I understand the complaints about Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. Many of my friends feel them. It is too long, they say. It is not clearly written. It attacks a caricature of the free market. It does not give adequate weight to the friendliness typically shown in business relationships. It seems to soft-pedal the horror of abortion, while dealing with the death penalty as if it were intrinsically evil. It seems fond of greater regulation and larger government, while not acknowledging the moral hazards and risks to freedom. And so on.
I hope that that first paragraph establishes my bona fides and proves that this column is not an exercise in that now long-abandoned practice known as “pope-splaining.”
Nevertheless, I believe many of these complaints (not that it’s too long!) are based on a misunderstanding of the purpose of the encyclical. So, let me say what I take that to be.
Consider anew the opening sentences of Lumen Gentium, the anchor document of the Second Vatican Council: “Christ is the Light of nations. Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church. Since the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, it desires now to unfold more fully to the faithful of the Church and to the whole world its own inner nature and universal mission.” [My emphasis]
That last sentence is very strange, if you think about it. The Church is to carry out its role as sign and instrument of union with God and union of the whole human race by unfolding to the whole world its own inner nature? Yet, if you go back and read then-Cardinal Wojtyla’s book on implementing the Council in the archdiocese of Krakow, Sources of Renewal, you would see that he took this very idea to be the key to the Council. And arguably it serves as the key to his pontificate as well.
“This was his message,” Pope Benedict said in his homily of beatification, “man is the way of the Church, and Christ is the way of man.”
Suppose we say, then, that Francis understandably takes that task to have been largely accomplished in John Paul II’s expositions of the Council over 27 years. Then it makes sense to understand Francis to be taking, so to speak, the more direct and natural route to the unity of the human race, which would be by preaching about it directly! His authority to do so comes from being the Vicar of Christ, of course. His charge to do so comes from the Council. Everything is in proper order.
“But,” you might object, “he attends to the first part only, ‘man is the way of the Church,’ and he ignores the second, ‘Christ is the way of man!’ There is little to nothing about salvation in Christ in Fratelli tutti.”
I understand the complaint. But in reply I would say to such a person that he did not pay proper attention to the dispute over the opening words of the encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, “all my brothers.” Pope Francis insisted that these words be retained, over the objections of many “progressive” friends who found them patriarchal, oppressive, and not sufficiently exclusive. Why not at least “all my brothers and sisters”?
The reason is that Francis wanted the whole encyclical to be linked into the Admonitions of St. Francis of Assisi. The opening words had to be kept as they are, because they are a quotation of Admonition VI.
Let me quote from that Admonition: “Let all of us, brothers, consider the Good Shepherd Who bore the suffering of the cross to save His sheep.” Christ is missing? How so?
More than that, by quoting the Admonitions in this way, Francis “incorporates them by reference,” as lawyers would say. Follow the link above and scroll through the rich sacramental life and mysticism conveyed in the Admonitions taken as a whole. Pope Francis I suppose might instead have jumped up and down and shouted, “I can speak as I do here because I rely on these spiritual riches of St. Francis.”
Or, he might have told Catholics that we have much more far-reaching obligations to live out the teaching of the encyclical than others do: witness the spirituality of St. Francis. But that isn’t very difficult for us to figure out, is it?
As a Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy in a Catholic university, I find fascinating the encyclical’s use of the language throughout of “social friendship” (amistad social, in Spanish), rather than the familiar “social justice.” There is not a single mention of “social friendship” in the Catechism that I could find, or the Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine. Here if anywhere in the encyclical is the significant development of the tradition of social thought.
Justice is insufficient for social unity, because of its emphasis on impartiality, which becomes “autonomy” and “individuality” in our culture, also, because of the attention it gives to past wrongs, and the encouragement it gives to anger.
Talk of “social justice,” too, does not adequately ask us to consider the cultures and institutions that are subsidiary to political society, as talk of social friendship does. Pope Francis already points in that direction in the encyclical, with its concern for the “local” and its incisive critique of abuses of social media.
Moreover, mere “social justice” leaves unanswered the question of motivation: how apart from anger, feelings of crisis, and peer pressure (political correctness) are people motivated to effect “social justice”? So on all these counts, social justice is insufficient.
But if man looks for love and friendship, must he not find Christ?
*Image: Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires after being made a cardinal in February 2001. [Photo: L’Osservatore Romano.]