Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on “fraternity and social friendship,” will generate work for theologians for some time. The Holy Father employs formulations that will require study in order to be harmonized with previous teaching. It is important to note those formulations, but also to grasp the larger social vision that the pope proposes.
There is, for example, the consideration of life imprisonment as a “secret death penalty” (268), ratcheting up the “firm rejection of the death penalty” (269) itself. And there is the statement, in a brief footnote that garnered much attention, that “we no longer uphold” Augustine’s teaching on just war (note #242). Fratelli Tutti suggests that it might be time to set aside “the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war’,” given that “its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits” (258).
Leo XIII taught in Rerum Novarum that “as a principle private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable.” The Catholic tradition since has defended private property subject to the “universal destination” of all goods; indeed private property is the instrument by which the universal destination of all goods is best, but not always, realized. Fratelli Tutti states “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable” (120), which may be saying the same thing with different emphasis, or something novel. Pope Francis does describe private property as “a secondary natural right” and states that “each country belongs to the foreigner” (124).
In Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI insisted that diakonia (the works of service commanded by charity) is as much a part of the Church’s identity as the kerygma and the liturgy. Making careful distinctions, he clarified that the task of politics is justice, while the mission of the Church is love. Fratelli Tutti conflates the two, proposing “political love”: “If someone helps an elderly person cross a river, that is a fine act of charity. The politician, on the other hand, builds a bridge, and that too is an act of charity” (186). But if infrastructure projects are charity, what is left, say, for distributive justice? Pope Francis also quotes St. John Chrysostom, who treats care for the poor as justice, not charity (119), leading to some confusion about whether the state promotes justice or charity.
Finally, taking in the fraternal humanism of the encyclical as a whole, it is possible to ask whether the Church does not risk losing her identity to become “a charitable NGO” as Pope Francis vividly warned against in his very first homily as pope. A Church-cum-NGO has given into a “demonic worldliness,” according to the Holy Father.
So there is much sorting out to be done in what Austen Ivereigh, author of two fine biographies of Pope Francis, calls a “potpourri.” Ivereigh considers this encyclical a “valedictory” which “closes out the teaching of this pontificate.”
With such a range of topics, it might be better to consider instead the social vision of Pope Francis as a whole.
What does the Holy Father see when he looks at the social question? Does he think about the well-being of workers, as did Leo XIII, who taught that their best path to development lay in their own creativity, protected by private property and in cooperation with others, manifest in the right to form labor unions? Does Pope Francis think about the “subjectivity of society,” as did St. John Paul II, who saw in society a great plurality of acting subjects, both individuals and myriad social groups, the flourishing of which the state had a duty to support, not supplant, for the common good?
The pope’s new encyclical is built around a meditation on the parable of the Good Samaritan, told in response to the question: Who is my neighbor? Here we find a stylistic echo of John Paul, who constructed Veritatis Splendor around the encounter of Jesus with the rich young man. (It was a favorite of John Paul’s; he used it as the theme for his 1985 letter to youth as well.)
Fratelli Tutti recalls the many exhortations to fraternity and charity in the Old and New Testaments, so that “we can better understand the significance of the parable of the Good Samaritan: love does not care if a brother or sister in need comes from one place or another.” Pope Francis asks his readers with whom they identify. The man beaten and robbed? The robbers? The priest and Levite who pass by? Or the Good Samaritan?
There is no doubt about where the Holy Father’s heart is. Perhaps his most attractive pastoral quality is his palpable concern for the poor and the afflicted. His frustration is evident when he perceives that too many cannot be bothered—and the poor, sick, vulnerable, and weak are a bother.
“What is more, caught up as we are with our own needs, the sight of a person who is suffering disturbs us,” he writes. “It makes us uneasy, since we have no time to waste on other people’s problems. These are symptoms of an unhealthy society. A society that seeks prosperity but turns its back on suffering” (65).
Here we find a key to the social teaching of Pope Francis. He sees a world full of the beaten down and brutalized, their goods stolen from them, left for dead on the side of the road. Such a person needs urgent care; he is passive until he recovers. It would be cruel to ask him to be an agent of his own recovery, to invite him to creative flourishing in service of the common good.
Such is the particular case of the man in the parable. Applied more broadly as a social vision, a Good Samaritan society emphasizes the vulnerability and incapacity of the poor; they are not wretches yearning to breathe free, but wounded wretches poor and simple.
Pope Francis thus stresses the Christian command to do charity for the hungry, the naked, and the sick, as Fratelli Tutti links the Good Samaritan to the commands of Matthew 25. As a social vision, that has the (unintended?) consequence of making the poor passive objects of their own development rather than free subjects of creativity and cooperation. Much of what the encyclical advises is better understood when seen from the vantage point of the man robbed and left for dead. Something must be done for him by someone else. And if there are enough of such men along the roadside, that “someone else” will almost certainly have to be the state, which is an expert in treating those it helps as passive objects.
Pope Francis notes that “Jesus chose to start when the robbery has already taken place, lest we dwell on the crime itself or the thieves who committed it” (72). Here we find another key to the Holy Father’s social vision, which explains his unusual silence about the truly wicked regimes in the world—Syria, Venezuela, China—even as he speaks often about immigration policy or carbon emissions. Obviously he does not approve of Venezuela’s Maduro regime sending millions of refugees across the border to Columbia. But Pope Francis “chooses to start” after the crimes have already taken place, when the refugees need to be received. Like the Good Samaritan, he comes upon the scene when the man is already half-dead. What would be the point of the Samaritan doing anything other than helping the man at his feet?
As a social vision, though, it ought not be that solicitude for the brutalized ignores the cause of their brutalization. The parable teaches about the corporal works of mercy and the need to make compassion concrete. As a social reality, though, Jesus sets the parable on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho precisely because it is a lawless place, fraught with danger and the domain of brigands. Catholic social teaching would find here a failure of government to provide basic security, to police the road and punish the robbers. It might be a failure, too, of civil society. Where is the Neighborhood Watch, Judean wilderness chapter?
A common biblical image for the flourishing, free, and just society is that of the city, fortified and prosperous, full of markets and merchants, together with mendicants and those who show them mercy. Pope Francis reminds the Church that things look different at a lonely, lawless spot on a road given over to thieves.
Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?