Mutations of ‘Reparation’

What kind of 'riparazione' does flying to World Youth Day call for?

Donald DeMarco, over at Crisis (linked below), asks whether Pope Francis has a “fixation” with ecological issues. A cursory look at environmentalism and climate fundamentalism suggests these “isms” have in many cases acquired all the attributes of a secular religion. To what degree have even sincerely religious people allowed environmental concerns to co-opt authentic religion?

The same day that DeMarco’s article appeared, the Italian website La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana (LNBQ) carried an article [here] about a tree-planting initiative in the Diocese of Forlì on Italy’s Adriatic coast. Launched last weekend with the diocesan bishop in attendance, participants began planting the first of 3,000 tree seedlings in the “Laudato sí Forest.” Okay, recognizing the environmental benefits of trees, maybe the idea is nice. But what bothered LNBQ — and me — was the twofold rationale of the diocesan sponsors. One was consapevolezza ecologica — “ecological awareness.” The other was riparazione per il viaggio dei giovani della Diocesi alla GMG 2023 a Lisbona — “in reparation for the travel of the youth of the diocese to World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon.”

“Riparazione” appears to have a variety of meanings. It can basically mean “repair” or “fix,” e.g., riparazione cellulare, “fixing your cell phone.” But it can also mean “reparation,” both in the theological sense as well as the juridical sense, e.g., the Allies imposed post-World War I “reparations” on Germany. It’s that ambiguity I find problematic. LNBQ focused on its theological meaning and I agree with them; as theological reparation, the Forlì initiative is senseless. But there is also a problem with the ambiguity of the term. The Church today is beset by ambiguous equivocation, the worst of what I would call “jesuitical” speak. However you understand riparazione, you create at least some problems.

If riparazione is merely repair or fixing, what does it imply for the Forlì initiative? That, after having traveled to Portugal by air, planting trees somehow compensates for that flight’s carbon footprint.

In a finite, temporal world, there are losses. But why must one “compensate” for them? Do — and when do — impacts on finite, physical goods impose moral obligations to “repair” them? Is the planting of those trees a work of moral duty or of charitable supererogation? We’re not clearly told.

My concern with this approach is that it skates very close to a revisionist moral theology that was in vogue in the 1970s through 1990s but that Veritatis splendor finally laid to rest: the confusion between what some writers called “pre-moral” or “ontic” evils and “moral” evils, a distinction rooted in shoddy metaphysics and ontology. That approach was very attractive to those moralists that wanted to reject Catholic sexual ethics. We do not need it back.

That’s what I would call the problem of understanding the Forlì tree plantings as just “repair” or “compensation.” But let’s look at its implications if we take riparazione as the theological term it looks like: “reparation.” If that’s not a fair interpretation, then don’t use look-alike theological terms for your green propaganda. And if you are suggesting youth make that kind of “reparation” for attending World Youth Day, then you shouldn’t be giving spiritual guidance to youth — or anybody for that matter. Get thee to a seminary and enroll in Remedial Moral Theology 101.

“Reparation” is required when a moral evil has been committed for which compensation must be made. If I steal somebody’s money, I am bound to restore the ill-gotten lucre. If I defame somebody’s good name, I am obliged to restore his reputation. The point is: I did something morally wrong which I try to set right.

Going to World Youth Day is not a moral wrong. Getting on an airplane is not a moral wrong.

Perhaps, in lieu of “ecological awareness,” the diocesan organizers need some “theological awareness.” A person who undertakes “reparation” does so because he recognizes — either when he did something or subsequently — that what he did was a moral wrong. When a sinner becomes aware of his sin, what is essential is contrition: “I am sorry I did X.” Being sorry that one did X means that, if one had the opportunity to do things over again, one would not do them. If I was in the situation of taking this man’s wallet, I would not have done it. Of course, one cannot turn back time. “Restitution” and “reparation” are, therefore, in order because — being unable to turn back the clock — I try now to set things right. To some degree, I can: my victim gets his $50 back. To some degree, I can’t: I cannot give to my victim trust in others. Sometimes, there’s even more that cannot be repaired than can be: if I murder somebody, no amount of “reparation” will ever set things completely right.

But it would be a strange notion of “reparation” if one’s will remains committed to the original course of action (e.g., stealing) but one then performs “reparation” (e.g., giving the money back). Such a posture would be morally (if not psychologically) schizophrenic.

Isn’t that what the Diocese of Forlì is suggesting? Are the young people of the diocese who went to Lisbon to repent of having boarded an Alitalia flight and flown to Portugal? Are they to hold that, given the choice again, they would not have done such a thing? Or are they to be grateful for having taken part in World Youth Day but still make “reparation” for it?

How do you square that?

By definition, “reparation” means restoring in justice something that another is due that was wrongly taken from him. And, in that definition, we have two problems.

First, what moral wrong was committed? That the young people’s flight had a carbon footprint? That is not a moral wrong. Having lived through this day, I left behind a carbon footprint. Every breath you take adds to your carbon footprint. Am I doing wrong by breathing? I took the subway rather than walk the 9.9 miles one way from my apartment to my office. Was that an aggravating moral factor? Had I chosen to drive, would that have turned the trip into a mortal sin?

Second is the question on which LNBQ focused: against whom was this wrong done? Who was the offended party? No particular person has any individual claim to a fixed set of atmospheric molecules. Nature is not a person. How could I offend “Mother Nature?” Of course, as LNBQ notes, some European politicians have just decided to create a crime of “ecocide,” whereby unspecified offenses against “nature” would not just require one to join the order of penitents but would, in fact, land you in a penitentiary. For some in today’s Europe, “killing eco” is Verboten but killing your unborn child is a Constitutional right! Real persons are shorn of protections in justice and law while abstract concepts are turned into rights-bearing “persons.”

Now, all sin is ultimately an offense against God, because what you do to a person you do to THE Persons. So, are we making “reparation” to God for having gone to World Youth Day to join with other Catholics to worship God in Christian fellowship?

The tree planting ritual of virtue-signaling pseudo-“reparation” for young people — people at a stage in life when they probably are not financially well-off — finds its counterpart for the rich and famous, too. The climate crowd that jets off in private airplanes to Davos or Dubai to “defend” the environment have devised their own modern secular version of the late medieval rite of selling indulgences. By buying their “carbon credits” they engage in their own version of reparation without repentance. “I am not sorry I took my private Lear jet but, just to ‘set things right,’ here’s a greenwashing donation.”

We got a preview of this theological nonsense a few synods ago, when it was suggested that the Church perhaps amend the Catechism or at least publish an updated examination of conscience that includes “eco-sins.” (“Bless me, Father, I used plastic straws six times.”) Our fixation on tree-planting “reparation” can become so focused that we hardly notice the Pachamama idol brought along for the ceremony.

Let me also add the accusation that this initiative lays a “guilt trip” on young people for wanting to go to World Youth Day and then suggesting they make “reparation” for it. This coming from largely the same crowd that proclaimed last summer that World Youth Day’s purpose did not include making converts. Or which defended the prepositioning on the night before the final WYD Mass of the Eucharist in plastic containers (pejoratively called by one critic “tuppernacles,” in an allusion to Tupperware; details here) in unmarked tents around the site. No need for “reparation” there, but for your Airbus 320, yep.

If you accuse me of challenging or even ridiculing these practices, I admit — without “reparation” — guilty! The ambiguity surrounding them makes them susceptible to being seen as inanities. When we have Italian bishops signing on to this kind of advice while promulgating regulations to limit church-bell ringing lest we disturb late sleepers on Sunday mornings, is anybody wondering why recourse to the occult is growing in Italy? [See here and here.] Finally, I am concerned that they also point to deeper theological problems.

The idea that we can have “reparations” without repentance, i.e., without at least disavowing the original act on the level of the will — as theology has hitherto understood sin and conversion — is incoherent. But it makes perfect sense in the theology of Amoris Laetitia and Fiducia supplicans. One need not repent my “irregular union” or my living in adultery. One might even “discern” it to be “God’s will.” But one might make “reparation” for it by being a better cohabitant or being nicer to my second (third, fourth, trophy) wife… so, “bless me Father, for I haven’t sinned.”

Contrary to Pope Francis’s advice, it’s not the youth who are “making a mess” in the Church, it’s their alleged spiritual guides. All I can say to the young people of Forlì is: if you plan on going to World Youth Day Seoul 2027, you better start walking now. It took your countryman, Marco Polo, four years to get to China, and you’re going further. But you might want to figure out the walk across North Korea. Because, if you can’t do that, you have three choices: (A) make more riparazione for your transit across the sea; (B) swim; or (C) find someone to come down from the much-maligned “chair of Moses” and part the Yellow Sea.


[Link to Donald DeMarco article at Crisis is here]


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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