There are two persistent criticisms used against Francis and his teachings by many of his detractors. The first is that the Holy Father is not concerned with squaring his (allegedly) new teachings with tradition and prior magisterium. The second claim is that he prefers to dwell on political issues rather than to teach doctrinal truth.
The latter argument is based on a flawed understanding of what truth or doctrine are. Prior to Francis’s election, there were a number of writers and academics within the Church who devoted a great deal of energy and ink in efforts to justify disregarding vast swathes of Catholic doctrine. They downplayed certain teachings by describing them as matters of mere “prudential judgment,” and developed an entire glossary of prepackaged talking points to defend their position. For these Catholics, “truth” was reduced to little more than Catholic dogmas on revealed matters of faith (such as Jesus’ divinity or the True Presence in the Eucharist) or concrete moral doctrines (especially matters of sexual morality).
Meanwhile, matters of Catholic social doctrine—including the preferential option for the poor, care for our planet’s environment, and the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity—were not portrayed as integral to the truth of our faith. In fact, in many cases, whenever these teachings were raised by the pope or the bishops, these Catholics would argue that doing so was “politicizing the faith.”
This hasn’t gone away. Today, when papal critics assert that Pope Francis failed to teach doctrine in Fratelli Tutti, and focused merely on politics, they once again ignore the doctrinal richness upon which the encyclical has its foundation. Fratelli Tutti builds upon all the social encyclicals that precede it, beginning with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, as well as the teachings of the early Church and the Gospel itself.
In this way, Fratelli Tutti achieves precisely the opposite of that first criticism. In this encyclical, the Holy Father very clearly aligns his teachings with the traditional teachings of the Catholic faith. In fact, throughout the document, Francis took great pains to demonstrate the continuity of this encyclical with tradition. I will be so bold as to say that Fratelli Tutti is Francis’s most traditional document to date.
I will give some examples that highlight the way Fratelli Tutti sheds light on the traditional roots of some of its most important teachings.
In no other area of Catholic Social Doctrine has been Francis accused more often of teaching in discontinuity with his predecessors (especially the pre-Vatican II popes) than on the death penalty. I attempted to answer that charge in an earlier article, specifically bringing up some examples of a forgotten tradition—where “lawful killing” is viewed as an evil, even if it was, at times, a necessary evil.
In Fratelli Tutti, Francis goes even deeper. He unearths even more examples from tradition that more deeply ground his revision to the Catechism (declaring the death penalty to be inadmissible) in the tradition of the Church:
“From the earliest centuries of the Church, some were clearly opposed to capital punishment. Lactantius, for example, held that ‘there ought to be no exception at all; that it is always unlawful to put a man to death’. Pope Nicholas I urged that efforts be made ‘to free from the punishment of death not only each of the innocent, but all the guilty as well’. During the trial of the murderers of two priests, Saint Augustine asked the judge not to take the life of the assassins with this argument: ‘We do not object to your depriving these wicked men of the freedom to commit further crimes. Our desire is rather that justice be satisfied without the taking of their lives or the maiming of their bodies in any part. And, at the same time, that by the coercive measures provided by the law, they be turned from their irrational fury to the calmness of men of sound mind, and from their evil deeds to some useful employment. This too is considered a condemnation, but who does not see that, when savage violence is restrained and remedies meant to produce repentance are provided, it should be considered a benefit rather than a mere punitive measure… Do not let the atrocity of their sins feed a desire for vengeance, but desire instead to heal the wounds which those deeds have inflicted on their souls’” (FT 256).
In his teaching about welcoming immigrants in Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis presents a series of scripture passages from both the Old and New Testaments, demonstrating the ancient roots of our faith’s tradition of hospitality, dating back to before the birth of Christ. For example, he writes,
In the oldest texts of the Bible, we find a reason why our hearts should expand to embrace the foreigner. It derives from the enduring memory of the Jewish people that they themselves had once lived as foreigners in Egypt:
‘You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Ex 22:21)” (FT 61).
Francis ties teachings from the Old Testament together with the logic of the New Testament in paragraphs 59 through 61. Then, beginning with paragraph 62, Pope Francis focuses on the fraternal love shown to a stranger in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which he explores with more detail throughout the rest of the encyclical.
Some critics have tried to pit Francis against Pope Leo XIII on their teaching about private property, claiming that their teachings conflict because one said that private property is not inviolable and the other said the opposite. Dan Amiri refutes that argument in his most recent piece. Also, it must be stressed that in the Spanish translation of Fratelli Tutti (in other words, Pope Francis’s native language), the word used in paragraph 120 is not “inviolable,” but “intocable” (better translated as “untouchable”). In other words, the Spanish version of the encyclical uses the word that appears in the teaching on private property found in the Compendium of Social Doctrine #177, both in its Spanish and English forms.
What seemed to go unnoticed was how, when Francis says that the right of private property is not untouchable, he is placing this right in its proper place in the context of tradition. He does this by bringing back from oblivion an ancient principle that dates back to the Fathers of the Church, but seems to have faded away from the consciousness of many Christians in the years since the first millennium: the principle of the Universal Destination of Goods. He writes:
“For my part, I would observe that ‘the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property’ … The right to private property can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of the universal destination of created goods. This has concrete consequences that ought to be reflected in the workings of society. Yet it often happens that secondary rights displace primary and overriding rights, in practice making them irrelevant” (FT 120).
Francis does not limit himself to asserting this extremely traditional principle, but draws from the Catholic tradition to prove his point:
“In the first Christian centuries, a number of thinkers developed a universal vision in their reflections on the common destination of created goods. This led them to realize that if one person lacks what is necessary to live with dignity, it is because another person is detaining it. Saint John Chrysostom summarizes it in this way: ‘Not to share our wealth with the poor is to rob them and take away their livelihood. The riches we possess are not our own, but theirs as well’. In the words of Saint Gregory the Great, ‘When we provide the needy with their basic needs, we are giving them what belongs to them, not to us’ … Once more, I would like to echo a statement of Saint John Paul II whose forcefulness has perhaps been insufficiently recognized: ‘God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone’ … All other rights having to do with the goods necessary for the integral fulfilment of persons, including that of private property or any other type of property, should – in the words of Saint Paul VI – ‘in no way hinder [this right], but should actively facilitate its implementation’” (FT 119-120).
On war, Pope Francis reaffirmed the traditional principle of the possibility of just war, while putting forth a strict warning about how it has been abused to justify every kind of war:
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the possibility of legitimate defence by means of military force, which involves demonstrating that certain ‘rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy’ have been met. Yet it is easy to fall into an overly broad interpretation of this potential right … In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war’. Never again war!” (FT 258)
This cry from the heart for an end to all wars has a footnote (242), in which Francis laments how the concept of just war is not upheld today. As the basis for his own appeal for an end to all wars, Francis quotes St. Augustine, the Church Father who developed the concept of just war, who wrote, “It is a higher glory still to stay war itself with a word, than to slay men with the sword, and to procure or maintain peace by peace, not by war.”
Finally, Francis quotes Pope St. John XXIII, who wrote in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, “It no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.”
In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis takes great care in placing his teachings on several topics in the context of the Church’s wider tradition. He reminds us that certain rights take precedence over secondary rights whose importance have become greatly overestimated over the years due to political and ideological influences. When he places human rights in their proper ordering in the hierarchy of Catholic values, Francis is not attacking tradition, but defending it very strongly.
Catholics today—born in an age when excesses have long been present in the minds of many— might mistake Francis’s attempts to restore ancient, neglected traditions for innovations. However, this is a mistake, an illusion created by the limits of human memory, which is always much shorter than the memory of the Church. When the age of a Church spans millennia, sometimes the only way to defend tradition is through the exercise of ressourcement.
Ultimately, Pope Francis is urging today’s Catholics to rediscover our traditional roots, explore our heritage, and take ownership of it. This is especially true in Fratelli Tutti, an encyclical that (as I wrote earlier this month) invites us to take a new, fresh perspective on tradition. In this sense, Fratelli Tutti is perhaps the most traditional document Francis has written. Those Catholics who pride themselves in being mindful of tradition would do well to read this encyclical and learn from the pope.
Image: By Pier Francesco Sacchi (circa 1485–1528). Four doctors of the Church represented with attributes of the Four Evangelists: St. Augustine with an eagle, St. Gregory the Great with a bull, St. Hieronymus with an angel, St. Ambrosius with a winged lion. Mbzt, 2012, CC BY 3.0, Link