Environmentalism is a corporal and spiritual work of mercy, Pope proclaims

September 01, 2016

Pope Francis has suggested that care for the environment should be added to the Church’s traditional list of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Recalling that “the Catechism of the Catholic Church presents the confessional as the place where the truth makes us free,” the Pope called upon the faithful to repent of the ecological damage they have caused and to make a “firm purpose of amendment” to act in concrete ways that are “more respectful of creation.”

Pope Francis issued his call to repentance in “Show Mercy to our Common Home,” his message for the 2016 World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. The Pope himself instituted that observance last year. 

Explaining why he thought care for the environment should be listed as a corporal work of mercy, “a complement to the two traditional sets of seven,” the Pope wrote:

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. However, 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.

The Pope repeated his argument, made in Laudato Si‘, that climate change has a disproportionate impact on the poor and needy. He wrote that wealthy nations, which have profited from the exploitation of the environment, should now begin paying an “ecological debt” that they owe to poorer nations. 

At a Vatican press conference, Cardinal Peter Turkson, the newly appointed head of the dicastery for Integral Human Development, said that the Pope’s message was a natural development of the theme of his encyclical. He also suggested that the “works of mercy” recommended by the Pontiff would differ from the traditional works of corporal and spiritual mercy, in that they would require the involvement of communities and perhaps governments. The cardinal said that “individual initiative, important though it is, is not sufficient to turn the ship around.” He went on: “Ecological conversion entails not only individual conversion, but community conversion too.”

Also speaking at the press conference introducing the new document, Terence Ward, the author of The Guardian of Mercy, said that care for the environment should not only be added to the list of works of mercy, but recognized as “the highest work of mercy because it includes all the others.” He, too, argued that this new work of mercy requires government involvment. “Citizens should absolutely insist that their governments and companries act responsiibly to honor the Paris Climate Change Agreement,” he said, “and should advocate for more ambitious goals.”

The message, dated and released September 1, has six parts:

  • The earth cries out …
  • … for we have sinned
  • An examination of conscience and repentance
  • Changing course
  • A new work of mercy
  • In conclusion, let us pray

“Global warming continues, due in part to human activity: 2015 was the warmest year on record, and 2016 will likely be warmer still,” the Pope stated. “This is leading to ever more severe droughts, floods, fires and extreme weather events.”

“Climate change is also contributing to the heart-rending refugee crisis,” he continued. “The world’s poor, though least responsible for climate change, are most vulnerable and already suffering its impact.”

Pope Francis linked his call for repentance to the jubilee year of mercy:

During this Jubilee Year, let us learn to implore God’s mercy for those sins against creation that we have not hitherto acknowledged and confessed. Let us likewise commit ourselves to taking concrete steps towards ecological conversion, which requires a clear recognition of our responsibility to ourselves, our neighbors, creation and the Creator.

Quoting his 2015 encyclical on the care of creation, the Pope said that concrete steps to live in a manner more respectful of creation include “avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices.”

“Economics and politics, society and culture cannot be dominated by thinking only of the short-term and immediate financial or electoral gains,” he added. “Instead, they urgently need to be redirected to the common good, which includes sustainability and care for creation.”

The Pope also proposed two works of mercy related to creation:

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).