Reading Fratelli Tutti on Mars Hill

Pope Francis point us to the ways of peace on earth, but he does not announce the gospel of the kingdom or proclaim the good news that this kingdom has already been opened to man through the saving work of Jesus Christ.

 Dr. Douglas Farrow 

“St. Paul Preaching at Athens” (1515) by Raphael [WikiArt.org]

The Abu Dhabi Declaration, last year’s ”Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” has been a notorious source of controversy in the Catholic Church. It is backed now by Pope Francis’s new encyclical, Fratelli tutti, in which is pursued the pontiff’s hope that the aspiration to universal fraternity and social friendship will be reborn among people of good will.

The Declaration itself features prominently in the encyclical’s concluding section, where it is reiterated that “a journey of peace is possible between religions.” To that claim is added another: that the journey’s “point of departure must be God’s way of seeing things” (§281). This welcome addition will by no means quell the controversy, however, for it would seem to imply that God’s way of seeing things, at least as regards the fundamentals of peace, is accessible to humans generally; indeed, that religions unenlightened by the covenant between God and man in Jesus Christ – even religions that reject that covenant – are nonetheless capable of grasping and conveying God’s way of seeing things and of acting on what they see. The only proviso is that “without an openness to the Father of all, there will be no solid and stable reasons for an appeal to fraternity” (§272).

In support of that proviso, Francis invokes Caritas in veritate, where at §19 Benedict XVI remarks that “reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity.” It must be observed, however, that Benedict, for his part, has already anchored his appeal for fraternity in the charity that arises through grace. “Its source is the wellspring of the Father’s love for the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Love comes down to us from the Son” (CV 5). And Benedict adverts to this again in the paragraph in question (CV 19).

In Fratelli tutti there is no such christological anchor. The appeal is strictly to God’s work as maker and sustainer of the world, and not at all to his eternal generation of the Son or to the gift of the incarnate Son as a man among men, through whom knowledge of the Father and of God’s way of seeing things is mediated. That most crucial text of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew 11:27 and parallels – the text so powerfully expounded by the entire Gospel of John – does not appear in the encyclical. The word “Son” itself does not appear. Neither does the divine Name, the triune Name used in baptism, though the words “Trinity of love” appear, at the very end, in “An Ecumenical Christian Prayer” that follows a universal “Prayer to the Creator.”

Consideration of “the fraternity that our common Father asks of us” (§46), then, is left entirely to the order of creation without attention to the incarnate Son who is at the centre of that order, through whom it is also redeemed (Col. 1:15ff.). In Fratelli tutti “the splendid secret that shows us how to dream and to turn our life into a wonderful adventure” is not the secret of the Father’s knowledge of the Son and of the Son’s unique – and otherwise inaccessible – knowledge of the Father. It is a common property of man qua man even without reference to Jesus Christ. “Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all” (§8).

The encyclical does refer us to Jesus, but only as a teacher and model. We are reminded, for example, that “Jesus never promoted violence or intolerance.” (Curiously, his cleansing of the temple with a whip goes unmentioned, while his saying “not peace, but a sword” is carefully explained.) The pope’s own namesake is likewise offered as a model, albeit in a fashion that has rightly been criticized as misleading. As Samuel Gregg observes, the uninformed reader would never guess the real nature of St Francis’s encounter with Sultan Malik-El-Kamil, which in the opening paragraphs of Fratelli tutti is not presented as the bold and extremely risky missionary venture it was, but rather as an illustration of conflict-avoidance through “fraternal subjection.”

It will be pointed out that this social encyclical (which, like the previous one, is addressed formally to no one and materially to everyone) should not be held to the standards of encyclicals devoted directly to the Church. If it inspires “people of good will” in their search for peace on earth, has it not done its proper work? Yet a consensus seems to be forming that this lengthy encyclical sums up the entire project of this pontificate. The rejoinder will come: Really? Does Francis himself see it in that light? He denies, after all, that he is attempting “to offer a complete teaching on fraternal love;” he seeks only to consider its universal scope, its openness to every man and woman” (§6). Then again, perhaps that is the project of his pontificate: to say and to demonstrate that authentic fraternal love is nothing if not both particular and universal, both local and global.

If that is the case, what shall we say of this Franciscan project? Like Paul among the pagans on Mars Hill, Francis speaks of the fact that all men are in some sense “God’s offspring” (Acts 17:29), who ought therefore to be respected and treated as such. Anyone open to God will see that he must try to do just that. Unlike Paul, however, Francis does not go on from there to speak of the fact that God’s own solicitous care for man is aimed at uniting human beings to himself in Jesus Christ. Nor, in the present encyclical, are we given any hint at all that God, having previously “overlooked the times of ignorance…, now commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man he has appointed” (Acts 17:30f.). Francis point us, sometimes quite eloquently, to the ways of peace on earth, but he does not announce the gospel of the kingdom or proclaim the good news that this kingdom has already been opened to man through the saving work of Jesus Christ. He does not, like Paul, undertake to explain or present the Christ.

Francis does speak of the Christian gospel as the source of his own convictions. “Others drink from other sources. For us the wellspring of human dignity and fraternity is in the gospel of Jesus Christ. From it, there arises, ‘for Christian thought and for the action of the Church, the primacy given to relationship, to the encounter with the sacred mystery of the other, to universal communion with the entire human family, as a vocation of all’” (§277). But, in doing so, he is content to leave aside the actual content of this gospel and to construe its public implications in these highly abstract terms – terms that would certainly have puzzled Paul, who like St. Peter thought the gospel “more precious than gold,” even the political gold of social friendship and human fraternity that ameliorates life in this vale of tears. I have little doubt that this abstraction would have puzzled Leo XIII as well, the founder of the modern social encyclical tradition who doesn’t merit a single mention in more than 40,000 words; for his part, Leo was always dropping christological anchors (as at Rerum novarum 21ff., for example).

Since every bishop, and the bishop of Rome above all, shares with the apostles a divine office for the purpose of making “the Word of God fully known” (Col. 1:25), we are right to ask whether it is even possible to prescind from the task of offering a more or less complete teaching on fraternal love in order to focus only on its scope, its universality in principle. If indeed Fratelli tutti is delivered us by way of recapitulation, not only of the Abu Dhabi Declaration but also of the teaching ministry of this pontificate, we must enquire as to whether we have received thus far only the first half of it. May we expect a sequel in which the apostolic task is completed by a thorough account of the love and justice and power of God in Jesus Christ, a sequel in which the scandal of particularity reappears? Or must we concede that the impression left by the encyclical’s concluding “Prayer to the Creator” is the impression Francis means to leave, and is content to leave, as a more or less final impression? Surely not! For in that case the Bishop of Rome would seem merely to be echoing Adolf von Harnack’s message in What is Christianity? – the message that, at its core, Christianity, is simply a form of life that expresses the universal fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man.

Let those who take the opposite view, supposing that the pontiff would do very well to leave things as they now stand, recall that Harnack, the esteemed professor in Berlin who helped transform Protestant Christianity into a social program for peace on earth among people of good will, is the very same man who helped draft Kaiser Wilhelm’s speech of 4 August, 1914, on the eve of the First World War. From that disastrous choice, thankfully, this one good came: his former student, the young Karl Barth, was horrified enough to rouse himself from his own “dogmatic slumbers” and to lead a vital portion of the Protestant world to “begin again all over again at the beginning, with Jesus Christ.” It was in honor of his labors to that end that Barth was invited, some fifty years later, to become an observer at Vatican II, though ill health prevented him from doing so.

More than a few Catholics would like to see Pope Francis, despite his age, following Barth’s lead, so to say, rather than Harnack’s. Some would even like to see him emulate Jesus by using a whip to cleanse the Vatican precincts of all those who have exchanged the gospel of Jesus Christ for another gospel or by their way of life denied the Lord who bought them. There may be little reason now to expect such developments, despite the recent dismissal of Cardinal Becciu. But sooner or later there must be such developments, for Catholic Christianity is not and cannot be a religion of the universal fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man – not without the christological and eschatological qualifications supplied by Paul on Mars Hill and by Augustine in The City of God. For there are in the saeculum two cities, not one, two fraternities, not one. To pass over that (as I pointed out when Caritas appeared) is not to build fraternity but to bake bricks for Babel.

Catholic Christianity is the religion, precisely the religion, propounded by Paul on Mars Hill: a generous and welcoming and solicitous religion, yes; a religion of peace and readiness for dialogue, a religion that cooperates with divine providence in the care of peoples and nations; but ever and always also a religion that proclaims, openly and without hint of embarrassment, that what the peoples of the world most require to know is that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

This is what every Mass attests. This is what Paul told the Stoics and Epicureans. This is what St Francis told the Sultan and what Pope Francis should tell the Grand Imam, if he hasn’t already. This is what we should tell our neighbors, as well as show our neighbors. For there is no other way to be anyone’s brother or sister, Christianly speaking, except by both showing and telling. If the global and the local, “universal fraternity and social friendship,” are “two inseparable and equally vital poles” (§142), so likewise, both locally and globally, are showing and telling. Here too – here far more certainly! – we must say that “to separate them would be to disfigure each and to create a dangerous polarization.”

Why? Because, as Gaudium et Spes insisted, putting down its own christological anchor at §22, “the truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”

Editor’s note: This is the sixth of several CWR essays on Fratelli Tutti and related topics. The other essays are:
• “Fratelli Tutti is a familiar mixture of dubious claims, strawmen, genuine insights” (Oct. 5, 2020) by Samuel Gregg
• “An encyclical filled with tensions and omissions” (Oct. 8, 2020) by Paulo Futili
• Fratelli Tutti and its critics” (Oct. 9, 2020) by Larry Chapp
• “Culture, dialogue, religion, and truth in Fratelli Tutti (Oct. 9, 2020) by Eduardo Echeverria
• “Brothers without Borders: Pope Francis’s Quasi-Humanitarian Manifesto” (Oct. 10, 2020) by Daniel J. Mahoney



About Dr. Douglas Farrow 15 ArticlesDouglas Farrow is Professor of Theology and Christian Thought at McGill University, and the author of several books including Theological Negotiations: Proposals in Soteriology and Anthropology (Baker Academic, 2018) and a new commentary on Thessalonians (Brazos, 2020).

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working4christtwo

I am an Informed and fully practicing Roman Catholic

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