Recently in Rome, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Pontifical Household preacher, gave a commentary on the well known passage in Mark's Gospel (7:1-23) in which Jesus raises the question: what defiles a man?
He points out, what is often drawn out from this passage, that Christ is critical of those those who attach more weight to external gestures and rites than to the heart's dispositions, and who place more importance on "appearing" good rather than on being good. Here Christ surveys the depths of the human heart in his litany of the defilements that can issue from it.
However, Father Cantalamessa goes beyond this traditional interpretation adapting this passage to our times. He says the distortion Jesus criticised, of giving more importance to external cleanliness than purity of heart, is reproduced today on a worldwide scale, in a preoccupation with the physical defilement of nature while "there is almost absolute silence about interior and moral defilement" (see www.catholic.org/featured/headline.php?ID=3602).
It is true that many are more preoccupied with the purity of their water than purity itself, with physical pollution of the air more than the moral pollution of their souls.
Father Cantalamessa brings home this point when he remarks, "We are indignant on seeing marine birds emerging from waters contaminated with petroleum stains, covered with tar and unable to fly, but we do not show the same concern for our children, vitiated and spent at an early age because of the mantle of wickedness that already extends to every aspect of life".
He refers here to children who actually made it out of their mothers' wombs, who are then subjected to moral pollutants as others look on. This is not to mention the many children who do not make it beyond the womb having been killed by toxins that fewer complain about.
In this concern for the environment at the expense of spirit there is a danger, Father Cantalamessa reminds us, of forgetting the ecology of the human heart. In our times it is strange to note the preoccupation on the part of Catholics with natural ecology at the expense of spiritual ecology.
Is this the new form of pharisaism of our era? Have the visible shapes of trees and lakes lulled us into a coma about the inner terrain of our souls? It is not just that the language of the spiritual has been reduced to the physical, with the earth referred to as "sacred" and "holy" while omitting the Creator who made it, and water described as literally "life giving" with no reference to the life of grace without which the soul cannot live.
No it is not just that. It is rather that the greenie cause has mapped out a new religion, what Cardinal Barragan called the "new paradigm" which holds that the highest good is not what the Catechism tells us, but is now to be found in "sustainable development" (Zenit, 11 February 2003).
This pharisaism can be seen in the statements of those who say that climate change, sustainability and survival of the physical earth are the most important issues of our era. These issues are central to the new global ethic promulgated by the Earth Charter - a master plan whose "final solution" involves the blurring of all religious boundaries and implementing a "green agenda", with population control and universal access to abortion at its core.
In this eco-religion the greatest sin is not to take care of the physical earth. The theological virtues are supplanted by the three ecological virtues: revering the earth, conserving water and signing the Kyoto Protocol.
In an age when Catholics are often under attack, eco-activism can give a sense of social relevance in a society that does not want to hear about those "troublesome other issues", e.g., abortion, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia and that taboo topic buried under decades of silence, contraception.
In fact there is an ecological terrain which the greenie- theologians have never visited, a virgin territory where the marginalised exist, among them pro-life Catholics, where there are minimal footprints as so few come to visit.
It is hardly ever visited by the "social" or "cultural" Catholics who attend baptisms, funerals and weddings, but who can run faster than Speedy Gonzalez whenever the 'A' word is raised, not to mention barbeque-destroying topics like post- abortion grief, the frozen orphan- ages of surplus IVF embryos and the new weapon of mass destruction RU-486.
One is certainly more socially popular if one sticks to externals, denounces climate change and advocates love of the visible environment than if one exhorts love for the invisible child threatened with abortion in the womb.
Perhaps the social sin in our age is indifference to the greatest ever ecological assault on the vulnerable: in the abortion holocaust, in the frozen orphanages (the ultimate "stolen generation" if ever there was one) and euthanasia. Perhaps our era prefers to tend the trees outside our Auschwitzs and not listen to the muted cries of people within the wall.
But says US Monsignor Reilly, founder of the Helpers of God's Precious Infants, of his silent prayer vigils outside abortion clinics, there is a time and place to "shine the spotlight" on the new Calvaries where the dying is occurring. As an example he cites the Blessed Virgin who did not weep at home or in a synagogue at the time Christ was crucified on Calvary but stood where he was dying till the end.
In highlighting environmental degradation at the expense of moral degradation, eco-activists forget that it is possible to love trees and not be a formal greenie, to be a Catholic and not support the Kyoto Protocol, to care for whales and the "web of life" and yes, also pray outside abortion clinics.
There is a spiritual ecology at the heart of Catholicism much more profound than the physical boundaries of rivers, forests and ozone layers. This ecology begins in acknowledging the transcendence of God and the specific details of what He asks of us through his teaching Church.
It is in the pursuit of personal sanctity that the beginnings of environmental degradation will begin to be addressed. If God holds back rain and makes the innocent suffer because of our sin - as the Gospels unequivocally say He does - it is not the Kyoto Protocol that will reverse this but our recognition that sin is a reality.
Personal sin degrades the environment, the universe. Pope John Paul II's 1990 World Day of Peace statement, much neglected by eco-theologians, says as much: "When man turns his back on the Creator's plan he provokes a disorder which has inevitable repercussions on the rest of the created order".
We need spiritual geographers to remind us of this deeper ecology of the heart. We need to listen to the Elijas of the new millennium pointing out what inner degradation and soul pollutants do.
We need to hear with our inner ears what calls to prayer, fasting and purity mean. And we need to tune into the greatest universal "protocol" of all, the Eucharist, Christ-with-us, and remember that this is the basis of any cosmic "web of life", the ultimate in interconnectedness, the basis of all ecological conversions.
Wanda Skowronska is a registered psychologist living in Sydney.