The Politicization of the Sacrament of Penance

The proposed ecological examinations of conscience only serve to politicize Penance before we even enter the confessional.

Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia, “The Creation of the World and Expulsion from Paradise,” 1445
Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia, “The Creation of the World and Expulsion from Paradise,” 1445 (photo: Public Domain)

With the push for same-sex marriage, the past few years have witnessed the politicization of matrimony. As divorced-and-remarried persons demand Communion irrespective of the status of their matrimonial vows, we have also seen the politicization of the Eucharist.

Perhaps, then, it was only a matter of time before the Sacrament of Penance was politicized. And in the frenzied push for “environmental examinations of conscience,” that is exactly what is happening right now.

To preface this discussion, we need to recognize man’s proper rights and duties with regard to his natural environment.

To be sure, individuals have a moral duty to care for the earth—a duty evidenced in Genesis 2:15: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” This is a two-fold duty: to develop (till) it and protect (keep) it. This should be a joyous duty, rooted in man’s reciprocal love of God. As Pope Saint John Paul II saw it, caring for the created world is an expression of gratitude toward God.

Along with the duty, man has a corresponding right to develop Creation in order to support and advance himself, his family, and society. This right, however, does not permit man to indiscriminately engineer nature or pollute the environment.

By extension, societies have rights and duties to protect the environment. At the 1990 World Day of Peace, Pope Saint John Paul II stated, “The State should also actively endeavour within its own territory to prevent destruction of the atmosphere and biosphere…ensuring that its citizens are not exposed to dangerous pollutants or toxic wastes.” Similarly, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states, “A correct understanding of the environment prevents the utilitarian reduction of nature to a mere object to be manipulated and exploited.”   

Even the greenest environmentalist would likely agree with the above statement of the Compendium, but it is in its very next sentence that company begins to part: “At the same time, it must not absolutize nature and place it above the dignity of the human person himself. In this latter case, one can go so far as to divinize nature or the earth...”

The Compendium gets to the heart of the problem here by illustrating the two-fold environmentalist temptation: first, to worship creation rather than Creator; second, to view the natural world as more important than man himself.

These interrelated temptations are hardly new. The strange and apostate god of pantheism (“everything is god”) dates back to the ancient Greeks, and the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza found a more modern audience for pantheism in the 1600s. Though the name “Spinoza” is rarely on the lips of modern men, his influence is on their minds. His essential argument was that everything is part of one substance; from this perspective, there is no substantive difference between a baby chipmunk and a baby human. That would be dangerous enough, but some of today’s environmentalists take Spinoza one step further.

Some argue that a baby chipmunk is substantively better than a baby human. Why? Because—in the minds of some hyper-environmentalists—while the baby chipmunk poses no threat to the environment, the baby human does. Therefore, he must be stopped, even before he is formed in the womb. That is why population control

is an essential ingredient in environmentalism and terms like “responsible parenthood” are common—the clear implication being that the most responsible parenthood is no parenthood at all.

This concept—that man and nature have equal ontological value, or that man is subservient to nature—is diametrically opposed to Catholic teaching. The Church recognizes that man is created in the image and likeness of God and is called to share in the unending happiness of the Divine Trinity. Man transcends the material world—a claim that no other creature on earth can make.

Man’s worth exceeds the material world, and not only in its component parts but in its totality. By virtue of her divine likeness, one tiny girl in the womb is greater than the rest of the physical universe combined. Add up the Pacific Ocean, the North Star, and Saturn—add up all the oceans and stars and planets—and they will never equal the worth of one baby girl. They will dry up and burn out, but she is immortal.

She is loved by God. And so are you.

In our sins, we fail to recognize or fully accept all this. We fail to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength. We fail to love our neighbor. We fail to love ourselves.

If you want to write an examination of conscience, seek to find ways we have failed to love the immortals in our lives. Seek to find the ways we have sinned against those whom we are called to love: God, neighbor, self. At best, the talk about “sins against the environment” and “eco-sins” obscures this focus and re-directs it at mere matter. An examination of conscience hyper-focused on ecological sins constitutes a dangerous diversion that seems to flirt with the divinization of nature.  

If a man intentionally harms the environment, that may very well constitute a sin. But, ultimately, it is not a sin against the environment. Rather, it is a sin against God, Who entrusts us with dominion over Creation and directs us to care for our neighbor. That is not a semantic difference.

The worst tragedy of our age is not that man abuses the environment for his own pleasure; rather, it is that man abuses man for his own pleasure. That statement is evidenced by the prevalence and promotion of abortion, pornography and adultery. Of course, it is not politically correct to refer to these things as “sins” anymore. Instead, we encourage mea culpas on the misuse of plastics and maxima culpas on the failure to recycle.

It is no secret that both local and foreign governments are trying to encroach upon the Sacrament of Penance—in effect, to try to force priests into revealing what occurs in the confessional. But the proposed ecological examinations of conscience only serve to politicize Penance before we even enter the confessional.

To those who insist on these eco-examinations, I would point out that Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium have already provided us with ample direction in terms of our environmental responsibilities. And the concept of quasi-ecclesiastical/quasi-governmental agencies drawing up examinations of conscience offends every Catholic sensibility. Rather than an examination of conscience written by those whose goals—strangely enough—often seem to align with the political Left, I would suggest an examination of conscience that was written long ago and has served us well: The Ten Commandments.