Journalists attend a press conference for the release of Pope Francis’ new encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship,” in the synod hall at the Vatican Oct. 4. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Fratelli Tutti: A vision of unity and dignity for all

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  • October 8, 2020

In an encyclical that might be characterized as ripped from the headlines, Pope Francis speaks some hard truths to Canadians, to Catholics and to the world.

In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis addresses COVID-19, the migration crisis, the environmental crisis, our degraded, polarized politics, an economic system that profits from more poverty and fewer jobs and global, digitized media steamrolling over local cultures, languages and Indigenous people. The Pope reads the headlines and sees moral decay. He reads the Gospel and wishes it were alive in the hearts and minds of people.

That focus on the headlines is not new to encyclicals, said St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta associate dean Indré Cuplinskas.

“They (encyclicals) are always speaking to a moment in time. That’s what they do,” Cuplinskas said. “These aren’t things that are hovering up above history.”

The first social encyclical in 1891 took up the crisis of an oppressed and exploited working class in our newly urbanized and industrialized world. Rerum Novarum became a template for future popes seeking to teach in the context of their times, said Cuplinskas. In 1931 Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno responded to the rise of antidemocratic politics in Europe and in 1991 Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus took on the twin legacies of capitalism and communism after the Berlin Wall fell.

Pope Francis proposes a single, common starting point for unravelling our current problems. “Isolation and withdrawal into one’s own interests are never the way to restore hope and bring about renewal. Rather, it is closeness; it is the culture of encounter. Isolation, no; closeness, yes. Culture clash, no; culture of encounter, yes,” the Pope insists.

Cuplinskas points out that Pope Francis doesn’t just say this. He does it. The encyclical is inspired by the Pope’s own encounter with Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb of al-Azhar University in Cairo. It’s an example of dialogue across the boundaries of culture and faith and in the context of a complex, often tragic history.

“It’s not an abstract text. He’s modelling dialogue,” Cuplinskas said.

The Pope’s love of dialogue is perhaps matched by his hatred for ideologies — all ideologies, from libertarian liberalism to state-run communism.

“Often, as we carry on our semantic or ideological disputes, we allow our brothers and sisters to die of hunger and thirst, without shelter or access to health care,” writes the Pope.

The Pope’s insight into the sickness of ideologies accords with common sense and common experience, said Cuplinskas.

“We all experience that. We’re never really convinced by someone who is shouting at us,” she said. “So it’s all about encounter…. You shift out of ideologies when you, as he says, look at another human being and say ‘Yeah, you are fully human, let’s talk.’ ”

A clear recognition of our common humanity makes Fratelli Tutti both inspiring and challenging, said Sr. Sarah Rudolph of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, better known as the Loretto Sisters.

“When we read this, we can recognize that it affirms our own dignity and the inviolable rights we all have. This is based on our creation in the image and likeness of God. We can take it to heart,” Rudolph said.

As a former federal government policy analyst, Rudolph recognizes the down-toearth practicality of Francis’ insistence upon dialogue.

“We have to actually be thinking about what Francis is talking about. How do we make sure that nobody is excluded from the way forward?” she asked. “If we’re going to be talking about rebuilding our economies, our social networks (post COVID-19), then we have to make sure that the most vulnerable are part of these conversations — that solutions are provided for them.”

If the Church is going to act on the Pope’s call for encounter, it will have to shift its focus outward, Rudolph said.

“We want to be a Church that serves and leaves home and goes forth from its places of worship, goes forth from its sacristies, in order to accompany life, to sustain hope, to be a sign of unity,” she said. “So that really is a challenge to the Church, that we cannot stay behind the walls of our churches, the literal walls of our parishes. We have to go out into the world to encounter those whom we meet there. It is a challenging message for many Catholics, and for myself. It’s a challenge for everyone.”

Global Catholic Climate Change Canada co-ordinator Agnes Richard immediately thought of a practical challenge to the Church in Canada as she read the encyclical.

“Development and Peace has been doing the work that is called for in this encyclical for 50 years,” she said. “And they deserve more support than they’ve seen of late.”

But Richard also came away thinking the Pope had given himself and Church leadership at the Vatican a challenge.

“(Fratelli Tutti ) addresses the marginalized, the poor, whoever is victimized by social elites, by power, by business. The stronger those paragraphs became, the more I felt, ‘OK Vatican, Pope Francis and leaders of the Church, if you are serious about those critiques you had better be ready now for a frank and transformational discussion about the role of women in the Church,’ ” she said. “Otherwise, they are telling the world to do what they’re told, but not to follow their example.”

Mount Royal University religious studies professor Jacqueline Ho also saw that Fratelli Tutti sets itself up for a much deeper and more detailed discussion of women’s contributions to the world.

“A deeper elaboration of women’s issues would add to Pope Francis’ call for continued reflection,” Ho told The Catholic Register in an e-mail. “While Fratelli Tutti briefly discusses the subjugation of women in regards to issues of forced abortion, an elaboration of political issues regarding the oppression of women would be an enhancement of the encyclical.”

As a non-Catholic whose students are very often either formerly or indifferently Catholic, Ho read the encyclical thinking of its potential to revitalize and reframe Catholic faith for a younger generation.

“By opening up these conversations, it could inspire a lot of people to look at the Catholic Church in a different light, to revisit their faith,” Ho said.

She looks forward to assigning the encyclical to her students. In her own reading of the 92-page document, Ho was delighted by the Pope’s openness to religious experience outside his own tradition.

“This encyclical is meant to be, as he says, an open conversation,” said Ho. “He’s just opening up that conversation and he invites people to consider the idea of universal love.”

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