Catholic Social Teaching and the Poisoning of Flint

In The Poisoning of Flint: How It Happened, I outlined some key points:

  1. The poisoning of the population of Flint, Michigan did not just happen – it was caused.
  2. Democratic processes were overridden in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”
  3. Those in positions of power (General Motors and State officials) were provided with safe, clean water quickly once the problem was noticed. While the residents of Flint, the majority of whom are African-American and 40% live below the federal poverty line were repeatedly lied to and blown off.
  4. Lead poisoning leads to significant brain damage and other irreversible health damage to children. Every child in Flint Michigan under the age of 6 has been exposed to toxic levels of lead. This is known and indisputable. The effects of lead poisoning often take years to show up and properly evaluate. From child development to impulse control, the long term effects for the community in Flint will not be known for some time.
  5. Lead is not the only poison being found in the water.
  6. Flint is not the only city in America where corrosion and disintegration of lead pipes is a concern; it is only the beginning.

So what does Catholic social teaching have to say about all this?

At Symposium Ethics, Melissa Pagán has a fantastic piece that raises critical questions for the Church in response to this injustice. In “Watering ‘Strange Fruit’ trees: Flint and the Lack of Catholic Solidarity,” Pagán exposes, names, and challenges the Catholic community’s relative silence on issues of racial justice. In particular, just as Pope Francis highlights that the poor disproportionately bear the burden of ecological degradation, in the American context, this is complicated by racism. The effects of environmental disasters are disproportionately experienced by communities of color.   This unjust reality has been exposed over and over again, and yet, we do not seem to change. (For a classic example see Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace, which is focused on the South Bronx twenty years ago. It is just one of countless examples of what in moral theology we call environmental racism.)

As I read Pagan, I could not help but think back to the horrific massacre in Charleston and that there was little or no mention of Charleston when most Catholics I know went to mass the next Sunday. I had the privilege of listening to Fr. Bryan Massingale give the keynote address “The Evidence of Things Unsaid: The Silence about Racism in the Care for Creation” at St. John’s University’s poverty conference. Massingale issued a clear and profound challenge to American Catholicism, which seems allergic to facing the persistent reality of racism, and, within that, environmental racism in our response to care of creation. Pagán and Massingale offer a clear, powerful critique of American Catholicism and our inability to deal with racism. Part of the problem, as Massingale notes, is reducing racism to intentional, overt acts by individuals. The result of this is an easy ability to explain away racial injustice (through indifference to institutional racism). Over the last eight years, watching online blogs and debates during the Obama administration, I have been amazed at just how hard it is to have discussions on racism. Looking at persistent racism seems to have a beyond a reasonable doubt standard (that anything else could be going on) in many discussions, including within Catholic theological circles. Over at Daily Theology, John Slattery has a helpful piece on systematic bias; Flint, Michigan is simply exhibit A of a much deeper problem. Addressing it is something I find overwhelming – Flint deserves 10 posts not 2. But silence is complicity and so I offer one limited reflection from Catholic social teaching.

The injustice in Flint seems linked to the violation of the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is a principle to help guide decision-making and protect the role of those at many different levels in society –from the family, local groups, local government all the way to the federal government and international community. When I turn to Flint, I see a clear and undeniable violation of subsidiarity in two ways:

  1. The Governor of Michigan overrode the elected democratic government in Flint in giving power to an appointed emergency manager in the name of fiscal responsibility. Claiming Flint was unable to manage its finances, the state sent in an emergency manager. However, this emergency manager system continually overrode or ignored the voice of the people.
  2. There currently remains a persistent inability or unwillingness to address honestly and fully the ongoing water crisis in Flint. It is not merely a matter of past failure; there is ongoing evidence of an inability or unwillingness to place the health and well-being of residents of Flint as a priority. Those charged with guarding the public good, including public health, have provided incontrovertible evidence since 2014 that they are unable or unwilling to put the people of Flint Michigan first.

From the perspective of Catholic social teaching, we need to offer our voices in conjunction with the citizens of Flint Michigan in their calls for federal oversight of what comes next. This should include an independent investigation into the Governor’s office and the emergency manager program (not only operative in Flint), holding officials legally accountable for the willing neglect of public health, and strengthening monitoring and enforcement of clean water standards around the country. For this moral theologian, these investigations and responses cannot simply be rhetorical or reports. Action, immediate and long term, is demanded. When Pope Francis identifies access to clean and safe drinking water as a human rights issue of immediate concern, this is not just about access in the developing world. And while we begin with Flint, the safety of water and of the pipes through which it flows in poor communities around the country demands our attention.


The Poisoning of Flint: How It Happened

There is a massive and ongoing injustice occurring in Flint, Michigan. As I sat down to write this blog post, I honestly didn’t know where to begin. The men, women, and children of Flint have been poisoned. Their water continues to poison. And those charged with protecting the public are morally culpable—at best morally complicit and at worst criminally responsible.

What we know:

At the end of 2011, Flint, Michigan was taken into receivership by the state. Removing control from the elected mayor and city council, Governor Snyder appointed an emergency manager. From this point onward, the people of Flint did not have democratic representation in decisions as the emergency manager could override in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”

Fast forward to 2014 and the beginning of the Flint water crisis (and you can read more here), following Mother Jones’ reported timeline:

April 25: To save money, Flint changes its municipal water source to the Flint River rather than the Detroit water system. The switch is overseen by state emergency manager Darnell Earley, who, like other emergency managers around the state, is able to override local policies in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”

Summer: Residents begin complaining to local leaders about tainted, foul-smelling tap water—and health symptoms such as rashes and hair loss from drinking and bathing in it.

August/September: E. coli and coliform bacteria are found in the Flint water supply. The city instructs residents to boil tap water before drinking.

October 1: General Motors says it will stop using Flint River water in its plants after workers notice that the water corrodes engine parts.

It is important to note that the complaints of General Motors were answered, and the Governor “quietly spent $440,000 to hook GM back up to the Lake Huron water, while keeping the rest of Flint on the Flint River water.” It is also important to point out that previously, the emergency manager had rejected switching the water source to the Flint River because of its corrosive nature, and when the decision was made to use the Flint River, many of the issues could’ve been avoided with a treatment costing $100/day for 3 months.

January of 2015 began with an admission that something was not right, but they still insisted the water was basically safe:

January 2: Flint issues an advisory warning that its water contains high levels of trihalomethanes, byproducts of water-disinfectant chemicals. Over time, these byproducts can cause kidney, liver, and nervous system damage. Sick and elderly people may be at risk, the advisory notes, but the water is otherwise safe to consume.

Within a week, state buildings started bringing in clean bottled water for themselves and the emergency manager rejected an offer from Detroit to hook Flint up to water from Lake Huron, treated in Detroit. By the end of January, the residents of Flint were publicly complaining about serious health problems and expressing concerns about the water. Starting in February 2015, one mother, Leanne Walters, noticed her children were breaking out in rashes during baths, losing hair, and experiencing other disturbing reactions. She began complaining, demanding that her water be tested, and organizing. When her water was finally tested for lead, it tested at 400 parts per billion (there is no SAFE amount of lead, but EPA regulations list 15 parts per billion as toxic). All of her children’s tests showed lead exposure, with one child testing positive for lead poisoning.

The more you dig into this situation, the more you see horrifying, ongoing deceit by public officials—from continuing to “pre-flush,” despite EPA warnings that this temporarily lowers test results, giving residents a false sense of the real lead amounts in the tap water, to a new emergency manager overriding a city council vote to switch back to Detroit water system. (At this point we’re only at March 2015!) As Mother Jones reports:

April 28: Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech and an expert on lead corrosion, conducts new tests on the Walters’ home without flushing the taps first and finds lead levels as high as 13,200 ppb—more than twice the level the EPA classifies as hazardous waste. . . .

September 15: Edwards determines that Flint River water is 19 times as corrosive as Detroit tap water and estimates that one in six Flint homes have elevated lead levels. A MDEQ spokesman disputes the findings.

When we look through this timeline, a few things are clear. Leaked emails show that the people of Flint were being ignored and blown off by the highest levels of State Government and abstract decisions about fiscal responsibility trumped any consideration of public health. In September, they were pushed to finally issue a lead warning but it was full of misinformation, and, in October, Governor Snyder’s office was still lying to the people of Flint, claiming that the water complied with federal safety standards. The same week Snyder’s office issued this press release, water fountains in Flint schools were found to have high levels of lead. Finally, the government announced they would go back to Detroit water. Yet after more than a year of unsafe, corrosive water flowing through the pipes, significant damage was done. Lead is still present in tap water in Flint, Michigan. The most recent water tests—conducted at the end of December, after the switch and after starting anti-corrosion treatment—remain well above what the water filters can filter out (150 parts per billion.) Clean water is now being pumped into the Flint system; however, the pipes are so damaged by the last year of corrosion that lead is still contaminating the tap water. Water and filters are being distributed by the Red Cross and National Guard; however, there has been controversy as to whether the most vulnerable (the poor and the undocumented) have sufficient access to this. On January 27, a lawsuit was filed asking the federal court to step in to provide safe, clean drinking water. Protests are also ongoing to stop residents from Flint from continuing to receive water bills for unsafe drinking water. Today it remains unsafe to use tap water in Flint, Michigan.

Key Points:

  1. The poisoning of the population of Flint, Michigan did not just happen – it was caused.
  2. Democratic processes were overridden in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”
  3. Those in positions of power (General Motors and State officials) were provided with safe, clean water quickly once the problem was noticed. While the residents of Flint, the majority of whom are African-American and 40% live below the federal poverty line were repeatedly lied to and blown off.
  4. Lead poisoning leads to significant brain damage and other irreversible health damage to children. Every child in Flint Michigan under the age of 6 has been exposed to toxic levels of lead. This is known and indisputable. The effects of lead poisoning often take years to show up and properly evaluate. From child development to impulse control, the long term effects for the community in Flint will not be known for some time.
  5. Lead is not the only poison being found in the water.
  6. Flint is not the only city in America where corrosion and disintegration of lead pipes is a concern; it is only the beginning.


Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home

It’s here! A new social encyclical! As a Catholic moral theologian, I feel a bit like a child on Christmas morning. While I know that most of you were not setting your alarms for the 5am Vatican press conference, we have all been anxiously awaiting Pope Francis’ “environmental encyclical.” And, let me just say – you will not be disappointed. The Holy Father has delivered an amazing tour de force in a jam-packed 100+ (!) pages. Pope Francis invites us to work together, challenges us to take a long hard look in the mirror at our relationship to the earth, and reminds us the Lord hears the cries of the earth and the cries of the poor, and so much more.

To get you started – here are 5 things to note in Laudato Si: Read More

Must Reads for Your Social Justice Book Club

Are you interested in starting a social justice book club? Choosing books that will interest and encourage participation from a wide group of people can be difficult. One of the most challenging aspects of teaching is choosing texts that will engage my students—pique their interest, but also challenge them to think deeply. Narratives can activate our imagination and invite us into human complexity that otherwise escapes us. During the Synod, a number of the married couples who spoke criticized Church documents and theology for being incomprehensible to the average Christian; this does not have to be true. Moral theology can provoke us all to think more deeply about our relationship with God and neighbor, such that we discover the deep challenge and promise of discipleship. Blending these categories, here are some books to help you start a social justice book club in your parish, community, or campus ministry group:

Mercy in the City by Kerry Weber (Loyola Press, 2014)

Weber’s book should be mandatory reading for everyone involved in parish social ministry. She begins with a perennial Catholic discernment: what should I give up or do for Lent? She writes, “I wonder: what does it say about me that I’m giving up the same thing at age twenty-nine that I did when I was twelve? . . . And that’s not to say I haven’t tried to make Lent more meaningful, but somehow my sacrifice always sounds like a second attempt at a New Year’s resolution” (21). Rather than replacing “giving up” with the vague “more” that often accompanies our “do something” Lenten resolutions, she sets out to concretely practice the seven corporal works of mercy in New York City. Mercy requires us to let down our guard and enter into the reality of others. In her short narrative, Weber tells her own story with a self-reflective grace that gives voice to the ups and downs many of us feel in trying to figure out how to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty….and keep our day job. It is the perfect way to start a social justice book club.

Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle, SJ (Free Press, 2010)

Founder of Homeboy Industries, Fr. Greg Boyle has spent the past twenty years living and working in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Tattoos on the Heart tells the story of Homeboy Industries and Fr. Boyle’s ministry to counter gang influence and culture in LA through a collection of moving, heart-breaking, and heart-warming stories that challenges how we usually think about God, love, mercy, justice, and redemption. Who is God? What is compassion? Boyle’s stories demand that we examine the way we set up and maintain divisions and challenge our traditional definitions of success and failure. This book made me laugh and cry, and reminded me that “Jesus just stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed or until he was crucified – whichever came first” (172).

Living Justice by Thomas Massaro, SJ (Rowan& Littlefield, 2008)

Often called our best kept secret, the Catholic social tradition provides the strong foundation for Catholic social justice work. Building on a two-thousand-year tradition of Christian reflection on poverty, peace, and justice in light of the Gospel, modern Catholic social teaching engages the complexity and specific social problems of the modern world. Unfortunately, it is a tradition that seems academic and inaccessible to many. In Living Justice, Fr. Thomas Massaro, SJ, a moral theologian and dean of the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara, provides a rich and accessible overview of Church teaching on social justice. Complete with questions for discussion, this book provides the vocabulary, background, and principles for connecting one’s social justice experiences to Catholic beliefs and theology.

Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) by Pope Francis

Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation probably made a bigger splash than any apostolic exhortation of the past. Reflecting on the internal life of the Church, Pope Francis reiterates, “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out in the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security” (49). Aimed at renewal within our parish ministries and personal discipleship, the Joy of the Gospel challenges and invites us into deeper reflection about what saying YES to the Gospel means and what it demands we say NO to – making it a perfect text for a Catholic social justice book club (even though technically, it is not a book).

In The Company of the Poor by Paul Farmer and Gustavo Gutierrez (Orbis, 2013)

This book is a conversation between two social justice giants: Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, founder of liberation theology, and Dr. Paul Farmer, human rights activist and founder of Partners in Health. How do we say to the poor that God loves them, when everything in the world around them tells them they are worth nothing? How do we insist that healthcare is a human right when much of the world’s population is denied access to this right? Through these chapters, Farmer and Gutierrez offer deep theological and ethical reflection on structural violence, accompaniment, and solidarity. As we think about the ongoing Ebola epidemic, few social justice texts are as immediately relevant as this one.

Just Water by Christiana Z. Peppard (Orbis, 2014)

We cannot live without fresh water. We know that millions living in poverty do not have access to clean drinking water. Dr. Peppard explains the importance of this, writing, “Fresh water is interwoven with the most pressing realities that populations and regions will face in the twenty-first century, from agriculture to climate change to political stability, and more. . . . If fresh water scarcity isn’t the definitive ‘sign of the times,’ then what is?” (67). Dr. Peppard’s tour de force will inspire and challenge your understanding of living Catholic social justice. After reading this book, you will never look at a bottle of water or the living waters of baptism the same way again.

Ice Bucket Challenge: Why I Did It & You Should Too

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is all over Facebook and Twitter. Even Kermit the Frog and Mr. Met have done it. So far, it has raised more than $30 million dollars for ALS charities – the largest of which is the ALS-Association. As with anything trending on Twitter, the Ice Bucket Challenge is not without its haters. Perhaps the most frustrating came earlier this week on Vox, which questioned whether a donation to ALS is “cost-effective charity.” While people do have limited funds, it is disingenuous to set up a dichotomy in which it is assumed someone must choose between ALS and a global health charity (as if donations are all or nothing in one instant decisions). Second, the article offered good advice for investigating charity ratings, but seemed to not do its homework as the ALS-Association actually has a four star charity rating…but this is not a post about the haters. In this post, I want to share why I did the ice bucket challenge and why I hope you will too.

ALS and the Ice Bucket Challenge is not a trendy fad for me or my family; it is personal. In August 1999, my Aunt Judy was diagnosed with Bulbar-ALS. She had gone for a round of tests because she was slurring her speech and by the time the results were in, we knew there was only one possible diagnosis: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Virtually everyone knows Lou Gehrig but very few actually know anything about the horrific disease that took his life. ALS is a motor neuron disease which progressively spreads throughout your body paralyzing you. Eventually, ALS paralyzes your diaphragm and you can no longer breathe. Most commonly, it starts in your hands or feet, patients can live 10-15 years with this form of the disease. Judy had bulbar-ALS which started in her mouth; she was given 18months-3.5 years to live. In October 2002, 3 years and 2 months after diagnosis, Judy died. She was 46 years old.

I am not exaggerating when I say that ALS is the diagnosis I fear most. I had a front row seat as ALS took away my aunt’s ability to speak, to walk, and to eat, and, ultimately, took her life. The horror of ALS isn’t that it takes away your independence; it’s that it takes away your ability to communicate, all while you are fully conscious of what is happening. From the moment of the diagnosis, you know exactly what is coming. Physically, emotionally, and financially this disease weighs heavily upon patients and their families. We were lucky. Judy was a school teacher with good health insurance, who, because of her terminal diagnosis, was able to cash in benefits. ALS is expensive. Over $100,000 was spent on her care in only 3 years (and that is not counting medical bills). $30,000 for a wheel chair. $500/month to lease a wheel-chair lift van. My mother is an accomplished medical professional, so we had someone to navigate the healthcare and insurance process. I don’t know how much the communication devices cost, but thanks to my mother’s advocacy, very little was denied by Judy’s insurance. In addition to an extensive network of family and friends, we had an amazing team of caregivers. It is physically demanding to care for an ALS patient in advanced stages of the disease; I learned how to properly lift and transfer Judy without hurting myself. I learned what it meant to accompany the dying.

We had resources to make sure Judy lived and communicated as long as possible and died with dignity. What are patients and families without these privileges to do? Navigating the medical world is difficult without a trained advocate. Even with Medicare and Medicaid, medications and equipment are expensive. Respite care is a necessity. This is where the ALS-Association comes in. The ALS-Association of Greater New York has support groups, resources for patients and families, advocacy support for dealing with insurance and equipment needs, and the list goes on. The ALS-Association is there and they are the only “full service” ALS group. People like funding research – science is sexy, taking care of the dying isn’t. While many advocates for the ice bucket challenge are focusing on research and awareness, I want to draw attention to the amazing work the ALS-Association does to protect the dignity of ALS patients. It is the only ALS group which has as its mission research, advocacy, and care. For me as a moral theologian, part of freezing out ALS is making sure those dying of ALS and their families are included, supported, and visible.

So why should you dump a bucket of ice on your head? Don’t do it because Justin Bieber or Derek Jeter did it. Do it because ice water stings and its uncomfortable. The Ice Bucket challenge asks us to step out of our comfort zone and draw attention to something we would all rather not talk or think about: a horribly painful death. As we click to see Conan O’Brien or the NY Jets, we are talking about ALS. If you watched Peter Frates’ or Anthony Carbajal’s courageous videos, then you’ve heard first hand from ALS patients. The Ice Bucket challenge, I propose, can be a gateway action opening the door towards accompanying ALS patients and their families. Every ALS headline and Google search raises awareness and brings ALS into the conversation. Charity and solidarity are not all or nothing actions. But if you’ve read through this post, chances are you know more about ALS and the ALS association. And if you’re willing to dump ice water on your head and post a silly video, then hopefully you are willing to learn a little about ALS in the process. Let’s help protect the dignity of those living with and affected by ALS.*

*For those who may be concerned with the fact that the ALS-Association has previously funded embryonic stem cell research (according to RNS reporting there is only 1 such study coming to the end of its project right now), I encourage you to investigate ALS Association’s research page and the one on stem cells and to contact your local ALS-Association chapter to donate to their care programs.

Crisis on the Border: The Global Refugee Crisis Comes to America

El Salvador. Honduras. Guatemala. Three countries in Central America with increasing, rampant gang violence and homicide.


These are also the 3 countries from which the greatest influx of unaccompanied minors are crossing the border, fleeing to the United States. If we look at the graph, it is clear that the increase of unaccompanied children crossing are not coming from Mexico, but through Mexico to the United States. These children and those who are traveling with their mothers are fleeing from horrific violence and insecurity. I want to be clear from the very beginning of this post – these children are refugees.


So why is it that every time I turn on the television I hear elected officials pontificating about border security? Listening to the litany of Republican congressman, Tea Party activists, and pundits like Governor Palin I have seen interviewed over the past 4 days, it is as if the primary crisis on the border is one of security – all these children are getting across the border. As much of the nation was ensconced in celebrating “independence,” protesters blocked a bus transporting unaccompanied minors. I am horrified,  disgusted, and ashamed of my fellow citizens.

The humanitarian crisis at the border is not a political problem. It is not even an immigration problem. It is merely the latest instance of a global refugee crisis. These children are fleeing for their lives, they are refugees and we need to readjust our national discourse accordingly. currently, the global refugee crisis is at an all time high – 9 million children globally.

refugees_dayNow at this point I could point out that, according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,

“In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be the primary consideration…” (article3)

But the United States will shortly find itself as the only member state in the United Nations to sign but fail to ratify the document (South Sudan has begun the process and Somalia has stated an intent to re-commit). However, there are plenty of Conventions on Human Rights, Refugees, and so on to which we have committed ourselves and which demand that the treatment of refugees prioritize unequivocally the safety and well being of the children (not political concerns).

Within this national context, the voice of the Catholic Church has been steadfast – the dignity of these children is the primary concern.  Both the USCCB and Catholic NGOs like Network have spoken out against calls for increased border security and deportation. While some Texas towns are attempting to create city ordinances to keep undocumented children out, Sacred Heart Parish in McAllen, Texas has transformed itself into a safe haven for women and children stating “This is not about politics, it’s about kids.”

For Catholic moral theology, it is quite simple. These children fleeing across our border are in the image of another child who was forced to flee political violence – the Infant Jesus.  Shortly after his birth, Jesus, Mary and Joseph were forced to flee across the border into Egypt. Jesus of Nazareth was a child refugee. Jesus Christ is a child refugee.

On Monday, I returned from a Vincentian pilgrimage. In 17century France, plagued by poverty and generations of constant war, children called “foundlings” were abandoned by mothers who could not afford to feed them.  One of the earliest missions of St. Vincent de Paul was to organize homes for foundling children staffed by the Daughters of Charity and funded by the Ladies of Charity. An unpopular cause, no one wanted to bother with the foundlings – if even their mothers do not care for them, why should we?  In response, St. Vincent created foundling homes named for the Infant Jesus reminding everyone that these children were the Infant Jesus in their midst. Jesus Christ is alone, afraid, and in need of care.  When a group of  ladies questioned continuing to pay for the foundlings – it was expensive, how long were they expected to pay? St. Vincent listened to their concerns and responded pointedly – a child can die two ways; through murder or by refusing to feed him. 

Like Moses’ mother Jochebed, mothers in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala feel they have no choice then to send their children down the Nile and pray for their safety. The fate of thousands of refugee children in our community are at stake – American Christians need to lift up our voices and like Sacred Heart parish change the conversation.  As Christians and as Americans the choice is clear – to live up to our ideals and welcome the oppressed yearning to break free  or betray the very core of our community and return children to a situation of immense suffering and danger and possibly death.  It is their lives at stake and it is our soul.

Solidarity, Imago Dei, and the Catholic Case against Libertarianism

As prepared for delivery at “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism” (with minor edits). Updated with video.

As I began preparing for today, I went back and reread some of the theoretical texts of libertarianism – Friedman, Nozick, Rand, and Hayek. These provide the intellectual claims upon which today’s political libertarian agenda are based. Freedom to Choose by Rose and Milton Friedman is particularly striking:

“Neither equality before God nor equality of opportunity presented any conflict with liberty to shape one’s own life. Quite the opposite. Equality and liberty were two faces of the same value – that every individual should be viewed as an end in himself.”

This interpretation of the American Founding sounds appealing – the language mimics that of Kant’s categorical imperative – that each human person is to be treated as an end in herself and never as merely a means to an end. And yet, I feel like Inigo Montoya in the Princess Bride – “I don’t think those words mean what you think they mean.” When you look closely, something else is going on here. The definition of equality before God is rooted in individual choice, and the definition of equality of opportunity is merely a lack of arbitrary obstacles. This is certainly not Kant. But even more important for our discussion today, this is not Catholic theology’s understanding of equality before God or equality of opportunity. This is not a Catholic understanding of the human person.

In my brief time with you today I would like to focus on two distinct yet related points: first, the Catholic understanding of the human person as created in the image of God. Second, what this means in terms of the Church’s social teaching with a particular focus on Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes and the recent teachings of Pope Francis, both of which are integral to Catholicism’s understanding of solidarity and help to illuminate why I have argued in my book The Vision of Catholic Social Thought: The Virtue of Solidarity and the Praxis of Human Rights that libertarianism is a social vice against this virtue.

Imago Dei/Imago Trinitatis

“Then God said, “let us make human kind in our image, according to our likeness; . . . So God created humankind, in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-7).

All discussions of human dignity and the human person for Catholic theology begin with one very clear unequivocal statement: all human persons are created in the image and likeness of God. Imago Dei. Catholic moral theology (and Catholic social teaching, in particular) is largely a series of reflections on what this means. There is radical equality before God; we are equally loved by God and equally created in the image of God. However, equality before God is not primarily about freedom of choice but relationship. And it is this equality before God that grounds the preferential option for the poor. I’d like to focus on two elements of the Catholic understanding of human persons as relational and social: the question of creation and what imago dei means for human community.

Perhaps the most important divergence between Catholicism and libertarianism are in these very basic theological claims: I do not create myself; I do no call myself into existence; and I always exist in relationship to others (other persons and to God). As I explain in my book, The Vision of Catholic Social Thought, “We are not simply individuals who should choose to enter into community and relationship. While the freedom of the individual person allows for a number of choices . . . to be a human person created in the image of God is to be in community, this is not something from which we are able to opt out” (Clark 58). Human freedom is crucial in this. But it is not reducible to negative liberty. In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI urges us to resist the “intoxication with total autonomy,which is not true freedom.

Freedom to love, freedom for human flourishing, freedom for community, freedom for God – these all shape the Catholic understanding of freedom. And these begin with the recognition that human persons are fundamentally and inescapably relational. I began with a verse from Genesis 1, and in that verse we see that, from creation, human persons are unavoidably relational, in relationship with other persons and with God.   Far from reducing the importance of freedom, this deeper and broader approach to freedom elevates freedom and with it our responsibility before God.

The divergence between Catholicism and libertarianism I’ve argued hinges on creation and the implications of the imago dei for human community. While we may be able to achieve significant agreement that human persons are social or interdependent – that we need other people to survive – this is not the core of how Catholicism understands human community. Human society is not merely a requirement for survival; it is a good of humanity itself. Human persons are created in the image of God, and God is Trinity. What does it mean to say that to be imago dei must be imago trinitatis?Throughout Christian history, theological schools have answered this in different ways, but today I want to invite you to think more deeply about this idea: how might we be in the image of God?

Relation then isn’t atomized and added up, but points us towards Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of John: “that they may be one as we are one” (17:21). And so we end up with the Trinity and equality, mutuality, and reciprocity, providing quite clear and challenging normative criteria by which to evaluate whether or not we as a community are imaging God more or less fully in the world. It also links us as one human family created in the image of God. Thus, we end up where libertarianism cannot: “Our humanity, as in the image of God, is not only a matter of creation but also places a claim on us” (Clark 59). In a speech to Georgetown, U2 frontman Bono challenged students that “when you truly accept that those in some far off place in the global village have the same value as you in God’s eyes or even just in your own eyes, then your life is forever changed, you see something that you cannot unsee.” The image of God places a claim upon us that goes well beyond simply not harming or impeding others. It leads us to Paul VI’s observation that “there can be no progress towards the complete development of the human person without the simultaneous development of all humanity in the spirit of solidarity” (PP43).

Catholic Social Teaching/Vatican II & Pope Francis

Reflecting on that same passage from Genesis 1, Vatican II’s Church in the Modern World emphasizes the presence of the human community at creation, as I have already highlighted. Building on this, the Council stated, “God did not create the person for life in isolation but for the formation of social unity. So also ‘it has pleased God to make men holy and save them not merely as individuals, without any mutual bonds, but by making them into a single people . . . So from the beginning of salvation history, he has chosen people not just as individuals but as members of a certain community” (32). In Christianity, God enters into relationships – covenants – with peoples. More than this, God enters into covenants with succeeding generations of peoples reaching across our traditional understandings of past, present, and future.

Already in 1965, globalization and interdependence were understood as radically pervasive and as universal in reach. As the Council explains, “In our times, a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of absolutely every person and of actively helping him when he comes across our path, whether he be an old person abandoned by all, a foreign laborer unjustly looked down upon . . . or a hungry person” (27). Gaudium et Spes, like St. John XXIII’s Peace on Earth before it, offers a comprehensive account of what must be accounted for in upholding human dignity and the flourishing community, and it is a basic list of human rights. The concerns are always both personal and structural, recognizing that “human freedom is often crippled when a man falls into extreme poverty” (31). Again, it’s important to note that human freedom is crippled by extreme poverty whether arbitrary obstacles exist or not. Freedom is not reducible to negative liberty.

Integrating the Catholic view of the person and community, the US Bishops in their 1986 Economic Justice for All offered an integrated moral vision which places participation as central to the ethical evaluation of the economy (and social arrangements more broadly). Economic Justice for All defines basic justice as participation, as the minimum conditions for the person’s participation in the economic, social, and political life of the community (15). Catholic social thought develops this social vision into an integrated understanding of poverty as exclusion.

Pope Francis has unequivocally reminded us that Christianity is a radical call to community, building upon the vision of Gaudium et Spes. When asked to explain his decision to continue living at Santa Marta guest house and not the papal apartment, he explained, I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others. In the now famous “Jesuit interview,” and earlier in Lumen Fidei, he explains that “self-knowledge is only possible when we share in greater memory.” You will notice that his words sound very similar to the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: “There is no full identity without belonging to a people. No one is saved alone, as isolated individual, but God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community. God enters into this dynamic, this participation in the web of human relationships.” Francis echoes this in Evangelii Gaudium as well.

To understand what Pope Francis says on poverty, inequality, and exclusion, you have to first understand this deep unity of the one human family, of our belonging to each other and our standing together before God, which provides its necessary backdrop. The threat of libertarianism is that it creates a barrier to seeing the other as neighbor, as brother or sister.

My humanity is bound up in yours. This is concrete, not abstract. In a visit to the Jesuit Refugee Center in Rome, Pope Francis addressed the refugees, saying, “To serve means to work alongside the neediest, first of all to establish a close human relationship with them, based on solidarity. Solidarity, this word elicits fear in the developed world. They try not to say it. It’s almost a dirty word for them. But it’s our word!” Theologically, we are now back to the very heart of Christianity: Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, God becoming Human. Solidarity is our word. This passage has followed me around for the last year. I cannot think of a clearer way to show the divergence between Catholicism and libertarianism than the radical identification of Jesus with the marginalized in Matthew 25 or in Catholic social thought’s understanding of solidarity, the social virtue by which we commit ourselves to participation in the universal common good of all by all.