There is nothing that should surprise us less than the rising price of oil and the subsequent pain it is inflicting on so many people and enterprises in this country. We have been warned about this looming crisis for decades. We have been warned so many times, in fact, that a good many of us apparently assumed that the oil-shortage Jeremiahs were crying wolf.

The wolf is inside the house, however. Regardless of whether world oil production has peaked or whether the world's oil reserves will grow with another round of discoveries again, what is abundantly clear is that world demand is outstripping current production, and this is not likely to change in the near future.

More worrisome is that as the United States and most of the developed world grow increasingly dependent on foreign sources of oil, those sources are often dictatorial or unstable regimes with contrary agendas and contrary values to Western democracies.

What should surprise Americans is that so little has been done to reduce dependence on foreign oil in the three decades since our first fuel crisis. Our neediness has enriched our enemies and exposed our nation to grave danger, yet only when our personal finances are impacted is there any desire for change, a desire driven mostly by self-interest.

The Vatican's Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church addresses the issue of energy in its discussion of international development.

The compendium says that "particular attention will have to be reserved for the complex issues surrounding energy resources. Non-renewable resources, which highly industrialized and recently industrialized countries draw from, must be put at the service of all humanity." It urges continued scientific research into new and alternative sources of energy, even nuclear energy.

While rising energy costs impact everyone, they invariably impact the working poor more. Transportation becomes costlier, financial resources are diminished and even the products and services become more expensive.

While there is not a "Catholic position" per se on issues such as fuel prices and steps to be taken to reduce them, Catholic teaching is concerned whenever undue burdens are placed on those least likely to bear them.

"The use of energy, in the context of its relationship to development and the environment, calls for the political responsibility of States, the international community and economic factors. Such responsibility," the compendium quotes Pope John Paul II as saying, "must be illuminated and guided by continual reference to the universal common good."

The Church also teaches that this same responsibility applies to corporations. Businesses as well as government should respond to the needs of the community. Excessive profits during a time of crisis, unfortunately illustrated by Exxon chairman Lee Raymond's $400 million retirement package, suggest that there are resources available to help cushion the blow of these increases.

While there is much talk about alternative fuels and new oil exploration, we must not forget those who are suffering right now from high fuel costs. Those least able to press their case for some form of assistance are those most in need. Human ingenuity in the form of technology may one day ease our oil "addiction," but taking the more difficult steps now to help the needy is less a matter of technology than of political responsibility and a concern for the common good