certain bounds. Outside that divergence will not be tolerated and no compromise will be made.

This is the famous Dictatorship of Relativism passage.

How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves – flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (cf. Eph 4: 14) comes true.

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An “adult” faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceipt from truth.

We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith – only faith – that creates unity and is fulfilled in love.

Nothing more to add … except one thing: If you have not read it, take a look at Samuel Gregg’s fine piece in the American Spectator from several weeks ago where he analyzes the HHS mandate in light of the “dictatorship of relativism.”

Following my blog post and Acton News and Commentary piece “Obama vs. the Catholic Bishops,” I’d like to draw your attention to two Wall Street Journal editorial page articles in today’s edition that also criticize the bishops for their political and economic naivete.

WSJ columnist Daniel Henninger writes:

Politically bloodless liberals would respond that, net-net, government forcings do much social good despite breaking a few eggs, such as the Catholic Church’s First Amendment sensibilities. That is one view. But the depth of anger among Catholics over this suggests they recognize more is at stake here than political results. They are right. The question raised by the Catholic Church’s battle with ObamaCare is whether anyone can remain free of a U.S. government determined to do what it wants to do, at whatever cost.
With the transformers, it never stops. In September, the Obama Labor Department proposed rules to govern what work children can do on farms. After an outcry from rural communities over the realities of farm traditions, the department is now reconsidering a “parental exemption.” Good luck to the farmers.

The Catholic Church has stumbled into the central battle of the 2012 presidential campaign: What are the limits to Barack Obama’s transformative presidency? The Catholic left has just learned one answer: When Mr. Obama says, “Everyone plays by the same set of rules,” it means they conform to his rules. What else could it mean?

Anyone who signs up for more of this deal by assuming that it will never force them to fall into line is getting what they deserve.

And here’s University of Chicago professor John Cochrane:

Our nation is divided on social issues. The natural compromise is simple: Birth control, abortion and other contentious practices are permitted. But those who object don’t have to pay for them. The federal takeover of medicine prevents us from reaching these natural compromises and needlessly divides our society.

The critics fell for a trap. By focusing on an exemption for church-related institutions, critics effectively admit that it is right for the rest of us to be subjected to this sort of mandate. They accept the horribly misnamed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and they resign themselves to chipping away at its edges. No, we should throw it out, and fix the terrible distortions in the health-insurance and health-care markets.

Sure, churches should be exempt. We should all be exempt.

Both articles claim that the Catholic bishops were exclusively and overly concerned with getting exemptions for Catholic institutions and did not adequately focus on the larger political and economic problems brought on by Obamacare and the entitlement state in general, i.e. a growing dependence on the state and a convoluted tax code that attempts to direct our individual choices towards “socially optimal” ends, regardless of the inevitable, unintended consequences.

Henninger also points out that the bishops initially opposed Obamacare because of the threat of federal funding of abortion, which ought to make one wonder: Are the bishops capable of applying the principles of Catholic social teaching beyond the obvious “non-negotiable” issues of Catholic teaching (abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, etc.) and speaking coherently, intelligently and persuasively on prudential matters that are still of great political importance? Should they? Or should this be the responsibility of the Catholic laity, who may be better formed in politics and economics but lack the authority of episcopal office?

In my opinion, these are open and difficult questions that require us to think more seriously about the role of Catholic leadership in a liberal democratic society.

I just completed a very short interview on Vatican Radio to discuss the current battle between the Obama administration and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It didn’t permit me to say more than that the Obama administration is making a political mistake, so I’d like to say a bit more about the serious consequences that will likely result and how we ended up with this Church-State conundrum in the first place.

As Dr. Donald Condit has already explained, the Obama administration seems to be making a political calculation that this controversy will blow over before the November’s presidential election because the conscience exemption for providing and paying for abortion, sterilization and contraception will not take effect until later next year. But the miscalculation was predictable and is now evident, with not only Catholics, but Orthodox, Evangelical, Jewish and other religious leaders taking a stand. Unless the administration relents or the Obamacare law is ruled unconstitutional, Catholic hospitals and other institutions will be faced with a choice between not providing insurance coverage to their employees and thereby be fined by the government, or pay for the provision of services that they believe are morally evil.

A journalist friend in Rome just raised an alternative reading of the story to me on the street. What if Obama is actually making a principled argument that abortion, sterilization and contraception services are a fundamental aspect of women’s health that cannot and should not be denied to anyone, regardless of their own religious or individual convictions? Perhaps the White House believes, as most progressives do, that these stodgy, uptight opponents will eventually, inevitably, be overcome and we will one day wonder what all the fuss about. If so, the administration is doing much more than thinking about the next election; it’s redefining what the word “health” means to include measures that violently take away life from the most innocent and vulnerable persons, regardless of who pays for the services. This makes it much more than a religious freedom or a conscience issue and a matter of simple justice.

More generally, the whole Obamacare mess is a result of employer-provided health insurance. We would all be better off if our health insurance was decoupled from our employment, and we were free to purchase our own insurance according to our needs and wants. It is a result of state intervention in the economy, namely wage-and-price controls, that led to employers offering health insurance as a non-wage benefit to entice desired employees to their companies. Now we have the government mandating that all employers must provide comprehensive coverage to all their employees. What was once a prudential individual decision has become a government-mandated “right” that trumps the employer-employee, the doctor-patient, and perhaps even the priest-penitent relationship. Some progress.

There is some tragic irony to all this. We should not forget that many religious leaders have long-supported increasing the role of the state in health care and the economy at-large, perhaps thinking that conscience clauses would protect their institutions against any undue interference. Well, they were wrong; what the state giveth, the state taketh away. If you invite the state to “assist” more and more of your activities, it will eventually start telling you how to do things. Encouraging the Democratic Party’s efforts from Harry Truman on to socialize the health care system of the United States is likely to have dire consequences for Catholic and other religious-based social service providers. Economic ignorance among religious leaders comes at a very high cost to their own good works.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) has boldly rebutted the arguments of our own Kishore Jayabalan, director of Istituto Acton, concerning the Vatican’s note on a “central world bank.” It has done so by showing him to be lacking in “respect for the inherent dignity of human life.” … Yes, we are talking about that Center for American Progress.

In a feature on their website that purports to tie last month’s Vatican note to the Occupy Wall Street movement, CAP offers this smarmy response to the analysis Jayabalan gave.

Some conservative Catholic commentators are not as supportive, however….

Kishore Jayabalan of the conservative Catholic Acton Institute said that the note’s appeal to an international authority contradicts the church’s teaching that problems are best solved starting at local levels of authority, also known as the doctrine of subsidiarity.

What these conservatives are missing is that the note draws heavily from the tradition of Catholic social teachings on justice and respect for the inherent dignity of human life. This is where the Occupy movement finds an ally.

CAP has one-upped us doctrinally: where Jayabalan is concerned with minor theological nuances like the doctrine of subsidiarity, their minds are fixed on higher principles like respect for human dignity, the most immediate threat to which is the great and terrible free market.

“At heart, it is a moral enterprise,” say CAP’s Jake Paysour about Occupy Wall Street. Yes, except at the hearts of its camps, where women dare not go because their human dignity is respected only as much as strong men find it convenient.

CAP’s record on human dignity speaks for itself. Its position on the lives of unborn children, for example, could not be any more out of line with Catholic teaching on “justice and respect for the inherent dignity of human life.” It is shocking that CAP even uses those words: the suggestion that they give one hoot about Church teaching on human dignity is nonsense.

I will resist the temptation of a GetReligion-style dismantling of the feature, since it would sail right over their heads at CAP, but I must point out that the Church’s principles of social justice were not “set forth 80 years ago” in Quadrogesimo Anno, as the author claims, but rather 40 years before in Rerum Novarum (hence the second encyclical’s name — not that we should expect anyone there to have any Latin). I don’t mean to make an ad hominem argument, but if you can’t get that right, what are you doing trying to explain the relative weights of principles first explicated in Rerum Novarum?

In the future: If you’re going to use the words of an Acton Institute expert, it is expected that you will avoid the shameless contortion of facts and logic that CAP indulged in today.