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Fratelli Tutti: A political theology for our time

Yesterday Pope Francis travelled to Assisi to sign his new encyclical letter, considered the most authoritative and developed form of papal teaching, which is entitled in Italian Fratelli Tutti (a citation from one of St. Francis’s admonitions to his early Franciscan brothers), but in English means ‘Siblings’, or ‘Brothers and Sisters all’. Pope Francis released his encyclical today, on the Feast of St Francis of Assisi. Anthony Egan SJ offers five observations about this important document.

With this new encyclical, Pope Francis engages head-on with the global political environment in its varied dimensions, calling for a new public culture based on dialogue and genuine friendship. As I have just read the text, what follows, I must emphasise, is a ‘first reading’ of Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti [hereafter FT], an attempt to assess not only its content but the way in which it blends traditional Catholic theology and hard-hitting political analysis.

First Observation: This is not an encyclical about COVID-19 but about the global political disease in which COVID-19 thrives.

With customary humility, Francis calls this “a modest contribution to continued reflection…an invitation to dialogue among all people of good will” (FT, no.6). COVID-19 is

“exposing our false securities.  Aside from the different ways that various countries responded to the crisis, their inability to work together became quite evident.  For all our hyper-connectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all.  Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.” (FT, no.7)

Symptoms of this disease include: a divide and conquer globalism, where a mentality of limitless consumption and endless individualism, rootless in indifference to others, undermines the notion of a common family of humankind; a society rooted in profound inequality (including economic and gender inequality); a politics based on racism, xenophobia and hatred, that includes open defamation of political opponents.

The solution to this, says Francis, is in the search for truth and solutions through sustained and respectful dialogue.

Second Observation: At the theological core of this text is Jesus’ most subversive parable of them all, the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37), which undermines exclusivist and ‘nationalist’ theologies.

This story reminds us of Jesus’ priorities. True faith is not affirming creeds or quoting sacred texts but doing God’s will – the service of one’s neighbour, the latter defined as any person in need. Commenting on the text, Francis observes:

Now there are only two kinds of people: those who care for someone who is hurting and those who pass by; those who bend down to help and those who look the other way and hurry off.  Here, all our distinctions, labels and masks fall away: it is the moment of truth. (FT, no. 70)

South African readers of a certain generation may well find in that last phrase ‘moment of truth’ an echo of our own 1985 Kairos Document. It is a call to action, a call to prioritise what faith means to us and to ‘go and do likewise’. What’s more significant is Francis’ choice of the Good Samaritan text where, in a short story, Jesus undermines the religious priorities of his community and calls us to see that good faith – expressed by doing what is right – can be found anywhere, even among those outside the religious or political ‘in-group’.   

This is confirmed throughout FT by passing references to the need for people of faith and people of goodwill to work together to promote dialogue and action for global solidarity. Significantly, too, one of the public figures Francis names on a number of occasions is Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb of Abu Dhabi, indicating that he sees cooperation between religions as essential to the task too.

Third Observation: Despite his use of theological language throughout, this is a secular document in the best sense of the word.

Whether he is addressing inequality, consumerism or calling for a just and welcoming treatment of refugees and migrants, the language and logic of FT does not limit itself to arguments that presuppose or require Catholic or Christian or even vaguely religious belief. Although he does not explicitly reference them – citing instead Vatican documents and statements of bishops conferences – I detect behind these statements reliance on a range of political theorists and moral philosophers, many of them unconnected to organized religion. Yet this is not a case – much as the religious right may bleat – of ‘secularism by stealth’, so much as an acknowledgement by the pope of a long-held understanding in Catholic theology: reading faith through the secular lens, embracing the best of it as a means to clarify for our times what the timeless truths of theology tell us.

What has been striking to me was how so much contemporary progressive political thought over the last few decades has itself been rooted in moral concepts that echo – if not at times actually borrow from – Catholic social ethics, particularly Catholic Social Teaching. At very least, in many cases, said philosophies though they may start with different presuppositions actually conclude at the same place as Catholic thought.

Francis offers us a strongly reasoned contribution to a better reading of classical political ideas.

In fact, Francis offers us a strongly reasoned contribution to a better reading of such classical political ideas as ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’. Many of us would say that these ideas in much of contemporary political discourse have been distorted into liberty from social responsibility, an ‘equality’ that promotes and enforces inequality, and a narrowly nationalist and xenophobic concept of fraternity. Francis, drawing on Catholic Social Teaching and I suspect contemporary thinkers not cited in the text, calls us to a different model.

Fourth Observation: In calling for a ‘better kind of politics’, a more ‘fraternal’ society rooted in global solidarity, Francis poses his greatest challenge to many unscrupulous politicians that hide behind a cloak of piety.

Francis is harsh about such figures who use hatred and xenophobia and populist rhetoric to gain and consolidate power, a power that serves themselves and narrow sectoral interests in their societies. He is particularly damning of those who use religion to serve these ends. He notes:

“Closed populist groups distort the word “people”, since they are not talking about a true people.  The concept of “people” is in fact open-ended.  A living and dynamic people, a people with a future, is one constantly open to a new synthesis through its ability to welcome differences” [FT no.160]

Against such hate-mongering and identity politics, he counters with an insistence that openness to diversity is good and to be promoted:

“In fact, a healthy openness never threatens one’s own identity.  A living culture, enriched by elements from other places, does not import a mere carbon copy of those new elements, but integrates them in its own unique way.  The result is a new synthesis that is ultimately beneficial to all, since the original culture itself ends up being nourished.  That is why I have urged indigenous peoples to cherish their roots and their ancestral cultures” [FT no.148]

Even more exciting is his advocacy for a form of ‘political love’. This is “not merely utopian.  It demands a decisive commitment to devising effective means to this end.  Any effort along these lines becomes a noble exercise of charity.  For whereas individuals can help others in need, when they join together in initiating social processes of fraternity and justice for all, they enter the “field of charity at its most vast, namely political charity”.   This entails working for a social and political order whose soul is social charity. Once more, I appeal for a renewed appreciation of politics as “a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good” (FT no. 180).           

Here I suspect quite a few politicians – they of loud, uncouth mouths and usually outrageous hairdos in particular – may feel the Pope is picking on them. To that, I say: pick on!     

Fifth Observation: Francis is calling for comprehensive and realistic dialogue and reconciliation rooted in commitment to truth to create a more decent world.

It is worth unpicking this. His call is comprehensive because he sees the process not simply the province of politicians and experts (the cynic in me says ‘Thank God!’ because many of these folks are singularly underwhelming today), but ordinary people. In this encyclical there is a subtle call for the involvement of individuals, families and local communities, as well as social movements in dialogue. He is also realistic, noting that dialogue is difficult and reconciliation perhaps even more so, particularly when the stakes are so high and the outcomes depend on “the need for a change of heart, attitudes and lifestyles” (FT no.166). Yet this is the only really effective way to genuine social peace.

He is also realistic, noting that dialogue is difficult and reconciliation perhaps even more so, particularly when the stakes are so high.

The search for truth is central to this. In an age of ‘fake news’ and ‘the media’s noisy potpourri of facts and opinion” (FT no. 201), this is essential. He outlines the importance of listening and respecting “the other’s point of view and to admit that it may include legitimate convictions and concerns” (FT no. 203). He warns against a relativism that “leave[s] the interpretation of moral values to those in power, to be defined as they see fit” (FT no. 206). Crucial to any process and to a renewed world is what he calls a sense of transcendence. The way he phrases it is interesting: this is not, as I read it, a call to some kind of religious-based society, so much as the sense that the sum total of the world points to something bigger than its parts.

Conclusions: On relevance and what’s missing

There are many other points worth mentioning – Francis’ call for an end to war as a means of foreign policy, state aggrandisement or profit; the need for religious freedom and dialogue between religions; the need for ecological reform in our lifestyle – but I shall conclude by making a few observations on the text’s relevance and what is missing.

Let us start with what is missing. Above all, what’s missing is how we apply all this to the Church. There are many challenges the Church faces which have in the past been brushed aside, treated as outside the realm of legitimate dialogue, or simply disallowed from any serious discussion. Among these, most prominent today are:

Above all, what’s missing is how we apply all this to the Church.

Francis mentions women in passing – noting that they are still underrepresented in societies worldwide (FT no. 23). True, and above all underrepresented in leadership roles in the Church! If we as Church are true to what Francis prescribes, I hope that this means that respectful dialogue and an unhindered search for truth may help us to address this problem.

Similarly, the questions of gender identities get no mention, whether in church or society. Here too I hope this means that we are going to use the approach he advocates in FT to make our own internal dialogue – in the light of science and reason (themes which underpin the content of the dialogue he advocates here) and respectful of the lived experience of people in the Church.

I hope that, in the spirit of sound dialogue, based on the search for truth and the promotion of reconciliation, this is an indication of a new openness to, at the very least, addressing the questions faced by the Church.

Francis has produced an encyclical that speaks to a world reeling under the current crisis of COVID-19 … and the deeper systemic crises he so brilliantly describes.

And, lastly, relevance. There is not much to say here. Francis has produced an encyclical that speaks to a world reeling under the current crisis of COVID-19 (which, in time, will pass) and the deeper systemic crises he so brilliantly describes. He speaks as head of the Catholic Church, but to the world as a whole in a manner that brings Catholic Social Thought into dialogue with cutting edge political theory and philosophy. Above all, he calls us to rethink our practices and realign them with the values of solidarity, community, dialogue and reconciliation.

It has always struck me how so many people outside the Church, many far outside religion, seem to admire Francis. It is not surprising. He speaks with everyone, and for everyone. Though many may find its title (particularly in its translation into non-Latinate languages) problematic, Fratelli Tutti offers us much to reflect on, much to implement – in the Church as much as in wider society! Sometimes I think, whatever his real limitations, Francis is the statesman so many countries need. Perhaps if we did some of the things he suggests here, we’d get the leaders we so desperately need.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.