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Pope Francis’ Social Teaching: Fresh Thoughts and Methods – and a Desideratum

Social ethicists should have a high time under this pontificate! It surely gives them a new sense of self-appreciation vis-à-vis systematic theologians who traditionally receive priority in Church teachings. Pope Francis’ focus on social and ecological ethical issues, as well as on dialogue with others as well as his new style and method brought a fresh wind into Catholic Social Teaching (CST) and are – for good reasons – highly thought of, particularly outside inner Church circles.

His first and foremost contribution to ethics (as to theology) is that he brings to the fore the biblical foundations of social and ecological teaching, inevitably interconnected in this age. Laudato si’ (2015) as well as Fratelli tutti (2020) start with an empirical analysis of the present situation followed by an extensive chapter based on a biblical text (cf. LS 62-100; FT 57-87). Pope Francis’ approach is nurtured by the Bible on the basis of his Ignatian spirituality, world view and experience. With this method he gives a new perspective to ethical questions and disputes. The accusation by conservatives that his teaching is not as theologically sophisticated as that of his predecessor Benedict XVI has to be seen from this angle. Traditional theories and strategies of argument still have their place. The baby should not be thrown out with the bath tub. However, for the Pope biblical narratives open the mind and heart for new types of reflection. Theologically and ethically all norms are after all to be judged by their biblical foundation as the norma normans of theology (cf. Dei Verbum 2). The announcement of God’s rule of justice and mercy, of His forgiveness and of non-violence, which are to respect and enhance the dignity of each and every person, as well as the care for the poor and the realization of legal, social and ecological justice are – so to speak – biblical meta-aims, which are then concretized by detailed ethical reflections. This way Pope Francis also manages to give some freshness, to use one of his favorite expressions, to themes which are central for societies worldwide as well as to the discourse on Christian ethics. A remark should be added here: For the Old as for the New Testament ethical issues are key. In content these are, however, rather different from the “hot irons” which have been center stage in the culture wars of past decades and have often come to be bluntly identified with ethics. Not only for many Catholics but also for the outside world they have even become the essence of what it means to be Catholic and even Christian. This false exclusiveness makes them susceptible to instrumentalization by political propaganda. They thus become flagships in otherwise by no means Christian party programs and a populist means to fish for Christian votes and punch at presumably demoralized, un-Christian societies. As much as these ethical themes need to be discussed seriously and with competence, the fact that they are hardly mentioned in the Scriptures – though they existed in Jesus’ time – should make us wary of their prominence. The present Pope thus has for good reasons avoided giving them a central status in his ethics.

His focus on socio-ecological and economic issues[1] is, moreover, communicated in a new manner. He rarely uses arguments along traditional lines of anthropology and ethics. The criticism, sometimes heard, that he does not know better lacks plausibility. A pope has enough theological support at hand to write texts in moral theology. The reason for his change in method must be sought elsewhere. Most probably, Francis considers the ethical language of modernity with its arguments and imperatives not as the sort of ethical communication, that can touch peoples’ heart and mind and lead to them to rethinking their attitudes, to a true metanoia. In an age of ideologies rational ethical argumentation rather tends to lead to counter-reactions. If this is so, it should make ethicists think about their ways of arguing. Perhaps more narrative (biblical) elements of ethics need to be combined with the “old European” culture of rationality (Niklas Luhmann), without falling into the trap of an arbitrariness of thought characterizing some post-modern writings.

Another important element in the CST of Pope Francis is his new emphasis on cultures and religions (e. g. in the Instrumentum Laboris for the Bishop’s Synod in October 2023). The issue has been around for some time. Gaudium et spes carried a chapter on culture (GS 53-62) well before the so-called “cultural turn” in the social sciences took place in the 1980’s. The term “culture” in GS, however, still tilts between different notions since it seemed (and indeed is) hard to pin down. However, its extensive treatment there already points to the centrality of the issue. Its practical importance became evident in the inculturation movements in the Catholic Church, which constituted one of the most conflictual issues in the post-Vatican II period. [2] It may be seen as a “ruse of the Spirit”, that the present Pope’s Magisterium treads this area, which has been contested for a long-time. Liberation theology has often (in principle wrongly) been accused of smuggling Marxist ideas into CST. It later tended, however, to change course to what may be called a culturalist approach.[3] The present Pope borrows from both according to his own convictions.

Francis is, however, skeptical about what he calls an “abstract universalism” (FT 100). He seems to see this as a world view of Western modernity gone global which contains – at least in part – hegemonic claims and detached from the rather different social realities in the manifold cultures. Peoples’ lives are, after all, embedded in them with their different cultural symbolic and real languages. As the first pope from the Global South Pope Francis is certainly more sensitive to this issue of cultural as well as political dominance than were his predecessors. The bottom-up approach used in Fratelli tutti (and the Instrumentum Laboris) starts with the human being in his concreteness, as well as with communities in their diversity of cultures, languages and religions. These are to come into dialogue with each other and create new forms of culture, dialogue being a central notion of this pontificate (cf. the long exhortations of LS 164-202).

The dialogue between religions is for him of particular importance. Fratelli tutti and even more so the impressive joint declaration with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb, On Human Fraternity (2019) testify to this. The latter has even been honored by the UN through the establishment of the International Day of Fraternity on the date of its signature (February 4th), which shows great appreciation.  The program of a “new evangelization” of his predecessors has thus been given a different, but vibrant impulse. Pope Francis’s positions and initiatives insist on the need of personal conversion of each and every human being and in this sense also on the universality of ethics. However, they attempt to avoid a moralism that may be counterproductive. This together with the fact that he takes up themes of urgent concern in today’s world constitutes a hallmark of his pontificate, particularly appreciated by non-Catholics.

To this highly positive evaluation which with some success fills new wine into old wine skins a desideratum should be added. Pope Francis` focus on conversion, as well as on cultures and religions tends, so it seems, to undervalue the ethical importance of structures. In this short essay I therefore want to add a few words on this. Globalization (GS calls it “socialization”) as a central “sign of the times” needs to structured by strong and effective international laws and institutions so as not to be anarchic and thus at the detriment of the weaker. CST took this into account by the call for a world authority. It was first launched in Pacem in terris (1963) and has been extended in Gaudium et spes in the chapter on international institutions (GS 83-90). It took up an inspiration of modern universalism, as did the recognition of universal human rights and democracy. In his work “On Perpetual Peace” Kant envisaged a world, in which the so called “natural state” of conflict between states could be overcome by international institutions and treaties. Some 150 years later his ideas inspired the creation of the League of Nations (1919). It failed because of the wide-spread emergence of nationalisms in the inter-war period. A renewed effort of internationalization took place after World War II with the foundation of the United Nations and its many Special Organizations. This attempt has enjoyed a longer life than its predecessor, but its future is far from certain. A lack of reform (e. g. of the Security Council), the heavy mortgage of post-war hegemonism as well as a general change in the geopolitical climate leads to its devaluation and endangers the fine threads woven in the past to enhance global unity. Even the very existence of this international architecture is put into question: Are international and regional multilateral institutions still needed? The question is also posed with regard to the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which after the war of aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine remains paralyzed. However, besides democracy (republicanism) and trade international institutions are the main tool for communication and for the prevention of conflicts. They should be supported wherever possible despite their often grave shortcomings. This the more, since at present powerful political interests intend to weaken them. Thus, the campaign against universal human rights at the UN Human Rights Council (OHCHR) since the 1990’s (initiated by Russia and Islamic states) intends to replace them by so called “traditional values”, which does not bode well for women and ethnic as well as religious minorities. In view of the fragility of the international order, despite of disagreement in single ethical questions the support of the Catholic Church and its Magisterium remains vital. Interpreting the “signs of the time in the light of the Gospel” (GS 4) requires a strong focus on individuals and their responsibilities, as well as on cultures and religions in an era of post-colonial reflections. The question is whether CST will be able to strike a fine balance between these new elements and the fact that a globalized world needs institutional structures, nationally as internationally, so as to realize peace and justice however fragmentary. A creative update of global ethics and the appreciation of cultures and religions thus remains a fundamental challenge for Catholic social ethics in this age.

[1] For his initiative on economics see cf. www.

[2] Cf. Ingeborg G. Gabriel: Kenosis and Krisis. Christianity’s Inculturation into Modernity. In: Daniel Munteanu und Sorin Selaru (Hgg.): Holding fast to the Mystery of the Faith (Festschrift for Patriarch Daniel of Rumania). (Paderborn: Brill 2022), 97-113.

[3] Cf. Georges de Schrijver (ed.), Liberation Theologies on Shifting Grounds: a Clash of Socioeconomic and Cultural Paradigms (Leuven: University Press 1998).