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Bishops' Pastoral Letter:
Columbia River is Holy

EarthLight Magazine #41, Spring 2001


Twelve Roman Catholic bishops from the Northwestern United States and British Columbia are calling on their parishioners "and all people of good will" to become better caretakers of waters, land, and communities within the Columbia River watershed.

"The Columbia River, made by God and populated with His creatures of every sort, is holy-and therefore polluting it, and treating it as a sewer, and stealing from it without regard to all the creatures, human and otherwise, who depend upon it for sustenance is a grave offense to God and to the creatures created by God," the prelates state boldly in a recently issued pastoral letter, "The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good." The 18-page letter, three years in the making, urges greater personal responsibility and awareness of environmental problems. It denounces the political and economic division that so often characterizes debates over salmon recovery and dam 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."

In 1998, the Catholic church and the region's Catholic colleges and universities asked members of the area's diverse constituencies-industry agriculture, fishing, environmentalists, and native people-to share their perspectives on the region's needs. The resulting letter urges an end to logging practices that cost the public and benefit the timber industry; restrictions on snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles; and promotes linking farm loans to environmental preservation practices.

Although environmentalists welcomed the letter and expressed hope that ongoing discussions will come about as a result, some believe it did not go far enough. 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 dam breaching. (Getting rid of them). "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. "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, there is a need to look to our faith and to look to the laws of our creators for guidance."

Bruce Harcott, a journalist writing in the March 2001 issue of Outside Magazine, questioned the bishops' decision to delete a section on speciesism, a bias that one's own species is superior to and has the right to dominate another species. The 1999 draft cited speciesism "as one of the evils present periodically in the watershed," but then went on to confirm that "humans have a unique place among creatures." 

On the other hand, deep ecologists hold that humans are merely one among millions of species sharing the Earth, and to some, a particularly toxic one, writes Harcott. The final version omits the statement on speciesism as an evil saying instead, "people's concern for salmon as creatures of God should be linked to their concern for fishers, who are also children of God."

Harcott observes "the Catholic Church's unique ability to speak to both parties, making one side aware of the precarious ecological state they're living in, and the other that the environment is not a hallowed realm off-limits to [the hu]man. Indeed, the bishops' statement seems to say Jesus is coming, but until then, [hu]mankind and the Earth are inextricably linked; if one fails so will the other."

Copies of the letter are available at www.columbiariver.org.


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