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