Over the last several days, Catholic social media has been abuzz with talk about Fratelli Tutti (“Brothers All” or “Brothers and Sisters All” in English), Pope Francis’s upcoming encyclical on human fraternity. Naturally, much of the speculation about its contents has centered on the pope’s recent series of audiences, under the theme To Heal The World, which began when he resumed his weekly audiences on August 5 of this year. Of course the word “fraternity” in the context of this papacy also brings to mind A Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, which Francis jointly signed with Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, in Abu Dhabi in February of last year.
Robert Mickens wrote a very nice roundup of the recent Wednesday audience series for La Croix, billing it as “A sneak preview” of the new encyclical. Over at The Tablet, Christopher Lamb provides some vital context on how the new encyclical is Francis’s vision for the post-Covid world. He reports that, “The encyclical, the highest form of papal writing, is likely to cover a broad canvas of issues such as war, globalisation, populism and economics. At a time of growing polarisation in politics, the document could well examine how to tackle fragmentation and inequality.”
For some insights into the Document of Human Fraternity, Adam Rasmussen provided his own analysis in a WPI essay shortly after its release. He wrote, “it takes Christians’ and Muslims’ shared belief in the one true God and Creator as a starting-point for a shared effort to promote a culture of dialogue, mutual understanding, social justice, human rights, and peace.” Adam also draws the observation that “along with social ills such as war, religious extremism, and poverty, the pope and grand imam warn the world about the deleterious effect of individualism and materialism on human happiness.”
While it’s clear that much of what Pope Francis has taught over the past seven years speaks to the broader message of fraternity, and we are certain to see an emphasis of many themes that also appeared in past documents—including Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si’, and Christus Vivit, as both Mickens and Lamb point out—Pope Francis has spent much of the past few months in prayerful reflection and thought about what the world can—and could—be like after this pandemic. He’s brought up several times, for example, how the pandemic has exposed the depths of the crisis of inequality and the widespread neglect of human dignity that persists around the world.
My small contribution to this pre-encyclical discussion is to bring attention to another document, from much earlier in this papacy, that perhaps might shed even greater light on Francis’s thought about the subject of human fraternity. It is his message for the 2014 World Day of Peace—the first World Day of Peace of his papacy—entitled, “Fraternity, the Foundation and Pathway to Peace.”
In many ways, this message is a remarkable preview of the papacy that would unfold in the years to come. Prior to the Synods on the Family and Amoris Laetitia, he emphasizes the crucial role of the family for the health of society. More than a year before he released Laudato Si’, he reminds us about our interconnectedness and our responsibility towards the earth and its resources. His 2014 message touches on the need for young people to have hope for the future, healthy ambition, and a sense of purpose, themes that he would later explore in Christus Vivit. Likewise, he calls for us “to accept the legitimate differences typical of brothers and sisters”—a priority that was central to the Synod on the Amazon, and to which many Catholics, sadly, responded with hostility.
In this address—released on December 8, 2013, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception—Francis draws upon two scriptural sources to illustrate the challenge and necessity of fraternity. The first, “Where is your brother?” (Gen 4:9), is God’s question to Cain after Cain murders his brother, Abel. The second, “And you will all be brothers” (Mt 23:8), is Christ’s reminder that because we all have the same Father, we are all brothers and sisters.
As we have learned from his subsequent writings and teachings, the familial relationship is the key to Francis’s understanding of the bonds between all people. In this message, he speaks about the role of individual families in forming an understanding of our interconnectedness with all people. He asks us to “remember that fraternity is generally first learned in the family, thanks above all to the responsible and complementary roles of each of its members, particularly the father and the mother. The family is the wellspring of all fraternity, and as such it is the foundation and the first pathway to peace, since, by its vocation, it is meant to spread its love to the world around it.”
For the wider human family, it is the Cross that makes fraternity among all people possible. He writes, “The Cross is the definitive foundational locus of that fraternity which human beings are not capable of generating themselves.” He explains,
“Jesus’ death on the Cross also brings an end to the separation between peoples, between the people of the Covenant and the people of the Gentiles, who were bereft of hope until that moment, since they were not party to the pacts of the Promise. As we read in the Letter to the Ephesians, Jesus Christ is the one who reconciles all people in himself.”
These times present a great opportunity, but it is up to us to decide how we will move forward. Reminding us of the words of his predecessor, Francis points out, “Globalization … makes us neighbours, but does not make us brothers.” He continues:
“The many situations of inequality, poverty and injustice, are signs not only of a profound lack of fraternity, but also of the absence of a culture of solidarity. New ideologies, characterized by rampant individualism, egocentrism and materialistic consumerism, weaken social bonds, fuelling that ‘throw away’ mentality which leads to contempt for, and the abandonment of, the weakest and those considered ‘useless’. In this way human coexistence increasingly tends to resemble a mere do ut des which is both pragmatic and selfish.”
The message touches on many other issues: economic inequality, exploitation of people and human trafficking, the preferential option for the poor, war, drug abuse, crimes against human dignity, the throw-away culture. Cultivating strong bonds of fraternity among all people is necessary to truly build a just and peaceful society. I am certain that in this new encyclical, Francis will explore many of these topics in greater depth. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb when I predict that there will be tremendous beauty, unique insights, and a great deal of wisdom to be gleaned. As Robert Mickens wrote in his sneak preview, “Expect the next encyclical to take the Church social teaching to a whole new level.”
This 2014 World Day of Peace message—delivered less than a year into Francis’s papacy— demonstrates how the subject of fraternity weaves together many threads of the Holy Father’s vision. That said, the last seven years have been hard on many of us. Many of our structures have become unstable, our society has become more polarized, and the Church is being forced to answer, yet again, for the horror of clergy sexual abuse. Francis himself has taken a relentless beating from critics. There is one passage, however, that may prove to be the key to what Francis believes we will need if we are to have a post-pandemic world that is better than the one we lived in before. In this passage he asks us, of course, to re-think our lifestyles and economic models. But even more fundamentally, we must cultivate virtue.
Today’s crisis, even with its serious implications for people’s lives, can also provide us with a fruitful opportunity to rediscover the virtues of prudence, temperance, justice and strength. These virtues can help us to overcome difficult moments and to recover the fraternal bonds which join us one to another, with deep confidence that human beings need and are capable of something greater than maximizing their individual interest. Above all, these virtues are necessary for building and preserving a society in accord with human dignity.
The pope isn’t a fortune-teller, and he can’t magically make our problems go away. Pope Francis is an old man, but one with a great responsibility he has received directly from God. He has been entrusted with the keys of the kingdom to teach us and to guide us. And in this encyclical, aided by our prayers and the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit, Pope Francis will present us with guidance that can help us create a society built on fraternity and solidarity. But it will be up to us and the rest of the human family, to decide to build that society.
[The entire message from 2014: “Fraternity, the Foundation and Pathway to Peace.”]
Image: By Bradley Weber – https://www.flickr.com/photos/41294655@N00/40410102674/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73964980
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.