October 6, 2020 (Steven O’Reilly) – Pope Francis issued his most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti on Sunday, October 4, 2020. I may or may not write more on this tedious encyclical (“Tutti Frutti” as I have called it), but below I offer my initial reaction to the overall document. In addition, I briefly discuss the Pope’s treatment of the Death Penalty in the encyclical.
Some Quick Thoughts on Fratelli Tutti
Fratelli Tutti is an expansion of some of the themes found in the infamous Abu Dhabi document signed by Francis last year along with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb. That document — in part due to its erroneous assertion that God wills the diversity of all religions — caused great controversy in the Catholic world at the time, and continues to do so [NB: This blog commented on the controversy at the time. See A Correction of Pope Francis: A glimmer of hope there will be one?].
Fratell Tutti mentions the same Grand Imam several times, and the aforementioned Abu Dhabi document is referenced in the footnotes a half dozen times or so. However, as appears par for the course for this pontiff, his favorite source of quotes remains himself. By my very rough calculation, Francis-related citations (e.g., interviews, documents he authored or co-authored, movies, his own Apostolic Exhortations or Encyclicals) account for about 178 of the encyclical’s 288 footnotes, or about 62% of all citations. I haven’t conducted an analysis of the citation patterns of prior popes — or the apostles Peter and Paul for that matter, but my hypothesis would be that none have quoted themselves nearly so extensively as Francis has cited himself. More on this later.
Fratelli Tutti reads more like a leftist manifesto of the sort one might expect in a speech by a General Secretary of the United Nations as John Lennon’s song Imagine echoes softly and hauntingly in the background, rather than a document written by a Successor of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ.
The core of Fratelli Tutti pretty much shares the same banal ‘borderless,’ religiously indifferent, ‘brotherhood of man‘ message of Imagine‘s lyrics, yet unfortunately does so without the song’s brevity. At least with Imagine one can ditch the lyrics and still walk away humming a lovely melody. Fratelli Tutti offers none of these partial graces for one’s time and efforts.
Fratelli Tutti, like much of what Francis has to say, is both long-winded and forgettable. It is annoyingly ponderous and meandering — like other documents penned by Francis’ ghost-writer, such as Amoris Laetitia and Laudato Si. Yet, surely, it reflects his style and thought, in all of its annoyingly ponderous, long windedness.
So, if you must listen to a message about the “brotherhood of man,” religious indifferentism and a world without borders, I recommend you listen to Imagine rather than read Fratelli Tutti, for then you will at least have a pleasant tune you could hum afterwards for your trouble.
Fratelli Tutti and Infallibility
Given the controversies around the magisterium of Francis in Amoris Laetitia (see here), the Abu Dhabi document (see here), the Scalfari interviews (e.g., see here), etc., Catholics who are adrift and bobbing in the confusion that follows in the wake of this pontificate’s words and actions may wonder whether this latest document throws them a life line or life vest. In my view, it does not.
In Fratelli Tutti, Francis does touch on a number of subjects that the Church’s magisterium has addressed in the past, such as private property, war, and the death penalty. However, early on in the encyclical, ones hopes are raised when Francis suggests he does not intend to offer any firm teaching. Francis writes (emphasis added):
“The following pages do not claim to offer a complete teaching on fraternal love, but rather to consider its universal scope, its openness to every man and woman. I offer this social Encyclical as a modest contribution to continued reflection, in the hope that in the face of present-day attempts to eliminate or ignore others, we may prove capable of responding with a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words. Although I have written it from the Christian convictions that inspire and sustain me, I have sought to make this reflection an invitation to dialogue among all people of good will.” (Fratelli Tutti, 6)
Thus, regarding his own social encyclical, Francis states with a seeming uncharacteristic humility that his document is only a “modest contribution to continued reflection.” Francis wrote something similar in the beginning section of Amoris Laetitia, that originally cast that document as a “reflection” rather than an “intervention of the magisterium“:
I thought it appropriate to prepare a post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation to gather the contributions of the two recent Synods on the family, while adding other considerations as an aid to reflection, dialogue and pastoral practice, and as a help and encouragement to families in their daily commitments and challenges. (Amoris Laetitia, 3)
However, the above said with regard to Amoris Laetitia, Francis later appeared to want to further elevate the authority of one particular interpretation of Amoris Laetitia by inserting his letter to the bishops of Buenos Aires, and their guidelines on Amoris Laetitia into the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS). It is beyond the scope of this article to go into that question, though I touched upon it here and here.
Still, the above said regarding Fratelli Tutti being intended as an aid to “reflection,” Pope Francis takes up the question, once again, of the Death Penalty. He writes in part (emphasis added):
There is yet another way to eliminate others, one aimed not at countries but at individuals. It is the death penalty. Saint John Paul II stated clearly and firmly that the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice. There can be no stepping back from this position. Today we state clearly that “the death penalty is inadmissible” and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide. (Fratelli Tutti, 263)
Francis has addressed the question of the Death Penalty a few times in recent years, and he recently ordered a change in the Catholic Catechism (see our discussion in More Papal Confusion: Footnoting Francis throws his predecessors under the bus). Francis’s arguments which he says are “clearly stated” and are cited in his footnotes in Fratelli Tutti appear to suggest that the death penalty is intrinsically evil. For example, Francis has claimed in one of the documents footnoted by Fratelli Tutti (emphasis added), that the death penalty:
“…is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which – ultimately – only God is the true judge and guarantor. No man, “not even a murderer, loses his personal dignity” (Letter to the President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, 20 March 2015)
Looking at the broader context of Fratelli Tutti’s treatment of the death penalty, Pope Francis seems to expand on his reasoning against it even though those efforts — in my opinion — pose their own difficulties.
For one, Francis appears to overstate, if not misstate, Pope John Paul II’s position on the death penalty as found in Evangelium Vitae 56 [see Note 2 below], which Francis included as a cited footnote. Francis writes “Saint John Paul II stated clearly and firmly that the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice.“
Actually, John Paul II stated his view more as follows: “Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent” (EV 56). In other words, there might be rare cases that might exist for its use, which is not quite the same as Francis’ claim that John Paul II said the death penalty is “no longer necessary“, i.e., to the extent of excluding even a rare case.
Further, John Paul II’s very next sentence in Evangelium Vitae allows for the possibility of such means (emphasis added):
In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person”
In other words, if “bloodless means” are not sufficient to defend human lives to act against an aggressor, it follows such means as the death penalty could be justifiable.
In addition, Pope Francis’ appeal to St. Augustine as a seeming opponent of the death penalty in his encyclical seems overly simplistic if not misleading (e.g., see Edward Feser on Augustine’s view; and see Cardinal Dulles on Augustine’s view of the death penalty), and the Pope’s appeal to Lactanius and Pope Nicholas as supporting evidence only underlines the paucity of evidence in favor of his position when compared against the overwhelming witness of the Old and New Testaments, the magisterium, as well as the writings of the Church fathers in support of the death penalty (see compilation of evidence here by Cardinal Dulles; as well as Edward Feser’s excellent article “Capital punishment and the infallibility of the ordinary Magisterium“).
While I have cited — partly in jest — Francis’ propensity to cite himself extensively — seemingly as his own main authority, one might be forgiven for thinking it not too far from the truth. For me at least, this is troubling as one would hope a pope — a guardian of the Deposit of the Faith — should tend to look more to past teachings of Scripture, the councils, the Church Fathers, etc., than to himself. It is disturbing that what Francis “clearly stated” does not seem tethered to the Tradition of the Church as the footnotes to his death penalty statement in the Fratelli Tutti suggest.
Instead, his appeal to “development of doctrine” is seemingly used to justify or gloss over an outright change that contradicts what has appeared before in the Christian Tradition. Thus, for example, Francis in Fratelli Tutti cites his previous documents which say in part (emphasis added):
“Here we are not in any way contradicting past teaching, for the defence of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively. Yet the harmonious development of doctrine demands that we cease to defend arguments that now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth. Indeed, as Saint Vincent of Lérins pointed out, “Some may say: Shall there be no progress of religion in Christ’s Church? Certainly; all possible progress. For who is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it?” (Commonitorium, 23.1; PL 50). It is necessary, therefore, to reaffirm that no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”
His reference to a “new understanding of Christian truth” above, and his earlier statement the death penalty is “per se contrary to the Gospel” are concerning. His argument suggests, notwithstanding his denials, that what the Church’s magisterium taught before was wrong in itself — and not something which was justifiable and or even necessary given the state of the penal systems of the past. Francis, for example, suggested elsewhere in one of the documents cited in his footnotes that the use of the death penalty in the old papal states was “more legalistic than Christian.”
Indeed, Pope Francis “clearly states” in Fratelli Tutti that the death penalty is wrong ‘no matter the seriousness of the crime’ due to the “inviolability and dignity of the person.” If this is so, then how was the death penalty ever justifiable? That is, if the “inviolability” is inherent in each person, then wouldn’t the Church be wrong for ever having approved of or countenanced the death penalty at any point in history? How are persons today more inviolable than those of the past?
John Paul II allowed the morality of the death penalty given the state of the penal systems of the past. For him, advancements in penal systems made the death penalty less warranted given the greater availability of “bloodless means” to protect society. There are problems with even that assumption, as penal systems, and the ability to incarcerate dangerous criminals varies across nations. Surely, third world nations cannot protect themselves to the same degree first world nations might. And even at that, what of the safety of the criminals or law enforcement personnel who must live or work behind bars with the most dangerous of criminals? Can their protection be assured? But, let us even set aside such modern considerations. Let us try a thought experiment to illustrate the point. What if human civilization should fall, as it has done several times in history, perhaps as after the Deluge, or the collapse of the Roman Empire. Our civilization is not immune to the forces of war, economic ruin, disease, and catastrophes that have led to the collapse of some before it. What if our civilization should collapse and revert back to a “dark age.” Presumably, the penal systems would likewise regress. In the logic of John Paul II’s position, it would seem the death penalty could then be more widely applied. That the same would follow from Francis’s logic is not so clear, as he argues for a “new understanding of Christian truth” and the death penalty being “per se contrary to the gospel.” It certainly appears a fundamental changes has been made — and the original principles rejected.
Pope Francis has moved not only from clearly stating the death penalty is per se contrary to the gospel but to even suggesting as he has before and now again in his recent encyclical that “a life sentence is a secret death penalty” (cf Fratelli Tutti, 268), which Christians should seek to abolish, along with the the death penalty. Might Francis one day clearly state “a life sentence to be inadmissable?”
Fratelli Tutti, in my opinion, will only serve to add to the confusion. Whether Pope Francis’s ‘clear statements’ contradict the magisterium or only appear to do so, I leave to the magisterium. However, it is fair to observe that in the eyes of many Catholics, these statements certainly appear to be contradictions. If there is a bright spot here in Fratelli Tutti, it might be that Francis’ commentary on the Death Penalty does not appear to have met Vatican I’s conditions for an infallible definition [see note 3].
According to the Vatican I definition, the Pope teaches infallibly when (1) exercising of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, (2) in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority; (3) he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals; to be (4) held by the whole Church. Leaving aside the obvious examples such as the dogmatc definitions of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary, consider the following quick examples which meet the above criteria (emphasis added):
Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. (Evangelium Vitae, 57)
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful. (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 4)
Now, contrary to the examples above, Francis’ formulation of “we state clearly” does not take the form of other authoritative papal statements that appear to meet the conditions of Vatican I. For one, Francis’ formulation does not state explicitly the level of authority he invokes, as Pope John Paul II does in the examples above, e.g., “in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren.”
Further, Francis does not explicitly or definitively bind the faithful in the matter as does John Paul II, e.g., “this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” In fact, in the final paragraph of Fratelli Tutti‘s treatment of the death penalty, Francis introduces a final effort to convince the reader by saying: “I ask Christians who remain hesitant on this point…” (Fratelli Tutti, 270). Here I note that Francis in recognizing there are or there may be “hesitant” Christians (thus Catholics as well), unconvinced by his arguments. No where does Francis claim such “hesitant” Catholic Christians are definitively bound by the foregoing commentary on the death penalty, “clearly stated” by him or not. Thus, in the end, the hesitant appear to be left with the “reflections” of Pope Francis, as he stated at the outset of Fratelli Tutti.
If there could ever be grounds for an imperfect council to examine either the origin (e.g., here and here) or the course of a pontificate, this pontificate would appear to be a text book case. We’ve already alluded to some of the grounds earlier in this article. Take for example the Scalfari interview controversy from about this time last year (see here and here), that controversy appeared amidst yet another papal scandal (i.e., the Pachamama idol).
Despite past promises of a “formal correction,” few if any bishops or cardinals have the current stomach for it. I suspect that while a few may have considered it, the idea appears to have been rejected on prudential grounds. While understandable, this is unfortunate. Still, questions related to the origin of this pontificate and to whether Francis has taught errors or not — and to what degree if so, will be, I believe, ultimately taken up by a future pope and council.
Until such time when the confusion is dispelled and clarity restored, let us pray for Pope Francis that he remembers the Lord’s words to Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou being once converted, confirm thy brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).
Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. A former intelligence officer, he and his wife, Margaret, live near Atlanta with their family. He has written apologetic articles and is author of Book I of the Pia Fidelis trilogy, The Two Kingdoms. (Follow on twitter at @fidelispia for updates). He asks for your prayers for his intentions. He can be contacted at StevenOReilly@AOL.com or StevenOReilly@ProtonMail.com (or follow on Twitter: @S_OReilly_USA or on Parler: @StevenOReilly).
- Since “time is greater than space”, I would
make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal,
moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by
interventions of the magisterium. Unity of
teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the
Church, but this does not preclude various ways
of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or
drawing certain consequences from it. This will
always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards
the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us
fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to
see all things as he does. Each country or region,
moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its
culture and sensitive to its traditions and local
needs. For “cultures are in fact quite diverse and
every general principle… needs to be inculturated,
if it is to be respected and applied”. (Amoris Laetitia, 3)
“56. This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is “to redress the disorder caused by the offence”.46 Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated. 47
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person”.48 ” (Evangelium Vitae, 56)
- Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable. (Vatican I, Pastor Aeturnus, 4, 9)