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Cover story

Restoring the sacred in nature

NCR Staff
Portland, Ore.
-- Photos by Mike Penney

In a new pastoral letter on the Columbia River and its resources, U.S. and Canadian bishops take a dramatic step forward in the church’s engagement in the environmental movement by recognizing for the first time in an official church document that nature, along with human beings, has rights.

The 66-page letter, scheduled to be completed by next year, plunges the bishops into a highly polarized fray in the Pacific Northwest and southwestern Canada over a host of environmental issues in the region.

Billed as a “reflection” in its present stage, the letter evokes the majesty of the Columbia River and the romance of an area filled with natural beauty, even as it underscores the area’s decidedly unromantic environmental, political and social problems. Those include the precipitous decline of the salmon population and the related cultural wars among Native Americans, farmers and representatives of a variety of commercial interests; the familiar sight of once-towering trees stripped and strapped to logging trucks; the high price tag related to nuclear and industrial waste that has put some of the nation’s worst pollution in one of its least developed regions. The watershed has become a battleground for competing interests.

The first draft of the letter was presented in mid-May to a group of scholars from around the nation -- mostly from Catholic colleges and universities -- who are working in environmental studies and theology. The scholars, participants in a conference at the University of Portland, generally agreed that U.S. Catholics, for a variety of reasons, lag well behind many other groups, including their mainline Protestant counterparts, in developing an environmental theology. The conference was titled “Linking Environmental Studies, Theology and Science: A 21st-Century Challenge for Catholic Colleges and Universities.”

Left: A barge travels throught the gorge area on the Columbia River, 40 miles east of Portland, Ore. Center: Nuclear waste containers from submarine reactors are stored at the Hanford site in Washington. Right: A Native American fishing platform (foreground) stands opposite The Dales Dam in Oregon.

“Theology has isolated itself from reality,” charged Gene Wilhelm of Slippery Rock, Pa., who represented the Earth Literacy Network. As a result, he said, Catholic universities are not responding effectively to the environmental crisis.

What is most significant about the new pastoral letter, according to John Hart, a theology professor who is deeply involved in the project, is that the bishops define the common good in a much broader sense than any pastoral letter has done before. “Instead of talking about the common good in social, legal and political terms, the bishops use the term to refer to both people and other members of the community of life,” that is, to the totality of life on earth, Hart said in an interview.

The letter, based on extensive “listening sessions” throughout the region, marks “the first time the bishops have made that extension,” said Hart, who teaches theology and also directs the environmental studies program at Carroll College, Helena, Mont. Hart was the full-time director of a previous regional bishops’ project, development of the 1980 pastoral letter, “Strangers and Guests,” about agricultural issues in the Midwest.

Unveiled to the public via the Internet on May 12, the bishops’ letter calls for a sacramental understanding of the watershed and justice for all its inhabitants -- persons, animals and plants -- and development of a spiritual relationship to the river. “We must allow the watershed to speak to us of God and, where we as a people have so altered it as to silence its teachings, we must restore its voice,” the bishops write.

If in official Catholic circles, the color green has long served mainly to signal the liturgical period known as “ordinary time,” gradually, scholars at the conference said, green is beginning to penetrate the Catholic consciousness as a symbol of the environmental movement.

Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., head of the steering committee for the pastoral letter project, told participants during a morning prayer service, “Nature has an integrity all its own, apart from human beings.” He called for recovery of “the aesthetic, sacramental and spiritual appreciation of creation” and an integration “of religious values” into the environmental debate. The eve of the millennium, Skylstad said, is “one of those crisis moments in human history ... a crossroads in time when we must make critical decisions” and bring “moral order” to the “public debate in ecology.”

Surprising new direction

Several scholars at the conference said they were pleasantly surprised at the forward, even ground-breaking, direction of Skylstad’s remarks in its emphasis on the sacramentality and integrity of nature.

“There are so many issues. The crunch is obvious here,” said Dieter Hessel of Princeton, N.J., speaking of the Pacific Northwest. Hessel, a Presbyterian who directs two programs that link ecology and theology, added: “Very few Catholic schools and very few seminaries, if any, are focused on this. Most environmental studies have been in secular settings. Catholics are catching up. But they’ll do it differently. That’s the important thing to know.”

Hart points out that the letter is the first to be developed by bishops of two countries -- the bishops of the Pacific Northwest in the United States and British Columbia in Canada -- highlighting another key environmental understanding. “Effectively,” Hart said, “the bishops are saying that national borders are really artificial in terms of who we are, that the environment is a totality ... that we are united beyond our national identities.”

One third of the 1,200-mile-long Columbia River is in Canada.

For Christians generally, and especially for Christian fundamentalists, one of the obstacles to engagement with ecological concerns has been the verse in Genesis that authorizes human beings to “fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over ... every living thing.”

Historian Lynn White put the blame for the world’s environmental problems squarely at Christianity’s feet in an often-cited article published in Science magazine in 1967. In the article, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” White asserted that a marriage between a human-centered Christian theology deriving from the Middle Ages and Western expansionist goals had produced a ruthless attitude toward nature.

For Catholics today, Fr. Kevin W. Irwin, theology professor at The Catholic University of America, finds theological fundamentalism -- holding fast to familiar theological approaches and formulas -- to be a bigger obstacle than biblical fundamentalism to developing a new environmental theology. Theological fundamentalists refuse to grapple with the “new questions that force theology to grow.” They fail to reflect “the breadth of the tradition,” he said.

In contrast to the historic human-centered focus of Christian theology, an adequate theology of the environment understands justice, not only in human terms “but of and for the whole earth,” he said.

In another talk, Jame Schaefer, who teaches theology at Marquette University, gave examples of patristic and medieval writings that provide new resources for a Catholic environmental theology: the writings of Basil of Caesarea, of Augustine, of Bernard of Clairvaux and Francis of Assisi, for example. “We really have a treasure house in our tradition,” she said.

Hessel said that a lot of thinking is also going on around the question of the “green core”; that is, the core disciplines for environmental studies. Recognition is growing, he said, that it needs to include not only science but economics, sociology, political science and other disciplines “that get at the political issues” swirling around environmental questions. “There’s a much broader meaning to the word green than meets the casual eye,” Hessel said.

‘Target the business schools’

“If you want to have an impact on the future, you should target the business schools, not the theology departments,” said Jesuit Fr. David Toolan, associate editor of America magazine. Other scholars noted that architecture and engineering have roles to play.

There are reasons beyond “theological fundamentalism” that Catholics lag behind the secular world and even the rest of the Christian world when it comes to concern for the environment.

“The population question is the Achilles’ heel of Catholics when it comes to the environmental movement,” said William Dinges, associate professor of religion and religious education at The Catholic University of America and one of 22 professors engaged in Life Cycle Institute research there. “There’s a fear of public discussion of that issue. In some ways, it damages the church’s credibility in relation to the environmental movement.”

Dinges spoke as a group of conference participants rode in a van to the Sandy River gorge, headed for a hike along a muddy trail through a forest of old-growth Douglas fir. Because of extensive logging, this is one of few remnants of old-growth forest still standing at low elevations, according to conservationist Eddie Huckins, who served as guide. Along the way, Huckins, an expert in the region’s ecology, recited a favorite Native American saying: “I am the land, the land is me. What happens to the land happens to me.”

In an earlier conference session, Dinges had proposed several other reasons why Catholics lag behind other groups in environmental awareness. Among them:

  • A population that has entered the middle class and is “very involved in the consumptive culture”;
  • a large Hispanic population that tends to view the environmental movement as the province of the establishment;
  • an increasingly privatized religion in America, so that even if people profess a religion, they are increasingly less likely to act in its name, making it harder for Catholics to mobilize around issues;
  • lack of support from priests and lack of environmental studies in seminaries. “If it’s not there, it’s not going to get into the parishes,” Dinges said.

Patrick Allitt, a historian from Emory University and author of an article titled “American Catholics and the Environment, 1960-1995” published in the April 1998 issue of Catholic Historical Review, also gave historical reasons for the lag. Among them:

  • Focus on other issues when the environmental movement was getting its start at the end of the 1960s -- issues like the fallout from Vatican II, the civil rights movement, ecumenism and the beginning of liberation theology, and in the early 1970s, the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion;
  • the Catholic church’s human-centered theology and, as a result, its focus on such issues as poverty, the capitalist economy and the military-industrial complex;
  • the urban, industrial base of the Catholic population, promoting fears that environmental legislation would threaten jobs.

“One strand of the environmental movement says that you have to take more seriously the issues of other species. Catholics are very resistant to that,” Allitt said.

Toolan said it’s time for Catholics to move beyond that resistance. “Something so huge has happened the last 50 years on this front that we haven’t yet absorbed the implications,” he said. The irony, he said, is that even as human beings recognize that we are only a part of nature, “we are increasingly in control of the planet, either by commission or omission. We can create either a sign of promise, a sacramental world that expresses God’s love to all creatures or we can create a horror show.”

An ecological reformation

“Most Catholic parishes -- most Protestant parishes -- are not engaged, but we’re starting to get more attention,” Hessel said. “We’re at the front end of an ecological reformation. The eco-justice crisis, the link between environmental degradation and social injustice worldwide, will be the paramount problem of the 21st century.”

John E. Carroll of the University of New Hampshire argued that Catholics have a stronger presence in the environmental movement, albeit quietly, than is generally known. Carroll is coeditor of Embracing Earth: Catholic Approaches to Ecology (Orbis 1994) and editor of Ecology and Religion: Scientists Speak (Franciscan Press, 1998). Further, he said, the Catholic tradition is rich with resources, boding well for future scholarly work.

Few priests have engaged ecological issues, Carroll said, “but it’s all there in the central tradition. We only need to pull it out and convince skeptics that there is real substance to all of this.”

“We have the potential to become the storytellers of a new day,” said Dominican Sr. Carol Dempsey, assistant theology professor at the University of Portland and a biblical scholar. “No longer can we speak only of social justice. We need a new ethical paradigm that speaks of care for all creation.”

Monika Hellwig, executive director of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, laid out some scholarly objectives for the work ahead. Among them is the major task of growing in our understanding of the different ways that “faith and science construe and interpret reality.”

“We are conscious of the way that science transforms our universe, but we are less conscious of the way faith transforms it,” she said. Hellwig said the task of integrating faith and science gets harder as scholars become increasingly specialized.

The conference was cosponsored by the university and the environmental justice office of the U.S. Catholic Conference, the social action arm of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Walter Grazer, director of the office, said, “Our goal is to move this issue out of the bishops’ conference and into the Catholic colleges and universities, so this is a great step forward.” His office, created just six years ago, has granted several hundred thousand dollars, he said, to parishes and dioceses for projects related to environmental issues.

Although activity on the environmental front is growing among U.S. Catholic leaders and new thinking is emerging, the concerns aren’t entirely new. “There have been markers throughout history,” Grazer said. In the United States, for instance, “the Catholic Rural Life Conference has always attended to questions of agriculture and the environment.” The pastoral letter on the Columbia River cites seven previous documents by U.S. and Canadian church leaders and Pope John Paul II.

The new pastoral letter is another important step, he said, because it “provides a vision” and “gives legitimacy” to the environmental movement. “A lot of people are looking for that,” he said. “They want the pope and the bishops to say it’s OK to be about this work.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1999