As a non-Catholic, I do not often find myself reading papal encyclicals, or letters written by the Pope that reflect upon questions of morals and doctrine. But last week, some friends of mine urged me to take a look at Pope Francis’s most recent one.
Entitled “Fratelli tutti,” the document focuses upon the themes of fraternity and social friendship. More than an abstract analysis of Scripture, Fratelli tutti is an open critique of globalization, trickle-down economics, nationalism and even liberalism at large. I, for one, was surprised by the immediate relevance of the document and its diagnosis. Pope Francis offers a profound commentary on the state of global politics, one that is addressed to all “people of good will,” not just Catholics.
Francis begins by decrying the end of historical consciousness. As he puts it, “a kind deconstructionism, whereby human freedom claims to create everything starting from zero, is making headway in today’s culture.” In other words, the glorification of individual autonomy has dismembered our shared sense of solidarity, as well as our cultural particularisms. As an example, Francis laments the youth’s disregard for older generations, a phenomenon that I also deplored two weeks ago. Ultimately, he argues that our identities as social and political animals have been replaced by the utility-obsessed mind-set of homo economicus.
For Francis, the forces driving this phenomenon are manifold. First and foremost, the “dogma of neo-liberal faith” has promoted the rise of “empty individualism.” The Pope denounces the unaccountability of financiers, the lack of economic redistribution and the absence of genuine cooperation between developed and developing countries. From the encyclical’s very beginning, Francis lambasts the utter inability of politicians to reign in the forces of the market. One particular passage deserves to be quoted at length:
“Local conflicts and disregard for the common good are exploited by the global economy in order to impose a single cultural model … We are more alone than ever in an increasingly massified world that promotes individual interests and weakens the communitarian dimension of life.”
Fratelli tutti reads like a communitarian manifesto. As the name implies, the communitarian tradition blends cultural conservatism and economic progressivism. The point of this philosophy is to revitalize our sense of community, both as a source of meaning and as a vector of solidarity. Unrepresented in American politics, communitarianism is more vibrant in countries such as my native Morocco, where common religious axioms underpin society.
While the communitarian message could be — or, rather, should be — just as relevant in multi-religious nations such as the United States, both sides of the aisle proved unable to receive the Pope’s message.
The Right failed by not acting. By and large, conservative leaders did not react to Francis’ ardent critique of laissez-faire economics, nor will they. The conservative Catholic journalist Alexandra DeSanctis even tweeted: “If you’re using the phrase ‘magic theories’ to describe the principles of free- market economics, you probably don’t need to be writing about economics.” Yet Francis is right: Conservatives tend to ignore the cultural ramifications of their economic policies.
For instance, there exists an inverse correlation between abortion rates and welfare programs. In other words, genuine pro-lifers should support economic redistribution, which remains the best way to decrease abortion rates. The same observation applies to other topics: If conservatives wanted to preserve rural communities, which tend to be more traditionalist, they would make sure that no one has to leave these communities because of socioeconomic precarity. In short, Francis rightly argues that unchaperoned capitalism is incompatible with the kind of community building that conservatives supposedly champion.
As for the Left, while activists have largely welcomed Francis’s message, a lot of progressive journalists reacted exactly as you would expect — that is, by criticizing the encyclical for its “non-inclusive” title. While “Fratelli” does refer to a sense of “brotherhood,” four clarifications are in order. First, debates surrounding linguistic inclusivity are almost nonexistent outside the English-speaking world. Second, Italians have used “Fratelli” in a gender-inclusive way for centuries. Third, the expression “Fratelli tutti” comes from St. Francis of Assisi’s “Admonitions,” a 13th-century document that the pontiff could not rewrite for the occasion. Fourth, and most important, this reaction exemplifies the kind of empty moral posturing that Francis denounces.
Indeed, Fratelli tutti is the most progressive encyclical ever written. The document critiques the death penalty, nationalism, anti-immigration rhetoric, unbridled capitalism, mass inequalities and corporate-driven globalization. In fact, Francis discusses women’s rights at length, exhorting all nations to promote and protect gender equality. In this context, pardon the irony, but the fact that progressive journalists reacted to the encyclical by focusing on its “non-inclusive” title is rather conspicuous.
In a way, Francis attacks both sides for their misdirected priorities. While his communitarian message is unlikely to reshape American politics, we would do well to heed to his call. Yale students in particular, who will have to choose between the siren calls of investment banking and the arduous path of change-making, should pay attention.
Because ultimately, it is our responsibility to reinstate this lost sense of faith and place.
MATHIS BITTON is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. His columns run on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .