Indulgences for Sale

Catholic theology has a well-considered and well-developed sense of sin. Sin can be parsed into serious and deliberate “mortal” sins, that remove one from the state of grace or the more pedestrian “venial” sins. And, of course, there is “original” sin which we inherited through the foolish transgressions of Adam and Eve.

Fortunately, Catholic theology has an equally well-developed concepts of forgiveness and redemption, as well as procedures for obtaining pardon. Confessing to one’s priest and performing appropriate penance can relieve the guilt of sin. The burden of guilt, especially considering the prospect of post-death punishment, becomes tolerable if there is a realistic way of absolving guilt. In order to avoid “Purgatory” or even “Hell” some sort of retribution or “temporal punishment” is required

Since retribution is often performed by acts of good, the notion arose that good works can be deposited into a spiritual bank to offset sins. Present good works might be used to offset future transgressions. Once the idea that good works are fungible gained currency, it was a short step to abuse. Churches and monasteries performed good works. People could offer “alms” in the process of requesting an “indulgence” to escape temporal punishment for sins. This quickly degenerated to the effective sale of indulgences. In effect, the affluent could buy themselves out of the effects of sin.

The process grew so pervasive, that the Reformation began in large measure in response to this and similar abuses. In protest, Martin Luther posted the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (a.k.a. the 95 Theses) on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg in 1517.

It is difficult not to see the analogy between the 16th century sale of indulgences and sale of greenhouse “offsets.” Affluent people who fancy them selves as “green,” the equivalent of holy in the religion of environmentalism, might find it difficult to do the good works necessary for ecological salvation. After all, they need to maintain their large homes and travel habits. Just as 16th century sinners could purchase the good works of monks, the modern day eco-minded affluent can purchase green offsets.

How far can we carry this analogy? In eco-theology, is flying in a private jet a mortal sin, while flying coach only a venial transgression? Does the CO2 present in the atmosphere when we are born considered original sin?

Even worse, many of these offsets do not directly reduce CO2 emissions, but may provide money to variety of organizations who engage in environmental advocacy or do research in energy alternatives. It is becoming an industry of its own, not immune from abuse,

Some environmentalists are now questioning the greenness of these offsets. Adam Ma’anit, co-editor of Left-wing New Internationalist Magazine, has posted his own version of the 95 Theses, complaining about the abuse of these eco-indulgences. ``For about $150 you could make a Hummer a zero-emissions vehicle just by buying offsets, Of course, the reality is you are still driving an insanely inefficient car and belching carbon like you were a finalist at the Texas annual chili eating festival every time you pop down to the local Wal-Mart for some Hot Pockets.” You have to admire Ma’anit’s formulation. He manages to snidely criticize Hummers, Texas chili, Wal-Mart and Hot Pockets in a single coherent sentence. That statement reeks of Leftist elitism.

Now far be it for any Conservative to condemn free and open markets. In may be the case, that direct CO2 markets may provide an efficient means of reducing CO2 emissions. However, we can object to the hypocrisy of the affluent living lavish lifestyles that emit disproportionate amounts of C02 pretending they are environmentally friendly.

One difficulty in reducing CO2 emissions is that the economic consequences may fall most heavily on the poor. It is a difficult trade-off that serious people must weigh. However, when the affluent buy CO2 offsets they are implicitly saying that dealing with messiness of reducing CO2 is beneath them. They have people who do that for them.

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