ASSISI, Italy – Pope Francis’s new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, outlines his recipe for rebuilding a post-pandemic world, beginning with a complete restructuring of politics and civil discourse in order to create systems prioritizing the community and the poor, rather than individual or market interests.
At nearly 300 pages, the document is essentially Francis’s own “voter’s guide” for the immediate future as the world makes critical choices in the aftermath of the coronavirus.
Though Francis’s vision is clearly global, the pope’s words pack a clear punch for the United States, which next month will hold presidential elections at the end of a contentious and even hostile political campaign.
Pope Francis opens Fratelli Tutti with his own assessment of the world’s inability to rally together for a common response to COVID-19, saying in paragraph seven that when the virus hit, it exposed the world’s “false securities.”
“Aside from the different ways that various countries responded to the crisis, their inability to work together became quite evident,” he said, adding that “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,” he said.
Throughout the rest of the document, Pope Francis breaks down what he sees as wrong with global politics and the current economic system. He repeats his frequent criticisms of populism, liberalism, and free-market capitalism, voicing support for multilateral efforts and policies that prioritize the most vulnerable, including migrants and refugees.
He also issues a lengthy and searing critique throughout the text of today’s hyper-polarized and trigger-happy social media culture, suggesting fraternity as a remedy to the toxicity that dominates so much of modern social interaction.
He also appeals for women’s rights, and equality, urges a widespread defense of the elderly, and an urgent end to racism and the violent protests recent episodes have provoked.
In Francis’s view, a growing sense of “shameless aggression” is a fault for today’s increasingly polarized global culture.
“Even as individuals maintain their comfortable consumerist isolation, they can choose a form of constant and febrile bonding that encourages remarkable hostility, insults, abuse, defamation and verbal violence destructive of others,” he says in paragraph 44 of the text, noting that this is often accompanied by a “lack of restraint “that could not exist in physical contact without tearing us all apart.”
“Social aggression has found unparalleled room for expansion through computers and mobile devices,” he said, insisting that this toxic banter has “given free rein to ideologies.”
“Things that until a few years ago could not be said by anyone without risking the loss of universal respect can now be said with impunity, and in the crudest of terms, even by some political figures,” he said in paragraph 45 – a line that will undoubtedly be interpreted by Americans as a reference to the aggressive style of U.S. President Donald Trump.
He dug into today’s social media culture, saying the “feverish” exchanges that happen on social networks are merely “parallel monologues” and are often “based on media information that is not always reliable.”
“They may attract some attention by their sharp and aggressive tone,” he said, “but monologues engage no one, and their content is frequently self-serving and contradictory.”
Even worse, he said, is that “this kind of language, usually drawn from media coverage of political campaigns, has become so widespread as to be part of daily conversation,” he said.
Attempts are then made to justify or excuse this behavior when it aligns with or serve “one’s own economic or ideological interests,” he said, but insisted that “sooner or later it turns against those very interests.”
The problem with politics
In terms of today’s political scene, Pope Francis throughout the encyclical urges a universal re-thinking of political virtue and vice, restating his disdain for modern populism and liberalist tendencies.
In chapter five of the document, which is dedicated ”a better kind of politics” and includes his critique of populism and liberalism, Francis laments that in many parts of the world, “a concept of popular and national unity influenced by various ideologies is creating new forms of selfishness and a loss of the social sense under the guise of defending national interests.”
Lack of concern for the poor and vulnerable “can hide behind a populism that exploits them demagogically for its own purposes, or a liberalism that serves the economic interests of the powerful,” he said, noting that in both cases, “it becomes difficult to envisage an open world that makes room for everyone, including the most vulnerable, and shows respect for different cultures.”
Pope Francis argues that tossing around the terms “populist” and “populism” so frequently have made them lose their meaning,
“Efforts are made to classify entire peoples, groups, societies and governments as ‘populist’ or not,” he said, noting that it has become nearly impossible for someone to express a view on a given subject “without being categorized one way or the other, either to be unfairly discredited or to be praised to the skies.”
The problem with using populism as a lens through which to interpret social reality, he said, is that it disregards “the legitimate meaning of the word ‘people,’” and any effort to remove this idea from common speech would mean eliminating the very notion of democracy as a “government by the people.”
Francis stressed the need to have realistic expectations of what governments can do and underlined the need for horizontal governance with local solutions to problems, praising the role popular movements can play and criticizing the “big government” and “welfare state” narratives.
He also criticized neoliberalist models, noting that while some people are born into economically stable families and thus have no need for a “proactive state,” others, such as disabled people or those born into abject poverty who lack access to education and healthcare depend on the state.
“If a society is governed primarily by the criteria of market freedom and efficiency, there is no place for such persons, and fraternity will remain just another vague ideal,” he said.
Neoliberalism, he said, “simply reproduces itself by resorting to the magic theories of ‘spillover’ or ‘trickle’ – without using the name – as the only solution to societal problems,” with little recognition of the fact that this alleged spillover “does not resolve the inequality that gives rise to new forms of violence threatening the fabric of society.”
“It is imperative,” he said, “to have a proactive economic policy directed at promoting an economy that favors productive diversity and business creativity and makes it possible for jobs to be created and not cut.”
The pope advocated creation of “stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions” in light of what he said is a current “weakening” of nation states, insisting that the personalities in charge of these entities must be “fairly by agreement among national governments, and empowered to impose sanctions.”
In this sense, he backed the United Nations, saying its charter is “a fundamental juridical norm” which, when observed and applied “with transparency and sincerity, is an obligatory reference point of justice and a channel of peace.”
However, he said the U.N. is also in need of reform “so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth.”
He also voiced preference for multilateral agreements, saying “preference should be given to multilateral agreements between states, because, more than bilateral agreements, they guarantee the promotion of a truly universal common good and the protection of weaker states.”
Immigration, racism, war and the death penalty
Since his election to the papacy in 2013, immigration has been a key policy issue for Pope Francis. In Fratelli Tutti, he rolled out his vision for a universal immigration plan based on the concept of “social property” outlined by St. John Paul II in his 1991 social encyclical, Centesius Annus, whereby the earth belongs to the whole of humanity, rather than certain countries or individuals.
In terms of what this means for immigration police, Francis said the common destination of the earth’s goods must also be applied to nations, as well as their territories and resources.
Seen from this perspective, he said, “we can then say that each country also belongs to the foreigner, inasmuch as a territory’s goods must not be denied to a needy person coming from elsewhere.”
On the topic of racism – which is especially poignant for the United States, which is still grappling with protests and uprisings following the death of George Floyd, an African American man in police custody, earlier this year – the pope spoke of the importance of fostering and maintaining social peace as well as national unity.
In paragraph 232, the pope urged citizens to “flee from the temptation of revenge and the satisfaction of short-term partisan interests,” insisting that “violent public demonstrations, on one side or the other, do not help in finding solutions.”
In the encyclical, he also rejects the idea of “just war,” arguing that under modern circumstances, no violent conflict can ever be justified, and he repeats his frequent calls for the abolition of nuclear weapons and the death penalty, insisting the latter is also an “abolition of life.”
In paragraph 270, he issues a direct appeal to Christians who might be hesitant about the death penalty, asking them to remember the words of the Prophet Isaiah in the bible: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares,” and in Jesus urging his disciples to “put your sword back into its place” at his arrest.
Though Pope Francis’s general evaluation of today’s current political and social climate is grim, he touts “political charity” as a solution which he believes can break down hostility and foster a greater sense of universal brotherhood.
“If someone helps an elderly person cross a river, that is a fine act of charity. The politician, on the other hand, builds a bridge, and that too is an act of charity,” he said. “While one person can help another by providing something to eat, the politician creates a job for that other person, and thus practices a lofty form of charity that ennobles his or her political activity.”
Calling this form of social charity the “spiritual heart of politics,” Francis stressed that it is always expressed as a preferential love for the poor and those most in need.
“It undergirds everything we do on their behalf,” he said. “It makes us realize that the scandal of poverty cannot be addressed by promoting strategies of containment that only tranquilize the poor and render them tame and inoffensive.” Rather, what are needed, he said, “are new pathways of self-expression and participation in society.”
Francis insisted that the world is still far away from “a globalization of the most basic of human rights.,” which is why “world politics needs to make the effective elimination of hunger one of its foremost and imperative goals,” he said.
In the end, Francis’s alternative is an ethic of human fraternity.
“At a time when various forms of fundamentalist intolerance are damaging relationships between individuals, groups and peoples,” he said, “let us be committed to living and teaching the value of respect for others, a love capable of welcoming differences, and the priority of the dignity of every human being over his or her ideas, opinions, practices and even sins.”