On the path to a greener church
But even five years understates the letter's roots. Part of a movement toward a broadened social consciousness, it began in 1891, when Pope Leo issued an encyclical deploring sweatshops. The encyclical resulted in the establishment of offices within most dioceses to work as advocates for labor and low-income groups.
The next major step came with the pope's World Day of Peace message in January 1990, called "The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility," which began a greening of Catholic theology. "We cannot interfere in one area of the ecosystem without paying due attention both to the consequences of such interference in other areas and to the well-being of future generations," Pope John Paul II said. "Delicate ecological balances are upset by the uncontrolled destruction of animal and plant life or by a reckless exploitation of natural resources."
The U.S. Conference of Bishops followed up with a report in 1991 called Renewing the Earth, which said that a "fundamental relation between humanity and nature is one of caring for creation."
In May 1995, a group of some 30 Catholic theologians and ethicists from the Environmental Justice Program of the U.S. Catholic Conference gathered at Mount Angel Abbey in the Willamette Valley of western Oregon to reflect on how the Catholic church regarded ecology.
Several Catholics from the West and Northwest who were at the Mount Angel meeting got together to talk informally about what they could do. "Everyone in the circle reiterated the word water," says Frank Fromherz, one of the attendees who works in the Office of Justice and Peace in the Portland Diocese. While they were encouraged by the pope's message and the bishop's statements, those were generalities. They wanted a statement that was anchored in a place. Nothing stood out like the Columbia.
People at the Mount Angel meeting also felt that the debate over the river needed to be reframed, from a strictly economic and scientific perspective into one that included moral and religious dimensions. Fromherz says, "Rather than as an engine of commerce, a lot of people think the river should be viewed as revelatory, revelatory of the presence of God."
The idea of a pastoral letter was raised. Lay Catholics at the Mount Angel meeting asked Bishop William Skylstad, who heads the Spokane Diocese, if he would head the steering committee.
Skylstad, by his own account, has become a "green" bishop, especially in the last few years. He brings ecological and rural backgrounds to the task. He was part of the bishops' domestic policy committee that wrote the Renewing the Earth statement, and a few years ago he attended a seminal conference, the National Partnership for Religion and the Environment, which brought the leaders of five major religions together to discuss the environment.
From 1995 to 1998, Skylstad was chairman of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. The NCRLC is part of the heritage of Pope Leo's 1891 message that sparked a social reform movement within the church. Formed in 1923, it is active in everything from support service for rural ministries, to assuring fair wages for farm workers, to preserving family farms, to lobbying on issues that affect farmers, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization.
The pastoral letter is not only concerned with restoring the health of the river and protecting salmon, but also with the well-being of rural people. "Native peoples' rights have been ignored, even when guaranteed by treaties and laws," the letter reads. "Working people's wages are sometimes below poverty level. Habitat for many species is violated."
When it is released, the pastoral letter on the Columbia River won't have the same clout as an encyclical, which comes from the pope. Pastoral letters are bottom-up documents, generated by the bishops of a region or a country with input from priests and laypeople.
But they have a long and honorable past, says John Hart, the theology and environment professor at Carroll College in Helena, Mont., and the writer of the letter. "Paul wrote the first letters in the first century to give instruction as to beliefs and practices in the early Christian Church."
Pastoral letters can deal with any subject affecting Catholic life and worship. Important letters from the United States bishops include Healing Racism Through Faith and Truth, Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy, Quest for Justice, and The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response. In the 1980s, Hart helped write a pastoral letter from Midwestern bishops that decried the takeover of family farms by corporations; another denounced the powerlessness of the poor in Appalachia.