Scattered Thoughts on the Encyclical “Fratelli Tutti”

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Fr Giulio Albanese MCCJ

The text of the encyclical Fratelli Tutti is prophetic and of very great relevance today. From the very first lines, one can see an attentive reading of the signs of the times[1], perfectly in line with the hermeneutic method proposed by the Second Vatican Council. Pope Francis has an extraordinary ability to make the great challenges of our time intelligible in the light of the Word of God, perfectly in line with the magisterium of his predecessors.

Moreover, the Encycal Fratelli Tutti has a strong link with the programmatic Encyclical of Paul VI’s pontificate, Ecclesiam Suam. In fact, also Fratelli Tutti is open to a wide-ranging dialogue to affirm universal siblinghood. “In a pluralistic society,” writes Pope Francis, “dialogue is the best way to realize what ought always to be affirmed and respected apart from any ephemeral consensus.”[2].

It is worth noting that Pope Bergoglio’s Encyclical unveils the theology of the Kingdom of God in a subtle way, going beyond the boundaries of the ecclesial reality and affirming the values of peace, justice, sharing, solidarity, and environmental protection. While it is true that the word Kingdom as such appears only at the footnote 138, Fratelli Tutti is a theological summa on the Kingdom. But not in an abstract way! The encyclical demands from every reader a resolute assumption of responsibility, both on an individual and collective level, in the face of new trends and demands that are emerging in daily life but also on the international scene. We must therefore move from words to deeds.

The actual role of fraternity, as expressed in the text by Pope Francis, is disruptive because, as Cardinal Pietro Parolin has commented, “it is linked to new concepts that replace peace with peacemakers, development with cooperators, respect for rights with attention to the needs of every neighbour, be they person, people or community”.[3]

Very important is the emphasis that Pope Francis gives to religious leaders and different religious traditions, to promote a more fraternal world and to create a social friendship that should help us understand that we are all in the same boat. It is clear that this encyclical is an antidote against the rampant totalitarianism, the blatant sovereignism, regionalism and nationalism that are so fashionable today. It is a guideline that finds its foundation when the Pontiff writes: “I cannot reduce my life to my relationship with a small group, not even to my family, because it is impossible to understand myself without a wider web of relationships: not only the present one but also the one that preceded me and that has shaped me in the course of my life”.[4]

Pope Francis is indeed an extraordinary spiritual leader, but he is also a great politician in the noblest sense of the word, because he has at heart the Res publica of peoples, the common good of humanity. This is why this magisterial text should be read and studied by believers and non-believers alike, because it explicitly reveals God’s plan: to make humanity a whole and unique family. And this is precisely the direction that Bergoglio has given to his pontificate, an orientation that demands a decisive assumption of responsibility on the part of every Christian community. Before “going to the periphery” (a Church that goes forth to the locus par excellence of Mission) and thus being “alongside the poor”, it is necessary to understand, with heart and mind, that the evangelising mission cannot disregard fraternity. This is the fundamental requirement for living the mission according to the spirit of the Gospel.

Already in Evangelii Gaudium, the Bishop of Rome, at the beginning of his Petrine ministry, stated: “The Church’s closeness to Jesus is part of a common journey; ‘communion and mission are profoundly interconnected’. In fidelity to the example of the Master, it is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear. The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded”.[5] It should be noted that the thinking of Pope Francis is in line with that of the Italian episcopate, which already in the 1980s stated: “Mission is not the work of solo sailors: communion is the first form of mission “.[6]

It is the very etymology of the word “communion” that helps us understand the connection of this word with the evangelising mission. Communion derives from the Latin word commune; it is a word composed of the prefix cum and a derivative of munus (assignment, task, mission…) so that commune literally means “he who carries out his task together with others “.[7] From this root, a long series of terms derive (for example, common, community, communication), among which is precisely “communion”, which altogether indicate the dimension of making more subjects participate among themselves to achieve an objective which is precisely mission. It follows that the whole Church, as a “mystery of communion “[8], is sent to fulfil the Mandatum Novum entrusted to her by the Risen Lord. The fact that the whole Church is sent, means that, in virtue of the gift of the Spirit, there is no baptised person in her who can consider himself extraneous to the task of evangelising: this is the catholicity of the missionary subject and therefore the communal dimension of his or her vocation.

As a matter of fact, when we speak of communion we are instinctively inclined to think of it as a fraternity ad intra, among those who share baptism and are called together, just as the disciples of Emmaus were, to listen to the Word and to break bread in His name. Indeed, Pope Francis’ address in the Fratelli Tutti is much more extensive. Referring to the witness of St Francis, he reminded us that he “did not engage in dialectical warfare by imposing doctrines, but communicated the love of God” and “was a fruitful father who raised the dream of a fraternal society” (FT 2-4). The Encyclical goes far beyond the ecclesial dimension and aims to promote a worldwide aspiration for fraternity and social friendship.

The starting point is our common belonging to the human family, the recognition that we are brothers and sisters because we are sons and daughters of one Creator, all in the same boat and therefore in need of awareness that in a globalised and interconnected world we can only be saved together. This vision goes far beyond the ecclesial perimeter and responds to the theology of the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, if we think about it, the Kingdom of God is at the centre of missionary activity, which is inherent to the Church (without mission – we should remember – there is no Church). And although, as we read in John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris Missio, “one may not separate the kingdom from the Church. It is true that the Church is not an end unto herself, since she is ordered toward the kingdom of God of which she is the seed, sign and instrument”.[9] What does this mean? That the Kingdom is already present in the world, even outside our communities. It is manifested in the presence of Christ in human history (which is also our history!).

The Encyclical must obviously be read and re-read and represents a sort of antidote, once digested, to counter the throw away ideology  and consequently the globalisation of indifference. From this point of view, theologically and philosophically speaking, Pope Francis explicitly declares the centrality of human relations for the creation of a better world. This is evident from the sixth chapter onwards where the concept of life as the “art of encounter” with all emerges clearly, because “something can be learned from everyone and no one is useless” (FT 215). True dialogue, in fact, is that which allows us to respect the other’s point of view, their legitimate interests and, above all, the truth of human dignity. Relativism, however, is not a solution – the encyclical also states – because without universal principles and moral norms that prohibit intrinsic evil, laws become merely arbitrary impositions (FT 206). In this perspective, a special role is played by the media which, without exploiting human weaknesses or bringing out the worst in us, must be oriented towards a generous encounter and closeness to the least, promoting proximity and a sense of the human family (FT 205). It is evident that the stakes are high: it is a question of developing an inner relaity capable of caring for others. “Saint Paul – we read in the Encyclical – describes kindness as a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22). He uses the Greek word chrestótes, which describes an attitude that is gentle, pleasant and supportive, not rude or coarse. Individuals who possess this quality help make other people’s lives more bearable, especially by sharing the weight of their problems, needs and fears. This way of treating others can take different forms: an act of kindness, a concern not to offend by word or deed, a readiness to alleviate their burdens” (EG 223). It is worth recalling what Aristotle said in no uncertain terms: “If any traveller decides to enter a city thinking he can do without others, he is either a beast or God”. And about God, in his conception, he declared “Perhaps God is not happy because he is monakos “5. Because he is alone. Aristotle evidently lacked Trinitarian theology!

It is in this perspective, truly open to encounter, going so to speak beyond prejudice, that it is necessary to read Fratelli Tutti. The inspiration for the Encyclical – we should remember – was the Document on Human Brotherhood signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar in February 2019. In this regard, Bergoglio writes: “The different religions, based on their respect for each human person as a creature called to be a child of God, contribute significantly to building fraternity and defending justice in society” (FT 271).

Fraternity is to be promoted not only in words, but in deeds. Facts that take concrete form in the brand of politics that is needed (FT 177), the politics that oppose corruption, inefficiency, the misuse of power, and the lack of respect for the rule of law. It is about policies centred on the dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God and not subject to finance because “the market alone does not solve everything” and the “massacres” caused by financial speculation have demonstrated this (FT 168). Policies that, far from populism or sovereignty, know how to find solutions to what violates fundamental human rights and aim to definitively eliminate all forms of social exclusion: starvation, pandemics, not to mention the despicable trade in human beings. Hence the Pontiff’s condemnation of war as a denial of all rights (FT 257) and no longer thinkable even in a hypothetical “just” form (FT 258), because nuclear, chemical and biological weapons now have enormous repercussions on innocent civilians.

There is also a strong rejection of the death penalty, defined as “inadmissible” (FT 263), and a central call to forgiveness, connected to the concept of memory and justice: forgiveness does not mean forgetting, writes the Pontiff, nor does it mean renouncing the defence of one’s rights in order to safeguard one’s dignity, which is a gift from God. Rather, it means renouncing the destructive force of evil and the desire for revenge. Never forget “horrors” such as the Shoah, the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, persecutions and ethnic massacres, urges the Pope.

Those horrors must always be remembered, again, so as not to numb ourselves and to keep the flame of the collective conscience alive. It is equally important to remember the good, those who have chosen forgiveness and fraternity (FT 2246-252). At the same time, Pope Francis stresses that a more just world is achieved by promoting peace, which is not only the absence of war, but a true “craftsmanship ” (FT 217) that involves everyone. Precisely for these reasons, Bergoglio censures all forms of aggression, including verbal or journalistic aggression (cf. FT 44-46), in the Christian certainty that we must look at others as brothers and sisters in order to save the world! This is a truth that every Christian, regardless of whether he is a bishop, priest, deacon or lay person, must always have in mind!

This is a broader horizon than the one we have in mind when we speak of Christianity! It should be noted that in the background of the Encyclical there is the Covid-19 pandemic which –  Pope Francis says – unexpectedly erupted just as he was writing this letter. But the global health emergency served to demonstrate that not only no one is saved alone, but above all that the time has really come to dream as one humanity in which we are all siblings (FT 7-8). An ancient Middle Eastern story tells of a traveller who encountered a monster in the desert. At first, the poor fellow was afraid, but when he got a closer look at it, he realised that it was a man. After a while he got a better look at it and discovered that it was not as ugly as he had thought after all. Finally, when he looked into his eyes, he recognised his brother.


[1]     FT 9-55

[2]     FT 211

[3]     https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/secretariat_state/parolin/2020/documents/rc_seg-st_20201004_parolin-enciclica_it.html

[4]     FT 89

[5]     EG 23

[6]     Cei, Comunione e comunità missionaria, 1986, 15.

[7]     Cfr. Gregorio Arena, Cittadini attivi, Editori Laterza, Bari 2006, pag. 88

[8]     Cfr. Lettera ai Vescovi della Chiesa Cattolica su alcuni aspetti della Chiesa intesa come Comunione, Congregazione  per la Dottrina della Fede, Maggio 1992 https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_28051992_communionis-notio_it.html

[9]     RM 18

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