Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Pope’s new encyclical ignores previous social teaching

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 08, 2020

How much longer can sensible Catholics maintain that Pope Francis is merely trying to develop—rather than to change—the teachings of the Catholic Church?

With the release of Fratelli Tutti this week we have seen a pattern of media coverage that is now familiar. First there are headlines suggesting that the Pope has written something new and radical. Then the more sober analysis, arguing that this new papal statement is in line with Catholic traditions. The analysts who issue such reassurances are always arguing uphill—not only because the original media headlines leave a lasting impression, but because the papal text itself contains so much evidence of the Pope’s wish to promote change.

Yes, there is solid, traditional Catholic teaching to be found in this encyclical. But there are also troubling passages in which Pope Francis appears clearly to be repudiating the statements and writings of his predecessors. Moreover, the most significant statements are floating on such an enormous sea of verbiage—amid 43,000 words of puzzling, speculative, and irrelevant commentary—that even the most determined reader must wonder what message the Pope really does want to convey.

An encyclical is, in theory, a letter from the Roman Pontiff to the churches of the world. But in Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis is addressing not only his fellow Catholics but the world at large. So he cannot assume that his readers will be familiar with the genre of the papal encyclical. Nor does he do anything to remind readers that this document is in any way different from any other commentary on world affairs. (The fact that the authoritative version is written in Italian, a language with no special status in Catholicism, is just one stylistic indication of his approach.)

These problems with the presentation of the encyclical—its sheer length, the absence of focus, the lack of a clear sense of audience—contribute to the difficulties of interpretation. It is a challenge for even an expert to separate the metal from the dross, and all too easy for the opportunistic reader to find some nugget that seems to support his own favored ideology.

To be candid, the same problems of interpretation have become common in magisterial teaching, stretching back at least to—and certainly including—the documents of Vatican II. Liberal interpreters find passages that seem to support their views, suggesting that Church teachings have changed. Conservatives insist that these passages must be understood in the larger context of Catholic tradition. But when the context is unclear, and the key passages are undeniably at odds with previous magisterial statements, proponents of the “hermeneutic of continuity” seem to be fighting a hopeless rear-guard battle against the inevitable.

In the current pontificate, I submit, it has become simply impossible to square the Pope’s statements with those of his predecessors. This problem became acute with the release of Amoris Laetitia; it is exacerbated in Fratelli Tutti. Take just a few noteworthy examples:

  • The death penalty. My copy of the Catechism, the 1994 edition, says that “the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.” Pope John Paul II amended that section, to say that cases justifying capital punishment “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” But that formula still allowed for the possibility that execution could be warranted; it did not contradict the prior authoritative statements that acknowledged the state’s right to invoke the ultimate penalty. Now Pope Francis takes a step further, saying that execution is “inadmissible,” and calling for a worldwide effort to abolish what the Catholic Church once declared just.

    In doing so the Pope does not address the Thomistic arguments for retributive justice, but bases his appeal exclusively on the state’s duty to protect citizens from criminals. He argues (#267) that “it is impossible to imagine that states today have no other means than capital punishment to protect the lives of other people from the unjust aggressor.” (Notice that if you can imagine circumstances that require execution to protect innocent lives—and I certainly can; can’t you?—then the Pope’s argument falls.)
  • Just war. The Catechism also outlines the conditions under which limited warfare may be morally justifiable. But Pope Francis—in a section subtitled “The injustice of war”—writes (#242):
    We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a “just war.”
    The awkward formulation “probably always” makes it difficult to understand how the Pontiff could issue a blanket condemnation of all military action. Couldn’t a carefully limited strategy minimize the risks that he mentions? Pope Francis thinks not. “Every war leaves our world worse than it was before,” he writes (261). But if every war is always unjustified, then it seems the Church—which for centuries taught of justice in warfare—has changed her teaching.
  • Private property. In a footnote to paragraph 119, Pope Francis writes that “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.” True, the Church has never agreed that private property involves an absolute right; Catholic social teaching is clear on the universal destination of the world’s goods and the “social mortgage” on property. But Pope Leo XII wrote in Rerum Novarum (#15): “The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.”

    Here is a flat contradiction: Pope Leo says the right to private property is inviolable; Pope Francis says it is not inviolable—and tosses in the obviously false claim that the magisterium has never suggested otherwise.

Throughout Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis shows a clear hostility toward private property, the market economy, and capitalism. To be sure, previous Pontiffs have frequently commented on the limitations of the marketplace, insisting that a healthy society requires a stronger moral base than a strictly economic outlook can provide. But Pope Francis rarely invokes the arguments set forth by previous Popes. (More than half of the citations in this encyclical are of his own previous works.) Other Pontiffs stressed the crucial importance of healthy marriages and strong families as forming the basis for a healthy society. Fratelli Tutti never mentions marriage, and when the word “family” appears, it is invariably a reference to the whole human family, not the nuclear family.

While the failure to invoke previous Pontiffs is a defect in Fratelli Tutti, it is just one sign of the encyclical’s fatal flaw: the absence of any distinctively Catholic perspective. The word “new” appears twice as often as the name “Jesus.” There is little or no mention of prayer, the Gospel, or the sacraments. Pope Francis writes a great deal about the economy of the marketplace, very little about the economy of salvation.

And really, what does the Catholic Church have to contribute to a discussion of economic and social problems, apart from the wisdom contained in the Gospel. St. Paul told the Corinthians that “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” Not coincidentally, he was far more successful in evangelizing the Corinthians than in his previous efforts in Athens, where he tried the sort of broad-based dialogue that Pope Francis favors. The Athenians at the Areopagus found Paul interesting, but their attention soon wandered. Fratelli Tutti is destined for a similar fate.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: timmccmd3591 - Oct. 12, 2020 11:17 PM ET USA

    I generally agree with most comments here and elsewhere re the rather dramatic muddle-headed thinking and writing of the present occupier of the Chair of Peter. But Phil, when quoting other popes and encyclicals, it is just as important the you get it right! Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum...just ask James T. Majewski who issued 2 podcasts on same! And wonderfully done, I might add, even if some of Leo's comments would be a bit dated today,

  • Posted by: grateful1 - Oct. 12, 2020 10:25 PM ET USA

    So where do we go from here, Phil? You acknowledge that Francis declares as truth "flat contradictions" of Church teaching, and that "it has become simply impossible to square [his] statements with those of his predecessors." He is not a stupid man, and you are right to ask "How much longer can sensible Catholics maintain that [he] is merely trying to develop—rather than to change—the teachings of the Catholic Church?" Well, as a "sensible Catholic" yourself, what's your answer?

  • Posted by: doughlousek7433 - Oct. 10, 2020 1:20 PM ET USA

    Good analysis Phil. We can only pray for the health and survival of our Church!

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Oct. 09, 2020 8:19 PM ET USA

    The media are having a heyday with his attack on private property, the market economy, and capitalism; unfortunately this - essentially - support for certain policies/candidates is at odds with his support for life. The pope, as many leftist out-of-touch-with-reality liberals, should try renting property out; they'd quickly realize the value of ownership, ie. private property, the market economy, and capitalism. While not guarantees of care; there are few who care for that which they don't own.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Oct. 09, 2020 3:18 PM ET USA

    Just as in Amoris Laetitia there is solid traditional teaching in Fratelli Tutti, but I wonder whether this solid traditional teaching is nothing more than sugar coating to the poison pills contained in them.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 09, 2020 9:17 AM ET USA

    You cited: "it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a 'just war.'" I have been commenting in this forum for years that a just solution to the problem of mass migration from war zones and genocidal dictatorships is precisely a just war. Take Syria, central Africa, and Venezuela as examples. Western powers training migrant young adults how to return to their own countries as a fighting force could end the terror.

  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 09, 2020 2:18 AM ET USA

    Quote: "In a footnote to paragraph 119, Pope Francis writes that the Christian tradition has never..." That text is actually in paragraph 120, and not in a footnote. Footnote [95] refers it to the same text in Laudato Si. So, Francis is referring himself to himself.

  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 09, 2020 2:10 AM ET USA

    I can't understand the attack on private property rather than addressing greed, exploitation of employees, or materialism. It is marxist and totalitarian to seize individual property for "the benefit" of the collective (a "social purpose"). It violates the 7th and 10th Commandments. It places material possessions above God-given individual human dignity and free will. Christian tradition teaches that taking advantage of and defrauding workers is one of the Sins that cry to Heaven for Vengeance.

  • Posted by: Cory - Oct. 09, 2020 1:01 AM ET USA

    These days when an encyclical is unveiled all we can expect is verbiage and lies