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Fratelli tutti: Pope Francis’ new social encyclical

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 05, 2020

Pope Francis’ latest encyclical is entitled Fratelli tutti (Brothers all). This is a social encyclical “on fraternity and social friendship”, inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, and officially signed in Assisi on the vigil of that saint’s feast. (Unfortunately, this feast falls on October 4th, and this year it was superseded by the Sunday.)

It is symptomatic of our time that Pope Francis has already been criticized for not using “inclusive language” in the title of his new encyclical, as if St. Francis’ own use of this form of address was intended exclusively for males—he who preached to both men and women and who numbered among his most devoted followers the great St. Clare who, with Francis’ help, founded an order of religious women on the Franciscan model. It is only a later ideological distortion of so many languages that makes us worry, for example, that when Scripture refers to “brethren” or a pope refers to “human fraternity”, the references are exclusively male. One might as well excoriate the slogan of the French Revolution (liberté, egalité, fraternité) for the same reason. Please.

However, this need not detain us. The new encyclical is, again, devoted to the topic of “fraternity and social friendship”, which means it primarily treats what Catholics call “solidarity”, especially as the bond of genuine solidarity reaches across conventional human lines of division, such as those of class, geography, political organization, and ethnicity. Pope Francis has provided a fairly straightforward examination of the tendencies in our world that engender division (while often proclaimed as just the opposite) along with the attitudes and approaches we must adopt to build a genuine community, both locally and globally, through an authentically human culture. Pope Francis models that culture on the parable of the Good Samaritan. His text is divided into eight chapters, of which the last is very brief, touching only on the role of the Church along with final encouragement and prayer.

The last major chapter, then, is the seventh. It would be a mistake to pretend to cut to the chase by noting that it is here that Pope Francis presents again his argument that both war and capital punishment can no longer be considered reasonable options in the modern world. I jump ahead only to put these two specific controversial issues behind us. It is clear that the “inadmissibility” that Francis applies to both represents not their intrinsic immorality but rather important prudential judgments which Francis believes close the debates under contemporary conditions: First, for war, a judgment about the monstrously destructive power of modern weaponry and delivery systems; and second, for capital punishment, a judgment on the impossibility of imagining that states today cannot protect the lives of others without executing criminals—meaning they have no proportionate reason to execute, especially in light of possible mistakes.

Chapter by chapter

But again, I say it is mistake to pretend that taking up these conclusions is to “cut to the chase”, because they have very little to do with the substance of the encyclical as a whole. Briefly, here is what the encyclical covers, chapter by chapter:

  • One: Dark clouds over a closed world: In chapter one Francis examines such problems as the abandonment of historical consciousness; the idea of a throwaway world; insufficiently universal human rights; conflict and fear; illusory communication; shameless aggression; and information without wisdom—all of which tend to be used as “forms of subjection and of self-contempt”.
  • Two: A Stranger on the road: This is the spiritual heart of the encyclical, an exegesis of the parable of the good Samaritan as a model for discerning the attitudes and habits which we must develop if we are to truly grow in human solidarity.
  • Three: Envisaging and engendering an open world: In this chapter, Francis treats our inadequate understanding of universal love; moving beyond a world of “associates” to a true familial world; the need to promote both persons and the moral good that is essential to genuine personal development; the Catholic understanding of property and its intended use; and the way in which personal rights transcend borders.
  • Four: A heart open to the whole world: The text covers the delicate balance involved in openness to other peoples and other cultures without denigration or loss of the good things which make up our own culture and identity, so that there is mutual respect and enrichment, rather than a fruitless, technocratic homogenization (which Francis seas as the disastrous result of the current secular economic model). His point is that the universal must not eclipse the local, nor the local the universal.
  • Five: A better kind of politics: This chapter admits a confusion between the words “popular” and “populist” and seeks to distinguish common endeavors which transcend many differences from the unhealthy social impetus produced by demagoguery. He also points out the “limits of liberal approaches”, of “leftist ideologies or social doctrines linked to individualistic ways of acting”. The Pope discusses social and political charity, which must be rooted in sacrifice, and insists that we begin to think in terms of “fruitfulness” rather than “results”.
  • Six: Dialogue and friendship in society: Here Francis returns again to the question of true dialogue, but also considers the relationship between consensus and truth, the importance of genuine personal encounter in both local and international social relationships, and the need to recover “kindness”.
  • Seven: Paths of renewed encounter: In this chapter, the Pope emphasizes the need for new relationships to develop not by denying or ignoring past wrongs but by remembering history, acknowledging sins and failures, and proceeding from that point. This is important to reconciliation and developing an “architecture of peace”, based on contrition and forgiveness, but not on a fake forgetfulness. It is only then that he discusses war and the death penalty, which he sees as bringing a decisive end to ongoing conversion and growth.
  • Eight: Religions at the service of fraternity in our world: Pope Francis concludes with a discussion of the role of religion, and particularly of the Church, in this process of fostering genuine solidarity, and he comments briefly on the problem of “religion and violence”. Finally, he closes by quoting the joint appeal which he made with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb early last year, and offers two closing prayers which reflect the inter-religious and ecumenical approach taken in the encyclical.

General comments

It is important to recognize that Pope Francis regards this encyclical as a fairly limited project:

The following pages do not claim to offer a complete teaching on fraternal love, but rather to consider its universal scope…. I offer this social Encyclical as a modest contribution to continued reflection…. Although I have written it from the Christian convictions that inspire and sustain me, I have sought to make this reflection an invitation to dialogue among all people of good will. [6]

In keeping with this purpose, the reader will find that the general argument of the encyclical is rooted primarily in the natural law. Divine Revelation obviously enhances the Church’s understanding of the natural law, but I would say that Pope Francis’ intention to place Christianity in the background may prove, in the end, to be a weakness rather than a strength.

In fairness, Christianity is not absent. As I mentioned, the model for the entire encyclical is Christ’s parable of the good Samaritan, and aspects of Christianity and Christian commitment are discussed in various places. But just as the Pope was inspired to write his previous social encyclical, Laudato Sí , partly by the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, Francis says he was inspired to write this encyclical partly by his experience with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, with whom he famously met in February of 2019. Therefore, he has cast a broad human net, rooted primarily in natural law.

I hope the potential benefits of this approach can be realized, but I have doubts. The important question that crossed my own mind most often as I read Fratelli tutti was this: “Is mankind really capable of following this advice and shaping a world rooted in genuine human solidarity, without a deep faith in Christ and the grace that follows?” If the answer to this question is “no”, then Pope Francis’ program, to some extent in Laudato Sí (On the care of our common home) and even more in this new encyclical, necessarily runs a grave risk. St. Paul explained his own recognition of a similar risk when he wrote the following to the Corinthians:

When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. [1 Cor 2:1-5]

In fact, an emphasis on managing the affairs of the whole world has always been very risky for Christians. I do not at all mean to deny the strong connections between the Catholic faith and all of our natural human concerns. Moreover, God reveals right and wrong to us through Creation, through nature, and I certainly recognize that it is a great thing for any person, including any Christian, to adhere to the natural law through human reason. But this is also an astonishingly rare thing. It is rare because of our fallen nature and the power of sin.

So without proposing any argument against the actual text of this new encyclical, let me simply raise a strategic question: In our historical context, is it a high priority for the Church to impart her natural wisdom on worldwide questions of human relations among all peoples while the faith of Catholics in Christ and the Church continues to shrivel and die? Or would the whole world in fact be better served if Pope Francis led all Catholics in a full-scale renewal of the Church herself? What if the Church’s ministers, from top to bottom, began to preach nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified?

Dare we dream of winning millions of new souls to Christ, both at home and abroad, as the shortest distance between two points? With or without these “two points”, it is certainly a more important goal.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: evans.schmidt6125 - Oct. 08, 2020 10:16 AM ET USA

    I agree with Dr. Mirus in that if we truly do have the Divine Revelation of God and the Church's express purpose is to define and evangelize that truth, why merely relegate to the natural law or use the natural law as a bridge to the fullness of the truth. The Church at her best and strongest is when she lives and expresses the truth of Jesus Christ and lives it in the world. Jesus said "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life" not a path among many

  • Posted by: fatheratchley - Oct. 07, 2020 3:21 PM ET USA

    Should the Church expand on social global issues while Catholic faith contracts? Pope Francis seems to want all to recognize that the Church well recognizes common global problems distinct and apart from the faith. But by reflecting from a nearly exclusively sociological point of view, does this make the Church and Catholicism more inviting, or perhaps just one more answer among many?

  • Posted by: doughlousek7433 - Oct. 07, 2020 1:07 PM ET USA

    All that the Poe writes is well and good, but what you say in the last two sentences is what the Pope, as a shepherd, should be promoting. If we know Christ, the rest that he promotes in this document will fall into place.

  • Posted by: Pointmaster1386 - Oct. 06, 2020 11:55 PM ET USA

    Yes, the whole world in fact will be better served if Pope Francis led all Catholics in a full-scale renewal of the Church herself? And the Church’s ministers, from top to bottom, began to preach nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified? Yes, I believe this pleases the Lord Jesus Christ! thank you for bringing this out!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 06, 2020 10:45 AM ET USA

    I hate to beat the same tired drum, but prudence trumps ignorance. P. Francis: "the impossibility of imagining that states today cannot protect the lives of others without executing criminals". Are we speaking semantics here or substance? 2 weeks ago I cited an article in a comment to you that demonstrates the existential threat to innocent victims posed by vicious crime bosses behind bars. These murderers order maiming and murder from their jail cells. The death penalty is self defense.