As our modern world gets more complicated and contentious, it’s good to know that Catholics have unchanging moral principles to guide us. Of course, learning to apply those principles is more an art than a science, which is how explicit Catholic social teaching got started — Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum to help Catholics, and others of good will, see how those unchanging principles applied to the peculiar conditions of the modern, industrialized world, and subsequent CST documents have also addressed topical concerns of their day.

Letterman fracking meme
No, thanks, Dave, I’d rather rely on
Catholic Social Teaching for guidance.

Environmental concerns often reveal the deep divide between the Catholic worldview and the view of those who fail to recognize any inherent dignity or transcendent value of human life (often privileging the needs and “rights” of animals, and even plants, over those of humankind). The resulting politicization of such concerns often obscures the moral principles at stake.

This recent article in Our Sunday Visitor addresses the moral conundrum in “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing) to extract natural gas from shale deposits, something occurring all over the U.S. these days (in my part of north Texas, for instance). It cites several Catholic dioceses that have gotten involved in the fracking debate:

“Our responsibility is to care for the ecology of the earth,” said Bishop Jeffrey Monforton, whose Steubenville, Ohio, diocese lies in the midst of Ohio’s fracking boom. “In any participation by the Diocese of Steubenville in the leasing of land for natural gas or oil exploration, care for the ecology of the earth is a benchmark concern.”

Bishop Montforton goes on to point out that there are social, as well as environmental, concerns to be taken into account, and states that he takes guidance from a 1981 document produced by the U. S. Council of Catholic Bishops on “the moral dimensions of energy policy.”

Fr. Ron Lengwin of the Diocese of Pittsburgh says his diocese relies on principles enunciated in Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”).

In the encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI called the environment “God’s gift to everyone” that entailed a responsibility “towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole” (No. 48). The pope stated that the environment can be used “responsibly to satisfy our legitimate needs, material or otherwise, while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation” (ibid). 

Aside from environmental questions, other kinds of problems can arise when a fracking operation moves into a community, as a representative of the North Dakota Catholic conference notes:

“We have a lot of good going on here,” [Chris] Dodson said. “But we also have an increase in crime, we have roads that are terrible, we have probably incidents of human trafficking going on.”  

The article goes on to quote a spokesperson for the Diocese of Rochester (NY), who points out the way such operations can affect the cost of living of local low-income residents. She says that “the state ultimately should respect the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, and allow communities to look at the potential impact on their economies and then hold a referendum or a vote on whether to frack or not to frack.”

This last point — the impact on the community — is probably the one most often overlooked in debates about economic benefits and environmental concerns. It’s good to know that Catholic dioceses are not leaving the discussion to the environmentalists and economists, but scrutinizing the practice of fracking in the light of Catholic social teaching.