The new social encyclical of Pope Francis not only renews his strong critique of ‘neoliberal’ forms of capitalism which result in growing and extreme inequality but is a plea for a return to the ideals of fraternity and solidarity, invoking the humanist ideals of France’s ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’.
When one part of society exploits all that the world has to offer, acting as if the poor did not exist, there will eventually be consequences. Sooner or later, ignoring the existence and rights of others will erupt in some form of violence, often when least expected. Liberty, equality and fraternity can remain lofty ideals unless they apply to everyone.’ (#219).
Francis does not speak as a politician of course, but highlights the social implications of the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan, fleshing out the values needed for enhanced human solidarity. It is a message that people of all religions, and everyone of good will, including those who are not at all religious, could endorse. The implications are immense for believers, insisting on practical solidarity with everyone, especially strangers or foreigners.
The Pope wrote that ‘by acknowledging the dignity of each human person, we can contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity. Fraternity between all men and women… 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 or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all.’ (#8).
Not a rewrite of Laudato Si’
One might have expected Fratelli tutti to reiterate Francis’s 2015 social encyclical Laudato Si’ which focused on climate change with its catastrophic consequences, and the growing and extreme gap between the very wealthy and hundreds of millions struggling to survive.However Francis in Fratelli tutti allows the climate issues to drop into the background, while focusing his guns on global inequality and its causes, especially the new crises resulting from Covid-19.
Pope Francis does not resile from Laudato Si’ of course. On the contrary, he signed the new 43,000-word document at the tomb of St Francis in Assisi as part of an unprecedented 7-year program to focus Catholic minds on the climate issues. And on 10 October Francis gave a 25-minute TED talk, ‘Our moral imperative to act on climate change – and 3 steps we can take’.
Readers of Fratelli Tutti may be puzzled by Pope Francis quoting so heavily from his own writings and speeches. At first sight it seems too self-referential until you realise he does not intend this as a theological treatise but an urgent plea to support international efforts for peace and human advancement, especially for the poor and most neglected populations. Fratelli tutti can best be seen as a companion document to Laudato Si’, as well as to his more pastoral document in 2013, The Joy of the Gospel.
Fratelli tutti reads somewhat like a last will and testament, with Francis pulling together his messages as Pope since March 2013, including from his more than 30 overseas trips, especially to impoverished and war-torn countries, and his advocacy with world leaders and organisations to tackle global problems before the catastrophic consequences of climate change become unstoppable.
Francis wrote Laudato Si’ to help mobilise public opinion in support of the Paris Climate Conference in December 2015, and in consultation with architects of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It was no coincidence that he addressed the UN General Assembly on 25 September that year, just before 190 nations voted to commit to the SDGs. Francis strongly endorses their goals campaigning against hunger, inequality, poverty and pollution, while promoting sustainability, protection of the environment and the rights of Indigenous and local peoples to have control over their own destinies.
Francis believes God wants the full human flourishing of everyone without exception, with special care for the excluded and marginalised. This is not just the mission of Catholics and other Christians, but he thinks is at the core of all religious and humanistic traditions.
He writes that ‘The Church esteems the ways in which God works in other religions’, and ‘“rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for their manner of life and conduct, their precepts and their doctrines which… often reflect a ray of that truth that enlightens all men and women”’ (quoting from a document of the Second Vatican Council) (#277).
Francis added: ‘A journey of peace is possible between religions. Its point of departure must be God’s way of seeing things’. He then quoted from the 2018 film, ‘Pope Francis: A Man of his Word’ by Wim Wenders: ‘“God does not see with his eyes, God sees with his heart. And God’s love is the same for everyone, regardless of religion. Even if they are atheists, his love is the same. When the last day comes, and there is sufficient light to see things as they really are, we are going to find ourselves quite surprised”.’ (#281).
Islam and Human Fraternity
Francis has worked constantly not just to remove religion as a source of division and conflict, but to sacralise the task for everyone of building societies imbued deeply with this commitment to fraternity and solidarity.
In view of the resurgence of Islamist and other fundamentalist movements and religiously inspired terrorism, Francis sandwiches the new encyclical between references to the historic Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, signed in Abu Dhabi in early 2019 by himself and one of the most eminent Sunni Muslim scholars, the Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar in Egypt, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb. This extraordinary document draws heavily from the Quran and its authority to call not just for toleration of different traditions, but genuine respect for them as intended by God, and extolling the virtues of forgiveness, reconciliation and care for both the earth and the poor.
Francis recalled that their joint declaration called each one ‘“to be an artisan of peace, by uniting and not dividing, by extinguishing hatred and not holding on to it, by opening paths of dialogue and not by constructing new walls”.’ (#284)
In Abu Dhabi, ‘“we resolutely [declared] that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood. These tragic realities are the consequence of a deviation from religious teachings. They result from a political manipulation of religions and from interpretations made by religious groups who, in the course of history, have taken advantage of the power of religious sentiment in the hearts of men and women… God, the Almighty, has no need to be defended by anyone and does not want his name to be used to terrorise people”.’ (285).
In a later article, Bruce Duncan will discuss the Pope’s critique of neoliberal economics and its consequences, as well as Francis’s advocacy about war, peacemaking and reconciliation processes.
Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest who teaches units on Catholic social thought and movements at Yarra Theological College, a College of the University of Divinity, in Melbourne. He is Director of the ecumenical network, Social Policy Connections.