An organization with as much heft as the Catholic Church, and with 2,000 years of history, does not move quickly or simply. The Columbia River Basin pastoral letter, scheduled for release in November, has been five years in the making.
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
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
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.
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
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.