Sandbox Ethics

For our youngest daughter’s birthday, our family built a sandbox. Digging for treasure is one of the kids’ favorite games. Whether they are playing pirates or prospectors, the kids love digging up shiny rocks and other “jewels.” As parents, we set the rules for the sandbox: no hurting or hitting, no busting up the nearby plants or wellhead; all must be allowed to play and share the treasure.

Digging for treasure is no game for many around the world. In too many places natural resources are a curse, not a blessing, fueling and financing conflict, corrupting business and government and poisoning the environment. Without good governance, prospectors become pirates, stealing treasure. The people nearest the mines and oilfields suffer. They become victims of conflict and rape; they are made refugees and internally displaced persons as armed groups fight over resources. Their land and water are polluted by unscrupulous companies that extract resources without environmental protections. Pollution robs poor subsistence farming and fishing communities of health, food and jobs. Kleptocrat rulers, warlords and companies benefit while lying and covering up the money trail of profits. Basic “sandbox ethics” rules of social justice are violated: people and the environment are hurt, and not all are allowed to participate and share the treasures.

The church around the world is working to build peace, justice and good governance, particularly in areas where there are conflicts over resources. A thoughtful recent book published by Catholic Relief Services, Extractives and Equity, highlights the church’s creative efforts to break the resource curse. The reactive work of the church to care for victims of violence is well known: humanitarian relief, refugee care and ministries to internally displaced persons. Less appreciated are the church’s proactive efforts to prevent violence—for example by deploying tens of thousands of election monitors in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Nigeria.

Many of these issues were addressed during a seminar in Rome on May 29–30 called “New Challenges for Catholic Peacebuilding,” sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in collaboration with Caritas Internationalis and the Catholic Peacebuilding Network. Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, noted that Pope John XXIII’s encyclical “Peace on Earth,” published 50 years ago, still animates the church’s work to build peace. Michel Roy of Caritas Internationalis and Marie Denis of Pax Christi International discussed the practical ways their organizations build peace.

The U.S. Embassy to the Holy See also sponsored a discussion on religious peacebuilding, co-sponsored by Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute of Peace and Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, including contributions from the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Miguel Díaz, and myself. The Catholic Church’s concern for peace is not unique, but we do have unique capacities to build peace in practice. In the language of U.S. foreign policy, we have considerable assets “forward deployed in countries” to build peace. We have peacebuilding doctrine; diplomats from the Holy See; grass-roots organizations like C.R.S., Caritas, Pax Christi, justice and peace commissions and the Community of Sant’Egidio; as well as religious orders, schools, hospitals and universities.

Bishop Nicolas Djomo, head of the bishops’ conference of the D.R.C., testified in Congress, urging that U.S. law be enforced regarding conflict minerals. Since 2010, U.S. law requires companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange to be transparent about their supply chains. The law has not yet been implemented, as companies seek to delay and dilute these good governance efforts to follow the money trail that currently finances war.

By contrast, in Ghana, where oil and gold have been discovered, the church is trying to get ahead of the curve, to put good governance laws into place for transparency and resource-sharing before the oil starts flowing.

As citizens and as members of the church, we have duties to ensure that digging for treasure brings peace and prosperity. We have unique opportunities to make “Pacem in Terris” real in the 21st century.

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