By Rev. Thomas Massaro, S.J.
Voices from around the world have expressed great appreciation and directed many words of praise for the latest encyclical released by Pope Francis. Whatever your religious affiliation, you may be interested in the profound messages regarding social justice that the pope proposes in this document. Allow me to offer seven insights that may assist your understanding of Fratelli Tutti, published in early October 2020.
1. It treats the important topic of human relationships at all levels of society. In fact, the document’s subtitle is “Fraternity and Social Friendship,” a phrase that expresses the pope’s desire for people everywhere to rekindle a sense of belonging to one another. Catholic theology has long rejected any version of extreme individualism that fosters selfishness and indifference to the plight of others. We all really do belong to one another, and hold a sacred duty to contribute to the wellbeing of others, even at considerable sacrifice to ourselves. Following the teachings and example of Jesus Christ, the Church has hastened to promote both the heroic and ordinary virtues that foster generous service to those who are suffering and in physical or spiritual need. Just think of the qualities of all the saints recognized by the Church as worthy of our devotion, especially those who practiced social outreach to the disadvantaged. Pope Francis is eager to highlight the perennial importance of generous works of charity and justice, even devoting an entire chapter of Fratelli Tutti to an examination of the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan which appears in chapter 10 of the Gospel of Luke. This document builds on the many previous occasions when Francis has spoken of the need to overcome the temptation of excluding others, and indulging in “the culture of throwaway” which treats some people as disposable and not worthy of our fullest respect. In place of these approaches which are inimical to the Christian life, Francis calls us to embrace a “culture of encounter” that embraces such hard-pressed people as migrants and refugees, and promotes their innate dignity, no matter how far away or different they may be from us. Though familiar, this message of inclusive social concern is at the heart of this new encyclical.
2. It invokes the best of Franciscan spirituality to appeal to our duty to care tenderly for others. Although our first Jesuit pope is obviously deeply steeped in the Ignatian spirituality associated with the Society of Jesus, Francis has consistently displayed a high regard for the spirituality associated with his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi. This explains why the pope elected to travel to the Umbrian village of Assisi (his first travel outside Rome since the onset of the pandemic) in order to announce the release of this new encyclical. In a symbolic ceremony in the crypt chapel containing the earthly remains of the founder of the Franciscans, the pope signed the ceremonial first copy of the new encyclical on October 3, the vigil of the feast day of Saint Francis. In so doing, he was signaling that the message of this document is intended to extend and apply the spiritual themes most closely associated with the thirteenth-century saint, who was known as a man of peace, a man in tune with God’s creation, and a man close to the poor. All three of these themes are treated below. The only potential shortcoming related to the Franciscan heritage invoked in Fratelli Tutti involves the title of the encyclical. As the founder of a religious order of men, Saint Francis often used gender-exclusive language such as the two-word Italian phrase that means “Brothers All.” While neither the saint nor the pope intended to exclude over half of the human race by using this term of address, some objections have been raised by those eager for more consistent use of gender-inclusive language in church documents. It might be wise in the future to encourage more neutral words like solidarity (a term preferable to the “brotherhood” in the document’s subtitle). In the meantime, I for one will be thinking of this encyclical as a universal call to consider ourselves “Brothers and Sisters All.”
3. It represents a commitment to warmer relations between Christianity and Islam. One group to whom Pope Francis has demonstrated particular outreach and even affection is the Muslim community, whose members comprise the world’s second largest religious grouping, behind only Christianity itself. The “Francis Project” of commitment to interreligious dialogue features a quite evident desire to follow the path of Saint Francis, who in 1219 journeyed all the way from Italy to Egypt to meet with Sultan Malik el-Kamil in hopes of opening up a dialogue that might halt the ruinous Crusades. Eight hundred years later, Pope Francis has traveled to parts of the Muslim world where no previous pope has ventured, visiting mosques and meeting frequently with prominent Islamic leaders such as Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. On February 4, 2019, these two leaders met in Abu Dhabi and signed a momentous joint statement called “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.” Citing that landmark document so prominently in the much longer text of Fratelli Tutti accomplishes a great deal. Since encyclicals are the most authoritative teaching documents that popes ordinarily promulgate, Pope Francis is enshrining the priority of his outreach to Islam into the church’s social tradition in a very solemn way. This is a distinctive (and certainly overdue) way of further advancing the agenda of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document that committed the Catholic Church to interfaith dialogue and affirming all that is authentic in other world religions.
4. It is a particularly relevant resource in this time of pandemic. The current public health crisis has laid bare many longstanding structural inequities, revealing distressing disparities in our health care system. The pandemic has certainly exacerbated the disproportionate suffering of people of color in our country and beyond. The pope’s message regarding the duty of universal solidarity thus hits home in an especially urgent way these days, as a commitment to the common good is needed now more than ever. While future generations may well remember Fratelli Tutti as “the encyclical of the pandemic,” it was actually on the papal drawing board before the Covid-19 crisis. Francis explains in the document’s opening chapter, called “Dark Clouds over a Closed World,” that he had long wished to challenge the world to overcome the sharp and growing divisions that manifest themselves in such forms as nationalism, xenophobia and racism—each of which receives ample treatment in this document.
5. It includes a fervent call for peace and reconciliation. Moving next from the bad news of the present moment to brighter hopes for resolution, the dire diagnosis of Francis is succeeded by a hopeful prescription. We retain the power to reverse the divisions that plague us, and we make especially rapid social progress when we firmly renounce violence in all its forms. The encyclical boldly calls for renewed commitments to disarmament and diplomatic solutions to global conflict, as well as an even more definitive rejection of capital punishment, which is judged here to be an unnecessary and inadmissible form of state-sponsored violence. A stable global order depends on a thorough disavowal of terrorism and war in all its forms; a turn to nonviolence emerges as the clearest way to reverse the fear and despair felt by many.
6. It expresses an appeal for the renewal of politics, an imperative in any era, but especially in our age of widespread suspicion of collective public action. While dysfunctional and corrupt political systems have been allowed to fester in many places, Pope Francis boldly calls for a revivified pursuit of the common good through the sincere efforts of generous public servants. He eagerly portrays politics as “a noble profession” when it advances the common good over selfish interests, just as previous Vatican documents explicitly recognized business as a noble vocation. If we are ever to overcome the bane of widespread social alienation, then the kind of political healing that Francis encourages here will be part of the solution.
7. It represents an exceptional effort on the part of Pope Francis to advance and renew Catholic social teaching, with numerous explicit connections to previous documents in this fine tradition. In keeping with the overall pattern evident in any area of church teaching, Francis is judiciously upholding continuity with the inheritance, on one hand, and augmenting this tradition, on the other hand, with “a growing end” capable of updating existing teachings in ways that squarely meet contemporary needs. Fratelli Tutti continues the Vatican II project of “reading the signs of the times” and engaging the secular world in constructive ways. We hear in this document echoes of the many inspiring social encyclicals published and promulgated by so many recent popes to address urgent social injustices. Not the least of these concerns is the threat of climate change and environmental degradation, which Pope Francis himself addressed at great length in his previous encyclical Laudato Si’ as recently as 2015 and which surfaces repeatedly in the new document as well. Here (in paragraph 8 of Fratelli Tutti) the pope reminds us that we are “children of the same earth, which is our common home.” In that same paragraph, Francis invites us to conceive of all people “as a single human family,” thus signaling his most ardent desires of all: for an enhanced consciousness of our common identity and for a greater appreciation for the solemn and universal duty to solidarity.
If all of this seems rather challenging, then so also is the task of actually reading through the entirety of Fratelli Tutti. Like too many of the major teaching documents of Francis, including his two previous encyclicals and a stunningly profound series of apostolic exhortations, the high quality of the text risks being eclipsed by the sheer quantity of the words utilized to get the message across. At 43,000 words (including 287 paragraphs and 288 footnotes), Fratelli Tutti is really a short book, not an easily digested statement. One can only hope that readers will be sufficiently patient and dedicated to reach the end of this fine document. I recommend a reading strategy that takes full advantage of the structure of the letter, divided as it is into eight chapters which generally stand as independent units. Anyone looking for spiritual reading over the course of a week or so will be prudent to take up a chapter each day, digest the perceptive words of Francis in a meditative way, and luxuriate in the encouraging call found here to build bridges of solidarity that can overcome any walls of artificial division that are temporarily plaguing our struggling world. The challenges are great indeed, but they cannot overcome the hopes for unity that a provident God sparks in the hearts of the faithful.