I am a busy husband and dad with a demanding job, so reading a lengthy papal document is not the easiest thing to take the time to do, nor is it typically high on my list of things to do. That said, over the last week I read Pope Francis’s latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, on human relationships, and I am glad that I did.
While there is certainly no obligation for Catholics to hang on every word the pope writes, there is a special teaching value in Pope Francis’s writings. Francis has an ability to address head-on what is important, worrying, and keeps people up at night—not only in the Vatican, but all around the world.
And what is important to Pope Francis seems to be what is important to me right now. The last seven months of the COVID-19 pandemic have been traumatic for people around the world. For many of us, this has been a time of uncertainty, disappointment, Zoom meetings, degrading political discourse, and social media rants. In the jarring words of Pope Francis,
“We fed ourselves on dreams of splendour and grandeur, and ended up consuming distraction, insularity and solitude. We gorged ourselves on networking, and lost the taste of fraternity. We looked for quick and safe results, only to find ourselves overwhelmed by impatience and anxiety. Prisoners of a virtual reality, we lost the taste and flavour of the truly real” (FT 33).
He is clearly tuned in to this world-wide anxiety, but rather than wallow in misery, Pope Francis invites us to press ahead and “take a step forward toward a new style of life.” (FT 35) Fratelli Tutti is a deep and meaningful document, but if you are busy, suspicious of Pope Francis, or not sure it is worth reading, I have some advice.
Do Not Be Intimidated
Fratelli Tutti is long, with approximately 43,000 words. But it is only long in the sense that you should not expect to sit down, read it all at once, and instantly understand what Pope Francis is trying to convey. Its length is by no means insurmountable. By way of comparison, C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is 38,000 words. Fratelli Tutti is only intimidatingly long if you approach it as a blog post or essay from the Vatican. Instead, try to understand it as a short book on weighty subjects. Take your time reading and contemplating it. Even if it takes you a week, a month, or longer to read it carefully, that would certainly be more fruitful than trying to read it as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, the Vatican’s lack of technological savvy does not make it easy to read Fratelli Tutti. The document is available online here. But given its length, it is not ideal to read the document in its entirety by scrolling through the Vatican’s (strangely dated) website on your phone or computer. Of course, you could print it, and I have done that for previous encyclicals, but that requires a ton of paper and ink. The paperback version of Fratelli Tutti is listed on Amazon, but it is on pre-order and has not yet been released. There are some e-book versions on Amazon, but none are free and it is not clear if the available versions are official copies or opportunists selling what is available at no cost online.
Given the limited reading options and sketchy e-book situation, I just saved a PDF version of the encyclical and read it digitally. That allowed me to highlight interesting points and bookmark where I left off. I also didn’t run out of printer paper. If this is unfeasible for you, I would recommend just waiting until an official printed copy is available.
Read it First Before Listening to “Catholic Celebrities”
Back in 2016, I was concerned about Pope Francis. At the time, I was reading and listening to a lot of Catholic media and there was constant hand-wringing in advance of Pope Francis’s forthcoming apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. Catholic media personalities whom I respected and followed for years predicted this new document was going to be a calamity, so I too was preparing for the worst. For the first time since taking my faith seriously, I was doubting the motives of the pope.
I was so concerned about this that as soon as the Vatican released Amoris Laetitia, I read it. It was long—even longer than Fratelli Tutti at almost 60,000 words—but I read it carefully. I fully expected my worst fears to be confirmed. But they were not confirmed. Instead, I discovered a thoughtful and practical exploration of the challenges facing families in the modern world.
Nevertheless, many Catholic celebrities continued to attack Amoris Laetitia and Pope Francis in ways that were both uncharitable and, honestly, cast doubt on whether they had even read or understood the document. In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis notes that often political discourse “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” (FT 15). Unfortunately, this culture of ridicule and constant confrontation has infected some previously level-headed Catholic commentators when it comes to anything involving Pope Francis.
I recommend tuning out the noise and reading Fratelli Tutti to see what it means to you before digging into what Catholic celebrities say it means. While, like any papal writing, there may be elements that emphasize aspects of the faith that don’t resonate with you, there are so many profound insights in Fratteli Tutti that not reading for yourself it would be a huge missed opportunity. Don’t allow the Catholic celebrities who have made careers out of nitpicking Pope Francis do your thinking for you.
Investigate the Footnotes and Dialogue Heroically
Overall, Fratelli Tutti is not hard to read and understand. Compared to previous encyclicals, it is also beautifully written. But there will likely be points where you encounter concepts that are unfamiliar to you, or some with which you do not agree. I know from personal experience that the Church in the United States is great at teaching some aspects of the faith, but for most of us it is easy to completely miss out entire aspects of Catholic thought. It is essential for adult Catholics to continue our education in the faith, particularly in the realm of Catholic social teaching. Our catechesis cannot end at Confirmation.
It is vital that we understand Pope Francis is his own intuitive person. Where encyclicals of Pope John Paul II often were grounded in philosophy and those of Benedict XVI on the Bible, Pope Francis tends begin from personal observation and human encounter. I find that it helps when reading Pope Francis to turn to earlier sources of Church teaching to get a fuller picture of some of the concepts that he explores.
Fortunately, the footnotes of Fratelli Tutti provide a valuable reading list. Interested in the document’s economic discussion? Check out Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate, where the pope emeritus also writes on the subjects of fraternity and economic development. Want to learn more about Catholic teaching on the death penalty? Check out the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Pope Francis even cites his own surprisingly compelling TED Talk from 2017, Why the Only Future Worth Building Includes Everyone, which is worth watching to get a sense of his personal connection to the message of Fratelli Tutti—his conviction that the benefits of society must be made available to all people.
I have found that usually when Pope Francis says or writes something that I do not readily agree with, it is worth my time to do some research and further reading to see where he is coming from. I would go as far as to suggest that Pope Francis does not want us to blindly accept what he proposes just because he is the pope. Rather, Pope Francis want us to engage in heroic dialogue with others whose ideas challenge us. In his own words:
“Lack of dialogue means . . . people are concerned not for the common good, but for the benefits of power or, at best, for ways to impose their own ideas. Round tables thus become mere negotiating sessions, in which individuals attempt to seize every possible advantage, rather than cooperating in the pursuit of the common good. The heroes of the future will be those who can break with this unhealthy mindset and determine respectfully to promote truthfulness, aside from personal interest. God willing, such heroes are quietly emerging, even now, in the midst of our society” (FT 202).
Fratelli Tutti is the pope’s response to the many crises we face in a globalized society. Does Pope Francis have an easy solution for civilizing political discourses, fixing the world economy, and ending war? Nope. But you must admire his audacity for trying. In a world full of cynical pragmatists, Pope Francis stands out as an idealistic rebel. While it is doubtful that anyone will agree with every single point that he makes in Fratelli Tutti the problems that Pope Francis identifies are undoubtably real. As a busy Catholic, it is worth taking the time to carefully read Fratelli Tutti to expand your spiritual horizon and prayerfully hope for a better world and future.