I don’t think Pope Francis is recognized enough for his skill as a theologian. It is the Pope Emeritus who is, rightly, widely recognized as possessing a brilliant theological mind. Francis, on the other hand, is seen as the great pastor, or, as Austen Ivereigh recently put it, “the world’s spiritual director.” I have definitely been pastored by the pope. I’ve said often that if it wasn’t for Pope Francis showing me the mercy and grace of God our Father I don’t know if I’d still be Catholic. 

However, there are moments when I think Francis teaches a particularly brilliant theological point. If he were just a theologian I’d call it clever, but since he’s the pope I’ll say it’s inspired. His particular theological insights, I believe, come from his ability to read the signs of the times. His keen sense of what is really wrong in the Church and the world. Here I think of his teachings about pastoral accompaniment and neo-pelagianism (and there’s a lot I’ve written about them), but in this article I want to focus on a novel theological turn Francis made in Fratelli Tutti concerning immigration. 

The plight of migrants and refugees has been one of the pope’s main talking points throughout his pontificate. Francis is very aware of rising xenophobia and Nationalism around the globe as well as a growing fear and scapegoating of immigrants and refugees, so he addresses the rights of migrants head-on. However, the way he explains those rights in Fratelli Tutti is something I’ve never seen before in Catholic Social Teaching.

Chapter three is where Francis lays out his argument. Now, the third chapter is my favorite part of this encyclical. If chapter two—the reflection on the Parable of the Good Samaritan—is the heart of this document, then chapter three is the mind. Here the pope lays out a Christian anthropology, or a Christian understanding of the human person, that’s founded on our inalienable dignity and our vocation to love others. From this foundation the pope speaks about the doctrine of the universal destination of goods. 

Now this teaching isn’t new. Popes have written about the universal destination of goods pretty explicitly for the past century. This doctrine is based on Scripture, the Church Fathers, and St. Thomas Aquinas. I’ve written more in depth about this here. And both Dan Amiri and Bishop Barron have recently written about what Francis says about this teaching in Fratelli Tutti

In a nutshell, Francis expresses this doctrine by saying, “The world exists for everyone, because all of us were born with the same dignity” and “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable” for “the right to private property can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of the universal destination of created goods” (FT 118, 120). Simply put, private property is the most reasonable means to the end of developing and distributing the goods of the earth to all people. So while individuals have the right to private property, they don’t have the right to do whatever they want with it. The use of property must be ordered to the common good. We have the duty to give all excess wealth, anything beyond necessity and propriety, to those in need (Rerum Novarum 22). And the state has the “right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good” (CCC 2406) by redistributing wealth from those who have excess to those who lack what’s necessary.

While Francis expresses the doctrine of the universal destination of goods in a traditional way, it’s what he does next that I thought was new and compelling. The pope takes the principle that “the world exists for everyone” and applies it to migrants and national borders. He says:

“Nowadays, a firm belief in the common destination of the earth’s goods requires that this principle also be applied to nations, their territories and their resources. Seen from the standpoint not only of the legitimacy of private property and the rights of its citizens, but also of the first principle of the common destination of goods, we can then say that each country also belongs to the foreigner, inasmuch as a territory’s goods must not be denied to a needy person coming from elsewhere. As the Bishops of the United States have taught, there are fundamental rights that ‘precede any society because they flow from the dignity granted to each person as created by God’” (FT 124).

In other words, every person, because of their inalienable dignity, has a right to the goods necessary for “a developed and dignified life” and “the limits and borders of individual states cannot stand in the way of this” (FT 121). While the right to migrate is very established in Church teaching, I’ve never seen it explained from the principle of the universal destination of goods. I believe by invoking this principle, Francis is inviting us to view the relationship between a state’s right to regulate its borders and a person’s right to migrate the same way we recognize the relationship between private property and the universal right to the goods of the earth. I think there are three specific ways that these issues can be compared.

The first is that just as private property and the universal destination of goods are not in competition with each other, neither are national borders and the rights of migrants. Rather, the former is in service to the latter. The Catechism confirms this when it says that “Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions” (CCC 2241). Notice how the right to regulate national borders is in the service of the common good. Thus any law that restricts the right to migrate must serve the common good. Secure national borders are not absolute rights. Rather, they are means to the end of facilitating the rights of persons to access the resources and security needed to live and thrive.

This understanding of Church teaching is affirmed by the Bishops of Mexico and the United States, in their document, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope:

“The Church recognizes the right of a sovereign state to control its borders in furtherance of the common good. It also recognizes the right of human persons to migrate so that they can realize their God-given rights. These teachings complement each other. While the sovereign state may impose reasonable limits on immigration, the common good is not served when the basic human rights of the individual are violated. In the current condition of the world, in which global poverty and persecution are rampant, the presumption is that persons must migrate in order to support and protect themselves and that nations who are able to receive them should do so whenever possible”(paragraph 39).

Second, because the goods of the earth belong to everyone, if a starving parent steals a loaf of bread to feed themselves and their children, they aren’t actually stealing. It’s not just that they aren’t culpable because of their desperate circumstances, it’s that they have a natural right to the food they need in order to live (Gaudium et Spes 69, CCC 2408 ). Likewise, if a foreigner in search of “a place that meets their basic needs” and “where they can find personal fulfilment” (FT 129) is being unjustly prevented from legally emigrating to the United States and therefore enters “illegally,” they aren’t violating the moral law anymore than than the parent “stealing” bread. This is because “each country also belongs to the foreigner, inasmuch as a territory’s goods must not be denied to a needy person coming from elsewhere” (FT 124). Or as Bishop Thomas Wenski put it, “they are not breaking the law, the law is breaking them.”

Third, ideally the state shouldn’t need to redistribute the excess wealth of private citizens in order to promote human development and insure that others have what they need to survive. The pope says, “helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work” (FT 162). The demands of justice should compel each of us with means to use those means to promote human development without being forced to. But until that happens, we need to tax excess wealth and provide social safety nets for the poor. Likewise, the pope says that, “ideally, unnecessary migration ought to be avoided” (FT 129). Nobody should feel forced to leave their place of origin and be uprooted from their family, religion, and culture (FT 38). However, until that ideal is achieved, “we are obliged to respect the right of all individuals to find a place that meets their basic needs and those of their families, and where they can find personal fulfilment” (FT 129). 

By rooting the right to migrate in the universal destination of goods, Pope Fancis is showing us just how contrary “my country first” Nationalism is to the Gospel. By valuing national borders over the inalienable right for every person to live and thrive we are allowing “secondary rights” to “displace primary and overriding rights, in practice making them irrelevant” (FT 120). The pope is urging us to resist “the temptation to build a culture of walls, to raise walls, walls in the heart, walls on the land, in order to prevent this encounter with other cultures, with other people” (FT 27). Ultimately, if we deny the inalienable dignity of migrants we undermine the foundation for our own human rights. As Francis warns, “those who raise walls will end up as slaves within the very walls they have built” (FT 27).

At the end of that third chapter of Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis says that his proposals regarding the universal destination of goods “calls for an alternative way of thinking.” Otherwise his teaching “will sound wildly unrealistic” (FT 127).  However, if we are willing to let ourselves be challenged by the Gospel, if we are willing to dream together of a world firmly grounded on the dignity of all persons, “we can rise to the challenge of envisaging a new humanity. We can aspire to a world that provides land, housing and work for all” (FT 127). Pope Francis is challenging us to stop viewing the world as fallen human beings do, but to see the world as God does. Let us take up that challenge. 

Image credit: AnnaKate Auten on Unsplash

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Paul Fahey lives in Michigan with his wife and four kids. For the past eight years, he has worked as a professional catechist. He has an undergraduate degree in Theology and is currently working toward a Masters Degree in Pastoral Counseling. He is a retreat leader, catechist formator, writer, and a co-founder of Where Peter Is. He is also the founder and co-host of the Pope Francis Generation podcast. His long-term goal is to provide pastoral counseling for Catholics who have been spiritually abused, counseling for Catholic ministers, and counseling education so that ministers are more equipped to help others in their ministry.

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