By Phil Lawler | 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.”