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Why care for the environment shouldn’t make the “works of mercy” list

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 02, 2016

I promised yesterday (in Catholics and the environment: Too easily misunderstood?) to address Pope Francis’ suggestion that care for the environment (“care for our common home” as he phrased it) should be added to the traditional lists of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. In defense of his proposal, the Pope acknowledged that the traditional works are matters of individual initiative, but argued that “when we look at the works of mercy as a whole, we see that the object of mercy is human life itself and everything it embraces.”

There is, of course, an important sense in which this is true. To speak more precisely (which is something Pope Francis unfortunately often fails to do), the object of mercy is not actually “human life itself” but the human person. The human person alone is the object of mercy, and what is unique about the human person is that he or she is also a subject, not only capable of receiving mercy, but of reciprocating it. The purpose of mercy is ultimately to draw others into the freedom and joy of the Kingdom of God through growing bonds of mutual love.

In his own comments on The Pope’s shocking statement on the environment, Phil Lawler made this point for me with his usual brevity: “The works of mercy—as they were understood until yesterday—all have a human person as both subject and object. The object was a person in some kind of need. The subject was you or me: a person challenged to imitate Christ by filling that need.”

In other words, mercy is always intensely personal and immediate. Let me discuss this under three headings:

1. Works of mercy are personal and immediate rather than proxied.

Even though the Church properly emphasizes the flourishing of the human person as the first goal of care of the environment, one problem with identifying this as a work of mercy (as Phil also mentioned) is that it inescapably shifts our attention from the person to the environment itself. It is an excellent thing to care for the environment for the right reasons and with the right priorities, but insofar as this is care for other persons, it is care once-removed (or perhaps multiple times removed). It is part of promoting the common good, which has its own category in Catholic social teaching. Clearly, work for the common good lacks the immediacy of the traditional works of mercy, which depend not on variously-motivated policies to protect general goods and solve problems but on concrete personal acts of love.

We often engage in charitable works by proxy, quite rightly, as when we contribute to the efforts of others to perform works of mercy. But in the performance of the actual work of mercy itself (as the traditional lists so clearly indicate), the recipient is never personally invisible, never one of a class, never once or twice removed, and never a statistic. All of these can be the case in promoting the common good or even in grace-filled acts of charity, but a true work of mercy forces us to confront the reality of the suffering and need of a particular person, a real neighbor, someone with a Divine claim on my particular and direct response right now.

Such works of mercy are the difference between imitating the Good Samaritan and becoming an efficient bureaucrat. They are also the difference between the true God and the Deist image of God the Watchmaker. These works are an essential part of our own formation, our own participation in the life of God. Mercy is always a directly personal exchange.

2. Works of mercy are personal and immediate rather than ideological.

Using the term “environmentalism” ought to remind us that “isms” are always to some degree ideological. They are patterns of thought-commitment which emphasize a few leading ideas, always to the detriment of the whole picture. (“Catholicism” alone escapes this criticism because “Catholic” means universal; it is devoted to the whole good, with all its elements proposed in a properly ordered balance.) All of us know that environmentalism as it is conceived and practiced today typically inverts or ignores some values simply by giving priority to the environment over persons.

It would be difficult to promote caring for the environment as a work of mercy without being influenced by the very problems in environmentalism that Catholics are called to correct. The wrong focus is implicit in the word “environment” (though Francis often uses the euphemism “our common home”, this discussion is always explicitly environmental) , and this will inescapably breed confusion as ideology tends to eclipse rightly-ordered love.

3. Works of mercy are personal and immediate rather than political.

As I mentioned yesterday, “there is also a major danger in overshadowing the highly personal character of these works by including matters which, by their very nature, require prudential social policies to secure the common good.” This danger cannot be overstated. It is precisely here that the personal gives way to the political, and the political gives way to the bureaucratic.

The actual implementation of Catholic social teaching—including the essential goodness of caring for the environment—is dependent on prudential judgments about the best way, in a particular time and place and under particular circumstances, to structure community action for the common good. Clearly, care of the environment depends on many judgments which are completely absent from personal works of mercy. Examples include judgments about the following:

  • The kinds of threat to the environment which ought to be prevented;
  • The feasibility and costs of eliminating these threats;
  • The priority each threat ought to be given;
  • The accuracy and usefulness of competing (and constantly changing) theories on both the causes of potential harm and putative “best practices”;
  • The particular efficacy, overall impact, and affordability of multiple corrective and protective proposals;
  • The possibility and desirability of implementing solutions on the necessary scale;
  • The necessary regulations and enforcement mechanisms.

Two things stand out here. First, unlike traditional works of mercy, good people can disagree sharply on environmental policy without being unmerciful. Second, the Church is magisterially incompetent to make any of the practical judgments which alone can shape an appropriate community response to environmental concerns. What will inescapably occur, therefore, is that specific policies will be identified with the Church’s “official” position, and it is these policies which will claim to be the works of mercy which all are called to “do”.

“That way madness lies.”

When William Shakespeare wrote that “the quality of mercy is not strained,” he was not rhapsodizing on political correctness or bureaucratic efficiency. Rather, he was talking about the life of God in the human person:

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.

The quality of justice, as we know well, is very definitely strained. Justice must be done across the board and it must be forced. But the quality of mercy is not strained. To be itself, mercy must always be intensely personal and completely free. It is just this that makes mercy so very special. It is what makes mercy transformative. It is why mercy works.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Sep. 17, 2016 7:20 PM ET USA

    Busy week; slow response. I agree w/ you. Is Pope challenging: Have we lost focus on what matters and mercilessly now live as 'entitled' to what God provides through the environment? Catechism presentation of Faith can't change. But, does our approach to sharing the Faith need to adjust within bounds of Truth to build up the Kingdom? Not about turning out a light; about how can we help poor for opportunity to have lights, medicine, etc. Not political, willed action w/ intent to help.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 06, 2016 5:05 PM ET USA

    bkmajer3728: I don't think anyone would deny that care for the environment, done for the sake of all our neighbors, so to speak, has a merciful element. I said as much. The problem I was trying to identify was that of declaring that care for the environment is, ipso facto, a work of mercy (like feeding the hungry, etc.) that should be added to the list. There are a great many reasons to care for the environment, many of which have nothing to do with particularly merciful motives, all of which depend on a whole raft of prudential judgments which may be correct or incorrect, and almost none of which are of personal and immediate use to those in need. What we do not want to imply, to take an obvious example, is that turning our lights out (which also lowers our electric bill) is the kind of work of mercy that will clearly be recognized at the judgment. That's a lot like telling children to finish their dinners because there are people starving in China. I've not seen anyone quarrel with the idea that we ought, as Christians, to be good stewards of the environment for the common good. It's trying to capsulize this broad activity as an enumerated work of mercy that raises the problem of properly understanding the nature of mercy. Something that is so far removed from free, direct and immediate help to a neighbor has a high risk of being either trivialized or ideologically driven, as we already see on all sides today.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Sep. 06, 2016 6:51 AM ET USA

    I don't understand this reaction. We all breathe the same air, drink the same water, stand on the same earth but yet when it comes to responsible use this isn't "real" mercy? Look, I am not a tree hugger. Yet, recognition of the limits & impact to our neighbor seems justified. It seems to me, this is a reaction to incongruity with a catechism definition instead of an honest attempt to reconcile difference in understanding. Remember, there will be a general judgment in addition to particular.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 03, 2016 8:12 PM ET USA

    lak321: It seems to me that praying for the dead has the character of a merciful act, as we are doing something that directly, deliberately, freely, and immediately helps--and has no other reason than to help--specific persons (whether individually or in groups) who are in need.

  • Posted by: lak321 - Sep. 03, 2016 1:59 PM ET USA

    Praying for the dead also doesn't meet your criteria.

  • Posted by: wojo425627 - Sep. 03, 2016 1:24 PM ET USA

    To your 1st point. Imagine spending a million dollars to fix a bridge which a homeless person lives under, they get rid of grafitti, remove all the weeds, fix all the cracks, p,ant some flowers, they stand back and say well we cared for the environment in one small way and yet the homeless person remains there unnoticed and unhelped. The works of mercy are christlime encounters between people.

  • Posted by: doughlousek7433 - Sep. 03, 2016 8:17 AM ET USA

    Neither of you are too critical. Today, we do not need to be distracted from our mission; lead souls to salvation. When do we hear this message today? When do we hear the truth about hell and the devil any more? Yes, mercy is important; as is our stewardship of God's gift of this planet. However, too many are taking the wider road today, and we need to refocus, not widen the road by opening the wrong doors!

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Sep. 03, 2016 1:26 AM ET USA

    What about the risk of deifying the environment; i.e. "Mother Earth." Making the environment in this sense "personal."

  • Posted by: k_cusick1963 - Sep. 02, 2016 8:03 PM ET USA

    What really bothers me about attaching environmentalism to traditional Catholic teaching, is that the traditional acts of mercy are timeless and will always be so. Climate change cannot be scientifically linked to human activity, and from what I've seen to date, there is plenty of reason to question whether the whole thing is based more on politics than actual science. Like you and Phil, I agree that recycling, turning off unneeded lights, etc. is good Christian stewardship. But that is all.

  • Posted by: unum - Sep. 02, 2016 7:34 PM ET USA

    I'm a fan of Laudatio Si' and believe it provides much food for thought about concern for our world in today's atmosphere of high finance, big business, and new technology. However, I agree that adding care of the environment to the Corporal Works of Mercy dilutes the Church's attention to personal relationships and muddies the impact of the Holy Father's important teaching on the care of our world.