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Fratelli Tutti, New Encyclical of Pope Francis

St. Francis of Assisi
by Fritz Eichenberg

“FRATELLI TUTTI With these words, Saint Francis of Assisi addressed his brothers and sisters and proposed to them a way of life marked by the flavor of the Gospel.”

Thus begins the third encyclical of Pope Francis, with words that could change all of our lives if we take them to heart.  Pope Francis teaches us in this new encyclical how St. Francis, following Jesus, “sowed the seeds of peace and walked alongside the poor, the infirm and the outcast, the least of his brothers and sisters.”  It is fitting that he begins with St. Francis of Assisi in this encyclical which proposes a new social order with the poor at the center and an end to justifications for war and the death penalty.

Reading this encyclical (like reading the Gospels) is very different from reading the arguments and disagreements over doctrine one finds in much of the Catholic press and the Internet today.  Our Holy Father makes this  distinction in #4 of the encyclical where he describes the approach of the revered saint of Assisi: “Francis did not wage a war of words aimed at imposing doctrines; he simply spread the love of God.”

Each time at Casa Juan Diego when we read a new encyclical we are reminded of one of Peter Maurin’s goals – to “make the encyclicals click.” He knew that these papal writings were not only magisterial teachings, but treasures. He also knew that few people read them in their entirety.

Early in Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis describes the peacemaking visit of St. Francis of Assisi to the Sultan in Egypt, Malik-el-Kamil, during the Crusades. St. Francis went unarmed to visit  one who was considered an enemy of Christians at that time of violence and hostility. The recounting of the story of St. Francis and the Sultan leads in the text to Pope Francis’ own meetings with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb and their mutual commitment to interreligious dialogue. This dialogue and a culture of encounter in human fraternity and social friendship is one of the themes of the encyclical.

The background for the message of the encyclical is the crushing, difficult, reality of our world today, described in its starkness in the section called “Dark Clouds Over a Closed World.”   The dark clouds include shattered dreams and injustices, the shortcomings of so-called “progress,” globalization which excludes  so many, and conflict and fear in the world today.

As the Pope was writing this encyclical the pandemic hit. This not only slowed down his writing, but enabled him to include the perspective of the devastating effects of the Coronavirus in the document. He notes that COVID-19 worsened the economic, social, and political crises he was already writing about at that time and encouraged him to advocate a new approach.

“As I was writing this letter, the Covid-19 pandemic unexpectedly erupted, exposing our false securities. Aside from the different ways that various countries responded to the crisis, their inability to work together became quite evident. For all our hyper-connectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all. Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.”

The Good Samaritan
by Angel Valdez

The positive vision for more just social and economic policies presented in Fratelli Tutti is framed in a profound and challenging reflection in Chapter 2 on the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story of the man assaulted by thieves and left lying wounded on the roadside. In the parable told by Jesus, some who held respected positions, even religious leaders, passed by the injured man and offered no help. Only the Samaritan, a stranger from a group that was despised in that culture, stopped to care for him.

Pope Francis unpacks this well-known story from the Gospel (Luke 10) for each of us on a personal level, but also brings it as a critique of prevailing socioeconomic systems. He asks with which of the characters in the story do we identify, in daily encounters, but also with our social, political and economic systems which so often leave people wounded and lying on the side of the road. He reminds us that all of us are, or have been, like each of the several characters in the parable. “All of us have in ourselves something of the wounded man, something of the robber, something of the passers-by, and something of the Good Samaritan.”

Pope Francis points out that not only does the Good Samaritan help the man who has been robbed, he involves others in the community as well, notably at the nearby inn that could provide the help that he was personally unable to offer. He reminds us that those who reflect on the parable and try to follow its teaching can also seek others in the community to assist in lifting the great numbers of the marginalized who have been robbed of opportunities and left on the roadside. And the parable helps us to evaluate systems: “Sooner or later, we will all encounter a person who is suffering. Today there are more and more of them. The decision to include or exclude those lying wounded along the roadside can serve as a criterion for judging every economic, political, social and religious project.”

Will We Pursue the Thieves?

The Good Samaritan is a story of transcending boundaries of cultures and nationalities. It is a reflection on the possibility that the strangers among us may be the ones who rescue and succor those who have been robbed, who may bring their sense of responsibility and solidarity to a society where these have been abandoned. Francis comments: “We have seen, descending on our world, the dark shadows of neglect and violence in the service of petty interests of power, gain and division. The real question is this: will we abandon the injured man and run to take refuge from the violence, or will we pursue the thieves? Will the wounded man end up being the justification for our irreconcilable divisions, our cruel indifference?”

Francis applies the parable especially to migrants and refugees who are abandoned, but also those to those he calls existential foreigners and hidden exiles, “every brother or sister in need who, even though born in the same country,” has been abandoned and ignored.

Alternative To Trickle-Down Economics and War

We need the vision of hope that the Holy Father outlines in the latter part of the writing.  He makes us aware that while some economic policies have created what is called growth, the neoliberal theories of the marketplace invoked as magic to cure all ills, along with consumerist individualism, have instead led to great injustices and the marginalization of many people.

Some may dismiss the vision inspired by St. Francis of Assisi as otherworldly and impractical. Those who are bent on power and individualism seem unable to believe that the message of St. Francis (and the message of the Gospel) can address problems today.  Critics may not be aware that St. Francis, in his simple and direct way of living and preaching the Gospel, transformed the world and culture of his time without firing a shot.

It is no wonder that George Weigel, noted advocate of neoliberal economics and the magic thinking rejected by Pope Francis, does not accept either St. Francis of Assisi or Dorothy Day as part of the mainstream of the Church. These beloved saints asked us to live “a way of life marked by the flavor of the Gospel,” quite different from rugged individualism.

n his 1987 book Tranquillitas Ordinis, and in his later book, Freedom and its Discontents, Weigel accuses Dorothy Day of being sectarian, of abandoning the Catholic heritage. He places her with St. Francis of Assisi in “breaking with the mainstream tradition of American Catholicism and its view of the American experiment.” He presents Dorothy and St. Francis as having a dissenting opinion.

Weigel and others who follow his economics and politics, including those teaching in business departments of Catholic universities, seem to be more comfortable with Adam Smith, father of capitalism without restrictions, who was certainly not at the center of the Catholic tradition.

by Daniel Erlander

Pope Francis asks us not to be so discouraged by all the crises and the divisions and conflicts that we face that we fall into glum resignation. He asks us to build together a better world where work, some land, and opportunities are available to all. A world where lethal violence and war and the death penalty are understood to not be accepted in Catholic teaching.

May we take the many new paths of hope offered in this encyclical.

The encyclical is long and we cannot do justice to it here. Please read the full text, which is available at http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html


Houston Catholic Worker, October-December 2020, Vol. XL, No. 4.