On a first reading, Pope Francis’ new encyclical is a disgrace, an incoherent mess of cliches, undefined terms, libelous mischaracterization of political opponents, and apparent contradictions. Naturally, as a loyal son of the Church, I wish for everyone to receive the words of the Holy Father with gratitude and docility, so I would entreat everyone when reading this statement of the Vicar of Christ to be mindful of the pope’s distinctive mode of communication.
A properly charitable reading would keep in mind that Pope Francis, for all his obtuse verbiage, seems to be nearly incapable of abstract thought. Imagine a child who is forced to share a desired toy with another child. When this first child doesn’t have the toy, he nags the other child, justifying himself with the general principle that no one should deprive another of a toy when that other wants it. When this first child gets his turn, he repels the other child, appealing to the immutable principle that no one should be interrupted in his enjoyment of a toy. The two “princples” only contradict each other if one takes them at face value as universally applicable. In fact, each is a rhetorical weapon toward a desired end. So it is that Pope Francis can generously grant that a people should treasure and preserve its unique cultural heritage and integrity, while at the same time insisting that cultures must be open to unlimited change, may not restrict any amount of migration of cultural foreigners, nor attempt to retain control of their communities against these foreigners, nor recognize alien groups as in any way “other”. What sort of recognition is this that cannot distinguish its object from anything else, and what sort of preservation can this be that must welcome complete replacement?
The objection is misplaced because it forgets an unstated understanding by which it is always clear who each statement is addressed to. Non-westerners have a right to treasure their cultures. Westerners have a duty to embrace their own annihilation. Westerners must be open to enrichment by the other. Non-westerners must never forget the crimes of the white race. (His examples of sins which must never be forgotten make it clear exactly whose infamy is to be eternal.) There is thus no tension or contradiction.
Of course, Pope Francis is not unique or even unusual in using language this way. Consider how so many great scholars in the humanities departments of our universities insist that we must reject the presumed authority of objective truth and embrace the validity of peoples’ lived experiences. One might ask “whose lived experiences?” They are certainly not all granted equal validity. When a person of grievance says he finds some Western practice “racist”, this is an authoritative experience. How Westerners understand the practice and what their feelings are about the matter have no validity. White Christian men don’t have “lived experiences”.
Thus, one will find absurd statements in the encyclical such as that no one can be saved unless everyone is saved. This would be heretical if salvation is understood in its usual Christian meaning, but in context that does not seem to be the meaning intended. It is prima facie false for any meaning, though, and we are not given a reason to find it even plausible. This is because the point of the statement is not to express a fact but to endorse an extremely vague moral sentiment.
If the point is to impress upon readers an overall sentiment, what is this sentiment? In fact, the encyclical is a performative contradiction of the most emphatic and repeated claim, namely that it is inherently morally wrong to regard one group of people as a threat to another group of people with whom one identifies more closely. Of course, the encyclical is itself primarily an attack on putatively evil populist nationalist racists who are threatening the liberal multicultural establishment. (Francis oddly characterizes the nationalists as “aggressive”, although they appear everywhere to be a defensive reaction to aggressive globalism. However, aggressor and defender are often relative to ideology. Pope Francis is an authoritative voice, so he is allowed to beg questions without committing any logical fallacy. He simply endorses thereby the ideology that makes the statement true.)
There are emotions and forms of commitment that can only have a particular person or group of people as their object: loyalty, piety, patriotism, love. In a world where each human being was always treated as an equal of every other, each as an interchangeable instantiation of humanity, these forms of recognition would not be possible. Ancient thinkers like Aristotle and Augustine recognized that making room for particular attachments is a practical necessity. Mr. Spock was correct that a humanity that valued strangers equally to kin would be less bloody, but only because such a humanity in which mothers cared no more for their own children than any random stranger across the world would be extinct in one generation. So, practically speaking, we must order our loves in favor of those we are best positioned to care for. However, I would go much further and say that a world of equality and universal benevolence, a world without particular commitments–without love, without friendship, without filial piety, without patriotism–would be less than human, that it would lack humanity’s very best qualities, the source of most of its nobility and all of its warmth and joy. Universal benevolence is not morally superior to particular love; it is an altogether inferior, lower virtue.
Even among those who admit what I have just said, there is the peculiar idea that there is something morally suspect about being protective of those we love by identifying other specific humans as threats, of responding out of fear. I admit that I don’t understand the common rhetorical trick of imagining that some concern is illegitimate if it can be said to be motivated by “fear”. Fear is just the emotional accompaniment of concern, and it is the concern, not the sensation of fear, that is the motivation of action. If we are allowed to love, how can we not be allowed to protect? Again, many will recognize the practical necessity. Sometimes one’s children or one’s communities really are under threat by some other person or group of people, and we are forced practically speaking to recognize this. But this is said to be a tragic necessity, because such recognition is inherently morally degrading. You do right to beat up a guy who was trying to kidnap your kids, but you walk away a worse person for it. Here again, I strongly disagree. The most intense, exquisite, and tender feelings of love are evoked by the recognition that the beloved is vulnerable. It seems to be true that we can only love most deeply that which we sense to be vulnerable, even to be weak and threatened. Perhaps this is why God made us vulnerable creatures. How many acts of heroism and self-sacrifice have been inspired by this particular degree of love which we are told to regard as morally suspect? More to the point, it must be rare indeed to find acts of heroic self-sacrifice that are not so motivated. Why give one’s life for something that is in any case indestructible?
Perhaps I have spoken too quickly. There are many who claim to have allied themselves with the inevitable march of Progress. The moral arc of the universe is a great invincible machine slowly grinding away at all particular attachments and inherited traditions, leading humanity ineluctably to the end state of perfectly just communism. Certainly this is a faith that has inspired a great deal of bravery (and an enormous amount of cruelty). I myself think more highly of those who have remained loyal to their dying traditions and groups, embracing the Lost Cause, the Great Defeat, and accepting the hatred of future generations. The machine is always more powerful than the reactionary societies it destroys, but is it ever as deeply loved?
The message of Fratelli Tutti is that the Catholic Church is on the side of the machine. We should not hope that we can capture the Church and make it an institutional weapon for defending traditional Christian societies against social justice aggression. Pope Francis embraces the principles of liberty, equality, fraternity, and sexual indistinguishability that condemn traditional Christendom. Perhaps it could have been no other way. To borrow a thought from my friend Bruce Charlton, perhaps the Catholic Church has too much of the machine in her own nature, just by being an organization, to resist the great machine of social justice. But we should still be grateful to the Holy Father for the amount of space he has left us as individuals simply by producing an incoherent and absurd document with no binding doctrinal statements. Pope Pius XII or John Paul II would have made their opposition to borders and particular loves clear, dogmatic, and impossible for obedient Catholics to evade. We can thank the anti-intellectualism that some of us have found annoying about Pope Francis in the past. Telling us what to think may be the pope’s job, but it’s not the one he’s most interested in performing. He’s much more concerned with our attitudes. I suppose a lack of charity between the doomed and the ascendent races could be a real temptation as we each play our roles in the coming drama.