Pope Francis has delivered a message to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and people of goodwill everywhere which aims to soothe the fear caused by the coronavirus pandemic and unite communities riven by racism, inequality and climate change.
Fratelli Tutti (All Brothers) was signed on October 3 in Assisi, central Italy. It is the third encyclical since Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio took the name Francis on his election to the papacy in March 2013. He has always wanted to make it clear that his papacy is one of action – placing the needs of the poor, marginalised and disenfranchised at the centre of his ministry.
As a community of believers, Catholics are expected by Pope Francis to mobilise and become agents for change in the world. This action was to be based upon the canon of Catholic social teaching that had built up since the late 19th century and was, until recently, known as the church’s “best kept secret”.
Francis was going to make sure that Catholics put that teaching into action by providing a road map for change – and, in doing so, invited all people of goodwill to join him. While Laudato Si’ (Praise to You, 2015) implored the world to “care for its common home”, Fratelli Tutti offers teaching devoted to the concepts of fraternity and social friendship based upon the example of St Francis of Assisi who “wherever he went … sowed the seeds of peace and walked alongside the poor, the abandoned, the infirm and the outcast, the least of his brothers and sisters”.
It is inevitable that this encyclical will be known as the COVID-19 encyclical – and Francis himself acknowledges in paragraph 7 that this 45,000 word tome was written during the first wave of the pandemic. But he sees the questions regarding the purpose and meaning of life that many asked during the lockdowns as an opportunity to reset a pattern of catastrophic systemic failures that has created an unequal and polarised world. As he states in paragraph 33:
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.
The pandemic has taught people and society that “no one is saved alone; we can only be saved together”. The coronavirus has presented the world with an opportunity for real systemic change – Francis suggests that to believe we can carry on as before is “denying reality”.
Through Fratelli Tutti, Francis offers a new vision of society in which human dignity and the human rights of all are respected. He believes that actions based on the common good – the concept that everyone should be able to contribute meaningfully to society – must form the bedrock of politics and that people must acknowledge and respect everyone as their equal. Further that social and economic policy must be based on long-term planning rather than short-term populist soundbites.
Francis addresses this invitation to all people of goodwill – not just Catholics. But he takes pains to point out such a transformation will not be easy. Rather, it will be a process without an endpoint, something to be continually worked at, an action rather than a goal. Fratelli Tutti is an encyclical which above all teaches that complacency is the enemy of a peaceful and just society.
But in order to engage in action, the problem must be diagnosed so that people know where to direct their energies. There can be no doubt from the first chapter, “Dark clouds over a closed world”, that Francis understands the complexity of the crisis facing the world.
As well as the existential crisis that has led to the disintegration of communities and social relationships, he paints a grim picture of a world undergoing what he calls a “third world war fought piecemeal” which – along with hunger and human trafficking – presents a sustained attack on the dignity of the human person.
He also understands the need for nuance and contextualisation in creating a new vision for humanity. So for example, there are oblique references to Brexit, the populist politics that have led to “hyperbole, extremism and polarisation becoming political tools”. He also observes the resurgence of racism, and the disintegration of intergenerational relationships - all of which demonstrate the innate individualism, lack of empathy and aggressive nationalism which lies at the heart of the global crisis.
The solution to this crisis “demands a decisive commitment” from individuals and from politicians and religious leaders in particular. Politicians need to reorientate their mindset away from individualism towards a commitment to the common good and what the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has termed “social love”. This is, he notes, “a force capable of inspiring new ways of approaching the problems of today’s world, of profoundly renewing structures, social organisations and legal systems from within”.
Politics needs to become a vocation of service, charity and generosity rather than a means to exercise power. Religious leaders need to engage in dialogue with one another in order to “reawaken the spiritual energy that can contribute to the betterment of society”, and to prevent the distortion of religious beliefs that lead to violence.
Ultimately, this is an encyclical which teaches that we are dependent upon one another to thrive and reach our full potential as human beings. As Francis puts it “if only we might rediscover once and for all that we need one another, and that in this way our human family can experience a rebirth; with all its faces, all its hands and all its voices, beyond the walls we have erected.”