(This is a reworking of a piece I did for The Catholic Astronomer that appeared in The Interfaith Observer on September 15, 2017. Click here for the piece and a number of other pieces on the environment offered by The Interfaith Observer.)
On September 1, 2016, Pope Francis introduced two new works of mercy pertaining to the environment. The spiritual work of mercy is to practice grateful contemplation of the world God created, discovering in creation a truth God seeks to express to us.
The corporal work of mercy is rooted in small gestures to build a better world, including breaking cycles of violence, exploitation, and selfishness. Both call us to care for our common home and thank God for the gift of our good Earth.
Why did Pope Francis add these works of mercy? What does this mean for the Church? In answering these, it is important to reflect on why popes make these kinds of changes in the first place. When a pope adds something to the moral or spiritual life of the Church, he isn’t necessarily creating something new. Rather, popes often point to something our faith has always believed, but never formally expressed.
Take, for example, the Rosary, a meditational prayer where repetitions of the Hail Mary are accompanied by reflections on the life of Jesus and his mother Mary. When Pope John Paul II added the Luminous Mysteries – which focus on Jesus’ public life – he didn’t do so on a whim, creating something completely foreign to the nature of the Rosary. Rather, he recognized that key moments of Jesus’ life and ministry were absent from the prayer:
I believe ... that to bring out fully the Christological depth of the Rosary it would be suitable to make an addition to the traditional pattern which, while left to the freedom of individuals and communities, could broaden it to include the mysteries of Christ’s public ministry between his Baptism and his Passion. (Rosarium Virginis Mariae. 19)
Another example is Pope Benedict XVI. His first papal call for ecological justice and making Vatican City the first zero carbon-footprint nation was a shock to most of the world, although for those familiar with his writings, one can hear faint echoes of his early works on Sacramental Theology and his deep love for Eastern Christianity. Many attributed the idea of a “10 Commandments of the Environment” to Benedict XVI because of the book. In the book Woodeene Koenig-Bricker arranges the Pope’s writings on the environment into ten themes. Zenit.org published a summary of them:
1.) The Bible lays out the fundamental moral principles of how to affront the ecological question. The human person, made in God’s image, is superior to all other earthly creatures, which should in turn be used responsibly. Christ’s incarnation and his teachings testify to the value of nature: Nothing that exists in this world is outside the divine plan of creation and redemption.
2.) The social teaching of the Church recalls two fundamental points. We should not reduce nature to a mere instrument to be manipulated and exploited. Nor should we make nature an absolute value, or put it above the dignity of the human person.
3.) The question of the environment entails the whole planet, as it is a collective good. Our responsibility toward ecology extends to future generations.
4.) It is necessary to confirm both the primacy of ethics and the rights of man over technology, thus preserving human dignity. The central point of reference for all scientific and technical applications must be respect for the human person, who in turn should treat the other created beings with respect.
5.) Nature must not be regarded as a reality that is divine in itself; therefore, it is not removed from human action. It is, rather, a gift offered by our Creator to the human community, confided to human intelligence and moral responsibility. It follows, then, that it is not illicit to modify the ecosystem, so long as this is done within the context of a respect for its order and beauty, and taking into consideration the utility of every creature.
6.) Ecological questions highlight the need to achieve a greater harmony both between measures designed to foment economic development and those directed to preserving the ecology, and between national and international policies. Economic development, moreover, needs to take into consideration the integrity and rhythm of nature, because natural resources are limited. And all economic activity that uses natural resources should also include the costs of safeguarding the environment into the calculations of the overall costs of its activity.
7.) Concern for the environment means that we should actively work for the integral development of the poorest regions. The goods of this world have been created by God to be wisely used by all. These goods should be shared, in a just and charitable manner. The principle of the universal destiny of goods offers a fundamental orientation to deal with the complex relationship between ecology and poverty.
8.) Collaboration, by means of worldwide agreements, backed up by international law, is necessary to protect the environment. Responsibility toward the environment needs to be implemented in an adequate way at the juridical level. These laws and agreements should be guided by the demands of the common good.
9.) Lifestyles should be oriented according to the principles of sobriety, temperance and self-discipline, both at the personal and social levels. People need to escape from the consumer mentality and promote methods of production that respect the created order, as well as satisfying the basic needs of all. This change of lifestyle would be helped by a greater awareness of the interdependence between all the inhabitants of the earth.
10.) A spiritual response must be given to environmental questions, inspired by the conviction that creation is a gift that God has placed in the hands of mankind, to be used responsibly and with loving care. People’s fundamental orientation toward the created world should be one of gratitude and thankfulness. The world, in fact, leads people back to the mystery of God who has created it and continues to sustain it. If God is forgotten, nature is emptied of its deepest meaning and left impoverished.
Though Benedict XVI did not actually add any ‘new’ commandments, it is clear he believes care for creation is a moral imperative. He often refers to how respect for human dignity demands respect for the environment, creating a sense of Human Ecology in which ecological stability is foundational for building human dignity and a world of peace:
The Church has a responsibility towards creation and she must assert this responsibility in the public sphere. In so doing, she must defend not only earth, water, and air as gifts of creation that belong to everyone. She must above all protect mankind from self-destruction. There is need for what might be called a human ecology, correctly understood. The deterioration of nature is in fact closely connected to the culture that shapes human coexistence: when “human ecology” is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits. Just as human virtues are interrelated, such that the weakening of one places others at risk, so the ecological system is based on respect for a plan that affects both the health of society and its good relationship with nature. (Caritas in Veritate. 51)
Human Ecology is key to understanding Pope Francis’ new works of mercy. The traditional works of mercy derived from Scripture emphasize some of the most crucial teachings of Jesus. In the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew Jesus separates the “sheep” from the “goats” in an image of the final judgement. What distinguishes the judgement levied to the sheep and goats is a series of works of mercy:
Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ (Matthew 25:34-36)
This and other passages from Scripture point to the Biblical framework with a list of corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
Corporal Works of Mercy Spiritual Works of Mercy
Feed the hungry Instruct the ignorant
Give drink to the thirsty Counsel the doubtful
Shelter the homeless Admonish the sinner
Clothe the naked Bear wrongs patiently
Visit the sick and imprisoned Forgive offenses willingly
Give alms to the poor Comfort the afflicted
Give alms to the poor Pray for the living and the dead
Each work of mercy is dependent on the existence of a stable environment. How can we feed the hungry if our lands cannot produce food? How can we give drink to the thirsty when our water is undrinkable? How can we instruct the ignorant when the basic instinct to survive in a baron wasteland makes education impossible?
I am blessed to live in circumstances where these questions are only speculations. However, much of the world already lives in this reality. What will be our response?
The theology of Benedict XVI and Francis’ introduction of environmental works of mercy work hand-in-hand with how John Paul II expanded the Rosary. The following passages from Laudato Si’ and in a sermon promoting prayer for the creation make the issues dramatically clear:
With this Message, I renew my dialogue with “every person living on this planet” … about the sufferings of the poor and the devastation of the environment. God gave us a bountiful garden, but we have turned it into a polluted wasteland of “debris, desolation and filth” … We must not be indifferent or resigned to the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of ecosystems, often caused by our irresponsible and selfish behavior … Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right ... Global warming continues, due in part to human activity: 2015 was the warmest year on record, and 2016 will likely be warmer still. This is leading to ever more severe droughts, floods, fires and extreme weather events. Climate change is also contributing to the heart-rending refugee crisis. The world’s poor, though least responsible for climate change, are most vulnerable and already suffering its impact …
As an integral ecology emphasizes, human beings are deeply connected with all of creation. When we mistreat nature, we also mistreat human beings.
Pope Francis’ works of mercy provide a sobering moment of reflection, making us realize that care for our common home, part of our faith, is getting lost amid environmental exploitation and ramped up consumerism. They show how our current ecological crisis has come to the point where we need to be reminded of our moral duty toward the environment.