[Viewpoiont] Are Catholic bishops all-knowing?

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[Viewpoiont] Are Catholic bishops all-knowing?

Among the 4,000 clerics of the Korean Catholic Church are cardinals, archbishops, archimandrites, bishops (or deans), monsignors and priests. Since the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea consists of more than 20 clergymen above the level of bishops, they are the leading members of the church in Korea. If the Korean Catholic Church were the government, it would be the cabinet council; if it were the Ministry of Defense, it would be the Korea Armed Forces Commanders’ General Meeting.

On March 12, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference released a statement against the four rivers project. Placards demanding that the project stop are currently hanging at more than 100 Catholic churches in the country. The Committee for Justice and Peace under the Bishops’ Conference distributed an inflammatory comic book that describes the four rivers project as a symbol of President Lee Myung-bak’s greediness.

The four rivers project is the largest national land development initiative since the founding of the country, and the biggest domestic policy agenda of the Lee administration. Now that the Bishops’ Conference has made a statement, it appears as if the entire Korean Catholic Church is against the project. Considering the great influence of the Church, many people are starting to wonder: “If the bishops are against the four rivers project, it must be full of problems.”

In many cases, religion has contributed to history, especially when we fought against dictatorship. In May 1987, after it received an anonymous tip, the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice exposed that the torture and death of Park Jong-chul, a university student, was covered up and manipulated. This stimulated a stronger flame of resistance against dictatorship and led to the June 10 Democracy Movement. In the 1970s and ’80s, righteous priests fought against government tyranny and stood on the side of the suppressed.

However, today is not an age of dictatorship or anti-dictatorship. What’s causing social conflict is not tyranny but government policy. Tyranny has only one face, but a policy has many faces. Tyranny is simple and flat, but a policy is complex and three-dimensional. Whereas tyranny is primitive and barbaric, a policy is modern and scientific. During the candlelight vigils against U.S. beef imports in 2008, the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice wet their robes by jumping into muddy waters of illegality and superstition. The actions of the priests’ association were wrong because the beef problem was not a fight for democratization but a problem of science.

The four rivers project is a problem of logic and science, too. How serious is the lack of water and damage from floods? Are the side effects of riverbed dredges temporary? All these are a matter of water resources and civil engineering.

Yet the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea announced: “We ... are concerned that the ‘Four Major Rivers Project’ ... will cause serious damage to our natural environment.” Bishops are not water resource experts or civil engineers. On what are they basing their judgment of “serious damage”? Many bishops might have heard of the criticisms against the project from their parishes. They should listen to the other side of the story, too. The bishops also listened to the explanation by Shim Myung-pil, director of the four rivers restoration project, for a little over an hour.

Of course, the government is causing problems with the way it pushes the project. For example, there are hardly any polite answers to questions from the public posted on the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs Web site. The President and his officials are using a one-way strategy - “Trust us!” - instead of communicating with the public. They are saying, “Would the government do anything harmful to the country? Would today’s civil engineering technology have such side effects? Just trust the government.”

However, just because the government’s attitude is wrong does not mean science is wrong. Just because the government has a communication problem, we cannot conclude that the science and technology it depends on are wrong. Therefore, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea should have been more cautious.

Before releasing a statement to the public, it should have scientifically investigated the issues. It would have been much better if they gathered government officials, priests, civil engineers and environmental advocacy groups in one place and mediated a discussion. If necessary, the bishops should have visited construction fields overseas as well. In an age of rationalism, where dictatorship has disappeared, priests should be rational, too.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Kim Jin
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