The recent encyclical of Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti (FT), is another literary behemoth. Its massive size means that, upon an initial reading, it is not possible to take in all of the specific items covered — from immigration to criminal justice to war and peace. It might be better, then, to situate FT broadly in the tradition of Catholic social teaching, in light of the Holy Father’s own magisterium and as a response to current global political realities.
Eight years in to his pontificate, the Holy Father has evidently decided that bigger is better, producing relatively few magisterial texts but of truly gigantic size. Pope Francis has now authored four of the five longest documents in the entire history of the papacy: Amoris Laetitia (approximately 60,000 words), Evangelii Gaudium (52,000), Fratelli Tutti (45,000) and Laudato Si (42,000).
Staggering length combined with sprawling reach renders it difficult for any particular element to shine through. For example, the 5,000-word section in Evangelii Gaudium on delivering brief and engaging homilies likely would have been more effective in helping preachers if it had been a separate document on that specific theme.
From Social to Political
Pope Francis explicitly identifies FT as a “social encyclical,” meaning that it belongs to the tradition of papal teaching on the social, political, economic and cultural dimensions of common life begun by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 (Rerum Novarum) and continued by the intervening popes over the last 130 years.
That tradition has often seen subsequent encyclicals issued on the anniversary dates of Rerum Novarum. Pope Pius XI did so on the 40th anniversary in 1931, St. John XXIII on the 70th in 1961, St. Paul VI on the 80th in 1971, and St. John Paul II on both the 90th (1981) and 100th (1991). It would have thus followed that Francis would issue a social encyclical next year, in 2021 for the 130th anniversary.
Publication now a case can be made was likely chosen for political reasons, to contribute to the issues at stake in the coming U.S. election. Pope Francis has made explicit his desire to enter into political debates. In 2014, he timed his pilgrimage to the Holy Land explicitly to support the initiatives of then Israeli President Shimon Peres, who took a different line than Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. In 2015, his encyclical Laudato Si was published ahead of the Paris climate conference, with the intent of influencing the outcome of that meeting.
Indeed, a distinctive character of FT, not unlike Laudato Si before it, is that it is more a political encyclical than a social encyclical. The social vision of Leo XIII was very much that man’s common life comprises many different social realities — marriage, family and Church, for example, coming prior to the state.
This “sociability” of society was the theological basis for the Church’s bold anti-totalitarian teaching, more fully developed by Pope Pius XI in the 1930s. John Paul would later call this the “subjectivity of society,” meaning that society was made up not only of individuals but many social groups that were subjects capable of action in their own right; the state’s role was to assist these groups to flourish, not to supplant them.
In FT, that rich “sociability” of society takes a backseat to state action. Certainly the Holy Father calls Christians to live out their discipleship in personal encounters with others, especially the afflicted and vulnerable, but for the most part social action is construed as state action. Hence the emphasis in FT on “political love” — given the prominence of politics in the Pope’s social vision, it is important that it be imbued with charity.
Such is the primacy of politics that one analysis even referred to FT as a “voter’s guide” on a global scale. And because politics is the art of the possible, much of FT is addressed to what affluent countries can do for the poor in their own countries, or the poor who wish to migrate there. There is very little attention given to the majority of the world’s poor who live in poor countries where there is little scope for participation in democratic politics.
The plight of the poor in China, Syria or Venezuela — to highlight three foreign policy priorities of the Holy Father — is less the result of global trends, but local tyranny. And here we encounter the limits of the analysis offered in FT; the ways of dialogue and encounter are certainly to be recommended for the resolution of conflict and the building up of the common good, but what is to be done when there is no interest in dialogue and encounter? The encyclical almost casual setting aside of the Church’s just-war tradition — a topic that merits its own examination — would seem to leave those oppressed by tyranny at the non-existent mercy of the tyrant.
FT has plenty of beautiful passages about how a politics of cooperation and solidarity can replace a politics of rivalry and rancor. That is relevant to Trump’s America and other populist expressions around the world, but what does it offer to places where politics itself has failed, where there is no longer a sense of a common good to be deliberated over by free persons? That is the reality in much of the developing world.
The Distinctive Approach of Pope Francis
FT is explicitly intended to bring together much of the Holy Father’s teaching; 60% of the 288 footnotes are references by Pope Francis to himself, often including substantial quotations of what he has said previously. There is much continuity with Laudato Si and the economic and political sections of Evangelii Gaudium.
We can thus see the corpus of Pope Francis take shape. One sage analysis proposed that FT completes a triptych on the relationships which define human life: with the creator (Evangelii Gaudium), with creation (Laudato Si) and now, in FT, with our fellow creatures.
In all spheres we see the Holy Father return to his signature themes, promoting friendship and harmony, and the primacy of kindness. Those who might dismiss those claims as Christian boilerplate miss a key theme of Pope Francis, namely that in our daily human interactions lie the principal contribution we make to the common good. That the world needs more kindness is self-evident; that the Holy Father points that out is welcome.
Pope Francis continues to inveigh against the “throwaway society” expanding that analysis in FT to how we talk to each other, warning against a “social aggression” that is exacerbated by social media, but is not only found there.
The distinctive style of Pope Francis is evident too. FT treats some of the same subjects as Benedict XVI did in Deus Caritas Est, the second half of which dealt with charitable works in the social order. Yet Pope Francis does not engage the same philosophical questions about justice and charity; Benedict argued that justice was the work of the state, charity the work of the Church and the “sociability” of society. Pope Francis, for the most part, collapses the two.
Reading the Sociology of the Times
FT begins with a lengthy commentary on the state of the world, its culture, politics and economics. That has become a feature of the synods of Pope Francis, which read these “signs of the times” — to use the biblical phrase taken up by Vatican II — through a sociological, rather than theological, lens. That is not out of bounds in the papal magisterium, of course. Other popes have offered their analysis of history — for example John Paul in Centesimus Annus.
In FT though we find an analysis that seems to have been repeated rather than updated.
There is condemnation of the death penalty, but no discussion that, while it is a topical issue in the United States, it is almost non-existent outside the world’s autocratic regimes. There the link between the (il)legitimacy of the death penalty and the (il)legitimacy of the state is not examined, for example.
The rights of migrants to enter any country is stressed. There is a nod toward the capacity to “integrate” those migrants, but the clear thrust of the Holy Father is toward open borders. Given that no country in the world has that policy, and that much of world is moving toward thicker borders, the question is in need of careful prudential and political analysis. The biblical model of the Good Samaritan, creatively explicated in FT, along with the injunctions of Exodus toward the sojourner or Matthew 25 toward the stranger, are relevant passages that need further development to address this concrete policy issue.
On the economy, Pope Francis writes that “the marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith.”
That it is a dogma can be asserted, but that “we are asked to believe” it would be difficult to demonstrate. There are no countries in the world where everything is left to the market. For generations, affluent societies have channeled enormous amounts of GDP through government, ranging from a low of about 40% in the United States to 60% in parts of Europe. In the less affluent parts of the world, the figures often depend on the capacity of governing instruments, but the figures are comparable.
In the current pandemic moment, government spending and regulation has grown massively. FT attacks libertarians when it would be hard to find any. Catholic social teaching has never been libertarian, but that battle was won long ago. To the contrary, the political forces gathering strength around the world favor a larger state and less open trade.
Across the entire world there is a rethinking of economic policy underway, with particular attention to trade, employment and finance. FT is sympathetic to that trend, and offers rhetorical support to it, but lacks sufficient rigor to make a significant contribution.