Saturday, April 30, 2005

more on the right to food and to medical care: orienting toward the common good

The instructor in one of the courses I am taking this school term has assigned readings from John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus Annus and the U.S. bishops' pastoral letter Economic Justice for All from 1986. It was interesting to read these two documents in light of the fact that the US recently voted against the UN resolution on the right to food and the on right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

As with any other statement that comes out from the Church, I regard these two documents as guides and not necessarily as platforms on which any government is bound to implement. They articulate principles that should enlighten policymakers, politicians, and citizens. One of these principles is the recognition of basic human rights. And two of these rights include the right to food and to medical care.

The U.S. bishops in 1986 reminded us that "In Catholic teaching, human rights include not only civil and political rights but also economic rights. As Pope John XXIII declared, 'all people have a right to life, food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, education, and employment.'"

The bishops then added that there is really no substitute for a long-term agricultural and food-system development in the nations now caught in hunger and starvation. And key to this long-term solution are the "small farmers, most of whom are prevented from participating in the food system by the lack of a market incentive resulting from the poverty of the bulk of the populations and by the lack of access to productive agricultural inputs, especially land." If these small farmers are allowed to participate, according to the bishops, the problem can be addressed.

However, working on this long-term solution does not preclude the obligation of the world's richer nations "to provide food aid sufficient to meet the nutritional needs of poor people, and to provide it not simply to dispose of surpluses but in a way that does not discourage local food production."

Then the bishops squarely pointed to the United States as an indispensable actor in helping to address the problem of hunger. I must say that the US has been quite active in this role. It has always been noted worldwide that Americans are quite generous in terms of aid and resources. However, I still think that the silly way in which the US voted on those two resolutions send mixed signals.

Having said this, the balance between the role of the state and the role of market forces ought to be present. "It is the task of the state to provide for the defense and preservation of common goods such as the natural and human environments, which cannot be safeguarded simply by market forces," according to John Paul II's encyclical. One can't rely of the forces of supply and demand and capitalism to guarantee that the needs of everyone are met. At some point, the state ought to have a hand.

However, John Paul is quick to point out that the Church endorses neither communism nor capitalism: "The church has no models to present; models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situation." So what then is the function of the Church's teachings if she can't provide a model? John Paul writes something which connects with I had written at the start of this post: "the Church offers her social teaching as an indispensable and ideal orientation, a teaching which, as already mentioned recognizes the positive value of the market and of enterprise, but which at the same time points out that these need to be oriented toward the common good."

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