Pope Francis is constantly encouraging us to put the care and protection of creation high on our priorities. In his 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” he notes that we should be united by the common concern for our planet and every living thing that dwells on it.
One year after the release of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis offered a new proposal. He called for the care of creation as a new work of mercy.
“The Christian life involves the practice of the traditional seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy,” Pope Francis wrote in a message Sept. 1 observing World Day of Prayer for The Care of Creation. “But if we look at the works of mercy as a whole, we see that the object of mercy is human life itself and everything it embraces. … So let me propose a complement to the two traditional sets of seven: may the works of mercy also include care for our common home.”
While acknowledging all the good that technology has offered society in the last two centuries, Pope Francis said in Laudato Si’ that the cost of these advancements has become “a source of anxiety when it causes harm to the world and to the quality of life of much of humanity.”
Nowhere in this country is the clash between development and care for creation more evident right now than in North Dakota, where members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their supporters are protesting the construction of the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline.
This underground oil pipeline project stretches 1,172 miles. It would carry crude oil removed from Bakken oil fields in northwest North Dakota to Patoka, Ill. The Sioux tribe fears that the project would endanger the reservation’s water supply and infringe on its sacred tribal grounds and burial sites.
The pipeline would pass under the Missouri River near Lake Oahe, a half-mile upstream of the reservation, the tribe said in a lawsuit filed last July seeking to stop construction. The injunction was not granted, but several federal agencies did halt construction on land 20 miles on either side of Lake Oahe, near the reservation border.
On Nov. 4, 500 religious leaders from across the country, including many Catholics, joined tribal leaders in a “day of prayer and conversation,” according to Catholic News Service. The event was intended to spotlight what leaders fear is an ecological disaster waiting to happen.
For example, religious leaders, in a Sept. 15 statement of support for the Standing Rock Tribe, said that 120,000 gallons of oil and wastewater leaked from a pipeline near Marmarth, N.D., and that more than 50,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil spilled into the Yellowstone River in Montana in January 2015.
These oil spill concerns led to the pipeline being moved away from Bismarck, North Dakota’s capital, and closer to the reservation after worries that Bismarck’s drinking water could be harmed.
Energy Transfer Partners (EPT), the Texas company building the controversial pipeline, said in a Sept. 13 memo to employees that “concerns about the pipeline’s impact on the local water supply are unfounded.”
This grassroots battle for safe drinking water is an example of why Pope Francis wrote Laudato Si’. He fears that the poor and marginalized will be the first to be affected by water contamination. We have already seen this occur in Flint, Mich., and now Native Americans and environmental groups are scrambling to prevent another water disaster.
Thanks in part to Pope Francis, the pipeline debate has been elevated from a confrontation between industry and a small band of protestors to an important challenge in defense of creation — and a work of mercy.