Taking care of God's creation: A Catholic priority
By Albert de Zutter
Catholic Key Editor
ENERGY SECRETARY Spencer Abraham recently repeated President Bush's unsupported statement that we need to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to enhance our "energy security." He also reiterated the unsupported claim that we could do so in an "environmentally responsible" way. Environmental responsibility is not one of the current administration's strong points. This is an administration that shocked the rest of the world with its repudiation of the Kyoto accords, that has shown its indifference to restrictions on air and water pollution, and has rescinded the prior administration's attempts to preserve public lands from exploitation by special interests.
What difference do such things make to us as Catholics?
How do you tell a Catholic from anyone else nowadays, anyway? I mean, it used to be easy, back in the 1950's and part of the 1960's.
You knew, for example, that someone who loved to eat fish was probably not a Catholic. Catholics hated fish. And why? Because they had to eat fish on Friday. Or eggs or cheese, of course, but most of the groaning back then amounted to "Oh, gosh, I have to have fish. It's Friday."
That was a major way of telling a Catholic from a non-Catholic. We Catholics had to eat fish on Friday. It was a sacrifice we made to commemorate the suffering of Our Lord on Good Friday. Mackerel snappers. That was us.
To eat meat on a Friday was a mortal sin. Imagine that? The Friday abstinence rule was a discipline, and it was thought to be a mortal sin - a sin that would consign you to hell - if you broke the rule.
Fortunately, one of the characteristics of the Catholic Church is its self-correction capability. The fancy term for an institution that carries its own correction capability is "autotelic." It carries within itself the ability to reform. It does not require an outside force, although reading the "signs of the times" was recognized as a healthy pursuit by Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. The United States Constitution is also autotelic, which largely accounts for the fact that our government is the oldest continuous government on the face of the earth, instituted in 1789.
The other signs of a Catholic? We had to "hear Mass" on Sundays, and we knew that we oughtn't kill anyone or commit adultery, and that we ought to be relatively honest in business, not rob a bank nor use any form of artificial birth control and not get divorced. We also knew that we had to go to confession at least once a year and fulfill our "Easter Duty" - meaning that we had to receive Holy Communion at least once a year during the Easter season.
That was about it. That's what made you a Catholic back before the Second Vatican Council. But not really. We all knew, in the back of our minds, that Christianity meant a whole lot more. We were all aware, like G. K. Chesterton, that Christianity hadn't failed - it had never really been tried. Not even by us.
In the 1960's we began to ask ourselves, "What difference does it make that we are Catholic? What good does it do the rest of the world? Are we Catholic just for our own personal salvation, or do we have a job to do? Didn't Jesus Christ come to die and redeem all of us, not just Catholics?" And of course, the answers were, "So far, not much. We have to do better. We are not here just for ourselves. And yes, Jesus came for everyone."
Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council taught us that the Holy Spirit has no intention of being restricted to the insights of the Catholic Church. The Spirit of God is infinite, and His truth is to be sought on a universal scale. We could learn truths of the Holy Spirit from (gasp) the world!
And so we did. We learned from Ghandi, and Albert Schweitzer, and Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, and Oscar Romero.
And we learned from Rachel Carson, who told us many years ago in "The Silent Spring," that we were (and still are) killing the earth, our earthly home, and that we had better do something to reverse the process. Have you read it? I confess I haven't, but I am grateful to her for raising the issue and for giving impetus to the environmental movement.
Earth Day will be observed on April 22. The first Earth Day was celebrated 32 years ago. An estimated 20 million people took part and "shook the status quo," according to the Wilderness Society. The result was the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, followed in a few years by the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
"Today, much of that is at risk," says the Wilderness Society, "from an administration that does not scruple to sacrifice the environment to benefit the industries that support it."
As an example, in November 2000, after a three-year process that included 22 public hearings and 65,000 public comments, the National Park Service issued a decision to phase out snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. It was found that snowmobiles are damaging the parks' wildlife, polluting the air and creating noise pollution. At the urging of the snowmobile industry, Interior Secretary Gale Norton directed the Park Service to reconsider its decision, and ordered a re-study.
The re-study has now been completed with the same conclusion: The snowmobiles ought to be phased out. But that may not happen unless people again express themselves in great numbers. You can find out how at wilderness.org/takeaction.
Catholics are noted for our "pro-life" activism. We are also aware that there are those who would exploit our pro-life stance for their own political ends, which often include opposition to every pro-life position except the protection of the unborn. They create a false dichotomy to promote a political outcome. They are false prophets. There can be no contradiction between care for the unborn and care for all humanity and the plant and animal kingdom created by God Himself. Not to mention God's poor.
We have killed off many species of plants and animals by our carelessness and our greed. Daily, we lose more. As Catholics we should be in the forefront of opposition to destruction of the life and beauty of God's creation. As Catholics we should be in the forefront of care for the least among us and for future generations.
What difference does it make that we are Catholics? I say that we should be distinguished by our caring. Though we are weak and sinners like the rest of humanity, though some of our leaders and pastors transgress, though we are potentially as bad or worse than anyone outside our fold, we should be distinguishable by one thing. And that is our adherence, at least now and then, to the teachings of God the Father in the Old Testament; to the Gospel of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, his only son; and to the Holy Spirit who speaks through the teachings of his Holy Catholic Church reading the signs of the times.
What does that have to do with an energy policy that makes no demands on the life-style of affluent Americans? It has to do with the preservation of one of God's masterpieces, the fragile tundra of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It has to do with countering greed, which was labeled by Pope Paul VI as the foremost moral problem of our times. It has to do with care for Jesus Christ in the least of his brethren.
To make the transition from the sublime to the mundane.
A couple of years ago I thought I would have to replace my car. Fortunately, I found the problem with my old car could be fixed for about the amount of a single payment on a new car. But I continued my research of cars.
Just the other day, I looked up information on the Ford Explorer with a 4.6 liter V-8 engine. The review on the automotive Internet site sounded pretty good until I got to the end, where it gave the mileage that the reviewers were getting in their long-term test: 11.8 miles per gallon (edmunds.com).
My 11-year-old Ford Taurus station wagon gets 19-20 miles to the gallon in the city and 26-27 on the highway. I ask you, is there any justification for buying a vehicle that gets only 11.8 miles per gallon for everyday use when we know that 99.9 percent of our driving will be on pavement? Is there any justification for permanently despoiling the pristine coastal plain of the ANWR for a pittance of oil amounting to as little as six months' worth to at most two year's worth? Putting the two together, we could save more oil than we could gain from drilling in the ANWR simply by our choice of vehicles.
And is there any justification to continue to pollute our national treasures and harass the elk and bison and other wildlife of Yellowstone and Grand Teton with 66,000 snowmobiles each season so the industry can sell more snowmobiles?
Today, as it was in Old Testament times (read the prophets), greed is our biggest moral problem.