I’m going to be spending a good bit of time reflecting on and sharing about Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, so before I do, there are a couple of quick points I want to get out there for folks who don’t follow this stuff closely (which is almost everyone).
- Before I joined the Catholic Church, one of the things I was really hung up on was the whole idea of “papal infallibility,” the doctrine that the pope could make statements that were infallible. I think a lot of people, like me, thought that this was broadly extended, such that if, say, Pope Francis said “The Jaguars are going all the way this year,” it would be a fait accompli that Jacksonville fans would be celebrating a Super Bowl victory at the end of this season. Which we know is (almost certainly) not going to be the case. But the reality is, the doctrine of papal infallibility is restricted to matters of church doctrine, and even then, it has only been invoked twice in the history of the church. Papal encyclicals like Fratelli Tutti are not infallible in this regard.
- On the flip side, they aren’t nothing, either. Encyclicals are one of the highest forms of statements on doctrine and moral teachings that a pope can issue, and they are generally considered definitive statements on what the Church believes. They aren’t parts of the creed believers profess, but their teachings are cited as authoritative in the teaching documents of the Church such as the Catechism. Catholics who dissent from them should know that they are seriously at odds with what the Church teaches on that issue and should do so only after careful study, prayerful reflection, and ongoing openness to better appreciation to Church teaching. You are likely to see Catholics claim that what Francis says in Fratelli Tutti doesn’t really reflect Church teaching (which in most cases, they also said about Francis’ encyclical on creation, Laudato Si). They’re wrong, just as those who would say that Humanae Vitae’s teaching on marriage and artificial contraception isn’t really Church teaching. You may not like it, but it is Church teaching and Catholics need to take it very, very seriously before dissenting.
- It’s for everyone. Like Laudato Si, Pope Francis veers from the norm by writing Fratelli Tutti to an audience that extends beyond just Catholics. This isn’t unique to Francis, but it is pretty rare; the first pope to address an encyclical to a broader audience of people of goodwill was Pope St John XXIII (who I have said Francis’ papal approach closely compares).
- It isn’t about US. We in America aren’t used to the idea that we are not in the center of the picture, but the reality is, the Roman Catholic Church is a universal one, based in Vatican City (within Rome, Italy), with more members in Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines than in the US. The truth is, Pope Francis doesn’t wake up every day thinking about ways to antagonize or encourage American Catholics; in reality, he probably doesn’t think of us all that often. (If he did, he’d probably be more proactive in addressing the proto-schismatic divisions here that often border on heresy.) There are passages here that sound like distinctive critiques of the USA, and maybe they are. There are more passages, that Americans will read through an American lens, but actually reflect a much broader global trend of nationalism vs globalism. There will be some passages that don’t sound like they apply to the American experience at all. And most of it will be broadly applicable to life here and around the world.
- It isn’t all that new. Since Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891, popes have written on social and political issues. There are definitely wrinkles to what Francis has to say here, and I will likely argue that he could have helped himself by drawing more explicitly upon the works of his predecessors. But make no mistake, the major themes Francis lands on are extensions of Catholic teaching of the last 200 years and Christian proclamation dating back 2,000 years, adjusted to reflect the signs of the times.
- It is distinctly Francis, and Franciscan. I wrote before Fratelli Tutti came out about St. Francis of Assisi, whose name Jorge Bergoglio chose as pope, whose feast day Pope Francis chose to release Fratelli Tutti, whose tomb Pope Francis signed the document before, deep in the Assisi basilica dedicate to the 13th century saint’s life. You will see a lot of the themes I mentioned in my piece reflected in Fratelli Tutti (as well as in Laudato Si). Both break with longstanding tradition by having Italian titles (rather than Latin) taken from quotes of writings by St. Francis. But more than that, this document is a coherent weaving together of the themes Pope Francis has preached consistently (incessantly, some would say), since becoming pope in 2013.
OK. With those points of context, we’ll get started. My plan is to share highlights on a chapter-by-chapter basis, then maybe throw in a wrap up of where I think we could take this further than the page.
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