Life on the open seas

William Patenaude
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Last August, I wrote about a six-hour sail that gave new perspectives on life, faith, and the Catholic understanding of ecology. A few weeks ago, another outing on the Able—the sturdy sloop owned … Last August, I wrote about a six-hour sail that gave new perspectives on life, faith, and the Catholic understanding of ecology. A few weeks ago, another outing on the Able—the sturdy sloop owned by my friend David, a navigational instructor at the Navy base—gave me more to think about.

Last year’s voyage took me north under the Newport Bridge, into the safety of the East Passage. This time, the Able’s bow pointed south, toward the open seas. In time, with my hand guiding the rudder, the sun setting, and Beavertail’s lighthouse giving an occasional flash of assurance that home was still in visual range, we were out in the rolling, windy, staggering ocean—which was a first for me. The further we went, the more I appreciated David’s watchful instructions—and the more I wondered if his trust was well placed that I could keep the boat’s course true.

But the Able sailed well and I valued anew the meaning of cooperation and community, whether it’s just two friends at sea or larger groups that benefit by both those who set the course and those who keep it.

In my 23 years as an environmental regulator, I’ve worked with many communities. And as my writings on Catholic ecology reach a national audience, I have joined and championed even more. But just before I drove down to board the Able, a few anonymous posters in the National Catholic Reporter levied harsh criticism against me for a view I expressed about communities. These posters were unhappy because I wrote that polluters, being human beings, are like you and me: made in the image and likeness of God and in need of salvation.

Their objections stemmed from writing I had done on the dangers of hydraulic “fracking” for natural gas. Fracking is a largely unregulated industrial process and it’s creating havoc in places like Wyoming, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The point I made was that a nuanced, Christian approach—not vengeance—is needed in such matters. Of course, a Christian approach includes authentic justice, educating one’s neighbors, and fostering dialogue and virtuous living, as well as helping those who have been hurt. But Christians also recognize that both victim and victimizer need prayers. Sinners, after all, must both pay their debt to and be reconciled with the wider community.

But lately, forgiving communities—like healthy ecosystems—are difficult to find. Our growing atheistic and secular world encourages deep mistrust and creates ideological and social schisms that degrade our world, our planet, our nation, our neighborhoods, our families, and ourselves. As Pope Benedict XVI has taught, current and looming global ecological (and economic) crises are at their core global symptoms of godlessness and sin—the antidote to which is never isolation, but the self-sacrificial love of authentic communities.

In his new book “How to Think Seriously About the Planet,” English writer and philosopher Roger Scruton makes a similar case for the ecological benefits of local solutions to global problems. But his proposals, while compelling, are built on the sands of political philosophies and anecdotes. Faith is absent in Scruton’s analysis, which leaves one wanting more.

This came to mind as I steered the Able around Fort Adams and back into Newport Harbor. I was thinking about the city officials and workers whose job it is to keep the harbor clean. These are the people that my office regulates. They form the kinds of communities that Scruton rightly champions, and I know many of them very well, including the city’s utilities director, a communicant at Newport’s St. Mary Parish, which makes her my sister in Christ.

This made me wonder: In a world that seeks solutions without God, that demands a “separation of church and state,” and that increasingly seeks vengeance over true justice, should a Catholic government official allow his or her conscience to be informed by their faith?

The answer became evident as the Able approached her mooring and the lights of downtown Newport wrapped around her. I thought of how our seemingly secure, well-lit communities can make us forget the abyss that surrounds us and defines our shared place in the human family. This means that no matter what our roles in this world, individuals, communities, and even our governments live best by keeping our course true, just, and, as unpopular as this may be, guided always by the Gospel of life that Christ gave his first followers—many of whom, not surprisingly, knew a thing or two about life on the open seas.

William Patenaude, M.A., serves on the diocesan evangelization committee, is an engineer with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and is a parishioner of SS. Rose and Clement Parish, Warwick.