VATICAN CITY — A Vatican keen to show its green side has added pollution to the realm of "new sins" that today's Catholics must confront and avoid.
In this age of expanding globalization, the Vatican is telling followers that sin is not just an individual act but can also be a transgression against the larger community.
An offense against God, said senior Vatican official Msgr. Gianfranco Girotti, "is not only stealing or coveting another man's wife, it is also destroying the environment."
Polluting was just one of several sins Girotti decried as products of modern circumstances that must be addressed urgently. Others include gene manipulation (such as cloning or stem cell research), drug abuse and becoming too wealthy, as well as practices more routinely condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, such as abortion.
Girotti is with the Apostolic Penitentiary, the church office that deals with sins and penance. He spoke in an interview last weekend with l'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, after a symposium for priests on how to stop the decline in confessions among Catholics.
Under Catholic teaching, a believer atones for his or her sins by confessing to a priest and receiving absolution from him.
"If yesterday sin had a rather individualistic dimension, today it has an impact and resonance that is above all social, because of the great phenomenon of globalization," Girotti said.
"In effect, attention to sin is a more urgent task today, precisely because its consequences are more abundant and more destructive."
The mention of the environment reflects growing interest by Pope Benedict XVI in saving the planet. Last summer, officials announced the installation of 1,000 solar panels in the Paul VI Audience Hall, the main auditorium in Vatican City. The city-state has joined a reforestation program to offset its carbon emissions. And at a youth festival with the pope last year, participants were given prayer books made with recycled paper.
"Before it's too late," Benedict told the gathering of several hundred thousand people, "we need to make courageous choices that will re-create a strong alliance between man and Earth.
"We need a decisive 'yes' to care for creation and a strong commitment to reverse those trends that risk making the situation of decay irreversible," he added.
He has repeated the theme in major speeches and homilies.
The Catholic Church is not alone in giving new attention to degradations of the planet and other environmental trouble. The Southern Baptist Convention this month announced plans to fight global warming, and the California diocese of the Episcopal Church recently appointed its first canon for environmental ministry.
For the Vatican, going green is a relatively new phenomenon. Church hierarchy had been divided, and many priests saw ecology as a concern of rich, developed countries, not the poor regions of the world. But scarcity of resources and natural disasters are hurting the poor, others have pointed out, making care for the environment a moral responsibility for all the faithful.
Girotti's discussion of "new sins" (though many were not exactly new) was also an attempt to appeal to the modern Catholic and show the relevance of church teachings and guidance in the globalized world.
"The Vatican's intent seemed to be less about adding to the traditional 'deadly' sins [lust, anger, sloth, pride, avarice, gluttony, envy] than reminding the world that sin has a social dimension and that participation in institutions that themselves sin is an important point upon which believers needed to reflect," Father James Martin, acting publisher of the Jesuit magazine America, said in a blog he operates.
"In other words, if you work for a company that pollutes the environment, you have something more important to consider for Lent than whether or not to give up chocolate."