Creation In Our Hands
by Fr. John Rausch
The Appalachian Mountains and the Columbia River Watershed lie distant by nearly 2,500 miles, yet they share common concerns about water quality, land use and the overall pollution of the environment.
|The Columbia Watershed begins in British
Columbia, Canada, and is fed in the U.S. by various tributaries in
Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon till it flows as the Columbia River
into the Pacific Ocean. The watershed balances competing interests for
producing hydroelectric power, fishing for salmon, irrigating for wheat
farmers, harvesting for timber concerns and preserving sacred places for
Native American spirituality.
The Appalachian Mountains, the oldest mountain chain in North America, stretch through all of West Virginia and parts of twelve eastern states from Mississippi to New York. The paramount issues there concern coal production by both underground and strip mining, clear-cut logging for chip and paper mills, plus garbage and toxic waste disposal for outside metropolitan areas.
In the midst of beauty tortured for economic goals the bishops of Appalachia wrote a pastoral letter in 1995, "At Home in the Web of Life." This year, addressing similar trade-offs, the bishops of the western region wrote "The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good." Both pastorals represent a growing awareness that environmental choices form part of the Christian ethic of being in the world.
Already evidence mounts that human influence is affecting global climate. Over the past one hundred years the average surface air temperature has increased globally between 0.3 and 0.6 degrees Centigrade. Scientists project the continued greenhouse gas emissions will warm the air an additional one to 3.5 degrees by the end of the 21st century. Although scientists don't know the exact impact of the change, environmental commentators fear, "If present trends continue, we will not."
Also, hazards from a sick environment demonstrate how closely humanity relies on nature for a healthy life. Asthma attacks increase with smog and skin cancer occurs more frequently with ozone damage. Dioxin, an industrial waste product, enters the food chain through air or water and lodges in human fat tissue. It's linked to neurological damage in fetuses and is suspected of causing cancer. The upshot: human and environmental health axe inseparable.
The pastorals from the bishops focus on some basic teachings in Genesis about creation and humanity's role in God's plan. God creates but God still owns creation: "The earth is the Lord's and all it holds"(Ps. 24:1.) Humanity, created in the image of God, is given dominion over creation to exercise authority the way God would exercise authority, i.e., in God’s stead. Transferred to the political or economic realm humanity might reflect this image of God by caring for creation like a shepherd (cf. Ezek. 34), or acting like a co-gardener with God (Gen. 2:15.)
Regional bishops issue pastorals when they feel the urgency to address an important issue from a faith perspective.
With both the Appalachian pastoral and the one from the Columbia Watershed the bishops adopted a process of reading the signs of the times. They listened to groups of people representing a variety of views, then reflected on the Gospel's social teachings. Straight economic arguments need the insights from ecology and the teachings from theology. God's garden stands to turn brown unless humanity changes its patterns of consumption and some methods of production. Only the spirit of dialogue coupled with God's Word can save the beauty of the Columbia Watershed and the majesty of the Appalachians by transforming narrow attitudes of self-interest to expressions for the common good.
Fr. John Rausch, a Glenmary priest, teaches at the Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center, Berea, Ky. His column appears monthly in many Catholic journals and in ours courtesy of the Friends of the Good News. Join the Friends of the Good News and help spread the Gospel.