By Filipe Domingues
Inspired by the words of St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis argues that a more just and fraternal world can only be built if we rethink our relationships — both personal and between nations. We must remember that without the other we are nothing. “Love shatters the chains that keep us isolated and separate; in their place, it builds bridges,” said the pontiff in his third encyclical, “Fratelli tutti,” published Oct. 4.
The eight-chapter social encyclical is a comprehensive analysis of human relationships. It gathers thoughts already expressed on other occasions, organizes them, and develops some new elements in line with Church tradition.
The historical context of “Fratelli tutti” is the current global crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated some pre-existing problems, such as inequality between nations, indifference to the poor, war, the dramatic journey of migrants, and the heated clashes in social media environments.
The remedies against selfishness and individualism are “fraternity” and “social friendship,” a form of love to be lived not only in words, but also in the facts of everyday life. For this to occur, it is necessary to recognize that “we are all in the same boat,” that the Earth is “our common home,” and that only by solving the problems of others will our own problems be simplified.
As is typical of Pope Francis, in “Fratelli tutti” the poor and the “discarded” assume a major role. The pope says that “the hubris of the powerful” should give way to a greater awareness of the “native ways of thinking and acting” experienced among the poorest (“Fratelli tutti,” no. 51).
Less walls, more bridges
Citing Brazilian poet and composer Vinicius de Moraes, Pope Francis says, “Life, for all its confrontations, is the art of encounter.” Promoting a culture of encounter is a clear goal of the encyclical, because “we, as a people, should be passionate about meeting others, seeking points of contact, building bridges, planning a project that includes everyone” (“Fratelli tutti,” nos. 215, 216).
This “lifestyle” to which we are all called has been challenged by an opposite logic: that of the “throw-away culture,” which includes the temptation to build “walls in the heart, walls on the land, in order to prevent this encounter with other cultures, with other people” (“Fratelli tutti,” no. 27).
This “wasteful” mentality also comprises the false notion that a good life is defined by “limitless consumption” and “care for ourselves.” This culture feeds political mechanisms that seek to “spread despair and discouragement, even under the guise of defending certain values” (“Fratelli tutti,” nos. 13, 15, 17).
Social media, to which the pope dedicates harsh criticism, gives the “illusion” that there is real communication between individuals and peoples. In fact, in digital networks, “respect for others disintegrates, and even as we dismiss, ignore or keep others distant, we can shamelessly peer into every detail of their lives (“Fratelli tutti,” no. 42). He points to those who call themselves Christians, but instead help to spread “digital campaigns of hatred and destruction.”
Thus, “parts of our human family, it appears, can be readily sacrificed for the sake of others considered worthy of a carefree existence” (“Fratelli tutti,” no.18). As an example of those victims, Francis mentions the poor, the disabled, those who are “not yet useful,” referring to the unborn, and those who are “no longer needed,” referring to the elderly.
In this sense, he says that women always face greater suffering, especially as “victims of violence and abuse,” when they lose their children or when deprived of a childhood (“Fratelli tutti,” nos. 227, 261).
Several times in the document, the pope mentions the historical and unacceptable problem of racism. Racism includes “vicious attitudes that we thought long past,” which retreat “underground only to keep re-emerging.” He says that “instances of racism continue to shame us, for they show that our supposed social progress is not as real or definitive as we think” (“Fratelli tutti,” no. 20). In short, human rights are not yet universal.
Walls, including physical walls, keep away those who are different from us. Francis proposes greater assistance for countries with high rates of emigration in fighting hunger and ending wars, as well as a greater welcome and more dignified treatment of migrants by host countries. “No one will ever openly deny that (migrants) are human beings, yet in practice, by our decisions and the way we treat them, we can show that we consider them less worthy, less important, less human” (“Fratelli tutti,” no. 39).
Forgiveness in conflict resolution
One of the more original parts of the document is chapter seven, in which Pope Francis proposes “paths of renewed encounter.” It presents mercy and forgiveness, or reconciliation efforts, as responses to social and global conflicts. “Forgiving does not mean forgetting,” he says, but forgiveness helps to halt the same “forces of destruction” from dominating the offended person and, therefore, prevents acts of revenge.
“Forgiveness is precisely what enables us to pursue justice without falling into a spiral of revenge or the injustice of forgetting,” he says (“Fratelli tutti,” no. 252). “Authentic reconciliation does not flee from conflict, but is achieved in conflict, resolving it through dialogue and open, honest, and patient negotiation” (“Fratelli tutti,” no. 244).
Individualism and the perception of self-sufficiency also affect relations between nations. Pope Francis proposes a new logic in international relations, which puts the human being, and not territories and properties, first.
He also questions the fact that poor countries owe such big debts to rich nations, which prevents them from developing (“Fratelli tutti,” no. 120, 126). To regulate these relations, the United Nations needs to be reformed, favouring the weakest (“Fratelli tutti,” no.173).
‘Just war’ and the death penalty
Pope Francis closes any remaining questions about the acceptability of the concept of “just war” — an attempt to justify war as a legitimate means — and states that “every war leaves our world worse than it was before” (“Fratelli tutti,” nos. 258, 260, 261).
Recalling the human tragedies of the past — he names the Holocaust, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the many ethnic persecutions and massacres — the pope says that finding ways of forgiveness and fraternity will always do more good to humanity.
In addition, he recaps the evolution of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty, citing St. John Paul II, and makes it official in the encyclical. In other words, he asserts the Church’s certainty that there is no space in doctrine for capital punishment, since today’s legal and penal systems have more human and more effective means to enforce law. Francis also calls life imprisonment a “secret death penalty.”
“All Christians and people of good will are today called to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty, legal or illegal, in all its forms, but also to work for the improvement of prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their freedom” (“Fratelli tutti,” no. 268).
The role of religions
St. Francis of Assisi inspired the document because he “sowed seeds of peace,” visible in an historical enterprise: the meeting in Egypt with Sultan Malik-al-Kamil, with whom he established a friendly dialogue in the year 1219.
In parallel, Pope Francis recalls his own friendship with the Great Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad, Al-Tayyeb, with whom he co-signed the “Document on Human Fraternity” in 2019. Many of the guidelines of “Fratelli tutti” are illuminated by this co-authored text. The encyclical, according to the pope, does not “claim to offer a complete teaching on fraternal love, but rather to consider its universal scope, its openness to every man and woman” (“Fratelli tutti,” no. 6).
It is precisely because believers allow a “transcendent truth” to guide their relationships that religions must be admitted to the public debate, offering their contribution on all collective issues. “Room needs to be made for reflections born of religious traditions that are the repository of centuries of experience and wisdom,” says Pope Francis (“Fratelli tutti,” no. 275).
The pope says that “the hubris of the powerful” should give way to a greater awareness, and we should ask how we can “raise our sights to recognize our neighbours or to help those who have fallen along the way.”
Bibliography: Encyclical "Fratelli tutti": http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html
Image courtesy Lay Centre Staff - Bronze statue "Angels Unawares," by Timothy Schmalz, located in St. Peter's Square, shows the faces of the world, looking for hospitality.
Filipe Domingues is a Brazilian journalist, specialized in religion, economics, and the environment. A Lay Centre alumnus, he spent six years in Rome, where he obtained his licentiate and doctorate in social sciences at the Pontifical Gregorian University. He studied young people and their relationship with social media. He also attended the Synod of Bishops on youth in 2018 as an expert in media ethics.