More Human Rights
In mid-December Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a passionate speech in Geneva on the occasion of International Human Rights Day, encouraging nations to support human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. Much of what she says can, and should, be supported by Catholics. Same-sex marriage has been strongly opposed by the church. But Mrs. Clinton’s speech is referring to the more fundamental right of gay and lesbian people to live without fear and without threat of death. Americans may have become so focused on the question of same-sex marriage that they overlook the dire conditions under which many gay and lesbian people live throughout the world.
In Uganda, for example, there are moves to make homosexual activity punishable by death. This is extreme, but Uganda is far from an isolated case. In Kenya conviction brings up to 14 years in prison; in Tanzania up to life in prison; and in Saudi Arabia the penalties include fines, whipping, prison and death. As Mrs. Clinton said, “It is a violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation….” The Catechism teaches that gays and lesbians should be accepted with respect, sensitivity and compassion: “Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” The church should continue to raise its voice in defense of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who suffer unjust discrimination.
Blood From a Stone
The austerities imposed on Europe’s debtor nations in the wake of the 2008 Wall Street collapse are encountering growing skepticism. From the beginning, there should have been fairer sharing of the burdens imposed by bailing out failed financial institutions and speculators. Instead, Ireland and other less-favored European nations, like Portugal, have suffered job cuts, reduced pensions, higher taxes and depleted public services; and every passing year promises further austerity. Simon Johnson, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has commented, “Why Ireland would want to spend its time being a model student in the context of the broader European mishandling of the situation, I don’t know.” Professor Sean Kay of Ohio Wesleyan University told The New York Times, “The Irish people are being praised for doing what they were asked to do...but it’s not paying off.”
Forty thousand young professionals have emigrated from Ireland to Australia and other more prosperous countries. Unemployment is at 14 percent and expected to rise. The government deficit has fallen from an exorbitant 30 percent to 10 percent of the budget, but the prospects of bringing it quickly into line with the proposed 3 percent limit required under the new euro zone compact are slim. Asking the people alone to bear the pain for the excesses of the ’00s by cutting costs without stimulating economic growth repeats the mistakes of orthodox economics during the Great Depression. For a healthy European economy and public well-being, there has to be greater give in the system, and the financial sector should pay a greater share of the price of recovery.
Don’t Waste the Tax Talk
The discussion of taxing financial transactions—trades of stocks, bonds and other financial instruments—and using the money to help the poor has real import. For the public conversation acknowledges that “shareholders,” those individuals and entities wealthy enough to trade on the world market, also have a duty to the world’s poor. Help for the poor is being described not as a voluntary choice or as philanthropy but as a duty required of all in the name of “fairness” (the Bible calls it justice). Not surprisingly, the idea has been endorsed by the Occupy movement, the Greens and billionaire philanthropists, as well as Pope Benedict and the archbishop of Canterbury. But the “tiny tax” is also being debated among heads of major governments with the power to alter global finance. Leaders of Germany, France and Italy support the tax. The United States prefers to tax only the biggest banks. Still, support for the tax is growing.
This “tax talk” among elites ought to be taken up in business schools, college classrooms and corporate boardrooms. For the subtext—that we are all in this economy together, sharing the gains in good times and the losses in bad times—comes close to a Christian understanding of human dignity in community. The current discussion recognizes that the poor bear the brunt of global economic crises, even though they own no shares and so have no opportunity to share directly in any benefits. This inclusive, Catholic view of the economic life is one that preachers, teachers and other leaders of faith should promote.