Bishop Luc Bouchard is at the crossroads between morality and big oil.
His parish, the St. Paul diocese in northeastern Alberta, is home to the Athabasca oilsands.
The 1.31 million-barrels-a-day operation has stressed the mighty Athabasca River, the vast boreal forest and the atmosphere.
But also, said Bouchard, the oilsands afflict people’s souls.
“If you’re not willing to give drinking water to your granddaughter, what’s your responsibility here?” said Bouchard, speaking from the town of St. Paul.
“It’s a collective responsibility,” he said. “We don’t want to give to future generations, to put it mildly, mud ponds, when God gave us the wonderful creation.”
Bouchard absorbs the impacts of the oil-extraction industry in theological terms – understandably. But he’s not far from the holistic foundation of secular environmentalism; the “integrity of creation” sounds an awful lot like sustainability, the notion that economic and social acts shouldn’t take away more from the world than they give back.
Yet, there’s a distinct difference in addressing the oilsands through a spiritual lens rather than purely an ethical or economic one. Bouchard must appeal to the effects of personal decisions on self or soul – no matter how Catholic, traditional or humanistic you chose to perceive it.
“If we don’t measure the consequences of our actions, we’re destroying ourselves,” he said.
Bouchard addressed his own and his parishioners’ concerns about the oilsands in a letter he wrote last January, titled the Integrity of Creation and the Athabasca Oilsands.
Over 40 pastoral letters have been written by Catholic bishops since 1965 on the “deteriorating quality of the world’s air, water, climate, and food,” according to Bouchard’s research.
Pastoral letters signal contemporary interpretations of the Gospels and, today, “a global Catholic moral consensus now exists: the environmental crisis is real and it requires a religious and moral response,” wrote Bouchard in his January letter.
In the 2005 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, a review of the church’s social views published by the Vatican, an entire chapter is dedicated to protecting the environment from human impacts.
Bouchard’s letter is meant for his 53,000 Catholic parishioners who work, live and play among the Athabasca oilsands. This includes CEOs and presidents of various oil companies in the region as well.
“It was an overwhelmingly positive reaction,” said Bouchard.
Bouchard, who represents over 62 parishes and missions within his diocese, will be presenting his letter on Thursday.
“When people destroy or damage creation they are limiting their ability to know and love God,” wrote Bouchard, and it is with the idea that the Earth is God’s gift that Bouchard incorporates ecology into theology.
The oilsands aren’t just a moral quagmire for Catholics.
In May, 10 church leaders visited the oilsands along with two First Nation’s chief and an oil industry watchdog staffer.
Kairos, a group that partners ecumenical leaders on social justice work, organized the trip.
Leaders from Presbyterian, Anglican, Catholic, United and Mennonite churches surveyed the oilsands, investigating its impacts to provoke discussions in their own communities.
“We are concerned about the industry’s response to the serious questions that have been raised, its determination to keep up the pace of development and its confidence in what has been done to mitigate damage to people and ecosystems,” the church leaders wrote after visiting Edmonton and Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan.
Reducing energy consumption, writing a sustainable energy policy for Canada and setting up independent health studies on First Nations populations were all major concerns after the visit, according to a Kairos statement.
Also, the ecumenical leaders called for “more regulation by the Alberta and Canadian governments to protect the common good.”
The “common good” is the battle flag for these churches.
But governments see it the other way around.
The economic benefits of the oilsands have long been treated as the real common good of Albertans and Canadians.
The rift between two perspectives on the common good – one inclusive of the environment and one not – requires co-operation, according to Bouchard.
“The scientific world and the political world need to come together h ere,” he said.
But personal reflection is also a weapon against environmental degradation.
“If we don’t measure the consequences of our actions, we’re not only doing ourselves a disfavour, we’re working against (society,)” said Bouchard.
And while few people will bash job creation, fewer might define themselves as individually greedy.
“We say seeking the almighty dollar is not the goal of a human being,” said Bouchard. “The human being has a lot more worth than the mighty dollar.”
Bishop Luc Bouchard will present his letter, “The Integrity of Creation and the Athabasca Oilsands,” on October 1, at 7 p.m., at the CYO Hall.
Contact James Munson at