Justice, mercy and ecological oversight

News from the State of New York’s Rural Wastewater Association notes that, due to the souring economy, the state Department of Environmental Conservation will have to cut its technical assistance programs to communities with wastewater treatment systems.

The news reads in part:

NYSDEC’s Division of Water has performed a comprehensive review of its legal obligations, environmental priorities, and available resources and determined that it can no longer deliver the operator certification, training, and technical assistance programs at the level they deserve. NYSDEC will respond to violations in accordance with its compliance and enforcement guidelines. If formal enforcement is warranted, NYSDEC will assess penalties in accordance with their guidelines. There may be cases in the past where NYSDEC would provide some technical assistance to help deal with operational problems or violations. NYSDEC is no longer able to provide these services. So the lack of technical assistance may result in prolonged violations that NYSDEC must address through formal enforcement.
This hits home because my job involves just this type of technical assistance to local communities that have wastewater infrastructure. But my office—me and my two engineers—have inspection and enforcement roles while also providing technical assistance when appropriate. Having seen this model work so well for over two decades, I am not a fan of segregating enforcement from assistance.

In a way, there’s a faith element to this. Catholic thought often holds two opposing constructs in tension but in unison. The Church had to learn how to do this in its early days, when figuring out exactly how to understand Jesus Christ—true God and true man. From there, “both/and” thought entered into Christian thought, over and against the prevailing worldview, especially today, that sees things as either A or B. Moreover, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, it comes naturally to offer assistance—technical and otherwise—to all in need.

And so, government officials who seek to separate justice and mercy—enforcement and technical assistance—do so by denying what it means to be human. That is, we’re meant to be both followers of God’s law and, at the same time, ambassadors of his mercy. These roles and qualities are not antithetical; they work best when achieved simultaneously.

Perhaps government officials should think more like Catholics going forward. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these other needs will be met, too. In eco-regulation parlance, seek to blend support, assistance and mercy while recognizing that sometimes justice requires enforcement tools as a consequence for someone’s willful harming of the goodness of creation.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.