In the past week, the U.S. bishops responded not once, but twice to the tragic situation in the Gulf of Mexico that's been unfolding since the April 20 explosion of an oil rig, resulting in what's now being termed as the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
As the scope of this disaster steadily grew in the midst of failed attempt after attempt to rectify it, Catholics joined the rest of the population in a sense of mounting helplessness and frustration over how this could happen, as well as how it might be stopped and its ill effects reversed. In the face of this complex mess of questions, the bishops have offered a response with multiple layers and a broad scope that reflects the richness of Catholic life and teaching.
Most recently, Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah, bishop promoter of the Apostleship of the Sea, took to Youtube with the announcement that the Apostleship of the Sea was establishing a network to work with dioceses along the Gulf Coast. In his message, he cites the work of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, who (with the help of a $1 million gift from BP) have already provided direct assistance to thousands of people affected by the oil spill, mostly fishermen and their families, with food, gift cards, counseling, monetary relief and other assistance. Giving to Catholic Charities in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast dioceses, like Houma-Thibodaux, is one immediate way Catholics can make a positive impact.
Bishop Boland also outlines the varying layers of response the Church has to such a disaster. There's direct assistance, mentioned above, but there's also prayer -- prayer for those who lost their lives in the oil rig explosion and their families, prayer for the many fishermen and others who've lost their livelihoods due to the damage to the Gulf, prayer that the damage to the Gulf can be reversed and prevented in the future.
As bishop promoter of Apostleship of the Sea, Bishop Boland's primary focus in this disaster is on ministering to mariners and those whose livelihood relies on the sea, but he also focuses on the environmental consequences of this disaster, largely because in Catholic teaching, they're closely linked. He quotes Pope Benedict XVI (aka the Green Pope) in his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, "The way humanity treats the environment influences the way its treats itself, and vice versa."
Bishop Boland delves deeper into the environmental justice aspect of the disaster with a quote from Pope Benedict's 2010 World Day of Peace Message: " ... the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our life-style and the prevailing models of consumption and production, which are often unsustainable from a social, environmental and even economic point of view."
In other words, the Church urges an examination of conscience at a personal and cultural level. How did this disaster occur? Why was there such a pressing need for oil that we jeopardized our own environment to obtain it? How has my own consumption contributed to this? How can we better serve the environment in our energy production and use?
But the Catholic response to the oil spill drills down (forgive the usage) even deeper into the Church's teaching. Having already covered prayer, solidarity, charitable giving and environmental justice, the missing piece of the puzzle is social justice. That's why, at a June 12 meeting, the Subcommittee for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development -- the anti-poverty program of the U.S. bishops -- approved up to $300,000 in out-of-cycle grants for efforts to assist those affected by the oil spill.
To understand the purpose of these grants, it's important first to look at the mission of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which is to promote work that empowers the poor to break out of poverty themselves by attacking the root causes of poverty. In this case, communities of fishermen along the Gulf Coast are threatened with poverty as their livelihood is wiped out by the spill. Fortunately, they have assistance from Catholic Charities and others to help them in the short term. But in the long term, their livelihoods will depend on being able to navigate the labyrinth of government for funding, engaging in cooperative developments and other practices to ensure that work is distributed equitably among fishermen and, ultimately, restoring the Gulf so that they can all work again.
The grants from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development will go to groups who will help these communities to do just that. Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans said of these grants, "This gift is indeed generous and will be used to provide hope and stability for these hard-working families affected by the disastrous oil spill." And since the Campaign is funded by an annual collection, it's another way that Catholics can help too.
Meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida, for a retreat-styled spring meeting, the U.S. bishops issued a statement on behalf of the entire body of bishops on June 18, voicing prayers and solidarity for those harmed by the oil spill.