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The final piece of public Catholicism falls into place

Something magnificent. Not just the Columbia River, but what it now represents in Catholicism.

What occurred with the Catholic bishops’ wholehearted defense of the sacredness of the environment in its letter on the Columbia River and its watershed is that the final piece of public Roman Catholicism for the 21st century is now in place.

The essence of public Catholicism is, in the final analysis, not just what the church teaches but what it will defend. By this fresh declaration of the sacredness of the Columbia River and all the earth, the Northwestern and Canadian bishops have made clear where the church stands and what the church will defend on environmental issues.

The accumulated Catholic teaching on environmental integrity is now an essential part of Catholic Christian belief. Catholics are a bit late to this battle. But typical of a slow-moving church, once the decision is made it stays put for a long time.

This isn’t triumphalistic. This is service-oriented, not self-oriented, Catholicism. It is the same Catholicism, on a larger scale, as that which built the parochial schools and local hospitals, the social service networks and advocacy groups.

The net result of the Columbia River pastoral, however, is that Catholicism now challenges the world with the three mainstays of its public stance:

  • Life issues -- the seamless garment that stretches from opposing abortion to opposing euthanasia and the death penalty;
  • dignity issues -- peace and social justice, and especially economic justice, the need for work, for jobs, defending the poor against uncaring laissez-faire multinational capitalism and its global quasi-governmental mechanisms;
  • and now, environmental issues -- the care, nurturing and defense of creation.

Over the past two decades, public Catholicism has woven all the life issues into a seamless garment. In the next half century the life, dignity and environmental issues will be woven into an even larger seamless garment. Public Catholicism -- post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, post-Cold War, post-Second Vatican Council (1962-65) -- will have reshaped itself to serve the world.

Public Catholicism wants to serve the entire world on behalf of life in its manifold forms, especially those who cannot rise to their own defense -- the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the ostracized and, yes, animals, plants, organisms, scenic beauty -- and rivers.

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1999