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.

 


Everyone Must Act Responsibly to Save Our World

Cardinal Peter Turkson recently gave a speech at The Future of the Corporation: From Best in the World to Best for the World. Here are some highlights of the speech:

  • Not only is there poverty and social exclusion in the midst of plenty; economic activity is also degrading the natural environment, even to the point of threatening future human life.
  • All decisions about the natural environment are ethical decisions.
  • Technology and commerce must be held to transcendental standards of the meaning of life and of the moral outlook. They must be defined by solidarity—both with all people alive today and with those not yet born—and be oriented toward the common good.
  • All human beings are affected, and everything in nature too, by climate change, misuse of natural resources, waste and pollution.
  • Everyone must act responsibly to save our world—from individuals recycling to enterprises reducing their ecological footprints to world leaders setting and enforcing ambitious carbon reduction targets.
  • Businesses contribute to the common good by producing goods that are truly good and services that truly serve.
  • This preoccupation with wants, often called “consumerism,” severs production and consumption from the common good and impedes the development of the person.
  • The production of goods and services must abide by truth instead of mere pleasure or utility.
  • New products and services—such as microenterprises, microcredit, social enterprises and impact investment—have played an important role insofar as they help the poor to address their own needs. These innovations will not only help people to lift themselves from extreme poverty but also spark their creativity and entrepreneurship and help launch a dynamic of inclusive development.
  • Work should be the setting for this rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God.
  • Business must always subordinate profits to generating employment — affirming, as he put it, the priority of labor over capital.
  • The business objective of ‘good wealth’ focuses on generating sustainable wealth and distributing it justly.
  • The logic of competition promotes short-termism, which leads to financial failure and devastation of the environment.
  • The Holy Father is not anti-business; he decries an obsession with profit and the deification of the market. But when it comes to the challenges of sustainable development, he calls upon business to lead by harnessing its creativity to solve pressing human needs.
  • If business is to lead, then let’s deploy the finance, re-organization, and technology needed to decarbonize the global economy.
  • Caring for our common home requires, as Pope Francis says, not just an economic and technological revolution, but also a cultural spiritual revolution—a profoundly different way of approaching the relationship between people and the environment, a new way of ordering the global economy. And this in turn, places a great responsibility on the shoulders of business leaders and also popular leaders. But I am confident that you are up to the task!

 



Time for a More Personal Approach to Marriage Prep?

Of my many, many shortcomings, the one I perhaps dislike most is that I am not easily impressed.  It is a fault born of a blessed life, but a fault none the less.  On my second and final day of pre-Cana last weekend I tried, not always successfully, to keep this in mind.

Like on the first day, all of the content was solid.  Couples should be able to communicate with one another, have a shared set of expectations for how married life will be lived, and be able to formulate a budget and financial plan for themselves.

Additionally, I have nothing but praise for all of the speakers, who were a good mix of ages and conditions.  Even when I wasn’t engrossed in what they were saying, it certainly was not because they were presenting it poorly.  The young, attractive, clearly in love couple who spoke about their experiences with Natural Family Planning were especially effective, I think. Read More


Pornography Is a Social Justice Issue

Millennial Catholic Megan McCabe, who has written on hookup culture and rape culture at Millennial, has a new article at America. She writes:

This process of desensitization and subsequent search for a new thrill is one way that male viewers find themselves aroused by acts of violence and degradation that they previously would have found horrifying.

Through “Create in Me a Clean Heart,” the U.S.C.C.B. attempts to address these social concerns. But the statement mentions them only briefly and without much explanation. Despite addressing issues of violence, the overall framing of the document remains focused on lust and chastity. To take pornography seriously as a structure of sin would require moving violence to the fore, allowing it to frame how we ought to understand the ethical challenges posed by pornography. Through further exploration of the negative social effects of pornography, it becomes clear that the primary concern ought not be lustfulness. Rather, use of pornography entails complicity in a social structure that makes violence against women seem normal, even erotic. It is a matter of social injustice.

Such an approach would lead us to see that the primary necessary response ought to be oriented toward justice and social transformation. It would require solidarity with those who are victimized by sexual violence. Avoiding such material is good not only because it promotes moral purity but also because it challenges the cultural underpinning of unjust, gendered power and sexual violence. The key moral issue is not one’s own “clean heart” but one’s participation in upholding and passing on cultural forms that promote violence against women.

You can read the full article here.


Don’t Be an Observer: Our Generation’s Call to Defend Life

“Continue to overcome apathy, offering a Christian response to the social and political anxieties, which are arising in various parts of the world. I ask you to be builders of the world, to work for a better world. Dear young people, please, don’t be observers of life, but get involved. Jesus did not remain an observer, but he immersed himself. Don’t be observers, but immerse yourself in the reality of life, as Jesus did.” –Pope Francis July 27, 2013

Last week, despite the threat and arrival of Snowzilla, thousands of Americans took to the streets of Washington DC to take a stand against the lethal Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade and to raise their voices in support of women and unborn children. A majority of those who marched for life were millennials. I was among them and as I marched, Pope Francis’ words to young people came to mind. The Holy Father reminded us in a 2013 homily that Jesus was not an observer, but rather he immersed himself in the reality of life. We too are called to immerse ourselves, to be advocates, and to stand up and offer “a Christian response to the social and political anxieties” which we face in our civilization.

The greatest civil rights abuse of our time is abortion. If we are to follow Jesus’ example, we must, as Pope Francis exhorts us, face this reality of life. We know the statistics—around a million children lose their lives to abortion each year. Each number included in this statistic is a child that has lost his or her life. And with each child that has lost his or her life to abortion, there is a mother and a father that is hurting. Grandparents, friends, and extended family suffer as well.

In addition to being a horrific reality at a human level, abortion is also one of the most controversial political issues of our day. It can be difficult to engage with others on such a heated topic. Trust me, as someone who works in the pro-life movement, it isn’t always easy to tell the person next to me on the plane what I do for a living. Yet God has chosen us to live in this time and so we must trust in Christ’s invitation to “be not afraid.” We, the JPII Generation, have been given incredible leaders to guide us as we strive to answer Pope Francis’ call “to be builders of the world, to work for a better world.” We look to saints, civil rights leaders, and Christ himself as models of those who engage and do not merely observe. Read More