Showing Mercy to Creation?

Of course a faithful Catholic should care for the planet, which is our common home. But is Pope Francis correct in saying we extend mercy to the earth by linking human life to the planet?

In his Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, Pope Francis suggests adding two “works of mercy” to the traditional lists of the seven Spiritual Works of Mercy and the seven Corporal Works of Mercy: “care for our common home”.  He writes: “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).” He continues, “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)” (no. 5).

Of course a faithful Catholic should care for the planet. It is, indeed, our common home. It is God’s gift to us, a manifestation of his goodness, magnificence, power, love, and wisdom.  It makes possible our life together. But does any of that imply that we should or even can be merciful to creation? At least at first glance, the answer seems to be “no”. 

Consider the Corporal Works of Mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, sheltering the homeless, and burying the dead. Note they are all acts directed toward persons, not toward things. Likewise the Spiritual Works of Mercy: instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses, comforting the afflicted, and praying for the dead. Notice that these, too, involve actions toward persons, not things. 

How, then, can “care for our common home” can be both Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy and yet directed toward a thing—the planet?

Then, too, there’s the problem of the definition of mercy. According to St Thomas Aquinas, mercy consists in love directed to the relief of someone’s misery (ST I, Q 21, art 3, Sed contra). That way of putting it makes it hard to understand mercy in relation to the planet.  Is the planet really in “misery”? 

We sometimes speak as if pouring of chemicals into a river and pumping smoke into the atmosphere are themselves acts “harmful to the planet”.  But usually we mean that such things can harm life, especially human life, on the planet. It’s life, especially human life, that will suffer misery, not “the planet”.  

Scientists theorize that some 3.9 billion years ago, a series of asteroids bombarded the then lifeless earth (and the other terrestrial planets of Mercy, Venus, and Mars). In the absence of life, did this barrage, known as the Late Heavy Bombardment, “harm” the planet? Did earth “suffer”? 

Apart from harm to living things, do such natural phenomena as earthquakes, hurricanes, and volcanoes really injure the planet when they alter earth’s physical conditions? Aren’t these events part of the natural order God created?

What about manmade activities? If man levels a mountain or constructs a canal, is he “harming” the environment as such?  He may be wasting resources or damaging the beauty he otherwise would experience. But does the planet itself experience suffering? Isn’t man’s alteration of the earth akin here to natural forces’ effect—harmful, perhaps, to living things, especially human beings, but not to the planet as such? If earth itself doesn’t experience suffering, how can working to prevent or reverse effects of human activity amount to acts of mercy to the earth itself, i.e., to relieve suffering?

Of course misusing the natural resources and the world God gave us is evil. But it doesn’t seem to follow that not misusing resources or acting to reverse the effects of certain of our actions amounts to acts of mercy toward the inanimate world. 

What about living things? Non-human life is a good thing, an expression of God’s goodness. God intended man to “tend the garden”, so a careless destruction of life is disrespectful to God.  As Pope Francis notes, when this happens we destroy beings intended to glorify God by their very existence. Still, is countering these evils itself acting with mercy toward creation?

Higher animals can suffer. Acting cruelly toward them harms them (as well as those who commit cruelty). When animals suffer, either from the natural world or from man’s action, is it mercy to relieve such suffering? It certainly can be. But is that rightly described as mercy to “our common home” rather than mercy to certain co-habitants of our common home?

As commendable as relieving animal suffering is, it may be difficult for some people to see it as reasonable grounds for adding “care for our common home” as an eighth Spiritual and Corporal Work of Mercy. All the other works of mercy have human persons as their objects. Does it really fit to include concern for animals to lists that refer to relieving the suffering of human persons?

In his Message, Pope Francis explains his desire to extend mercy to the earth by linking human life to the planet.  Quoting a previous talk, he writes, “[I]f 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” (no. 5).

Here, it seems, we have a basis for tying “care for our common home” to mercy. Not mercy to the inanimate world, which can’t experience suffering and therefore can’t be the object of our mercy in the conventional sense. Not even mercy to higher animals, which can receive mercy, but which are not on a par with human sufferers referred to in the traditional Works of Mercy. No, “care for our common home” can involve mercy because such care can relieve or prevent human suffering or contribute to human thriving.  For example, care for our world can relieve or prevent harm of the biosphere, which can affect human life. It can relieve or prevent damage to the environment, which can deprive people of resources or present physical challenges to human life.

Such actions of concern for the planet can, then, be actions of concern for human suffering. In that way, “concern for our common home” can be merciful. This will strike some as a very thin thread from which to hang the idea of adding environmental concerns to the Works of Mercy. Indeed, some will say the weight of the world risks snapping the thread. Is it not the case, they will ask, that in reality mercy is still ultimately directed to human beings rather than to “our common home” as such? Why talk as if we’re doing something else?

Oddly enough, the Holy Father did not refer to St Thomas Aquinas’ teaching on mercy and creation, which provides a basis for speaking of mercy toward “our common home”.  Perhaps he simply assumes it. In any case, according to St Thomas, the creation of the world was an act of divine mercy. Apart from God’s creative act the world would not exist. God was under no obligation to create the world. He did it out of pure graciousness. It is this act without reference to what is due that St Thomas (and others) regard as God’s mercy in creating.

If mercy is understood in terms of a response to suffering, then God’s creation of the world from nothing didn’t involve mercy. Prior to its creation the world didn’t suffer. But suffering can be thought of as having something in common with the non-existing world (the world as an idea in God’s mind, apart from its actual coming-to-be through God’s creative act).  Suffering involves the experience of some evil and evil involves a defect, a lack of some element of good that should be present but isn’t.

The world existing only as an idea in the mind of God lacks a good that should be there—the good of existence. In a certain sense, argues St. Thomas, God acts with justice when he gives the things he thinks of what they need in order for them to be what he intends them to be (ST I, Q 21, art 4, Sed contra). But since he is under no obligation to create them to begin with, God’s acting to overcome the “defect” of the world’s non-existence is, as it were, a kind of mercy (ST I, Q 21, art 4, reply to objection 4).

What has this to do with Pope Francis’ exhortation that we act with mercy to our common home, the earth? It doesn’t, of course, mean we can bring something into existence out of nothing. It does mean we can think of it as a kind of mercy for us to work to overcome the defects we and others introduce to the world. These defects involve the inanimate world as well as the world of living things. And of course the world of living things includes human beings, who are certainly appropriate recipients of the Works of Mercy.

All true, you might say. And perhaps that justifies speaking in some way of our showing mercy to creation. But does that really underwrite adding “care for our common home” to the lists of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy? 

Perhaps not. The sense in which we speak of mercy to things is notably different from the sense in which we speak of mercy to people, especially the kind of people identified in the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. Even so, the Thomistic notion of divine mercy in creation allows us to make sense of Pope Francis’ language of mercy to “our common home”.  Provided we’re speaking of an integral ecology—which puts a premium on the human person in ecological concerns—acting mercifully in ways appropriate to man and to the world makes sense.

About Mark Brumley 56 Articles

Mark Brumley is president and CEO of Ignatius Press.