To celebrate the memory of Saint Francis of Assisi, to whom his pontificate is consecrated, Pope Francis has honored us with a long encyclical entitled Fratelli Tutti, or “All Brothers.” I doubt that this text will become a bestseller among the faithful, though all Catholics are urged to pay heed to such pronouncements. For those who, like me, are not Catholic, these texts are still worth analyzing as reflections of the spirit of the times and the intellectual atmosphere at the Vatican.

Fratelli Tutti, unsurprisingly, confirms the pope’s solid positioning on the left as an ecologist and anti-capitalist, a stance rooted in the revolutionary doctrines of his Argentine youth among the Jesuits of Buenos Aires—fellow travelers of Liberation Theology and hostile to the economic “liberalism” favored by military dictators. Times have changed, and the poverty that rightly haunts Pope Francis has massively diminished around the world thanks to globalization, free trade, the market economy, and the scientific revolution in agriculture (GMO soybeans in Argentina, for example). The encyclical takes no account of this progress but presses on in the fight with a largely imaginary enemy that the pope, like all leftist intellectuals, calls “neoliberalism.”

This is the enemy to be slain, according to Fratelli Tutti; but it is not defined, no doubt because it does not exist. In a cursory way, Francis condemns those who believe that “the market solves all problems”—these are apparently the “neoliberals.” But I know of no economist, in fact no intellectual, who claims that the market is a universal solution. In Europe, half of national wealth is redistributed by states in order to guarantee, as far as possible, a minimum of dignity. Even in the United States, a third of national wealth is redistributed for public health and schools. Is it Catholic to inflate the myth of neoliberalism in order then to demonize it? One may, like Pope Francis or John Paul II in his day, dislike the market economy, but it would be honest to recognize its social efficacy—as did John Paul II, who preferred, rather than calling it capitalism, to refer to it as a free economy.

Francis’s encyclical is still more surprising because of what it recommends in the place of liberalism: production cooperatives, a pleasing myth of the Argentine Left. It would be pleasing if a cooperative economy were effective, but it is not: in economics, good intentions do not necessarily produce the desired results. In terms of the struggle against poverty, the pope’s argument is thus untenable. Nor does the encyclical show why a market economy is morally hateful or contradictory to Catholic virtues. Is the market not founded on free choice? Choices can be better or worse, but so are human beings; how can the market be perfect if people make up the market? Adam Smith responded to this dilemma almost three centuries ago by noting that the sum of egoistic choices led to a positive collective outcome. Smith considered an economic system with moral results to be, on the whole, moral; Pope Francis prefers a regime with moral intentions (socialism, cooperatives), even if the results are a disaster. Is this Catholic?

It’s also surprising to find the encyclical making such a soft defense of democracy, in contrast with its unreserved praise for international institutions, which are neither democratic nor moral. This doesn’t seem very Catholic, either.

What is most unexpected of all in Fratelli Tutti are the pages devoted to populism. The pope is certainly right to condemn those who call all their adversaries “populists,” just as not long ago any troublesome criticism was called “fascist.” But the encyclical goes a little further than necessary, it seems to me, in considering all populism to be relatively respectable because the people are respectable, and populism is an expression of the people. But populism can also be an expression of the people’s violence—the very violence that democracy tends to channel. The case of Argentina, here again, might clarify the pope’s tendency. Peronism is a form of populism—anti-liberal and hardly democratic—for which Francis had a soft spot. The pope has sympathies for populist intentions, even when the results were (and still are) catastrophic.

Francis does not spare us a speech on saving the earth from climate emergency. Is this injunction based on science or on theology? Does not the Bible invite humanity to subject nature, rather than the contrary? The pope’s ecological fundamentalism strikes me as more pagan than Catholic. I would be open to a counterargument, but the encyclical does not offer one; there is nothing to discuss because the pope is infallible. The fundamental criticism one might make of this encyclical is that it is fashionable: Francis proposes a Catholicism of submission to the spirit of the times.

Photo by Kim Hong-Ji-Pool/Getty Images


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