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.
Both the original and compromise versions of the Obama administration’s health insurance mandate (the HHS mandate) coerce people into paying, either directly or indirectly, for other people’s contraception. The policy may have been pushed along by exigencies of Democratic Party constituency politics, but I suspect there’s also a worldview dimension to the mandate, one embodied in one of President Obama’s more controversial appointments—Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren.
Holdren, as far as I know, wasn’t involved in crafting President Obama’s healthcare plan or the HHS mandate, but the appointment and the mandate both fit the same anti-natalist pattern that has characterized President Obama’s political career at least as far back as his votes against the Born Alive Infant Protection Act when he was an Illinois state senator.
How the Holdren appointment fits the pattern comes to light with only a little digging. In the 1970s, Holdren pushed various population control schemes, not all of them voluntary. Here’s a sampling from his co-authored textbook Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment:
“It would even be possible to require pregnant single women to marry or have abortions, perhaps as an alternative to placement for adoption, depending on the society.” (P. 786)
“A program of sterilizing women after their second or third child, despite the relatively greater difficulty of the operation than vasectomy, might be easier to implement than trying to sterilize men. This of course would be feasible only in countries where the majority of births are medically assisted. Unfortunately, such a program therefore is not practical for most less developed countries.” (P. 787)
“The development of a long-term sterilizing capsule that could be implanted under the skin and removed when pregnancy is desired opens additional possibilities for coercive fertility control. The capsule could be implanted at puberty and might be removable, with official permission, for a limited number of births.” (P. 787)
According to Washington Times reporter Amanda Carpenter, Holdren’s office issued a statement distancing him from the forced sterilization policies outlined in the book, while Holdren’s co-authors defended him and themselves by saying the textbook was over 30 years old and that the many unsettling excerpts cited in the media were “description … misrepresented as endorsement.”
Yes, the book is 30 years old; but spending a little time in the pages of the book suggests that, at the time, Holdren and his co-authors meant what they said. Take page 838. If you have time, read the whole page, but here are three passages that stand out:
“Individual rights must be balanced against the power of the government to control human reproduction.”
“The law regulates other highly personal matters. For example, no one may lawfully have more than one spouse at a time. Why should the law not be able to prevent a person from having more than two children?”
“Thus, while the due-process and equal-protection limitations preclude the passage of capricious or discriminatory laws, neither guarantees anyone the right to have more than his or her fair share of children, if such a right is shown to conflict with other rights and freedoms.”
The chapter title that contains this page: “The Human Predicament: Finding a Way Out.”
I realize the HHS mandate is a far cry from the extreme measures suggested in these quotations, but the policy proposals then and now do seem to flow out of the same view of the human person—as a burden rather than as a blessing and potential creator who is able to solve problems and create new wealth and resources.
If you view fertility as a “human predicament” from which we desperately need to find “a way out,” you’re more likely to go looking for some politically feasible policy to limit the number of mouths. The Obama administration may have found just such a politically feasible policy in the mandate to coerce Americans to cover the costs of other people’s contraception. Time will tell.
The White House has a plan to mobilize prayer vigils in front of the Supreme Court in defense of Obamacare. It was reported that the administration met with leaders at non-profit organizations and religious officials who support the new health care law. The court takes up the constitutional test of the health care mandate in a couple of weeks. The mandate has now been challenged in 26 states.
Cue the same stale big government religious prophets who confuse statism and centralization of power with real Gospel redemption. This will of course include agency heads of mainline denominations, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, and of course a liberal imam and rabbi for religious diversity. Liberal Catholics will no doubt be clamoring for camera time too. Unsurprisingly, the United Methodist lobbying building is hosting “radio row,” where advocates can take to the airwaves to gush over the new unpopular law. Fitting symbolism, given that the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society is woefully out of touch with the beliefs of so many of their own members in the pew.
Let me point you to a few excellent posts that have already addressed the irony of this prayer vigil given the religious conscience violation by the administration. Over at National Review Online, Yuval Levin gets right to crux of the issue with “Pray for the Mandate.” Fr. John Zuhlsdorf pretty much goes off, and appropriately so with his post, “The Obama Administration is organizing…. WHAT?!?”
In popular culture we hear lots of commentary and jokes about fundamentalists or “religious rubes.” They often reside in “flyover country” or the bible belt and are subject to sneers by the “elite.” These rubes, we’re told, frequently pray for greater morality and for a spiritual revival to sweep the country. Who can forget the snickering at the prayer rally organized by Texas Governor Rick Perry for the nation in 2011? Or the giggling by the enlightened when Southern governors or governors of farm states issue prayer calls for rain during droughts? But increasingly, it seems like the real religious rubes are the stale big government apostles whose power and partisanship is baptized by a bureaucracy that to them is omnipotent.
Partisanship and different worldviews are understandable and should be encouraged in our society. But when spiritual leaders are at the bidding of the bureaucracy, and embody an unwillingness to think critically about religious conscience and mandates, inevitably they become more of a religious rube than the ones they find so unenlightening.
In the seventeenth-century, the Dutch lawyer, magistrate, and scholar Hugo Grotius advanced Protestant natural-law thinking by grounding it in human nature rather than in the divine commands of God. As he claimed, “the mother of right—that is, of natural law—is human nature.” For Grotius, if an action agrees with the rational and social aspects of human nature, it is permissible; if it doesn’t, it is impermissible.
This view of law shaped his writings on jurisprudence, which in turn, had a profound influence on the shape of the law in the West. The Founding Fathers of America considered Grotius’s jurisprudence to be authoritative and relied on it when forming their perspectives on such areas as international law. One of the principles that Grotius advanced—and that was enshrined in our common law—was the concept that for a formal contract to be legally binding it must be entered into freely and with the consent of all parties involved.
In certain circumstances, such as when entering into commercial contracts, consent is considered to be inviolable precondition. If a person who is incapacitated and is unable to give consent or makes an agreement under duress, the contract is rendered invalid. Today, we consider this principle to be such a basic legal axiom that it seems inconceivable that anyone would challenge it.
And yet, that is precisely what the Obama Administration is doing with its inclusion of an “individual mandate” in the Affordable Care Act.
After asking his most pressing question, “After all, do we really want to make accommodations across the range of faith?,” he makes this amazing statement:
“The basic principle of American life is that we try to respect religious beliefs, and accommodate them where we can.”
That sentence caught the immediate attention of many. Could someone of Nicholas Kristof’s influence and stature really write and mean that?
Mohler highlights some of Kristof’s commendable work on human rights abuses (he’s the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes), but Mohler says “when it comes to human rights at home, Mr. Kristof reveals a horrifying blind spot.”
Our country is not a country that “accommodates” or “tolerates” religion. There is undoubtedly a growing disconnect of those who have no fundamental understanding of the meaning of religious liberty in the American framework. Now we are clearly seeing that the exponential growth of government is a grave threat to religious liberty. Some of the “enlightened” want to somehow “accommodate” religion, at least publicly.
Face it, many who no longer look to the Lord for their help, look to the state as their provider, caretaker, and the dispenser of whatever freedoms they are granted.
Concerning our fortress of religious liberty, look no further than a book I recently reviewed on James Madison by Richard Brookhiser. Madison objected to the “fullest toleration” of religious freedom in Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, and his language found its way into the Bill of Rights. Brookhiser spells it out perfectly in his Madison biography and points to the uniqueness of America’s first freedom:
Madison, half Mason’s age, improved his language, proposing a crucial change to the clause on religious liberty. Mason’s draft, reflecting a hundred years of liberal thought going back to John Locke, called for “the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.” Yet this did not seem liberal enough for Madison. Toleration implies those who tolerate: superiors who grant freedom to others. But who can be trusted to pass judgments, even if the judgment is to live and let live? Judges may change their minds. The Anglican establishment of Virginia, compared with established churches in other colonies, had been fairly tolerant – except when it hadn’t, and then it made water in Baptists’ faces. So Madison prepared an amendment. “All men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise” of religion. No one could be said to allow men to worship as they wished; they worshipped as they wished because it was their right as men. Madison’s language shifted the ground of religious liberty from a tolerant society or state, to human nature, and lifted the Declaration of Rights from an event in Virginia history to a landmark of world intellectual history (23, 24).
Furthermore, take a look at “Birth Control Yes, Government Control No” in The Wall Street Journal for more on the threat to religious liberty.
Toleration or accommodation is of course flawed because it posits the notion that religious freedom or freedom of conscious is offered by the whims of the state. Many pundits rolled their eyes at the “war on religion” ad by Rick Perry during his presidential campaign. I admit, I think I rolled my eyes and thought it was quite the overreaction. I was too enlightened and nuanced for an ad like that. Given the actions of the executive branch, I don’t know if we can say it’s an overreaction anymore.
Methodism was once the largest denomination in America. The faith grew rapidly from America’s beginning and has traditionally been characterized by aggressive evangelism and revival. It has carried a vibrant social witness, too. Methodist Church pronouncements once garnered front page headlines in The New York Times. Its high water mark undoubtedly came during prohibition, the greatest modern political cause of the denomination. Methodists even built and staffed a lobbying building next to Capitol Hill believing a dry country could remake society.
In Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, Mark Tooley has chronicled Methodism’s denominational political pronouncements from William McKinley, America’s first Methodist president, to 9-11. Tooley has unearthed a staggering amount of official and unofficial Methodist declarations and musings on everything from economics, war, civil rights, the Cold War, abortion, marriage, and politics.
Tooley, who is also the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church, offers very little of his own commentary on the issues in Methodism and Politics, instead allowing Methodism’s voice for over a century to speak for itself. Ultimately what emerges is a denomination that begins to recede in significance, perhaps because of the sheer saturation of their witness in the public square. But its leadership often trades in a prophetic voice for a partisan political one, and sadly at times, even a treasonous voice.
Methodists not only led on prohibition, but were out in front on issues like women’s suffrage, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Movement. While they did not always carry a unified voice on these issues, even many Southern annual conferences and bishops broke with the popular political position of defending segregation in their home states.
While support for the New Deal and greater federal intervention in the economy was not rubber stamped by all Methodists, an emerging and often biting anti-free market voice would dominate official pronouncements. This continues to this day with declarations calling to support greater government regulations, single payer health care, and a host of measures calling for government wage and price controls. Way back in 1936, one Oklahoma Methodist pastor offered his own advice to some of his brethren:
Why do [these Methodist Reds] not get passports, emigrate to Russia where they can prostrate themselves daily before the sacred mummy of Lenin and submit themselves to the commands of Joseph Stalin?
Tooley chronicles the pacifist sentiment that begins to overtake the denomination. This amounted to the equivocating of a denomination that once was harsh in its critique of communism to one where a committee of bishops would pronounce by the 1980s, that “actions which are seen as ‘Marxist-Leninist’ by one group are seen as the core of the Christian message by others.”
Perhaps most shameful was the action of several bishops during the American hostage crisis in Tehran, Iran, from 1979 – 1981. United Methodist Bishop Dale White said of the new Islamic fundamentalist regime, “I know there are individuals in the Iranian power structure who do trust The United Methodist Church.” White offered assessments of the new regime being “democratic.” The General conference sent a message to Ayatollah Khomeni declaring that it hears the “cries of freedom from foreign domination, from cultural imperialism, from economic exploitation.” Methodist officials participated in pro-Khomeni student demonstrations in Washington D.C. and met with and offered praise for officials in the new Iranian government. One former hostage recalled:
Some of the people who came over especially the clergy were hypocrites because they came to aid and comfort the hostages but ended up giving aid and comfort to the Iranians and actually making it worse for us.
The election of President Ronald Reagan naturally sent many United Methodist Church officials into a tizzy. “People voted their self interest instead of the Social Principles of the church. It looks like United Methodists with everybody else forsook their Christian idealism at the ballot box,” said Bishop James Armstrong. Some United Methodist Bishops had already declared their denomination much more aligned with the Democratic Party. It was downhill from there for many Methodist leaders, as they coddled the Sandanistas and “Brother Ortega” in Nicaragua and dove head first into the nuclear freeze movement.
In the 1990s one General Board of Global Ministry official bewailed the Republican Congress by saying, “White, male supremacists now wear suits. They talk states rights and anti-taxes. The climate of hate and violence is a challenge to us.” General Board of Church and Society official Robert McLean declared that the GOP Contract with America effectively “cancels” the Sermon on the Mount.
Hyperventilating over partisan politics would continue in The United Methodist Church and continues to this day by American officials. Most recently many have joined forces with the “What Would Jesus Cut Campaign?” But because Methodism is a connectional denomination, the growing African influence is counter balancing what Methodist progressives and political liberals can accomplish. They have already reached the pinnacle of their power, which has been shrinking for decades. And because progressives have made so many predictable pronouncements, they no longer speak with the weighty spiritual authority they once held. It is a lesson for all churches and those that wish to bring their faith into the public square. At the 1934 Illinois Annual Conference one lay delegate offered what can be seen only as prophetic now when he declared, “It is time for churches to stop adopting resolutions and then finding out what they mean afterward.”
Just a few weeks ago, The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church & Society heaped praise on President Obama’s HHS mandate with no mention of the measure’s threat to religious liberty, deciding to only view it as a partisan measure to defend for furthering the role of government in health care.
At the conclusion of the book, after reading through 100 years of political pronouncements, Tooley finally offers just a hint of his own assessment,
American Methodism in 1900 was growing, confident, largely unified, and politically formidable. One hundred years later, it had already endured several decades of steep membership decline and accompanying political marginalization as church officials were no longer presumed to speak for most church members.
Tooley, through the myriad of voices that he has chronicled over such a lengthy period, understands those voices only need to speak for themselves to make his point.
In the 1920s Calvin Coolidge once said of Francis Asbury, one of the first two Methodist Bishops in early America, that “he did not come [to America] for political motives,” but came to bear “the testimony of truth.” One wishes Methodist denominational officials would not only follow more of Asbury’s doctrine, but his praxis as well.
On Jan. 20, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius ordered most employers and insurers to provide contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs (the “morning after” pill) free of charge under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Yesterday, President Obama — reacting to a firestorm of criticism that this new mandate violates freedom of religion and conscience protections — announced a compromise that shifted the cost of the mandate to insurers. That, however, has done little to allay fears about the erosion of constitutional rights from many religious leaders. Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Pates in Des Moines, for example, told the local paper the compromise didn’t go far enough and asked parishes in his diocese to publish a letter tomorrow titled, “At stake: Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Conscience.”
A number of economists and other critics of the HHS mandate are equally unimpressed with the cost shifting at the heart of the president’s revised plan.
In a LifeSiteNews.com report, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg observes that “Someone has to pay. And it would be entirely reasonable – and very probable – for the insurance companies to simply charge religious institutions extra for their overall insurance policies in order to cover their not-so-free costs.”
Read more from Gregg and other experts in “‘Birth control pills don’t fall out of the sky like manna’: economic experts blast revised mandate” by Ben Johnson on LifeSiteNews.com.
A couple of Acton radio appearances to let you know about: First of all, Acton’s Director of Research Dr. Samuel Gregg joined host Al Kresta yesterday to discuss the modern papacy on Kresta in the Afternoon. He focused on the social and political thought of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. You can listen to the interview by using the audio player below:
Additionally, Acton’s Director of Media Michael Matheson Miller provided some additional commentary on the controversy surrounding the Obama Administration’s contraception mandate decision on America’s Radio News, which you can listen to below: