- The Washington Times - Monday, October 5, 2020

Some Catholics are urging caution against misreading Pope Francis‘ latest encyclical letter, which denounces runaway capitalism and capital punishment, but also lambastes a “throwaway” culture that harms the unborn and the elderly.

The Argentine pope’s third papal exhortation, “Fratelli Tutti,” had drawn criticism of sexism in advance of Saturday’s unveiling in Italy for invoking the masculine-plural greeting used by St. Francis of Assisi in his writing.

But it’s the pope’s calls for embracing immigration and strengthening the United Nations that has initially sat uneasy with some cultural conservatives upon the document’s publication over the weekend.

Catholic author Eric Sammons wrote in response to the encyclical on his blog that “Fratelli Tutti” “is not a religious document, but instead a political document with a religious veneer.” On Monday, Mr. Sammons said the document could inflame partisan divisions within the church.

“Popes can and should express moral guidelines,” Mr. Sammons told The Washington Times. “But Francis goes beyond this. He instead gives specific policy advice in areas best left to the laity to determine the prudent course of action.”

Some Catholic media outlets, including ChurchMilitant, referred to the 43,000-word letter as “pregnant with socio-political concerns” and noted that the document did not mention the word “salvation.”

Samuel Gregg, director of research at the liberty-oriented Acton Institute, critiqued Francis for his “blind-spots” on critiquing neoliberalism and the financial industry.

La Plata Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, who serves as a ghostwriter for the pope, also cautioned in Sunday editorials in Spanish-language papers against a partisan reading of the document’s frequent barbs against the exploitation of labor.

“Contrary to what radicalized sectors of our country say about Francis, at no time does he propose a welfarism that encourages laziness and neglect,” Archbishop Fernandez wrote.

The Jesuit pope’s third encyclical won’t draw as large an audience, say some Vatican observers, as did his second, “Laudato Si,” an environmental treatise that sparked a conversation on the role of religion in addressing climate change. But observers noted that the timing of this letter, amid a pandemic and during a national election season in the U.S., has lent the document political heft.

The letter, which Francis says he began working on before the COVID-19 pandemic, frames a polyphony of woe from migration to racism to “verbal violence” around the biblical story of the good Samaritan, noting that many are left vulnerable by growing nationalism within highly technological Western culture.

“We are more alone than ever in an increasingly massified world that promotes individual interests and weakens the communitarian dimension of life,” the 83-year-old pontiff writes in “Fratelli Tutti,” which translates as “Brothers All.”

Francis also laments lost hope in a “unified Europe,” expresses his preference for “multilateral” (not bilateral) agreements that protect “weaker nations,” refers to private property as a “secondary natural right” and advocates for strengthening the United Nations.

Given the pope’s rhetorical targets, some commentators have tried to paint as underhanded jabs at the Trump administration.

Pope Francis didn’t write a political manifesto,” John Gehring, the Catholic program director for the Faith in Public Life, said in a Twitter post. “But he knows that challenging nationalist leaders who prey on fear and racism will help frame this as a moral issue in the election.”

Still, many commentators expressed caution of reading U.S. politics into Francis‘ letter. The document, say experts, is an international document sent to bishops around the globe. Others have noted the invocation of fraternity at the document’s core.

Pope Francis has famously avoided U.S. frameworks in his political statements, calling for economic reforms to help the poor in one week and decrying abortion the next.

The document appears to resist any simplistic condemnations, saying the marketplace, “by itself, cannot resolve every problem” while describing employment as an “essential dimension of social life.”

The pontiff also held up the plight of the “unborn” and a decline in the birthrate, writing that “some parts of our human family, it appears, can be readily sacrificed for the sake of others considered worthy of a carefree existence.”

“I wouldn’t rush through [Fratelli Tutti],” Cardinal Michael Czerny, undersecretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said Monday in a conversation hosted by Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.

“I think Pope Francis feels the world needs a message comparable to the Cuban Missile Crisis or World War II or 9/11 or the big crash of 2007, 2008,” he said. “We’re on the brink. We need to pull back in a very human, in a very worldwide, and a very local way.”

Noteworthy, though not new, were Francis‘ comments on capital punishment. He called the death penalty “inadequate from a moral standpoint.” An editorial from the Rev. James Martin in America magazine said in its headline that Francis “closes the door” on the death penalty.

“Today the pope placed the full weight of his teaching authority behind this statement,” Father Martin wrote in the weekly newsmagazine published by Jesuits. “The death penalty is inadmissible, and Catholics should work for its abolition.”

Pope Francis‘ letter comes just days after Vatican officials revealed he had declined a visit from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, noting “political figures are not received in election periods.”

Presidential politics has split U.S. Catholics. Some clergy suggest former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, a practicing Catholic, should not receive Holy Communion or their votes because of his support for legalized abortion.

Eugene Gan, a professor of communication arts at Franciscan University of Steubenville, cast the document Monday less in political terms and more in line as a continuing message of the church’s on the use of media.

Mr. Gan, who authored “Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media” has reviewed Catholic Church statements going back to the mid-1930s, coinciding with a rise in mass media, and he said Francis’s encyclical falls in line with previous epistles on Christian rhetoric.

“He is not asking us to get off social media,” said Mr. Gan, comparing the pope to a loving parent, noting that technology that is meant to socialize can be “unhealthy, it can be addictive.”

“Pope Francis talks in this document about the monologue that is really doing harm,” said Mr. Gan. “We’re not listening enough.”

Francis signed his third encyclical at the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi, his namesake. His first encyclical, “Lumen fidei,” or “The Light of Faith,” was published just months after his election to the papacy in 2013.

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