What the Hell is an Encyclical in the United States? 2020 Edition

By: Michael Pasquier

October 26, 2020

Responding to: Fratelli Tutti and the Future of the Catholic Church

What the Hell is an Encyclical in the United States? 2020 Edition

Charles Marshall, an Episcopalian attorney from New York, wrote “An Open Letter to the Honorable Alfred E. Smith” in 1927. Published in The Atlantic, Marshall intended the letter to cast doubt, if not fear, about the Democratic Party’s likely nomination of Al Smith for president of the United States. Smith was governor of the state of New York at the time. He was also a cradle Catholic who identified himself as Irish American.

I think you know where this is going.

Marshall’s argument, aside from its rather sophisticated analysis of papal encyclicals, was simple: “a loyal and conscientious Roman Catholic” could not be president. The mind of such a Catholic citizen was “irreconcilable with that Constitution which as President you must support and defend, and with the principles of civil and religious liberty on which American institutions are based.” Marshall framed much of his case against Smith around the “political doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church” as articulated by Pope Pius IX in the Syllabus of Errors (1864) and Pope Leo XIII in Longinqua Oceani (1895). Quoting from these and other papal documents, it was pretty easy for Marshall to claim that Catholic political doctrine placed the state under the dominion of the Church. The question for a hypothetical Catholic president was clear. Whose side are you on?

Al Smith, upon reading the letter, supposedly asked, “What the hell is an encyclical?”

I recall this story every time a pope releases an encyclical. For starters, it’s a reminder of the long history of anti-Catholicism in the United States, as well as the relative acceptance of Catholics in American politics today. It’s a testament to the relevance of Catholic teaching, and especially Catholic social teaching, to the intellectual and political life of a predominantly Protestant country. And it shows us that many, if not most, American Catholics could care less about what any pope says about the world around them.

While we all know that Fratelli Tutti was written for a global audience, it’s hard not to read Pope Francis’ second solo encyclical with an eye toward the United States. Of particular interest is the encyclical’s peculiar alignment with, but also deviation from, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)’s updated edition of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States.” Reading the documents in tandem shines a bright light on what Marshall called a “conscientious Roman Catholic,” the USCCB calls a “conscientious voter,” and Pope Francis calls the “human conscience.”

While we all know that Fratelli Tutti was written for a global audience, it’s hard not to read Pope Francis’ second solo encyclical with an eye toward the United States.

Fratelli Tutti, or “On Fraternity and Social Friendship.” Like the title suggests, the encyclical offers a vision for how people ought to live with and for each other. It imagines a world “without borders,” where “people of good will” can “dream together” as a “single human family.” In this dream scenario, wars rage, a pandemic grows, liberal economies ravage the poor, national borders brutalize migrants, digital communication spoils relationships, and populist leaders distort the truth, all to the detriment of “the dignity of each human person.”

Pope Francis leans on the story of the Good Samaritan—“a story constantly retold”—for advice on how “to rediscover our vocation as citizens of our respective nations and of the entire world, builders of a new social bond.” The story serves as a roadmap for “envisaging and engendering an open world,” one that offers its inhabitants “a better kind of politics, one truly at the service of the common good.” Such a world requires “the exercise of political love,” the kind of love that generates “a culture of encounter capable of transcending our differences and divisions.” 

The USCCB’s call to political responsibility is not a dream. It’s a practical guide, albeit one that is peppered with references to the words of the last three popes. Of particular note are the 12 quotes taken from Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), a full-throated affirmation of the Church’s role as global evangelizer. Throughout the guide, the bishops speak as Catholics and Americans. “We are a powerful nation.” “We are an affluent society.” “We are part of a global community.” “We are a nation of immigrants.” “We are a nation founded on ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’” Following the bishops’ “we” statements are “but” statements. But racism. But the environment. But poverty. But war. But xenophobia. These are “life” issues for the bishops, and “[a]ll the life issues are connected, for erosion of respect for the life of any individual or group in society necessarily diminishes respect for all life.”

But there is one “but” that takes precedent over all the other “buts.” Abortion. It’s difficult to imagine the USCCB delivering a less clearly stated position: “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed.” It isn’t surprising, then, that Catholics who align themselves with the USCCB’s prioritization of life issues find Fratelli Tutti confounding, if not enraging. Pope Francis makes no explicit reference to abortion. He mentions the “unborn” once, in a section of the encyclical on “a ‘throwaway’ world.” 

It isn’t surprising, then, that Catholics who align themselves with the USCCB’s prioritization of life issues find Fratelli Tutti confounding, if not enraging.

Despite the pope’s previous statements on the indignity and violence of abortion, the omission in Fratelli Tutti rings like an alarm in the hearts and minds of conscientious Catholic voters who actually read the damn thing. For those inclined to vote for former vice president Joe Biden, Catholics finally have their encyclical, and they finally have their pope. For those inclined to vote for President Donald Trump, Catholics still have their preeminent priority, and they still feel justified in voting against those issues of secondary concern. 

Pope Francis is right: “In today’s world, the sense of belonging to a single human family is fading, and the dream of working together for justice and peace seems an outdated utopia.”

So, what the hell is an encyclical in the United States today? A dream.

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