“Ask a Priest: What Is Meant by ‘Excessive Waste’?”

Q: My examination of conscience booklet says that “excessive waste or expense” is considered a mortal sin under the Seventh Commandment. I don’t know what is considered “excessive,” and it has been bothering me since I read it. Now I am fearful of things (which may sound silly), such as worrying about how long the water from the faucet is running, or if I should be using the backs of paper that was printed or written on (now I have a stack of paper that I would like to just recycle but am concerned), or wondering if I should hurry and turn off a light in a room that no one is in. I would really appreciate some guidance. I am tired of worrying about wasting things but don’t want to sin either. – A.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It’s good to see your desire to live the spirit of the Seventh Commandment. It’s a Commandment that frequently gets overlooked in affluent societies.

The items you describe don’t sound like “excessive waste.” So you shouldn’t feel obligated to refrain from Communion because of a faucet left running for a minute (unless you are in a desert where thirst is a constant concern).

Examples of excessive waste might be spending lavish sums on vacations and clothes and bigger houses and fancier vehicles.

One statistic worth remembering is that about 10 percent of the world’s people live in extreme poverty, that is, on less than $1.90 a day.

Now, it’s good that you are aware of the notion of using the goods of this world responsibly. Recycling that old paper instead of writing on it is fine. And turning off unneeded lights is good, too, though it need not become an obsession. (Be wary of the trap of scrupulosity. For more reading, see my colleague Father John Bartunek’s posting on “What Constitutes Grave Sin.”)

Such frugality can help you live a simpler life and keep you aware of the needs of the poor. Even better is to go one step further and take the money you save and donate it to the poor.

It might help for you to adopt a special cause — for instance, a mission in Asia or Africa, or something closer to home, such as a homeless shelter.

Dedicating a fixed percentage of your income to charity can help you keep the poor on your radar. It’s a beautiful way to witness to Christ, who said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink” (Matthew 25:35).

One other area worth noting is the use of time. Each hour, each day of life is a gift. At the end of our lives we will have to get an account of how we used our time.

For that reason we want to be careful about how much time we spend in front of a screen for entertainment.

A May 2018 article about television viewership posted by The Atlantic reported that “Americans are still watching more than 7 hours and 50 minutes per household per day.” Come judgment day, that’s the kind of thing a person will have to answer for.

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