Bishop Hugh Gilbert OSB reflects on Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti’
Fratelli tutti. It sounds like a flavour of ice cream, but it is of course the first words and the title of Pope Francis’ latest Encyclical devoted to Human Fraternity and Social Friendship. The words are Italian and from Saint Francis, who was a saint with a vivid sense of how we are brothers and sisters of a common Father. Fratelli tutti: it’s the Pope’s opening chord. “With these words, he says, Saint Francis of Assisi addressed his brothers and sisters and proposed to them a way of life marked by the flavour of the Gospel” (1). The way of life envisaged here is our life as brothers and sisters of one another.
This is Pope Francis’ third Encyclical. It links especially to its predecessor of 2015, Laudato Si. It complements it, forms a diptych with it. Both are contributions to the social teaching of the Church. Both hope to reach everyone. Both begin with words from St Francis. While Laudato Si is a call to care for our common home and looks at our relationship with our planet, our environment, Fratelli tutti is a call to tend our human environment, our human relationships. Its theme is human fraternity and social friendship. “Francis, says the Pope, felt himself a brother to the sun, the sea and the wind, yet he knew that he was even closer to those of his own flesh. Wherever he went, he sowed seeds of peace and walked alongside the poor, the abandoned, the infirm and the outcast, the least of his brothers and sisters” (2).
So, at the beginning, Brother Francis. At the end, Bl. Charles de Foucauld. He was a French aristocrat and soldier who had a profound conversion to Christ and became a hermit in the Sahara, where he was murdered in 1916. Paradoxically what drove his hermit life was a desire to be close, in prayer and spirit, in Christ, to everyone: to be “a universal brother” (286-287). The Religious Congregations of the Little Brothers and the Little Sisters of Jesus are inspired by him. So St Francis and Bl. Charles bookend this Encyclical, and this stream of Catholic spirituality runs through it.
It’s also framed by the Pope’s meeting in Abu Dhabi in 2019 with the Grand Imam, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, and the statement they co-signed: Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together (5, 285). Just as St Francis went to speak peaceably with the Egyptian Sultan of his day, so Pope and Grand Imam met in the interests of peace. It ties up well.
The great inspiration, of course, permeating the whole document, beginning, middle and end, is the Gospel. This becomes especially clear in ch. 2 devoted to the parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. also 1, 277).
So, before we plunge into the Encyclical, what is it? It’s exhortation, call, appeal. In a world that’s closed, divided in itself and dark, “where the sense of belonging to a single human family is fading” (30), the Pope wants “to contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity” (8). He’s issuing a protest against “globalised indifference” (30), each person, each group, each country for itself, never mind the others. Covid appeared while the Pope was working on the Encyclical and, of course, only underlines the need for fraternity: “we are all in one boat” (7). One might say, Fratelli Tutti has now become a blueprint for a post-Covid world. We need, says the Pope, “to write together a new page of history, a page full of hope, peace and reconciliation” (231), with – key point – everyone contributing. The Pope is fond of the metaphor “dream.” Like Martin Luther King (mentioned at the end, 286), he has a dream. He wants us all to dream. “Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travellers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth…” (8).
Let us now look at the argument of the Encyclical or the Pope’s thought and the way he develops it. In areas like this, he doesn’t do short; the Encyclical has 43,000 words and unfolds in 8 chapters.
Let me slip something in here. People of my generation grew up during the Cold War, and the world at that time was scary, certainly, but also clearer. It divided two ways: into east and west, the Communist Block and the Western Allies, and then into north and south: the rich and the post-colonial poor. Now, it’s still scary, but less clear and the geometry is different. We live, not in a bi-polar world, but in a multi-polar world, of several different and often inscrutable players, of shifting tectonic plates. This is the world the Pope addresses. There’s an image he’s fond of here, both for within society and between societies and nations, continents, the many forces and players at work. It would be the right adjustment of a multipolar world. It’s the image of a polyhedron. A polyhedron is a figure, a solid, with many faces or planes, but it’s a whole, holding together, rich in variety but coherent.
So, to the Pope’s “dream”.
It’s set against the background of a nightmare, or of “shattered dreams”. Ch. 1 is headed “dark clouds over a closed world”, and it’s a dark chapter. The Pope begins with what is undermining “the development of human fraternity”. Forms of integration (in Europe and Latin America, for example), seem to be unravelling, with aggressive nationalism reasserting itself or an economic and financial globalism imposing a single cultural model and simply seeking quick profits. Historical awareness is fading; we believe we can start from ground zero. There is no common vision, rather a battleground of conflicting interests. He harks back to his longstanding theme of a throwaway culture, where the unborn, disabled and elderly (and food) are so often discarded. Human rights are unevenly acknowledged; the sense of equal human dignity seems not to prevail, e.g. between men and women. He mentions resurgent slavery. There is a climate of fear; we build walls of all kinds, keeping ourselves apart and immured, we withdraw into our own worlds. “If only”, he says, in the wake of the pandemic and other disasters, “we might rediscover once for all that we need one another, and that in this way our human family can experience a rebirth, with all its faces, all its hands and all its voices, beyond the walls that we have erected” (35). Unsurprisingly, he addresses the condition of migrants, returning to that later. Then he moves to the “illusion of communication” often created by the media and mentions how “social aggression has found unparalleled room for expansion through computers and mobile devices” (44). “Silence and careful listening disappear, replaced by a frenzy of texting” (49). In other words, there is a deficit of the true communication that makes for fraternity. A final comment is on how less-developed countries can have their self-esteem unduly eroded when certain prosperous countries are proposed as cultural models. Despite all of this, though, the Pope invites us to hope!
Where next? To the Gospel, and specifically to the great parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke ch. 10. Through the “dark clouds” he searches for a “ray of light”; in a closed world for an image of openness. Against the background of the fratricide of Cain, he traces the biblical call to love the neighbour and the growing awareness of its extension to the stranger (57-62). Then he turns to a “contemplation” of Jesus’ parable in true Ignatian, Jesuit style (63-86), drawing us into the different figures in the story: the robbers, the passers-by, the mugged man by the roadside, the Good Samaritan. The stranger on the road has many modern incarnations, as do the other figures. Who are we? The Pope remarks that, “here and now, anyone who is neither a robber nor a passer-by is either injured himself or bearing an injured person on his shoulders” (70). So, “the decision to include or exclude those lying wounded along the roadside can serve as criterion for judging every economic, political, social and religious project. Each day we have to decide…” (69). The Samaritan crossed a great divide (Jews and Samaritans hated each other) to become a neighbour to the wounded man. For Christians, there is an “even deeper meaning” to that outreach: Christ himself is “in each of our abandoned or excluded brothers and sisters” (85).
So having found a ray of light in the dark and an open heart in a closed world, the Pope in the remaining chapters proposes “a few lines of action.” I will just try to elicit the essential.
Here’s a first, brief summary. The Pope begins with love, indeed that love that draws from the grace of God and is called in Christian tradition “charity” or “agape”. This is what will create human brotherhood. Then he turns to the huge issue of migration (ch. 4), proposes a “better kind of politics” (ch. 5) and ways of bringing society together (ch. 6). In ch. 7 he discusses how conflicts can be overcome and peace be established and lastly, in ch. 8, the contribution of religion. So, the hot-spots are: migration, politics, social life, peace and the role of religion. These are familiar topics of Catholic Social Teaching, here addressed as they are today and from Pope Francis’ distinctive perspective. Our lives are small, and these big issues may seem remote. But, on further reflection, they’re part of our life. They touch us all, even in church. The Pope could have quoted Dostoevsky, “We are all responsible to all for all.”
So, here’s a fuller unfolding. What does the Pope call for in these chapters? We can only “envisage and engender an open world” (notice “open”) when we realise our human (and Christian) vocation to love, moving beyond ourselves towards others, relating to others, “having real faces to love” (87). This can’t be restricted to our own family and friends, basic though that is. “Love also impels us towards universal communion” (95); it is not an abstraction (love of “humanity”); it presupposes recognising each and every person as having dignity, value (“charity” means holding dear) and promoting their true good. It can be exercised by regions and societies and doesn’t just regard others as “associates” or colleagues. Its tendency is always towards real brotherhood. Liberty and equality depend on fraternity. The good of persons is the true focus, though not in an individualistic way. The true moral good of people and societies is our goal. “We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty” (113). He evokes the role of families in moral education. Solidarity is key, and the Pope concludes this chapter by emphasising the social role of property. Put simply, love shares what it has.
So, having rooted the whole enterprise of fraternity in love, the Pope turns to specifics, and first migrants. They are dear to his heart and migration, needless to say, is a burning contemporary phenomenon. Eager to make direct contact, in 2013 he visited the island of Lampedusa, and in 2016, with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, that of Lesbos. He has housed refugees in Rome. “Complex challenges arise when our neighbour happens to be an immigrant” (129). Despite what is said, the Pope is not naïve about the social issues that lie behind and follow migration, but he is emphatic on “a heart open to the whole world” and the need to “welcome, protect, promote and integrate” those who come from elsewhere (129). He speaks of their concrete needs and the need for thoughtful planning and “a form of global governance” (132). We should think not in terms of threat, but of “reciprocal gift”, “fruitful exchange” and “a gratuitousness open to others.” He concludes this ch 4 with an in-depth discussion of the polarity of local and universal. We need both.
This leads naturally to the kind of politics we need. It can’t be founded on a narrow-minded “populism” which distorts the true concept of “people”, nor at the service of a liberal economic system which favours the few and looks to “market forces” for salvation. Internationally, he calls for a reform of the UN (cf. 173). A “better politics” should serve the common good, integrate the vulnerable, make the creation of work a priority, proactively “favour productive diversity and business creativity” (168), and guarantee authentic human rights. Clearly, the Pope is trying to rescue politics as a noble vocation. An individual can help someone cross a river; a politician can build a bridge. He talks of “political love”. It must be at the heart. It is not a matter of votes and successes, but of sowing the seeds of social well-being.
Ch. 6 addresses that “social good”. How do we create social friendship? How can our societies re-establish an all-embracing “social covenant” among their members? Naturally, he advocates dialogue. We must speak and listen to each other. Issues must be addressed in an interdisciplinary way, not only from one perspective. In pluralist societies, how can we achieve the consensus we need to hold together and not just be a collection of juxtaposed “interests”? The Pope is strong here on the need for truth. He sees no future in “relativism” (“my truth, your truth”). No, we must search together, using reason, for true values and build society and a new culture on them. He ends the chapter again with an unexpected twist: kindness. It too can be a social and cultural force.
Relationships famously break down, between individuals, in families, in societies, between peoples and nations. Ch. 7 addresses the culture of renewed encounter, in other words the institutional “architecture” and interpersonal “art” of peace-making (cf. 231). Truth, justice and a will to reconcile are the ground of peace. He discusses forgiveness in depth (236-245). It does not mean tolerating oppression or denial of wrongs or forgetting wrong done or impunity. It acknowledges wrongs done, but refuses to be imprisoned by them. Again, there’s a surprise at the end, which has attracted notice. Pope Francis develops the Church’s teaching, especially St John Paul II’s, on the “false answers” of the death penalty and war, including the use or threat of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. In the modern world “[we] can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits… it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war’” (258). The total elimination of nuclear weapons must be our goal. Likewise, he says, the use of the death penalty makes no sense in a world where it is possible to keep society safe without it.
Finally, against the claim of some who see religion as the source of conflict in the world, the Pope argues that the great world religions have much to offer towards fraternity (ch. 8). Terrorism can invoke texts and traditions, but these are distortions. What religions provide are the truest foundations of human brotherhood: a sense of the fatherhood of God, of moral conscience and of the transcendent worth of the human being. The Church, for her part, with “her own experience of sin and grace”, has a legitimate public role and the treasure of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. She is present in many places and “in the power of the risen Lord, she wants to give birth to a new world, where all of us are brothers and sisters, where there is room for all those whom our societies discard, where justice and peace and resplendent” (278). There’s the dream.
The Pope ends with further reference to the Document agreed with the Grand Imam, and two prayers, one to the Creator and one to the Trinity.
So there it is, large, unwieldy, full of good meat. It needs time to digest. One can purchase it from the CTS or download it from the Vatican website and elsewhere. One way of approach might be to focus on the chapter on the Good Samaritan, and then on one other chapter according to one’s interest, e.g. the chapter on migrants or politics or peace-building.
The nagging question it leaves us is: what can I / we do towards a more fraternal world, a friendlier society?
Everything? Clearly not. Nothing? A counsel of despair. Something? Surely. It’s a great enterprise and there are opportunities to hand, in our work and our families.
Remembering that the Church has her various agencies too – SCIAF, Justice and Peace, the Society of St Vincent de Paul and more – perhaps we can engage more with them?
I’d like to end, though, developing something the Pope just touches on (78, 165). The Good Samaritan can’t do everything on his own. He takes the stranger to a hostel and entrusts him to an innkeeper, leaving money for his care. That hostel, we could say, represents a community. At the macro level, the Church is such; it’s where Christ brings us to be healed and set on our way. At the micro-level, too, can’t our family, or parish, or any Christian or civil-society group become an open, light place where we can experience and share fraternity and friendship? And so start to live the dream, and rebuild a saner and healthier world.
Bishop Hugh OSB