CNEWA Connections: Themes of Pope Francis in ‘Fratelli Tutti’

Last week, we examined the context of “Fratelli Tutti” — seeing it within a trajectory of development beginning with “Laudato Si’” and continuing through the “Document on Human Fraternity.”

Though carrying different names, one theme that runs through all these and other of Pope Francis’ documents is the interconnectedness of all things. In “Laudato Si’,” Francis stresses the interconnected reality of all things. Humanity does not stand above and beyond the natural, created world, but is situated in that world with a special calling to protect and nurture it. Creation is not merely a “thing” given to humans to use or abuse as we see fit. Creation is something entrusted to us. The fate of creation is, to some extent, our own fate and that of our descendants.

The two largest religions in the world, Christianity and Islam, comprising over 20 percent of the world’s people, have been interconnected historically and geographically since the very beginning of Islam in the 7th century. Far too often that connection has been violent and warlike. In A Common Word Between Us and You, published in 2007, over 120 Muslim scholars from every denomination in Islam recognized that there would be no peace in the world if there were no peace between Islam and Christianity. They say not only the fate of the planet, but their own eternal salvation, is related to achieving peace between the two religions. In  2019 Pope Francis and Sheikh al-Tayyib took that a step further, calling not only for peace but for fraternity and social friendship.

In “Fratelli Tutti,” Francis acts as the universal pastor of the Church and, while including all people of good will, seems to be more directly addressing Christians and specifically Catholic Christians. In paragraph 46, Francis speaks of prejudice and hate. He notes “that destructive forms of fanaticism among religious believer, including Christians…. Even in the Catholic media, limits can be overstepped, defamation and slander can become commonplace, and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned.” 

Outward signs of piety are not enough. In noting that in the Parable of the Good Samaritan it was religious people who ignored the man lying on the road, Francis writes that this “shows that belief in God and the worship of God are not enough to ensure that we are actually living in a way pleasing to God. A believer may be untrue to everything that his faith demands of him, and yet think he is close to God and better than others” (par. 74).

“With this encyclical, Pope Francis has moved the social magisterium of the Church to a new, contemporary level and opened a conversation for a long time to come.”

Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

In the second half of the encyclical, Francis deals with global issues and a Catholic/Christian response to those issues. If there is one thing Francis has learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that “going it alone” is simply not an option. Despite great wealth and technology, no country or even group of countries can on their own defeat the virus. A global response is the only viable response. There is an important insight to be gained here.

Here a note is necessary. The pope is addressing the problems which are facing the world globally. In “Laudato Si,” he looked at the global issues which are contributing to environmental degradation. In “Fratelli Tutti,” he is looking not merely at issues of environmental degradation. He is looking instead at systems of human degradation, including but by no means limited to the environment. If he sees the necessity of a global response to COVID-19, he also sees the necessity for global responses to other systemic problems such as racism, global poverty, oppression and exploitation of women, children, the poor. Francis realizes that these are not discrete and isolated phenomena but rather part of a complex fabric of global systems.

He sees the recent upsurge in extreme populism and nationalism as contrary to the values of the Gospel and rightly sees the conditions favoring war increasing after years of relative peace —through, among other things, the efforts of the United Nations.

Francis tries to deal with issues such as private property, war, international law, etc. A careful or even not so careful reading of the encyclical will show that, while Francis is calling for international cooperation in dealing with the issues facing humanity, he is not calling for a unified world government, a single world religion or single world culture so feared by those Catholics and others who see the “demon of socialism” lurking behind any attempt at international cooperation, and any effort to achieve systemic change or to improve the lot of the poor and downtrodden.

Some of the most interesting parts of the encyclical are those issues which Francis mentions but does not/cannot explore in depth. Issues such private property, unjust economic systems, war, international cooperation, and international law are things which have now become issues in the social magisterium of the Catholic Church. Twice in the encyclical the pope mentions the UN Charter as a “fundamental juridical norm.” This is something quite interesting that merits further discussion on a wide scale.

“Fratelli Tutti” may be the third in a list of three singularly important and related documents. But it is clearly not the last word. With this encyclical, Pope Francis has moved the social magisterium of the Church to a new, contemporary level and opened a conversation — a dialogue as I suspect he would prefer to call it — for a long time to come.

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