Let’s begin with a story. Regular readers know that I strongly believe many Christians are better than their Christ. Many, for instance, would never call a desperate Canaanite woman a “dog” if she came to them begging aid for her sick daughter. Nor would they allow her to accept that she is a “dog” in order to receive said aid. Many of today’s Christians are truly interested in seeking out a globalism that transcends tribal bounds.
This, then, is the complex legacy of Christianity, inasmuch as many wonderful people have been inspired by the best of some often truly terrible ancient stories. But how? How, especially, when many still cleave to the worst of those stories, and use them to justify retributive justice, tribalism, and greed?
Well, through their communities. Through the selections made by their spiritual leaders not to focus on hate and division, tribalism and self-serving righteousness. Those, for instance, who expressly ignore passages like 1 Cor 3:8 “Now he who plants and he who waters are the same, but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor” to imagine whole welfare states that ensure no one goes without. Many religious folks have been inspired to focus on the best of these stories, because they grew up in cultures where a specific moral arc of justice was being improved under secular law and happenstance.
Today, then, I want to celebrate the reach of Christian humanism, because if any of us should think that a better world can only come about the moment that everyone shares a cosmology, we will never be able to address the suffering that plagues humanity and surrounding species of the world today. We need to act now. We need to come as we are, together, to that site of better moral action. And we need to celebrate whenever religious communities lean into that same proposition, choosing humanism over a nihilism that suggests there is nothing of value outside their faith.
The Catholic Church
When I speak of “coming together”, of course, I don’t mean to suggest that this is a struggle just for religious folks to manage. No, it’s a challenge for me, too, as it probably is for a great many other atheists. It takes work on my own pride and moral outrage to put aside my contention with specific formulations of religion, and to focus on the good work that people do from a variety of other subject positions.
And one of my lifelong bugbears has been the Catholic church — which I deeply dislike, even as I love the good in the world that a lot of my Catholic friends do.
How “lifelong”? Well, I first read Everyman, a medieval pageant play about Catholic reckoning before death, when I had just turned 12. (I remember this because it was given to me as a birthday gift by my teacher, who knew that I was interested in learning about as many different religions as possible.) I would later teach this play to university students (under someone else’s syllabus), and find that my point of contention had not changed.
What first astonished me at 12 was the discussion between other characters, once they had encouraged Everyman to go to confession. These other characters were deliberating over whether it was good for Everyman to go to confession when the priest himself was corrupt (in that day, more by greed than by sex scandals), and they concluded that Everyman’s duty before his god remained the same irrespective of the priest’s status. Everyman was tasked only to do his personal Catholic duty as well as possible, and the implication was that the priest would be dealt with by their god in turn.
I was repulsed by this, and stunned to realize that this was standard operating procedure within Catholicism for many centuries thereafter — leading well into how many Catholic communities have and continue to handle issues like the aforementioned sexual abuse among clergy. Now, perhaps things would have been different if I hadn’t first been given a thorough education in the Holocaust, and the unconscionability of “I was just following orders” as a defense of unjust systems… but of all the spiritual practices I’ve encountered in my life, I have struggled the most to see the good in one that expressly calls upon practitioners to focus on presenting themselves for Eucharist and confession irrespective of the moral cleanliness of the church itself.
And as time went on, and I read the Catechism’s lousy views on a great many contemporary issues; and I read encyclicals that further seemed to draw from a knee-jerk revulsion to changing science (especially under Pope Benedict XVI)… I had less and less hope that I would see anything resembling humanism emerge from the institution. Pope Francis still endorses exorcism, for instance — is even responsible for a resurgence in practitioners — and while that spiritual belief is fairly logical because Christ was an exorcist and the Bible claims that demons are real, the institutional endorsement of this practice also keeps alive, in many parts of the Christian world, the belief that horrific treatment of both mentally unwell persons and misbehaving children is spiritually sound.
Oh, and I could go on, of course — like I said, the Catholic Church is a huge bugbear for me — but I want to focus on elevating the good that can nonetheless arise in awful systems, due to individual actions.
Which is why I was both startled and delighted to read Pope Francis’s latest encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti” (Brothers and Sisters All). It holds humanist positions — by which I mean that it looks to the state of the world and the socioeconomic and nationalistic mechanisms that have brought us to this point… and it advocates from this concrete evidence, as I do from my position as a secular humanist, for a more compassionate and globalist ethos in action.
Francis even opens his latest encyclical on an expressly humanist note. Whereas some argue that all priests are meant to evangelize for Christ, Francis argues:
3. There is an episode in the life of Saint Francis that shows his openness of heart, which knew no bounds and transcended differences of origin, nationality, colour or religion. It was his visit to Sultan Malik-el-Kamil, in Egypt, which entailed considerable hardship, given Francis’ poverty, his scarce resources, the great distances to be traveled and their differences of language, culture and religion. That journey, undertaken at the time of the Crusades, further demonstrated the breadth and grandeur of his love, which sought to embrace everyone. Francis’ fidelity to his Lord was commensurate with his love for his brothers and sisters. Unconcerned for the hardships and dangers involved, Francis went to meet the Sultan with the same attitude that he instilled in his disciples: if they found themselves “among the Saracens and other nonbelievers”, without renouncing their own identity they were not to “engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake”. In the context of the times, this was an extraordinary recommendation. We are impressed that some eight hundred years ago Saint Francis urged that all forms of hostility or conflict be avoided and that a humble and fraternal “subjection” be shown to those who did not share his faith.
And he concludes his introduction on the same, humanistic note, while establishing his thesis:
8. 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. Fraternity between all men and women. “Here we have a splendid secret that shows us how to dream and to turn our life into a wonderful adventure. No one can face life in isolation… We need a community that supports and helps us, in which we can help one another to keep looking ahead. How important it is to dream together… By ourselves, we risk seeing mirages, things that are not there. Dreams, on the other hand, are built together”. Let us 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, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all.
What an exciting and unexpected proclamation. It’s then followed, in the text, by a great deal more. For instance, Francis advocates for “historical consciousness” (14), and against discarding human beings through elderly neglect, economic abandonment to poverty, racism (explicitly named as such!), sexism, slavery, and the “hidden exile” of persons with disability (18-21; 23-24; 98). He also names the tribalism that continues despite technological advances (27), and breaks with that tribalism by including Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb in his argument that, while exploration of other worlds is joyous, there remains a critical need for more equality and social inclusion here on Earth as well.
In “An Absence of Human Dignity on the Borders” he then indicts the nationalistic chauvinism that exacerbates human suffering through our many current migrant crises. In “The Illusion of Communication”, he outlines how digital technologies often serve to stratify and undermine democracy rather than bring us together. In Chapter 3, “Envisaging and Engendering an Open World”, he outlines tools for reframing society on all levels — institutional, geographical, cultural, and personal — in keeping with the aims of a greater fraternity and social friendship on a global scale. He returns to the unconscionability of borders in Chapter 4, “A Heart Open to the Whole World”, while still emphasizing the importance of local tradition and identity in giving us a foundation from whence we can do our global work.
In Chapter 5, he gets even more political: First, by outlining how “populism” is a distortion of true representation by the people, and how democracy is further degraded by actions taken for short-term personal gain over actual societal transformation. Next, by advocating for better systems of employment as a way of preventing poverty. And then… Well, then he expressly repudiates the parts of the Bible that focus on the individual master’s whims as a basis for solid political policy, and aligns himself with left-leaning social policy even as he criticises more self-serving leftist ideologies. To this end he writes that
165. True charity is capable of incorporating all these elements in its concern for others. In the case of personal encounters, including those involving a distant or forgotten brother or sister, it can do so by employing all the resources that the institutions of an organized, free and creative society are capable of generating. Even the Good Samaritan, for example, needed to have a nearby inn that could provide the help that he was personally unable to offer. Love of neighbour is concrete and squanders none of the resources needed to bring about historical change that can benefit the poor and disadvantaged. At times, however, leftist ideologies or social doctrines linked to individualistic ways of acting and ineffective procedures affect only a few, while the majority of those left behind remain dependent on the goodwill of others. This demonstrates the need for a greater spirit of fraternity, but also a more efficient worldwide organization to help resolve the problems plaguing the abandoned who are suffering and dying in poor countries. It also shows that there is no one solution, no single acceptable methodology, no economic recipe that can be applied indiscriminately to all. Even the most rigorous scientific studies can propose different courses of action.
Now, you may have noted that I overlooked one chapter, wherein Francis discusses the parable of the Good Samaritan, but that’s because it would be very surprising to have an encyclical that didn’t include some sort of object lesson from the Bible. However, here Francis — like a great many wonderfully humanist Christians — is expressly tying his lesson into the domain of empirical evidence. This is what we need more of. This is what we should be celebrating and shouting from the rooftops when it’s done by people from every subject-position and cosmology on Earth.
Chapter 5 continues with a wealth of commentary about neoliberalist and general economic policies that have fared poorly in terms of real-world outcomes addressing matters of poverty and neglect. He looks to the financial crisis of 2007-08 (just as he did to COVID in the introduction), and considers the precarious state of affairs caused by a lessening of nation-state power in light of transnational commercialism, while the UN has yet to fully assert itself as the institution that Francis feels is necessary to achieve a better global equality, dignity, and peace. And then he moves extensively into the domain of “political love”, reframing what is often divisive and tribalist as in fact one of the greatest tools we might have to become better brothers and sisters to the world.
Dialogue, consensus, and encounters that acknowledge one another as fellow-travellers seeking peace and struggling for more just forms of forgiveness are then extolled in Chapters 6 and 7, and there is an express point made about Indigenous persons (among others) having much to teach us all about humanistic practice. Yes! Humanism! Referenced by the Pope!
220. Indigenous peoples, for example, are not opposed to progress, yet theirs is a different notion of progress, often more humanistic than the modern culture of developed peoples. Theirs is not a culture meant to benefit the powerful, those driven to create for themselves a kind of earthly paradise. Intolerance and lack of respect for indigenous popular cultures is a form of violence grounded in a cold and judgmental way of viewing them. No authentic, profound and enduring change is possible unless it starts from the different cultures, particularly those of the poor. A cultural covenant eschews a monolithic understanding of the identity of a particular place; it entails respect for diversity by offering opportunities for advancement and social integration to all.
That discourse on forgiveness in Chapter 7 is an especially potent manifestation of humanistic action, because it advocates for a form of forgiveness that never forgets; it honours memory by invoking humanity’s worst atrocities against its own; and illustrates why forms of worldly justice, here and now, matter immensely. There is no talk in this encyclical of waiting for a great reckoning, a day in which every tear will be wiped away. Rather, justice must be done in this lifetime, for the world to be a better place for all. War and the death penalty are not pathways to that better justice, either — and even a life sentence, Francis argues, is a death penalty by another name.
In other words, with “Fratelli Tutti” Francis is calling for restorative and rehabilitative justices here and now.
As such, even though he predictably closes in Chapter 8 with a reflection on Catholicism’s place in the world and the role of Catholics within it… this is a text that humanists from most every cosmology could stand to read and reflect upon, because the vast majority is an opening outward from the Christian subject-position: to confront real-world evidence, to prioritize real-world action, and otherwise to take part in a vital discourse in the secular world.
Suffice it to say…
There is plenty to criticize both within and without the practice of faith. Nihilism exists within the Catholic Church as it does in many other corners of the world.
But when the practice of humanism, in word as in action, instead emerges?
That’s when we humanists, of every creed and non-religious position, must lean in together: to celebrate its emergence; to encourage its application; and above all, to champion the emergence of still more.
May we all go forth not only in peace — but with hope of a better worldly justice, too.