Reflecting on our education in Catholic schools, my husband often jokes that it prepared us for life in the 1500s rather than the complexities of our own era. True, the church often fails to respond to what St. John XXIII termed “the signs of the times.” A major exception is the encyclical Pope Francis unveiled earlier this month, titled Fratelli Tutti.
I recently delved into the entire eight-part document. I highly recommend reading it before casting your vote in the approaching election. In parts of the encyclical, it feels as though the pope is speaking directly to those of us in the U.S.
Papal encyclicals contain official teaching for the worldwide faithful. They are often dense and tedious documents. By contrast, Fratelli Tutti is both highly readable, even poetic at times. The Pope begins by urging us to reflect on a dream for a better world.
“Here we have the secret that shows us how to dream and turn our life into a wonderful adventure,” he writes. And what is that secret? “No one can face life in isolation … We need a community in which we can help one another to keep looking ahead.”
Left to ourselves, we risk seeing mirages, the pope warns. Dreams, on the other hand, are built together.
“Let us dream then as a single human family,” he writes, “as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home … brothers and sisters all.”
Without being overly didactic, the encyclical offers guidance on pressing election issues, including health care, immigration, race, civility, and decency in public life.
The pope laments how a world that seemed to recognize we are “all in the same boat” when the COVID-19 pandemic began has spintered once again. Despite our “hyperconnectivity,” these divisions work against solving our pressing problems.
Likewise, the push to “get back to normal” is drowning out calls to address major cracks in society. Financial and consumer excesses in the 1920s followed the Spanish flu outbreak of the previous decade. What’s to stop the same type of behavior after this pandemic ends? Francis warns:
“Once this health crisis passes, our worst response would be to plunge more deeply into feverish consumerism and new forms of egotistic self-preservation. God willing, after all this, we will think no longer in terms of ‘them’ and ‘those,’ but only ‘us.’”
Fratelli Tutti’s central message springs from the gospel parable of “The Good Samaritan,” a story that distills the model of Christian life. A Judean man is attacked by robbers and left to die by a roadside. A priest and a Levite each come across the injured man. Instead of stopping, they cross over to the other side of the road and move on.
At various times, we are like each person in the story, Francis points out. We all have experienced being physically wounded, and the feeling of being pushed to the ground.
We have been like the priest and the Levite, “religious” people respected within our cultures. Still, when tested, we prove too busy and self-absorbed to attend to a stranger’s suffering.
Similarly, we can be a foreigner like the Samaritan, who lifts up the stranger, transports him to an inn, pays to have him cared for, and promises to return, without any expectation of reward.
What makes the story especially compelling, the pope observes, is that the injured man is Judean. Under different circumstances a Judean would consider a Samaritan an “unclean” and detestable pagan, someone to avoid in polite society at all costs.
Pivoting from the gospel parable to our current time, Francis observes:
“Once more we encounter the temptation to build a culture of walls, to raise walls, walls in the heart, walls on the land.”
Those who raise walls, he says, “will end up being slaves within the very walls they have built … The outside world ceases to exist and leaves only ‘my world,’ to the point that others no longer considered human beings possessed of inalienable dignity become only ‘them.’”
Nationalist fervor spreading across the globe also comes in for harsh criticism. Francis decries political strategies that depend on “ridicule, suspicion, and relentless criticism.”
One way to dominate others, he says, is to spread despair and discouragement, even under the guise of defending certain values. In this way, political leaders attempt to exploit voters “for their own personal advantage or continuing their grip on power.”
To be sure, Fratelli Tutti is not without its own flaws. In it, the pope upholds the dignity and equal rights of women worldwide, but does so under the shadow of his own church’s failure to bring women into full leadership roles.
The choice of titles, “Brothers All” in English, invites criticism that the Vatican remains tone-deaf to half the earth’s population. The title is perhaps forgivable. The pope is quoting his spiritual mentor, St. Francis, who used the term in addressing his male confreres.
Additionally, the text is in Italian, a romance language in which plural nouns use the masculine form to include both sexes. Elsewhere in the text, the pope refers to both “brothers and sisters.”
I hope, however, that in the near future Pope Francis will adhere to his own words in Fratelli Tutti, and, at the very least, consider admitting women as ordained deacons. Many New Testament scholars agree that it is a role for women firmly rooted in Scripture.
Those limitations aside, Fratelli Tutti sends a powerful message. It reminds us that the purpose of politics is to work for the common good. Reflecting Benedictine monastic values, the pope stresses that the common good flourishes best in an atmosphere of “careful listening” and “truth in dialogue.”
Wisdom is “not born of quick searches on the Internet, nor is it a mass of unverified data,” the pope writes.
Fratelli Tutti asks us to reflect on the actions of the good Samaritan through the lens of our own lives. How we choose to respond, the pope says, “is the moment of truth” where “all our distinctions, labels and masks fall away. ”
Will we make sacrifices to care for those who are hurting, or look the other way and hurry off? Will we bend to touch and heal the wounds of others?
As the nation tops more than eight million COVID cases and 224,000 deaths, may we reflect on these questions before casting our votes.