ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska's Catholic bishops have issued a pastoral letter on subsistence that frames the debate in Catholic teachings.
The 4,800-word letter, titled ''A Catholic Perspective on Subsistence: Our Responsibility Toward Alaska's Bounty and Our Human Family,'' is being sent to about 20,000 households statewide, church leaders said Friday. The letter is signed by heads of the dioceses in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.
''We are the people of Alaska. We should come together to solve this issue,'' said Anchorage Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz.
The letter calls for parishioners to use the Catholic social principles of solidarity, stewardship, dignity of work, subsidiarity and helping the poor, when considering subsistence. Subsidiarity is the teaching that a community of a higher order should not interfere in the community of a lower order.
The letter does not tell Catholics what to do.
''It is not in the tradition of the church to get people to vote one way or another,'' Schwietz said.
Retired Anchorage Archbishop Francis T. Hurley, who made the announcement with Schwietz, said work began on the letter last August after Gov. Tony Knowles' Subsistence Leadership Summit in Anchorage.
Hurley said he was struck at the summit by the restrained anger and despair Natives felt over the unresolved subsistence issue.
''It has a tremendous impact on our young people ... the young Native people,'' Hurley said. ''Their identity is all tied up in this.''
Alaska has been mired in the subsistence debate for more than a decade. Knowles announced earlier this month that he will call the Legislature into special session in May to tackle the problem again.
The federal government gives rural residents a subsistence priority on federal lands, which make up two-thirds of Alaska. The federal government expanded its role in 1999 to include regulation of subsistence fishing in Alaska's navigable waters in and next to federal lands.
The priority remains at odds with the state Supreme Court's 1989 ruling that the rural preference granted in the federal Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act is contrary to the state constitution.
Several attempts in the Legislature to amend the state constitution to grant a subsistence priority to rural Alaskans have failed. Anchorage voters earlier this month voted overwhelmingly in favor of putting a subsistence amendment on the November ballot.
The pastoral letter says subsistence is vital to the health of Native culture. It says Natives increasingly are falling into poverty, and falling prey to substance abuse, suicide and incarceration.
''Ultimately the effectiveness of a community or political entity must be judged by how well it protects and promotes the interests of those most vulnerable in the society,'' the letter says.
It concludes by saying, ''In solidarity with one another and in gratitude for the treasure of creation we share, we must come to a just solution to the subsistence issue and emerge a stronger and more united people.''
Twice before in recent history, Hurley said, Alaska's bishops have made similar pronouncements to frame discussions on important issues. One had to do with same-sex marriage. The other was on AIDS.
Now the issue is subsistence, Hurley said.
''Something has to be done if we are going to remain a united people,'' he said. ''That something is for the people to decide.''
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