Within two days of the blast, the entire rig had sunk and a 5-mile-long oil slick had formed. By the one-week mark, the Coast Guard was estimating that about 5,000 barrels of oil per day, or 210,000 gallons, were pouring into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. According to a report by USA Today on June 13, anywhere between 46 and 92 million gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf so far; 19 million gallons of oil mixed with water have been recovered; and 1064 birds, turtles, dolphins, and other wildlife have been found dead in the spill area.
The costs associated with the spill have been enormous. BP released that it alone had spent $1.25 billion so far on the spill, now considered the largest in U.S. offshore drilling history. As repeated attempts to stop the spill have failed, the federal government has also instituted a series of ever-expanding bans on fishing in the affected areas. By May 18, the no-fishing zone consisted of 19 percent of U.S. waters in the Gulf. The zone had increased to 37 percent by June 2 and now affects 78,264 square miles of federal waters. The resulting devastation to the fishing industry of the region has been immense.
On June 7, BP indicated it had captured 10,500 barrels of oil (439,950 gallons) in a 24 hour period and predicted gaining control over the vast majority of the oil in the very near future. However, at the time of this report, the oil continues to spill unabated into the Gulf waters.
The Catholic Response
The main thrust of the Catholic Church’s response to the oil spill has come from Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Catholic Charities has partnered with Second Harvest Food Bank, the local governments and state agencies, other local nonprofit institutions, and even British Petroleum, who gave a gift of $1 million, to organize five disaster relief sites to distribute food, mental health assessments and vouchers to help people pay their utility bills as many have lost part or all of their income due to the loss of the fisheries.
The Catholic Charities website shows that through June 7:
* 7803 people (2639 families) have received emergency assistance from Catholic Charities;
* $140,600 in gift card and/or food vouchers have been distributed to affected families;
* 952 emergency food boxes from Second Harvest Food Bank have been distributed;
* 177 cans of baby formula have been distributed with 77 boxes of diapers and 186 packs of diapers;
* 902 people have undergone mental health assessments; and
* 737 people have received individual counseling.
Anyone wishing to help by either volunteering or making a donation should go directly to Catholic Charities at www.ccano.org.
Informing a Catholic Response to Disasters: Solidarity
The Church’s rich tradition of social teaching has much to say about how Catholics are to respond to disasters such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Particularly informative is the principle of solidarity.
In Solicitudo Rei Socialis, Pope John Paul II described solidarity as “not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all." (#39)
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops makes the point even more clearly in Communities of Salt and Light: Reflections on the Social Mission of the Parish. In this document, the bishops write, “The central message is simple: our faith is profoundly social. We cannot be called truly ‘Catholic’ unless we hear and heed the church’s call to serve those in need and work for justice and peace. We cannot call ourselves followers of Jesus unless we take up his mission of bringing ‘good news to the poor, liberty to captives, and new sight to the blind." (cf. Lk 4:18)
The principle of solidarity then seeks to build upon our nature as beings made by God for eternal life with God, who is a communion of three persons. This communion with God is possible only through our communion with our neighbor here and now. And who is our neighbor? Everyone is our neighbor whom we are to love…and this love looks like something.
Informing a Catholic Approach to the Environment: Stewardship
This great gift of a life destined for eternal communion with the Triune God has also given human beings a unique place in the universe. Scripture teaches that humans enjoy the privilege of sharing in the divine governance of visible creation. However, this privilege is to be exercised in justice and holiness.
For the International Theological Commission in Communion and Stewardship, this means that as human persons are created in the image of God, they are called to imitate divine rule of the universe not displace it. Any attempt at usurping the divine represents a failure of justice, or right relationship.
Humans, then, are stewards of the environment, not the masters of the environment. Like any steward, humanity will eventually have to render an account of its activities for judgment by the Master. The criteria for determining correct stewardship are moral legitimacy and the efficacy of the means employed. Put another way, humans are to always act with the proper end in mind, or in service to the divine design for the whole of creation and for all creatures. Means can never be substituted for ends. For example, just because something is technologically possible doesn’t make it moral.
As Pope Benedict XVI once wrote, “We need to care for the environment…[this] means not selfishly considering nature to be at the complete disposal of our own interests, for future generations also have the right to reap its benefits and to exhibit towards nature the same responsible freedom that we claim for ourselves.”
As it regards the current crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, the pope’s advice given in the 2008 World Day of Peace celebration is still applicable, “It is important for assessments in this regard to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions, and above all with the aim of reaching agreement on a model of sustainable development capable of ensuring the well-being of all while respecting environmental balances.”