Nor is it in our political playbook that a pope would call out an “every man for himself” worldview that “will rapidly degenerate into a free-for-all that would prove worse than any pandemic.”
Or say this: “The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith. Whatever the challenge, this impoverished and repetitive school of thought always offers the same recipes … the magic theories of ‘spillover’ or ‘trickle’ — without using the name.”
These are all Pope Francis’s words from his encyclical letter released Sunday, “Fratelli Tutti.” It translates literally “Brothers All,” words drawn from St. Francis of Assisi, although Francis was quick, in his first sentence, to address “brothers and sisters.” His purpose was to advance a worldview that stresses, as he put it, “the communitarian dimension of life” and values “fraternity and social friendship.”
There is, it should be said, no evidence that the pope is trying to influence the contest between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden. On the contrary, Francis has been making arguments along these lines from the beginning of his papacy and he has shown far more interest in the developing world than in the United States.
And lest anyone see his pronouncements as those of a “leftist” pope, he went out of his way to link his views on social justice and his opposition to the death penalty to those of Benedict XVI and John Paul II, his predecessors who are seen as more conservative figures.
Nonetheless, it will be hard for Americans, Catholic and otherwise, to read Francis outside the context of a presidential campaign in its decisive phase. The themes of his encyclical — a form of papal communication more formally authoritative than a sermon or a speech — will make it much harder for conservative and right-wing Catholics to insist that the only orthodox vote is for Trump.
Francis’s emphasis throughout was on denunciations of “empty individualism,” a “narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and even the mistreatment of those who are different,” and “a cool, comfortable and globalized indifference.”
As has been customary for him, the pope reiterated the church’s teaching against abortion — a word that does not appear directly in the document — but did so while discussing other social problems. For example, he cited his earlier condemnations of “a ‘throwaway’ world” that lacks respect for the “poor and disabled, ‘not yet useful’ — like the unborn — or ‘no longer needed’ — like the elderly.” And he denounced human trafficking as a “perversion that exceeds all limits when it subjugates women and then forces them to abort.”
At the same time, reflecting his effort to strengthen church teaching against capital punishment, Francis included 12 references to the death penalty, which he called “inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice.”
Francis stressed that the covid-19 pandemic “unexpectedly erupted” as he was writing, but he used it to advance his radical critique of a world unable “to resolve problems that affect us all.”
“Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality,” he wrote. “God willing, after all this, we will think no longer in terms of ‘them’ and ‘those’, but only ‘us’. … If only we might keep in mind all those elderly persons who died for lack of respirators, partly as a result of the dismantling, year after year, of healthcare systems.”
The document read as if Francis had been an attentive viewer of Tuesday’s nasty, chaotic and petty debate. Again, it was hard not to think of the president as Francis described “a strategy of ridicule, suspicion and relentless criticism.”
“Political life no longer has to do with healthy debates about long-term plans to improve people’s lives and to advance the common good, but only with slick marketing techniques primarily aimed at discrediting others,” he wrote. “In this craven exchange of charges and counter-charges, debate degenerates into a permanent state of disagreement and confrontation.”
Many Americans will no doubt resist seeing Francis’s political observations as infallible. But as a reminder of how far our politics have swung away from promoting the common good, this document is indispensable.