Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
The Columbia River at Kelly Point in Portland is used for industry and recreation.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
The Columbia River at Kelly Point in Portland is used for industry and recreation.
Drought in the American West means increased competition and conflict for a limited water supply. Jerry Grondin, a water scientist in formation for the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Portland, says the message in a 2001 pastoral letter from the Pacific Northwest Catholic bishops could prove helpful.  

Grondin explains that the pastoral letter, "The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good," is written to all persons of good will and addresses from a Catholic perspective the social, economic, and ecological issues that have moral, ethical, and common good implications. The idea for the letter came during a 1990s conference at Mount Angel Abbey.   

After the letter was released, Grondin served on an Archdiocesan Pastoral Council subcommittee to recommend how Catholics could implement the 27-page pastoral letter in response to the bishops’ call to action. Few Catholics have responded over the years. “Many do not understand why the bishops wrote the letter, why the Church should be involved, or how the Church’s moral and social teachings apply to the Columbia River watershed issues."  

Hoping to revive the letter's influence, Grondin led a workshop last month at St. Francis Parish in Sherwood and is willing to do more. It has three parts based on Ignatian spirituality: experience, faith-based reflection, and action.

The wisdom of the Northwest Catholic bishops who wrote the letter, including Archbishop Emeritus John Vlazny, could apply to water disputes elsewhere.

Grondin who gained his water interest while serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa, now does groundwater investigations in Oregon.  That includes the Klamath Basin where in extreme cases, decades-long friends became enemies over water in 2013 and a parent pre-claimed his senior right to 2014 water delivery over his child.

The bishops respected the multiple sides of each issue and applied a balanced "both/and" approach to address them. They said, the river should be both protected and used by humans. That is consistent with the U.S. Catholic bishops’ 1991 pastoral statement, "Renewing the Earth," that argued, "Christian love forbids choosing between people and the earth." They also remained consistent with the 1994 “Communities of Salt and Light” pastoral, “We cannot forget that we pursue the Kingdom of God, not some earthly vision or ideological cause.”

Grondin answers objections that creation talk draws the church's attention away from Jesus by saying, "Christ and creation are intimately linked; Christ is the agent, sustainer and goal of all creation; through the Incarnation, Jesus became part of creation, redeeming and saving it with humanity; and at Mass, creation present in the bread and wine becomes Christ’s Body and Blood by Holy Spirit.”

In Part 1 of the workshop (experience), Grondin discussed the Columbia's benefits and its development history. The watershed is rich in natural resources and it was in sustainable balance supporting the original population before Lewis and Clark.  

Since then, mining, forestry, agriculture, fishery development, nuclear bomb production, dams for hydropower, flood control, irrigation, and navigation created a legacy that affects water availability and quality, which causes social, economic, and ecological conflict and problems.

Most surface water is unavailable for new summer uses. Groundwater levels have dropped significantly in many places including the Sherwood and Umatilla areas resulting in limiting existing or new water use. Climate change may make water availability worse. More than 22,000 stream miles, 1861 water bodies, and 30 lakes and reservoirs in Oregon alone are water quality limited by temperature, sediments, and/or various chemicals. Non-migratory fish in a 150-mile span of the Columbia are contaminated. Migratory fish populations have plummeted. Leaking radioactive nuclear waste at the Hanford nuclear reservation is migrating through the ground toward the Columbia.   

Part 2 (faith-based reflection) emphasized the pastoral letter, especially its firm Catholic foundation. It is consistent with scripture, Church tradition over the centuries, the Second Vatican Council, the three most recent popes and the Catholic bishops in North America.

“The Church’s participation in Christ's mission of fulfilling God's Kingdom includes re-establishing God’s intended ‘right’ relationships between God, humanity, and creation,” Grondin argues. Caring for creation is one way to to proceed.

Grondin points out that God is creator of the universe who "maintains its existence through ongoing creative will," returning the created and human order to God's intent are strong themes in the Old Testament, New Testament and Church tradition, and water plays an important role in biblical imagery.

Vatican II said the Church fulfills its mission of proclaiming and advancing God's Kingdom by being active in the world. "That includes addressing humanity's interaction with each other and creation," Grondin says.

He cites the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says that creation reflects God's infinite beauty, and reminds listeners that Pope John Paul II said in 1990 that world peace is threatened not just by the arms race and regional wars, but by "lack of due respect for nature," a teaching Pope Benedict affirmed in 2010. Last year, Pope Francis said money is dictating how we treat the world and urged humans to reclaim their God-given task of stewardship.

In Part 3 (action), Grondin says the 2001 pastoral letter issued a call to action, urging Northwest Catholics and others to establish "right relationships" within the watershed for all humans and the environment through social, economic, and ecological justice for the common good. That includes respecting each other and the environment, sharing, conserving water and energy use, and reducing pollution and waste at home, parishes, schools, institutions, businesses, industries, farms and more.  

He cited the University of Portland as an institution making good progress by serving locally grown food, allocating travel funds for carbon offsets, and building to green standards.

Grondin urges Catholics to think about the pastoral letter and discern how they and their ministry can help implement it.

He concludes: "The pastoral letter encourages each individual and group to prayerfully discern what they might contribute to identifying and resolving the moral, ethical and common good issues related to their watershed and how to better move forward in a way consistent with God’s intention."