Pope Francis has written an encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, on “fraternity and social friendship” that is unique in the history of the genre. It is not addressed to his brother bishops or the universal Church per se, but rather speaks to universal humanity in a manner befitting its broadly humanitarian message.
A cross between an encyclical and a humanitarian manifesto, it invokes the authority of Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb and the 2019 Abu Dhabi declaration at least a dozen times, as if to say that the Holy Roman Pontiff is just one religious partisan of global humanity, among others. The encyclical’s presentation of the requirements of fraternal love partakes of humanitarian ideology as much as any distinctive Christian teaching. I say this without polemical intent. In proclaiming “fraternity without borders” and a “politics of love” (#180-182) in recognizing “local flavor” (#143-145) and global humanity as the twin poles of human existence, Pope Francis seems to bypass or overlook the familial and national expressions of fraternity and social friendship, that is to say the common good of a free and decent society.
Pope Francis’s identification of fraternity with humanity as such largely ignores the naturalness of love of one’s own and the dangers of embodying fraternity or social friendship at the level of unmediated Humanity. One critic at Crisis magazine has rightly faulted the pope’s enthusiastic adoption of the French revolutionary slogan “liberty, equality, and fraternity” (#103-111) in seeming abstraction from the totalitarian import of that revolutionary slogan. Pope Francis is surely no friend of totalitarianism, but he never acknowledges that politically enforced fraternity, grounded in abstract sentimentality, can give rise to new and inhuman forms of despotism. A prominent French aristocrat turned revolutionary once famously proclaimed “Be my brother, or I will kill you.” Those words continue to chill the soul and to reveal the essence of revolutionary terror.
The lesson is clear: Brotherhood, devoid of a sense of moral reciprocity and a deep appreciation of the capacity of fallen men for evil, is capable of giving rise to the antithesis of true fellow-feeling and, indeed, to truly monstrous forms of political oppression. But sin and evil are barely acknowledged in this encyclical other than the predictable attack on the “hidden powers” that are alleged to manipulate markets and a liberal economic order. The words are barely mentioned.
Pope Francis’s genuine love of the poor is evident on every page, but he is too quick to elide the crucial biblical distinction between the “poor” and “poor in spirit.” The poor as a political category can be as despotic, self-seeking, and rapacious as the rich. In addition, the “people’s movements” (#118-120) that the pope lauds are often demagogic and sympathetic to political and socio-economic models that promote envy and that eliminate precious political, intellectual, and religious liberties. For example, Peronism, Castroism, Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivaran revolution” in Venezuela, and Evo Morales’s despotic mix of socialist and indigenous ideologies in Bolivia, hardly speak for liberty, human dignity, and the defense of the poor as our Lord enjoined us to do.
And in each case, these Left populist revolutionaries threatened the freedom of the Church to preach the Gospel and to defend fundamental human liberties. The Pope’s failure to see this is perplexing, to say the least. Given his broad intellectual and political orientation, it is difficult for him to acknowledge enemies on the Left.
Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has repeatedly claimed that he is “only” reiterating Catholic social teaching when he moves that teaching in an emphatically leftist direction. That claim is hardly credible in light of the new encyclical. He never repeats the Church’s longstanding opposition to socialism in its various forms. Encyclicals such as Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus (1991) and Pope Benedict XVI’s Spe Salvi (2007) that persuasively and authoritatively expose the inhumanity of utopian and revolutionary ideologies in theory and practice are barely mentioned by the pope, and if they are, they are distorted or taken out of context.
When the Vatican celebrated the 25th anniversary of Centesimus Annus in 2016, Francis’s acolytes invited Bernie Sanders and Evo Morales to speak, in open contempt for the principal themes and emphases of that great anti-totalitarian encyclical. No reasonable or faithful Catholic can quarrel with Pope Francis’s claim that the right to private property must serve larger “social purposes” (#118-120). But his affirmation of the right of private property is so tepid and qualified that it distorts the very body of teaching it claims to represent (compare it on this point to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum with its emphatic defense of private property as a natural right). Despite an occasional (and welcome) rhetorical nod to the nobility of business as a vocation (#123), Francis generally sees economic initiative and the market order as realms dominated by “hidden powers” and criminal machinations. A more capacious defense of private property as necessary to human dignity and to the free economic initiatives that enrich civil society are simply absent from the pope’s thought.
And when Francis defends seemingly limitless “rights without borders” (#121), he ignores the crucial role of self-governing political communities in sustaining social friendship, and the rights and obligations of a free society, at the only level where social friendship is politically viable. That cannot be done by effacing the morally necessary distinction between citizen and non-citizen. We must love our neighbor whomever he may be, but we are not obliged to become citizens of an amorphous and non-existing global community. Humanity, so understood, is not the theme of the Gospel, because “Humanity” as such does not exist. As a personalist, as an impassioned defender of human dignity, Francis should grasp that essential truth.
In perhaps his most impressive book, Memory and Identity (published in English in 2005), Pope John Paul II, a patriotic Pole and the most faithful of Christians, argued that “Catholic social doctrine holds the family and the nation are both natural societies, not the product of mere convention.” And he added, in words most worthy of Pope Francis’s attention, that “therefore, in human history they cannot be replaced by anything else” (my emphasis). John Paul II proceeded to theologize about the dignity of the self-governing nation, committed as it once was to Western and Christian ideals, in a most impressive way. He refused, too, to conflate or identify the “essential function of the nation” with “unhealthy nationalism.”
But he defended a firm yet moderate and self-critical conception of the nation that he identified with the virtue of patriotism: “Whereas nationalism involves recognizing and pursuing the good of one’s nation alone, without regard for the rights to all others, patriotism, on the other hand, is a love for one’s native land that accords rights to all other nations equal to those claimed for one’s own. Patriotism, in other words, leads to a properly ordered social love.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a passionate Russian Christian and patriot, much maligned as an extreme nationalist, said much the same thing in almost identical language. But when the nation arises in Francis’s discussion, it is almost always associated with pathologies: “narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and even the mistreatment of those who are different” (#86).
Only the local and the global appear to have genuine ethical validity, or moral substance, in Francis’s account. He forgets that the nation was the natural home for the fruitful coexistence of what the French Catholic political thinker Pierre Manent has called “the pride of the citizen and the humility of the Christian.” And as Manent added in his book Beyond Radical Secularism, “the nation understood as an exclusive valorization of one’s own people and homicidal aversion for people from elsewhere” only arose when Europeans “were subjected to regimes that explicitly rejected the God announced in the Bible.” And as Father Gaston Fessard, S. J. argued in his magisterial 1936 book Pax Nostra, the nation is a dignified collective and moral personality without which the vocation of humanity as creatures under God cannot come to fruition. Pope Francis, to his credit, greatly admires Fessard’s book on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, but seems wholly unfamiliar with his equally profound theology of the nation.
Pope Francis’s explication of the parable of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10: 25-37) is a moving call to solidarity and love of neighbor (#56-87). Yet he gives the parable an exclusively ethical reading. Where Augustine, Origen, and others of the Fathers read it theologically so that Christ is the central character, Pope Francis places us at the center of the narrative. Thus, he emphasizes the need for all of us to exercise “our innate sense of fraternity, to be Good Samaritans who bear the pain of other people’s troubles rather than fomenting greater hatred and resentment” (#77).
That call is most welcome. Yet the face-to-face encounter with our neighbor in need is hardly a call for replacing political distinctions that serve the cause of social friendship and the civic good with sentimentalized global humanitarianism. Francis’s lucid appeal to solidarity and brotherly love could be fruitfully supplemented by reflection on the moral and political advantages of decentralized authority, subsidiarity, and national self-government. Alas, subsidiarity is mentioned only in passing in Fratelli Tutti. This is a shame since it provides a form of community and self-governance conducive to liberty and human dignity, but having nothing in common with the desire for unmediated access to Humanity as such. Subsidiarity is the great jewel of Catholic social teaching without which appeals to “solidarity” become thin gruel, indeed.
In the later sections of the encyclical, Pope Francis increasingly relies of what I will call his “private judgment” or personal opinions, and less on the inherited weight of Christian wisdom. His inspirations are figures such as Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu and Mahatma Gandhi as the pope himself notes in section #286. These final sections drift markedly toward humanitarianism, sentimentality, and a kind of bien-pensant leftism of the soft rather than the hard, tyrannical kind.
Let me provide some revealing illustrations. Pope Francis forthrightly condemns terrorism on both humanitarian and Christian grounds (#285). But he links it to an ill-defined “fundamentalism” and once again invokes the authority of his shared declaration with Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb (#284). The massive threats to the lives and liberty of Christians in the Islamic world from Indonesia to Azerbaijan, and the prohibitions against evangelization and conversion in even many “moderate” Muslim countries is passed over in silence. The Pope rightly calls for historical memory of great crimes and injustices that “must not be forgotten” (#247). He speaks with dignity and moral gravity about the monstrous crime of the Shoah, the war against the Jewish people “spurred by false ideologies” that failed “to recognize the fundamental dignity” (#247) of the human person—often justified by accusations of “hidden powers” behind free markets and free societies, one might add.
Yet Pope Francis is silent about the criminal character of another “false ideology,” Communism, that was responsible for the death of 100 million people globally in the twentieth century and that waged war on the Christian Church with unparalleled atheistic fanaticism and cruelty. Francis rightly invokes the memory of the use of atomic weaponry at Nagasaki and Hiroshima (#248) without any mention of the fact that a semi-fascist Japanese imperial regime killed ten million innocents or more in its rapacious march through Asia. To remember Nagasaki and Hiroshima outside this larger context is to criminalize peoples and governments that resisted naked aggression and an openly racist disdain for other peoples and nations by the criminal Japanese regime.
Historical memory, precious as it is, must be informed by the arts of moral and political reasoning. Shorn of that moral and intellectual discipline, it risks giving way to ahistorical moralism and an ideological perspective bereft of balanced judgment.
The most problematic and troubling section of the encyclical deals with “war and the death penalty.” Are Christians really obliged to take their bearings from the Charter of the United Nations (#257), an organization long dominated by authoritarian and totalitarian states, and hardly friendly to the Church? Pope Francis cites the Catholic Catechism on the legitimacy of national defense against aggression and the accompanying legitimacy of just war reasoning (#258). He is obliged to do so. But he quickly and unilaterally declares that war can never be a solution to aggression or injustice. He claims without evidence or argument “that every war leaves our world worse than it was before” (#261).
For all intents and purposes, Francis, against the full weight of the tradition, identifies peace with the absence of war, and not Augustine’s “tranquility of order.” Who is to resist the terrorism that Francis rightly condemns? Was Churchill right to fight a regime that would have destroyed liberal and Christian civilization and universalized the Shoah or Holocaust in the process? Francis’s semi-pacifist arguments and affirmations owe far more to sentimental and utopian secular humanitarianism than they do to specifically Christian arguments and understandings. They ignore the presence of evil, of radical evil, in this fallen world of ours. St. Francis was a saint, but so was Joan of Arc. Charles Péguy, the great French Catholic poet and philosopher, rightly took aim at those who confused Christian love with an indulgence to “peace at any price.”
The Church should always be a voice for just peace even more than just war. But Francis is the first pope to identify peace with pacifism, however dishonorable or incompatible with our obligations to our fellow citizens. Francis’s humanitarian version of Christianity lacks the realism of the truest and most faithful Christian thought.
As for the death penalty, Pope Francis believes that those who advocate it are simply succumbing to vengeance and thus deny the dignity of the one to be punished by execution, even for a truly heinous crime. But Kant believed that such a punishment reflected deep respect for the moral agency and responsibility of a murderer, for example. And St. Paul, St. Thomas, and almost every previous pope denied that capital punishment is always and everywhere “inadmissible” (#263). Pope Francis gives the game away when he comes out against life imprisonment which he calls “a secret death penalty” (#268).
With all due respect to the Holy Father, he has confused our religion with what C.S. Lewis called in God in the Dock “the humanitarian theory of punishment.” C. S. Lewis says very well what half-humanitarian Christians have forgotten: “(T)he Humanitarian theory wants simply to abolish Justice and to substitute Mercy for it.” Whatever this replacement is, it entails a radical and disturbing departure from age-old, sober Christian teaching which knows that mercy and justice “must meet and kiss.”
I make no apology for responding respectfully but critically to those parts of Fratelli Tutti that partake of humanitarian categories and assumptions incompatible with a Christian anthropology and conception of natural justice. Our Holy Father is a good man and bishop, a precious witness to the Gospel, who rightfully reminds us of the priority of neighborly love and “social friendship” for all Christians and men of good will. But when he departs from a specifically Catholic-Christian understanding of these imperatives he relies more on “private judgment” than the “truth about man” that is the source of the Church’s exquisite expertise about how human beings ought to live together. As his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI never ceased to insist, Christianity is never reducible to a humanitarian moral and political message. To do so is to “falsify the Good,” in the pregnant words of Vladimir Soloviev.
Editor’s note: This is the fifth 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
• “Fratelli Tutti and its critics” (Oct. 9, 2020) by Larry Chapp
• “Culture, dialogue, religion, and truth in Fratelli Tutti“ (Oct. 9, 2020) by Eduardo Echeverria
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