Pope Francis and the Nation-State: Fratelli Tutti as Critique of Radical Orthodoxy

By: Massimo Faggioli

October 26, 2020

Fratelli Tutti and the Future of the Catholic Church

One name that we find in Fratelli Tutti—as well as in the speech that Pope Francis delivered to Congress on September 24, 2015—is Martin Luther King, Jr. The latest papal encyclical does not name politicians and is shy about mentioning examples of political holiness, especially Catholic examples. But Fratelli Tutti is not shy about addressing and naming social and political issues: nationalism, populism, colonization, and slavery. It offers a proposal on how to build human fraternity: social love, political love, subsidiarity, solidarity, and citizenship.

The concept of citizenship, in particular, is interesting because it reveals an interesting take by Francis on one of the issues debated in Catholicism, especially English-speaking Catholicism, during the last few years: the nation-state. The role of the nation-state is mentioned several times in Fratelli Tutti. Paragraph 132, for example, talks about the necessity of a common effort in the international community when dealing with movements of migration. And paragraph 153 defends states that often find themselves at the mercy of more powerful countries and large businesses. 

Several paragraphs in chapter five, “A Better Kind of Politics,” talk about the nation-state. Early in the chapter, Francis laments the fact that “the twenty-first century ‘is witnessing a weakening of the power of nation states, chiefly because the economic and financial sectors, being transnational, tend to prevail over the political. Given this situation, it is essential to devise stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions, with functionaries who are appointed fairly by agreement among national governments, and empowered to impose sanctions’” (no. 172). 

Pope Francis also speaks in favor of “multilateral agreements between states, because, more than bilateral agreements, they guarantee the promotion of a truly universal common good and the protection of weaker states” (no. 174). He then defends the role of the state: “politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy […] We cannot expect economics to do this, nor can we allow economics to take over the real power of the state” (no. 177). Francis continues by talking about nation-building: “true statecraft […] is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good. Political powers do not find it easy to assume this duty in the work of nation-building, much less in forging a common project for the human family, now and in the future” (no. 178). 

But at the same time, Fratelli Tutti calls states to take responsibility in the case of “violence perpetrated by the state” (no. 253) and in regard to capital punishment, as well as extrajudicial or extralegal executions (no. 267).

Fratelli Tutti does not constitute a comprehensive analysis of the role of the nation-state, but it is consistent with Francis’ previous statements. It is a particularly interesting document to compare with what Pope Francis shared in an interview-style book published by the French sociologist Dominique Wolton in 2017. The book examines the role of the nation-state worldwide, and it includes Francis’ perspectives on healthy secularity (the Catholic translation of the French concept of laïcité) and the need for the Church to leave behind the confessional state.

Fratelli Tutti does not constitute a comprehensive analysis of the role of the nation-state, but it is consistent with Francis’ previous statements.

Fratelli Tutti casts a light on Pope Francis’ political culture and political theology. Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a Catholic born and raised in the middle of the twentieth century, who came of age as a Jesuit in the golden era of post-World War II internationalism. This was the golden era of the nation-state, as well as a time when Catholics made intellectual and political contributions to the rebuilding of their states. His formation and worldview are very far from the late-twentieth and early twenty-first-century “radical orthodox” theology, which sees the nation-state as a fetish created and manipulated by the liberal order. 

Francis is a global pope: the first non-European and non-Mediterranean pope, whose cultural and political roots are in Latin America but also in Europe. This has become visible in the last few years with more frequent papal references to Europe and the European Union as a political project. This also means a clear distance between Francis and the “Anglobalized” world—not only from neo-imperial Anglobalization but also from the populism and nationalism of Trump and Brexit. Francis is at remove from Catholic and Protestant political theologies of post-modernity with Anglo roots, both in radical orthodox and liberal-progressive versions. 

When he talks about state, government, international organizations, and the role of the Church in the world, Francis’ language about politics is much more modern than post-modern. It is particularly telling that he sees, in a pragmatic and non-ideological way, in nation-states an indispensable actor which has an enormous responsibility in caring for the global common good, eliminating hunger and poverty, and defending fundamental human rights. Pope Francis also views the economy in terms of redistributionist capitalism, where the state is the key actor in redistributing wealth. Francis is also very far from the rhetoric of U.S.-based Catholic neo-integralists, who emphasize the victimhood of the Church at the hands of the nation-state. The pope’s pragmatically positive view of the nation-state comes not just from his political realism, but it also has theological roots. Francis still echoes that fundamental assumption of the Second Vatican Council: The Church and the nation-state can and must cooperate for the common good. Francis is a Vatican II Catholic whose view of the nation-state is very distant from the political ecclesiology of radical orthodoxy—and even more removed from retreat plans like “the Benedict option.”

Francis still echoes that fundamental assumption of the Second Vatican Council: The Church and the nation-state can and must cooperate for the common good.

Fratelli Tutti has interreligious genesis, audience, and goals, with a particular focus on partnership with Islam through the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb. Pope Francis’ emphasis on the nation-state is yet another way to affirm the need for a healthy secularity in our global politics: the affirmation of the necessity for the state to avoid both false technocratic neutrality and theocratic temptations. Pope Francis’ standpoint is global Catholicism in a global world, where the rise of “civilizational states” (China, Russia, India, and Turkey) is an integral part of the current crisis of the international order. In this global world, Pope Francis’ option is for healthy secularity—and not for the dreams of a neo-medieval Christendom where the modern nation-state is too easily dismissed as a fetish.

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