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Modernizing the Columbia River Treaty

col.gorgeJune 21, 2015

By Bishop William S. Skylstad

To understand why Pope Francis wrote a letter to the world about the environment, people in our corner of the United States and Canada need look no farther than the Columbia River. This waterway, 1,200 miles in length, is the lifeblood of a watershed stretching over 259,000 square miles across international, provincial and state borders.

No nation, state or industry can lay sole claim to this great river’s bounty because it transcends geopolitical boundaries and authority. Millions of people depend upon and derive their livelihood from farms, fishing, ports, industries and communities that would not exist except for the gift of God’s creation we call the Columbia.

Immense as it is, our watershed home is just a tiny part of the integrated natural environment of the Earth, which has been entrusted to us and unites us in concern and responsibility for its competitive and complementary uses. It is in this context, as a global pastor and teacher, that Pope Francis writes “Laudato Si” (Praise Be), his letter “on the care of our common home.”

Rooted in Catholic teachings, the pope offers moral guidance for the care of God’s creation because of its immediate and long-term importance to people. This distinctive Catholic perspective forms the basis for Pope Francis’ letter. In his view, to understand the challenge of caring for creation we need to understand our obligation to care for one another.

Consistent with the Bible, recent popes and the U.S. bishops, the pope’s letter speaks of an “integral ecology,” the fundamental interrelationship that exists for each person with God, with one’s self, with other human beings and with creation. He points to these relationships again and again in hopes that we will learn the human meaning of ecology, especially in relationship to the poor.

“Laudato Si” is a teaching document, but Pope Francis does not shy away from the controversial issue of climate change or recommendations to spur fresh political and economic thinking. In our polarized world, where strong disagreements exist on these topics, it’s important to remember that the pope’s letter is intended to provide the moral foundation for action, not a set of political prescriptions.

The pope contends, however, that policymakers must consider what it means to live in right relationship with the natural world and each other. He speaks concretely about the need to develop sources of renewable energy as substitutes for fossil fuels and insists that politics and economics are meant to be at the service of human life, not the other way around.

Pope Francis rejects the proposition that economic prosperity and protection of the created world are mutually exclusive. In fact, he makes clear his conviction that we will not have one without the other, and he reminds us that the poor suffer disproportionately when we fail to care for God’s creation.

Many of the actions the pope suggests are “simple daily gestures” each of us can make at home and in our communities. He challenges the “throwaway culture” and the modern tendency toward consumerism. The expression of a pastor’s concern is particularly evident in his heartfelt desire that everyone live simpler, fuller lives, growing closer to God and each other.

The Catholic bishops in the Columbia watershed wrote a pastoral letter in 2001 to assist all people of goodwill to develop “an integrated spiritual, social and ecological vision” to promote “justice for people and stewardship of creation.”

As the pastor of a global church, Pope Francis similarly offers his encyclical letter as a call for a worldwide change of hearts – what St. John Paul II called a “global ecological conversion” – because an integral ecology recognizes that individual decisions have social consequences.

Pope Francis’ letter offers an “urgent challenge to protect our common home,” but it also expresses hope that “things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us.”

The Most Rev. William Skylstad is bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Spokane and former bishop of Yakima. He chaired the steering committee that wrote the international pastoral letter “The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good.”

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