In The Poisoning of Flint: How It Happened, I outlined some key points:
- The poisoning of the population of Flint, Michigan did not just happen – it was caused.
- Democratic processes were overridden in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”
- 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.
- 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.
- Lead is not the only poison being found in the water.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.