The late great physicist Stephen Hawking once speculated that, besides the mathematical equations he and others had developed about the nature of the universe, something was needed to “breathe fire” into them – i.e., make them a reality. Reading through Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, released just this weekend, you can’t help feeling that it, too, is seeking some concrete, creative fire.
If I were a Catholic progressive, and someone asked me what to read to understand where the Church stands today, however, this wouldn’t be the text I would press into his hands. And it has nothing to do with liberal or conservative. With all due respect to the Holy Father, it’s all but unreadable. Only those of us who love the Church and are loyal to the pope will get through it, from duty, not intellectual or spiritual interest. And that’s a serious shortcoming for a text addressed not only to Catholics but all people of good will.
It would be surprising if it does not produce disappointment among Catholic progressives, who have been expecting something big. Their favorite policies are here – and the media will push them as something fresh. But such sparks as are struck are buried under mountains of repetition, conceptual vagueness, and utopian aspirations.
Recent papal documents are not exactly known for succinctness – St. John Paul II often went on a lot longer than he should. And there’s a kind of inside-Church-speak that enters into all of them. But usually they have some central stabilizing clarity. Here, it’s universal human brotherhood – “fraternity and social friendship” in the title – which is anything but clear even after nearly 200 pages.