Should we feel Catholic guilt about the environment?

By Elizabeth Lefebvre| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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Catholic guilt is a familiar feeling for many of us. After a lifetime of Catholic schooling I know that guilt is as regularly occurring an emotion for me as happiness or frustration. (As Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock explains, Catholics can feel guilt about something as simple as eating tacos in the park.) Even if we feel ok about lunch time tacos, should we be feeling guilty about the impact we have on the environment?

The National Geographic Society just released the results of its Greendex, a global survey on attitudes about “green” living, and it’s bad news for the U.S. Not only do we rank dead last in sustainable behaviors (a distinction we’ve held on this survey every year running since 2008), we are also the least likely country to feel guilt about our environmental footprint. Even though we have the most faith in an individual’s ability to protect the environment, only 21 percent of Americans feel guilty about their impact on our environment.

According to the survey, we have plenty we could feel bad about. We ranked last in the area of transportation, as 56 percent of Americans reported regularly driving alone in a vehicle and only 7 percent were likely to use public transportation. We were also the least likely to walk or bike for transportation. (For more on our car-obsessed culture, be sure to check out our recent Sounding Board on ending our reliance on cars.)

Why isn’t this weighing more heavily on our conscience? Catholic teaching is pretty clear on the matter: Care for creation is one of the main tenets of Catholic social teaching. We show respect for God by showing respect for God’s creation—it is a requirement of our faith to care for the earth. The bishops have an Environmental Justice Program, and organizations like the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change work to help others embrace a conviction of environmental stewardship. Pope Benedict has said, "Future generations cannot be saddled with the cost of our use of common environmental resources.”

The Greendex survey also asked people to choose from a set of words to describe those who try to be environmentally friendly. The most common responses were: Responsible, caring, smart, and healthy. If being green is seen as a socially responsible activity carried out by smart and kind people, shouldn’t we feel guilty for not doing our part? Even if we did start feeling guilty that our actions were harming the earth and future generations, would this help us in any way on the path to sustainability?

Hopefully we will be able to do our part as responsible, caring, smart, and healthy citizens and Catholics.

Image credit: Flickr photo cc by DonkeyHotey