Climate justice in the Year of Mercy

The inauguration of the Jubilee of Mercy during COP21 should comfort and challenge Catholic eco-activists

The term “climate justice” gets new meaning with Tuesday’s opening of the Year of Mercy. In Misericordiae Vultus—the Bull of Indiction that announced the Year of Mercy last April on Divine Mercy Sunday—and in recent comments about the jubilee year and his homily that opened it, Pope Francis has already said much to challenge believers of all backgrounds about how our desire for justice must become “an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of true justice” (MV 21).

In other words, for Catholic ecologists and climate activists, there are two ways to experience this coming Year. The first is in a way we might expect. The second is a way that we might not.

Mercy for the vulnerable and for future generations

In this Holy Year, we look forward to the experience of opening our hearts to those living on the outermost fringes of society: fringes which modern society itself creates. How many uncertain and painful situations there are in the world today! How many are the wounds borne by the flesh of those who have no voice because their cry is muffled and drowned out by the indifference of the rich! During this Jubilee, the Church will be called even more to heal these wounds, to assuage them with the oil of consolation, to bind them with mercy and cure them with solidarity and vigilant care. … Let us open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognize that we are compelled to heed their cry for help! May we reach out to them and support them so they can feel the warmth of our presence, our friendship, and our fraternity! May their cry become our own, and together may we break down the barriers of indifference that too often reign supreme and mask our hypocrisy and egoism! (MV 15)

The Catholic engagement of ecology and of climate change is rooted in many ways in the command to love neighbor—sacrificially, of course. Our personal, real-world, and direct tending to the poor, the outcast, and the weakest are central activities for the Disciple of Jesus Christ.

Efforts at environmental protection are ways to achieve these ends. They are ways of living out both the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy. To work for a clean, fair, and sustainable world is to work with the poor and excluded in mind. It is to foster a culture of life that embraces all of God’s children and, indeed, all of His creation.

Moreover, to strive for a world powered by clean, widely available energy sources—most especially solar and wind—is to work to protect the wellbeing of future generations. Given what we know about the long-term effects of high levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, for instance, acting now to reduce such loadings is to act for those generations not yet born.

In these ways, the Year of Mercy is a natural fit for the wider motivations and expectations of eco-activists.

But there’s more to what the Holy Father is calling us to.

Mercy for sinners

If God limited himself to only justice, he would cease to be God, and would instead be like human beings who ask merely that the law be respected. But mere justice is not enough. Experience shows that an appeal to justice alone will result in its destruction. This is why God goes beyond justice with his mercy and forgiveness. Yet this does not mean that justice should be devalued or rendered superfluous. On the contrary: anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price. However, this is just the beginning of conversion, not its end, because one begins to feel the tenderness and mercy of God. God does not deny justice. He rather envelopes it and surpasses it with an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of true justice. … God’s justice is his mercy given to everyone as a grace that flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus the Cross of Christ is God’s judgement on all of us and on the whole world, because through it he offers us the certitude of love and new life. (MV 21)

On the Cross, Jesus looks upon those who crucified him and he intercedes for them: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34

It seems worthy, then, for us Catholic ecologists and climate activists to consider the challenge of sacred scripture and in what the Holy Father is teaching us.

The call for climate justice and wider eco-justice—for calling out and correcting the individuals and the corporate or state entities that are benefiting (legally or otherwise) from fossil fuel-based economies and from industries that poison nature and uproot indigenous peoples—are loud and necessary calls for justice. We are certainly hearing them now across the world—most especially in Paris during the ongoing COP21 climate talks.

We must "accept the good in every person and to spare him any suffering that might be caused by our partial judgment, our presumption to know everything about him." + Pope Francis

But when one hears Pope Francis speak of the Year of Mercy, one is challenged to envelope and surpass one’s demands for justice with the mantle of divine mercy. In other words, while we seek climate justice we must also love those who are in any way obstructing the worthy goals of COP21. Because it is that love—sacrificial, of course—that will transform the conversation.

Here we should be mindful that two of the spiritual works of mercy are to instruct the ignorant and to admonish sinners. This directs us to rightly instruct and admonish those who harm our common home and its peoples.

But we too must be instructed and admonished if, as Pope Francis puts it, we ever fail "to accept the good in every person and to spare him any suffering that might be caused by our partial judgment, our presumption to know everything about him. But [even] this is still not sufficient to express mercy. Jesus asks us also to forgive and to give" (MV 14, emphasis original).

Today in Paris protestors vilified “climate criminals” by plastering their images around the confines of COP21. These sorts of protests are, I suggest, not the path Christians should take. They are not in accord with the tough lessons that Christ has shown for us—that His grace offers to instill in us—and that Pope Francis is reminding us about with the Year of Mercy.

In his recent opinion piece on the Church and COP21, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes OFM (who will be joining his friend Pope Francis at the opening Mass for the Year of Mercy) begins with these words from the Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” The cardinal continues with a reminder from Pope Francis and his predecessors that caring for creation and seeking peace are united goals.

What this means, I think—especially in light of this Year of Mercy—is that our goal as Catholic eco-activists is to ultimately bring peace to the world. To do that, we must first be peacemakers, and dramatically so. We must first show mercy, especially to those who we feel deserve it the least.

And for that, Pope Francis reminds us, we must first seek to be transformed by Him who makes all things new.

“In this Jubilee Year,” Pope Francis says, “may the Church echo the word of God that resounds strong and clear as a message and a sign of pardon, strength, aid, and love. May she never tire of extending mercy, and be ever patient in offering compassion and comfort.”

For up-to-date information on the Year of Mercy, visit the Vatican website here.

Photo: Cross silhouettes in a sunken cemetery at dusk, Camiguin island, Philippines.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.