We Have To Begin Anew: Socialist Reflections On Pope Francis’ Encyclicals "General Audience with Pope Francis" by Catholic Church (England and Wales) is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

We Have To Begin Anew: Socialist Reflections On Pope Francis’ Encyclicals

Pope Francis isn’t a socialist, and he’d probably be the first one to tell you that. And as a socialist, I can’t ignore that he sits at the top of an institution whose leadership structure is perhaps irreparably broken, and which has been complicit — or sometimes an active and cheerful participant — in some of the worst atrocities in world history. This is not a piece suggesting that socialists should all convert to Catholicism; overall, I strongly advise against that. But this is a piece suggesting there’s a lot that socialists can find to like in the writings of the first and only Pope from the global South, one who explicitly denounces capitalism and who began his papacy saying he wanted to reorient Catholicism to being “a poor church, for the poor.” His 2015 encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, was critical for developing my faith and leading me to embracing and practicing socialism. Over the past five years, as American Catholics in public life basically ignored everything in Laudato Si’ and our country slid into plague and fasicsm, he’s been writing his follow-up, Fratelli Tutti, which arrived this week.

Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home made headlines in the Catholic world in 2015 for being the first “environmentalist” papal encyclical, and the first one to explicitly discuss climate change, but that’s an oversimplification of everything that’s in there. The full 45,000-word piece covers political questions of inequality, labor rights, access to water, food and housing, the debt of the global south, mass extinctions and biodiversity, and many other issues in the context of the failure of individualism and unceasing hunger for profit. In Laudato, the Pope emphasizes the dire need to restore ideas of collective responsibility and collective action in order to quite literally save the Earth and each other. If anything, it’s an unprecedented ecological framework for understanding moral issues, one that emphasizes repeatedly that moral issues cannot be tackled in isolation, but exist in a living, breathing web of connected problems, which require a collective political and moral effort from all of humanity to address.

As socialists, we know this; it’s why we don’t work on just one issue at a time. It’s not enough to protect housing rights to make our neighborhoods safer, we also need to defund the police. It’s not enough to canvass in support of Medicare for All, we also need to support the workers striking right now for health and safety protections on the job. It’s not enough to fight to protect immigrant communities in our cities, we need to organize a response to the climate crisis that threatens to displace countless more over the coming years. Again, these are all living, breathing, connected issues that affect living, breathing, connected human beings, and if we ignore one, we endanger our work on the others. I’m a socialist because socialism is a political movement that understands this. Pope Francis makes it very clear that he understands this as well, when he warns that when nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of ‘might is right’ has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity.” We see the people who view nature solely as a source of profit and gain, and the people who view us solely as a source of profit and gain: our bosses, our landlords, our mayor, oil companies drilling in the Arctic wildlife refuge, senators dumping their stocks before a global pandemic hits, a presidential cabinet full of CEOs and sycophants. Laudato was a powerful condemnation of all of them, yet none of them heard it.

The release of Laudato coincided with the early days of the U.S. presidential primary, one that happened to set the record for the largest number of Catholics to ever run for president at the same time. I don’t think any of them actually ever read the piece, but several of them definitely heard “the Pope wrote a thing saying climate change is something we should care about” and decided to denounce it as quickly as possible:

  • Jeb Bush: “I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope. I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”
  • Rick Santorum: “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re good at, which is theology and morality.”
  • Marco Rubio: “Your Holiness, our government can’t control the weather, and neither can the American people. But God blessed America with abundant coal, oil and natural gas.”
  • Chris Christie: “I just think the Pope is wrong. The fact is that his infallibility is on religious matters, not on political ones.”

As disappointing as the response from Catholic politicians was, the response from the leadership of the American Catholic church was even worse. In 2019, when drafting their voter guide for the 2020 election, the bishops voted down the inclusion of language from Pope Francis emphasizing the connected nature of these issues, instead choosing to re-emphasize that Catholics should vote Republican solely to support tighter abortion restrictions. As one bishop put it during the debate, “we are at a unique moment with the upcoming election cycle to make a real challenge to Roe v. Wade, given the possible changes to the Supreme Court. We should not dilute our efforts to protect the unborn.” Other bishops, seeking federal funding support for Catholic schools, debased themselves by sitting in on campaign calls with Donald Trump where Trump declared himself “the greatest president in the history of the Catholic church.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, still other bishops sued their state governments to defy stay-at-home orders, failing to understand the public health emergency and the risk it poses to holding Mass safely. The Knights of Columbus welcomed Donald Trump with open arms at the Shrine of St. John Paul II, the day after he tear-gassed peaceful protestors, including clergy, at another church for a photo op. American Catholic leaders looked at their options and decided these trade-offs were worth it to stay close to power, despite the fact that Laudato preached otherwise — that trading off in the first place was the wrong choice.

When the American church, and when Catholic Republican politicians, chose to ignore the message of Laudato, where did our country end up? What happens, when, as Pope Francis wrote, our leaders scramble “to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?” Well, five years — literally to the day, on the Catholic liturgical calendar — after the publication of Laudato, our nation’s capital city was on fire after a long night of civil unrest, brought on by a string of police killings. Of course, these protests were not happenstance. Several years of rising white supremacist violence, encouraged by a racist president who actively called for violence while disdaining peaceful protest, added fuel to the fire. Further igniting the situation is a global pandemic that has triggered double-digit unemployment and a new Great Depression made worse by our country’s increasingly deregulated economy, system of mass incarceration and poor working conditions. Overseeing it all is a white supremacist administration enabled by legislators who stay in office through dark money, voter suppression and gerrymandering, elected by voters afraid of immigrants and refugees who were spurred to leave their countries because of interlocking wars and climate crises — all so the rich can get richer. All the while, as we’ve seen over the past few months as fires rage across one side of the country while hurricanes batter the other, the increasingly inevitable climate apocalypse isn’t going away — even if we feel like another apocalypse is happening right now, and “apocalypse” isn’t a word that’s supposed to have a plural. All of this is an ecological problem, and we are ecological beings. Laudato teaches us that it is folly to assume that each of these problems exist in isolation, or that we can act in isolation to solve them. But America did not hear this message. Many countries did not hear this message. So Pope Francis decided to be a little more direct with 2020’s Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship.

Anything I say to try and summarize Fratelli is also going to be an oversimplification; we’re looking at another 40,000 words, spanning all of the issues outlined above. While Francis does not propose an easy cure-all solution to these problems, he certainly has no problem identifying our attempted solution that is actually making everything worse:

“The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith. Whatever the challenge, this impoverished and repetitive school of thought always offers the same recipes. Neoliberalism simply reproduces itself by resorting to the magic theories of ‘spillover’ or ‘trickle’ – without using the name – as the only solution to societal problems. There is little appreciation of the fact that the alleged ‘spillover’ does not resolve the inequality that gives rise to new forms of violence threatening the fabric of society… The fragility of world systems in the face of the pandemic has demonstrated that not everything can be resolved by market freedom.”

Somehow, this condemnation of neoliberalism is one of the more restrained parts of the encyclical. He has stronger words for the continued cult of individualism that neoliberalism enables: “Consumerist individualism has led to great injustice. Other persons come to be viewed simply as obstacles to our own serene existence; we end up treating them as annoyances and we become increasingly aggressive. This is even more the case in times of crisis, catastrophe and hardship.” He has stronger words for the reaction to the 2008 financial crisis: “It appears that the actual strategies developed worldwide in the wake of the crisis fostered greater individualism, less integration and increased freedom for the truly powerful, who always find a way to escape unscathed.” He has stronger words still for the evil of war, an evil that Catholic Republican politicians and bishops have consistently been willing to overlook as they use abortion and gay marriage as wedge issues: 

“Every war leaves our world worse than it was before. War is a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil. Let us not remain mired in theoretical discussions, but touch the wounded flesh of the victims. Let us look once more at all those civilians whose killing was considered ‘collateral damage.’ Let us ask the victims themselves.” 

He has stronger words for capital punishment and the carceral state, embraced by the current Catholic Attorney General who was recently honored at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast: 

“All Christians and people of good will are today called to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty, legal or illegal, in all its forms, but also to work for the improvement of prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their freedom. I would link this to life imprisonment… A life sentence is a secret death penalty. Let us keep in mind that not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.”

Again, Pope Francis isn’t a socialist. But like the socialists I’ve gotten to know over the past few years, he has strong words about human dignity, especially for those that society would rather ignore or reject, and he has strong words about the need for urgent change. As he puts it, “Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.” This should be obvious to Catholics, and to socialists, who have seen the people in power ignore Pope Francis’ previous warnings over the past five years. Often throughout Fratelli, it feels like Francis is trying to repeat the lessons he tried to teach five years ago, talking more loudly and more slowly, because too many people — especially too many Catholics — weren’t getting it, and certainly weren’t acting on it.

We’re socialists, we already know what happens if we don’t all act with urgency. And as Americans, we’ve seen what happens if we don’t all act with urgency. Pope Francis, toward the end of Fratelli, reminds us what will happen if we don’t all act with urgency — the world will keep burning:

“Those who work for tranquil social coexistence should never forget that inequality and lack of integral human development make peace impossible. Indeed, without equal opportunities, different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. When a society — whether local, national or global — is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. If we have to begin anew, it must always be from the least of our brothers and sisters.”

We are socialists because we know that we have to begin anew. We must begin with the least of our brothers and sisters: the worker on the picket line, the child in the detention center, the mother without a safe place to live, the prisoner in the pandemic, the teacher who wants to keep her students safe. As I’ve learned from Pope Francis, we cannot save this world without all of them. Too often, my government and my church appear to show no interest in any of them. That’s why I stay in the socialist movement: because it lets me fight alongside them.

Tony Ginocchio is a Chicago DSA member who writes Grift of the Holy Spirit, a series on the intersection of Catholicism and reactionary politics. You can read more at imaxafterlife.substack.com