Catholic values and the Gulf


By Frank Wessling

When pioneer American explorers for oil found their first pool of the “black gold” under Pennsylvania farmland 151 years ago their discovery and the consequent rush to exploit it and manage the flow fouled a few acres of land. Today we’ve progressed to fouling ocean currents that carry a sticky, deadly pollution across millions of square miles and upsetting life for untold numbers of people.

One difference this time: the oil under the Gulf of Mexico was being controlled and managed until — surprise! — it wasn’t. Accidents happen, we say. Some accidents, though, deserve more attention.

If we think of Earth and its environment as our home, the gusher in the gulf should be another wakeup call: our foundation is in danger. We are so focused on getting more and doing more, being masters of the universe, we ignore the way this narrow view allows a fouling of our nest.

“The Compendium on the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church” offers this reflection:


“The modern era has witnessed man’s growing capacity for transformative intervention. The conquest and exploitation of resources has become predominant and invasive, and today has even reached the point of threatening the environment’s hospitable aspect: the environment as ‘resource’ risks threatening the environment as ‘home.’ Because of the powerful means of transformation offered by technological civilization, it sometimes seems that the balance between man and the environment has reached a critical point.”

A critical point, indeed. But perhaps this is especially true for us in this country where the impulse to explore and push and do more without restraint is so strong. We would rather let the entrepreneur have his freedom and clean up his mistakes and messes later than require the rational balance noted by the compendium.

We even corrupt our political life in order to escape the need for such balance. It was not altogether an accident that produced the Gulf of Mexico disaster. People who do deep-water oil exploration know how to ensure against what happened there. They do it consistently and successfully in the North Sea oilfields between Great Britain and Norway. In the gulf they worked under the eyes of United States regulators who, it now appears, were influenced by the oil companies and drillers to allow less than the best practices.

As a result, the kind of automatic shutoff that should have been operative on the gulf well after an accident was not available.

The biblical story of creation concludes with a divine instruction for humanity to “subdue the Earth.” We should doubt that God means mindlessly digging into creation to satisfy our every appetite. That story places us in charge of Earth with the assumption that we will care for it as agents of its creator, with the creator’s appreciation and care so that both it and we can flourish.

We are told to be good stewards, not plunderers; thoughtful friends of Earth, not simple exploiters. This requires better balance in our lives. We do too well in focusing on ourselves and every passing appetite that makes itself felt. We must do better in attending to all of the environment in which we move and share this life. Without more attention to the common good we risk destroying our personal good.

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