Pope’s “third way” between liberalism and populism

Last Saturday, Pope Francis went to Assisi to sign his second social encyclical, Fratelli tutti, at the tomb of St. Francis. The title – a phrase used by the saint – and the gesture show the evangelical-Franciscan root, a distinct feature of Bergoglio’s pontificate since the very beginning as he chose his name. What does a ‘social encyclical’ mean? It is a “new” type of magisterium. Its beginning was marked by the Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII in 1891 which placed the social question at the centre and called Catholics not to be passive but to engage in this field, even in contrast with the socialist and liberal movements. 

Social encyclicals have long been addressed not only to the Catholics. Paul VI wrote Populorum Progressio in 1967, laying the social question on the world horizon as he examined the relationship between the rich North and the poor South. Pope Wojtyla outlined a vision of society – not rooted in capitalism – in the Centesimus Annus after the fall of communism in 1991. Catholic social thought had already moved on a third path, between liberalism and collectivism until then.

As markets and communications unified, the new scenario of globalisation has contradictorily unveiled various fragmentations and conflicts . Laudato Sì – Bergoglio’s first social encyclical, released five years ago, was innovative. The whole letter is on the environment and repeatedly reminds us “everything is connected”. Today the Pope proposes human fraternity to the world as a radical process to reconstitute the complex interweaving of international, local and interpersonal relations. He writes: “We can contribute to the rebirth to a universal aspiration to fraternity”. He knows that visions and plans that set great goals are out-of-date. Indeed, they “sound like madness” – he states. The Church, however, does not renounce a global vision on society.

We may wonder whether it is not  pretty simplistic to speak about “fraternity” and “social friendship” in such a complex world. Just a year ago Edgar Morin, an old sociologist, described fraternity “as fragile as conscience, as fragile as love whose strength is nevertheless astounding”, and yet “means to withstand the cruelty of our world”.

The Pope affirms: “For all our hyper-connectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all.”. It has become evident during the Covid-19 crisis “the inability to work together” is the most difficult challenge. The Pope expresses concern in his analysis, “Dark clouds over a closed world “ is the title of the first chapter. There is widespread forgetfulness about past history and its sorrows. Unions between states break up while nationalism  grows. Francis insists: “No one can save himself”. It applies to individuals and human groups, as well as to the states: “Yet it is impossible to be “local” in a healthy way without being sincerely open to the universal”. While recognising the decisive value of local and national communities, too often crushed under global processes, Fratelli tutti proposes human fraternity to recreate bonds, heal conflicts, foster peace, face our future together contrasting contemporary individualism.

Francis affirms with an innovative approach and in accordance with Catholic social doctrine: “The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith”.  He considers it “an impoverished and repetitive school of thought”, inadequate for today’s problems and miseries. On the other hand he marks a strong distance from “populism” which suppresses democracy. It is an interesting statement by a Pope who has often been accused of a debt to Latin American populism. However, populism is nowadays a global phenomenon, spread far beyond South America.

The “popular” idea, which traces a path between liberal individualism and populism in the name of fraternity: a people of intermediate communities sharing a project, a dream of growth, is central to Francis’ vision.  You may echo the Argentine theology of the people in these words, yet the continuity with social doctrine, especially with the constant search for a “social utopia” should also be pointed out. It is expression of a Church that, faced with new realities, does not passively accept the world as it is,  it urges Catholics and non-Catholics, States and social forces to transform it into a more human place.

The encyclical embraces the world and deals with various themes.  It condemns war – “every war leaves the world worse off than it was before” – the death penalty, disinterest in migrants and refugees, the abandonment of older and others. It touches upon interreligious dialogue as occasion of fraternity, too. We encounter a summa of the Pope’s social thinking in many chapters. It will stimulate discussion even in our time lacking ideas which could be a resource for the Church today rather silent. Its effectiveness will be valued in the forthcoming debate. An ancient Christian appeal – naive and wise at the same time – resounds in the background of the various themes: “Tutti fratelli”.

Published in “Corriere delle Sera”, October 5th, 2020

Translation by the editorial staff