“I should like a new Papal Bull every morning with my Times at breakfast.” — William George Ward
The kindest thing one can say about Pope Francis’s new social encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, is that it’s totally incomprehensible. Alas, there’s a great deal more we ought to say about it.
I was startled by one particular section-heading: “Liberty, equality, and fraternity”—the motto of the French Revolution. (Just to be sure, I checked the Vatican’s official French translation. Sure enough, it reads: “Liberté, égalité et fraternité.”) Why, I wondered, would the Vicar of Christ appropriate the slogan of the most violently anti-Catholic regime in history? The holy Martyrs of Compiègne must be darting about in the heavens like sparks through stubble.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The Revolution crucified the Church in France. When we hear a Catholic cry, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité!” we can’t help but hear, “I have no king but Caesar… Free Barabbas!”
And that’s only the most obvious offense. The document is full of confusion and contradiction. For example, like Pope Pius IX, the Holy Father (rightly) condemns the error of liberalism:
The concept of a “people”, which naturally entails a positive view of community and cultural bonds, is usually rejected by individualistic liberal approaches, which view society as merely the sum of coexisting interests. One speaks of respect for freedom, but without roots in a shared narrative; in certain contexts, those who defend the rights of the most vulnerable members of society tend to be criticized as populists.
He’s right, of course. In fact, you’d almost think he was talking about Donald Trump! The President has championed the rights of Middle Americans whose communities have been hollowed out by globalism.
Yet, in the same breath, Francis condemns those who seek to limit the flow of immigrants into the developed West in order to defend their countrymen from becoming further alienated. To wit:
Still, there are those who appear to feel encouraged or at least permitted by their faith to support varieties of narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and even the mistreatment of those who are different. Faith, and the humanism it inspires, must maintain a critical sense in the face of these tendencies, and prompt an immediate response whenever they rear their head.
I’m sure Crisis is starting to sound like a broken record, but we’ll say it again: the government of the United States is not obligated to care for the poor of Mexico, or Syria, or any other nation—not at the expense of the American poor. To publish a manifesto for borderless globalism in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, when millions of Americans are out of a job, is cruel. To tar opponents of globalism as violent, contemptuous xenophobes is utterly heartless. It’s not Christian. It doesn’t evince any of the “social friendship” that gives the encyclical its name.
What the Holy Father condemns is not nationalism, but nationhood. What he condemns is not liberalism, but liberty. He doesn’t believe that countries have a right to their own culture and customs, to security and welfare. In this, he is unique in the 2,000-year history of Catholic social thought.
What’s unfortunate is that Fratelli Tutti has some excellent moments. Francis warns against “a kind of ‘deconstructionism,’ whereby human freedom claims to create everything starting from zero, is making headway in today’s culture. The one thing it leaves in its wake is the drive to limitless consumption and expressions of empty individualism.” This is a legitimate pastoral concern, and one that Catholics—of all political stripes—ought to heed.
The Holy Father is also spot-on, as usual, about the dangers posed by modern technology. He observes that, amidst a “frenzy of texting,” a “new lifestyle is emerging, where we create only what we want and exclude all that we cannot control or know instantly and superficially.” That, too, is perfectly valid pastoral advice.
The key word is pastoral. That is Francis’s strong suit. Whenever he veers into politics, the Holy Father completely loses the plot. The few incisive, relevant observations are buried in so much sentimental nonsense about immigration and nuclear war that the encyclical becomes unreadable.
At one point, Francis opines: “Our model must be that of a polyhedron, in which the value of each individual is respected.” I’ve read that section four times and still have no idea what he means. The whole document is littered with such pseudo-poetic, Postmodern jargon.
There’s a broader point to be made here. None of Francis’s social encyclicals do what they’re supposed to do, which is help Catholics come to grips with the important political and cultural issues of our time. They only wind up confusing the faithful, particularly on the Pope’s own priorities.
For instance, the Holy Father has stated on at least one occasion that abortion is the preeminent political issue of our time. He has spoken against the barbarous practice in the strongest possible terms, including comparing it to the Holocaust. For the informed Catholic, there can be no question where Francis stands. Yet Fratelli Tutti makes one passing reference to the matter. Why does he spend so much time talking about the environment and refugees when tens of millions of unborn children are killed in the womb every single year?
This is the great danger behind Francis’s rambling missives. I don’t doubt that he cares deeply about the plague of abortion, but he gives the impression that it’s less important than saving the rainforest or thwarting “populism.” It’s inevitable, then, that millions of Catholics follow suit.
Perhaps the more fundamental problem is that we Catholics have an unhealthy understanding of the papacy. As Bishop Athanasius Scheider said in his recent book Christus Vincit,
I think that popes should speak rarely, in part because the inflation of the pope’s words obscures de facto the magisterium of the bishops. By his continuous pronouncements, the pope has become the pivotal point for daily life in the Church. However, the bishops are the divinely-established pastors for their flock. In some way, they are quite paralyzed by an unhealthy papal-centrism.
So, what do we do with the encyclicals? If we’re not obligated to read them, perhaps we shouldn’t. Perhaps we begin moving away from this unhealthy papal-centrism by ignoring the pope as much as possible. If we do insist on reading these strange memoranda, it’s only fair to give Francis our full attention and weigh his opinions carefully.
Of course, a man has his limits. If the Holy Father wishes to speak to me about the need to “create a beautiful polyhedral reality in which everyone has a place,” I will say, “Thank you, Your Holiness, but no thank you,” and walk away.
[Photo credit: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images]