These are times when those in power must act for the welfare of those they serve
By Michael M. Barrick
In paragraph 57 of his ecological encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis asked, “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?” Published nearly two years ago, that question is even more valid and pressing today.
Point in case: The failure of President Trump and the Republican-led Congress to hold even a vote on a health care bill is an abject failure of leadership. Actually, considering how bad the bill was, for that we can be thankful. However, at this stage in our history, at this stage in incalculable threats to world peace, we simply can’t afford a complete void of leadership.
For my 61years on this planet, I have witnessed presidential administrations and congressional leaders reach compromises on vital issues despite deep differences. Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill had severe policy disagreements. But they were civil with one another. Indeed, they were friends.
More importantly, they led. You need not agree with their politics to understand that had to have been strong leaders, otherwise, nothing would have been accomplished while they were in Washington together. Forging relationships is an essential leadership trait. Out of those relationships come a deeper respect for and understanding of one another. It causes people to look for common ground – especially when the general welfare is at stake.
Now, though, the Republican Party has a problem. It is like a dog chasing a car. Now that they’ve caught it, they can’t do much with it except bite into the tire. This is what happens when one is mindlessly seeking power for power’s sake.
The Democratic Party, I might add, is not much better. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi responded, “Let’s just for a moment breathe a sigh of relief for the American people that the Affordable Care Act was not repealed.”
No, let’s not. This is not the time to pause; it is a time to act.
I am not breathing a sigh of relief. Obamacare is a total disaster. It is crony capitalism at its worst. Far too many people still can’t access affordable health care; insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and even hospital corporations now have more control over an individual’s health care than the patient and his or her family doctor.
But as others have said, there may be a silver lining in this dark cloud. The American people are finally realizing that a single-payer, universal health care law is the only viable option to provide adequate medical care for all Americans. Why do they know this? Because we’re already doing it. It’s called Medicare. So, it is time to do what the majority of American people want, including Trump-voting Appalachia – pass a single payer, universal health care bill. In short, provide Medicare for all.
This will require cooperation. The days of a political leader saying that his sole purpose is to obstruct the efforts of a political opponent must be put behind us now if we are to solve the problems facing our communities, state and nation. Sadly, “leaders” in both major parties now resort to obstructionism rather than doing the tough work of negotiating.
That simply won’t do. Consider your own experiences or those of your friends and family. Do you know anybody that says going to the doctor has gotten easier? Have you seen your doctor beat her head against the wall when a flunky on the other end of the phone is deciding whether or not her diagnosis of you is accurate? Do you think getting prescriptions filled is easier? Do you think life-saving prescriptions should be priced so high that CEOs make $20 million a year while patients die?
For now, we continue to ignore these questions for a simple reason – in the USA, might trumps right. This is not the recipe for “making America great again.”
© Michael M. Barrick, 2017
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NC Chapter of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia says priests and bishops should “ … imitate more strongly the example of Jesus …”
CHEROKEE, N.C. – The North Carolina Chapter of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) has issued a statement of concern regarding the adequacy of local church leadership. Titled “Statement of Concern on Clericalism from Appalachian Catholics in the Smoky Mountain Region,” the statement identifies clericalism – the overemphasis of the power of the priesthood and hierarchy – as a pervasive problem in the region and in the Roman Catholic Church as a whole.
The central office of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia is based in Spencer, W.Va.
The statement is based on negative experiences of lay Catholics in the region in their interactions with parish priests, including inadequate pastoral care of the dying and demeaning attitudes toward Catholics from diverse local cultures. The Chapter opted to share these concerns with the media after more than two years of attempts to address the issues with the bishop of the Charlotte Diocese, who the chapter says has been unwilling to meet with the people.
The Chapter statement calls on the region’s bishops to acknowledge these problems and engage in dialogue with the people to work toward creative solutions, and offers prayers for a “change of hearts, minds, and pastoral practice,” that the region’s priests and bishops “would imitate more strongly the example of Jesus who came not to be served but to serve.” The statement can be read in its entirety below or at http://ccappal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/CCA-NCStatement-on-Clericalism.pdf.
Catholic Committee of Appalachia North Carolina State Chapter
Statement of Concern on Clericalism from Appalachian Catholics in the Smokey Mountain Region
To evoke the Holy Faithful People of God is to evoke the objective we are invited to look towards and reflect upon… A father cannot conceive of himself without his children… A pastor
cannot conceive of himself without a flock, whom he is called upon to serve. The pastor is the pastor of a people, and the people need him within…. (Pope Francis, “Letter to Pontifical Commission for Latin America” (March 19, 2016)
Pope Francis tells us that in order to meet the spiritual needs of the community, the people need their pastor “within” that community. While many priests are wonderful shepherds for their people, our experience reveals that this is not always the case, and our connection with other Catholics in the Appalachian region indicates that our experience points to a much larger problem.
Many Catholics in the central and southern Appalachian region feel they are talking to the wind. Their priests, especially the younger ones, do not listen to them. Their bishops do not listen to some of the priests or the people, and many of them seem not to be listening to Pope Francis. We realize the pressures on our clergy caused by the shortage of priests and the increasing spiritual needs of the people, but we feel there are pressing issues that need to be addressed in the short term.
There are flagrant examples of some of the clergy failing to care for their people and failing to see the suffering imposed on them, not only in the liturgy, but in the wider sacramental life of the church and in outreach to the community. A lack of responsibility is evident, even with regard to pastoral care of the dying. In one parish in our region, this happened at least four times in less than two years and two parishioners died without the sacraments. Likewise, funerals have not been scheduled in a timely manner, not allowing adequate input from the family of the deceased in the funeral arrangements. To date there has been no apology or acknowledgement, or even a response from the bishop in the diocese where this occurred.
Many of our younger priests insist upon imposing a uniform Roman culture while ignoring the rich diversity of Appalachian, Latino/a, and Cherokee cultures. We feel this is contrary to the examples of Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. One bishop with a sizable Native American population in his diocese has failed to respond to the concerns of parishioners about actions of the priest which have offended Native people and their friends.
Again, many of the younger priests, particularly those fresh out of seminary, have an arrogant, self-righteous and condescending attitude. These “restorationists” seem to be more intent on taking the church back to pre-Vatican II days rather than minister to the people. They seem to be steeped in doctrine and theology, but are unwilling to participate in ecumenical activities, and are lacking in compassion, love and mercy. They are doing the job of the theologian, but not the job of the pastor. This is directly opposed to what Pope Francis and Vatican II are teaching us. Many seem to have the attitude that the Second Vatican Council never happened, taking the church back in time while ignoring the teachings of Pope Francis that have brought a vibrant new energy to the church, reviving the Church’s relevancy for many Catholics.
Many longtime Catholics who recall the days before Vatican II, and who have been faithful to the church over the years, feel they are being treated like children by priests in their thirties. As a result, they are leaving their parishes in search of meaningful liturgies. In rural areas, this is hard to do, given the distances involved in traveling to other parishes. Some Catholics are going to Protestant churches, some seeking alternative intentional communities, and others not attending church at all. This has caused a great sadness on the part of many people who, for many years, were part of parish communities now fractured by clerical ambivalence.
We recognize that we are blessed with some very good priests who give a lot to the people and who minister in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. It is not our intention to vilify the clergy as a whole, but to raise a prophetic voice in the spirit of love for the church in order to address some of the problems we encounter. Better communication and acknowledgement of issues raised by the people would go a long way in addressing the feeling of alienation that many parishioners experience. Addressing structural issues like the priest shortage necessarily take a long time, but some long-standing problems are able to be addressed more immediately, and it is past time to deal with them. Some of these problems, especially those related to the pastoral care of the sick and the dying, could be addressed creatively, for example, by empowering the laity to anoint the sick. As Catholic writer Matthew Kelly has stated, “God never goes back; he always moves forward. Adam and Eve were banished from the garden. God could have redeemed them and sent them back to the garden, but he didn’t, for two reasons: God always wants our future to be bigger than our past, and God always moves forward” (Matthew Kelly, “Rediscover Catholicism: A Spiritual Guide to Living with Passion & Purpose,” Beacon Publishing, 23).
We pray for our priests and bishops here in North Carolina, throughout Appalachia, and indeed throughout the world, as the issue of clericalism affects the church globally. We pray for a change of hearts, minds, and pastoral practice among our clergy, that they would imitate more strongly the example of Jesus who came not to be served but to serve.
About the North Carolina chapter of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia
As a network of Catholics committed to practicing the reforms of Vatican II in the region, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia has nurtured region-wide relationships of engaged laity working to create a church of the people. These relationships help us to see that the local concerns expressed by our North Carolina State Chapter are in fact shared by Catholics in many dioceses throughout the Appalachian region. The Catholic Committee of Appalachia Board of Directors endorses this statement and joins our N.C. State Chapter in asking bishops throughout the region to respond in a pastoral manner to address the concerns raised herein.
About the Catholic Committee of Appalachia
Since 1970, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia has existed to serve Appalachia, her poor and the entire web of creation. Mountaintop removal, labor, private prison development, sustainable lifestyles and communities, poverty, health, clean water, racism and climate change are among those issues which CCA has addressed. CCA has taken responsibility for the organization and ongoing promulgation of two groundbreaking pastoral letters of the Catholic Bishops of Appalachia, “This Land is Home to Me” (1975) and “At Home in the Web of Life” (1995). CCA released a third pastoral letter, “The Telling Takes Us Home,” in 2015. Learn more about the Catholic Committee of Appalachia. Complimentary copies of the pastoral letters are available from The Lenoir Voice.
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People’s Pastoral by the Catholic Committee of Appalachia rooted in the concept of ‘Magisterium of the Poor’
By Michael M. Barrick
SPENCER, W.Va. – Reading the latest People’s Pastoral from the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) is like lingering over a classic work of art – especially if that artwork is Picasso’s “Guernica.” That is because, just like Picasso’s most famous work forces us to reflect upon man’s inhumanity to man, the CCA pastoral immediately challenges the reader to learn about and then expose great social injustices being perpetrated upon the people and land of Appalachia.
The pastoral, titled, “The Telling Takes us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape Us,” pulls the reader in with eloquent but blunt free verse, breathtaking artwork, photographs and even the rare literary element of an Interlude.
It is the third pastoral published by the CCA in 40 years. “This Land is Home to Me: A Pastoral Letter on the Poverty and Powerlessness in Appalachia,” was released in 1975. “At Home in the Web of Life: A Pastoral Message on Sustainable Communities in Appalachia,” was released in 1995. They remain in print and available from the CCA.
The CCA identifies itself as “… a network of faith-based people raising a prophetic voice for Appalachia & her people.” This new pastoral seems entirely consistent with that mission.
Notably, unlike the first two, this one is not endorsed by the bishops of Appalachia; instead, rooted in Catholic social teaching and liberation theology borrowed from social justice movements in the Southern hemisphere, it is a direct appeal from and on behalf of the poor and the earth itself. As Michael Iafrate, the pastoral’s writer, explained, it is “Speaking truth to power.”
This includes not only traditional church structures, as evidenced by “Lifting up ‘The Magisterium of the Poor’” as Iafrate said, but also political and economic structures as well. Additionally, the pastoral also acknowledges that “The earth has an authority that the church needs to acknowledge and respect,” noted Iafrate, echoing thoughts expressed by Pope Francis in his ecological encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home.”
Jeannie Kirkhope, the coordinator for CCA, added, “Current bishops told us that had they been around when the first two pastorals were written that they wouldn’t have signed it.” She continued, “People have their own authority in the church. We didn’t feel it necessary to get their endorsement.” Iafrate added, “We felt that there were number of issues that the CCA wanted and needed to speak to – mountaintop removal and fracking, as well as marginalized people in Appalachia and the church. We needed to speak about this. We have asked bishops to speak to these issues, but they don’t’ for a variety of reasons. We knew they would not sign on as a body, that maybe one or two would sign. Out of that realization came that sense that the first two pastorals were voices of the people and the bishops endorsed it. We decide to push forward whether they participated or not.”
As it turns out, shared Iafrate, the election of Pope Francis was affirming of the pastoral, which was in the works for several years. “Little did we know there would be a new pope. Little did we know that this pope would have his own encyclical in the works. It was well timed. Of course it was not related to the people’s pastoral, but it was a grace-filled incident.”
While the CCA did not reach out to bishops, a bishop new to the region did offer to provide a cover letter to be sent to all bishops in the United States along with a copy of the pastoral. Iafrate shared, “Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky. shares with the bishops that CCA is living out what Pope Francis has called us to do. We are thankful for his support.”
Iafrate acknowledges that just as the encyclical by Pope Francis has been labeled as extreme in its criticism of market-driven consumerism, so too might this pastoral. In fact, he admitted, “We hope it is subversive because there are a lot of political, economic, and church relationships that need to be subverted.”
He added the pastoral is consistent with the CCA’s mission. “This goes along with being prophetic.” He continued, “This new letter is radical in what it says. It calls for radical changes to church” He argued, though, “It is not a call to radical change apart from examples of how people are already doing things. That is really important.” Besides, he argued, “People can resist radical change all they want, but everything is going to have to change whether we want it to or not, whether we participate in it or not. The planet is going to make sure things change, whether human beings participate in it or not. We can only resist it so much and for so long. That’s on a global scale and in Appalachia.”
The pastoral is written in free verse, as were the first two. Iafrate pointed out that this literary approach was chosen because “It is consistent with the Appalachian heritage of writing poetry and storytelling. It fits with the lyrical way of writing in Appalachia.” Kirkhope added, “It is easily readable. We’re lucky because Michael is both a theologian and musical artist. So we got the best of both worlds with Michael as author. It is both history and artistic.”
The dedication page says simply, “For Walter Sullivan.” Sullivan served as bishop for the Diocese of Richmond for roughly three decades, including the earliest year of the CCA. He is considered its greatest champion. He passed away in 2012. Kirkhope shared, “Before he retired, Bishop Sullivan was talking about the need for a people’s pastoral focusing on mountaintop removal. He was very involved with the first two letters. He was one of the founding bishops of CCA. He was our liaison to the church hierarchy and our biggest fan.” Iafrate added, “There is not a title in the dedication because that’s just not the kind of bishop he was. His ministry was focused on empowering the people of God. He was not worried about different classes of clerics.” Kirkhope recalled, “He was concerned about the earth. Early on, we invited the bishops of central Appalachia to participate in a flyover of mountaintop removal sites. Only three showed up. He was the only one that understood and was completely behind us.”
As the pastoral undeniably ties together the poor and the earth – that to listen to the poor is to listen to the earth – it manages to do so based upon Catholic social justice traditions without being limiting in its appeal. Iafrate explains, “We talk about the planet we live on as having sacredness. That is something we share across traditions when our traditions are at their best. We form a community across traditions. It is deeply rooted in our Catholic faith, but goes beyond it as well, knowing that is how we must all work together.”
The pastoral is divided into three parts. Part One, “Our Stories: The Grounds of our Struggles” tells of the stories gathered through hundreds of interviews by CCA over the last few years, including minorities, those in vulnerable communities and coalfield residents and miners. Part Two, “Our Traditions: The Ground of our Vision,” is rooted in Catholic customs and traditions. Part Three, “Our Actions: The Ground of our Hope,” offers examples of what others are doing to build a region free of the fossil fuel mono-economy and provides some other possible alternatives for consideration.
Artist Christopher Santer, a West Virginia native now living in Minnesota provided the artwork for the covers and a center spread. Iafrate offered, “It’s very striking. We wanted it to be top notch and as prophetic as the words.” The design was done by Liz Pavlovic from Morgantown, W.Va.
Additionally, the Introduction was written by Beth Davies, a Virginia resident and founding CCA member. An Afterword was written by Eddie Sloan of Wheeling, W.Va. and a doctoral candidate at Boston College. His remarks were directed primarily to young people. Notably, the pastoral also includes an Interlude, which was written by Janet Keating, the executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, based in Huntington, W.Va. While Iafrate said the use of an Interlude came along out of necessity in determining the arrangement of the pastoral, an Interlude is an old literary device that is generally allegorical and rooted in morality. That is certainly the case with Keaton’s piece, as it is titled, “A Cerulean Warbler Speaks.” Keating explained, “The … interlude is one example of the creative listening that is possible when we take seriously the intrinsic dignity of the smallest voices of creation.”
Iafrate said that the focus on the poor is long overdue and is needed to help “change the stories we tell.” He explained, “Appalachians understand the importance of telling their story. At the same time, we’ve gotten use to telling the same old story of Appalachia. Others tell stories that are based in stereotypes. They’ve bought into the same old story that we are an energy region that provides coal and other resources for America’s needs. It’s like it’s our patriotic duty to sacrifice our well-being. We buy into these myths. We live by them. It shapes the way we live life and community together.
“What this pastoral is saying is that we need to live out alternative stories. We need to lift up the experiences of people that run counter to stories of the region. We need to start hearing stories of people who have been hurt by industry in mountaintop removal and fracking. The main new story we need to tell is that God did not give us this planet only as a resource to exploit, but gave us a home. We need to start changing the story of how we live in harmony with one another and take care of the home we’ve been given to live in.”
That storytelling, he said, is up to modern-day “saints.” Iafrate explains, “The word saint in the document has quotes around it, which signals I am doing something different with this word. We do have saints in the tradition of the church like St. Francis of Assisi that can inspire us. What I mean is that modern day saints are people who have a deep sensitivity for the suffering of people and earth in this region. They provide examples of how to live and work for justice. The best word in our tradition is to use the word saint. It does not mean that we are perfect, but have that fire for justice that is so important for CCA and many communities that are struggling.”
He is hoping such saints will emerge from people of all ages, but particularly in their 20s and 30s. “This change isn’t going to happen without them, without young people. We are all aware of the out migration from West Virginia and Appalachia. It is not getting better. If we want this place we love to thrive, we need to listen to these young people to find out while they’re leaving.” He continued, “They have a vision of what they want their lives to be. They love this area. But they feel they need to leave. It’s a love-hate relationship. They want to stay, but can’t find work. The transformation that we need will not occur without younger people.”
Regardless of one’s age, though, Iafrate points folks back to the pastoral’s title. “We need to take our place in this story. It is our small way of helping marginalized people – of lifting up the magisterium of the poor.”
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016.
Beth Davis writes in the Foreword, “When the bishops gathered at Vatican II, they described the Church as ‘the People of God’—not only the pope, bishops, and clergy, but the entire People of God. They further articulated in Gaudium et Spes how the Church was to be present in the modern world, and their key was dialogue. It is not a new thing for the Church as institution to lead and speak out on issues it chooses to take a stand on, on its own turf. It is a new thing for the Church to listen, truly listen, to what people are saying in their terms, on their turf,”
Like the first two pastorals, this latest is written in free verse rather than prose. Consequently, to conserve space, line breaks are identified by the / symbol.
All excerpts are © 2015 Catholic Committee of Appalachia. Used with Permission. Selected excerpts follow.
Here in Appalachia, / we are people of stories. / These mountains have heard / the stories we tell, / and have told, / across time and space. / The mountains hold our stories, / and they have stories of their own.
Wherever we are, / and whatever our relationship to these hills, / telling our stories / connects us once again, / takes us home, / and gives us a place / from which we can act for justice.
Today, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) / offers this third pastoral letter / as a prophetic word spoken / for new realities among us. / We recommit to reading the signs of the times, / listening to the stories / of the places and people who hurt most, / to create new paths forward / toward greater justice, peace, and wholeness / for our communities and for creation. /
In this statement, / we recognize a deepening ecological crisis / and new pressures on our struggling communities.
We remember and recommit / to hearing the voices of the poor and of Earth / and to voices we are still learning to discern.
To listen deeply to the authority / of the poor and of Earth in this way,… / as magisterium, … / (is) a recognition / of the different gifts and roles / among the diverse Body of Christ, / and of the truth that there are authorities / to which all of God’s people, / including the powerful, / must bow in humility and reverence.
Many Appalachians, / especially those who live close to desecrated places, / have come to believe that Jesus’ commandment / to love and serve one’s neighbor / includes a special love for our neighbor, Earth.
Mountaintop removal is an act / of radical violence that leaves / monstrous scars across Earth’s body / resembling moonscapes, / dead zones on our planet / which cannot be restored to their prior / life-giving condition in our lifetimes.
Women continue to face / significant barriers in our region / which make fullness of life difficult. … / Sexism is transmitted and upheld / through church traditions / which explicitly or implicitly / misuse scripture and faith traditions / to justify the exclusion, domination, / and abuse of women. / Women’s roles continue to be limited / not only in churches, / but also in the family, in the wider community, / and in the region’s male-centered economy.
Accidents are not as random as they appear, / but are the result of a culture of disregard / for worker safety. / Coal industry villains come and go, / but the attitude which places profit above safety / is deeply embedded in the coal economy.
Miners still struggle regularly / against attempts to roll back / hard-won victories of better pay and benefits. / People of faith, / including laity, religious, and clergy, / have stood with retired miners / in public protests against the attempt / by a handful of mining companies / to eliminate health and retirement benefits / by spinning off their union mines / into new subsidiary companies / and then filing for bankruptcy.
The widespread presence of food insecurity / is an ironic reversal for a region / that was once populated by subsistence farms / and where family gardens were once popular.
Residents near fracking sites / in both rural and urban areas, / as well as health officials, / have begun to describe serious health concerns / connected to this industry.
Many people in our church communities, … / must admit that we have not heard or taken seriously / the experiences of people of color in Appalachia.
Although acts of genocide / against Native people are historical facts, / Native communities are alive and present here today, / including Cherokee, Shawnee, / Blackfoot, and Monacan peoples.
Some Appalachians believe / that same-sex relationships / threaten the natural state of things, / including the institutions of marriage and family. / But many Appalachian people / identify as gay or lesbian, / and have done so throughout history.
We know that the way of life / enjoyed by a small percentage of the human family, / and the distribution of wealth / enjoyed by an even smaller percentage, / are profoundly unjust and unsustainable / and climate change is rapidly / bringing us to the brink of disaster.
Creation is God’s garden, / and … human communities / exist within God’s garden as caretakers, / receiving with gratitude all of God’s good gifts / and using them only in ways / that nurture and sustain life to the full.
We shall no longer be crucified / upon the cross of coal.
Appalachian activism has a long history, / and in the struggles of history and of today, / being an activist is not a hobby or a luxury. / People have decided to act, / and to act boldly, / because life depends on changing / the way we live together. / As Larry Gibson often said, / “We’re either going to be an activist, / or we’re going to be annihilated.”
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‘On Care for Our Common Home’ gets to the heart of the challenge facing the region, but environmental and social justice activists have many questions to consider in response
By Michael M. Barrick
ALUM BRIDGE, W.Va. – Much has already been written regarding the ecological encyclical by Pope Francis, “On Care for Our Common Home.” Many have questioned the validity of the claims made by the pope in this, his second encyclical. In short, it has sparked a debate, just as Pope Francis certainly expected.
For the people of Appalachia, though, there should be no debate. Clearly, this pope gives hope to the people of these ancient mountains.
Why is this so? First, Pope Francis understands that the time for urgent dialogue and action is long past. Second – and this is the heart of the matter for Appalachia – Pope Francis has made it clear that environmental and social justice concerns are inseparable. In short, for the people of Appalachia, ecological degradation and the cycle of poverty go hand-in-hand.
So, as the United States prepares for a visit from the pope next week, we may want to ask some questions that will help us apply the encyclical to environmental and social justice work in Appalachia, and why this pope’s message and example is resonating with millions of Americans, including countless non-Catholics.
An encyclical for the world
Usually, an encyclical is written to the bishops of the Church to exhort, challenge and encourage her leaders who serve as shepherds to the faithful; at other times, as is so in this case, an encyclical is a general letter to a larger population. As Pope Francis says plainly, “I wish to address every living person on this planet” (Laudato Si’, no. 3).
Let us pause a moment to consider what Laudato Si’ is not. It is not new. It is not about climate change only. It is not simply a framework for dialogue. And, as the Catholic Committee on Appalachia has pointed out in its letters to West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield and the other Catholic bishops of Appalachia, it is not merely an option for them to reflect upon. As with all encyclicals, it is an exhortation to the world’s Catholic bishops – in this case, to act to rescue the world from ecological catastrophe.
Now, we shall look at what it is. It is rooted in established Church teaching and other traditions which are ancient and time-tested. It recognizes that social justice and ecological issues are more than linked; they are one-in-the-same. It is a call to action. This is consistent with scripture, where we read, “Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18). It is a plea to all of humanity, regardless of religious beliefs. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is based on the understanding that mankind agrees that ecological preservation is a moral imperative.
Questions for consideration
The pope, in appealing to the world, is appealing to us. So, with this understanding guiding us, let us consider questions prompted by a reading of the encyclical. The questions (in italics) are preceded with a brief introduction to specific points made by the pope. The point of posing these questions is not academic. As the pope says, it is time to act. So, the questions and the background leading to them are posed so that you will not only think about them, but apply them – in action – within your sphere of influence. This is the only way that the pope’s message will actually make a difference – by us taking action.
1. The pope clearly ties together the plight of the poor and the threats of climate change. “Whether believers or not … every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged” (no. 93). He states also, “Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society” (no. 91). Also, he says, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (no. 139). Do you agree that social justice and ecological issues are inseparable? If not, why not? If so, what challenges and opportunities does that present for those working in these two sectors?
2. The pope speaks of the need to “ … repent of the ways we have harmed the planet” (no. 8). Do you believe you should repent, do you believe others should repent, and do you see any value in doing so?
3. Pope Francis alludes to the earth’s sacredness. “ … Saint Francis, faithful to Scripture, invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness” (no. 12). Reflect upon this statement in comparison to the outlook of John Muir and other early conservationists. Can we agree the earth is sacred? If so, can we agree why it is sacred?
4. The pope warns, “Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions” (no. 14). Is this a problem you have experienced in Appalachia? If so, how do we overcome such attitudes?
5. The pope criticizes “rapidification.” He says, “ … the speed with which human activity has developed contrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution” (no. 18). What challenges does this present in Appalachia?
6. Referencing pollution and climate change, he says, “Some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience. Exposure to atmospheric pollutants produces a broad spectrum of health hazards, especially for the poor, and causes millions of premature deaths” (no. 20). Where and how have you seen this manifested in Appalachia?
7. Speaking of water, he says, “Fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Sources of fresh water are necessary for health care, agriculture and industry. Water supplies used to be relatively constant, but now in many places demand exceeds the sustainable supply, with dramatic consequences in the short and long term” (no. 28). He says also, “One particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor” (no. 29). What are the major threats to Appalachia’s water supplies and what is the proper response?
8. He continues, about water, “Even as the quality of available water is constantly diminishing, in some places there is a growing tendency, despite its scarcity, to privatize this resource, turning it into a commodity subject to the laws of the market. Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights” (no. 30). Where are we seeing examples of this in Appalachia and what is the proper response?
9. Also, notes Pope Francis, “Certain places need greater protection because of their immense importance for the global ecosystem, or because they represent important water reserves and thus safeguard other forms of life” (no. 37). Can this be said for Appalachia?
10. The pope says also that we should apply “ … legitimate means of pressure” (no. 38). What are legitimate means?
11. He returns to the theme of vulnerable populations and vulnerable ecologies being linked. “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet” (48). In fact, he says, “ … we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (no. 49). What are the implications of this for the many diverse organizations in Appalachia dealing with the environment and vulnerable populations?
12. The pope seemingly alludes to the history of central Appalachia when he notes, “Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, (businesses) leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable” (no. 51). This statement alludes to third world nations. Using this statement, what can we say to the people of Appalachia about what business is doing for them?
13. He states plainly, “We lack leadership” (no. 53). As we consider politics, policy and field-level workers in state agencies, what can we do to strengthen and/or challenge the leadership of elected and appointed officials?
14. The pope, not surprisingly, refers to Jesus. He states, “When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of “might is right” has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all. Completely at odds with this model are the ideals of harmony, justice, fraternity and peace as proposed by Jesus” (no. 82). Can this statement be used in outreach to other Christian denominations and other faith traditions in Appalachia?
15. The pope speaks to the value of work. “Seeing manual labour as spiritually meaningful proved revolutionary. Personal growth and sanctification came to be sought in the interplay of recollection and work. This way of experiencing work makes us more protective and respectful of the environment; it imbues our relationship to the world with a healthy sobriety” (no. 126). How can we apply this statement in the context of the energy extraction industry constantly talking about the employment they provide?
16. The pope points out, “We know, for example, that countries which have clear legislation about the protection of forests continue to keep silent as they watch laws repeatedly being broken” (no. 142). How does such inaction impact not only the environment, but people’s faith in government?
17. The Church has traditionally demonstrated “ … a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” (no. 158). Historically, Appalachia has had champions for the poor. That seems less so today. Do you agree? What do you see?
18. In calling for solutions, he says, “Society, through non-governmental organizations and intermediate groups, must put pressure on governments to develop more rigorous regulations, procedures and controls. Unless citizens control political power – national, regional and municipal – it will not be possible to control damage to the environment” (no. 179). How can we engage citizens in Appalachia so that they can accomplish these tasks?
19. He notes, “In some places, cooperatives are being developed to exploit renewable sources of energy which ensure local self-sufficiency and even the sale of surplus energy. This simple example shows that, while the existing world order proves powerless to assume its responsibilities, local individuals and groups can make a real difference” (no. 179). Where in Appalachia have we seen this? Can we help facilitate this?
20. The pope endorses the precautionary principle. “This precautionary principle makes it possible to protect those who are most vulnerable and whose ability to defend their interests and to assemble incontrovertible evidence is limited. If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof. Here the burden of proof is effectively reversed, since in such cases objective and conclusive demonstrations will have to be brought forward to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it” (no. 186). How do we convince our political leaders and policy makers to adopt the same attitude?
Essentially, and not surprising, Pope Francis calls for conversion. He calls for conversion of our attitudes, our lifestyles, our priorities, our educational systems, our economic systems and our political systems. This call leaves us to question how we might achieve such conversions of the heart, and significantly, what happens if we do not?
© Michael M. Barrick/Appalachian Chronicle, 2015
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A good start would be the resignation of WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman
By Michael M. Barrick
ALUM BRIDGE, W.Va. – About a month ago, I was asked by a well-known environmental group to speak to the relevance of the ecological encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home” by Pope Francis as it applies to West Virginia.
I prepared 25 discussion questions, knowing most would have to be considered later. As it turned out, I could have asked just one, as it was the one we spent the better part of the time discussing. And, it wasn’t even my question; it was the pope’s. In paragraph 57 of the encyclical, Pope Francis asks, “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?”
We concluded that it was the most important question we had to answer for West Virginia if we are ever going to free ourselves of the fossil fuel mono-economy that keeps the state’s residents mired in poverty. Then I offered a specific example of a person in state leadership who I think should resign – West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) Secretary Randy Huffman. For those not familiar with West Virginia government, Huffman is a cabinet level political appointee. As such, he is clearly a leader, one entrusted by our governor with the environmental (and by default, human) health of West Virginia. He is the subject matter expert on the environment in West Virginia.
I was highly critical of Huffman for remarks he made following a question I asked him in mid-July in Doddridge County (more about that in a moment). Some of those who have worked directly with Huffman over the years said I was being too hard on him. Others agreed with me. Some defended Huffman, arguing that he was doing his best. “If he resigned on principle, he would just be replaced by someone worse,” one person offered. “You can only do so much in Charleston,” added another.
While I appreciate the sentiment expressed by these folks and can understand them to a degree, I am unmoved. It is time for Mr. Huffman to resign.
Why? Well, let’s review the exchange I had with him in Doddridge County.
Huffman and several WVDEP staff members accompanied local residents throughout the day to visit those impacted by fracking in Doddridge and Ritchie counties. Later that evening, he and the staff met with members of the Doddridge County Watershed Association. After he answered questions for about an hour, I asked, “Are you willing to recommend to the governor and legislature that the state employ the Precautionary Principle and place a moratorium on fracking and related activities?”
The Precautionary Principle, according to the Science & Environmental Health Network, asserts, “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.” It is a philosophy embraced by public health and environmental advocates across West Virginia regarding many aspects of the energy extraction industry.
Huffman, not exactly engendering confidence in his leadership skills, took three shots at the question. His first answer was to repeat much of what he had said to previous questions. When challenged by an audience member, “You didn’t answer his question,” Huffman shot back, “He didn’t ask a question, he made a statement.” I then said, “Mr. Huffman. It was a question. Let me repeat it for you.” I did.
As an aside here, I will say that I’ve been reporting on politicians for a quarter of a century. I have heard that answer more times than I care to remember. It is a sure sign that the subject doesn’t want to or can’t answer the question.
In any event, after I restated my question, he still did not answer it. Instead, he alluded to progress made in the legislature to regulate fracking after his last visit to the area. The Horizontal Well Act, passed into law in late 2011, did impose higher fees and some minor regulations on the industry. However, West Virginia’s laws on fracking are still considered some of the weakest in the nation by environmental groups. So, it isn’t surprising that when Huffman alluded to that law, the well-informed audience responded with sighs and even laughter (though one audience member did defend Huffman).
So, after sitting there for a few moments, Huffman stood up and said he needed to take another shot at an answer. He then admitted, “If I start pounding my fist, it is going to be a fruitless effort. I would become ineffective. There are too many entities at play in Charleston. If I did that, they’d laugh me out of the capitol building. It would limit my effectiveness.”
He also said, “That is above my pay grade.”
So, we are still left with many questions for Mr. Huffman.
First, since so many states have banned fracking or placed a moratorium on it, why would he not consider the precautionary principle a sensible approach to protect the health and safety of the people of West Virginia?
Second, if recommending to the governor and/or legislature about environmental matters is above his pay grade, just exactly what does the Secretary of DEP do except to rubber stamp permit requests from the energy extraction industry?
And, as Pope Francis asked, “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?”
As it stands now, history will not judge Mr. Huffman kindly. He is in the position to take action, but instead has decided to punt. If he is serious about the environment, he could resign on principle and warn the people of West Virginia what awaits them if they don’t stand up for themselves and elect some real leaders. Such an act would get far more attention than lamenting his lack of influence among the people who are supposed to listen to his expertise.
The people of West Virginia don’t have another 125-year reign of the energy extraction industry to await replies. As the pope says, action is “urgent and necessary.” So, the next action Mr. Huffman should take, since he has openly declared he will not fight for the environment in the current political climate, is resign.
© The Appalachian Preservation Project, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. If you find this writing of value, we hope that you will consider support our independent work by becoming a member of the Appalachian Preservation Project. By doing so, you will be supporting not only this website, but also our other outreaches, programs and partnerships.
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