Mercy and the guys

A training program for wastewater operators may help us understand what Pope Francis is getting at in proposing ecological protection as a work of mercy

The fallout continues over Pope Francis’s call to include environmental protection as a work of mercy—an event I watched from the outside these past weeks as I wrapped up final edits of my novel. I could not help but notice, however, how the pope’s words fueled existing and already highly stressed fissures between the ideological divisions of the Church.

They also intrigued many eco-advocates who like big government that imposes big regulations, perhaps not always for the best reasons.

My friend Carl Olson at Catholic World Report has penned one of the more theologically helpful critiques of including ecological protection as a work of mercy. In general, his point is that the works of mercy, as they have always been understood, are activities that one undertakes to help another individual directly and personally. And I have to admit, I understand Carl’s concerns.

Still, what Pope Francis is saying, it seems to me, is that caring for creation is a work of mercy because every time we protect our life-support systems, we protect human life—as a group and as individuals. And vice versa.

It’s an interesting debate, and one that I'd rather not encourage because the real point in all this is something that actually has to do with our own lives and the people we come in contact with. And that has me thinking once again about what I do for a living at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

The US EPA, my federal partner, has joined a group of national water organizations in a commendable assistance program called Effective Utility Management. Its goal is to bring together key members of a community that fund, operate, maintain, and in any way support a municipal drinking water supply or wastewater treatment utility.

What must not be forgotten is the happy news that any desire for relation is already a pre-existing reality in the human soul; neither the public nor the private sector needs to instill what is already present—potentially or actually—in their employees and agents.

The program includes developing tools that foster communication, education, trust, sharing information, and other components that help human beings relate to others so that they can provide efficient utility services. I like the program because it is low-cost and focuses on areas that can be uniquely engaged by the regulatory world. It also mirrors how my team and I and many others at the Department of Environmental Management prefer to work with our regulated industries—through building cooperative relationships rather than adversarial ones.

Let me give you an example. The photo above is of a group I routinely call “the guys.” They’re fourteen of the best and brightest wastewater operators in Rhode Island. The guys graduated last week from a year-long management training program known as Boot Camp. This is a program developed by my office (and now used in other states) to help groom, encourage, support, and ennoble up-and-coming wastewater professions.

The results are staggering. As you can see from the guys' smiles—who did not know each other a year ago—their time together and the support received from each other, from others in the profession, and from government officials like me has empowered them. It's helped them see their dignity and the dignity of their clean-water vocation. And let’s face it, guys and gals who work in our sewers are not often held in high esteem—sadly so.

(For the record, wastewater operators are typically awesome people who do amazing work. Do yourself a favor: get to know the wastewater crews in your community and tell them you appreciate what they do!)

Certainly, it is not always best for government to take this supportive, friendly approach, nor is it one that the general public often appreciates. But even when such a philosophy is warranted (which I believe it is most of the time), it may not be implemented. Through their own presuppositions and because of external expectations, my fellow bureaucrats can tend toward isolation, containing themselves in an introverted worldview that envisions the regulated world as abstractions instead of a community of men and women made in the image and likeness of God. The goal of such a detached regulatory worldview may be professional objectivity, but it can also result in an unhealthy division. This prevents the flow of information, the trust needed for honest assessments, and an authentic desire to love thy neighbor. In the regulatory sector that I know best, all this can lead to poorly maintained infrastructure and bad decisions about funding and planning.

Advocates for paradise-by-government may not accept this, but a true disposition for civil service cannot be taught, mandated, or enforced.

Once the ills of such division become apparent, government either takes enforcement actions or creates systems to work with and support the regulated community—which in the regulatory world is often referred to as “tech assist.” Unlike the way my state oversees wastewater treatment, those that perform this assistance are quite often segregated by organizational firewalls from their colleagues within enforcement sectors. This division is another artificial construct within environmental regulatory programs, and it defies what it means to be authentically human—at least in how Catholics understand who we are meant to be, which includes seeking to balance justice and mercy in our interactions with our neighbors.

These divisions and the resulting imbalance between what is just and rightly merciful accounts for a good deal of the societal failures that government faces and causes. When we add the infiltration within all sectors of society of the reinvigorated motto self first, it is no wonder that regulators and the regulated both wall themselves within personal and political ghettos to the point of increasing social dysfunction.

In a perfect world, bureaucrats like my colleagues and I would not be meeting to discuss how to encourage a town’s billing department to speak to its public works staff, or how to encourage the public works staff to communicate with the town council or to ratepayers. But in our fallen world, we are easily divided and conquered by our own egos and fears, as well as the lies of our ancient enemy.

And so in the practical realm of a societal necessity like water utility management, we find mayors that treat utility crews or town engineers with disdain, or as if they are their own private workforce rather than qualified technicians who should be supported and left to manage infrastructure according to professional standards; we find drinking water or wastewater treatment system users who expect the arrival of clean water and the removal of dirty water at monthly costs far less than their monthly cable bill and with little or no appreciation for the people who provide such services, and we find utility workers and private contractors who put their own needs first rather than the good of the community. In other words, we find throughout the world of government regulation, utility management, and pollution control the same sins that escaped from Eden.

The reality of original and particular sins prevents governments, or any assembly, from reaching a sought-after good by human activity alone. This is especially true when bureaucrats reside in cultures that do not support authentic, sacrificially loving relationships. In such cases, it is unlikely that the governed or those that govern can maintain the necessary means to protect society and individuals.

This is not necessarily a criticism of government. Rather, it is an admission that the state is ultimately powerless to fabricate the relational infrastructure necessary for people and professions to sacrificially serve the common good. Advocates for paradise-by-government may not accept this, but a true disposition for civil service cannot be taught, mandated, or enforced.

Nor does any of this imply that it will be the private sector alone that will bring us paradise. As the state is limited in its ability to ennoble a love of neighbor, so are private corporations—and perhaps even more so. They are, after all, organizations that have as their stated goal profit rather than service. Again, this is not a judgment of the private sphere. It is rather an observation.

What must not be forgotten is the happy news that any desire for relation is already a pre-existing reality in the human soul; neither the public nor the private sector needs to instill what is already present—potentially or actually—in their employees and agents. But to lesser or greater degrees, any such disposition is broken and wounded within all of us.

Unquestionably, because it is the provider of civil service, the state in particular must encourage, if not assure, an ethic of service, trust, and relation—and to their great credit, many within government work diligently and with profound concern for the people and processes they support. Nonetheless, the true and ultimate attainment of an inner attitude of service and mercy is not an intellectual or political exercise. It is a desire that is born in the human soul, one achieved in its fullness only through the grace.

Having worked with the guys in Boot Camp this past year (and four other Boot Camp teams since 2007), I can see what Pope Francis is getting at with his call for an eco-work of mercy. There is a direct relation between taking care of the planet and taking care of people. And that relation flows both ways. I can also understand the concerns people have against what the pontiff has suggested. But given all the division an angst caused by such proposals, sometimes I wonder if perhaps it's best if you and I simply focus on our small corners of creation, and build up our own communities, one person, one business leader, one government official—and, yes, one wastewater operator—at a time.

Photo: Mike Spring, Narragansett Water Pollution Control Association

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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.