Five years ago this month, Bishop Luc Bouchard of St. Paul, Alberta, issued his high profile pastoral statement, The Integrity of Creation and the Athabasca Oil Sands. Four months later, Bishop Murray Chatlain of Mackenzie-Fort Smith, downstream from the Alberta oilsands, issued a pastoral letter in support of the stance taken by Bouchard.
Both bishops called for a suspension of the rapid growth taking place in the oilsands until urgent environmental issues and pressing aboriginal concerns were addressed.
Significantly, Bouchard said he was taking a "Catholic perspective" in addressing the rapid growth of the oilsands as a moral issue. Treating ecological concerns as a moral issue may be a surprise to many Catholics, but this is now an established part of Catholic moral teaching going back to Pope John Paul II.
Bouchard develops his theological and ethical foundations in a clear and challenging way. All living creatures and even the earth itself are "gifts from God" that should be safeguarded.
Bishop Luc Bouchard
We experience God through creation so "when people destroy or damage creation they are limiting their ability to know and love God." Citing a concern for future generations, he insists that "even great financial gain does not justify serious harm to the environment."
Bouchard lists areas of major ecological concern including the boreal forest ecosystem, water in the Athabasca watershed, greenhouse gas emissions and toxic tailing ponds.
After carefully examining the scientific data available five years ago, he concluded: "The integrity of creation in the Athabasca oilsands is clearly being sacrificed for economic gain," and that "the present pace and scale of development in the Athabasca oilsands cannot be morally justified."
Over the last five years, all the scientific measures associated with these ecological issues show increasing reasons for concern: more disturbed land, increased greenhouse gas emissions, expanding toxic waste ponds, and increased water usage and risk to the Athabasca watershed.
The collapse this fall of a large containment dam for a coal slurry pond into the Athabasca watershed presents a clear warning for the future.
Future plans for the further expansion of the oilsands raise the stakes even further. Greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands are projected to double the 2011 level by the year 2020. After years of promises, Canada still does not have any federal greenhouse gas regulations covering the rapidly growing oil and gas sector.
Aboriginal communities are now pursuing legal challenges to proposed oilsands expansion plans. Even the Fort Kent First Nation, which has profited greatly from oilsands business partnerships, is now arguing in court that the environmental costs for their community are now too high.
If Bouchard and Chatlain had sufficient cause for their pastoral statements of moral concern back in 2009, even more can be said about the seriousness of the situation today.
Over the past five years, both of these bishops have been named to dioceses in other parts of Canada. It is unlikely we will be reading any fifth anniversary pastoral statements. Each of us will have to do this moral reflection for ourselves.
On the surface, it appears that the prophetic words of these bishops' statements have had little impact with the operational decisions of government and industry leaders.
However, their insistence on using theological and moral language may be making a difference in the range of public discourse. Maybe this is an area where the Church can make a major difference, especially if Church actions can follow and reinforce the prophetic words of its leaders.
Fifteen years ago, the Alberta bishops issued a pastoral letter on ecology titled Celebrate Life: Care for Creation. They concluded with a "call to conversion" directed to different sectors of society.
One specific ecological call was directed to leaders and members of churches: "How is the call to biblical stewardship communicated in the preaching, sacramental celebration, education programs and management decisions of our parishes and church organizations?"
Maybe if we can do more to "walk the talk" of our ecological social teaching in our local churches and dioceses, the prophetic words of our leaders will be heard and taken more seriously.
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)