Tags: "Just Water", Catholic sexual teaching, Catholic social teaching, Christiana Peppard, Ernesto Cardenal, Global water crisis, Liberation Theology, Maude Barlow, Pope Francis, the Jordan River, the woman at the well
Fresh Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis. By Christiana Z. Peppard. Orbis Books, 2014. 230 pp. $28 (paper); $13.50 (eBook).
I began working on the world water crisis in 2002, after hearing some really scary lectures by the great Canadian water activist, Maude Barlow. In the years that followed, I preached, taught, and wrote about the crisis. What I would not have given in those days for a copy of Christiana Peppard’s Just Water.
At one level, Peppard’s book is an up-to-date overview of the world water crisis itself. Her second chapter, “A Primer on the Global Fresh Water Crisis,” provides invaluable information about the scope and seriousness of the situation. Peppard’s 70-22-8 formula, shorthand for agriculture using more than twice as much water as industry (22%) and households (8%) together, puts any guilt over long showers into perspective; it’s industrial agriculture that’s really out of control. The terrible implications of the “hydrological optimism” of the second half of the twentieth century—huge dams, industrial irrigation, the draining of aquifers—also become clear. Further chapters are likewise invaluable: the one on hydraulic fracturing will force all LNG believers to think twice. The chapter on industrial agriculture will give you indigestion. And the one on water and climate change confirms something I have long suspected: today, climate change is the world water crisis.
But Just Water’s real strength is that it examines water scarcity in light of contemporary Christian theology and ethics, and in large part, contemporary Catholic theology and ethics. Two arguments about theology and ethics underpin Just Water. First, Peppard traces Catholic theology from Vatican Council II through liberation (political) theology and the preferential option for the poor (including women) to the current issue of water scarcity. She concludes that an overlap between theology and ethics, between the universal and the particular, is fundamental to contemporary Catholicism, with environmental theo-ethics a pivotal example of this dialectic. Then, in chapter four, Peppard shows social justice, especially regarding water, to be an essential part of official Catholic teaching, making her point using papal encyclicals, statements from the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace, documents from bishops conferences, and more. Water justice is, Peppard tells us, a Catholic “right to life” issue.
I had mixed feelings about these arguments. I thought about sending Peppard a copy of Gene Burns’s book, The Frontiers of Catholicism, which argues compellingly that since Vatican II, sexual teaching has occupied the top of the Catholic ideological hierarchy and is mandatory, while Catholic social teaching has fallen to the bottom and is entirely optional. (And she should ask Ernesto Cardenal about the Catholic Church and liberation theology.)
On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt for a rising young Catholic theo-ethicist to tell her students and readers that Catholic teaching on water and other social issues is as central to the magisterium as the condemnation of contraception and abortion. And Peppard admits, more than once, that the average Catholic knows none of this. This is surely part of her reason for writing Just Water. Then too, Pope Francis would seem to agree that justice for the poor is central to Catholic teaching.
But for me, the most galvanizing parts of Just Water are not Peppard’s arguments about liberation theology or Catholic social teaching per se, but her interdisciplinary readings of two pivotal symbols of water in the Jewish and Christian traditions: the Jordan River, and the “woman at the well” (John 4:4-42). In the first case, Peppard compares the extraordinary religious significance of the River Jordan—there are more than eighty biblical references to it, not to mention all those hymns—with the river’s current ecologically degraded and politically conflicted condition. Specifically, the river’s flow decreased by 90 percent between the mid-twentieth century and the present. What does it mean, Peppard asks, that “the river itself is beleaguered while its symbolism—its mythic stature—remains robust”?
Then, in chapter nine, Peppard draws on current biblical scholarship to undercut the traditional interpretation of the woman at the well: instead of a foreign slut too dumb to grasp Jesus’ spiritual understanding of water, the Samaritan woman becomes, along with Hagar, a figure for the millions of women around the world whose lives are incalculably harmed by water scarcity and pollution.
In the light of these two deeply moving interpretations, the guidelines for action Peppard offers in the last chapter of Just Water become all the more compelling.
Tags: "Just War: Theology, and the Global Water Crisis, Barack Obama, Catholic social teaching, Christiana Peppard, Ethics, Gene Burns, Global water crisis, Paul Ryan, The Frontiers of Catholicism, The Les Aspin Institute, University of Notre Dame, USCCB
Today I am finishing Just Water, a splendid book by a young Fordham professor of ethics and science, Christiana Peppard. It’s a lyric, galvanizing exploration of fresh water as seen from the overlapping perspectives of hydrology, ecology, ethics, theology, and Catholic social teaching. I hope to write a proper review of it for you soon.
In light of a recent event, however, I have been thinking about one of the central arguments in Peppard’s book, that an important part of Catholic social teaching is that fresh water is one of the goods of creation, to which all human beings are entitled; as such, is a “right to life” issue. That is to say, the global fresh water crisis, and the climate change of which it’s an integral part, are as important as hot button topics like abortion and contraception.
I must admit I like the idea of a young Catholic ethics professor going around telling her readers and students that in the Catholic church, the environment is as important as sex–that Catholic social teaching is as important as Catholic sexual teaching. Maybe if more seriously smart people like Peppard say this often enough, it will come to be. It needs to.
The trouble is, I think it’s just not true. Not yet, anyhow. In making this argument I draw on the sociologist Gene Burns’s study of the post-Vatican II church, The Frontiers of Catholicism. (I’ve been talking about this book for fifteen years, so my apologies to those of you who have heard it before.) In this study, Burns explains that it seemed that the Catholic church had given up its claim to absolute truth (and thus absolute power) at Vatican II when it stopped saying that all people had to be Catholic in order to be saved, and when it acknowledged freedom of conscience. In point of fact, however, the church actually switched its claim to absolute truth (and power) from doctrine to sexuality and gender. The church felt entitled to do this because it believes that theses issues are rooted in Natural Law, a universal moral system that is obligatory for everyone, not just Catholics. So after Vatican II, a new Catholic ideological hierarchy came into being, , with sex/gender ideology at the top and obligatory for all; Catholic doctrine in the middle, obligatory for Catholics only; and Catholic social treating at the bottom, vague, and entirely optional.
To illustrate that this ideological hierarchy is still fully operational, let me bring to your attention the fact that yesterday, April 3, Marquette University’s Les Aspin Institute, a program that places students into Washington internships, gave their annual award for public service to Representative Paul Ryan. Ryan is an eight-term Wisconsin congressman, and as chairman of the House Budget Committee, has just proposed the second of two budgets that are about as out of sync with Catholic social teaching as it’s possible to be–gutting programs to support the poor, abolishing the affordable Care Act, privatizing (thus vastly weakening) Medicare. And this at a time when the pope in Rome talks endlessly about the need for us to become the “church of the poor.” Now I ask you, did you hear any outcry from the American bishops over a Catholic university giving an award to a right-wing, screw-the-poor, Ayn Rand Catholic?
But if you think back a few years you will recall that a large number of US Catholic bishops–seventy, I believe–protested vociferously when the University of Notre Dame gave President Obama an honorary degree and had him as graduation speaker. What was the bishops’ objection? Abortion, abortion, abortion. Compared to that, budgets that eviscerate the poor are small potatoes. Admittedly, the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops did criticize Ryan’s 2009 budget. And Barack Obama is a more famous figure than Paul Ryan (though Ryan is also a national figure). But basically, the institutional church just isn’t going to go after right-wing Catholic politicians anything like the way it goes after their pro-choice equivalent.
As I said, I’m glad Christiana Peppard is talking up Catholic social teaching. But as for politicians who ignore said teaching being denied communion,–don’t hold your breath.
Tags: abortion, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Catholic sexual teaching, Catholic social teaching, condoms, Congressman Paul Ryan, contraception, family planning, principle of subsidiarity, Ryan budget, subsidiarity, the common good, the New Deal, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, USCCB
Perhaps you’ve heard that Congressman Paul Ryan, a Roman Catholic, has defended the Republican budget plan, of which he is the main author, by arguing that it’s an example of the principle of subsidiarity, one of the fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching. Basically, as Michael Sean Winters explains in The New Republic, subsidiarity means that “social ills are best solved at the lowest level of social organization possible.” In this case, Ryan is arguing that according to the principle of subsidiarity, the social safety net secured by federal programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and (eventually) Social Security, ought really to be secured by the states, as in the Medicaid voucher program the Ryan budget proposes.
Some of the debate about this question circulates around a letter from Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in response to Ryan’s assertion that his budget exemplifies Catholic social teaching. Some interpreters of Dolan’s letter think he was agreeing with Ryan; others say he was merely welcoming the fact that Ryan was taking Catholic social teaching into account. Winters notes that the archbishop seems not actually to take a position on the budget itself one way or the other. Heaven forfend.
Let me begin my response to all this by saying that it drives me completely nuts that Paul Ryan is a Catholic. I thank God every day that Sarah Palin and Donald Trump have left Holy Mother Church behind. Good luck to their new ecclesial communities. But now we’ve got Ryan, adulating Ayn Rand in public, that narcissistic, atheistic, denouncer of altruism. Next thing we know, Ryan will be claiming that Atlas Shrugged is one of the books of the New Testament. Even Newt Gingrich had the sense to denounce Ryan’s budget, not that I’m terribly happy to have Newt in the fold either.
All this aside, the main point I want to make here is that this conversation between Ryan and Archbishop Dolan and some pundits is a total non-starter. If you stood outside a Catholic church after Mass on any Sunday morning and asked the people coming out whether they believe in the principle of subsidiarity, you’d do well to find two who had the faintest notion what you were talking about. In my fifty-plus years of listening to sermons in Catholic churches, I have never once heard a priest discuss Catholic social teaching explicitly, and even discussions of social justice more generally have been few. It would take another whole blog or two to explore why this is the case, but trust me, this is the reality for the vast majority of US Catholics.
This is not to suggest that Catholic social teaching, or, more simply put, the commitment of the US Catholic church to the common good, to the survival of the poor immigrants who made up the majority of is members from 1850 to 1960, was not a very serious one. Some scholars argue that the US Catholic commitment to the poor was a major component of the fashioning of the New Deal, that is, the federal social safety net that Ryan is now determined to dismantle.
The fact is, however, that since Vatican II, for reasons I explore in Tracing the Sign of the Cross, Catholic social teaching has taken an unambiguous back seat to Catholic sexual teaching. Archbishop Dolan did not stick his neck out and condemn the harm to the poor that Ryan’s budget guarantees. Admittedly, two other bishops, Stephen Blaire and Howard Hubbard, heads of USCCB commissions related to justice, wrote a letter to the Senate in February protesting the harm to the poor embodied in the budget. Michael Sean Winters predicts that USCCB will eventually come out strongly against the Republican budget. At the moment, Winters believes, they’re just trying to finesse a complex political situation. I hope he’s right.
My own fear, however, is that by not taking a position against the Ryan budget, Archbishop Dolan is hedging his bets that somehow that budget will make family planning, sex education, and condoms for use against HIV less available. If some Catholic public figure had claimed that the principle of subsidiarity means that a couple has the right to use contraceptives to limit their family to the number of children they believe they can responsibly raise, the archbishop’s outrage would have echoed from sea to sea.
Tags: Archbishop John J. Myers, Catholic sexual teaching, Catholic social teaching, Seton Hall gay marriage course, Seton Hall University
Waiting for New York Theological Seminary’s graduation to get underway this morning, I came across an interesting tidbit in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Seems that Seton Hall, the Catholic University in South Orange, New Jersey, is considering canceling a political science course on gay marriage. They are doing so because the archbishop of Newark, John J. Myers, says such a course would conflict with Catholic teaching.
Now I would not be so foolish as to suggest that cancelling this course is a violation of academic freedom. I suspect that the archbishop includes academic freedom in the same category as secularism, individualism, and moral relativism.
I do note, however, that the course the archbishop objects to is NOT a course in Catholic moral theology. I understand why a bishop would object to such a theology course, assuming, of course, that it opposed the church’s position on gay marriage. But the course in question is a course in political science. As Seton Hall’s vice-provost says in an article in the Newark Star ledger, reviews of the course suggest it’s “not an advocacy course… but a ‘special topics’ course intended to examine objectively all sides of a significant current public policy issue,” including, presumably, the Catholic church’s side.
It may be, of course, that the archbishop believes all courses in a Catholic university should present only the Catholic position on the subject at hand. Were such a state of affairs to come about, however, the college or university in question, would, it seems to me, be ethically obligated to renounce its secular accreditation and apply instead for accreditation from the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada because it would have a become a theological school (of sorts). Such an action might, however, impact applications from students wanting to study other subjects. To wit, the whole thing is too silly to be taken seriously.
I have a deeper concern about the bishop’s statement, however: once again, an American Catholic bishop has communicated–as in the bishops’ health care embarrassment a while back–that sex is the only thing that matters to him..
You probably know what I’m getting at here, but just in case you don’t, consider this: Seton Hall offers eleven different MBAs–Master’s degrees in Business Administration–including one in Financial Markets and another in International Business. Given the enormous harm done to millions of human beings by the ongoing global recession, it is quite inconceivable that courses in the Seton Hall business program do not regularly teach concepts that, when applied, massively harm the “common good,” that beloved centerpiece of Catholic social teaching. But can you for a moment imagine the archbishop ordering the university to cancel those courses because they go against Catholic teaching?
And the priests serving under these bishops understand this ideological hierarchy very well. I have never–and I go to Mass regularly–heard a priest preach that we American Catholics, by virtue of the billions of particles of CO2 that our cars and refrigerators and computers spew into the air, are sinning against “life.” Ditto war. The pastor of a church I attended when the Iraq war broke out actually preached that although that war was a violation of Catholic just war theory, those who supported it were still valued members of the parish. This is the way it is, of course, because Catholic teaching on abortion, homosexuality, divorce, pre-marital sex, and the “complementarity” (i.e., subordination) of women to men are the only teachings that matter, practically speaking, to very many of the US bishops.
The thing is, I can’t imagine God bothering to take on our humanity just to get control over human sexuality. Can you?
Tags: American Catholic bishops, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, Bishop Blaise Cupich, Bishop Robert W. Finn, Catholic social teaching, health care reform debate, Michael Sean Winters, principle of subsidiarity
After my last blog, I vowed to write nothing further about American Catholic bishops for a long time. They get plenty of coverage already, thought I.
But on September 1, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas and Most Reverend Robert W. Finn of Kansas City/St. Joseph Missouri issued a “Joint Pastoral Statement on Principles of Catholic Social Teaching and Health Care Reform.” The bishops oppose any government-based health care reform plan because it ostensibly violates “subsidiarity,” a fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching.
In an on-line article on September 2, the National Catholic Reporter discussed the bishops’ statement under the rubric “Who Speaks for the Bishops?” The article quotes Rapid City Iowa Bishop Blaise Cupich’s statement that “All people need and should have access to comprehensive, quality health care, the costs of which must be controlled so that all can afford it. All should be able to receive health care irrespective of their stage of life, where or whether they or their parents work, how much they earn, where they live, or where they were born.” This, for the NCR, is closer to the statement of the American bishops on health care than the Kansas City statement. The larger problem, for the NCR, is that the two Kansas City bishops are undermining the previously united voice of the American Catholic bishops on the need for health care reform.
Whether you agree with the NCR on this may have to do with whether you think the Kansas City bishops are in fact deviating from the position of their fellow bishops or choosing to amplify the already significant “abortion neutrality” qualification of their statement on health care reform, (to which I allude in my August 27 blog).
Michael Sean Winters, writing on-line for the Jesuit magazine America, however, believes the real issue to be that the Kansas City bishops misunderstand the principle of subsidiarity altogether. He writes:
“Subsidiarity…seeks to answer the question…what level of society should treat a given issue. …subsidiarity suggests that issues be treated at the lowest level possible…This part of subsidiarity is ably repeated in the Kansas City text. But the text does not grasp the moral obligation of the higher levels of government. As Pope Leo XIII wrote… “Whenever the general interest or any particular class suffers, or it is threatened with evils which can in no other way be met, the public authority must step in to meet them…I think it goes without saying that the current entirely private method of delivering health insurance is not working. In addition to those whose pre-existing conditions are not covered, there are some 47 million Americans who are not covered at all. …when you read a warning that “The teaching of the Universal Church has never been to suggest a government socialization of medical services,” be advised that you are reading a GOP talking point and not an application of Catholic social doctrine to the circumstance the nation faces…”
Gads. In order to keep up with this stuff, I may actually be forced to read some Catholic social teaching, which I have ably avoided all these years because of its utterly soporific written style. Who’d a thunk it?
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