The most recent encyclical from Pope Francis has triggered the usual suspects, many of whom have accused the document, in various ways, of pushing a “one world government” agenda, contradicting past infallible teaching on the permissibility of the death penalty, being far too breezy and superficial in its analysis of economics, as well as the minor sin of being stylistically verbose and far too long.
Those who know me well understand that I am not generally a fan of Pope Francis, who was elected to reform the curia (so we are told) but has failed miserably so far in that regard. He has also appointed to high office individuals who seem like old guard, unreconstructed, post Vatican II liberals—which is a bad thing in my view. However, contrary to what some on the far-Right think, he really is the pope and therefore as Catholics it is incumbent upon us to take his magisterial teaching seriously. Those who are criticizing Fratelli Tutti are, evidently, attempting to do just that. However, I find some of their criticisms lacking in both precision and charity and would, therefore, like to take this opportunity to address them.
I will first deal with the easiest and least serious of the objections. Namely, that the encyclical is verbose and far too long. As I trudged through the document my first reaction was the same: “Dear Lord, make it stop soon.” One can only take so many frizzy buzzwords and anodyne bromides about “dialogue” before one grows weary of the effort to grasp the deeper points the Pope is making. Nevertheless, if one presses on with an attempt at a charitable reading of the text—a charity which Lumen Gentium 25 requires of us—then one begins to see the contours of a line of reasoning that is not as trite as it might at first seem.
For starters, the sheer length of the document actually seems to serve a purpose that goes beyond verbosity. The Pope quotes himself more than any other source (by far) and includes in that body of material statements he has made over the entirety of his papacy in various speeches that were not, originally, magisterial. But guess what? Now they are. Just about every major theme of his papacy has been taken up in this encyclical and given a new home in the magisterium of the Church. The Pope, therefore, is not engaging in a form of literary narcissism wherein he quotes himself at length just because he is enamored with his own eloquence. Rather, he is very consciously doubling down on everything he has said and done as pope up to this point and tying it all up into a long, but cogent, summary. Love him or hate him, this pope has reminded everyone that he is the pope and he is going to teach what he wants to teach. In America’s current political maelstrom, we have been reminded that “elections have consequences.” Well, that goes for popes too.
I would therefore reinforce the point made by others that this encyclical has the appearance of a “capstone” document that provides us with all the themes of this papacy in one magisterial location. Whether this means Pope Francis is now going to step back from further teachings or not remains to be seen. But those who are hoping for even more “innovation” from Francis are likely to be disappointed. In many ways what this Pope hasn’t done is more instructive than what he has. After seven years of sitting on the Chair of Peter he has not abrogated Humanae Vitae, or approved of the ordination of women, or abolished mandatory priestly celibacy in the Latin Church, or opened up intercommunion with Protestants (or even the Orthodox for that matter), or given a straight forward carte blanche approval for divorce and remarriage, or changed magisterial teaching on homosexuality. When he was elected pope he described himself as a “loyal son of the Church.” And that is exactly what he seems to be.
As for his pronouncements on economics it is indeed true that he overreaches and makes blanket statements on the evils of the free market that are far too breezy to be taken seriously as a valid discourse on economics. Nevertheless, he is not alone among the Catholic intellectual world in his discomfiture with the consumeristic, “throw away culture” that the modern free market has created. There are still great disparities worldwide between the rich and the poor, not to mention the environmental nightmare unfolding before us as a result of our economic system of industrial production and consumption. Therefore, despite his carelessness in some of his utterances on these matters, as a Catholic Worker I hear the voice of a prophet not altogether dissimilar from similar observations from Saint John Paul II. There is a genuine spiritual insight here and to dismiss it on the grounds that it is “unfair to the free market” is missing its prophetic point. Pope Francis, despite his lack of expertise in economic matters, is reasserting the teachings of all modern popes, going back to Leo XIII, that we must place people over profits, labor over capital, and the common good of society over the corporate bottom line. And to say that the modern free market hasn’t compromised those values is insouciant nonsense.
Perhaps the greatest criticism of the encyclical comes from those who view his comments on the death penalty as a clear contradiction with the magisterial Tradition of the Church and Scripture on this matter. I disagree most strongly with that view. Pope Francis says the death penalty is “inadmissible” and refrains from using the stronger language of “intrinsically evil.” That has to be by design, and it tells us something. It tells us that the Pontiff has no desire to abrogate the fundamental logic behind the principles of retributive justice. How could he? Both Scripture and Tradition make it clear that the logic of retributive justice underwrites the moral legitimacy of the notion that those who shed the blood of innocent persons shall be liable to the same at the hands of the government. To deny the fundamental moral legitimacy of the death penalty, therefore, would also be a denial of the principle of retributive justice. And this the Pope knows would be a foolish thing to do—or so it seems to me. Therefore, he refrains from the language of “intrinsically evil” and for good reason. Thus I think those who think he is saying this and obsess over it are missing his deeper point.
Therefore, what he appears to be doing is what John Paul II also did. Namely, to engage in a thoroughly legitimate development of doctrine on this matter by appealing to those elements of the Gospel that ask us to go beyond the precepts of retribution and into the higher register of forgiveness and mercy. In the Sermon on the Mount Christ, in quoting the Law’s dictum “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” does not reject this principle in any way, but asks his disciples to consider the fact that we are all guilty of deep hatreds and in need of mercy, indicating as well that to be his disciple your first moral instinct must not be retribution but an awareness of solidarity in a shared human weakness.
In other words, as both John Paul and Francis point out, the Gospel presents us with an image of human dignity wherein we must consider the whole person in a way that goes beyond “what they deserve” and to consider their soul as well as something worthy or mercy and forgiveness in the hope of repentance and of regeneration through grace.
Therefore, even though a murderer might “deserve” death (and he does by the standards of retributive justice) there is a Gospel-based truth involved that asks us to go beyond this basic principle and into the deeper register of mercy. This insight has gained steam in this century owing to the carnage of our various genocidal wars and the general degradation of respect for human life. In a genuine application of the principle of reading the “signs of the times” both popes are asking us if now is not the time to finally consider the abolition of the death penalty in the interests of promoting a reinvigorated respect for human life—even human lives that have taken other lives, thus robbing them of their dignity as well. Perhaps this is an ill-advised reading of our times. Perhaps both popes have gone too far. That is a judgment I will leave to others. But to say that Pope Francis is engaged in contradicting past teaching on this matter is also a bridge too far since it is a reading of what he is teaching jaundiced by a prioritization of retributive justice as the only principle worthy of consideration.
Finally, the Pope also mentions that allowing governments the right to kill their own citizens is a reality open to great abuse. Here too we see both John Paul II and Pope Francis asking us to consider the sad history of the illegitimate application of the death penalty by despotic forms of government—and even by the Church herself in her zeal to stamp out heresy. They both are asking us to consider that the placing of this power in the hands of sinful human beings isn’t too fraught with danger to be allowed any longer. The principle of retributive justice is not denied by either pope, but in applying our historical memory of egregious judicial injustices they both invoke the prudential decision to end this practice once and for all.
Finally, moving on to the criticism of the encyclical endorsing a “one world government” philosophy, I can only say that I do not see such an endorsement in the text. Instead, what I see is a questioning of the hegemony of the thoroughly modernistic concept of the “sovereign State.” Were the war crimes trials at Nuremberg an exercise in multilateral, transnational cooperation that transcended the national sovereignty of the former Nazi State? You bet they were. Similarly, it seems to me that the Pope is appealing here, not to a one world government, but to the primacy of the moral law and the universal common good of the human family above the interests of particular States. And this is something popes have always done; it is one of the glories of the papacy insofar as the very existence of the papal office is a moral and spiritual hedge against the reduction of the moral law—and indeed of the faith itself—to ethnic and nationalistic degradation. And in a world that is quickly becoming a balkanized jabberwocky of competing “powers” the Pope’s message is both timely and thoroughly rooted in the Tradition of the Church. Only those who come to this encyclical with apocalyptic end-times scenarios of a pope in league with a globalist agenda spawned by the anti-Christ could see in Fratelli Tutti a call for such a one world government.
Is this a “great” encyclical? I think not. It has flaws, chief of which is the fact that the name of Jesus Christ is rarely mentioned. And it suffers in many places with the kind of ambiguities this papacy has all too often engaged in. But it is not, for all that, in any way “heretical” or even “dangerous”. At worst, it is merely dull and plays at times in the sandbox of a kind of modern verbiage that I find to be superficial and trite. But it is a magisterial document and deserves to be read charitably by all Catholics open to the fact that Pope Francis may indeed have something of value to say.
Editor’s note: This is the third of several CWR essays on Fratelli Tutti and related topics. The other essays are:
• “Fratelli Tutti is a familiar mixture of dubious claims, strawmen, genuine insights” (Oct. 5, 2020) by Samuel Gregg
• “An encyclical filled with tensions and omissions” (Oct. 8, 2020) by Paulo Futili
• “Culture, dialogue, religion, and truth in Fratelli Tutti“ (Oct. 9, 2020) by Eduardo Echeverria
• “Brothers without Borders: Pope Francis’s Quasi-Humanitarian Manifesto” (Oct. 10, 2020) by Daniel J. Mahoney
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