Pope Francis is often accused by his critics of being a leftist, a Marxist, a Communist, a liberal. Not surprisingly, many have argued that Fratelli Tutti is a “leftist” document, inspired by the ideas of Freemasonry, Liberation Theology, and socialism.
These accusations are quite ironic. I am not aware of any other encyclical by any pope that offers an explicit critique of a “leftist” approach (using that precise term, anyway). In Fratelli Tutti, Francis calls out such ideologies when he writes:
Love of neighbour is concrete and squanders none of the resources needed to bring about historical change that can benefit the poor and disadvantaged. At times, however, leftist ideologies or social doctrines linked to individualistic ways of acting and ineffective procedures affect only a few, while the majority of those left behind remain dependent on the goodwill of others (FT 165).
It is certainly true that the message of Fratelli Tutti focuses primarily on social issues that are usually associated with the political left, including immigration, the death penalty, war, and poverty. It is also true that this encyclical condemns, in no uncertain terms, many ideologies typically associated with the political right, such as nationalism, populism, globalism, and unbridled capitalism.
It is shallow and short-sighted, however, to jump from this to the conclusion that Fratelli Tutti adheres to a contemporary left-wing political ideology. For one thing, no ideology devised by humans will ever be in perfect alignment with Catholic social doctrine. For this reason alone, no social encyclical will ever perfectly mirror any political ideology.
To assert that Fratelli Tutti promotes a leftist ideology is a serious disservice to the Holy Father’s thought, since he has continuously worked to de-ideologize our faith. Additionally, this assertion is contrary to Fratelli Tutti itself, since the encyclical teaches that “no one solution, no single acceptable methodology, no economic recipe can be applied indiscriminately to all” (FT 167).
A primary purpose of any social encyclical is to correct the errors and excesses present in the ideologies of its day. Even when Francis denounces the dangers of nationalistic and capitalistic movements, he also warns us against ideological and extreme reactions from the opposing side.
Interestingly, according to the Holy Father, the dangers of such reactions differ from the concerns usually raised by right-wing pundits. While they tend to focus on the threat of a potential loss of freedom, Francis is much more concerned with the possibility of a potential loss of humanity.
A frequently-used argument in right-wing circles is, “you cannot legislate charity.” Their argument is that by redistributing wealth, the state not only infringes on the right to private property, but also prevents people from being charitable by choice. They suggest that government policies that redistribute wealth deprive people of the opportunity to exercise virtue and achieve sanctification through private charitable giving.
In Fratelli Tutti, Francis refutes this argument on two fronts. First, he expounds on the traditional principle that the right to private property is not an absolute right (FT 120). Catholic doctrine does not exclude the properly-ordered redistribution of wealth by the state. This is taught in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:
Looking after the common good means making use of the new opportunities for the redistribution of wealth among the different areas of the planet, to the benefit of the underprivileged that until now have been excluded or cast to the sidelines of social and economic progress (363; see also paragraphs 130, 303, 353, 355 in the Compendium).
This principle was reinforced by Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate, where he wrote that the economic system “needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics” (37).
Expanding on this point in Fratelli Tutti, Francis explains that “political charity” is vital for a just and fair society:
There is a kind of love that is “elicited”: its acts proceed directly from the virtue of charity and are directed to individuals and peoples. There is also a “commanded” love, expressed in those acts of charity that spur people to create more sound institutions, more just regulations, more supportive structures (…) It is an act of charity to assist someone suffering, but it is also an act of charity, even if we do not know that person, to work to change the social conditions that caused his or her suffering. If someone helps an elderly person cross a river, that is a fine act of charity. The politician, on the other hand, builds a bridge, and that too is an act of charity (FT 186).
“Political charity” is not at all an innovation from Francis. In fact, the term was used by the pre-conciliar Pope Pius XI in a 1927 address (see FT footnote 165). Pius also used “social charity” to describe the same concept in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno.
In Fratelli Tutti, Francis further explains that while it is true that acts of political charity done “even if we do not know the person” are possible and laudable, there are potential dangers to this kind of charity. Furthermore, this danger—which Francis very sharply diagnoses—is usually ignored by right-wing commentators. We know that “charity,” in the Christian context, is a form of love. When we only love others from a distance, we can depersonalize them very easily. A depersonalized charity is no charity at all, because love should always be directed towards a person. This danger greatly concerns Pope Francis. In Fratelli Tutti, he repeatedly emphasizes the importance of always being aware of the personhood of everyone in society, in every social class and across the political order:
Apart from their tireless activity, politicians are also men and women. They are called to practice love in their daily interpersonal relationships. As persons, they need to consider that “The modern world, with its technical advances, tends increasingly to functionalize the satisfaction of human desires, now classified and subdivided among different services. Less and less will people be called by name, less and less will this unique being be treated as a person with his or her own feelings, sufferings, problems, joys and family. Their illnesses will be known only in order to cure them, their financial needs only to provide for them, their lack of a home only to give them lodging, their desires for recreation and entertainment only to satisfy them”. Yet it must never be forgotten that “loving the most insignificant of human beings as a brother, as if there were no one else in the world but him, cannot be considered a waste of time” (FT 193).
Francis stresses that the exercise of political charity must always be rightly-ordered. Welfare systems, while necessary, cannot be ends unto themselves. They must be centered on the person they are created to serve. When a person becomes a mere line-item in an Excel spreadsheet, we make the same mistake as a disordered market that turns people into the cogs of a corporate machine. Man does not live by bread alone (Mt 4:4). A person’s dignity is as important to their welfare as their material well-being. Someone’s face is as much a part of them as is their stomach. Someone’s life is infinitely more than the sum of his or her needs.
If we have been paying attention, we know that the Holy Father has consistently been warning us about this problem, which he calls “assistentialism.” He first mentioned this in a 2017 speech:
A participatory society can not settle for the objective of pure solidarity and assistentialism, since a society that was characterised only by solidarity and assistance, without being fraternal, would be a society of unhappy and desperate people from whom everybody would try to flee, in extreme cases even by suicide.
A society in which the true fraternity dissolves is not capable of having a future; a society in which only “giving in order to have” or the “giving out of duty” exist, is not capable of progressing. That is why neither the liberal-individualist vision of the world, in which everything (or almost) is an exchange, nor the state-centric vision of society, in which everything (or almost) is a duty, are safe guides for overcoming inequality, inequity and exclusion that now overwhelm our societies. It is a search for a way out of the suffocating alternative between the neoliberal thesis and that neo-state-centric thesis. Indeed, precisely because market activity and the manipulation of nature – both driven by egoism, greed, materialism and unfair competition – at times know no limits, it is urgent to act on the causes of such malfunctions, especially in the financial field, rather than just correcting the effects.
More recently, Francis developed this idea further in a recent catechesis on the virtue of subsidiarity. While Catholic commentators often depict solidarity and subsidiarity as two opposing principles that we must keep in balance, Francis weaves these two values together in a seamless way. For Francis, subsidiarity is not opposed to solidarity, but is a particular expression of it. In his address, He acknowledged that “when single individuals, families, small associations and local communities are not capable of achieving primary objectives, it is right that the highest levels of society, such as the State, should intervene to provide the resources necessary to progress.” He then clarified that subsidiarity should not exclude the beneficiaries of social programs from being participants in the creation of these programs or from decision-making:
No, this doesn’t work. The first step is to allow the poor to tell you how they live, what they need: Let everyone speak! And this is how the principle of subsidiarity works.
He also decries the way that financial companies and large corporations have more input in the development of social programs that social movements and the people themselves. This leads to the depersonalization of those in need of assistance and is not rightly ordered:
Let us think of the great financial assistance measures enacted by States. The largest financial companies are listened to more than the people or the ones who really move the economy. Multinational companies are listened to more than social movements. Putting it in everyday language, the powerful are listened to more than the weak, and this is not the way, it is not the human way, it is not the way that Jesus taught us, it is not implementing the principle of subsidiarity. In this way, we do not permit people to be “agents in their own redemption” … There is this motto in the collective unconscious of some politicians or some trade unionists: everything for the people, nothing with the people.
Helping people without listening to them is not solidarity. It does not address their actual, concrete problems and concerns, but only a projection of what those problems might be, in the mind of a bureaucrat. True solidarity allows people to participate in their own assistance, by explaining how and why they need to be helped.
If a state (or supranational body) wants to assist people, then “everyone should be listened to, those who are at the top and those who are the bottom, everyone.” For Francis, “the contribution of individuals, of families, of associations, of businesses, of every intermediary body, and even of the Church, is decisive.” Also, the cultures and worldviews of the people must be affirmed and included. All of these concepts are in concert with what Pope Francis teaches in Fratelli Tutti regarding the respect owed to other cultures and social identities.
In the same catechesis, Francis also points the way forward, foreshadowing the central theme of Fratelli Tutti. “Either we do it together, or it will not work. … To emerge from the crisis means to change, and true change is done by everyone … If everyone does not contribute, the result will be negative.” As he says in Fratelli Tutti, “No one is saved alone” (FT 32).
Fratelli Tutti also develops Francis’s admonition against assistentialism. It is difficult not to notice the parallels between the encyclical and the 2017 catechesis on subsidiarity, when he speaks about social movements, saying:
They help make possible an integral human development that goes beyond “the idea of social policies being a policy for the poor, but never with the poor and never of the poor, much less part of a project that reunites peoples” (FT 186).
True welfare systems do not create dependency, but promote integration by increasing participation and personal responsibility. Francis advocates social welfare because it can help the poor advance toward fuller participation in society. He writes, “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). Francis even more clearly distances himself from the stereotypical left-wing paternalistic approach when he insists:
We should not expect everything from those who govern us, for that would be childish. We have the space we need for co-responsibility in creating and putting into place new processes and changes. Let us take an active part in renewing and supporting our troubled societies (FT 77).
Certainly, Pope Francis condemns an attitude of contempt or indifference for the poor, as well as the mentality of those who feel threatened by social programs for those in need, thinking these could “edge them out” from their current social status (FT 73). He also very strongly criticizes “a typically ‘mafioso’ pedagogy that, by appealing to a false communitarian mystique, creates bonds of dependency and fealty from which it is very difficult to break free” (FT 28).
What, then, are the hallmarks of a properly ordered welfare system, according to Fratelli Tutti? The same principles used by Francis in his teaching about immigration can easily be applied to assistance for any marginalized group. It can be “summarized in four words: welcome, protect, promote and integrate. For it is not a case of implementing welfare programs from the top down, but rather of undertaking a journey together, through these four actions” (FT 129).
In other words, the antidote to assistentialism is fraternity. He is not promoting fraternity as understood by secular cultures and systems, but true Christian fraternity. Francis sees assistentialism as solidarity without fraternity. Assistentialism is a form of depersonalization, in that it leads to a view in which we do not see others as brothers and sisters. The pope’s Christian understanding of fraternity is not a left-wing concept at all, but actually provides the proper antidote to a societal evil that is frequently overlooked in our political debate and discourse.
Those who accuse Francis and Fratelli Tutti of embracing a leftist ideology have overlooked or ignored all of these warnings and nuances in the document. Their political tribalism—their “us vs. them” mentality—has directed their focus to Francis’s critiques of their pet ideologies. It is difficult to believe that they have done anything other than read the document through the lens of their ideological opposition to him. Because his views do not align with those of their political camp, they have reflexively and irresponsibly categorized him as a “leftist.”
It is imperative—obligatory, even—that Catholics read and understand the magisterial teachings of the pope without political biases or a spirit of polarization. The overbearing influence of ideological views has hindered many Catholics from grasping the richness of Francis’s doctrinal wisdom. We should all be open to correction of any ideological excesses—or even idolatries—in our social projects, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. We have already seen the harm caused by the vicious cycle of conservatives and liberals reinforcing each other’s distorted understanding of this papacy. If we really want to help the poor and the marginalized, the sound principles delineated in Fratelli Tutti should serve as a guide to creating programs rooted in subsidiarity, solidarity, fraternity, and charity.
Image: Workhouse in Victorian London, ca. 1900. Public domain.
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.