“Pope Francis warns us against this phony populism that appeals to the basest and most selfish instinct. He goes on to say politics is more noble than posturing, marketing and media spin. These sow nothing but division, conflict and bleak cynicism…”
President- Elect Jo Biden
A month ago in Assisi Pope Francis launched his third encyclical Fratelli Tutti. It opens by explaining the significance of the title. “With these words St. Francis of Assisi addressed his brothers and sisters and proposed to them a way of life marked by the Gospel”. The Pope is undertaking the same endeavour for today’s world .
Francis was prompted by discussions in Abu Dhabi with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, which resulted in a joint document on fraternity in February 2019. Timely? Serendipitous? At a time of global pandemic Fratelli Tutti is much more than that.
Most people would agree that 2020 is a major historic turning point. Coronavirus has exposed the failure of contemporary political practice to engage with present reality and the limitations and dangers of how we live in the world with each other (one broad definition of politics). Pope Francis’ letter is long but, compared to most Vatican documents, easy to read though it does take time to digest. Its timing, in the midst of a global crisis, may spur people who are not Catholics to read it and consider what it says.
The world’s a stage on which national leaders strut, too often little people facing big problems by creating bigger ones. By coercing or manipulating their own citizens, the worst turn politics into a vehicle for furthering their own interests, power, and wealth. The corollary to this bleak picture is the commonly expressed opinion that politicians are ‘all the same’, ‘all liars’, ‘all in it for themselves’. It’s not true. But even the word ‘politics’ has become a pejorative term. This has encouraged a fatalistic retreat into private life. Fratelli Tutti is a powerful call to hope and public action.
The Pope’s begins his letter by focusing on values, communication and relationships. Politics, he writes, “often takes forms that hinder progress towards a different world”. “Political life no longer has to do with healthy debates about long-term plans to improve people’s lives and to advance the common good, but only with slick marketing techniques primarily aimed at discrediting others”. Inspired by the great 13th. century Dominican theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, for whom the purpose of politics is the promotion of justice and the common good.
Francis’ aim is to promote the values and virtues that will create a “better kind of politics”. But the internal structure of the letter comes from a different no less venerable source, St. Augustine, the North African 4th. century bishop of Hippo, his reflections on the collapse of the Roman Empire. Augustine describes living in two worlds, what he called the Earthly City and the City of God; two different but interwoven mind-sets and milieux, with all humanity living in tension between them. Pope Francis describes how he sees these two cities today in a trenchant critique of populism and neo-liberalism and, implicitly, communism. In an encyclical that does not lend itself to headlines, the gulf he portrays between the two cities is more shocking than the openness and gentleness of his style at first suggests.
The encyclical rests on the Catholic concept of the Common Good, how to live with and for others to achieve the fulfillment of all people and ‘the whole person’. The ‘universal destination of goods’ is not a slogan for Amazon’s marketing. It’s Catholic code for saying that the ‘goods of creation’ are meant for all humanity not just the rich. In the 1992 edition of the Catholic catechism private property is to be recognized by the State for the purpose of supporting the common good. It is a secondary natural right. St. Ambrose, a 4th century bishop of Milan, put it more bluntly: "You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich”.
In Francis’ usual warm and simple style, and in contrast to the Vaticanese of early social encyclicals, Fratelli Tutti sets out a comprehensive and comprehensible account of traditional Catholic social teaching. He also develops some of its fundamental ideas. Damaging, or in Christian terms sinful, systemic economic and social structures that create injustice were discussed in synods of bishops in the 1970s. Apartheid would be a good example of such a system where individuals are not necessarily fully responsible for the suffering caused by legal, economic or social structures. But, internally, there was anxiety that ‘structural sin’ might undermine the Church’s emphasis on individual sinful acts -for which each person is responsible - and, for Catholics, acts or thoughts that required sacramental confession.
Pope Francis refuses any sharp binary division between the individual and the social as expressed in extreme forms of individualism, libertarianism, or in communism. His vision is communitarian and he emphasizes personality-in-relationship. “Each of us is fully a person when we are part of a people; at the same time, there are no peoples without respect for the individuality of each person". This enables him to talk about solidarity and, uniquely, ‘social friendship’ his terms for linking change in structures and change of heart, for example towards migrants drawing on the parable of the Good Samaritan, the alien outsider pleasing to God, and moving from a ‘culture of walls’ to ‘a culture of encounter’.
In a letter which discusses peace-making, nationalism and war, inter-religious dialogue, and the impact of technology, Francis queries whether just war theory is still applicable in the 21st.century, and re-iterates the Church’s condemnation of the death penalty. His references to eleven Bishops’ Conferences around the world reflect the reality of a global Church and the beginning of the end for the old Roman Eurocentric model. But he fails to deal adequately with gender equality. As in his second encyclical Laudato Si about responsibility for the planet, the Pope is again addressing all people who ‘share our common home’ whom he wants seen and treated as brothers and sisters. But the sisters have cause to question why not one of the nearly 300 citations in the footnotes of Fratelli Tutti is from a female authority or theologian.
Fratelli Tutti offers a powerful global vision of a moral map of the world, what life, politics and society should be like. Criticism has tended to focus on lack of practical proposals for implementing its radical teaching. Describing a political vision as utopian is usually a way of closing down the conversation. On the contrary, the reconciliation of the ideal with the real is simply the dynamic of working for justice. As we watch a global pandemic undermine a world of secular certainties, and see societies debilitated by conflicts, the Pope’s message is plainly one to which we should listen. As President-Elect Jo Biden said “Pope Francis asked questions that anyone who seeks to lead this nation should be able to answer”.
See TheArticle 19/10/2020