The Catholic Church returned to national focus over the last month. During that period, two distinct versions of Catholicism have taken center stage.
The first was the Republican, pre-Vatican II Catholicism of Judge Amy Coney Barrett who was interviewed for a lifetime position on the bench of the nation’s Supreme Court (SCOTUS).
The second version of Catholicism displayed last month was the post-Vatican II form of Pope Francis who pointedly issued his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (“Brothers All”) exactly one month to the day before our country’s general election on November 3rd.
Let’s take a look at both forms of Catholicism for purposes of highlighting aspects of Pope Francis’ encyclical that many commentators have overlooked and that Judge Barrett explicitly rejects.
Judge Coney Barrett’s Catholicism
Judge Coney Barrett’s form of Catholicism is the one which (thanks to a pair of reactionary, restorationist popes – John Paul II and Benedict XVI) most non-Catholics (even 55 years after the Second Vatican Council) still identify with the church of Rome. It comes off as a weird, backward-looking cult mirrored in Catholic organizations like Opus Dei and the People of Praise fundamentalists long embraced by the SCOTUS nominee.
This version of Catholicism insists that men are the heads of households, and that women are their husband’s “handmaids.” Its spiritual practices reflect nostalgia for Latin Masses and ostentatious clerical costuming. The practices centralize specifically Catholic customs like abstention from meat on Fridays, reciting the rosary, and rejecting the salvific value of Protestant denominations and, of course, non-Christian religions. In its latest incarnation, this type of Catholicism goes so far as to preach a Catholic version of the prosperity gospel celebrated by white American evangelicals.
However, Judge Coney Barrett’s Catholicism goes even further. As a dyed in the wool Trump supporter, hers represents a particularly Republican understanding. It focuses on reproductive issues. This means that despite the Church’s pedophilic scandals, it continues to grant to discredited celibate males the moral authority to pronounce on issues such as abortion, same sex marriage, in vitro fertilization, and contraception. Under some versions, it would also refuse communion to divorcees. (Of course, none of these concerns are addressed anywhere in the Bible).
Meanwhile, as a Republican supporter of President Trump, the faith of the Supreme Court nominee allows her to endorse the extreme nationalism reflected in Trump’s MAGA preoccupations. This entails underwriting anti-immigrant policies including refugee concentration camps, baby jails and separation of families at our southern border. It rejects Black Lives Matter and the African American community’s call for reparations while valuing blue lives as more important than the victims of police violence. It supports U.S. wars, increased military spending, torture, extra-judicial executions, and capital punishment. It denies anthropogenic climate change. Its model of God’s Kingdom is an economic technocracy, where the country is run “like a business.” Hence, it supports privatized, for-profit health care. Its overall economic approach is top-down, since it believes that the wealthy rather than the poor deserve subsidies, bailouts and outright welfare on the disproven theory that such government largesse might eventually trickle down to the less deserving.
Pope Francis’ Catholicism
All of Judge Coney Barrett’s specifically Republican understandings of Catholicism are not only directly contradicted by Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti; they also ignore the Church’s long history of social justice instruction that stretches back to at least 1891 and Leo XIII’s publication of Rerum Novarum (“Of Revolutionary Change”).
Even more, Coney Barrett’s restorationist version of Catholicism directly contradicts the teachings of Vatican II which remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church. In a sense, then, her People of Praise understanding represents what has traditionally been classified as “heretical” belief.
With all of this in mind, consider the teachings of Fratelli Tutti on the essence of Christianity, its relationship to other world religions including Islam, and the position it takes on immigration, capitalism, populism, violence, war, capital punishment, and abortion. (All references below are to the encyclicals numbered paragraphs.)
Then imagine how different Ms. Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing responses might have been – and their effect on national consciousness – had she embraced the official positions of the Church with which she so insistently claims to identify, but whose authoritative teachings she and other Republicans evidently reject. As delineated in Fratelli Tutti, those teachings address:
- The Essence of Christianity: Pope Francis finds the essence of Christian faith captured in Jesus’ parable of “The Good Samaritan” to which the pontiff devotes an entire chapter entitled “A Stranger on the Road.” In Jesus’ story, a non-believer rescues a victim of violence who has been ignored by religious professionals. The rescuing Samaritan is a humanist, Francis says, who recognizes that everyone is his neighbor (86). That recognition represents the heart of Christian faith.
- Christianity and Islam: In fact, according to Pope Francis, all the great religions of the world properly understood acknowledge this truth. Francis makes this point in the final chapter of Fratelli Tutti, which he entitles “Religions at the Service of Fraternity in Our World.” Moreover, throughout the encyclical, the Pope goes out of his way to underscore this point precisely about Islam. He does so by repeatedly referencing his collaboration with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb when they met in Abu Dhabi in 2019 (5, 136, 192, 285). Their joint declaration affirmed that all human beings are brothers and sisters with the same rights, duties, and dignity (5).
- Immigration: That dignity along with accompanying rights and duties belong to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers (37-41). Borders are of secondary importance in the face of human need (99, 121, 125). We must never forget that immigrants’ needs are often generated by not only by their own unrealistic expectations, but also by wars, persecution, natural catastrophes, drug traffickers, human traffickers, coyotes, loss of culture, dangers of their journeys, and separation from children (38). As citizens of a world commons, immigrants deserve a new home even when they are simply seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families (36).
- Immigration Reform: Indispensable steps in response to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers include: (a) increasing and simplifying the granting of visas, (b) adopting programs of individual and community sponsorship, (c) opening humanitarian corridors for the most vulnerable refugees, (d) providing immigrants with suitable and dignified housing, (e) guaranteeing personal security for them and access to basic services, (f) insuring adequate consular assistance and the right to retain personal identity documents, (g) affording equitable access to the justice system, (h) creating the possibility of opening bank accounts and the guarantee of the minimum needed to survive, (i) offering freedom of movement and the possibility of employment, (j) protecting minors and ensuring their regular access to education, (k) providing for programs of temporary guardianship or shelter, (l) guaranteeing religious freedom, (m) promoting integration into society, (n) supporting the reuniting of families, (o) preparing local communities for the process of integration (p).
- Capitalism: Yes, the world belongs to everyone – but to the poor primarily. The right to private property is not absolute or inviolable. It can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of common ownership. Its purpose is to serve the common good (120). If anyone lacks what is necessary to live with dignity, it’s because another more powerful or dishonest person has stolen it. Put otherwise, the world’s poor are victims of robbery no less than the one saved by the Good Samaritan (119).
- Populism: In today’s world populist politicians address such victimhood by presenting themselves as populists. Unhealthy populism appeals to the lowest and most selfish inclinations of certain sectors of the population. It vilifies rather than helps society’s most marginalized. Genuine populism is guided by a clear vision of human dignity and the common good. It starts from addressing the needs of the least powerful (159, 167, 188, 193, 194, 215, 235).
- Violence: Ignoring the poor inevitably leads to violence (219). For instance, disrespecting the rights of indigenous people is itself violent (220). Those whose rights and dignity have been violated should not simply roll over before their oppressors. They have to strenuously, but non-violently defend themselves (241). This means that in dealing with injustices committed on both sides of a given conflict, we must avoid false equivalency. Violence perpetrated by the state using its structures and power is far worse than that of groups resisting excessive use of official power (253). Religious violence comes from misinterpretation of traditional texts. But it is also connected to policies linked to hunger, poverty, injustice, and oppression (283).
- Reparations: Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting, denying, relativizing, or concealing the injustices of exploiters (250). The Shoah must never be forgotten (247). The same is true of the crimes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as those of the slave trade, other persecutions, or today’s ethnic slaughters (248). “For God’s sake!” the pope exclaims, we cannot simply turn history’s page. “For God’s sake, No!” (249). Impunity offends the spirit of forgiveness itself (241, 252). In fact, true forgiveness demands that criminals at the highest-level answer for their crimes (241).
- War: Given the destructiveness of modern weaponry, the only viable policy option is “War Never Again” (258). Nuclear weapons must be eliminated completely. After all, they are incapable of responding to the challenges of terrorism, cybersecurity, environmental problems, and poverty. The trillions now spent on weapons must be diverted into ending hunger and fostering development. The hard work of diplomacy and dialog informed by considerations of the common good and of international law as outlined in the UN Charter represent the only acceptable means of resolving inevitable international conflicts (262).
- Capital Punishment: The death penalty is absolutely inadmissible in civilized society; it must be abolished worldwide (263). All Christians are called not only to oppose capital punishment, but to improve conditions in prisons whose point is to reform and reintegrate even the guiltiest of criminals back into human society (265, 269). Hence, even lifetime imprisonment (a concealed form of the death penalty) is abhorrent (268).
- Abortion: Abortion goes virtually unmentioned in Fratelli Tutti. The closest Pope Francis comes to mentioning it occurs in his first chapter section under the heading “A ‘Throwaway’ world.” There he simply observes how we waste food, disposable products and “useless” people like the unborn and elderly (18).
The Second Vatican Council’s lead document, Lumen Gentium — its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church – affirms that the Pope’s “supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him” and that “loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given” to his teaching (Lumen Gentium, 25). In other words, Fratelli Tutti is not simply an expression of one man’s opinion. Rather, along with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, it represents the official teaching of the Catholic Church.
Regardless of what one might think of such top-down declarations of external authority, the fact remains that the encyclical carries far more weight than contradictory interpretations formulated by rich Republican politicians led by President Trump and embraced by his acolytes such as Amy Coney Barrett. In fact, as noted above, there is no more apt juridical term for such uninformed dissent than “heresy.”
Even more to the point, Fratelli Tutti’s affirmation that the world belongs to everyone, that it should be run like a family rather than like a business , that human dignity must be preserved at all costs, that private property must serve the common good, that the poor have been robbed, that reparations must be assessed, and that the supposed sanctity of borders must be subordinated to human welfare, all reaffirm not only the Church’s long-standing social justice tradition, but the very teachings of Jesus himself and of the Judeo-Christian tradition as a whole.
Imagine if Judge Barrett had been able to make those points at last week’s hearings.