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Bishops Sound the Alarm for Environment

by Michelle Cole
The Oregonian, February 23, 2001

A pastoral letter from Canadian and U.S. clergy
seeks cooperation to preserve the Columbia basin

In an unprecedented declaration of worry for the natural world, 12 Roman Catholic bishops from the Northwestern United States and British Columbia on Thursday called on parishioners and "all people of good will" to be better stewards of the land, waters and communities within the vast Columbia River watershed.

The bishops issued an 18-page pastoral letter, more than three years in the making, titled "The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good." Though loosely built around 10 themes, or "considerations," that urge greater personal responsibility and awareness of environmental problems, the document firmly denounces the political and economic division that so often characterizes debates over salmon recovery and dams management.

Only a new regional cooperation, the letter asserts, can 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 bishops -- from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and British Columbia -- stopped short of endorsing the breaching of four Snake River dams as a means to restore dwindling wild salmon runs. But they did not shy away from taking positions on many of the Northwest's contentious environmental issues. Within their "10 Considerations for Community Caretaking," the bishops urge:

Pastoral letters are a teaching tool commonly used by the church to address such issues as poverty and the environment as well as war and peace. The Columbia letter is considered unprecedented, however, because it is among the first to represent an international effort, reflecting thoughts from bishops in two countries.

And it is the latest and the most ambitious testimonies from religious leaders who claim the environment as a realm of legitimate spiritual concern.

Last fall, the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon launched an Interfaith Global Warming Campaign. Last week, representatives of the Religion and Forests coalition visited Washington, D.C., to ask members of Congress to end logging on national forests.

In presenting the letter to the public Thursday from the University of Portland, Archbishop John Vlazny of the Archdiocese of Portland said a few parishioners have asked whether the church should take on environmental issues in a pastoral letter. Perhaps the bishops would be better to spend their time praying and studying catechism, the parishioners said.

But Vlazny referred to a 1990 statement in which Pope John Paul II addressed the earth's "ecological crisis."

"We cannot ignore this crisis we face," Vlazny said.

He said the bishop's letter is intended to serve as an ethical compass, a complement to the various scientific studies addressing the ecological health of the region. "Science can tell you where you are," Vlazny said. "But not necessarily where you should go."

The Catholic Church and the region's Catholic colleges and universities began preparing to write the pastoral letter more than three years ago. They asked members of the region's diverse constituencies -- industry, agriculture, fishing, environmentalists and native people -- to share their perspectives on the region's needs. Others also offered their views.

"Quite honestly we had some mistrust," said Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance, which represents industries that depend on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

"We thought it was a piece that was going to come in and take some position on dam breaching," Lovelin said. "It wasn't paranoia on our side. Based on some discussions we had, that was a real threat."

Instead, Lovelin said the pastoral letter is a "well-written call for cooperation and for people to look beyond their own personal needs and to the greater common good."

Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said he was somewhat disappointed that the bishops failed to take a stand on breaching.

"It would be typical of the very difficult decisions that the region will face in restoring balance, equity and ecological health to the region," Hudson said. "You could make a case that the bishops should have addressed it as an issue of our day."

Still, Hudson said he welcomed the letter and the ongoing discussions he hopes it will create.

"I think the tribes see the Catholic Church as one of many faith groups that are coming around to the tribal notion that when systems fail, as they clearly have in the Columbia basin, that there is a need to look to our faith and to look to the laws of our creators for guidance."

The Archdioceses of Portland and Seattle plan a "teach-in" for people of all faiths and backgrounds who want to learn more about the pastoral letter or Columbia River issues. It begins at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, March 3, in the Buckley Center Auditorium at the University of Portland.

Copies of the pastoral letter as well as details about the March 3 event are available at Or call the Archdiocese of Portland's Office of Justice and Peace at 503-233-8361.

Michelle Cole
Bishops Sound the Alarm for Environment
The Oregonian, February 23, 2001

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