In the midst of pandemic, the Pontiff is calling us to re-focus on a radical worldview that sees everyone as brothers and sisters, writes Michael Kelly
Professing faith in God as the creator of all human beings, or even simply recognising that all people possess an inherent dignity, has concrete consequences for how people should treat one another and make decisions in politics, economics and social life, Pope Francis writes in his new encyclical.
“Human beings have the same inviolable dignity in every age of history and no one can consider himself or herself authorised by particular situations to deny this conviction or to act against it,” the Pope writes in his encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship.
Pope Francis signed the encyclical on October 3 after celebrating Mass at the tomb of St Francis of Assisi, and the Vatican released the more than 40,000-word text on Sunday.
The Pope had been rumoured to be writing an encyclical on non-violence; and, once the Covid-19 pandemic struck, many expected a document exploring in depth his repeated pleas for the world to recognise the inequalities and injustices laid bare by the pandemic and adopt corrective economic, political and social policies.
Fratelli Tutti combines those two elements but does so in the framework set by the document on human fraternity and interreligious dialogue that he and Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Ashar Mosque in Cairo, Egypt, signed in 2019.
In fact, in the new document Pope Francis wrote that he was “encouraged” by his dialogue with the Muslim leader and by their joint statement that: “God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and has called them to live together as brothers and sisters.”
The encyclical takes its title from St Francis of Assisi and is inspired by his “fraternal openness,” which, the Pope said, calls on people “to acknowledge, appreciate and love each person, regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives.”
The title, which literally means “all brothers and sisters” or “all brothers,” are the words with which St Francis “addressed his brothers and sisters and proposed to them a way of life marked by the flavour of the Gospel,” the Pope wrote.
That flavour, explained throughout the document, involves welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, listening to and giving a hand up to the poor, defending the rights of all and ensuring that each person, at every stage of life, is valued and invited to contribute to the community, he said. It also means supporting public policies that do so on a larger scale.
Primate of All-Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh Dr Eamon Martin welcomed the focus of the new encyclical.
“I warmly welcome this timely and provocative message from Pope Francis which reminds us so powerfully of the message of love that is at the heart of the Gospel – a love which reaches out to all of our ‘brothers and sisters’ who share our common humanity.
“I am conscious that Pope Francis wrote this encyclical during a global pandemic, a time which is reminding us not only of our connectedness around the world but also of our fragility, our shared vulnerability and common need for compassion and love and for the hope that faith in God can bring.
“Pope Francis has a real gift for opening up and reflecting on the Word of God – he loves to select a passage from Scripture and ‘meditate out loud’ on what God’s Word is saying to us. This time he chooses the challenging parable of the good Samaritan and he slowly ‘breaks open’ the wisdom and teaching of that parable for today. Yes, we might agree, we are all ‘brothers and sisters’; we are all neighbours sharing this planet. But, ‘who is my neighbour? Who is my brother? Who is my sister?’,” the archbishop said.
“Pope Francis reminds us of how his namesake, St Francis, answered this question. He ‘heard the voice of God, he heard the voice of the poor, he heard the voice of the infirm and he heard the voice of nature. He made of them a way of life.’
“In Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis therefore makes a special appeal in the name of justice and mercy for the orphan, the poor, the stranger, the migrant, the refugee and all those on the ‘margins’, the ‘peripheries’ of life and society. He envisages an ‘open world’ motivated by what he calls ‘social friendship’ and sincere hospitality towards others. I find it particularly challenging when he mentions that ‘some peripheries are close to us, in the city centres or in our families.’ This of course reminds us here in Ireland to consider who might be left out, who do we tend to shuffle over into the margins of society and perhaps try to forget?
“I sometimes wonder about the impact on us of seeing a homeless person lying on our streets, or watching live pictures on the media of thousands of refugees huddled in camps, or starving children swatting away flies from their faces – how easily we can ‘shift our gaze’, feel sorry for them but never really question our own values, lifestyle, attitudes? This dilemma is at the heart of Fratelli Tutti. These days we speak about social distancing during the pandemic. Perhaps the real social distancing is the way that the great majority of people in the world can get on with their lives seemingly oblivious or ‘anaesthetised’ to the tremendous suffering, inequality and neglect of the poor and the most vulnerable among us. Solidarity with the poor and vulnerable, Pope Francis says, means looking into their faces, touching their flesh, sensing their closeness and trying to help them. It never tolerates any assault on human life or the human dignity of any person.
“As expected, therefore, Fratelli Tutti has a challenging message for political leaders and Church leaders about dialogue, mutual understanding and combined effort towards practical actions to make a difference in the world. It encourages us to ‘pay attention to the global’ while also ‘looking to the local’, avoiding both global uniformity and local narrowness or narcissism.
“We are called to have a ‘gaze transformed by charity’ which touches our hearts like the Good Samaritan and shows a preferential love to those in greatest need. That gaze ‘is at the heart of the authentic spirit of politics’. It ‘undergirds everything we do on their behalf.’
“Pope Francis’ questions to politicians might also be asked of all of us who are entrusted with leadership positions. He says: ‘The real, and potentially painful, questions will be, ‘How much love did I put into my work? What did I do for the progress of our people? What mark did I leave on the life of society? What real bonds did I create? What positive forces did I unleash? How much social peace did I sow? What good did I achieve in the position that was entrusted to me?’,” the archbishop said.
Archbishop Eamon described the encyclical as a “must read for everybody”.
“Pope Francis is addressing his new letter not only to Catholics but to all people of goodwill. In terms of its theme it is a natural companion to Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical letter Laudato Si’, on care for our common home, which highlights our collective responsibility to manage natural sources and to sustain our God-given environment. But today, at this time of global pandemic, Pope Francis’ calls us to love each other as God loves us by living the parable of the good Samaritan every minute of every day. Our civilisation is not omnipotent, so we need to respect the innate dignity of each other – from family to stranger – with love and practical support, so that the human race can flourish,” he said.
Archbishop Eamon also commended the supplementary resources to parishes. “These will go a long way to effectively disseminate the letter’s powerful message and help to inform a wide variety of audiences, including educational. This content will be made available soon on a web feature on the home page of catholicbishops.ie,” he said.
Building on the social teachings of his predecessors, Pope Francis’ document once again strongly condemns the death penalty and makes an initial approach to declaring that the conditions once used to accept a ‘just war’ no longer exist because of the indiscriminately lethal power of modern weapons.
St John Paul II in The Gospel of Life, published in 1995, cast doubt on whether any nation needed to resort to capital punishment today to protect its people; developing that teaching, Pope Francis in 2018 authorised a change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church to make clear that “the death penalty is inadmissible.”
Signalling the start of a similar effort to respond to the current reality of warfare, Pope Francis in the new encyclical raised the question of “whether the development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and the enormous and growing possibilities offered by new technologies, have granted war an uncontrollable destructive power over great numbers of innocent civilians.
“We can no longer think of war as a solution because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits,” one of the main criteria of just-war theory, he said. “In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war.’ Never again war!”
At the heart of the new encyclical’s appeal to Catholics is a meditation on Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan and particularly on how Jesus takes a legal scholar’s question, “Who is my neighbour,” and turns it into a lesson on being called not to identify one’s neighbours but to become a neighbour to all, especially those most in need of aid.
“The parable eloquently presents the basic decision we need to make in order to rebuild our wounded world. In the face of so much pain and suffering, our only course is to imitate the good Samaritan,” the Pope said. “Any other decision would make us either one of the robbers or one of those who walked by without showing compassion for the sufferings of the man on the roadside.”
“The parable,” he continued, “shows us how a community can be rebuilt by men and women who identify with the vulnerability of others, who reject the creation of a society of exclusion, and act instead as neighbours, lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good.”
Pope Francis used the encyclical “to consider certain trends in our world that hinder the development of universal fraternity” and acting as a neighbour to one another, including racism, extremism, “aggressive nationalism,” closing borders to migrants and refugees, polarisation, politics as a power grab rather than a service to the common good, mistreatment of women, modern slavery and economic policies that allow the rich to get richer but do not create jobs and do not help the poor.
“The pain, uncertainty and fear, and the realisation of our own limitations, brought on by the pandemic have only made it all the more urgent that we rethink our styles of life, our relationships, the organisation of our societies and, above all, the meaning of our existence,” he said.
Anna Rowlands, a British theologian invited to help present the document at the Vatican, told Catholic News Service the text’s “golden thread” is about discerning “what gives life” and helps everyone to develop their full potential and flourish.
“The whole theme of the document is about the way in which we’re called to attend to the world as Christ attended to the world,” paying attention to reality rather than “evading it and avoiding it,” and praying for the grace to respond as Jesus would.
When people ask, “Who is my neighbour?” often what they really want to know is “Who is not my neighbour?” or “Who can I legitimately say is not my responsibility,” Dr Rowlands said.
Pope Francis called for catechesis and preaching that “speak more directly and clearly about the social meaning of existence, the fraternal dimension of spirituality, our conviction of the inalienable dignity of each person and our reasons for loving and accepting all our brothers and sisters.”
He also used the encyclical to strongly reassert a traditional tenet of Catholic social teaching: “the universal destination of goods” or “the common use of created goods,” which asserts, as St John Paul said, that “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone.”
The right to private property, and the benefits to individuals and society of protecting that right, Pope Francis wrote, “can only be considered a secondary natural right.”
“The right of some to free enterprise or market freedom cannot supersede the rights of peoples and the dignity of the poor, or, for that matter, respect for the natural environment,” the Pope said. “Business abilities, which are a gift from God, should always be clearly directed to the development of others and to eliminating poverty,” especially through the creation of jobs that pay a living wage.
Pope Francis, Dr Rowlands said, “wants to rehabilitate this idea of social friendship and social peace in the face of an all-pervasive social violence, which he sees running through the economy, running increasingly through politics, running through social media.”
The Pope is not despairing, she said, but realistic. “He wants to offer a vision of how you begin from the most local, most every day and most concrete realities to build a culture of peace at every level.”
Additional reporting from Cindy Wooden in Rome.