In 1969, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, theologian Henri de Lubac gave an address at St. Louis University entitled “L’Église dans la crise actuelle” (“The Church in the current crisis.”) De Lubac addressed at length the divisions facing the church, which were particularly stark for his audience in the United States. Following the 1968 release of Humanae Vitae, American Catholics’ U.S. political preferences quickly found a corollary in church politics. If you voted Republican, the logic went, you generally supported Humanae Vitae and its ban on birth control and preferred the old Latin rite. If you were a democrat, you opposed Humanae Vitae and preferred the new Mass.
It’s a division that in many ways persists to this day in the U.S. church, having been exacerbated by social media, well-funded media outlets pushing their visions of the church and high-profile Catholic voices ceaselessly offering hot takes on current ecclesial and secular news, rarely straying from their established party lines. Meanwhile, Catholics in the pews continue to self-segregate, largely along racial and political lines. All this has even led to speculation about a possible American schism.
In response to the fractures he saw growing, de Lubac points to one figure as a possible antidote: That figure was Madeleine Delbrêl, the French social worker, poet and mystic who spent the decades after her conversion to Catholicism working in the militantly atheist Communist village of Ivry-sur-Seine, outside Paris. Through difficult years of running social programs from a lay Catholic community connected to her parish, and later for the local, mostly Communist government, Debrêl became known as a bridge-builder between Catholics and Communists.
In that St. Louis University speech, de Lubac describes Delbrêl as an example of the kind of simple, authentic Christian living and spirituality that rivals “the refined purity of certain cerebral spiritualities in whose name ordinary Christianity—the only one familiar to the saints and to the ordinary Christians for the past 20 centuries—is criticized.” He sees the intellectualized liberal-conservative divide in the church as a distraction from true Christianity: simple faith.
In his new encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis offers a similarly humble response to what he has taken to calling the “pandemics” that divide our world—not only Covid-19, but the pandemics of racism, xenophobic populism, exploitative neoliberal economics, environmental degradation and so on. In a break in tone from Francis’ previous encyclical Laudato Si’, Fratelli Tutti acknowledges not only the urgent need to rectify our relationships with the earth and one another, but also that our world is progressing away from, not toward, this goal of reconciliation. Rather than coming together, Francis sees the coronavirus pandemic driving us farther apart.
After laying out these issues in his first chapter, ominously titled “Dark Clouds Over a Closed World,” Francis devotes his entire second chapter an extended reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan, through which he interprets our social ills. He asks his readers to reflect on which character they most represent. Are we the robbers? The wounded man? Are we the priest and Levite hurrying by someone on the side of the road, unwilling to give our time? Or are we the Good Samaritan, who prioritizes the man over whatever plans he had? Furthermore, are our institutions places like the inn where the Samaritan takes the man to rest and be cared for? As Francis points out, the Samaritan had transportation to offer, but no place to offer the man rest and medical treatment. Do we have institutions that will help us care for others when our personal abilities fall short?
It is significant that Francis points first to the Gospel to examine how we should respond to social ills, rather than looking to the tried and true documents of Catholic Social Teaching. As my “Inside the Vatican” podcast co-host Gerard O’Connell likes to say, Pope Francis doesn’t think you need to be a theologian or scholar to have a Christian outlook on the world. It is enough that you crack open your Bible and take a clear-eyed look at the world around you.
This is the kind of simple spirituality that de Lubac praised in Madeleine Delbrêl, whose personal Bible, particularly the Gospels, was packed with layers of notes. It is what drove her to pack up her posh life in the intellectual salons of 1920s Paris and move to a working-class town where Catholic and Communist children threw stones at one another in the street.
Reading the Gospel with a clear-eyed view toward the world is what led the women in Sr. Maura Clarke’s Bible study in Nicaragua to fight for justice in their country.
It’s the ordinary Christianity that, de Lubac says, is “the only one familiar to the saints.”
In Fratelli Tutti, all of Francis’ high-level concrete recommendations to shift the world from a culture of division and confrontation to one of encounter and dialogue—including a reform of the United Nations, a global fund to end hunger, worldwide denuclearization, abolition of the death penalty—start with reading the world through the lens of the Gospel.
Faced with ecclesial rifts that divide ordinary Catholics from their families and even Vatican officials from the pope, paired in the U.S. with a shameful degree of secular political partisanship, Pope Francis offers a simple solution: Tolle, lege. Take up the Gospel, look at the world around you, and see where God is leading.
Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming biography of the French poet, social worker and mystic Madeleine Delbrêl will be published by Liturgical Press.