Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

The Bishop Writes

"Planet Earth"

by Bishop William S. Skylstad

(From the July 29, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)

Over the last couple of years, I have enjoyed watching the documentary series, Planet Earth. This 11-hour series is a remarkable compilation of commentary about the planet on which we live, its marvels in all sorts of ways, the dangers of environmental degradation, and the interconnectedness that is far greater than we realized a century ago.

On the wall in my office hangs a picture of the Earth, taken by the astronauts on their mission to the moon decades ago. The blue-appearing planet is truly remarkable in the universe. As one of the astronauts commented, the Earth appears as one, and we should live on this planet as one human family.

Technology today allows us to keep records and measurements worldwide that give a far more accurate picture of what is happening on the global scene, both positively and negatively. With the ability to better measure trends and pick up danger signals that must be addressed, technology is also assisting us to be better stewards of the environment.

Two weeks ago, the Catholic bishops of the Northwest gathered in Yakima for our usual three-day gathering right after the Fourth of July. On one of our days, we had a guided tour of a vineyard in the upper Yakima Valley near White Swan. As we went around the vineyard, I found the explanation of recent developments in vineyards fascinating (perhaps especially because of my farming background). Some of the grape vines were on fairly steep hillsides in shallow soil, but farmers have discovered that shallow soil where the vine struggles a bit can produce a high-quality grape used for fine wines. As is the case in most of Eastern Washington, relatively low rainfall necessitates irrigation. In this case, drip irrigation handles the watering very well, with both great conservation and no erosion. As the farmer of the vineyard noted, we are learning as we go along. That’s a great comment about stewardship.

The second day of the tour consisted of a visit to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where we observed the various facilities there, including the tank farms and decommissioned nuclear submarine reactors. We spent two hours at the B reactor, where the nuclear material was produced for the two nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of the Second World War. I found it sobering to realize that the material coming from this reactor was used for bombs that killed tens of thousands of people in an instant. We now realize the residue left from this decommissioned facility needs to be cleaned up if at all possible, while acknowledging that long-term effects will go on for centuries, if not millennia. One of the bishops asked about how long the radioactivity would last in the core of the reactor. The answer? Officials will look at it in about 75 years to assess the situation.

Today we are much more aware of the environmental damage and the need to mitigate, if not completely repair, that damage. In addition, we need to think of the global planet and how connected we are to generations in the future.

For the last few months, we have watched the Gulf of Mexico with dismay. The disaster resulting from the Global Horizon drilling platform explosion has had a tremendous impact on the environment – the sea and shore life – and on so many people’s lives. Even the most grizzled naysayers about our concern for the environment cannot deny the terrible consequences of this event. I hope we will learn from that experience and so prevent similar occurrences.

Concern about the environment has been accompanied by extremes of concern or lack thereof. The Catholic Church’s teaching on the environment takes a middle ground approach, highly nuanced, Scripturally based, with a call to wise stewardship of the earth on which we live, acknowledging the need for responsibility in the moment and for future generations. We have a strong tradition in the Church of sensitivity to the created world about us, both in Sacred Scripture and in some of our saints, like Francis of Assisi.

The Church is speaking out more frequently on the issue. Witness Pope John Paul II’s 1990 World Day of Peace message; the U.S Catholic Bishops’ statement in 1991; and the Northwest Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter on the Columbia River watershed in 2001. All of these, and others besides, have contributed greatly to theological and moral reflection. Pope Benedict XVI has constantly stressed the need for responsibility towards the environment. Some of the recent statements in the Church have stressed the impact of environmental degradation, especially on the poor.

We are very blessed here in Northwest. We live in a very diverse and beautiful part of our planet. May we be the best of Christian stewards of our environment as we look to our responsibility for one another and for future generations.

Blessings and peace.

Many of the Catholic bishops of the Northwest spent a few days together after the Fourth of July in fellowship and recreation. Pictured during a visit to Willow Springs winery are, from left, Bishops Skylstad, Thomas Connolly (Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Baker, Ore.), Eugene Cooney (Bishop Emeritus of Nelson, B.C.), John Corriveau OFM.Cap. (Diocese of Nelson), Anthony Milone (Bishop Emeritus of Great Falls-Billings, Mont.), Eusebio Elizondo M.Sp.S. (Auxiliary Bishop, Seattle), George Thomas (Helena), Donald Kettler (Fairbanks, Alaska); Archbishop Alex Brunett (Seattle); Bishops Robert Vasa (Baker, Ore.), Joseph Tyson (Auxiliary, Seattle), Carlos Sevilla SJ (Yakima), and Michael Warfel (Great Falls-Billings); and Archbishop John Vlazny (Portland, Ore.). (IR photo courtesy of Bishop Skylstad)

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