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.
St. 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. It states 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”.
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….
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….
The above comes from an Oct. 5 story in Catholic World Report.