The Renewal of Catholic Social Concerns in Fratelli tutti

Thomas Massaro, S.J., is Professor of Moral Theology at Fordham University in New York City

As understanding the finer points of Roman Catholic ethical doctrine can be a feat in and of itself, it is difficult to blame anyone beyond or even within the worldwide community of Catholic believers if they are somewhat mystified regarding the content and status of those documents that emanate from the Vatican and address moral issues.

The most recent teaching document bears the title Fratelli tuttitwo Italian words best rendered in English as “Brothers and Sisters All.” Pope Francis formally promulgated this document, subtitled, “On Fraternity and Social Friendship,” on October 3, 2020, while visiting the Umbrian town of Assisi to mark the vigil of the memorial feast of the founder of the Franciscan order. Pope Francis affixed his signature to the document in the fitting location of the crypt chapel at the tomb of his revered namesake Saint Francis. Allow me to situate this long and complex document within the historical and doctrinal context in which it emerged, and then to offer a brief assessment of the significance of its primary messages.

Most significantly, Fratelli tuttiis an encyclical letter—in that genre of church documents representing the highest teaching authority a pope ordinarily invokes. A pontiff may choose to share less solemn reflections in the form of an “apostolic exhortation” or other categories of written or spoken address that indicate his intention to engage in a less formal teaching effort. As the name indicates, an encyclical letter is intended to circulate widely among the Catholic faithful, and even to “all people of goodwill,” to cite a phrase first invoked by Pope John XXIII when he addressed his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris (or “Peace on Earth”) to all humankind.

While popes are not expected to write and release encyclicals on a set schedule, their publication constitutes neither extremely rare nor everyday events. Fratelli tutti is the third encyclical of Pope Francis in his seven-year pontificate (2013 to present); his predecessor Benedict XVI published three in his eight years (2005-2013) on the Throne of Saint Peter. John Paul II reigned the longest of any twentieth-century pope and produced 14 of these authoritative teaching documents in his 27 years in office (1978-2005). Shortly before him, Paul VI reigned for 15 years (1963-78) but published only seven encyclicals and none in his final decade as pope.

The sub-genre into which Fratelli tutti falls, the social encyclical, was pioneered by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. Responding to the social crisis of poverty and cruel worker exploitation sparked by the Industrial Revolution, Leo published Rerum Novarum (literally, “On New Things”) to orient the church towards the side of struggling laborers. Sometimes characterized as a product of “trickle-up social concern,” Rerum Novarum was a manifestation at the highest ecclesial level of decades of local justice advocacy on the part of proponents of the “Social Catholicism” that closely paralleled what American Protestants knew as the Social Gospel Movement. To revisit and reapply the types of social concerns expressed by Leo, subsequent popes have published social encyclicals on a semi-regular basis. Fratelli tutti is the latest installment in this series—heir to the noble and valuable tradition of Catholic social teachings.

The release of social encyclicals has averaged slightly below one per decade in the nearly thirteen decades since Leo invented the genre. Calculations regarding the frequency of these pontifical expressions of faith-based values as they apply to economic, political, and social issues are complicated by at least three factors. First, popes may use other genres of documents besides encyclicals to offer teachings regarding proper social order. Second, these same topics often receive glancing treatment, even in encyclicals that do not quite qualify as social encyclicals. Third, other authoritative church sources, such as the Worldwide Synods of Bishops and Ecumenical Church Councils, may also issue documents on similar social concerns (the premier example being the Second Vatican Council, with its groundbreaking 1965 pastoral constitution, Gaudium et Speswhich treated a wide range of social and economic issues). Nevertheless, beyond dispute is that for 129 years, only 11 social encyclicals have appeared. This makes it all the more remarkable that Francis has now published two social encyclicals (the previous one being Laudato Si’ in June 2015) within five years.

What can you expect to find when you pick up a papal social encyclical? The short answer is a creative mixture of old and new: a combination of established Christian values, drawing from scripture and previous church teachings, juxtaposed with new social challenges in a call for action by individuals or collectives. Popes customarily interweave treatments of timeless Gospel-based principles (such as the call to peacemaking, generosity to the poor, promotion of the common good, and support for human dignity as realized in family and community) with priorities of special urgency at the present historical moment. The clearest example may well be the aforementioned Pacem in Terris, an impassioned plea for global peace that John XXIII rushed to publication just six months after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, and mere weeks before his untimely death (June 2, 1963). Peace had always been a Christian value, but the aspiration for disarmament and an easing of geopolitical tensions assumed especially great urgency when superpower rivalry and foolhardy brinksmanship had nearly generated a nuclear exchange that could have destroyed the entire world.

Similarly, each of John Paul II’s three social encyclicals can be matched to specific challenges related to the Cold War and its immediate aftermath. Benedict’s 2009 social encyclical Caritas in Veritate deals pointedly with ethical principles whose violation contributed to the Great Recession of 2008. And, of course, Francis’s 2015 Laudato Si’ was timed to match a pivotal moment (the run-up to the Paris Climate Change Conference of December 2015) in the environmental crisis we still face. The key to appreciating the content of any social encyclical, then, is a comprehension of the historical currents into which a given pope releases his message.

What features of the contemporary world did Francis have in mind when he was shaping Fratelli tutti? The first clue may be found in its subtitle “On Fraternity and Social Friendship.” Without doubt, this new encyclical calling for an expanded appreciation of human solidarity contains ethical analysis highly appropriate to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic that the world had been enduring for months before the document’s release. Interestingly, however, Francis is quick to volunteer (in paragraph 7 of the document) that he had started drafting this message about the perils of human divisions well before this public health crisis revealed the shortcomings of our sharply fragmented world. While future generations may well remember it as “the encyclical of the pandemic,” Fratelli tutti was actually on the papal drawing board before the COVID-19 crisis. Francis had long been planning an encyclical to address the woeful situation in which people are increasingly estranged from their fellow humans. His diagnosis of widespread social alienation is contained in the document’s unsettling opening chapter entitled “Dark Clouds over a Closed World.” While the pandemic has laid bare longstanding structural inequities, Francis had, even during his leadership of the local church in his native Argentina, expressed great concern regarding economic divides and the disproportionate burdens that habitually fall upon under-resourced classes and poorer nations.

Commentators may be forgiven if they criticize the encyclical as playing somewhat like a papal greatest hits. Admittedly, those familiar with the central moral teachings of the papacy of Francis will recognize the repeated calls for broad dialogue, a genuine “culture of encounter,” and a rejection of the “throwaway culture” that marginalizes those on the periphery of society. While these phrases represent tropes already treated by Francis on many occasions, there remains much in this presentation that is new. If the first chapter’s moral imperative to reverse unacceptable social trends risks being too abstract, the document’s second chapter, titled “A Stranger on the Road,” includes a lively, extended treatment of the Parable of the Good Samaritan from chapter 10 of the Gospel of Luke, reflecting vividly on a tale spun by Jesus in response to the question: “Who is my neighbor?” Extending access to quality healthcare amidst the pandemic emerges as one particularly urgent demand of what it means to love our neighbor in this historical moment. The remaining six chapters of Fratelli Tutti offer prescriptions for closing the distance that separates us from our neighbors and for overcoming the disheartening divisions that our dysfunctional political and economic systems have allowed to fester.

Francis values nothing more than the establishment of a more robust practice of interreligious dialogue. As such, this encyclical contains an abundant treatment of the content of a February 4, 2019 landmark document that Francis eagerly co-authored and (in Abu Dhabi, no less) ceremoniously signed with Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the head of Al-Azhar, the prominent Muslim center of learning and prayer in Egypt. By placing citations from that “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” into a solemn teaching encyclical, Francis highlights the vital importance of contemporary Christian-Muslim relations. His previous gestures of outreach to Islam, including numerous breakthrough visits to parts of the Muslim world where no pope had ever ventured, reflect this pope’s conscious imitation of his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi. Indeed, paragraph 3 of Fratelli tutti recounts how Saint Francis had journeyed to Damietta, Egypt in 1219 to conduct a historic dialogue with the Sultan Malik el-Kamil in hopes of halting the mutually ruinous Crusades. This famous “encounter between the Saint and Sultan” continues to capture the imagination of many, even after 800 years and lights the contemporary path toward overcoming mistrust and forging cooperation despite artificially constructed boundaries. Encouraged by previous Roman Catholic teaching documents embracing dialogue, such as Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate, the “Francis Project” par excellence taps into these interfaith energies.

If we are to assume our true identity as “a single human family,” as paragraph 8 of the new encyclical attests, then we may not remain indifferent to the plight of those who are suffering anywhere in the world. The people most deserving of our urgent attention are those enduring dire threats to their existence. For this reason, Francis returns several times throughout this encyclical to his signature appeals for more humane treatment of refugees and more enlightened policies regarding migration and human trafficking. Since the scourges of war and terrorism continue to kill civilians in unconscionable numbers, Fratelli tutti weighs in on the need for greater reliance on diplomacy and creative modes of reconciliation and conflict transformation. In exhorting all to reject the allure of violence, the Holy Father moves the Catholic Church yet closer to a definitive abandonment of the just-war approach that repeatedly fails to deliver lasting peace. He also renounces here the state-sponsored violence that is capital punishment, affirming in an even more definitive way his earlier judgment that the death penalty is inadmissible in contemporary society.

The document also reaffirms the pope’s call for heightened environmental concern and even a renewed “ecological conversion.” Introducing the theme of universal solidarity, Francis says, “We are children of the same earth, which is our common home” (para. 8). The 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ had introduced the notion of an “integral ecology” that promotes awareness of the interconnections among all things—including the health of all our relationships. Whereas earlier teachings of Pope Francis challenged us to attend more deliberately to our relationship with the natural world, this new encyclical extends this urgent call for reform to the task of setting right our relationships with our fellow human beings.

On many occasions, Francis has invoked the appealing motif of replacing walls that divide people with bridges that connect and unite them. Fratelli tutti fleshes out this hopeful aspiration in the course of 43,000 words in 287 paragraphs and with 288 footnotes. Several of the earliest commentators have already warned against expecting to read in a single sitting what amounts to a short book. An entire chapter on the nature of politics (namely, as a noble profession always in service to the common good of society) and another chapter on peacemaking and forgiveness in global relations reveal a pope clear-eyed about the invariably slow pace of progress toward unity yet still hopeful regarding prospects for an improved post-pandemic social order. The tone throughout is guardedly optimistic; Francis clings to a buoyant hope even while grieving the victims of natural tragedies, like the pandemic, and humanly created tragedies, such as armed conflict and terrorism. Throughout, the pope never doubts that a rising consciousness of our human commonality will forge enhanced solidarity capable of showing the way forward to a better, more equitable world.

Those less familiar with Catholic social teaching documents may still be wondering precisely what Francis expects this document to accomplish. Like his predecessors who penned encyclicals suited to their specific times, the current pope clearly seeks to share a hope, a vision, and a challenge with a worldwide audience. Francis also wants to propose certain practical suggestions for how to navigate the path that leads from a troubled present to a more promising future.

If we can summon the collective courage to breach the walls that divide humankind in our anxious times, then the social friendship that Francis lauds as a key Gospel value may steer the way to victory over any obstacles that impede the full realization of universal solidarity.

Return to the Series introduction