Years ago in a satirical spirit, I suggested that ecologists, Guardian columnists and BBC environment reporters (sorry, ‘analysts’) were elevating theories about climate change to the status of religious truths, to be questioned on pain of punishment for heresy.
I pictured these eco-maniacal faithful at prayer meetings of their sect, chanting in unison a rewritten version of the Creed, beginning: ‘I believe that the Earth, and everything in it, is on the brink of destruction by man-made global warming.’
Little did I imagine that in 2019, the Roman Catholic Church in which I was brought up would adopt the current orthodoxy as a tenet of its faith.
How, I wonder, would a priest make me atone for such sins? Would he, perhaps, adopt the Emma Thompson approach and require me to offset my carbon footprint by donating to tree-planting charities every time I drive or fly? She is pictured at an Extinction Rebellion protest outside the BBC in London
Yet such is the conclusion I draw from this week’s news that Catholics are being urged to seek absolution for their ‘eco-sins’ when they go to confession.
Launched last weekend, in partnership with the Bishops’ Conference and the Ecological Conversion Group of young Catholic volunteers, the Journey to 2030 campaign aims to ‘create a sense of urgency towards our ecological crisis and those suffering from its ill-effects’.
With this in mind, the group has created a tool kit for Church leaders to help Catholics confess their sins against the environment.
It includes an ecological ‘examination of conscience’, to be conducted by the faithful before they enter the confessional, listing such questions as: ‘Have you taken flights unnecessarily?’
It also offers blueprints for ‘Advent Reconciliation services’, in which Catholics will be invited to reflect on their own impact on the environment in the areas of diet, transport, clothing and electronics.
Are our clothes fairly traded? Are we eating too many animal products? Do we overuse our mobile phones?
As it happens, I’m a very bad Catholic who has not been to confession since the mid-Sixties, when I was 12 years old. On that last occasion, I divulged my sins to a priest who was soon afterwards defrocked, amid rumours of an illicit love affair.
When he went on to become a press officer for the British Steel Corporation (BSC), I was put off confession for life.
Here was a man to whom I had confided my most shameful childhood secrets, trusting him as God’s representative on Earth.
If the Church is now to add offences against the environment to the catalogue of transgressions that must be confessed, I fear I would have to detain the poor priest for days on end [File photo]
If I’d known he’d become a spokesman for a nationalised industry, well, I would have kept my mouth tight shut.
I mean, imagine how embarrassing it would have been if, in my later life as a journalist, I’d been obliged to question him about the constant strikes and lay-offs at BSC.
‘Ah, yes, Tom Utley. I remember you. You’re the one who had impure thoughts, many times, in the early Sixties. And wasn’t it you who was rude to his mother three times, and who melted his little sister’s plastic doll — and then blamed his brother?’ It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Only once since I was 12 have I been absolved of my sins — or, at least, I thought I was absolved.
This was shortly before my wedding in 1980, when I was told that the Catholic Church made it a condition of marriage that the bride and groom should be shriven when they went to the altar.
Hardened old sceptic that I am, I can’t help wondering if the facts are really as clear-cut as we’re encouraged to believe by the eco-fanatics, under their new-found prophetess of doom — that little crosspatch Greta Thunberg. The activist is pictured above in Lisbon yesterday
I’m sorry to say I ducked the embarrassment of the confessional, going instead to a Penitential Mass at which a liberal-minded priest instructed us to admit our sins silently to God, before handing out a blanket absolution to the whole congregation.
Soon afterwards, however, a strict traditionalist priest told me that general absolutions didn’t count — and I’ve wondered ever since if I’m properly married in the eyes of the Church.
That said, I reckon I might find it tricky to get an annulment, after 39 years and four children with Mrs U!
What is true is that if I ever go to confession again, after 54 years of sinning since I went last, I’ll have one hell of a lot to confess.
Indeed, I well remember a wonderful column by a fellow Catholic, the late and much lamented Auberon Waugh, in which he wrote that he could think of only two of life’s pleasures that the Vatican had not condemned as sins.
One was sniffing tangerine peel, the other was riding a Solex motorised bicycle without a crash helmet, through the country lanes of France.
If the Church is now to add offences against the environment to the catalogue of transgressions that must be confessed, I fear I would have to detain the poor priest for days on end.
‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned: I failed to wash up my yoghurt pot before putting it in the recycling; I’ve bought single-use plastic bags at Sainsbury’s many times; I used disposable, unrecyclable coffee mugs; over the years, I’ve flown off on holiday to Italy, France, Greece, New York, India and Spain; in idle moments, I’ve fired off facetious text messages and emails, further increasing my internet provider’s prodigious consumption of energy…’ and so the list would go on.
Worse than any of this, I so adore my new car that I’ve taken to making entirely unnecessary journeys for the sheer love of driving it. I also have a long-running, cat-and-mouse battle with Mrs U over the central heating.
With her hardy Scottish blood — and her canny concern for the pennies — she turns it off the moment the temperature edges above freezing point. No sooner has she done so than I sneak upstairs to turn it on again, hoping she won’t notice.
As for insulation, I blush to admit that our house is as draughty as on the day it was built in 1904.
How, I wonder, would a priest make me atone for such sins? Would he, perhaps, adopt the Emma Thompson approach and require me to offset my carbon footprint by donating to tree-planting charities every time I drive or fly?
Or would this bring back unhappy memories of the sale of indulgences — the scandal that caused such trouble during the Reformation — under which the rich were told they could buy remission from their sentences in Purgatory by giving cash to the Church?
With a list of sins as long as mine, I fear I would have little hope escaping from the confessional with the standard penance of my childhood, three Hail Marys and a Glory Be.
Indeed, I well remember a wonderful column by a fellow Catholic, the late and much lamented Auberon Waugh, above, in which he wrote that he could think of only two of life’s pleasures that the Vatican had not condemned as sins
Look, I grant you that environmental campaigners are on to something. I admit, too, that for the sake of future generations we owe a duty of care to the planet and all God’s creatures.
So the more trees we plant, and the less we pollute the atmosphere, the better for our lives and our souls alike.
I’m also mindful of Pascal’s Wager, which may be said to apply to climate change.
If I understand him rightly, the French philosopher held that we do well to believe in God, however unlikely His existence may be, since the rewards of believing will be so great (eternal bliss) — and the penalties for disbelieving so unthinkably dreadful (eternal damnation) — if it turns out that He does indeed exist.
By the same token, we may be wise to believe in man-made global warming. In this case, for eternal damnation read planetary extinction.
But hardened old sceptic that I am, I can’t help wondering if the facts are really as clear-cut as we’re encouraged to believe by the eco-fanatics, under their new-found prophetess of doom — that little crosspatch Greta Thunberg.
Instead of bludgeoning humanity back into a pre-industrial stone age of poverty and hunger, which is the course seemingly preferred by the Swedish schoolgirl’s most fervent worshippers, I put my faith in technology’s ability to come up with eco-friendly answers.
As for the Catholic Church, I reckon it should concentrate its energies on fighting such clear-cut ethical scandals as mass abortion, in a country where two of the three main political parties are committed to decriminalising it altogether. Apparently, Labour and the Lib Dems believe that the current 500 terminations a day are not nearly enough.
But, then, perhaps I’ll burn in hell for criticising the Church of my upbringing.
One thing’s for sure: with all that fire and brimstone, Beelzebub isn’t much bothered about toxic emissions.