Fratelli Tutti: a social encyclical for the 21st century

Francis Denis

October 8, 2020
Last Sunday, October 4, 2020, Pope Francis published his third encyclical. Titled Fratelli Tutti, this document is intended as a call to the commitment of all people in favour of a more fraternal world so that “by acknowledging the dignity of each human person, we can contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity” (#8). About a hundred pages long, this letter touches on a variety of themes ranging from international politics to local issues, from the environment to social justice, from ethics to religion, including the many current challenges preventing the achievement of a more open world where everyone has their place. In short, this encyclical, which many have called “political”, gives Catholics and everyone else the means to overcome the various stalemates that our world is currently facing.

Ordered and original thinking

This is nothing new; the release of an encyclical always generates strong reactions. And this is very fortunate, we could say, since no one should be indifferent to the themes addressed by the pope. A striking fact of this document: the abundance of references to his previous addresses. Among these numerous quotations we find in particular allusions to addresses delivered during his apostolic journeys – as if the pope felt the need to offer a summary or “compendium” of his teachings, as if he had wanted to offer the universal Church the fruits of his reflections from his speeches addressed first to particular churches. This method, this transition from the particular to the universal, is it not the very process to which the Bishop of Rome invites us? As Catholics, are we not called to embody and bring to fruition this tension inherent in our status as believers? To bring to light the complementarity between our attachment to our roots and the recognition of the value of what is dear to our brothers and sisters in humanity?
It is in this way that the encyclical invites us to a fundamental awareness. As a universal pilgrim, the pope manifests to us the spirit which must animate all of our current commitments at all levels: “A love capable of transcending borders is the basis of what in every city and country can be called ‘social friendship’”(#99). Thus, seeking to understand the complexity of the issues and the various fears that animate every society, we find in this text the noble ideals required for the deployment of this spirit. Carefully avoiding a habit of “[discrediting and insulting] opponents from the outset [rather than opening] a respectful dialogue aimed at achieving agreement on a deeper level” (#201), the pope invites us to a double meeting. Meeting with oneself and the heritage of our own cultures and meeting with the other by recognizing the beauty and the grandeur of what is dear to him, of that which can be for me also evidence of a common human heritage. Thus, since “I cannot truly encounter another unless I stand on firm foundations, for it is on the basis of these that I can accept the gift the other brings and in turn offer an authentic gift of my own” (#143), the pope urges us to rediscover the two dimensions of our identities: local and universal.
For example, faced with “our own days, however, [which] seem to be showing signs of a certain regression” (#11), the pope insists on the importance of not abandoning certain concepts which, because they are misused, risk eliminating precious realities such as “democracy” from our language (#157). Indeed, “[one] effective way to weaken historical consciousness, critical thinking, the struggle for justice and the processes of integration is to empty great words of their meaning or to manipulate them” (#14). Thus, although inserting himself into a debate that animates all of our societies, the pope leaves little room, as some claim, for ideological misrepresentation.

Political but transpartisan thinking

One of the great originalities of this encyclical is found in how the pope perceives the socio-political role that the universal Church is called to play. More than simply an “observer”, the Church seeks to get involved by participating through dialogue in the major social and ethical decisions of our time. Moreover, the principles contained in this encyclical could stimulate the emergence of initiatives as important as the creation of bridges between countries and, thus, give new life to the diplomatic role of the Holy See. As Francis says:
[The Church] does not claim to compete with earthly powers, but to offer herself as “a family among families, this is the Church, open to bearing witness in today’s world, open to faith hope and love for the Lord and for those whom he loves with a preferential love.” (no.276)
As a universal institution, the pope presents the Holy See, without “party politics that are the proper domain of the laity” (#276), as a place where, through the neutrality offered to it by evangelical freedom, such matters could be freely discussed. Through her strong identity which makes it possible “to overcome our divisions without losing our identity as individuals” (#230), the Church possesses all the conditions necessary to play a role which, in due course, could turn it into a kind of “politico-religious Davos”. The Vatican could be a place where every nation, NGO, and religious tradition would be able speak out on major issues in a setting where references to the transcendent would be audible. Thus, “[if] there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people” (no. 273), then, also, a place of international dialogue going beyond the strictly political framework while being open to religious traditions and ethical cultures is more necessary than ever. This encyclical opens the way forward for this type of initiative.

Plea for a new dynamism

While the coming weeks will be full of conversations and debates on the teachings present in Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti, it is important that all Catholics read and immerse themselves in the principles set out in this document. Although the encyclical is addressed to everyone, the responsibility for implementation rests first of all with those who, by the grace and light of faith, are able to recognize the beginning and the end of its principles.
In the next few weeks, Salt + Light Media will be please to bring you inside the encyclical with our special program Called to Fraternity: Conversations on Fratelli Tutti. Please tune in this Saturday, October 10th at 7:00 pm ET for our first episode featuring Cardinal Gérald C. Lacroix and Josianne Gauthier, Secretary General of CIDSE.