Like a prophetic denunciation from the days of ancient Israel, the Covid-19 pandemic has come upon our self-absorbed and decadent civilization like a bolt from the blue, throwing into sharp relief the follies and fault-lines in our moral thinking and offering us, if we but had eyes to see, a sudden illumination of the moral contours of our political landscape. Yet, for the most part, seeing we have not perceived and hearing we have not understood; most of us seem content to adjust our blinkers further over our eyes and retreat further into our ideological bunkers.
Of the many lessons that Covid might have taught us, perhaps the most pressing is that openness is not enough, that moral discrimination is a duty that we cannot avoid. For decades now, “discrimination” has become a dirty word; once it was “unjust discrimination” that we rightly deplored, but now the very act of drawing lines, of making distinctions, and of recognizing limits is increasingly taboo. Yet of course, this is precisely what the pandemic has forced upon us. International borders, once dismissed as passe, have become indispensable as nations around the world have been forced to rediscover that their first responsibility is to their own citizens, and that sometimes requires keeping outsiders out. (Even while signing executive orders to loosen Trump’s immigration restrictions, Biden found himself simultaneously acting swiftly tighten Covid-related travel bans!) In the race for immunity, while internationalists have wrung their hands in moral angst over “vaccine nationalism,” nationalist countries like the US, UK, and Israel, following the principle “secure your own mask before assisting others,” have galloped ahead while the European Union remains mired in inaction and recrimination.
In myriad other ways, the pandemic has forced upon us anew the relevance of boundaries. Social distancing requirements and gathering limits have all proclaimed that love of neighbor does not necessarily mean maximal openness, and as the pandemic has dragged on authorities at every level have discovered again the virtue of discrimination, seeking to draw careful distinctions between what sorts of activities are most risky, most necessary, most enforceable, etc. Within each nation, the vaccination campaigns serve as a metaphor for what it means to live in a world of scarce resources, as authorities have made difficult decisions about whom to prioritize and who needs to wait at the back of the line. Although many of these decisions and policies have been contentious, mired in bureaucracy, and tainted by cynical politicking, the fact remains that Covid-19 has reminded us—or should have, at any rate—that love and judgment are not in conflict. On the contrary, the effective exercise of love depends upon the exercise of judgment, upon the act of discrimination, “by conceit of mind to sever things different in nature, and to discern wherein they differ” (Richard Hooker).
Sadly, these lessons appear to have been almost entirely lost upon Pope Francis in his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, issued in the midst of the pandemic last fall. A wide-ranging, somewhat rambling reflection on everything from social media use to immigration to the death penalty, the encyclical encapsulates perhaps better than anything the basic woolly-headedness of modern progressive Christianity—and the particularly utopian form it assumes when merged with Roman Catholicism’s universalizing aspirations.
The central theme of the encyclical is the openness of Christian love (or perhaps just love in general, as the encyclical is framed as outgrowth of a conversation with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb). Summoning us to “a love that transcends the barriers of geography and distance” (1) he invites us to “dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home” (§6). Eschewing the particularity of the “common good” in traditional Catholic social teaching as something found within each political society, he calls for a “promotion of a truly universal common good” (§174), insisting that “political charity is also expressed in a spirit of openness to everyone” (§190).
Of course we must grant that our Christian faith, as well as our shared humanity, does indeed call us to love each and every neighbor, near and far, to respect and embrace the image of God in every human being, and to recognize justice as a universal norm that must regulate our treatment of both strong and weak, rich and poor, friend and foe. And Pope Francis is surely right to remind us just how often and how pervasively we all fall short of this vision and Christ’s moral call. However, ethics must be much more than mere aspiration, and politics all the more so. Pope Francis seems unsure whether he intends to issue a general moral exhortation, to stir our hearts up to love and justice, or to outline a political program built on that exhortation—and seems unwilling to recognize the immense gap between those two goals. While our love should indeed be open to all, it cannot be open to all in the same way, as my wife would be the first to tell me if I wanted to make ours an open marriage. And while justice may mean treating all equitably, it cannot mean treating all equally, since justice gives to each what is their due, and different things are due to different people.
The first task of Christian ethics is to translate the universal summons of Christian love, and the universal norms of human nature, into concrete duties and rights that can regulate the immense pluriformity of our social lives. As the great Scottish jurist Lord Kames wrote in his 1760 Principles of Equity, “To make universal benevolence our duty, without distinction of persons or circumstances, would in effect subject us to the absurd and impracticable duty, of serving at the same instant an endless number and variety of persons; which, instead of promoting the general good, would evidently be detrimental, by unqualifying us to perform any part.” We are thus forced to distinguish between the near and the far, and between existing commitments and mere possibilities. Indeed, even the parable of the Good Samaritan, to which Pope Francis repeatedly summons us in the encyclical, recognizes such limits. Noble as the Samaritan’s action is, we must remember that he paused to help someone whom he found right by his path; he did not go combing the highways and byways, much less foreign lands, for beaten men to assist. And sacrificial as he was, the parable ends with him returning to his original business and relinquishing the injured man to the care of another.
The move from ethics to politics requires yet another leap. Although the Christian tradition has repeatedly proclaimed, against all forms of Machiavellianism old and new, the responsibility of the political sphere to norms of natural law and indeed its submission to the kingship of Christ, it has also recognized the ambiguous character of the means that politics must employ and the provisionality of the ends that it can achieve. The statesman must not only, like each individual, distinguish between needs near and far, between the burdens of existing commitments and tantalizing possibilities, between duties toward his own and duties toward others, but he must also cope with the fact that he acts not merely with his own will, but with the wills of others. The politician is not a pastor, much less a deity, and he must work with the vices as well as the virtues of his people, their prejudices as well as their considered judgments.
It is the failure to reckon with these limitations that prevents Fratelli Tutti from ever really touching down from its lofty flights of moral aspiration and offering actionable prescriptions for politics. Do not misunderstand this critique. The Pope is far from blind to the recognition that the global must begin with the local, and that universal ambitions must never trample particular identities into an ugly uniformity. “If a certain kind of globalization claims to make everyone uniform, to level everyone out, that globalization destroys the rich gifts and uniqueness of each person and each people” (§100), he writes, and offers an impassioned defense of the need to preserve local cultures and traditions in an increasingly interconnected world (§§142-145). In fact, he reserves some of his harshest condemnations for the globalization of commercialism, with its haste to replace every street market with a McDonald’s and a shopping mall (§100).
Throughout, the Pope aspires to achieve some balance between a globe united in mutual cultural exchange, pursuing a “universal common good,” with no walls and porous borders, and a globe of rich, deep local communities anchored in their particular histories. But his efforts to achieve such balance are hampered by his refusal to recognize that a universal love must always be the outgrowth of an oikophilia—a love of one’s own—and that, human nature being what it is, oikophilia can hardly be sustained without at least some measure of what is now called “xenophobia”—fear of the other.
One of the most insightful meditations on this theme can be found in the 1767 treatise An Essay on the History of Civil Society by Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson, a friend and friendly critic of his countryman Adam Smith. Ferguson was disposed to doubt just how much Smith’s ideal of free trade could bind the globe together, at least without loosening the ties that bound each particular nation. “The titles of fellow-citizen and countryman,” he observes, “unopposed to those of alien and foreigner, to which they refer, would fall into disuse, and lose their meaning. We love individuals on account of personal qualities; but we love our country, as it is a party in the divisions of mankind; and our zeal for its interest, is a predilection in behalf of the side we maintain.”
Ferguson is alive to the distinction of personal ethics and politics that we have noted above; as prone as we may be to selfishness as individuals, we are more able to treat other individuals equally than other communities. “We may hope to instil into the breasts of private men sentiments of candour towards their fellow-creatures, and a disposition to humanity and justice. But it is vain to expect that we can give to the multitude of a people a sense of union among themselves, without admitting hostility to those who oppose them. Could we at once, in the case of any nation, extinguish the emulation which is excited from abroad, we should probably break or weaken the bands of society at home, and close the busiest scenes of national occupations and virtues.”
These observations, we may note, apply not just to our country but to other forms of corporate identities that we might foster. In our own day, the phenomenon of sports loyalties offers ample material for reflection. The fan of Michigan or Ohio State might attempt to offer various reasons for his loyalty, claiming that his preferred team runs a cleaner program, has more virtuous players or more cunning coaches, that it has a storied history and merits his love in its own right.
In reality, though, his affection for his own team would have little substance or staying power if not constantly animated by a certain animosity toward its rivals. And indeed, for the players themselves, it is never mere abstract love of the game, but rather the opportunity to gain honor or revenge over their rivals, that spurs them on to superhuman feats and that fosters genuine virtues. Of course, sports rivalries can readily get out of hand, and international rivalries all the more so, but the proper task of the coach or the statesman is to channel, discipline, and balance these sentiments, ensuring that common objects of love take precedence over common objects of hostility.
Such statesmanlike balance is largely lacking from Fratelli Tutti’s idealistic pages, which calls us to think in terms of “neighbours without borders” and insists “Our response to the arrival of migrating persons can be summarized by four words: welcome, protect, promote and integrate” (§129). Drawing on Catholic Social Teaching’s salutary tradition of subordinating the right of private property to the “universal destination of goods,” Pope Francis boldly seeks to extend this principle to the field of international relations (§§118-127). Just as, within each society, every private property owner must understand his goods as held in trust for the use of all in need, so within the world at large, each nation must understand its possessions as held in trust for the use of all mankind. In the abstract, there is a genuine logic to this, although Francis underemphasizes the extent to which private property, in order to serve the universal good, must be cultivated and managed with a particular good in mind.
But given how far off we still are from finding ways to equitably share resources within all but the smallest and most homogenous societies, it is surely a rather wild flight of idealism to begin proposing projects for a global sharing of resources that still respects national sovereignty (as Catholic Social Teaching has pledged to respect private property). Indeed, the Pope admits as much, declaring, “Certainly, all this calls for an alternative way of thinking. Without an attempt to enter into that way of thinking, what I am saying here will sound wildly unrealistic” (§127)—but without attempting to show us why we should want to enter into such a utopian mode of thinking.
After all of this, it should hardly come as a surprise that when the encyclical finally comes down to earth to offer very concrete pronouncements, it does so in a way that bulldozes right through some of the most carefully-constructed edifices of moral discrimination in the Christian ethical tradition: just war theory and capital punishment. There is no space here to engage with Francis’s rather breathtaking revisionism on these core pillars of the historic Christian understanding of justice, save to recognize that they are of a piece with the rest of the encyclical. If the historic conception of justice involves “severing things different in nature,” the most important such difference is that between innocent and guilty.
Upon this basic act of moral discrimination, or what Oliver O’Donovan calls “attributive justice,” are founded our obligations to render reward to the upright and punishment to the guilty. Abandoning such outworn conceptions in the name of the “openness of love,” it is hardly surprising that the Pope should find himself in a position where he cannot but look on traditional just war theory with incredulity, insisting that “Every war leaves our world worse than it was before” (§261) and “Never again war!” (§258), nor that he should find a way to quote Gen. 9:6 in defense of the proposition that “All Christians and people of good will are today called to work … for the abolition of the death penalty” (§268).
I need hardly remark, in concluding, that these final sections should pull the wool from over the eyes of any wavering Protestants dreaming that in Rome that can find a rock of timeless doctrine safe from the acid of modernity, a fortress of authority sheltered from the winds of private judgment. It is indeed a bitter irony that today, Protestants are constantly turning to Rome because of its claim to offer changeless and certain teaching—when it was precisely the changeability and uncertainty of doctrine defined by papal fiat that led the Reformers to reject the shaky magisterium. Still, this is hardly a time for evangelical Protestants to snigger into our shirtsleeves about the follies of the current papacy, since they are simply the same follies that infiltrate our own ranks—only magnified to a scale where they impossible to ignore. The abandonment of discrimination, and the hard work it calls us to, the naivete that thinks all problems can be solved with more “openness,” the fear of being labeled judgmental and unloving, are rife within our own ranks as well. In the face of such pressures, we must recall that God calls us to love not only with all our hearts, but with all our minds, and that we who will one day be called to judge angels cannot shirk the task of judgment today.