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James Reinke: Catholic teaching can aid discussion of Polymet mine

By James Reinke
Guest columnist

The Catholic voice has been missing from the public debate on the Polymet mine. Pope Francis made it clear in “Laudato Si,” his encyclical on the environment, that since Vatican II there has been a growing ecology component to the social dimension of the gospel. He wrote: “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork (mother Earth and all her creatures) is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”

For sure, individual Catholics have contributed to the discussion. However, some explicit and specific Catholic criteria for sustainable mining that could add to the quality of this debate have not been stated. What the papers and television generally report are largely hyperbole spoken from “I’m right and you’re wrong” perspectives, as though it were a competition.

The public is used to this. It’s what typically comes out of our political debates. One side claims that all hard rock mining, such as Polymet, results in an acidically contaminated site. The other soothingly assures that since they are Minnesotans they will do it “right.” Neither claim can be substantiated and, of course, can guarantee nothing. It is a contentious debate.

Environmentalists can point to acidic pollution and degradation all throughout the world and the United States (including the heavily polluted South Dakota copper-nickel Gilt Edge Mine pit visited by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton) created by mining enterprises — some pursued in a very slipshod manner and others that resulted in unexpected pollution. Given so many negative outcomes, Mark Twain quipped that “a mine is a hole in the ground with a liar at the top.”

On the other hand, there is a growing realization on the part of mine executives that it is in their best interest and most profitable for all to extract minerals in a sustainable and nonpolluting way. Mother Earth would agree.

The Catholic Church does not have an answer for whether or not the Polymet proposal should go forward. However, the church offers four general principles garnered from its social teaching that set criteria necessary for creating consensus on mining proposals. First, the upholding of the human dignity of every person involved in some way with the mining is nonnegotiable. Second, human beings are stewards of the environment, not dominators and exploiters. We have an obligation to pay to our home planet, God’s creation. Third, the principle of solidarity requires the interconnection of people locally, globally, and intergenerationally. Fourth, the common good requires an outcome that promotes the human flourishing of all.

These principles underlie key issues raised by Pope Francis. Assessing the environmental impact of this Polymet venture demands transparent political processes, characterized by a farsighted statecraft that prioritizes the long-term common good, and a decision-making process that is interdisciplinary, transparent, and free of all economic and political pressure.

This process should be geared to facilitating consensus among all stakeholders. The potential negative outcomes require that decisions be made based on a comparison of the risks and benefits foreseen for the various possible alternatives. The principle of subsidiarity demands that the local population has a seat among the stakeholders, given their special interest in the project’s impact on themselves and anticipating their children’s’ future. Likewise indigenous people have a vested interest.

Also, some considerations, such as water, must have a higher priority, since it is an indispensable resource and a fundamental right. The pope writes: “This indisputable fact overrides any other assessment of environmental impact on a region.” Additionally, when comparing the risks and benefits of the venture remains inconclusive, the Precautionary Principle defined in the Rio Declaration of 1992 demands that those supporting the mine prove it will not cause uncontrolled environmental damage, versus the typical expectation of being required to prove or demonstrate that it will.

Given such caveats, which stem from previous mining disasters, opposition to every new venture is not in the common good’s best interest. Rather, the final choice must show itself as stemming from a balanced, transparent process that is manifestly free from every dominating special interest, ideology, power, and financial consideration.

Pope Francis was educated as a scientist. He encourages informed and inclusive participation in a decision-making process that is transparent with necessary nonnegotiable priorities, and the precautionary principle — all of which stem from scientific consensus.

The Minnesota approval process should reflect such requirements. All perspectives need to be included to make this a fully informed process. We local Catholics, as well as those throughout the world, are stakeholders in this process and should question, research, Google, talk, participate, and join with others more informed.

Living out our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork" demands that each of us become involved with a perspective supporting the common good, and not just to join one of the competing teams. As stated earlier, the Catholic Church does not offer a specific answer to this enterprise. However, the church does offer four necessary Gospel principles, an expression of our most noble human qualities, to guide us in “striving intelligently, boldly and responsibly to promote a sustainable and equitable development within the context of a broader concept of quality-of-life” (192).

Take these principles and their goal, do some research, raise questions, and network, then go to for information and to enter your comments on the four current permit requests by March 16. Contribute to a process that should be determined by current science and engineering, and not by loudness, money, numbers, or power.

This is not a team sport. Either we, all the generations after us, and the earth are winners, or we are all losers.

James Reinke writes from Duluth, where he attends St. Benedict Church.