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The gatekeepers of contemporary environmental orthodoxy are at it again and now it is getting personal. In an unsigned editorial that ran September 6,the Atlanta Journal Constitution launched a withering attack on Dr. Allan Fitzsimmons, a senior staffer at the Department of the Interior. While it is common fare for many editorial pages to disparage those who advocate market-based environmental policies, the Atlanta Journal Constitution placed special emphasis on Dr. Fitzsimmons’ critiques of two documents issued by Catholic bishops in the United States, stating that he “has criticized the Catholic Church and other religious groups that have embraced the importance of biodiversity.” The subtle intimation of the editorial that Dr. Fitzsimmons’ scholarly critiques should be construed as anti-Catholic or indicative of a broader anti-religious attitude should be carefully examined in light of the necessary nuances omitted by the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Two works of Fitzsimmons seem to serve as the foundation for the editorial’s assertions. The first is his book, Defending Illusions: The Federal Protection of Ecosystems In this volume, he criticizes the Clinton-era paradigm of ecosystem management, arguing that the new environmental ethos is woefully eco- or bio-centric rather than human- or God- centered. The second work, which serves as the background for the editorial’s assertion that Fitzsimmons criticized the Catholic Church is his article, <a href=" mandm="" publicat_m_and_m_2000_fall_fitzsimmons.php="" publications="">“Ecological Confusion Among the Clergy,” which appeared in the Fall 2000 edition of the Acton Institute’s Journal of Markets and Morality. In his article, the author critically examines, among other things, a draft document issued in January of 2000 by a group by Catholic bishops in the Pacific Northwest region, concerning the Columbia River watershed. The second document examined is a pastoral statement on environmental matters issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1991.

Without addressing the substantive arguments contained in Dr. Fitzsimmons’ article, the editorial writers of the Atlanta Journal Constitution equate criticism of the environmental policy agenda of a group of bishops with criticism of the Catholic Church as a whole. Furthermore, a precise understanding of authoritative and binding teaching, as it pertains to the teaching authority of Catholic bishops is noticeably lacking in the editorial’s comments. While this may seem like a trivial “in-house” theological nuance, it is not, for it bears directly on whether it can be accurately asserted that Fitzsimmons “criticized the Catholic Church,” as the editorial states.

In fact, both the pastoral statement issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the draft document concerning the Columbia River watershed are nothing more than the studied opinions of those bishops interested in environmental matters. While it may be appropriate for these documents to serve as loci of reflection on important environmental matters, the documents in question do not in any way constitute authoritative teaching on the part of the bishops. These are policy statements based on the prudential judgments of the bishops involved, not an exercise of their authoritative teaching office, thus, not binding in conscience on the Catholic faithful.

This distinction makes an important point: Bishops need the expert advice of qualified laity on intricate matters of public policy. In the case of the draft document on the Columbia River watershed, it is important to note that the final document issued by the bishops was substantively altered, in no small part due to the scholarly critique offered by Dr. Fitzsimmons and others. The purpose of academic research is to facilitate vigorous intellectual debate, draw distinctions, and to reach conclusions based on the evidence provided. This is true even when the subject is an issue of environmental policy and the interlocutors are Catholic bishops. While matters of public policy must always be discussed within the parameters of authoritative Christian moral teaching, the implementation of various policy initiatives are often very prudential exercises, necessarily taking into account a wide array of considerations.

The attempt of the Atlanta Journal Constitution to cast Allan Fitzsimmons and his distinguished career in anti-religious terms is simply not responsible editorializing on the part of a respected newspaper. Such careless statements fail to meet the demands of proper intellectual debate between opposing viewpoints and exploits appropriate religious discussion in order to score points for a secular political agenda – an agenda often hostile to religious belief. As Tip O’Neill once famously said, “All politics is local,” but for those gatekeepers of contemporary environmental orthodoxy, perhaps that statement should be amended: “All politics is personal.”


Father Phillip De Vous is the pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Crescent Springs, KY.  He is a weekly commentator on matters of church affairs, public policy on the Sonrise in the Morning Radio show, carried globally on the EWTN Radio Network. He served as the public policy manager of the Acton Institute from 2001-2003.