Is environmental destruction a sin?
In the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, 1 September, Christian churches were invited to come together to ‘rediscover in our own rich spiritual patrimony the deepest motivations for our concern for the care of creation’. The Day is followed by a month-long Season of Creation ecumenical initiative, ending on October 4th, the Feast day of St. Francis.
The Irish Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice marked the day by focusing on raising public awareness of environmental issues. Catherine Devitt, their Environmental Justice Officer, had a letter published in the Irish Times in which she noted her enthusiasm at the recent call by Pope Francis for environmental destruction to be classified as a sin. But his call also gave rise to her supposing that a more nuanced perspective may be required. “For example, is it fair to say I have sinned, if I have to drive my gas-guzzling car in the city because of an absence of safe and co-ordinated cycle infrastructure?” she writes. “Is it fair to say I have sinned if I, the consumer, have to deal with the vast amounts of waste forced upon me by retailers? Is it fair to say I have sinned if I depend on oil because other alternatives are not provided, or are too expensive?”
Catherine also wrote the following article below regarding the significance of the World Day of Prayer for Creation and the ensuing Season of Creation initiative. She acknowledged that one could take many perspectives on care of creation, “But, more recently, I have been struck by two words that Pope Francis emphasizes in Laudato Si’ (2015), and that I see as being central to renewing our relationship with the Earth.” Those two words are ‘inner peace’, and you can read her full article below.
Francis writes that ‘Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good…’ (LS, 225) while at the same time, he laments:
Although mentioned only once in the entire document, inner peace plays a fundamental part in Francis’ equation for the much needed transformation in how we see ourselves, and how we see our relationships with each other and with the natural world. An equation that seeks an ecological conversion, but first requires a profound interior conversion – a renewal of interiority, a spiritual and cultural replenishment. Francis positions the quest for interiority and inner peace against a wider criticism of the unbridled consumerism that seems so deeply engrained in contemporary Western culture… that places value on the material, the external, and the tangible… that pollutes the interior with a shallow sense of meaning associated with a ‘whirlwind of needless buying and spending’ (LS, 203).
The end result: ‘the emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume’ (LS, 204).
For Francis, a renewal of interiority, of inner peace, involves cultivating ‘a sober and satisfying life’, ‘a balanced lifestyle’, ‘lived out authentically’… ‘with a capacity for wonder which takes us to a deeper understanding of life’, that brings us closer to God, and to seeing Earth and all its glory as a manifestation of God’s creation.
If we take inner peace as a marker of human wellbeing and happiness, and as a necessary ingredient for the care for ecology; it is inevitable that the ‘sense of profound imbalance’, the ‘frenetic activity’ and ‘constant hurry’, the society saturated with ‘constant noise, interminable and nerve-wracking distractions… the cult of appearances’ (LS, 155) will erode the fertile ground required for achieving transformative change.
Genuine, meaningful care for ecology and for the common good begins with making space, as part of the Christian experience, ‘for the conviction that less is more’, ‘to be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be’, ‘to appreciate the small things’, to ‘find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing [our] gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer’, and to realise that ‘happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer’(LS, 222-223).
The relationship between interiority and care for ecology is reciprocal – more and more, we read about the benefits of time in nature for physical and mental health, to reduce stress, help fight depression, for learning, for spiritual wellbeing, and for fostering a sense of care for the environment.
However, not all of us are afforded this time, this opportunity. There is an obvious environmental justice question in terms of who has access to nature.
Also, we are actively destroying and making extinct the very source of wonder and creative splendour that is so central to nourishing a healthy sense of inferiority. We are ‘making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey… we seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves’ (LS, 34).
We need to ensure that in our policy and planning decisions, the opportunity and space for fostering inner peace, fostering interiority, is accessible and available to all.
If a profound interior conversion is conducive to a better environment and if a healthy ecology is conducive to inspiring inner peace; this is an important dimension for consideration in how we design and implement our environmental policies and in our work on environmental justice. Perhaps we need to recognise that a deep sense of spirituality fostered by communion, interiority, dialogue and common understanding, is actually an essential public, common good that must be promoted and nourished across society.
I am grateful for the guidance that a Jesuit perspective can offer – Ignatian spirituality can provide ‘effective channels for cultivating greater mindfulness of God’s presence in one’s interior life’, in a way that inspires interiority through awareness, appreciation, commitment and action.
Celebrate, and enjoy the Season of Creation!
– Catherine Devitt
- Joseph Carver SJ. ‘The Ecological Examen’, America The National Catholic Review. April 21 2014. Available at: http://americamagazine.org/issue/ecological-examen
- James Profit SJ. ‘The Spiritual Exercises and Ecology’. Available at: http://www.sjweb.info/sjs/networks/ecology/Exercises_ENG.pdf
- Greg Kennedy SJ. ‘Ecological Examen’. Available at: http://blog.jesuits.ca/index.cfm/2014/10/29/Ecological-Examen
- To find out more about the Season of Creation, visit: seasonofcreation.org and http://jesuitnetworking.org/world-day-of-prayer-for-creation-care-together-with-others-to-struggle-for-climate/
 Letter of his Holiness Pope Francis for the Establishment of the “World Day of Payer for the Care of Creation”
 Extract from ‘The Ecological Examen’, Joseph Carver SJ. America The National Catholic Review. April 21 2014. Available at: http://americamagazine.org/issue/ecological-examen