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Caring for our common home

John Infraca | Friday, December 3, 2004

The Columbia River winds for 1,200 miles from British Columbia, through Washington and Oregon and into the Pacific Ocean. It irrigates desert regions of Eastern Washington, producing many of the apples found in markets nationwide. Its water turns the turbines of mighty dams, producing electricity for homes and factories throughout the region. The river provides ample opportunities for recreation, from boating to fishing to boardsailing.

Yet these benefits come with a price. For decades salmon populations in the region have been decimated, leading many species onto the endangered list. Industry and agriculture have released over 1 million tons of carcinogens directly into the river each year, making it one of the most contaminated in the nation with regards to cancer-causing agents. The Hanford Nuclear Site, which utilizes river water as a coolant, has leaked substantial levels of radioactive materials into the river.

As this occurs, farmers, fisherman, Native Americans, loggers and others labor to provide for their families in ways that are often in seemingly unavoidable conflict. In 2001 the Catholic Bishops of the Pacific Northwest reflected on this fragile landscape with the pastoral letter, “The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good.” The letter considers the ecological and economic concerns of the region and seeks to bring these realities into conversation with Catholic Social Teaching. It’s calls for “a thorough, humble, and introspective evaluation that seeks to eliminate both economic greed that fails to respect the environment, and ecological elitism that lacks a proper regard for the legitimate rights and property of others.”

The letter follows in a rather recent tradition of Catholic teaching on the environment. In 1990 Pope John Paul II wrote “The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility,” in which he spoke of the threat to world peace caused by a lack of due respect for nature. He presented the ecological crisis as a moral problem and stressed the need for a heightened emphasis on “simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as the spirit of sacrifice” all of which “must become a part of everyday life.” Unlike many other “moral issues,” environmental concern challenges those who claim it to reject the excess of our dominant societal living patterns and make needed sacrifices.

In the following year the U.S. Catholic Bishops wrote their own letter on the environment. “Renewing the Earth” stressed that mistreatment of the natural world diminishes our own dignity and sacredness and contradicts what it means to be human. Our past behavior demands we realize opportunities for forgiveness and reconciliation by recognizing our failures and sins.

To speak of our past treatment of the environment as sinful is a rather strong choice of words, but it points to the unique perspective Catholicism and Christianity more broadly can offer to discussions regarding the environments. As stewards of creation humans have much to seek forgiveness for, having wrecked tremendous havoc on the natural environment. Our ecological footprint grows constantly larger, causing dwindling resources and exacerbating environmental blights. Churches offer an important avenue for challenging religious and other individuals to take seriously the limits of our common resources and the need to share our fragile planet with other life forms. We live in a web of life of which we remain but a part.

Religions also offer a way to move our ethical considerations forward into the future, showing concern for the unborn generations who must inhabit the world we will leave behind. The Iroquois Confederacy lived by the credo that “In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” Christians and other people of faith must recognize our urgent responsibilities to the creator who gave us the world and the generations who will inherit it from us. Catholic social teaching offers a framework through which to begin this thought process and invite others into it.

This voice is needed more then ever today. This Tuesday the Bush administration announced a proposal to dramatically decrease protections for salmon and steelhead trout throughout the West Coast, potentially reducing protected habitat by 80 percent to 90 percent. Earlier this year the administration offered a proposal to count millions of fish raised in hatcheries and released into the wild as wild fish. Doing so would reduce the need to keep truly wild fish on the endangered species list. Incidentally, the term “wild” is defined as “grown or produced without human aid.” It is worth noting that all known fish hatcheries are currently operated by humans.

On Tuesday the Bush administration also ruled out the possibility of removing federal dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. While there is debate over whether the current situation demands immediate removal of these dams, most agree the dams do cause major damage to fish populations and their removal must remain an option.

The U.S. Catholic Bishops and the Vatican offer an approach to the environment that calls for respectful dialogue among diverse parties and rejects “unilateral answers” that unfairly benefit particular parties and stifle dialogue. This approach challenges individuals to make the sacrifices necessary to show respect for creation and its Creator. It demands that faithful citizens and members of the global community consider “moral issues” that will profoundly effect countless future generations.

John Infranca is a theology graduate student. His column appears every other Friday. He can be reached at jinfran1@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.