The Agnostic Reception of Catholic Social Teaching

Readers of papal social encyclicals tend to think about the genre as theologically agnostic since the audience for said letters are all people of good will. Consequently, U.S. journalists cover the social encyclical as if its purpose is to produce soundbites related to the economy, the death penalty, abortion, and war. In the waning days of a Trump presidency, the American media presumes that much of the encyclical is a public lashing of an erstwhile president whose commitment to human dignity is, well, uneven.

It is partially for this reason that social encyclicals are rarely received in mainstream parish life. A reading group or two pops up, perhaps among those involved with a peace and justice commission in the parish. Outside of such occasional communities of ecclesial geeks, members of the parish are more likely to have heard of the most recent book by Matthew Kelly than to have cracked a page of Laudato sior Fratelli tutti. The social encyclical is perceived as written for politicians and public figures, possessing no pertinence for the workaday Catholic in a parish seeking to live a Eucharistic life.

This presumption goes against the Church’s own articulation of her social doctrine. Social doctrine is not a kind of “ninja theology,” a translation of the gospel into purely political ideas that are more agreeable to people than the stumbling-block of divine Revelation.[1] Rather, as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church presents, social doctrine is integral to the Church’s explicit mission of evangelization.

According to the Compendium, since the Church, contemplating the gift of the person of Jesus Christ, is an expert in humanity (although not exclusively so), “She is able to understand man in his vocation and aspirations, in his limits and misgivings, in his rights and duties, and to speak a word of life that reverberates in the historical and social circumstances of human existence.” Social doctrine is intrinsically theological insofar as it reflects upon the vocation of the human person through the luminous wisdom of the gospel. Without social doctrine, parish life tends to turn exclusively inward, and the mission of evangelization is reduced to increasing attendance at Mass rather than a robust Christian humanism, inclusive of all existence.

The reception of an encyclical like Pope Francis’s Fratelli Tutti, within the parish, necessitates awareness of its luminous theological center. Pope Francis is indeed speaking to all people of good will, but in a particular way, he is addressing baptized Catholics whose vocation it is to foster a fraternity situated in the self-giving love of the Word made flesh. Fratelli Tutti provides an apocalyptic vision of a world that has returned to a kind of unredeemed paganism, disguised by a faux populism that flourishes through both real and rhetorical violence.

The salvation of this world necessitates a remembering of a transcendence that exceeds the political or economic projects of an age dominated by neoliberalism. And the Church will find a way forward in a reappropriation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, returning to Henri de Lubac’s central insight in his Catholicism that the Church is not just another religion but “the form that humanity must put on to finally be itself.”[2]

A Diagnosis of Neopaganism

Those who diagnosis Pope Francis as a proto-liberal Christian, who eliminates divine judgment and sin alike, do not read anything that he writes. Pope Francis begins Fratelli Tutti with an apocalyptic account of the state of the world. He writes, “Ancient conflicts thought long buried are breaking out anew, while instances of a myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism are on the rise” (§11).

The opening paragraphs of Fratelli Tutti provide an account of the simmering, and at times red-hot violence both patent and latent in cultures around the world. This violence is a return to a neo-paganism in which men and women have nothing to unite behind except their hatred of the other, of the stranger lurking at the border. Pope Francis identifies these fears as related to a primitive ancestral fear that innovation has not soothed:

We have certain ancestral fears that technological development has not succeeded in eliminating; indeed, these fears have been able to hide and spread behind new technologies. Today too, outside the ancient town walls lies the abyss, the territory of the unknown, the wilderness. Whatever comes from there cannot be trusted, for it is unknown, unfamiliar, not part of the village. It is the territory of the “barbarian,” from whom we must defend ourselves at all costs. As a result, new walls are erected for self-preservation, the outside world ceases to exist and leaves only “my” world, to the point that others, no longer considered human beings possessed of an inalienable dignity, become only “them”(§27).

Although Pope Francis does not use the word, what he is describing is the effect of sin upon the human family. It is not exclusively literal borders that are concerning to Pope Francis—although these borders are especially troublesome to migrants, who suffer the worst of our national and populist exclusion. The Democrat, who gleefully voted for President-Elect Biden, is just as likely to see the wall-building, MAGA hat-wearing Trump voter as the barbarian at the gates. Abiding within a social media bubble of his or her own creation, the Democrat easily erases the dignity of the self-constructed stranger, the Trump voter who must pay in the next four years for his or her transgressions. The Trump voter, of course, may not be a righteous victim at all. He or she happily cried out, “Build that wall,” and “Lock her up,” participating in a politics of blame and violence—one that led to extraordinary ratings for the very same news networks that would later try to expel the Trumpers from the body politic—rather than that of constructing the common good. 

Pope Francis’s description of this neopaganism, lurking in the human condition, is a phenomenological account of original sin. We cannot engineer ourselves out of the Augustinian lust for domination that the neopaganism of modern life not only tolerates but promotes. The opening chapter of Fratelli Tutti may be read against the account of violence in René Girard, one in which the phantasm of a righteous community mystifies itself against the violence within its own heart.[3] The other must be eliminated, and whether that results in war, abortion, a politics of power and prestige, or refusing to wear your mask when you go to the grocery store to “own the libs,” there is an “other” that must be expelled from the human community.

Of course, the “other”—that is, the victim—is most often those who are on the margins. The falsely righteous community has no problem eliminating the poor, the hungry, the migrant, the gig economy worker looking for a bit of protection against their socially progressive but economically predatory bosses, or the prisoner on death row. When the human person has no economic value to the society, when they do not contribute to the inflation of the stock market or the valued work of a consumer economy, such persons make ideal victims for communities lusting on domination.

The Amnesia of Neoliberalism and the Art of Memory

What, then, are we to do? A persistent theme of Fratelli Tutti is a shared amnesia among the human family. This amnesia has been precipitated by an elimination of religious wisdom from the public sphere, replaced now by technocratic experts whose primary purpose is to increase economic production and foster the rights of those human beings who are considered useful.

For this reason, chapter eight of Fratelli Tutti is a key hermeneutic for reading the whole text. Quoting St. John Paul II, Pope Francis writes:

If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own self interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others . . . The root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his nature the subject of rights that no one may violate—no individual, group, class, nation or state. Not even the majority of the social body may violate these rights, by going against the minority (§273).

The human family is, well, damned unless we turn outside ourselves toward a wisdom that is not reducible to the self-interest of the groups that make up the political class. After all, the very same political leaders who exhort men and women in their states to avoid gathering for Thanksgiving with their families have no problem hopping on a plane to visit their relatives in Florida or attending fancy dinners for lobbyists who support their causes. These political leaders are the ones with the power, and they define what constitutes the rights of others.  

Except, as Pope Francis notes, they do not. Rights are bestowed because human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. We are made for something more than economic globalism, than the neoliberalism of a consumer society focusing on production, efficiency, and the expertise of the technocrat. Pope Francis argues that religious people have an anamnetic vocation in the public sphere to remember the identity of the human person as a transcendent creature rather than immanent producers and consumers of goods. Weaving quotes from an apostolic visit to Abu Dhabi and his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis presents to the Church and all religious people of good will the particulars of this vocation:

It should be acknowledged that “among the most important causes of the crises of the modern world are a desensitized human conscience, a distancing from religious values and the prevailing individualism accompanied by materialist philosophies that deify the human person and introduce worldly and material values in place of supreme and transcendent principles.” It is wrong when the only voices to be heard in public debate are those of the powerful and “experts.” Room needs to be made for reflection born of religious traditions that are the repository of centuries of experience and wisdom. For “religious classics can prove meaningful in every age; they have an enduring power [to open new horizons, to stimulate thought, to expand the mind and the heart].” Yet often they are viewed with disdain as a result of “the myopia of a certain rationalism.”

The task of religious communities is to function as an enfleshment of memory in space. The public square, and thus the entire human family, suffers from the exclusion of those possessing a religious memory. Religious people grounded in a narrative and ritual tradition tend to ask ultimate questions, whereas those operating within a non-religious world excludes these questions, reducing all human activity to power. Religion understands conversation between men and women as a potentially saving encounter rather than benign tolerance or gamesmanship.   

Pope Francis echoes in Fratelli Tutti themes raised by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. The problem of politics today is a religious problem. As Rowan Williams writes in “The Graded Levels of Political Allegiance”:

Political freedom must involve the possibility of questioning the way things are administered—not simply in the name of self-interest (as if the sole ground for a legitimate government were its ability to meet consumer wants), but in the name of some broader vision of what political humanity looks like, a vision of optimal exchange and mutual calling . . . through which each one developed more fully their ability to act meaningfully or constructively. This is a good deal more than the liberty to pursue a private agenda, limited only by the rather vague prohibition on harm to others (always difficult to pin down).

Inscribed within the Christian memory is the creation of men and women in the image and likeness of God. This is not an irrational claim, to be excluded from the public sphere as religiously particular. The supposed “non-religious” politics of the secular state remains inextricably religious—worshipping an imagined neutrality that is often nothing more than the exercise of power for its own sake, limited in the kind of ultimate questions that may be asked and forgetful of the possibility of salvation for anyone outside of political victories. Rather than exclude such religious doctrine from our engagement with fellow men and women, the Christian vocation is to live a public existence enfleshing this doctrine in public dispositions.

Dialogue and encounter, for this reason, are not secular substitutes for a Church no longer interested in the work of evangelization. Rather, dialogue and encounter are the concrete modes whereby the Christian person enfleshes, through practice, their commitment to the creation of men and women in the image and likeness of God. We are made together for union with God, not the sheer exercise of political power divorced from truth. It is the Trinitarian memory of the human person created for self-gift that is the medicine against the neopagan politics of sacrifice operative throughout the world.

Retrieving the Human Vocation of the Ekklesia

The theological center of Fratelli Tutti is, of course, the re-reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Through his interpretation of this religious classic, Pope Francis brings before the memory of men and women a common human vocation of solidarity grounded in embodied love. And yet, this parable speaks at the same time to the Church. After all, the Church although a Trinitarian community of love, is also in via. The final paragraph of chapter two concludes:

I sometimes wonder [in light of the Trinitarian doctrine of communion] why . . . it took so long for the Church unequivocally to condemn slavery and various forms of violence. Today, with our developed spirituality and theology, we have no excuses. Still, there are those who appear to feel encouraged or at least permitted by their faith to support varieties of narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and even the mistreatment of those who are different. Faith, and the humanism it inspires, must maintain a critical sense in the face of these tendencies, and prompt an immediate response whenever they rear their head. For this reason, it is important that catechesis and preaching speak more directly and clearly about the social meaning of existence, the fraternal dimension of spirituality, our conviction of the inalienable dignity of each person, and our reasons for loving and accepting all our brothers and sisters (§86).

The vocation of the Church is not a self-assured community of the redeemed. Rather, the parable of the Good Samaritan interrupts the Church, reminding those of us participating in the Eucharistic worship on a Sunday, that it was the religious believers, the supposedly pure, who ignored the suffering of the neighbor. It is the Samaritan, the outsider, who bends down in merciful love to the dying neighbor.

This dangerous memory, for the Church, forces us to come face-to-face with the human vocation of the ekklesia—the people of God redeemed through the cross of Christ. Salvation is not reducible to individual behavior but necessitates the creation of a Christian humanism, a culture, in which every human being is beloved.

In the United States, we must admit that our churches are divided on this point. In a Catholic parish, one is likely to encounter men and women who have little pathos for the migrant at the border, the young black man killed on the streets, and even in progressive parishes dominated by Democrats the unborn child in the womb. They have been indoctrinated more by political ideology than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Church has a vocation to re-learn the art of solidarity herself, of attending with mercy to the wounds of the human family in love. Solidarity is not an abstraction, a general vague feeling of sorrow for the suffering of the other but is grounded in the materiality of love. As Pope Francis puts it:

Solidarity finds concrete expression in service, which can take a variety of forms in an effort to care for others. And service in great part means “caring for vulnerability, for the vulnerable members of our families, our society, our people.” In offering such service, individuals learn to “set aside their own wishes and desires, their pursuit of power, before the concrete gaze of those who are most vulnerable . . . Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh, senses their closeness and even, in some cases, “suffers” that closeness and tries to help them. Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people (§115).

The Church has a vocation to serve the entire human family. One need not secularize the parable of the Good Samaritan, to turn it into a moral tale to recognize this fact. The pope’s treatment of the parable functions as a kind of Ignatian meditation on the parable, one that reveals the classic status of the Gospel for the entire human family. And yet, we find the parable functioning in a similar way for Origen of Alexandria. In his often-maligned interpretation, Origen reads the Parable of the Good Samaritan as a type of Christ himself. He is not just a do-gooder, but the very Word made flesh, the one who has become for us neighbor. Origen describes the care of the Good Samaritan, Jesus Christ, in the most material of ways:

So, when he had come to the half-dead man and seen him rolling about in his own blood, he had pity on him. He drew near to him, in order to become his neighbor. “He bound his wounds, poured in oil mixed with wine” . . . The Samaritan is that man whose care and help all who are badly off need. The man who was going down from Jerusalem and fell among thieves, who was wounded and left by them half-alive, needed the help of this Samaritan most of all.[4]

The act of caring for the wounds of the strange on the side of the road is what transforms this man into a neighbor. Origen underlines that the Samaritan’s supply of medical equipment (oil and bandages) is not accidental. The Good Samaritan has come into the world to redeem the wounds of men and women. It is not an abstract ideal that the Good Samaritan comes to preach but an enfleshment of love, care for this concrete man bleeding on the road.

In fact, as Origen argues, Christ himself is the one who took on human flesh to heal us of our wounds. He brings the man, on his very body, to the hospital or Church “which accepts everyone and denies its help to no one. Jesus calls everyone to the Church when he says, ‘Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I shall refresh you.’”[5] 

Only after Origen has contemplated the Good Samaritan as Christ does he exhort his listeners to imitate Christ. The Church is a field hospital, not because it is too complicated to directly evangelize in a supposed secular age. Rather, the Church’s mission of mercy is to heal the wounded, including each and every man and woman in this ministry of love. As Origen preaches:

We can go to them, bind their wounds, pour in oil and wine, put them on our own beasts, and bear their burdens. The Son of God encourages us to do things like this. He is speaking not so much to the teacher of the Law as to us and to all men when he says, “Go and do likewise.” If we do, we shall obtain eternal life in Christ Jesus, to whom is glory and power for ages of ages. Amen.[6]

The loss of solidary, of fraternity among the human family, is not just the problem of the world. A Church that has grown callous, infused with political ideology, can no longer imitate the wounded love of Christ who comes to each person. Pope Francis so often says that we are never saved alone not because he is speaking of some vague general universal salvation for all. Rather, we are never saved alone, because salvation is union with Christ who came into the world not as an individual monad but as the God-man who is for others. Jesus is the one who took flesh to become for us neighbor so that we might know, at last, the kind of sacrificial love needed to be neighbor to all.


The risk of social encyclicals is to treat them as a kind of acceptable Christianity for the masses. They are read by Catholic progressives, more interested in social justice than the Eucharistic mystery of self-giving love. Otherwise, social encyclicals are ignored.  

If one approaches Fratelli Tutti in this way, then the document will never be received by the Church. Rather, Pope Francis offers a diagnosis of a neopaganism that risks ripping apart not only the human family but the Church herself. This neopaganism will not be healed through technological innovation or even political solutions. Rather, it necessitates the Church and all religious people taking up a public, anamnetic vocation, rather than an agnostic reception of the Church's social teaching. Human beings are not just consumers and producers. Rather, men and women have a transcendent vocation, and without this vocation, political activity becomes about power rather than pursuing communion. The Parable of the Good Samaritan, thus, becomes the luminous center of this document, presenting not only a moral tale about caring for others. Rather, as a religious classic, it interrupts the Church herself, prophetically reminding us that salvation requires becoming a flesh and blood neighbor to all those who are wounded on the road of this fallen world. The conversion to this perspective must begin with the Church, who keeps this memory alive in her Eucharistic feast and her solidarity with the wounded.  

[1] See, Timothy P. O’Malley, “The Caritas of Justice: The Eucharistic Charter of the Catholic University,” in I Call You Friends: John Cavadini and the Vision of Catholic Leadership for Higher Education (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2019), 52-70.  

[2] Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), 298.

[3] René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 82.

[4] Origen, Homilies on Luke 34.6.

[5] Origen, Homilies on Luke 34.7.

[6] Origen, Homilies on Luke 34.9.

Featured Image: Taken by Itravella, Foreground of "Angels Unawares" by Timothy Schmalz, taken on 4 October 2019; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Timothy O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the Director of Education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, where he also serves as Academic Director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He teaches and researches at Notre Dame in the areas of liturgical-sacrmental theology, catechesis, and aesthetics. He is the author of numerous articles and books, most recently, the forthcoming Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the RCIA.

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