One of the first things that will strike readers of Pope Francis’s new social encyclical Fratelli Tutti is its sheer length. At about 43,000 words in English (including footnotes), that’s more than the Book of Genesis (32,046) and three times the size of the Gospel of John (15,635).
Despite its length, there’s little in this text that we have not heard Francis say before in one form or another. But whether the subject is capital punishment or his theme of encounter, this encyclical condenses Francis’s particular emphases, specific worries, and general hopes for the Church and the world into one document. That includes Francis at his best, but also what I regard as some enduring blind-spots.
Like most social encyclicals, Fratelli Tutti addresses a hodgepodge of topics. These range from detailed analysis of contemporary populism to explorations of the meaning of kindness, reciprocity and gratuitousness. In discussing these and other subjects, Fratelli Tutti insists on the need for Christians and others to be open to learning from others. In fact, the word “open” is used no less than 76 times, and goes hand-in-hand with a stress on the need for dialogue (referenced 49 times).
It’s in that spirit that I’d like to offer responses to two features of the encyclical that, I suggest, require closer attention.
Saint Francis and the Sultan
The figure of Saint Francis of Assisi has loomed large throughout this pontificate, not least because Jorge Bergoglio imaginatively took his name when elected pope in 2013. Fratelli Tutti begins by invoking Saint Francis’s famous encounter with Sultan Malik-el-Kamil in Egypt in the midst of the Fifth Crusade. Itstates that the saint told his followers that “if they found themselves ‘among the Saracens and other nonbelievers,’ without renouncing their own identity they were not to ‘engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake’.” Pope Francis then adds: “We are impressed that some eight hundred years ago Saint Francis urged that all forms of hostility or conflict be avoided and that a humble and fraternal ‘subjection’ be shown to those who did not share his faith” (3).
Taken at face-value, this suggests that Saint Francis was rather meek and mild when he met with one of the most powerful Muslim rulers of the time. That, however, is not the case. The full story is best told in Augustine Thompson O.P.’s Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (2012). One of the book’s many strengths is that it demolishes various myths which have grown up about Francis of Assisi via careful and meticulous attention to and assessment of primary sources.
As Thompson relates, when the Sultan asked Francis and his companion the purpose of his visit, the saint “got immediately to the point. He was the ambassador of the Lord Jesus Christ and had come for the salvation of the sultan’s soul. Francis expressed his willingness to explain and defend Christianity.”
What followed was an exchange of statements by Francis and the Sultan’s religious advisors (who told the Sultan to execute Francis for “preaching against Muhammad and Islam”) in which the two parties outlined the respective truth claims of Christianity and Islam. Francis then engaged in a “long conversation” with the Sultan in which he “continued to express his Christian faith in the Crucified Lord and his promise of salvation.” At no point did the saint, Thompson stresses, speak ill of the Prophet Muhammad. But Francis wasn’t there for an exchange of diplomatic pleasantries. He wanted to convert the Sultan to Christianity through word and action.
I raise these facts about Saint Francis’s encounter with the Sultan because it is important to know that, to the extent that it was a dialogue, the saint was concerned with addressing the question of religious truth. That’s not how Fratelli Tutti portrays the meeting. This is a problem because unless we know the full truth about a given event or person, it is easy to encourage wishful thinking or even misrepresentations of what someone was trying to say or do at a given moment. On that score, Fratelli Tutti’s representation of Saint Francis is wanting.
Also insufficient—and, alas, this has characterized Francis’s pontificate from its very beginning—is Fratelli Tutti’s treatment of economic questions. It seems that, no matter how many people (not all of whom can be characterized as fiscal conservatives) highlight the economic caricatures that roam throughout Francis’s documents, a pontificate which prides itself on its commitment to dialogue just isn’t interested in a serious conversation about economic issues outside a very limited circle.
The encyclical speaks, for instance, of “those who would have had us believe that freedom of the market was sufficient to keep everything secure” (168). Who, I must ask, are these people? And where do they claim this? If such views exist, I’d suggest, they are to be found among a telephone-box sized minority of radical libertarians who wield little to no influence on the formation of economic policy anywhere.
In the same paragraph, Francis states that “The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith.” Again. I respectfully ask: who are these “neoliberals” who believe that markets can solve every problem? If one is going to make such a claim, one should present evidence to back it up. It’s also the case that some of the world’s most prominent market liberals have been arguing for decades that markets requires all sorts of decidedly non-commercial moral habits and institutional and cultural prerequisites to be in place if individuals and businesses are to create economic value and supply people with the goods and services which they need. That fact, however, seems to have missed by the encyclical’s drafters.
Or, consider this line: “Financial speculation fundamentally aimed at quick profit continues to wreak havoc” (168). Whoever penned that sentence plainly doesn’t understand the role played by speculation in helping to stabilize prices over time and increase the predictability of likely costs into the future. Yes, speculation can be abused. But when done right, financial speculation helps to create efficiencies in the investment and deployment of capital by individuals and businesses that, while certainly designed to produce profit, can also promote a better stewardship of available capital resources which might otherwise be wasted.
In another sentence, Francis states (quoting himself) that “without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfil its proper economic function. And today this trust has ceased to exist” (168).
That’s an unqualified statement, and it leads me to ask: has this trust really “ceased to exist”? Even in our highly-fragmented COVID world, millions of people across the world continue entering into market exchanges every day with people they have never met, and they do so on the basis of promises. All this implies trust. If such trust didn’t exist, the global economy and national and local economies would have ceased to function long ago.
It’s certainly true that there are societies—most notably in Latin America, much of Asia and many developing countries—where high levels of trust are harder to find outside extended family settings. This hampers the workings of economic exchange. But these circumstances have little to do with markets per se and much more to do with long-established and difficult to change cultural patterns which have existed for centuries.
There is plenty of room for constructive debate among Catholics about the role of the government, law, central banks, and other state institutions in the economy. Indeed, it’s never been my impression that Francis is hell-bent on a massive increase in state intervention to address any number of economic challenges. But the endless invocation of economic strawmen in papal documents and by prominent figures associated with Francis’s pontificate isn’t likely to create any confidence that most of those who have guided this pontificate’s reflections on economic matters have a genuine interest in any real dialogue with anyone who doesn’t fit on the spectrum between left-wing populists and your run-of-the-mill neo-Keynesian.
Contrary to what some believe, the left does not have a monopoly on concern for the poor or on good ideas on how to help them. Whether it happens in this pontificate or the next, there is a desperate need for the papacy and other Catholic Church leaders to widen dramatically the circles of opinion whom they consult on economic topics like wealth and poverty. If they don’t, I’m afraid we will continue to see them continuing to make all-encompassing blanket statements about such matters that reflect a substantive lack of an openness to dialogue which Fratelli Tutti insists should be prioritized everywhere.
A mixed bag
The two concerns which I raise here should not be read as indicating that I regard Fratelli Tutti as a fallacious document all-round. There are many parts in which I think the encyclical is spot-on.
Among other things, these include its emphasis on the destructive role played by moral relativism in contemporary societies (206), the perennial importance of forgiveness in a world in which conflict is part of the human condition (236-249), and its concluding reference to one of my favorite saints, Blessed Charles de Foucauld—a dissolute aristocrat, army officer and one-time agnostic who became a priest and hermit in French North Africa—as exemplifying Christian fraternity.
That said, the encyclical reflects the broader pattern of the commentary which has long characterized Francis’s pontificate. Genuine insights which spring directly from the Gospels and often profound meditations on the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures go hand-in-hand with dubious historical claims, generalized assertions about highly prudential matters which are unsupported by evidence, and a fair amount of what I can only describe as utopianism.
The more, however, that I read through Fratelli Tutti, the more I had the sense that this encyclical wasn’t just an elongated summation and elaboration of the pope’s thought. It also impressed me as a type of valediction for his papacy—one that may well have said all that it has to say. This doesn’t mean that Francis’s pontificate is drawing to a close. But Fratelli Tutti does bear all the marks of a capstone document. Whether it leaves a lasting impression on the Catholic Church is anyone’s guess.
This article first appeared on October 5, 2020, in Catholic World Report and was republished with permission.
(Photo credit: Associated Press.)