Sins Against the Environment

The A Level doesn’t have Environmental Ethics as a topic any more which is a shame, as this is something which has come to the forefront of public consciousness over the past year, and has even penetrated and made an impact on the Catholic Church with the announcement by the Pope that ‘environmental sins’ would be added to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Just recently, one of the dioceses of England and Wales, Arundel and Brighton, have brought out a programme designed to implement these developments.

As you can see here with this ‘eco-examen’ (an examination of conscience is something Catholics do before going to confession, to help them pinpoint their sins), some things that are recommended to confess are:

Have I taken any unnecessary flights?

Have I bought clothes that I will not wear frequently enough?

Have I done car-sharing?

Have I thought about animal welfare and sustainability?

Have I bought local organic produce?

Some questions relating to this which to a certain extent impinge on the Liberation topic in the A Level might be:

To what extent can there be a sin against the environment? If the Catholic view is that sin is fundamentally a disruption of a human’s relationship with God, either by directly offending Him, or by breaking a commandment relating to other human beings, then clearly no-one sins directly against the environment, but may sin against other humans if they make irresponsible choices which harm them.

For instance, if I knowingly pour toxic waste on a farmer’s land, clearly I have sinned against my neighbour, not the environment.

But when we get to things like unnecessary flights, how do I determine what impact this will have, and secondly, who gets to decide what is unnecessary? Should I really have refused to go on one or more of the four journeys I made this year, none of which were for work?

To many Catholics, including many priests I have spoken to, the idea of ‘eco-sins’ is derisory. There is no need to define new sins, and even if we do, an eco-sin is too vague to be of use. What factors count in the determination of unnecessary flying? Where does the responsibility lie for these things? Corporations create vast amounts of waste and pollution. Can corporations sin?

Perhaps even more concerning for some is the willingness of the Church to get on board with something so unrelated to its primary mission- the salvation of souls. Pope Leo XIII makes clear in his encyclical Immortale Dei that the proper sphere for these sorts of decisions is at the state level, and the details do not concern the Church:

“The Almighty, therefore, has given the charge of the human race to two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over divine, and the other over human, things. Each in its kind is supreme, each has fixed limits within which it is contained, limits which are defined by the nature and special object of the province of each, so that there is, we may say, an orbit traced out within which the action of each is brought into play by its own native right. But, inasmuch as each of these two powers has authority over the same subjects, and as it might come to pass that one and the same thing – related differently, but still remaining one and the same thing – might belong to the jurisdiction and determination of both, therefore God, Who foresees all things, and Who is the Author of these two powers, has marked out the course of each in right correlation to the other. …

… There must, accordingly, exist between these two powers a certain orderly connection, which may be compared to the union of the soul and body in man. The nature and scope of that connection can be determined only, as We have laid down, by having regard to the nature of each power, and by taking account of the relative excellence and nobleness of their purpose. One of the two has for its proximate and chief object the well-being of this mortal life; the other, the everlasting joys of heaven. Whatever, therefore, in things human is of a sacred character, whatever belongs either of its own nature or by reason of the end to which it is referred to the salvation of souls, or to the worship of God, is subject to the power and judgment of the Church. Whatever is to be ranged under the civil and political order is rightly subject to the civil authority. Jesus Christ has Himself given command that what is Caesar’s is to be rendered to Caesar, and that what belongs to God is to be rendered to God.” (Immortale Dei, n. 13, 14)