Initial Impressions: Fratelli Tutti

Initial Impressions: Fratelli Tutti

Here are some of my initial impressions of Pope Francis’s new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. This is not intended to be a comprehensive review, but instead what came to my mind while I read it.

This is not a religious document, but instead a political document with a religious veneer. It’s no secret that the focus of this pontificate has been mostly worldly affairs, and this encyclical only confirms that focus. Although Fratelli Tutti does include a chapter on the parable of the Good Samaritan, this is included mostly to support the pope’s political advice throughout the encyclical.

While it’s true that popes have in the past often addressed current political issues, it was usually to clearly re-affirm certain Catholic moral teachings, and then encourage the laity to apply these teachings to the political realm. This document seems the reverse: affirm certain political views, then apply some religious language to support those views.

Fratelli Tutti is long and self-referential. This is in keeping with most post-Vatican II encyclicals, particularly starting with the pontificate of John Paul II. But Francis takes this to new levels: Fratelli Tutti is 287 paragraphs, and 60% of the 288 footnoted references in this encyclical are references to other Francis statements and documents! Compare this to the classic Pius XII encyclical Mystici Corporis, which had only 113 chapters and most of the footnotes are to Scripture, the Fathers, or older Church documents.

Fratelli Tutti marks the return of “Frank the Hippie Pope.” Early in Francis’s pontificate, the YouTube Channel “Lutheran Satire” created a funny cartoon called Frank the Hippie Pope. It presents Francis has a stereotypical 1960’s hippie, preaching peace and love. Fratelli Tutti only fosters this stereotype. It reminds me of The Beatles’ song, All You Need is Love, essentially telling the world that all our problems can be solved if we just love each other. While that’s technically true, it ignores the impact of Original Sin on the world and thus the need for practical means to resolve differences and live in peace.

Many Straw Men were harmed in the writing of Fratelli Tutti. If Straw Men had a union, there’s no question they would be suing the Vatican. At times it felt like every paragraph started with a straw man, then continued by knocking that straw man down. Here’s one little trick I figured out: look for any sentence that contains the word “some;” it very often contains a Straw Man. A few examples:

Some parts of our human family, it appears, can be readily sacrificed for the sake of others considered worthy of a carefree existence. (18)

Some economic rules have proved effective for growth, but not for integral human development. (21)

Then too, “in some host countries, migration causes fear and alarm, often fomented and exploited for political purposes. This can lead to a xenophobic mentality, as people close in on themselves, and it needs to be addressed decisively”. (39)

I realize that some people are hesitant and fearful with regard to migrants. (41)

Digital campaigns of hatred and destruction, for their part, are not – as some would have us believe – a positive form of mutual support, but simply an association of individuals united against a perceived common enemy. (43)

Some people attempt to flee from reality, taking refuge in their own little world; others react to it with destructive violence. (199)

These are only a few examples of murdered Straw Men in this document. RIP, dear Men of Straw.

Saying something is “not this” doesn’t mean it’s not that. This is a classic move, in which Francis will advocate for something, then say it’s not what his critics will say it is. For example, after advocating for globalism, Francis says, “I am certainly not proposing an authoritarian and abstract universalism, devised or planned by a small group and presented as an ideal for the sake of levelling, dominating and plundering (100). But of course the practical result of what he is advocating is exactly “an authoritarian and abstract universalism, devised or planned by a small group.” He may not want it to be that, but that’s what will happen if his advice is followed. 

Those are a few general overall impressions of the document. I also wanted to bring up a few specific items that caught my attention.

St. Francis was not a champion of “dialogue.” Pope Francis begins the encyclical by championing the way of St. Francis of Assisi, presenting the Poverello as a modern ecumenist, with no desire to convert others (1-4). This is simply untrue. St. Francis went to the Holy Land with one purpose: to convert Muslims. We can understand the Saint’s true attitude by his embrace of the first Franciscan martyrs, who were killed trying to convert Muslims in Morocco. 

“Just War” is still just. Just like he did with capital punishment, Pope Francis is now trying to overturn the traditional Catholic doctrine of Just War. In paragraphs 256-262, the pope not only laments the tragedy of war, but also goes further and rejects the applicability of Just Wars. He states, “it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a “just war”. Never again war!” (258) The footnote attached to this last sentence (footnote 242) begins, “Saint Augustine, who forged a concept of “just war” that we no longer uphold in our own day…” 

I’ll admit that I’m sympathetic to the pope’s overall point here. I myself have argued that most, if not all, modern wars do not satisfy the Just War criteria. Yet that does not mean that Just Wars are no longer possible, which Pope Francis seems to at least be implying. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear that a nation can engage in lawful self-defense. Quoting the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, it states, “governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed” (CCC 2308). It then goes on to list the criteria of a Just War (see CCC 2309). I guess the pope will move to edit that section of the CCC, as he did with the section on the death penalty.

Religious Pluralism reigns. When this encyclical was announced last month, I was worried it would endorse the religious pluralism of the Abu Dhabi Declaration, which stated that the “pluralism and the diversity of religions…is willed by God.” Fortunately, that statement was not repeated, but sadly,  it wasn’t repudiated, either. And religious pluralism is still present in Fratelli Tutti. Near the end of the encyclical, Francis notes that “The Church esteems the ways in which God works in other religions, and rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions” (277). He then notes the importance of Christians living the Gospel. But then there is a curious sentence: “Others drink from other sources.” What does this mean? The next sentence says, “For us the wellspring of human dignity and fraternity is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” which seems to imply that there are other legitimate sources for people to drink from other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m sure there will be Catholics who will try to explain this away, but the plain reading of the text is that Pope Francis believes (and teaches) that there is more than one source to fulfill man’s religious desires.