Why Pope Francis is wrong about extending mercy to creation and the environment

I am increasingly convinced that this papacy, for all of its strengths, weaknesses, and oddities, could well be known, down the road, as the Papacy of Sentimentality.

Let’s start with a surprising statistic: Pope Francis’ recent September 1st Message “For the Celebration of the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation” contains, by my unscientific count, thirteen references to “sin”, “sins”, or “sinned”. The short message consists of some 2,074 words.

Those same words (and variations such as “sinning”) occur just twelve times in Amoris Laetitia, the Holy Father’s much discussed Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the family. And that massive text is the longest papal document on record, coming in at around 55,000 words (nearly 60,000 with footnotes).

As some readers might recall, the Exhortation eschews language that might appear judgmental or “non-pastoral” in even the most objective sense. For instance, the word “adultery” appears just three times–and all in describing the “woman caught in adultery” (likewise, the word “fornication” never makes an appearance). Surely adultery is a problem in many marriages; yet it doesn’t warrant clear description. Instead, we read of “‘irregular’ situations”, as if an objective state of adultery is akin to realizing that you are wearing a black sock and a blue sock, and hope nobody notices.

The language in the September 1st Message is also a surprising. Quoting from the August 2015 Letter that established the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, Francis states:

This Day offers “individual believers and communities a fitting opportunity to reaffirm their personal vocation to be stewards of creation, to thank God for the wonderful handiwork which he has entrusted to our care, and to implore his help for the protection of creation as well as his pardon for the sins committed against the world in which we live.”

And then there are these unusual uses of the Pope’s favorite word:

Christians or not, as people of faith and goodwill, we should be united in showing mercy to the earth as our common home and cherishing the world in which we live as a place for sharing and communion. …

 “Nothing unites us to God more than an act of mercy, for it is by mercy that the Lord forgives our sins and gives us the grace to practise acts of mercy in his name.”

To paraphrase Saint James, “we can say that mercy without works is dead … In our rapidly changing and increasingly globalized world, many new forms of poverty are appearing. In response to them, we need to be creative in developing new and practical forms of charitable outreach as concrete expressions of the way of mercy.”

The Christian life involves the practice of the traditional seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy.[10] “We usually think of the works of mercy individually and in relation to a specific initiative: hospitals for the sick, soup kitchens for the hungry, shelters for the homeless, schools for those to be educated, the confessional and spiritual direction for those needing counsel and forgiveness… But if 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.”

Obviously “human life itself and everything it embraces” includes care for our common home. So let me propose a complement to the two traditional sets of seven: may the works of mercy also include care for our common home.

As a spiritual work of mercy, care for our common home calls for a “grateful contemplation of God’s world” (Laudato Si’, 214) which “allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us” (ibid., 85). As a corporal work of mercy, care for our common home requires “simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” and “makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world” (ibid., 230-31).

This is, simply put, troubling, as both Phil Lawler and Jeff Mirus of Catholic Culture have noted in two important pieces on this topic. First, Lawler:

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. … 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.

Lawler rightly notes that we are to be good stewards of creation. That’s not the issue here; the issue is how Francis has done something completely unprecedented: trying to turn mercy into something it is not, as Lawler explains:

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.

Mirus goes into detail in a must-read analysis of the problems arising from Francis’ insistence on “a new work of mercy”. He writes:

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.

And:

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.

As Mirus concludes: ” 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.” Exactly.

I won’t repeat the same points made so well by both men. Rather, I want to note four things:

• Anyone who has studied the subject of “mercy” as it is used in Scripture knows it is a rich and complex topic. It is closely related to compassion and lovingkindness. In Hebrew, the word hesed is often translated as “lovingkindness” and “goodness”. It is a word (used some 150 times in the Bible) that is, as The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (InterVarsity Press, 1998) states “is almost wholly the domain of God.” Yes, there are of course human acts of mercy. But mercy is an essential quality of God, and it flows from his personal nature. Mercy, put another, is always demonstrated and lived within a relationship between persons. This is seen, first and foremost, in God’s benevolent actions towards men and women. I would even say that mercy is a deeply covenantal quality, for it is through God’s mercy that we are called to be the children of God, and it is mercy that continues to shape and form us as his children. Mercy, simply put, is aimed at the salvation of souls. To speak of mercy being extended to things as opposed to people is simply a misuse of the word; it is, frankly, horrible theology.

• Following on that, there is no instance in Scripture or in Sacred Tradition that I know of in which mercy is described as something extended to “the earth” or “creation” or “the environment”. Such a use is simply unprecedented, even in the recent writings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. (Read, for instance, John Paul II’s encyclical on mercy, “Dives in Misericordia”, and see how mercy is always extended from one person to another. Always.) That is not, again, to deny the obligation we all have to be good stewards and to make wise, moral, and prudential judgments in our daily lives as far as our use of food, energy, and material goods. Not at all. But to use it to describe one’s treatment of “creation” or the “environment” is deeply problematic and confusing.

• It’s notable that Francis, in his Message, quotes only two people: himself and the Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. And, as far as I can tell, Bartholomew never speaks about extending mercy to creation or the environment. It’s almost as if the Holy Father is using Bartholomew’s words as cover for his startling use of “mercy”—and yet it doesn’t appear that Bartholomew shares the same language. And even if he did, what would that mean? As far as I know, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition trump the notions of Orthodox patriarchs—and, yes, even Catholic popes.

• Finally, I am increasingly convinced that this papacy, for all of its strengths, weaknesses, and oddities, could well be known, down the road, as the Papacy of Sentimentality. It surely is not a papacy adhering to theological rigor or consistency. It wasn’t long ago that Francis made news for telling some Polish Jesuits that “in life not all is black on white or white on black. No! The shades of grey prevail in life.” But he is quite selective (and, I think, sentimental) in that regard. When it comes to marriage, sexuality, and family, there are apparently numerous shades of grey and very little that is clearly black and white. Thus, references to “sin” are avoided. But when it comes to the environment and global warming, which Francis has strong emotions about, there appears to be plenty of black and white, and almost no grey at all. “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality,” warned Benedict XVI, “Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way.” Mercy is not something that can be redefined in an arbitrary way, however good or appealing the sentiment involved. 

About Carl E. Olson 1043 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.