All human beings have a right to food. This right is enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It is the irrefutable teaching of the Catholic Church. The right to food is the inevitable conclusion drawn by those of us who believe in the fundamental dignity and worth of the human person and the equality of all people as children of God.
This may sound peculiar to those unfamiliar with Catholic philosophy and theology, for whom rights only exist to ensure freedom from government coercion. It may sound heretical to those who believe that the market—not God—creates rights. But for those who understand and embrace the personalism and communitarianism of the Church rather than individualism and classical liberalism (libertarianism), the right to food is obvious. It is central to the right to life.
Food security is not a privilege. Universal access to food is morally demanded. Yet many go hungry. Over 870 million people are chronically undernourished and 1.5 million people die from hunger each year. This occurs despite the fact that enough food is produced to feed every person on the planet.
Pope Francis is clearly determined to overturn this grave injustice. In a message to the Director General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Pope Francis has argued that “one of the most serious challenges for humanity” is “that of the tragic condition in which millions of hungry and malnourished people still live, among them many children.” He strongly condemned the unjust status quo, saying that it is a “scandal that there is still hunger and malnutrition in the world.” Pope Francis called for a “just and last solution.”
He expressed his concern that “a tendency seems to be growing to individualism and to shutting ourselves in on ourselves, which leads to a certain attitude of indifference – at the personal, institutional and State level – vis-a-vis those who are dying of hunger or suffer malnutrition, almost as if it were an unavoidable fact.” Here we see Pope Francis applying one of his key themes—the globalization of indifference—to the specific issue of food security and the right to food.
We also see his belief that malnutrition and starvation are far from inevitable; in fact, we see how repulsive he finds that argument.
Pope Francis has called for a change not simply in our personal conduct, but also in the functioning of our global economic system. He calls for an end to “the barriers of individualism” and “the slavery of profit at all cost.” His proposed response is an embrace of solidarity at the personal, political, and economic level.
This requires reducing the amount of food we waste, which he sees as the product of consumerism and a disregard for our responsibilities as stewards of the earth. Yet changes in our personal conduct must coincide with changes in global institutions and norms to overturn the structural sin of food insecurity for far too many.
Last week, the Vatican reinforced these key points at the United Nations, calling for changes in social structures and “greater solidarity towards the poor and the hungry.” With this solidarity, subsidiarity is also required so that all might participate and have greater control over their destiny, in addition to having guaranteed access to food. Food security must be ensured at the highest level that is necessary and the lowest level possible. In concrete terms, this requires changes to family life, local communities, national governments, and the international community.
Pope Francis appears poised to consistently push for such changes. His persistent focus on the poor cannot be disconnected from the right to food and the scandal of food insecurity. He is calling all of us to embrace global solidarity, to recognize that we are all members of one indivisible global community.
A greater sense of solidarity would shake so many in the West out of the daze and malaise of self-centered, bourgeois individualism, which has infected many who wish to follow Christ. It would transform souls and lives, for as Pope Francis reminded us, “We cannot sleep peacefully while babies are dying of hunger…” And in overturning this culture of indifference, this callous disregard for those deprived of their most fundamental rights, we might work together to transform institutions and create a more just world, where the rights of all are ensured and protected.