The Pope's shocking statement on the environment

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 02, 2016

Pope Francis has often surprised, confused, and dismayed me. But nothing that he has said or done thus far in his pontificate has shocked me as much as his Message on World Day of Prayer for Creation.

What troubles me about that message is not the Pope’s call for care of the environment. Any Christian—any deist, for that matter—should recognize the moral obligation to be a good steward of Creation. If hot-button political debates have predisposed some of us to be leery of environmentalist rhetoric, all the more reason for a Roman Pontiff to seek a different perspective, more consistent with the faith.

Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI made their own strong appeals for ecological sensitivity. Although at times their statements made me uncomfortable, I could not disagree with their overall thrust. (And it is not the responsibility of Vicar of Christ to keep me comfortable; quite the contrary.) Pope Francis developed these same arguments in greater depth, and with greater vigor, in Laudato Si’. While I had some reservations about some sections of that encyclical, I could and did accept the basic message.

So again—I stress the point because I don’t want to be caught up in the wrong argument—I am not disputing the Pope’s argument that Christians should exercise greater care for the environment. What troubles me is another, more specific aspect of this message: the assertion that care for the environment should be understood as one of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Many of the public statements that Pope Francis has issued have raised eyebrows. More than a few have struck me as imprudent, even fundamentally misguided. But in every previous case, the Pope’s statements could be interpreted so as to conform to previous Church teaching. If his statements had caused confusion—and many of them had—a future clarification could resolve the problem.

But now Pope Francis has added to the traditional lists of corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Unless we simply ignore his statement, young Catholics of future generations will be taught that there are eight works in each category. Alongside feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, there will be listed caring for the environment. Alongside instructing the ignorant and admonishing sinners, there again will be…what, exactly? care for the environment? That change cannot easily be undone.

Let me pause here to confess that I was shocked—I might even say scandalized—when St. John Paul II altered the Rosary by adding the Luminous Mysteries. Could he do that, I wondered? Could a Pope, on his on initiative, without consultation, change a great Catholic tradition? And wouldn’t the addition of the five new mysteries upset the ancient pattern in which the 150 Hail Mary’s reflected the 150 Psalms of the Divine Office? Out of a sense of docility, and not without reluctance, I tried praying the new Luminous Mysteries, and found that they added to my appreciation of the Rosary, and of how our Lord gradually pulled back the veil that hid his divine Nature. Looking back now, I see the addition as entirely organic, enriching the contemplation of the life of Christ.

But In adding to the list of works of mercy, Pope Francis is not making an organic change. He is putting things—virtuous actions, I will concede—in a category where they do not belong. When the Pope recommends turning off unnecessary lights, for example, he is making an unarguably positive suggestion; it is a good thing to do. But it is not a work of mercy, as we have always understood that term.

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 the new works that Pope Francis puts forward, the object is the natural environment, not a human soul. And I fear that many people, reading this message, will conclude that the government should make laws to protect the environment—so that the government is the subject, rather than you and me.

Yes, each of us can do his own part to care for the environment—and let me say it yet again, I fully endorse that proposition. But when it is reduced to a matter of turning off lights and joining car pools and separating paper from plastics, that recommendation, however benign, seems somehow beneath the dignity of the papal office. There is a real danger that by plunging into this sort of mundane specificity, the Pope will dilute the authority of his own teaching office—a danger that his condemnations of blasphemy and abortion will be taken as the same sort of “nice” suggestions as his call for car pools.

Please notice—one last time—that in this brief essay I have not questioned the science behind some of the Pope’s arguments—although I do see legitimate questions to be asked at another time. My concern here is exclusively with the Pope’s willingness to raise environmental concerns to the level of the works of mercy.

Proper stewardship of the environment is a legitimate concern for Christians: a moral imperative. But it is not one of the two great commandments to love God and love our neighbors. The papal preacher, Father Raneiro Cantalamessa put things in the proper perspective, I think, in his own meditation for the World Day of Prayer for Creation : “An ecology without a doxology makes the universe opaque.”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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Show 10 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: cincinnatus - Oct. 19, 2016 12:03 AM ET USA

    Does anyone remember that St. John Paul also added a fifteenth Station to th Stations of the Cross?

  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Sep. 08, 2016 1:26 PM ET USA

    Bkmajer3729: Bad moral leadership from the Pope does enormous damage. We do not "expand our own view" to call evil good and good evil. Francis has been captive to the anti-populationist moral ideology for so long he has blinded himself to such things as the sin of pride. Eco-disaster ideologues have been promoting their world view as a way of assuaging their moral conscience repressed from condoning abortion for decades.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Sep. 05, 2016 11:40 AM ET USA

    "...reduced beyond repair", "...good Christian Stewardship, but that is all", "...vulnerable to the faddish, intellectually unserious..." This sounds like a Batman episode from 1968. I respect everyone's opinion here; it bothers me that so many here condemn or border on condemnation. If something does not take away from the Faith why question the authenticity - fear? Fear of having to expand our own view and understanding of what it means to follow Christ? Isn't good stewardship merciful? Peace

  • Posted by: thomas28899 - Sep. 05, 2016 8:19 AM ET USA

    Congrats to you Phil. An accurate, clear and concise analysis that I completely agree with.

  • Posted by: DanS - Sep. 04, 2016 9:24 AM ET USA

    The Holy Father has shown himself vulnerable to the faddish, intellectually unserious sentimental humanitarianism of his transparently political leftist advisors. Pray for him!

  • Posted by: lak321 - Sep. 02, 2016 9:37 PM ET USA

    My understanding from Pope Francis and Benedict is that neglecting to care for the environment causes the stress mostly on the poor. So the ultimate purpose is the good of other men.

  • Posted by: hitchs - Sep. 02, 2016 8:35 PM ET USA

    I have just about given up trying to understand, let alone justify, the pronouncements of Pope Francis the Incomprehensible. But I wonder if the situation is quite as serious as it seems. As far as I can see, the Pope has not given us a new official list of works of mercy, just made a recommendation, though admittedly a rather bizarre one.

  • Posted by: k_cusick1963 - Sep. 02, 2016 8:04 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 Jeff, I agree that recycling, turning off unneeded lights, etc. is good Christian stewardship. But that is all.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 02, 2016 6:20 PM ET USA

    Peter is supposed to confirm the brethren; truly the faithful- who know their faith- ought to expect comfort from the Vicar of Christ; particularly in confused times. One thing that has happened in the past 50 years is that confidence has been confused with pride and the laity in particular have succumbed to an unseemly self-deprecation. Our Lord died for each one of us! His priority and that of his Church is souls. Nourished and informed individual souls who seek truth- this is His gift.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Sep. 02, 2016 5:52 PM ET USA

    Your thoughtful essay is spot on. I wish I could indeed earn spiritual merit by turning off the lights. Unfortunately you make a key point in that this new twist on his old path the Pope indeed dilutes the authority of his own teaching office by making the comparatively mundane equivalent to the far deeper matters. Let's hope it isn't reduced beyond repair.