Five years ago, on Jan. 25, 2009, St. Paul Bishop Luc Bouchard issued perhaps the most controversial pastoral letter in the history of the Catholic Church in Alberta. Bouchard criticized the rapid development of the Athabasca oilsands in his diocese as sacrificing the integrity of God's creation for the sake of economic gain.
"The present pace and scale of development in the Athabasca oilsands cannot be morally justified," the bishop wrote in his lengthy and carefully thought-through letter.
Bouchard's stand was courageous in the extreme, given the emotional attachment to the develop-at-all-costs mentality that many Albertans have to the petroleum industry in general and the oilsands in particular.
The bishop was excoriated viciously from many corners, often by those who had not even read his pastoral letter. Yet, he was doing the very thing that bishops must do – applying the values of the Gospel to the issues of our time.
The scorn with which Bouchard – now the bishop of Trois Rivieres, Que. – was treated is reminiscent of the trials faced by St. John Chrysostom, the bishop of Constantinople from 397 to 407. St. John was unrelenting in his blunt criticism of the luxury and extravagance of wealthy Christians and their indifference to the poor.
In one homily, he asked, "How long shall we love riches? For I shall not cease exclaiming against them: for they are the cause of all evils. How long do we not get our fill of this insatiable desire? . . . Whence is it that this disease has invaded the world? Who shall be able to effect its destruction?"
For his pains, John was twice run out of town by the wealthy elite. They could not tolerate his criticism of their way of life.
We say words have no power compared with the power of money and guns. However, moral truth spoken with integrity has the power to change the world. See, for example, the story about the Canadian churches' contribution to the fall of apartheid that Joe Gunn tells in this issue of the WCR.
In Alberta, many would like to forget Bouchard's pastoral letter, to treat it as though it never happened. But the letter stands, casting more and more judgment on Alberta's moral blindness the longer the truth is ignored. Moral truth will not go away. It shines its light on our grabbing for gold today and will continue to shine on the horrible legacy we are leaving our children, grandchildren and the northern aboriginal people.