The Encyclical Letter Fratelli tutti is about love and attention – the kind of attention that brings a broken and bleeding world back to health. It is a social meditation on the Good Samaritan, who recognises love and attention as the preeminent law, and models for us creative social friendship.
Pope Francis asks us to gaze at the world similarly, such that we come to see the basic, indispensable relation of all things and people, near and far. In its simplicity of call, Fratelli tutti is a devastating challenge to our ecological, political, economic and social life. But above all it is a proclamation of an ineradicable, joyful truth, presented here as a well-spring for a fatigued world.
This letter is not a coolly detached critique. Its spiritual discipline sees the humanising task this way: to be truly human is to be willing to look at the world in its beauty and its pain, to listen deeply through human encounters to the griefs and the joys of one’s age and to take these into oneself, to carry them as one’s own.
The notion that all created life shares its origin in God the Father, and that in Christ we become sisters and brothers, bonded in dignity, care, and friendship, is one of the oldest social teachings of Christianity. The names at the heart of this letter are those of the scriptures: we are brothers, sisters, neighbours, friends. The early Christians shaped their views of money, community, and politics based on this vision. That a theme so ancient is spoken with such urgency now is because Pope Francis fears a detachment from the view that we are all really responsible for all, all related to all, all entitled to a just share of what has been given for the good of all. It is not a mockable fantasy to believe this. He writes with grief about the cultural cynicism and impoverishment limiting our social imaginations. It is not absurd to acknowledge kinship beyond borders, to crave cultures where social bonds are respected and encounter and dialogue are practiced.
Fratelli tutti makes clear that universal fraternity and social friendship must be practised together. Failure to do this abounds. Globalisation proclaims universal values but fails to practice encounter and attention – especially, to difference and the most vulnerable. Digital communications trade on our hunger for connection but distort it, producing a febrile bondedness built on binaries of likes and dislikes, and commodified by powerful interests. Populism appeals to the desire for stability, rootedness, and rewarding work, but lets hostility distort these desires. Liberalism imagines freedom in terms of the self-interested individual and discounts our deeply inter-connected lives. We forget what enables societies to endure and renew. These are our false materialisms.
This letter has its roots in a specific interfaith encounter. It is unashamed about its religious character and call. A transcendent truth is not a burden, but a gift securing the roots of our action. It can reduce the anxiety we feel about taking risks together for the transformation of our world. Faith is our wellspring. It is part of how we can name and move beyond the grieving indifference of our age.
For this reason, the encyclical is clear about the weight of responsibility borne by religious communities. Religious groups are caught up in the digital and market cultures that harm us. Inexcusably, religious leaders have been slow to condemn unjust practices, past and present. Religion too stands in need of repentance and renewal. Fratelli tutti exhorts religions to be models of dialogue, brokers of peace, and bearers of the message of transcendent love to a hungry, cynical and uprooted world.
Echoing the Abu Dhabi statement, the encyclical restates the absolute dignity of the human person, over which no political preference, no ‘law’ of the market can take precedence. Here Pope Francis highlights the treatment of migrants. He notes the biblical commands to welcome the stranger, the benefits that come with encounters between cultures, and the invitation to sheer gratuitous love. But he also extends earlier social teaching on the universal destination of goods, making clear that nations are entitled to their land, wealth and property insofar as this enables all humankind to access the means for survival and fulfilment. A nation bears obligations to the whole human family and not merely towards its own citizens. Dignity, solidarity, and the universal destination of material goods are the hallmarks of this teaching.Pope Francis warns against closed forms of populism, but he upholds the importance of seeing ourselves as ‘a people’. Following St Augustine, he reminds us that to become ‘a people’ is based on encountering each other in dialogue, face to face and side by side. Together we negotiate the enduring common loves we wish to live by. This is a dynamic unfinished process of social peace building, one that is the fruit of a genuine search for, and exchange of, truths. A culture is only healthy to the extent that it remains open to others. This renewal of political cultures happens only with, not for the most marginalised. The role of grassroots movements is key to this participation.
The naming of God as our kin, and ourselves as kin and kind in this image, is love-language. There are other ways of naming God. But the message Pope Francis wishes us to hear for this moment is that we are made fully human by what draws us beyond ourselves. What makes this possible is a divine love, open to all, that births, bonds, bridges and endlessly renews. This love cannot be erased or disposed of, and it is the basis of Pope Francis’s call to us with St Francis’s words of loving attention: ‘Fratelli tutti’…