I suspect that I may be singing outside the chorus, but I must confess that I was a little disappointed in the recent Encyclical of Pope Francis, “Fratelli tutti.”
It was not that I had any reservations about its central theme, “Fraternity and Social Friendship.” On the contrary, I believe that it is a timely antidote to the individualism that today so pervades society and undermines the common good.
Like so many other commentators, too, I found the Pope’s exegesis of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in the second chapter of the Encyclical both inspiring and thought-provoking.
Further, his discussion of popular movements and “populism” in the central chapters was interesting and challenging, perhaps because it was tinged in places by the Peronism that is no small part of the Pope’s social and political history.
My disappointment principally arose, however, from the perception that, unlike his two more recent exhortations, “Amoris Laetitia” – “The Joy of Love” – and “Laudato Si” – “On Care for Our Common Home” – much of what the Pope recommends in the current Encyclical is second-hand and, in many instances, a repeat of ideas he had already explored in his former addresses. There are 288 footnotes to the Encyclical, and one has only to leaf through these to realise how often the Pope cites his own previous addresses and those especially of his two predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II. The repertoire of the Vatican script-writers does not seem to have a very extensive range.
Like so many other commentators, too, I was disappointed that among these 288 citations not one drew on a female source. There was certainly an attempt to moderate the masculinity of “Fratelli”, “fraternity” and “fraternal” by invoking “brothers and sisters” more than occasionally, but surely the sorority of female theologians, exegetes and mystics could have rated a mention if not in the text then at least in the footnotes. Aristotle, Virgil and the existential philosophers, Gabriel Marcel and Paul Ricoeur, are all there in the citations among the Popes and Fathers of the Church, but not even Saint Francis’ partner, Saint Clare, the Doctors of the Church like Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Catherine of Siena, let alone their contemporary female counterparts, seem to have appeared on the Pope’s citatory horizons.
As in “Amoris Laetitia”, it is in the final chapters of the Encyclical that the Pope is most radical. Once again, what he says is often a repeat, but his very insistence in this context is a challenge. We may, he says, forgive but we must never forget the Shoah, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nor should we pass over today “the persecutions, the slave trade and the ethnic killings that continue in various countries, as well as many other historical events that make us ashamed of our humanity.”
For war, it is “never again.” The Pope finds it difficult to conceive any contemporary situation in which the traditional regulations governing entry into, and conduct of, a just war could legitimately be applied. Nor will he accept that a stable peace can be built on the foundations of nuclear deterrence. Citing his own address to the United Nations in 2017, the Pope asks “…how sustainable is a stability based on fear, when it actually increases fear and undermines relationships of trust between peoples. International peace and stability cannot be based on a false sense of security, on the threat of mutual destruction or total annihilation or on simply maintaining a balance of power… In this context, the ultimate goal of the total elimination of nuclear weapons becomes both a challenge and a moral and humanitarian imperative.”
And then there is the death penalty. Once again, the Pope does not hesitate to reiterate his total opposition, going beyond John Paul II in revising the Church’s former limited acceptance. In addition to rehearsing the traditional arguments, the Pope goes out of his way to show that in rejecting the death penalty he is not innovating doctrine, a charge that has more frequently been levelled against him recently by the American conservative ecclesiastical Right. He invokes the authority of the early Church – Lactantius, Pope Nicholas I and even Saint Augustine, whose Just War rules he had summarily dismissed as no longer applicable in the current global context. But this time Augustine is on the side of the angels, and there is an extensive quotation from one of his epistles which concludes: “Do not let the atrocity of their sins feed a desire for vengeance.”
There are, too, some final remarks about prison conditions and specifically about imprisonment for life: “ A life sentence is a secret death penalty.” Once again, this is not a new concern of the Pope. In 2014 he addressed the delegates of the International Association of Penal Law. It was a wide-ranging speech addressing such issues as scapegoating and stereotyping individual offenders and groups, lack of proportionality in punishment, alternatives to incarceration, the distorting influence of the press and public opinion in sentencing, extra-legal and extra-judicial executions, extended pre-trial detention, high-security prisons, social isolation in prison, the death penalty, life imprisonment, concentration camps and clandestine detention centres, torture, international trafficking of offenders, the punitive abuse of children the elderly and the disabled, and finally dehumanising prison conditions generally and corruption in its many forms.
The Pope insists repeatedly that the human dignity even of convicted offenders should never be subordinated to social utility, still less to the desire for vengeance and retribution. Citing Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis reminds us that ”…not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.”
What is interesting in this penultimate chapter of the Encyclical is that it is these “life” issues – war, nuclear deterrence, the death penalty, imprisonment, corruption – rather than the “hot button” issues of abortion and euthanasia that the Pope chooses to address. This would seem to cast some doubt on the decision of the United States bishops to single out abortion as the “pre-eminent” issue in the recent presidential election. As in so many of his homilies, his addresses and his formal and informal exhortations, Pope Francis’ sympathies would seem to lie with the wider range of the “Consistent Ethic of Life” espoused by the late reviled Cardinal Joseph Bernardin rather than with the United States Conference’s current obsessions.
Fr Bill Uren SJ AO is scholar in residence at Newman College, Melbourne.