I have to admit that I crammed Pope Francis' recent encyclical the day after it was released. I stayed up a little too late. Oops.
So I have been slowly digesting it and revisiting it, sadly sometimes prompted by manifestations of the rebellious spirit so common in our holy Church today. It is a great tragedy that so many otherwise faithful Catholics are being and have been sucked into this rebellious mindset and are being led to embrace the way of spiritual pride to the detriment to their souls. I am doing my level best to keep this site focused on reflections and exhortations rather than getting embroiled in the controversies. I want this site to be building us up and edifying, assisting us all to greater holiness. So this is one such reflection and commentary on a recent teaching by the Successor of St. Peter.
(Aside: For those who have concerns and questions about things you hear and by criticisms from those who honestly should know better, I cannot recommend Where Peter Is enough. The folks who run it and contribute there are performing a great selfless act of love towards the Church. They help to foster the faithful docility I have written about already here.)
There was one part of the encyclical that really convicted me personally. And it's the section on "Social and Political Charity." As that was stewing in the back of my mind, I ran across this excerpt from the prophet Malachi, in the Office of Readings about a week ago:
I will draw near to you for judgment,
and I will be swift to bear witness
Against the sorcerers, adulterers, and perjurers,
those who defraud the hired man of his wages,
Against those who defraud widows and orphans;
those who turn aside the stranger,
and those who do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
Together with the related second reading, in the proper of seasons on that same day (from Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes #40):
Pursuing the saving purpose which is proper to her, the Church does not only communicate divine life to men but in some way casts the reflected light of that life over the entire earth, most of all by its healing and elevating impact on the dignity of the person, by the way in which it strengthens the seams of human society and imbues the everyday activity of men with a deeper meaning and importance. Thus through her individual matters and her whole community, the Church believes she can contribute greatly toward making the family of man and its history more human.
These resonated and reinforced what the Holy Father is teaching in this area. And of course it is not just his teaching. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church clearly teaches us this as well. Throughout Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis draws heavily on it and its sources. Our social/political work is the work of spreading the light and love of Christ over the earth; it is not attempting to create a humanistic utopia, as the Holy Father has reiterated numerous times.
I say I was convicted because I admit to being one who is not a fan of politics and have often railed against them as a detriment and distraction from seeking holiness. They tend to be corrupt, yes, but mostly I object because it seems to me that the average American spends far too much time, energy, and anxiety into fruitlessly arguing about them. This leads them to neglect far more important things like prayer and spiritual reading and a whole host of good works they could spend that time on instead.
I've seen this waste of time and energy on politics in my own life and actively struggle against it. We seem to politicize everything, and it has led to such great polarization, which is an evil that imbues us with implicit distrust of others, mutual demonization, political paralysis, and an inability to hear and learn from each other.
And many seem to make politics into an idol, elevating it above their Faith and putting their hope in it much more so than God. When we are terribly anxious about the outcome of an election and believe that if [our side] doesn't win then we face certain doom, I think that shows this has happened in our hearts. I have heard so many times things like "we are standing on the edge of the abyss" and "this is the most important election ever." I have seen folks on both sides of the aisle speak with great worry and fear about what will happen if the other side wins.
Do we not have faith? Do we not have hope in God? If so, there is no need for such fear and anxiety, nor should we be placing our hope and trust in political candidates and parties. Our hope needs to remain firmly rooted in God alone.
It is tempting in the face of all this (for me at least) to more or less "cancel" politics and just focus on the spiritual life and my family, but as much as I'd like to do that, I would be neglecting a key part of our call as Christians towards evangelistic charity.
Understanding Social and Political Charity
Some suggest that the Holy Father and our bishops are too political. I admit I have thought this in the past. I now see that I was wrong to do so. This is a point on which the Holy Father has challenged me personally, most recently in Fratelli Tutti (FT). And the reading above seems to me to reinforce it. Let's read together. All emphases are my own.
FT 176 starts its section on "Social and Political Charity" thus:
176. For many people today, politics is a distasteful word, often due to the mistakes, corruption and inefficiency of some politicians. There are also attempts to discredit politics, to replace it with economics or to twist it to one ideology or another. Yet can our world function without politics? Can there be an effective process of growth towards universal fraternity and social peace without a sound political life?
I felt convicted after reading that, because I have certainly been a vocal critic of politics.
A bit later, starts a subsection on "political love" that really brings it home:
180. Recognizing that all people are our brothers and sisters, and seeking forms of social friendship that include everyone, is not merely utopian. It demands a decisive commitment to devising effective means to this end. Any effort along these lines becomes a noble exercise of charity. For whereas individuals can help others in need, when they join together in initiating social processes of fraternity and justice for all, they enter the “field of charity at its most vast, namely political charity”. This entails working for a social and political order whose soul is social charity. Once more, I appeal for a renewed appreciation of politics as “a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good”.
181. Every commitment inspired by the Church’s social doctrine is “derived from charity, which according to the teaching of Jesus is the synthesis of the entire Law (cf. Mt 22:36-40)”. This means acknowledging that “love, overflowing with small gestures of mutual care, is also civic and political, and it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world”. For this reason, charity finds expression not only in close and intimate relationships but also in “macro- relationships: social, economic and political”.
182. This political charity is born of a social awareness that transcends every individualistic mindset: “‘Social charity makes us love the common good’, it makes us effectively seek the good of all people, considered not only as individuals or private persons, but also in the social dimension that unites them”. Each of us is fully a person when we are part of a people; at the same time, there are no peoples without respect for the individuality of each person. “People” and “person” are correlative terms. Nonetheless, there are attempts nowadays to reduce persons to isolated individuals easily manipulated by powers pursuing spurious interests. Good politics will seek ways of building communities at every level of social life, in order to recalibrate and reorient globalization and thus avoid its disruptive effects.
Having been raised in our American culture and also as a Protestant, I was formed strongly in an individualistic mindset. This is one area that was an eye opener for me in my journey into (and now in) Catholicism. There is a much greater awareness of our social nature as human beings, and the implications of that. I think I still have a long way to go on this point.
Pope Francis is calling us out on this. He highlights the undeniable reality that together we can achieve greater things, and also, some things require political activity to make real our love to others and to reflect the light of Christ over all the earth, as GS 40 says above.
184. Charity is at the heart of every healthy and open society, yet today “it is easily dismissed as irrelevant for interpreting and giving direction to moral responsibility”. Charity, when accompanied by a commitment to the truth, is much more than personal feeling, and consequently need not “fall prey to contingent subjective emotions and opinions”. Indeed its close relation to truth fosters its universality and preserves it from being “confined to a narrow field devoid of relationships”. Otherwise, it would be “excluded from the plans and processes of promoting human development of universal range, in dialogue between knowledge and praxis”. Without truth, emotion lacks relational and social content. Charity’s openness to truth thus protects it from “a fideism that deprives it of its human and universal breadth”.
185. Charity needs the light of the truth that we constantly seek. “That light is both the light of reason and the light of faith”, and does not admit any form of relativism. Yet it also respects the development of the sciences and their essential contribution to finding the surest and most practical means of achieving the desired results. For when the good of others is at stake, good intentions are not enough. Concrete efforts must be made to bring about whatever they and their nations need for the sake of their development.
Here we see him elevating the notion that love that eschews right reason is not truly charitable. This implies a rejection of accepting and normalizing behaviors that are morally wrong and detrimental--even if it might feel more caring to endorse them. It inherently rejects the basis of gender ideology (relativism and individualism), which is contrary to the objective truths of our bodies, our human nature as understood in natural law, and revealed truth. The Pope has publicly rejected the new gender ideology numerous times, so this is in accord with that.
He also reiterates here the importance of not rejecting or being excessively skeptical about science and that we should rather embrace it when it can help realize concrete charity towards human persons. He also emphasizes that we cannot simply think good thoughts towards others, that it is not enough to just believe we ought to do good for others--we need to actually get up off our duffs and do it!
186. 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 follows that “it is an equally indispensable act of love to strive to organize and structure society so that one’s neighbour will not find himself in poverty”. 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. While one person can help another by providing something to eat, the politician creates a job for that other person, and thus practices a lofty form of charity that ennobles his or her political activity.
Here he is combatting the prevalent notion that charity ought to be exclusively in the realm of personal/private initiative. He uses the provocative term "commanded love," which I think (based on what follows) is meant to say that the use of taxation to support the realization of this political love can be necessary, contrary to the Libertarian claim that all taxation is theft. And he gives some specific examples of how sometimes greater--and more lasting--good can be achieved through political solutions. It also includes laws that "command" us to avoid evil by assigning penalties, and regulations that prevent the abuse of workers or the environment. It includes legal structures like marriage that encourage right relationships between the sexes, and so on.
187. This charity, which is the spiritual heart of politics, is always a preferential love shown to those in greatest need; it undergirds everything we do on their behalf. Only a gaze transformed by charity can enable the dignity of others to be recognized and, as a consequence, the poor to be acknowledged and valued in their dignity, respected in their identity and culture, and thus truly integrated into society. That gaze is at the heart of the authentic spirit of politics. It sees paths open up that are different from those of a soulless pragmatism. It makes us realize that “the scandal of poverty cannot be addressed by promoting strategies of containment that only tranquilize the poor and render them tame and inoffensive. How sad it is when we find, behind allegedly altruistic works, the other being reduced to passivity”. What are needed are new pathways of self-expression and participation in society. Education serves these by making it possible for each human being to shape his or her own future. Here too we see the importance of the principle of subsidiarity, which is inseparable from the principle of solidarity.
He reiterates that the heart of politics ought to be charity aimed at recognizing, protecting, and elevating human dignity. This is the fundamental principle behind what he is teaching in Fratelli Tutti. It is why he draws so heavily on the parable of the Good Samaritan, because that teaching from Christ is about charity towards all people, even strangers (see Malachi above), even "those people" that we disagree with, even those we are tempted to see as our enemies (Matt 5:43ff).
Who is our neighbor? It is every human being. Even the Democrats. Even the Republicans. Even the "right-wing nutjobs." Even the "left-wing socialists." Even the Muslims. Even the Israelis. Even the Chinese. Even the Russians. All of them. No one is beyond the scope of deserving our charity.
He also notes, which I think conservatives generally would agree on, that the goal should not be to make people dependent--"reduced to passivity." He likens that approach as making people childish in #77:
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.
He makes this point more explicit in 162:
The biggest issue is employment. The truly “popular” thing – since it promotes the good of the people – is to provide everyone with the opportunity to nurture the seeds that God has planted in each of us: our talents, our initiative and our innate resources. This is the finest help we can give to the poor, the best path to a life of dignity. Hence my insistence that, “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”.
This excludes any notion of long-term dependence on the government for direct financial assistance. So it implicitly excludes forms of government that have this as a central feature. It certainly does not prescribe communism or socialism but rather a realized compassion that 1) helps people directly when they have pressing needs but 2) prioritizes solutions (through education, training, etc.) that will enable them to gain dignified work that keeps them well above the poverty line, that is, employment that enables people to live a dignified life, one that is not beset by constant fear of how they will make ends meet and care for and raise their children so that they, too, can live dignified lives. This teaching is part and parcel of the perennial social doctrine of the Church.
And the solidarity he mentions in 187 above is elaborated in 116, emphasizing its inherent communal nature:
The needy generally “practise the special solidarity that exists among those who are poor and suffering, and which our civilization seems to have forgotten or would prefer in fact to forget. Solidarity is a word that is not always well received; in certain situations, it has become a dirty word, a word that dare not be said. Solidarity means much more than engaging in sporadic acts of generosity. It means thinking and acting in terms of community. It means that the lives of all are prior to the appropriation of goods by a few. It also means combatting the structural causes of poverty, inequality, the lack of work, land and housing, the denial of social and labour rights. It means confronting the destructive effects of the empire of money... Solidarity, understood in its most profound meaning, is a way of making history, and this is what popular movements are doing”.
Here Pope Francis is excluding the notion again that we must rely only on private/individual charity. That is an idea I have embraced in the past. It is tempting, especially when we see government waste and bureaucracy, but an honest perspective shows that a both-and approach is better. That is, we ought not, as Pope Francis taught, "expect everything from the government" but also that we should not totally eschew government assistance, either.
And in addition to program-oriented assistance, we need to fix forms of social injustice that are still baked into our laws, to truly ensure that everyone has access to the means to live a dignified life. This starts with protecting life itself, includes all kinds of helps throughout one's life, and ensuring that we protect dignity at the end of life.
He teaches in #165:
True charity is capable of incorporating all these elements in its concern for others. In the case of personal encounters, including those involving a distant or forgotten brother or sister, it can do so by employing all the resources that the institutions of an organized, free and creative society are capable of generating. Even the Good Samaritan, for example, needed to have a nearby inn that could provide the help that he was personally unable to offer. 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. This demonstrates the need for a greater spirit of fraternity, but also a more efficient worldwide organization to help resolve the problems plaguing the abandoned who are suffering and dying in poor countries. It also shows that there is no one solution, no single acceptable methodology, no economic recipe that can be applied indiscriminately to all. Even the most rigorous scientific studies can propose different courses of action.
So we should use whatever just means we need to in order to achieve just ends. Do not stand on ideological principles that obstruct the practice of concrete charity. In saying there is no one solution, he is clearly and obviously not advocating for a specific form of government but rather the principle that politics and government can and should be used to effect greater charity than is possible only based on individual/private initiative.
Yes, this does exclude some principles and tendencies of some political ideologies, but it by no means implies, as some infer, that he is suggesting the often ill-defined boogeyman of "socialism" and also not communism. These are rightly rejected by the Church on the same principles that the Holy Father is arguing from--charity with a view towards the full recognition, protection, and promotion of the dignity of the human person.
Skipping forward a bit (I definitely recommend reading all but am trying to not reproduce it all here, believe it or not):
190. Political charity is also expressed in a spirit of openness to everyone. Government leaders should be the first to make the sacrifices that foster encounter and to seek convergence on at least some issues. They should be ready to listen to other points of view and to make room for everyone. Through sacrifice and patience, they can help to create a beautiful polyhedral reality in which everyone has a place. Here, economic negotiations do not work. Something else is required: an exchange of gifts for the common good. It may seem naïve and utopian, yet we cannot renounce this lofty aim.
192. In this regard, Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb and I have called upon “the architects of international policy and world economy to work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and of living together in peace; to intervene at the earliest opportunity to stop the shedding of innocent blood”. When a specific policy sows hatred and fear towards other nations in the name of its own country’s welfare, there is need to be concerned, to react in time and immediately to correct the course.
This teaching excludes the notion of presumed hostility towards others based solely on their nationality. This implies, of course, what Malachi and many other passages of Scripture mention in terms of welcoming the stranger. It reinforces that everyone is our neighbor, even persons from countries or religions who may at times threaten us. It does not imply completely open borders or naively ignoring real dangers. There is a right, just middle way between nationalism and "one world government."
And one of the more interesting and telling concepts in all of this is found in the following section entitled "Fruitfulness Over Results." Here is an excerpt:
195. All this can help us realize that what is important is not constantly achieving great results, since these are not always possible. In political activity, we should remember that, “appearances notwithstanding, every person is immensely holy and deserves our love. Consequently, if I can help at least one person to have a better life, that already justifies the offering of my life. It is a wonderful thing to be God’s faithful people. We achieve fulfilment when we break down walls and our hearts are filled with faces and names!” The great goals of our dreams and plans may only be achieved in part. Yet beyond this, those who love, and who no longer view politics merely as a quest for power, “may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others. No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted. All of these encircle our world like a vital force”.
This extremely personalized notion of the goal of politics is remarkable. It is, of course, in lock step with the Church's understanding. It is an extension of the work of the Good Shepherd who goes in search of the lost sheep. Even if just 1 of 99 is found and helped, it is cause for great rejoicing. Our goals are not achieving numbers but rather helping individual human persons.
This personalization of political goals excludes any form of statism, which is the fundamental flaw of both extreme right wing and left wing ideologies. These exalt the good of the state over the good of the individual. Contrary to that, Pope Francis teaches that the good of a single individual is worth the effort of the state. He turns these statist ideologies on their heads.
So much more goodness is there in Fratelli Tutti. It is a reflection on how we can and should apply our Christian charity towards the many, immense challenges facing the whole of humanity. The Holy Father is teaching in the perennial tradition of the Church that we are called to act in community as a manifestation of the love and light of Christ. As St. James wrote, "I will show you my faith by my works."
I hope many more of us will read, receive with docility, and if need be, like me, amend our thinking to more closely align with the heart of the Church and where the Holy Spirit is leading us through the living Magisterium.