Fratelli tutti: because you should always have an opinion on a papal encyclical before you’ve read it

Having learned that it is 43,000 words, half a novel’s length, I doubt I will read Fratelli tutti all the way through very soon. However, since I was startled by the first review I came across, I did a little more brief research and then Had Thoughts.

That first review, by Dr. Maike Hickson at LifeSite, described the encyclical seeming to accept “religious indifferentism,” the idea that God is pleased by all religious effort. ” ‘We know our witness [all; anyone’s] to God benefits our societies,’ ” she quotes his Holiness. Of course he is right in that of course God loves all people and is, perhaps, pleased by almost any well-meaningness. Of course a Hindu or a North Sentinel Islander might be kind and good. But this is not the same thing as the Pope teaching that Christianity is in fact true, the only true faith. And that eternal life with God means accepting the truth of the historical events of 33 A.D., and all the Church says about them and herself afterwards.

Another reviewer, Dr. Samuel Gregg at Catholic World Report, is annoyed by two things. He is annoyed by the encyclical’s diluting of the story of what happened when St. Francis of Assisi met the sultan, and by its economic — one hates to say it — ignorance. St. Francis did not simply show what his namesake calls a “humble and fraternal ‘subjection’ to those who did not share his faith.” The saint tried to convert Sultan Malik-el-Kamil to Christianity on his own ground, in Egypt, in the middle of the Fifth Crusade. He tried to do it for the salvation of the Muslim’s immortal soul.

And, regarding economics. One leaves it to Dr. Gregg to point out, for example, “whoever penned” the document “plainly doesn’t understand the role played by speculation in helping to stabilize prices over time,” for a start. Gregg’s larger conclusion seems to be, that Pope Francis’ gut instincts about economic activity are what I would call common. For lack of a better word. Common to many people, common in that they arise intuitively when we look out at the world and see rich and poor, fair and unfair; when we see economic activity, which will always be the allocation of scarce resources which have alternative uses, happening seemingly incoherently. I have coworkers who want to soak the rich for taxes, who themselves pursue the same tax dodges, in their small brackets, that the rich will do in theirs. “But I feel like it never helps.” I have a friend who wants the government to outlaw greed.

And the third review I read, even on day one, came from the vigorous and reliable Father Z. For his part he’s annoyed that Fratelli tutti is “clear as mud” on the subject of just war. Perhaps Pope Francis’ gut instinct here is similar to that about economic life. People should be nice. There shouldn’t be problems or conflicts. But when aggressors arise and make war, how do we sanction them? How do we survive? And if you are going to quote St. Augustine, be pleased to quote him in full.

So far the people who have digested Fratelli tutti have also forthrightly allowed that the document contains good things. I was thinking yesterday of the paper that the Vatican released in June 2019, which seems to have dropped like a rock unseen in the ocean by now. It was “Male and female he created them,” intended to guide Catholic teachers in maintaining the truth of sexual difference in the face of the transgender blitzkrieg. We know also that

the pope has called gender theory ‘evil’ and ‘dangerous,’ saying blurring and erasing the natural distinctions between men and women would ‘destroy at its roots’ God’s creation of humanity in ‘diversity, distinction.’ 

‘It would make everything homogenous, neutral,’ Francis was quoted saying in a book published earlier this year. ‘It is an attack on difference, on the creativity of God and on men and women.’

Catholic World Report, “Trump ‘honored’ by praise as ‘pro-gay’ President,” Aug. 20, 2020

It occurs to me that Francis likes to have his cake and eat it too. He speaks truth about sexual morality, about abortion, but flirts with the gentle notion that all religions are fine, which must mean nothing supernatural is particularly true, which would include any undergirding of sexual morality. He puts Pachamama and demon-bowls on the very altar of St. Peter’s, and yet concludes those rites months later with another document to say No, there won’t be married priests in the Amazon. “The Pope is still Catholic,” his most hopeful supporters sigh.

We’re glad he is. But if he goes on seeming to teach that all religions are basically okay and God appreciates the effort, even wills the diversity of them, which is what Bishop Athanasius Schneider asked for a correction and clarification about, then an orthodox (so far) focus on “the pelvic issues” may not be as important as we would like. It may almost amount to, as they say in sports, a head fake. If “all brothers” simply have their own little ways of thinking and believing, then to be Catholic may seem to mean belonging merely to a little group of people of exceptional prudery. Of exceptional intolerance. If the truth, “all things are yours and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s,”* is cut out from beneath us by our own leadership … well then.

Well then, what would it mean? It would mean we would be left alone, not dramatically spiritually, but in day to day life with people who see tolerance as the only virtue. They are now the majority. Or if not, they have changed the culture anyway. Their shock troops evangelize constantly anyway. It’s a safe bet that everyone, even the least interested in world affairs, will be easily made aware of this Pope’s fresh alignment with the world. The world has loved him from the day of his election anyway. My Marxist co-workers say, “at least this Pope is aware the planet is dying. At least he wants to do something about it.” Can you imagine the fodder Fratelli tutti will give late-night comics? “The Pope wrote an encyclical about universal brotherhood and ending war and poverty!” Pause. “Boy, the Catholics are pissed off.” Huge laughter.

Now is a good time to trowel in the line about the gates of hell not prevailing. But that too does not necessarily help us from day to day. We are kind of like the lists of names in St. Paul’s letters — small, unknown people, thrown together out of the blue with this “Paul” or “Barnabas,” trying to listen to this new story and these new truths which, if so, change everything. We are Epaphras, Evodia, Syntyche, although not nearly as brave as they who truly leaped into the faith from nothing. Our problem is that our Pauls and Barnabases seem, seem, often to be not that much into the whole thing. That’s a weird challenge.

*1 Cor. 3:23.

About Nancy

Freelance writer, retail floozie, savor-er of Flemish sour ales.
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