DAYTON, Ohio – A possible recognition of “ecological sins” in the Catholic Church’s main teaching document would help “sharpen our consciences in matters of ecological abuse,” according to Dr. Christopher Thompson, a leading moral theologian.
Twice in the past few weeks, Church leaders have used language of “ecological sin” to highlight acts and habits of pollution of the environment – first in the final document from the Amazon Synod and more recently on Friday, when Pope Francis said he was considering adding “ecological sin” to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Such a move would help to cement Francis’s teaching on the necessity of caring for the environment as a key Catholic teaching.
Thompson, Dean of the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity and author of The Joyful Mystery: Field Notes Toward a Green Thomism, said the language of ecological sin can bring moral clarity, noting that much will depend on steering clear of “politically charged language.”
“Our knowledge of the fragility and complexity of our environmental surroundings has increased dramatically. It seems only prudent to include, then, this new knowledge into our spiritual discernment about what constitutes a vibrant Catholic life,” he told Crux.
A reservoir of moral clarity
Dr. Vincent Miller is the Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton and editor of The Theological and Ecological Vision of Laudato Si’: Everything is Connected, a volume of scholarly essays inspired by Francis’s 2015 ecological encyclical.
He told Crux that he believes “there is a clarifying power to the Church defining these destructive acts as sin.”
“We so easily get caught up in arguing about details, asking questions about economic costs and political structures. We can easily forget that what is at stake in all of this is the evil of destroying God’s creation and leaving a ruined world to our children,” he added.
Dr. Daniel Castillo, author of An Ecological Theology of Liberation and assistant professor of Theology at Loyola University Maryland, said that Francis’s emphasis on ecology is not new to the Church.
He told Crux that the idea of sin in regard to nature has been taught “at various places throughout the long Christian tradition and needs to be retrieved today.”
Castillo noted that “adding ecological sin to the catechism would function to normalize this language for broader groups of people who may not have read Laudato Si’.”
It is not known what sort of definition of “ecological sin” would be proposed for the Catechism, but a good place to look would be at the wording proposed by this October’s Synod for the Amazon.
This has rooted ecological sin in the Catechism’s existing treatment of interdependence and solidarity among creatures. The synod referred to ecological sins against God, neighbor, and community, as well as against the environment and future generations.
The synod’s definition draws Catholics beyond “a shallow way of understanding the Church’s defining a new sin, as simply adding to a list: murder, contraception, now ecological sin,” explained Miller. Instead, ecological sin “names ignoring and destroying our connections with the rest of God’s creation” and is “deeply rooted in Catholic concern for communion.”
A Natural Progression from Integral Ecology
Dr. Celia Deane-Drummond, Director of the Laudato Si’ Research Institute (LSRI) at Campion Hall, Oxford University, told Crux she wasn’t surprised at the proposal to add ecological sins to the Catechism.
“Defining ecological sin in this way is a natural outcome of the idea of integral ecology, that is the ontological basis for why everything is interconnected, which is grounded in a doctrine of creation,” she said.
“Transgressions against the earth are intricately bound up with the lives of human beings; the two cannot be split apart,” she continued.
Deane-Drummond also stressed that an integral approach to ecology is in continuity with Francis’s predecessor.
“Linking issues of poverty with ecology has been part of Catholic social teaching for some time; and especially prominent in the work of Pope Benedict XVI, such as in Caritas in Veritate; the difference now is that it is applied specifically to the Amazonian region with specific implications as to what this might imply in terms of environmental injustice,” she said.
“These injustices are against future generations in so far as the earth that is part of a common inheritance is degraded and disfigured as a result of human actions now, and some regions will become uninhabitable in accordance with scientific projections where the economy is operational on a business as usual basis,” Deane-Drummond said.
Thompson said a concern for ecology is older than the modern popes, suggesting that St. Thomas Aquinas’s classic definition of natural law, “the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law,” could easily serve as the definition of integral ecology because “both assume an ordered cosmos in which the embodied human being dwells, and both seek to articulate principles for our rational flourishing within that ordered world.”
He also said Catholics especially ought to be at the forefront of ecological efforts, “since it is precisely our proclamation of Christ, the Logos, the one through whom all things were made, that places regard for the environment at the center of our ethical concerns.”
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