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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

To protect nature, elevate the state


With the intersection of the presidential election in America, the opening on Sunday of the Year of Faith, and the start of a special synod on the New Evangelization, Catholic ecologists should reflect on the place of government in environmental protection, especially when seen through the eyes of faith.

Evangelization is not simply a matter of conversing with the uninitiated or bringing lapsed Catholics home. It is a way of life that baptizes the world. Those who perform this baptism are the baptized. We perform this role in ways that no one else can perform because only you and I have our unique placement in time and space and have the exact relationships that we do. For me, this includes seeking to encourage a Gospel-centered approach in my career as a state regulator. This obviously comes with challenges and limitations, most especially my own. But it also comes with rather unique opportunities.

The US EPA’s Region 1, which includes all of New England, has a commendable assistance program called Effective Utility Management. Its goal is to bring together key members of a community that fund, operate, maintain, and in any way support a municipal drinking water supply or wastewater treatment utility. The program includes developing tools that foster communication, education, trust, sharing information, and other components that help human beings relate to others so that they can provide efficient utility services. I like the program because it is low-cost and focuses on areas that can be uniquely engaged by the regulatory world. It also mirrors how my team and I and many others at the Department of Environmental Management prefer to work with our regulated industries—through building cooperative relationships rather than adversarial ones.

Certainly, it is not always best for government to take this approach, nor is it one that the general public often appreciates. But even when such a philosophy is warranted, it may not be implemented. Through their own presuppositions and because of external expectations, bureaucrats can tend toward isolation, containing themselves in an introverted worldviews that envisions the regulated word as abstractions instead of a community of men and women made in the image and likeness of God. The goal of such detached regulatory worldviews may be professional objectivity, but it can also result in an unhealthy division. This prevents the flow of information, the trust needed for honest assessments, and an authentic desire to love thy neighbor. In the regulatory sector that I know best, all this can lead to poorly maintained infrastructure and bad decisions about funding and planning.

Once the ills of such division become apparent, government either takes enforcement actions or creates systems to work with and support the regulated community—which in the regulatory world is often referred to as “tech assist.” Those that perform this assistance are quite often segregated by organizational fire walls from their colleagues within enforcement sectors. This division is another artificial construct within environmental regulatory programs and it defies what it means to be authentically human—at least in how Catholics understand who we are meant to be, which includes seeking to balance justice and mercy in our interactions with our neighbors.

Photo: Flicker/Roger Blackwell
These divisions and the resulting imbalance between what is just and rightly merciful accounts for a good deal of the societal failures that government faces and causes. When we add the infiltration within all sectors of society of the reinvigorated motto self first, it is no wonder that regulators and the regulated both wall themselves within personal and political ghettos to the point of increasing social dysfunction. In a perfect world, bureaucrats like my colleagues and I would not be meeting to discuss how to encourage a town’s billing department to speak to its public works staff, or how to encourage the public works staff to communicate with the town council or to ratepayers. But in our fallen world, we are easily divided and conquered by our own egos and fears, as well as the lies of our ancient enemy.

And so in the practical realm of a societal necessity like water utility management, we find mayors that treat utility crews or town engineers with disdain, or as if they are their own private workforce rather than qualified technicians who should be supported and left to manage infrastructure according to professional standards; we find drinking water or wastewater treatment system users that expect the arrival of clean water and the removal of dirty water at monthly costs far less than their monthly cable bill and with little or no appreciation for the people that provide such services; and we find utility workers and private contractors who put their own needs first rather than the good of the community. In other words, we find throughout the world of government regulation, utility management, and pollution control the same sins that escaped from Eden.

The reality of original and particular sins prevents governments, or any assembly, from reaching a sought after good by human activity alone. This is especially true when bureaucrats reside in cultures that do not support authentic, sacrificially loving relationships. In such cases, it is unlikely that the governed or those that govern can maintain the necessary means to protect society and individuals. This is not necessarily a criticism of government. Rather, it is an admission that the state is ultimately powerless to fabricate the relational infrastructure necessary for people and professions to sacrificially serve the common good. Advocates for paradise-by-government may not accept this, but a true disposition for civil service cannot be taught, mandated, or enforced.

Nor does any of this imply that it will be the private sector that alone will bring us paradise. As the state is limited in its ability to ennoble a love of neighbor, so are private corporations—and perhaps even more so. They are, after all, organizations that have as their stated goal profit rather than service. Again, this is not a judgment of the private sphere. It is rather an observation.

What must not be forgotten is the happy news that any desire for relation is already a pre-existing reality in the human soul; neither the public or private sectors need instill what is already present—potentially or actually—in their employees and agents. But to lesser or greater degrees, any such disposition is broken and wounded within all of us.

Unquestionably, because it is the provider of civil service, the state in particular must encourage, if not assure, an ethic of service, trust, and relation—and to their great credit, many within government work diligently and with profound concern for the people and processes they support. Nonetheless, the true and ultimate attainment of an inner attitude of service is not an intellectual or political exercise. It is a desire that is born in the human soul, one achieved in its fullness only through the grace.

There is much good that government and its workers—environmental and otherwise—can and do achieve. Many of its agents—whom I know as colleagues and friends—go about their business below the fray of political influence. They work against great odds to undertake profound advances in building up the common good. Many of my colleagues take part in their regulated industry’s professional development; they seek to build relationships with those that they oversee; they encourage community awareness and involvement. Such relationship building may be anathema to some environmental advocates or to many in the general public, who expect a harsh objectivity that encourages adversarial governance. But to allow humans to be relational is to allow nature to take its course; and it is to strengthen the foundations on which government can assist with the construction of society’s greater good.

Simply stated, the forces that build sacrificial relationships and the role of government are separate realities, but for the latter to function well, it must be introduced to and ennobled by the good news of the former.

Photo: Flicker/Catholic Church-England and Wales
In his first letter to his church, God is Love, Pope Benedict XVI explores much that I have found to be true in my work as an environmental regulator. And like the pontifical academy report on climate change, much of what the pontiff proposes may surprise a great many. In expressing the Church’s teachings on her place in, but not of, the world, the pontiff makes clear that the Church does not seek worldly, political power. 
“The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State.” In asserting that the church and the state are separate entities, however, the Holy Father does not mean that one should be isolated from the other.
“[The Church] cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice,” he continues. “She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.” 
In saying this, the Holy Father is speaking of the sacramental nature of the faith—how grace elevates nature without destroying or enslaving it. Thus, for Catholics, church and state are not thought of as the same sort of entity. They are not competing for the same turf. Rather, what the Church offers is her teachings and the grace of God so that human relations can rise to the realm of utter sacrifice. 
“There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help,” the Holy Father tells us. “There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbor is indispensable. The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern.”
As history has shown, when politics and faith do not dialogue—when one seeks to outdo or repress the other—disorder results, whether in the form of a theocracy or an atheistic dictatorship. To avoid such extremes, societies must balance and demand respect between the secular sphere and the offering of grace. When taken, this path can offer a relation between the government and the governed that is more communal than confrontational; more supportive of encouraging true civil service; and more willing to love one’s stranger, and the entire cosmos itself.

The above includes material from William Louis Patenaude's upcoming book Catholic Ecology: Its Place in Orthodoxy, a Culture of Life, and New Evangelization.

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