A curious feature of #FratelliTutti – self-referential

Today I saw a fascinating tweet from my friend Bree Dail.   She reposted “metadata” someone posted about citations in Francis’ new  Tutti Frutti… Frutti Fratelli… Fratelli Tutti….  Follow for the original by Catholic librarian Sharon Kabel.

Citations in papal documents are of central importance.

As I explained when Francis changed the Catechism of the Catholic Church, …

… something doesn’t become true by the fact of it being put into the CCC. It is put into the CCC because it can be demonstrated to be true. Look at pages in your CCC and you will find lots of footnotes with pertinent references to Scripture and the Fathers and Councils, etc. Look at CCC 2267 and you find one note, referring to a statement that Francis’ himself made in a speech a short while before.   That’s it.   It’s a bit self-referential. Of course it would be challenging to find references in Scripture or the Fathers or Councils etc. to uphold the position asserted in 2267, for, using all those, the Church has always upheld that capital punishment is admissible in some cases.


Francis cites himself over and against nearly 2000 years of reflection on the death penalty, including Christ upholding Pilate’s authority to kill Him.

Just because something is stated in a papal document, the fact of the statement’s presence in the document doesn’t make it true.   Popes know how to teach definitively and infallibly.  So, when they don’t have recourse to that level of certainty, which they won’t go anywhere near without a vast foundation, they have to persuade.   For our part, we as Catholics have to listen carefully and with a measure of docility.  But we aren’t obliged to be stupid.

That said… here is a graphic of the metadata of citations in  Tutti Frutti… Frutti Fratelli… Fratelli Tutti.  You should be able to click that and get the large version in a new tab.  Kabel tracks 288 non-Scripture citations, some used more than once.

For those of who can’t… see that GREEN bar on the LEFT?  That is Francis citing HIMSELF.  All other bars, are other sources, from Paul Ricoeur to Karl Rahner to John Paul II (fewer than 20 times in a document of 43000 words!), to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

This is, frankly, shocking.

It is as if 2013 were Year Zero.

We have to grant that Popes tend to cite themselves.  That’s because they have often gone over the same ground in other documents.  Then we look at those previous documents to see what their foundations were.   We follow the thread through the labyrinth, as it were.

Does the fact of citing oneself delegitimize the encyclical?  No, I cited myself, above.  Hence, I am happy to accept that sometimes writers quote themselves.

When the signers (who are the official authors) of documents put their signatures to something that is hugely self-referential, there could be a problem.  After all while we scratch our heads and wonder … gratis asseritur, gratis negatur?

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Cheesesteak Expert says:

    So??? Don’t Popes have that authority? What checks exist to prevent a Pope Francis or some other Pope from being more innovative?

  2. Kerry says:

    One is reminded of the 59 second strung-together audio clip where in Pres. Obama says, 17 times, (each with different inflections), “I ended the war in Iraq”. And in the last 15 or so seconds…”This notion that I had anything to do with ending the war in Iraq”. Heh.

  3. Semper Gumby says:

    Fr. Z wrote: “Just because something is stated in a papal document, the fact of the statement’s presence in the document doesn’t make it true.”

    Good point, Fr. Z. The high number of self-referential citations lends credence to critiques of Fratelli tutti.

    That chart could also be studied by those Catholics who are attacking other Catholics critiquing Fratelli tutti. Several examples of these attacks:

    “A late fruit of the Americanist heresy….dare openly and without ecclesiastical permission to “review” the declarations of the Roman Pontiff…”

    That is a misunderstanding of the so-called “Americanist heresy,” and this person is unaware that non-Americans are also critiquing Fratelli tutti. Furthermore, that attack strays into Papolatry.

    “The insolent way Americanist Catholics speak about the Roman pontiff fills me with rage. Don’t you see how your “conservatism” and “orthodoxy” are just the dissenting, do-it-your-way spirit of your liberal and Protestant environment, which you’ve imbibed, consciously or not.”

    First, in all Christian charity, this person has options available to deal with his “rage.” Second, this person is engaging in calumny and argument by label. Third, this person should note that “secularism” is a reasonable alternative for the malleable term “liberalism.” Fourth, note again the unhealthy fixation on “American” critics of Fratelli tutti.

    These two gentlemen are referred to Church history which is replete with examples of pontiffs straying into secularism (it happens sometimes) who were then critiqued by other Catholics.

    Faith and Reason. Christus Vincit.

  4. Benedict Joseph says:

    Viewing the graph one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. A provides a picture perfect critique of the entire Bergoglian enterprise.

  5. Midwest St. Michael says:

    “This is, frankly, shocking.”

    Heh. Saw what you did there, Fr. Z.. ;^)

  6. mysticalrose says:

    @Benedict Joseph:

    Laugh. Definitely laugh. :)

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  8. Hugh says:

    I love the sound of my own voice.

  9. DU says:

    Tutti Frutti… That made me laugh out out. Thanks for the good humor.

  10. DU says:

    “The [pope] who seldom goes out of himself … misses out on the best of our [deposit of the Faith], on what can stir the depths of his [papal] heart. [and ours] … This is precisely the reason why some [popes] grow dissatisf[ying], lose heart[s] and become in a sense collectors of [sycophants or progressives].”

    Is it ‘ego comparativum’ or ‘ego comparative’?

  11. MariaMantel says:

    Many of the self references of His Holiness are to his talks. These are not usually full of scholarly content to begin with, so it makes the citations unpersuasive and meaningless. He might as well cite to a cereal box.
    I had some hopes when I got to the heading “A ‘throwaway’ world” and foolishly thought it would discuss how our discarding of children in abortion is the primary source of evil. Nope. Not a mention.

    Still chewing on the phrase “reductive anthropological visions”. The optimist in me wants to hope that he is subtly critiquing critical race theory, but I could not determine that for sure. I went to sleep with reductive anthropological visions dancing in my head….

  12. FrankinOH says:

    Concerning but how does this compare to encyclicals from Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II? Another interesting study would be to do this for pre-conciliar and conciliar popes.

  13. SimonK says:

    I wish more people knew about, and paid attention to, St. Ambrose’s 25th letter (to Studius). It is directly on case for the question of the death penalty – Studius was a judge who was inquiring with St. Ambrose whether he could morally inflict the death penalty. The thing I like best about St. Ambrose’s response, is that it doesn’t clearly support either side in the contemporary debate. Contrary to the abolitionist side, St. Ambrose insists that the death penalty is morally permissible, and that those involved in it are not to be denied the sacraments. But, contrary to most contemporary retentionists, he presents the death penalty in a negative light – it is excusable rather than praiseworthy, and to refrain from it is laudable. In Catholic moral theology, the concept of supererogatory goods is discussed – doing good acts which are more than the minimum the moral law demands. I read St. Ambrose as saying that refraining from the death penalty is a supererogatory good. Some philosophers have proposed the concept of the suberogatory as the mirror image of the supererogatory – the suberogatory is deeds which the moral law does not prohibit, yet recommends against, it is the morally excusable. I think you can read St. Ambrose as putting the death penalty in the suberogatory category (“you will be excused if you do it, and praised if you do it not”). I think if the Holy Father had put forward the death penalty as being suberogatory, and cited St. Ambrose in justification for that, that would have been a way to orient the Church towards a position of practical abolitionism, while lessening the appearance of a contradiction with the tradition. I wonder if the Holy Father considered such an approach, and rejected it, or whether that approach never occurred to him.

  14. Imrahil says:

    I think if the Holy Father had put forward the death penalty as being suberogatory, and cited St. Ambrose in justification for that, that would have been a way to orient the Church towards a position of practical abolitionism, while lessening the appearance of a contradiction with the tradition.

    That was precisely – precisely! – the position of Pope St. John Paul II, expressed, e. g., in the original World Catechism.

    Also, it was sort-of always “the Catholic thought on the subject”, as it were, subject to the modification about how much punishment a given state in a given situation needs to prevent major strife and bloodshed (Pope St. John Paul II said “at present none at all”). I guess one could as a Catholic say that some very few crimes actually ought to be punished with death, but then one would probably be in a minority position.
    That being said, throughout the centuries the question was not so much whether murderers would be guillotined, electrocuted or poisoned, but whether thieves would be hung, robbers who killed someone would get their bones broken from the feet to the neck in that order, arsonists would be burned alive and traitors would be hanged, cut down alive, drawn and quartered.

    If Pope Francis hat reverted to St. John Paul II, it would have meant a self-correction. A quite necessary one at that, but his whole point was to change the doctrine to “the death penalty is intrinsically evil”.

    As for that, it is of course like this: if the Pope should pronounce a dogma on that from the extraordinary infallible magisterium, I should have to admit that my reading of the Bible was somehow wrong. (As I’m rather confident I’m not, I’m rather sure he won’t.) Short of a dogma, it’s “the Pope against the explicit and obvious meaning of both Scripture and Tradition”, and that means it’s the Pope who loses. Sorry.

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  16. Semper Gumby says:

    A leather-jacket wearing Brandon Vogt has stepped out audaciously from the West Coast WOF clubhouse, snapping his fingers and flicking open his comb to groom his Brylcreem-laden hair, eager for fisticuffs with Catholics.

    Brandon Vogt of WOF is offended by those who note the self-referential feature of Fratelli tutti. He harangues thusly: “The “word count” approach to analyzing papal documents is simply juvenile…Don’t “CTRL-F” papal encyclicals. Read them.”

    First, one can reasonably observe that Fratelli tutti may not be a “papal encyclical” preaching the timeless truths of the Catholic faith, rather an extended essay mainly preaching Glorious Modernity.

    Second, Vogt of WOF is reminded that we are all Catholics, the phrase “both/and” means something to Catholics. To put it in simple terms, one can read Fratelli tutti and also point out its self-referential feature.

    Faith and Reason.

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