With an important election coming up in the United States, a lot of professional Catholic opinion-shapers have been busily explaining to voters what criteria they must use in choosing who to vote for. Amidst all this sound and fury, Pope Francis has proposed an important devotional development which, on the principle of lex orandi lex credendi, is also a theological development.
The Holy Father has suggested an eighth work of mercy: “care for our common home.” What is especially intriguing about this is that it is a complement to both the corporal and the spiritual works of mercy; it links the two, and, perhaps, both find their culmination in it, like the centre that links the two beams of a cross.
This has already alarmed some of the faithful, who argue that mercy can only be shown to human persons, not to the environment or to the earth. But it is important to notice how Pope Francis explained this suggestion: “if we look at the works of mercy as a whole,” he explains, “we see that the object of mercy is human life itself and everything it embraces.” It is important, therefore, to look at how he phrases this new work: it is specifically care for our common home; it is a work of mercy because caring for it is to care for human life.
In making these observations, the pope puts himself within a well-established theological tradition. The works of mercy have always been something of a developing theological project. The first six corporal works of mercy come from Matthew 25, where Christ elucidates what today we call the principle of the preferential option for the poor. It was St. Augustine who, in his preaching, found it fitting to list “burying the dead” alongside them based on his reading of the Book of Tobit; this brought the number of merciful works to the much more satisfying number of “seven,” and by the time of the Middle Ages, this numbering was widely accepted. Already, we have a theologian and church leader detecting that something about the biblical definition of mercy entails expanding our understanding of what it means to act mercifully.
Later, the spiritual works of mercy were also elucidated, but the great English preacher Jeremy Taylor observed in the 17th century that the works of mercy could be multiplied almost infinitely (he suggested works like “mend[ing] highways and bridges” and “redeem[ing] maidens from prostitution”), and noted that some works of mercy are of “a mixed nature, partly corporal and partly spiritual,” suggesting that the old understanding of merciful works “is too narrow to comprise them all.” He had identified an opening for a new theological development, a new way of articulating the works of mercy, and when we couple this with St. John of Damascus’ insight that all of creation is joined to Christ through the Incarnation, the possibility of a new way of understanding the relationship between “corporal” and “spiritual” works becomes obvious.
Pope Francis seems to be working from this same insight, and how fitting that he has proposed this eighth work (eight, biblically, being the number of salvation) during the Year of Mercy. This new work brings both sets of seven to their theological culmination, and the fact that caring for our common home is also a spiritual work reminds us that, if the universe is joined to Christ, caring for it is a Gospel issue. Vote — and act — accordingly.
Fawcett is a master’s student at Newman Theological College.