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Pope Francis upsets both sides of the culture war

Pope Francis celebrates Mass in the Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi, Italy. Credit: Getty

October 5, 2020 - 1:50pm

Pope Francis released his latest encyclical, ‘Fratelli Tutti’, on Saturday. The document, written under the cloud of Covid-19, sets itself firmly against the world’s prevailing logic of markets and individualism.

Francis decries the ‘disregard for the common good’ that is ‘exploited by the global economy to impose a single cultural model’, as well as the replacement of community with ‘digital communication’, which works ‘to disguise and expand the very individualism that finds expression in xenophobia and in contempt for the vulnerable.’

There’s something in Fratelli Tutti to annoy both sides in the culture war. The modern Left will find much to appreciate, such as the call for environmental stewardship, compassion for migrants and more just distribution of the world’s resources.

But Fratelli Tutti also challenges the liberalism that tends to be bundled with those political views, decrying ‘individualistic liberal approaches, which view society as merely the sum of coexisting interests’, claiming to respect freedom ‘without roots in a shared narrative’. “The notion of “every man for himself” will rapidly degenerate into a free-for-all that would prove worse than any pandemic”, Francis writes.

Equally, those on the fusionist Right may be challenged by Francis’ stance against nuclear weapons, the death penalty and ‘the magic theories of “spillover” or “trickle”’ by which market liberalism claims the ‘invisible hand’ will resolve every social problem.

Francis calls this economic theory an ‘impoverished and repetitive school of thought’ that ‘does not resolve the inequality that gives rise to new forms of violence threatening the fabric of society’, instead eroding the trust that enables human economies to flourish. He cites as an example the manifest failure of market capitalism and consumer individualism to support a large-scale community response to the coronavirus pandemic.

One reaction in particular intrigued me. The writer Andrew Klavan, elsewhere a passionate defender of Christianity’s ongoing importance, dismissed the Pope’s views on economics as no more valuable than those of economists opining on theology. This view implies that economics exists in some abstract realm entirely divorced from our understanding of what humans are, how relationships work and what society is and aims to achieve.

But Fratelli Tutti takes aim at exactly this effort to distinguish the ‘invisible hand’ of the market from the social aims and beliefs of those whose activities make up that market. Francis begins with the assumption that in fact theology and economics can’t really be separated, because in practice human moral and economic activities aren’t distinct realms at all.

It’s perhaps a reflection of its resistance to the conventional bundles of culture-war viewpoints that mainstream reaction to the Fratelli Tutti has so far mostly ignored its content. One report managed to debate the ‘inclusivity’ of its title for several paragraphs without once mentioning what the encyclical itself was about.

Elsewhere, Francis’ pronouncements on economic injustice were rejected on the basis that the Vatican should not talk about wealth while itself having any. No wonder: neither the mainstream liberal-Left nor those free-marketeers now decrying Francis as the ‘communist Pope’ will find much comfort in an encyclical that takes aim at their most foundational assumptions.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.


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