First, a bit of humor before I get super-serious: when I first saw the name of this encyclical, all I could think of was the late great Little Richard’s 1955 hit song, Tutti Frutti. Many inevitable, inveterate critics of this latest encyclical of Pope Francis will, no doubt, say that its contents are about as clear as the lyrics of that song.
I, too, will offer some criticism, but it is done with the utmost reverence towards the office of the papacy and Pope Francis as a person, within the framework of an awareness of the limitations of the papacy’s purview and scope. Popes are not necessarily (and not normally expected to be) the world’s leading experts on political and economic theories or particulars. Their primary domain is theology and spirituality.
They can and do offer their thoughts and opinions on such things, as we would fully expect (Jesus being Lord of all of life), but the faithful are not bound to every jot and tittle of those expressions, and views on the means to the end of love, which is the central notion of this encyclical, may differ widely among faithful Catholics and all people of good will and benevolent intent. Thus, we are fully allowed to disagree on various particulars, without any hint of even disrespect, let alone dissent.
If anyone has the “right” to offer a bit of criticism of this pope’s (non-doctrinal) social teaching, I submit that it would be yours truly. I have defended him no less than 173 times, collected 233 other defenses of him, and wrote a book defending him very early on (in January 2014). No one can accuse me, therefore, of having any predisposition of bias against him.
The pope mentions dialogue 49 times in this encyclical. I love that, as a huge advocate of dialogue myself, having engaged in probably over 1000 of them (preserved in writing on my blog and in my books) in my thirty years of Catholic apologetics, and another ten of Protestant and general Christian apologetics before that. Pope Francis wrote, citing Pope Pius XI at the end:
244. When conflicts are not resolved but kept hidden or buried in the past, silence can lead to complicity in grave misdeeds and sins. Authentic reconciliation does not flee from conflict, but is achieved in conflict, resolving it through dialogue and open, honest and patient negotiation. Conflict between different groups “if it abstains from enmities and mutual hatred, gradually changes into an honest discussion of differences founded on a desire for justice”.
That’s what I’m doing now: in effect, dialoguing and interacting with him, within a common shared “desire for justice.” The Holy Father also stated: “I have sought to make this reflection an invitation to dialogue among all people of good will” (6) and “Together, we can seek the truth in dialogue, in relaxed conversation or in passionate debate” (50) and “in a true spirit of dialogue, we grow in our ability to grasp the significance of what others say and do, even if we cannot accept it as our own conviction” (203) . This doesn’t strike me as a “know-it-all” position. He’s not writing about dogma in this proclamation. It allows disagreement, while hoping for common ground, at least in goals, if not always in methods and means to shared ends.
Likewise, when I wrote about the pope’s “environmental encyclical” Laudato si in June 2015, I praised it to the skies (“wonderful and positively innovative encyclical . . . a goldmine of wisdom . . . innumerable gems of insight”), but I did respectfully dissent on two points: climate change and nuclear energy. And I was quite free to do so, by virtue of the pope’s own words:
There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. Here I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good. 
I’m doing the same thing now: expressing my disagreement on non-doctrinal / non-theological issues, because the pope has called for open and honest dialogue.
As for this encyclical (released on 3 October 2020), let me say first that it contains throughout many magnificent and helpful expressions of the Christian duty of loving all people. I have no beef with any of that, as a general matter of overall intent and purpose. I can’t stress highly enough that all of his repeated expressions of Christian charity are wonderful and edifying, with much insight to offer all of us. Where I respectfully differ is in a criticism of what the pope inexplicably omitted from his analysis, and of a certain (if I dare say so) naivete in terms of how he thinks the lofty, noble goals of the encyclical are to be achieved and attained. And this is where equally honest and charitable Christians — even thoroughly orthodox Catholics like myself, who are also genuinely “fans” of his — may legitimately differ with him.
My strongest criticism comes from the depths of my heart as a pro-life advocate and activist since 1982. Pope Francis has condemned abortion many times, let there be no doubt: and with considerable passion and eloquence. This makes it all the more mysterious that he hasn’t highlighted (front and center, I would expect) this gravest social evil of our time (as the Church and popes have repeatedly asserted), in an encyclical devoted to loving one another. For what is less loving than the wanton destruction of innocent, helpless preborn human beings?
According to the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute, in 1995 there were approximately “26 million legal and 20 million illegal abortions” worldwide. As a rough estimate, projecting this number to all years since 1965, when contraception laws were struck down in the United States, leading legally and philosophically to legal abortion only eight years later, this would add up to 2.53 billion abortions: an act which is considered gravely sinful murder by the Catholic Church, Orthodox Christians, and many Protestant denominations, as well as several world religions and other pro-life people without religious affiliation.
To get a perspective on such a massive, almost incomprehensible number, it is about 422 times more than the most infamous number widely known as a terrible massacre and genocide: Hitler’s murder of 6 million Jews during the Nazi period (1933-1945). Even in the US since that time, some 61 million abortions have occurred: ten times more than Hitler’s abominable total.
The evil of this cannot be adequately described in words. Yet in this encyclical about loving our fellow man, the pope mentioned it one time in the context of human trafficking that “forces” women “to abort” (24). That’s not even legal abortion. He mentions the “unborn” exactly once, too (along with an indirect condemnation of the contraceptive mentality):
18. Some parts of our human family, it appears, can be readily sacrificed for the sake of others considered worthy of a carefree existence. Ultimately, “persons are no longer seen as a paramount value to be cared for and respected, especially when they are poor and disabled, ‘not yet useful’ – like the unborn, or ‘no longer needed’ – like the elderly. . . .
19. A decline in the birthrate, which leads to the aging of the population, together with the relegation of the elderly to a sad and lonely existence, is a subtle way of stating that it is all about us, that our individual concerns are the only thing that matters. In this way, “what is thrown away are not only food and dispensable objects, but often human beings themselves”.
Equally evil (now increasingly widespread) practices of euthanasia and infanticide are never mentioned at all by name (though many other societal evils — especially economic-type ones — are, which is the odd thing). He does state that “each human being is sacred and inviolable” (207), but not with any direct connection to these three practices.
I’m not arguing that abortion has to be mentioned every time we talk about any social issues (the old tired “single issue” canard). But what I am saying is that it is incomprehensible how the gravest, most widespread societal evil of our time could figure so little in an encyclical about love. It’s an alarming lack of perspective on the “big picture.”
The entire encyclical is what I would call “vaguely leftist / leftish.” It may not be technically socialist (neither “socialism” nor “socialist” ever appear) — more like a European social Democrat outlook –, but it is at the same time seemingly oblivious to the wealth-producing properties of historic capitalism (which word never appears, either). Again, in an encyclical devoted to repeatedly pleading for the empowerment and betterment of the poor, how can he fail to mention what it is that enables them to escape poverty? That requires jobs and means to make an adequate living. These don’t come from nowhere, out of the ether. They derive from economic systems and laws upholding and encouraging same.
The pope mentions “employment” four times (110, 130, 162, 265) and “unemployment” (20). He even writes (passionately and dead-on, in my opinion):
162. The biggest issue is employment. The truly “popular” thing – since it promotes the good of the people – is to provide everyone with the opportunity to nurture the seeds that God has planted in each of us: our talents, our initiative and our innate resources. This is the finest help we can give to the poor, the best path to a life of dignity. Hence my insistence that, “helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work”. Since production systems may change, political systems must keep working to structure society in such a way that everyone has a chance to contribute his or her own talents and efforts. For “there is no poverty worse than that which takes away work and the dignity of work”. In a genuinely developed society, work is an essential dimension of social life, for it is not only a means of earning one’s daily bread, but also of personal growth, the building of healthy relationships, self-expression and the exchange of gifts. Work gives us a sense of shared responsibility for the development of the world, and ultimately, for our life as a people. [my bolding]
[alternate translation by Joe Garcia] The great issue is employment. The truly “popular” thing – since it promotes the good of the people – is to ensure that all have the opportunity to sprout the seeds that God has planted in each of us: our talents, our initiative and our strength. This is the best help for the poor person, the best path to a life of dignity. For this reason, I insist that, “helping the poor with money must always be a temporary solution to solve immediately urgent needs. The great objective should always be to allow them to lead a dignified life through work”. However much production systems may change, politics/policies must not resign from the effort that the structure of a society is such that each person is guaranteed some way to contribute his own capabilities and efforts. For “there is no poverty worse than that which takes away work and the dignity of work”. In a truly developed society, work is an inalienable [literally, “un-resignable”] dimension of social life, for it is not only a means of earning one’s daily bread, but also the means of personal growth, the means of building healthy relationships, self-expression and the exchange of gifts [in the sense of “talent”], for the sense of shared responsibility for the betterment of the world, and ultimately, for living life as a people. [my bolding]
I couldn’t agree more. It so happens, that under President Trump, unemployment reached record lows: particularly the lowest ever among African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, and women. Those undeniable facts are truly something to celebrate. It is a direct fulfillment of what the pope calls for. And it came, of course, from a capitalist outlook. Pope Francis calls for jobs to raise up poor people. Trump’s policies led to exactly that. It’s a concrete example of what can be achieved. It could have been mentioned as a sterling and encouraging example of helping poor people, and treating them in a loving fashion, but it wasn’t.
Immigration is massively treated in the encyclical, yet neither the phrases nor concepts of “illegal immigrants” / “illegal immigration” ever appear. It’s as if this huge problem (especially in America) is simply wished out of existence. There is plenty of biblical data to bring to bear on the topic, as I have written about at length — and more than once. But none of that appears here. Instead, immigration is talked about with no differentiation between legal and illegal immigrants. It’s as if sensible border policies, that all countries have, are utterly irrelevant to the overall discussion. This is — with all due respect — simply naive and lacking all practical suggestion for what to do about real crises. To oppose illegal immigration is not at all necessarily an opposition to legal migrants and legitimate oppressed refugees.
In a similar vein, “terrorism” or “terror” are mentioned nine times and roundly condemned, along with modern-day “slavery” many times, which is great. But couldn’t the pope provide a concrete example of how such things are defeated? I am thinking of the obliteration of ISIS by President Trump, through military means. As Vice President Pence mentioned last night in his debate with Senator Kamala Harris, ISIS possessed land the size of Pennsylvania during the tenure of President Obama. He did nothing. President Trump immediately set to work destroying this evil organization, which mercilessly slaughtered and raped many thousands of civilians (including, for example burning to death reluctant sex slaves in cages: 19 Yazidi girls on one occasion in Mosul, Iraq). Is that not love in action? Is that not the same as what the Good Samaritan (highlighted in the document) did?
But it required the necessary use of force. And the pope made what I thought was a shocking and ill-advised statement: almost (but not quite) condemning all war and endorsing pacifism:
258. War can easily be chosen by invoking all sorts of allegedly humanitarian, defensive or precautionary excuses, and even resorting to the manipulation of information. In recent decades, every single war has been ostensibly “justified”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the possibility of legitimate defence by means of military force, which involves demonstrating that certain “rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy” have been met. Yet it is easy to fall into an overly broad interpretation of this potential right. . . . We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a “just war”. Never again war!
[. . .]
261. Every war leaves our world worse than it was before. War is a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil.
Now the pope rightly and appropriately condemned the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews:
247. The Shoah must not be forgotten. It is “the enduring symbol of the depths to which human evil can sink when, spurred by false ideologies, it fails to recognize the fundamental dignity of each person, which merits unconditional respect regardless of ethnic origin or religious belief”.
But how does he think that unspeakable evil was ended? Of course it was through necessary military force. It wasn’t as a result of people like Gandhi (cited in section 286), who urged Neville Chamberlain-like negotiations with Hitler and opined that he “was not a bad man.” His nonviolent protest methods may have worked against England, but not at all against the Nazis. It required a systematic military dismantling of the evil system that was Nazi Germany. As such it saved the world from many millions more deaths and horrendous despotic tyranny that can hardly be imagined, if Hitler and his diabolical minions had prevailed. And that is assuredly love in action.
Yet — discounting all that — all the pope can say is “Every war leaves our world worse than it was before”? Was that the case with World War II? Virtually no one would think so. The world before we won that victory for humanity was overrun by Nazi and Japanese imperialistic, fascist despots. It was certainly much better in 1946 than it had been in 1942. How could anyone possibly argue otherwise?
Not that the Allies were morally perfect. I have argued for 40 years in my apologetics that the nuclear bombings of Japan were gravely evil, as were the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo. And there were many other evils committed as well. But it doesn’t follow that World War II — however morally flawed — was not an altogether necessary war against massive societal evil.
He says not a word about China and all the brutal monstrosities that occur there: from forced abortion to the suppression of the Hong Kong protesters, to the suppression of religious freedom (of Christians and Muslims alike) and slave camps for who knows how many. The words “China” and “Chinese” never appear. Nor does he ever mention Iran: the largest state that finances terrorism, ever-threatening North Korea, or Nigeria and the Sudan: where atrocities against Christians occur regularly. How about the historic peace deal between Israel and two Arab nations? Isn’t that something to celebrate as an act of positive peacemaking? Apparently not.
These constitute my biggest objections to the encyclical. Pope Francis calls for dialogue. I think a broadly conservative / capitalist outlook has much to bring to the table of such debates about how to empower poor people and enable them to fully participate in society and lead a dignified existence. I would say that we need to not only “talk the talk” but “walk the walk”: conservatism and capitalism have produced the wealth that raises the poor out of poverty, and we hold realistic views of how to oppose profound evil that have led to the defeat of organized wickedness like the Nazis and ISIS. Part and parcel of love is defending the innocent from murderous tyrants and enemies of freedom. Yet such notions and actions are scarcely mentioned in this encyclical.
I think that makes it seriously deficient, not so much in what it positively asserts (much of which is great and needful) but in terms of omission of many necessary aspects of the overall discussion which were simply ignored. The pope, too, has his own bias in social and political matters (as we all do) and it is not above criticism. No Catholic doctrine is violated in my criticisms. These are honest disagreements from a fellow Catholic concerning how to achieve the agreed-upon noble and crucial ends of love and justice and mercy.