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The Catholic Church Isn’t Just Praying for Rain

In his recent encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis declares that “fresh water is an issue of primary importance” and makes it clear that equal access to clean water should be considered its own kind of “right to life” — for both people and wildlife.

Written by Christiana Z. Peppard Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Prayers for rain in arid regions may be among the more persistent behaviors of our human species. Indeed, ancient religious texts are speckled with supplications for dewdrops and downpours.

As Cynthia Barnett writes in her lyrical book, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, religions “hold a mirror to the history of humans and their complicated worlds, including their beliefs and perceptions about climate.”

Prayers for rain aren’t just mantras from a distant, religious past.

Recently, elected officials in the U.S. have appealed to the heavens. Governor Rick Perry of Texas in 2011 dedicated three officials “Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.” The summer of 2015 brought organized prayer services among southern California’s Muslims, Christians, Mormons, Sikhs and Hindus. And California’s Department of Water spokesman Doug Carlson on Oct. 1 noted: “This is a real sobering period we’ve gone through … Pray for rain.”

The primal appeal for rain reflects the insight that water is essential for all forms of life. In an ancient yet enduring way, fresh water is the first — and most fundamental — right to life issue.

To the surprise of many, the Catholic Church agrees.

Consider Pope Francis, who highlights the issue of water in the first chapter of his recent encyclical on the Earth’s environment — an authoritative document that is meant as a moral guide for Catholics worldwide. “Fresh water,” he writes in paragraph 28 of the encyclical, “is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.” This moral aspect is threatened by human-caused water scarcity, he continues: “Water supplies used to be relatively constant, but now in many places demand exceeds the sustainable supply, with dramatic consequences in the short and long term.”

Such passages sound at turns both wonky and prayerful, as in paragraph 30 of the encyclical:

“…access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.”

This linkage between the right to water and the right to life has a strong legacy in official Catholic social teaching, where it emerged out of the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It resonates with research and experience that demonstrate how, worldwide, lack of access to clean, safe water and sanitation puts disproportionate burdens on disenfranchised populations, especially women.

Uneven water quality and access are major issues in California, too — from millionaires’ hydrated lawns to contested almond groves, from shuttered car washes to contaminated groundwater affecting impoverished residents in the Central Valley.

In fact, just weeks before Gov. Jerry Brown declared an official state of drought in January 2014, California’s Catholic Bishops called for both prayer and attention to the social and ethical issues raised by water shortages:

“May God open the heavens and let his mercy rain down upon our fields and mountains. Let us especially pray for those most impacted by water shortages and for the wisdom and charity to be good stewards of this precious gift. May our political leaders seek the common good as we learn to care and share God’s gift of water for the good of all.”

Clearly, Catholic authorities are neither hydrologists nor legislators. (“The Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics,” writes Francis in paragraph 188 of his encyclical.)

Yet Catholic thought includes some longstanding modes of ethical reasoning that can help Californians to think not just pragmatically or prayerfully, but also morally, about water. The problems of water, Catholic social teaching points out, are not merely technical or economic. These are also (and more fundamentally) questions of the moral values embedded in paradigms of water management, distribution, consumptive and nonconsumptive uses and stewardship.

In Catholic ethics of water, narrow legal paradigms of contested water rights are secondary to moral insights about water as a “fundamental right-to-life issue” for people and ecosystems. Imagine what it might mean for Californians and environmentalists to reclaim the language of “right to life issues” through the foundational substance of water.

Moreover, Francis emphasizes in paragraph 140 of the encyclical that human beings and political leaders must recognize we are not separate from the ecosystems we inhabit: “Although we are often not aware of it, we depend on these larger systems for our own existence.” This line of argument begins in paragraph 139:

“We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”

It’s a tall order, of course, and one for which the pontiff doesn’t offer a policy brief. Still, discernible baselines for water ethics in Catholic thought — in the Pope’s encyclical and beyond — boil down to this:

  • Fresh water is essential for life. It is one of the “goods of Creation” that is intended for everyone equally (including people living in poverty today, and future generations).

  • Access to sufficient quantities of clean, fresh water is a fundamental human right and should not be contingent upon ability to pay.

  • Water should not be commodified beyond cost of provision. Public management of water services is a better way of ensuring just distribution and stewardship than the profit motive.

  • Agriculture is a highly consumptive yet vital use of fresh water that must become regionally sustainable and climate-appropriate. Ongoing depletion of finite groundwater supplies must be stopped.

  • Water for non-human nature is important, because biodiversity and ecosystem services are valuable in themselves. There may even be a “right of the environment” to water.

What Catholic social teaching on fresh water can offer is neither policy nor prayer. Instead, it is a surprisingly timely set of moral insights and methods from the world’s largest religious organization. That, in turn, may help to spur better ways of valuing water on a planet disproportionately impacted by human activity.

Top image: In this Sunday, March 8, 2015 file photo, Pope Francis recites the Angelus noon prayer from his studio window overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Two months later, he released an encyclical on climate change and the environment that declared: “…access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right.” (Riccardo De Luca, Associated Press)

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