What exactly is ‘ecological sin’?

Q: I heard the pope is adding a new sin. What exactly is ‘ecological sin’?

A: A few months ago, following the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, Pope Francis discussed amending the Catechism of the Catholic Church to address “ecological sins.” Ecological sins have always existed, but we are only recently becoming aware of how serious they are and of our need to repent of them.

The word ecology was only coined in the late 19th century by the German scientist Ernst Haeckel, who was seeking to describe the multitude of complex relationships and interactions between living things and their environment.

Most living things, whether plant or animal, cannot choose how they impact the environment, since they do not have free will. However, human beings do have free will, and so we are responsible and accountable for how we either protect or damage our home.

It’s important to note that Pope Francis identified ecological sin as an offense against neighbor. When we damage our common home, we negatively affect the lives of our brothers and sisters, whether they live on the same street or halfway around the world. Conversely, efforts to protect and positively develop our common home are an expression of our love of neighbor.

And remember, we are called to be good stewards of humanity’s home for the sake of future generations as well.

The offense of ecological sin is against other human beings — by depriving them of that worthy home which God designed for us and entrusted to us. Humanity is not a threat to the environment. Rather, the Scriptures teach us that God created the world for the sake of humanity, and that the human person is the summit of God’s creative work (see Genesis 1-2).

True and faithful ecological efforts of Christian stewardship, then, do not try to preserve the environment from humanity, but rather to protect and develop the environment for all humanity — present, future and universal.

Ecological sins that damage humanity’s home can include reckless altering of the environment such as the deforestation of the Amazon (known as the earth’s lungs), excessive pollution, greed, materialism and any other action that fails to care for the environment in which all our brothers and sisters live every day.

For us in the developed world, this teaching is particularly challenging because much ecological damage has occurred in the course of developing and maintaining our way of life (especially as a result of the Industrial Revolution). If we are true disciples of Jesus, we will seek to love our brothers and sisters in every place on earth, especially less-developed countries, by helping them develop in a responsible and environmentally safe way. In doing so, we repent and make amends for the damage already caused in the course of our own national development and demonstrate our charity for others, lest we place on them a heavy burden while not lifting a finger to help (see Matthew 23:4).

I am thankful that Pope Francis has chosen to call attention to ecological sin, and to call each of us to a universal love, care and concern that transcends time and space. 

Read the Spanish version of this column.

Northwest Catholic - March 2020

Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg

Daniel Mueggenborg is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Send your questions to editor@seattlearch.org.
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Daniel Mueggenborg es obispo auxiliar de la Arquidiócesis de Seattle. Envíe sus preguntas a: editor@seattlearch.org.