Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
March 8, 2010
Letter on oilsands 'struck a nerve,' says Bouchard
St. Paul Bishop says gov't, industry still refuse to engage in moral analysis of development
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
Bishop Luc Bouchard is overwhelmed by the wide and deep interest and responses his pastoral letter on the oilsands has received from the media and general public.
Since the publication of the letter more than a year ago, Bouchard has appeared on radio and television programs and has become a sought-after speaker.
"The pastoral letter definitely struck a nerve," he says. "Many were grateful that a religious leader, a Catholic bishop, spoke on this issue."
In assessing feedback to his letter, what is most obvious is "how united government and industry were in their response."
"They are reading from the same page," he told a large Christian crowd attending the annual Social Justice Institute at Trinity Lutheran Church Feb. 27.
"Government and industry will do everything possible to treat the oilsands as a public relations issue rather than a moral issue," the bishop said, pointing to a series of full-page advertisements by oil companies "in order to present the oilsands in the best possible light."
"Industry and government know they have a problem and they are going all out to defend the oilsands but they never allow themselves to engage in a moral analysis of the situation."
Bouchard believes Alberta suffers from a lack of a common forum, a place where moral issues that impinge upon the political and the economic spheres can be debated and resolved. "This lack of a forum highlights the democratic deficit that exists," he lamented.
Living Faithfully in Oil Country was the overall theme of this year's Social Justice Institute, which focused on stewardship of the environment and natural resources.
In his January 2009 pastoral letter Bouchard challenged the "moral legitimacy of oilsands production," decried many of its environmental impacts and called for a moratorium on new projects until there are adequate environmental protection measures.
Some people would have liked Bouchard to stay quiet. But he says as a bishop it is his responsibility to provide moral advice and leadership on questions that affect the faithful of his diocese, which covers northeastern Alberta and includes the massive tarsands developments near Fort McMurray.
The document aroused a strong reaction. People have written to Bouchard from all 10 provinces, the United States and Europe.
Reactions, however, have been mixed, ranging from "decisively negative and even insulting reactions" to appreciative and supportive reactions. "But I bear no grudge towards the negative reactions," the bishop said. "I am even tempted to say, 'Lord, forgive them; they do not know what they do.'"
The most negative responses were generally anonymous, mostly replies to news articles or opinion pieces that appeared on websites or blogs. One comment on an opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun read, "Kindly tell Bishop Bouchard that I will stay out of his God business if he will stay out of my oilsands business."
Another reader said the bishop should worry about the pedophiles in the Church's ranks instead of the oilsands. "You can tell he is not worried about a paycheque," wrote yet another.
ALL RILED UP
Bouchard found that the anonymous negative responses "never disputed that serious environmental damage is taking place" in the oilsands. "What is disputed is that a religious person has a right to raise the issue when the economy of Alberta is possibly at stake. This is what riles them up," the bishop said.
"Their central refrain is how dare anyone challenge our economic system? Then coupled with the refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a bishop posing a moral question to his own Church members are personal attacks that link me with every current or past scandal in Church history. There is little hope of reasoning with these folks."
A second type of response came from government and industry spokespersons. "What they have in common is the skillful use of public relations language coupled with a refusal to address moral questions," Bouchard said at the Social Justice Institute.
With only one exception, no one from government or industry has ever engaged with the moral question that the pastoral letter posed, lamented the bishop. "Apparently government and industry simply avoid getting into moral discussions."
He said the one exception was a letter written to the Calgary Herald by the CEO of Syncrude who doesn't dispute the substance of the pastoral letter.
"He said any moral assessment of an industrial development had to also include the social good the project creates by way of jobs and the creation of a product that is publicly demanded," observed Bouchard. "This, I thought, was a valid point."
Bouchard also received tons of responses in the form of personal letters and email messages from ordinary people, bishops, priests, environmental activists and scholars. "These were overwhelmingly understanding, warm, supportive and positive."
Bouchard was even named one of the 50 most influential persons in Alberta by the business magazine Alberta Venture. The last sentence of a short article in the magazine reads as follows: "Bouchard set out to incite debate. Mission accomplished."
Bouchard said he is concerned "that both the federal and provincial governments have no plan in place to deal with either global climate change or the development of the oilsands other than to maximize business as usual."
MADE IN THE U.S.A.
Canada and Alberta's policy for responding to the challenge of climate change is being now drafted in Washington, he said. "The level of tolerable oilsands pollution is now determined by the United States."
Another of his concerns is public willingness to take a firm stand on the oilsands appears to have weakened.
"The oil industry has succeeded in lowering the credibility of the scientific research surrounding global climate change," he lamented, comparing the oil industry's tactics to the "misinformation campaign used by the tobacco industry in order to prevent the public from seeing the now obvious link between smoking and cancer."
He also slammed the oil industry for proclaiming the value of carbon capture technology before it is proven.
What has Bouchard learned from writing the pastoral letter? "That a significant number of Christians want the churches to act in a prophetic manner on the issue of environmental justice."
He believes that once Church people see the biblical roots of an alternative vision then they will be in the struggle for the long haul. That happened with issues such as slavery, civil rights, capital punishment and war.
"We have just begun in Alberta in rousing the churches on this issue (of environmental justice)."
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