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‘Fratelli Tutti’ – Encyclical of love that misses the boat on women

The title of Pope Francis’ new encyclical, ‘Fratelli Tutti’ aroused controversy prior to its publication. Catholic women noted that the masculine noun, ‘fratelli’ excludes them from a text that focuses on the solidarity of all peoples. Annemarie Paulin-Campbell discusses the implications of this omission, and how it detracts from an otherwise powerful call to create a world that transcends all human boundaries.

The encyclical letter of Pope Francis, ‘Fratelli Tutti’ (FT) was signed in Assisi yesterday and released to the world in Rome today, 4 October, the Feast Day of St Francis of Assisi, from whose writings the title is taken. Over the past few weeks since its title was made known, there has been push-back from many Catholic women (with some prominent men adding their voices), as the words directly translated into English mean “Brothers All.”

Assurances have been given by the Vatican that ‘Fratelli’ is meant to communicate brothers and sisters or siblings (and arguably does in modern-day Italian). It is also argued that that, given that is it a direct quotation from the writings of St Francis of Assisi it cannot be changed.

Linguistic exclusion

Sadly, the fact remains that it is already being translated into English by many as “Brothers All”. Women do not identify themselves as “brothers’ making it difficult to hear themselves addressed by these words. Thirty organisations together forming “The Catholic Women’s Council” wrote an open letter to Pope Francis appealing to him to amend the title to include the word ‘sorelle’ which means sisters. Now that the document has been released it is clear that no last-minute change was made.

The message of the encyclical is all about transcending barriers, honouring human dignity and reaching out to others across boundaries of geography, distance, social status and gender. It is about love, friendship, and care of the other. Pope Francis invites us all to dream together: “Let us dream then, as a single human family, as fellow travellers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his of her beliefs or convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all (FT, no. 8).”

many women come to this important text with a deep sense of yet again not feeling seen and heard by the church.

Having now had the opportunity to read the full text, I think it even more unfortunate, given the message it seeks to convey, that Pope Francis did not respond to the request to amend the title by which this document is known because it detracts from his message which is critical for our time. The document rightly emphasises the importance of dialogue and deep listening. Yet, many women come to this important text with a deep sense of yet again not feeling seen and heard by the church.

Aside from the title, the other word that jars is the word “fraternity.” It is used as part of the sub-title and then repeatedly throughout the document. While the word has multiple layers of meaning, and can simply mean friendship and mutual support, the word fraternity, in contemporary English, also carries strongly masculine connotations. If one thinks for example of the fraternities in the American university system they are men’s only groups (a brotherhood), just as sororities are for women only. When we speak of fraternal twins we all know that we mean boys.

It is extremely sad that there is not a recognition that language is powerful and that it creates and shapes reality. It can be used to include or to exclude. Language impacts how we interpret the world and how we see ourselves, even if on an unconscious level. Yes, we are working here in multiple languages and words when translated from one language to another may have different nuances or connotations and I do not believe that the title was chosen with any intention to exclude. (This is also clear from the many times the words “brothers and sisters” are used in the text.)

Nevertheless, when the problems many women have with the title were pointed out, there was again the pain of not being heard. Pope Francis in his encyclical invites us to dialogue “in the face of present-day attempts to eliminate or ignore others” (FT, no. 6) and so it is sad that many women are left feeling eliminated and ignored because of the language which is used.

Challenges facing women sidelined

Issues that specifically concern women in society are not really addressed in the encyclical which otherwise does an excellent job of addressing many current social ills. The document does say that the way societies are organised worldwide “is still far from reflecting clearly that women possess the same dignity and identical rights as men (FT, no. 23)”, and goes on to say: “We say one thing with words, but our decisions and reality tell another story.” (FT, no. 23) This is ironic when our church does not accord women the same dignity and identical rights as men, when one thing is affirmed with words but the decisions and reality around women and their roles in the church tell another story.

Issues which specifically concern women in society are not really addressed in the encyclical.

Given the social themes of the encyclical, it is surprising that more attention has not been given to issues affecting women such as gender-based violence, which in countries such as South Africa, but also in many other parts of the world is a massive problem. Ideologies, such as patriarchy, which are the ground in which such destructive behaviours grow are not named as problematic, though other ideologies that erode care of the other are.

Despite my strong critique of ‘Fratelli Tutti’ in relation to women, it is well worth reading because it gives a sense of the many areas in which we are struggling in contemporary society. It shines a strong light on the ways in which we have become a society in which concern and love for others, especially those most marginalised, is lacking. We have become self-centered and self-absorbed.

A call to respond to human suffering

The first chapter of the document which outlines the dark clouds of much of our current experience is like a searing but potentially liberating examination of conscience, which is deepened in the second chapter’s unpacking of the story of the Good Samaritan. Pope Francis, in a way that reminds one of the Ignatian process of imaginative contemplation, uses the different characters in the story to help us get in touch with where we each find ourselves in our response to the suffering around us.

Pope Francis speaks of a “moral deterioration…and a weakening of spiritual values and responsibility,” (FT, no. 29) and “a cool comfortable globalised indifference (FT, no. 30).” He also says in relation to the Covid-19 Pandemic that “if everything is connected, it is hard to imagine that this global disaster is unrelated to our way of approaching reality (FT, no. 30).” The encyclical also has something important to say about issues of forgiveness and reconciliation that is important for us to hear in our South African context. It reminds us of the need to be patient with the fact that where there has been deep hurt it is a long road to forgiveness and reconciliation and that it is important to remember the harm that has been done so that we do not perpetuate it again.

The encyclical also has something important to say about issues of forgiveness and reconciliation that is important for us to hear in our South African context.

In a time of great polarisation globally, this encyclical is radical and vital social teaching calling us back to Gospel values. I would say that it is a call to love of neighbour at both the individual and the societal level. It challenges us to think of ourselves as interconnected and having a responsibility to care for the most marginalised and weakest members of our society. Pope Francis challenges us to notice the temptation we have: “to build a culture of walls, to raise walls, walls in the heart, walls on the land, in order to prevent this encounter with other cultures, with other people (FT, no. 27).” He urges us to recognise that destructive ideologies such as “myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism are on the rise (FT, no. 11).”

Pope Francis also highlights the dangers of digital relationships which – though often giving the illusion of real communication – “do not really build community; instead, they disguise and expand the very individualism that finds expression in xenophobia and in contempt for the vulnerable. (FT, no. 42.)” There is much here to reflect on.

This is an incisive and timely document but its message is undercut by its insensitivity to the importance of inclusive language, and by the fact that it fails to address important societal issues regarding women. No matter the linguistic and academic justifications that can and are being made for its title, the fact remains, that many women feel rendered invisible by the church yet again. Far from feeling included, they feel alienated. If women truly felt heard in the church at this moment in history, the issue of the title of this encyclical would perhaps be a non-issue. 

This is an incisive and timely document but its message is undercut by its insensitivity to the importance of inclusive language.

Our current church context is one in which for many women there has been disappointment upon disappointment. For example, the issue of women not being able to vote in Synods when some male religious leaders who were not Bishops could; the disappointment for many women in the Querida Amazonia response; the fact that the issue of the ordination of women as deacons gets sent back time and again, for yet more study.

Sadly, my sense is that brilliant and gifted as Pope Francis is, there is a blind-spot in this area. With many women, currently leaving the church because they do not feel heard, simply adding one word “sorelle” would have meant so much and would have been a lived expression of what Pope Francis is calling us to in this powerful and challenging encyclical. I dare to imagine that St Francis of Assisi, would have been happy for his words to be amplified in such a way that all of us, women and men could better hear the important message of this encyclical.

* 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.