Response to Patrick Burke

I was asked to write this short piece for the Scottish Catholic journal Open House 

A very personal interpretation

The January-February edition of Faith Magazine, the journal of the Faith Movement, published an article by Monsignor Patrick Burke, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh. The article considers the papal encyclical Fratelli Tutti of Pope Francis. Many of those reading this article have been left confused, and it is my intention to address some issues which may contribute to this confusion. It would be impossible to respond fully in this short piece.

The article carries the title A Very Personal Letter and Mgr Burke begins by claiming that in this encyclical the Pope is making no claim to authoritative teaching and that its contents are not an act of magisterial teaching. He thus clears the way for a reception of the text which leaves freedom to have fundamental disagreements with the author, now seen as a private individual, and thus obviate the necessity to work with the text in the teaching and practice of the church. This is the first and essential problem with the article in question. Fratelli Tutti is an encyclical: this is not open to denial. The proofs that Mgr Burke raises to disallow its authority and status are unable to alter this simple fact and they are false. At least since the time of Pope Pius XII, the Catholic Church has taught that an encyclical is part of the pope’s ordinary magisterium. The authority of an encyclical stems from the papal office, not from those to whom it is addressed nor the sources of the thought or quotations in the text.

A social encyclical

Fratelli Tutti is a social encyclical: that is to say that at a particular time and circumstance it seeks to apply both the teaching and wisdom of scripture, revelation, and reason to social structures and situations, offering ways to enlighten, understand and progress justice and human dignity in an evolving society, in keeping with the treasure of wisdom of the Church and of human insight. Pope Francis has listened to many people, from bishops to victims of abuse, from imams to secular thinkers and Catholic traditions, and above all to the Gospel and to the Spirit in prayer. It is widely, if not unanimously, accepted that the world is currently going through a time of crisis, and this is the Pope’s address within that crisis.

Mgr Burke states that the Pope’s principal concern is that ‘rapid economic globalisation and ubiquitous digital communication, far from making the world more integrated and harmonious are resulting in greater inequalities, international conflict, and interpersonal alienation’. The Pope himself writes:

‘I offer this social Encyclical as a modest contribution to continued reflection, in the hope that in the face of present-day attempts to eliminate or ignore others, we may prove capable of responding with a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words. … It is my desire that, in this our time, by acknowledging the dignity of each human person, we can contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity’ (para 6).

The stimuli behind the Pope’s desire to write about universal fraternity include war, aggressive nationalism, selfishness, loss of social sense, a global economy which imposes a single cultural model on the world, division, loss of the sense of history, the Covid-19 pandemic, new cultural colonisation, the distortion of democracy, freedom and justice, survival of the rich and strong, the prevalence of poverty and powerlessness. He is driven by the urgency of profound crises of social and individual humans lives.

Rooted in revelation

Mgr Burke, while he sees the breadth of the vision of crisis which the Pope is painting and hears that the Pope is listening to other voices outside the Catholic Church, has apparently failed to notice the unequivocal statements scattered through the text which demonstrate clearly that while the Pope is listening to all and addressing all, his vision is entirely rooted in the fundamental and specifically Christian revelation of redemption in Christ. The encyclical does have a pastoral, apostolic and missionary tone of outreach, engendered within the interior love of the Trinity. One example suffices of the bedrock on which the whole is built:

We likewise believe that Christ shed his blood for each of us and that no one is beyond the scope of his universal love. If we go to the ultimate source of that love which is the very life of the triune God, we encounter in the community of the three divine Persons the origin and perfect model of all life in society. Theology continues to be enriched by its reflection on this great truth’ (para 85).

 The encyclical calls repeatedly for communication and respect:

Today, in many countries, hyperbole, extremism and polarization have become political tools. Employing a strategy of ridicule, suspicion and relentless criticism, in a variety of ways one denies the right of others to exist or to have an opinion’ (para 15).

Mgr Burke quotes from the second sentence above. Curiously, at this point, he makes the comment that many of those who have been on the receiving end of fierce criticism ‘for such sins as “clericalism”’ might raise an eyebrow while reading the Pope’s words. Mgr Burke appears to be creating a parallel between those experiencing criticism of clericalism and those being destroyed by abusive governments and dysfunctional public discourse, both of which destroys inalienable human rights. This is quite extraordinary and truly out of kilter with both the mind of the Pope, the experience of very many members of the church and of those suffering from the real evils described in Fratelli Tutti. There is commonality between the different sets of experiences in that there is abuse of power, selfishness and disdain for others both in corrupt government, dysfunctional society and in clericalism – but not in the criticism of clericalism. Pope Francis has spoken repeatedly of the evil clericalism. Writing to the priests of Latin America in 2016, he says that clericalism

arises from an elitist and exclusivist vision of vocation, that interprets the ministry received as a power to be exercised rather than as a free and generous service to be given. This leads us to believe that we belong to a group that has all the answers and no longer needs to listen or learn anything. Clericalism is a perversion and is the root of many evils in the Church: we must humbly ask forgiveness for this and above all create the conditions so that it is not repeated.

In Fratelli Tutti we read:

Saint Paul, recognizing the temptation of the earliest Christian communities to form closed and isolated groups, urged his disciples to abound in love “for one another and for all”’ (1 Thess 3:12)’ (para 62).

It is this abounding love ‘for all’ which prompts the Pope to draw a broad picture of ‘the dark clouds over a closed world’ and to urge a new way forward.

For all our hyper-connectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all. 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’ (para 7).

Many of us, who are not baptised to live in closed and isolated groups, would resonate in hope, joy, courage and enthusiasm with the encyclical Fratelli Tutti, were it grasped by our pastors and put to work in our midst. I therefore sincerely hope that Mgr Burke himself is writing as a private individual and not as a prelate, vicar general of a metropolitan archdiocese, called by his Pope and ours to be sisters and brothers to one another.