When we first heard that Jorge Bergoglio would be our pope, his devotion to his namesake, St. Francis, became an opportunity to learn more about this beloved saint. Pope Francis’ reflection on the care of creation and our shared earth, “Laudato Si,’” (2015), was titled after a song of St. Francis. And so, it was to be expected, on that saint’s feast day this year, an encyclical on human community and solidarity was signed by Pope Francis.
What are the greatest needs among the citizens of this strained planet? Can we rededicate ourselves to kindness in our social world, our politics and governance, and in our institutions? “Fratelli Tutti” (FT) is Pope Francis’ answer to these questions.
The pope describes his latest encyclical letter as a “social encyclical” (“Fratelli Tutti,” 6) that has echoes of the simple admonition of St. Francis to live a life in “the flavor of the Gospel” (FT, 1). Not far beneath the surface of his letter lurks the unmistakable specter of the Covid-19 pandemic, a force that “unexpectedly erupted” as he was writing this letter. The sickness, deaths, and bureaucratic ineptitude contrasted with heroic service, brilliant research and innovation, as well as the tender sacrifice of caregivers, combined to show that “no one can face life in isolation.” This pandemic serves as a spiritual metaphor for Francis, both as cause and amplifier of systemic failures of our world.
A sorry portrait emerges, but for Francis, the time has truly come to “dream, then, as a single human family” in which we are “brothers and sisters all” (FT, 8). A full examination of this letter is beyond our scope (about scope, we may hazard a thought or two before we finish), but here we’ll provide a shorter observation on the structure and major themes of this important letter:
Chapter 1: Dark Clouds Over a Closed World
In an echo of St. Paul’s commentary on the fallenness of his world in the first few chapters of his Epistle to the Romans, Pope Francis unfolds a bleak picture of a world fallen and broken: the manipulation and degradation of democracy, freedom, and community justice; the loss of the meaning of the social contract and history; selfishness and indifference toward the common good, or even its existence; the prevalence of a market-based logic driven solely on profit and a pervasive culture of consumerism; unemployment, racism, poverty; the disparity of rights and wicked practices of human slavery and trafficking, even human organ trafficking (FT, 10-24). Heavy on Francis’ heart are matters that transcend national borders, such as climate change and a “culture of walls” that favors the proliferation of organized crime, fueled by fear, resulting in isolation (FT, 27-28). Only a global pandemic would cause us to flee even faster from continued association with such a “throwaway world.”
Chapter 2: A Stranger on the Road
In this tragic world, however, there is hope — the coming of the Good Samaritan. In Chapter 2, the Pope emphasizes that, in a self-obsessed frenetic society that ignores human suffering and that is “illiterate” in concern for the frail and vulnerable (FT, 64-65), we are all called — just like the Good Samaritan — to become neighbors to others (FT, 81), overcoming prejudices, personal interests, rising above historic and cultural barriers. Love builds bridges and “we were made for love” (FT, 88), the pope adds, particularly exhorting Christians to recognize Christ in the face of every excluded person (FT, 85).
Chapter 3: Envisaging and Engendering an Open World
In this chapter, Francis exhorts us to go “‘outside’ the self” in order to find “a fuller existence in another” (FT, 88), opening ourselves up to the other according to the dynamism of charity which makes us tend toward “universal fulfilment” (FT, 95). The sense of solidarity and of fraternity begin within the family, which are to be safeguarded and respected in their “primary and vital mission of education” (FT, 114).
Chapter 4: A Heart Open to the Whole World
This chapter focuses on the issue of migration. The pope states that countries should strive to create “the conditions needed for a dignified life and integral development” and that “unnecessary migration ought to be avoided” (FT, 110). Nonetheless, he encourages countries receiving migrants to view them not as burdens but as gifts. “The arrival of those who are different, coming from other ways of life and cultures, can be a gift, for ‘the stories of migrants are always stories of an encounter between individuals and between cultures. For the communities and societies to which they come, migrants bring an opportunity for enrichment and the integral human development of all’” (FT, 115).
Chapter 5: A Better Kind of Politics
The theme of the fifth chapter is “A better kind of politics,” which represents one of the most valuable forms of charity because it is placed at the service of the common good (FT, 180). The politics we need, Francis also underscores, is a politics centered on human dignity and not subjected to finance because “the marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem;” the “havoc” wreaked by financial speculation has demonstrated this (FT, 168).
Chapter 6: Dialogue and Friendship in Society
From the sixth chapter further emerges the concept of life as the “art of encounter” with everyone, even with the world’s peripheries and with original peoples, because “each of us can learn something from others. No one is useless and no one is expendable” (FT, 215).
Chapter 7: Paths of Renewed Encounter
The value and promotion of peace is reflected on in the seventh chapter, “Paths of renewed encounter,” in which the Pope underlines that peace is connected to truth, justice and mercy. Forgiveness is linked to peace: we must love everyone without exception, the encyclical states, but loving an oppressor means helping him to change and not allowing him to continue oppressing his neighbor (FT, 241-242). In his discussion on war, Pope Francis advocate the total elimination of nuclear arms as “a moral and humanitarian imperative.” The pope would counter the headlong arms race with the establishment of a global fund for the elimination of hunger (FT, 255-262). Francis expresses just as clearly a position with regard to the death penalty: it is inadmissible and must be abolished worldwide. (FT, 263-269).
Chapter 8: Religions at the Service of Fraternity in Our World
In the eighth and final chapter, Pope Francis focuses on “Religions at the service of fraternity in our world” and emphasizes that terrorism is not due to religion but to erroneous interpretations of religious texts. Peace among religions is possible and that it is therefore necessary to guarantee religious freedom, a fundamental human right for all believers (FT, 279).
Michael Pakaluk, Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy at Catholic University, wrote in The Catholic Thing on Oct. 13, “I find fascinating the encyclical’s use of the language throughout of ‘social friendship’ (“amistad social,” in Spanish), rather than the more familiar term ‘social justice.’ There is not a single mention of ‘social friendship’ in the Catechism that I could find, or the Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine. Here if anywhere in the encyclical is the significant development of the tradition of social thought.”
With a word count of over 43,000 in the original Italian, eight full chapters, and 287 paragraphs containing 288 footnotes, it is simply too long for most people to endure “till the end.” Perhaps “chunking” the chapters into weekly reflections, punctuated by discussions when we can finally have them face to face, would be the best way to digest this overly-sprawling letter.
As somewhat of a literary geek, though, I was surprised by two aspects of the endnotes. First (and I looked all of them up) was the steady flow of Catholic tradition and other papal admonitions — particularly from Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, revealing just how much Francis is a pope not bringing disturbing and heretical innovation (as his critics have written with seeming delight), but rather reminding us of teaching on these subjects that perhaps we have missed when first they were spoken.
Second, Francis’ admonition for political leaders is not something new; his words about the need for reformation and the need for competent governance are a constant thread in his addresses to various delegations, particularly in speaking to the Vatican’s diplomatic corps and their guests (occurring 13 times in the notes and textual references). Some may tire of the melody, but it is not a surprising refrain.
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