In this guest blog Anna Rowlands explains the latest social encyclical from Pope Francis. 03/11/2020
For anyone trying to keep up to date with the papacy of Pope Francis the pace is relentless. In non–pandemic times Francis was able to issue a near–constant stream of commentary via interviews, documentaries, TED talks, and video addresses. He is the first Pope to run a very active twitter feed. The pandemic has barely slowed the pace, it has more changed the medium: fewer off the cuff remarks to journalists on planes and more formal, careful interventions on the pandemic, on populism and on his constant themes of inequality and ecological change. A series of weekly talks Francis gave on COVID–19 and social teaching during the summer and early autumn turned out to be the lead–in to a full–scale 80 plus page letter to the world, known in Catholic–speak as a social encyclical.
What is a papal encyclical?
Given our concentration spans (even without an intervening pandemic) tend to be short, issuing such a lengthy and wide–ranging letter to the whole world is perhaps to be viewed as either foolhardy or an act of faith in itself!
Francis has written this letter in a century–old tradition of popes formally addressing the main social issues of their day, and offering some framework for thinking about the human social condition afresh. Francis issued his first full social encyclical Laudato si’ in 2015, on the theme of the environment as our common home. The new letter Fratelli Tutti picks up where the last one left off, with Francis stating “We need to see ourselves more and more as a single human family dwelling in a common home”. Both Laudato si’ and this new letter are inspired by phrases from St Francis of Assisi.
Although Catholic social teaching has been influential at numerous points during the last century for specific and concrete comments on living wages, trade unionism, just war, reformed capitalism and most recently the environment, migration and populism, often the core point that the popes want to focus on in these social letters is theological and anthropological.
Put simply, the popes teach – and Francis repeats again here – that without a transcendent view of the social world, there is little possibility of real and lasting transformation; and without a decent anthropology, we constantly work against, rather than with, the grain of our human nature. Therefore, much of what the popes of the last century think leads us astray is a false set of ideas about what makes human beings tick. We have a tendency to underplay both our capacity for enormous good (choosing a limited self–interested individualism over an acceptance of our interdependence, co–creativity and capacity for transformation), and our capacity for human harm and propensity to mess things up. Both failures of insight weaken our social analysis.
Francis writes Fratelli Tutti in this long and developing tradition. But why now? This letter has been two years in the writing, but there is a visceral sense when you read it that Francis feels a profound sense of urgency; that we are a world on the brink. The closest comparison to the mood of this letter is perhaps the letter that Pope John XXIII wrote to the world in 1963, in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis. This letter was considered such an important intervention that it was widely read and placed in the UN archives. A combination of the pandemic, the rise of new forms of “closed populism” (Francis’ phrase), the environmental crisis, new forms of inequality, a solidarity crisis limiting rights for refugees and migrants, a crisis of dignity visible in the choice to view some human life as superfluous, increasingly polarised and short–termist politics and the “febrile” world of commodified digital communications, are all on Francis’ list of urgent social challenges.
What does the latest encyclical say?
There is a sense of grief and disbelief in the way that Francis opens his letter and addresses this list of issues. He writes of “dark clouds over a closed world”, and charts what he views as a movement away from a post–war aspiration (even if not always realised) towards greater integration and social co–operation, and towards a more inward–looking and – paradoxically combined – closed communitarian and yet also individualistic mentality. He castigates narcissistic localisms in favour of a deep–rooted open localism that is able to see itself in need of, and completed by, what lies beyond. The local and the universal or global are bound together, for the good of each; but somehow seem unable to grasp this.
Because Francis believes we are all really related to, connected to, and responsible for each other, he states that the only way to be fully human is to embrace the risky process of moving beyond ourselves, in love. This is as true for an individual person as it is for a household, a culture, a nation; this is the most basic message of this document, summed up in two recurring phrases: universal fraternity and social friendship.
What perplexes Francis is that the drift of power and ideology in the current moment – a moment that makes these truths of co–dependence and co–creativity seem self–evident – is in the very opposite direction. Francis, well–trained in Ignatian spirituality, seems to spot a profound spiritual desolation and isolation that hovers over our historical moment. This mentality, as much as the reality of concrete policies, decisions and structures, seems to uproot us and disempower us. This crisis is spiritual as much as political, or rather, it is political because it is also spiritual.
At the heart of the letter, however, is a hopeful mediation on the Good Samaritan passage. Owing a debt to Martin Luther King Jnr’s reflection on the Good Samaritan made in King’s final speech in April 1968, Francis talks about the need to pay attention to the reality of violence, loss, and vulnerability in its immediate, interrupting form. The chapter challenges our cultural desensitisation to the gift and challenge of immediate embodied relations with each other, the challenge to personal action and structural justice. As King, and Francis echoes, Jesus takes the question ‘who is my neighbour?’ out of the mid–air esoteric abstraction we find more comfortable and places it on the curve of a dangerous road. The Christian question becomes ‘how do I become a neighbour?’; teach me this.
A key framework for approaching the text is through its presentation of the themes of social peace and social aggression. Francis pleads with his readers not to normalise social aggression and violence as the given reality of a functioning society. In an age of new resistance movements this document offers its own perspective on the many ways in which hostility and aggression shape our daily lives, at macro and micro levels. The document outlines the call to social peacebuilding in all arenas as a growth towards a less violent, fragmented, unequal and isolated common life. It analyses the digital communications, economic (inequality, wealth distribution, new forms of poverty), political (populism and forms of political leadership) and ecological dimensions of this aggression. It also addresses a wide spectrum of questions that relate to aggression between nations, from forms of neo–colonialism to militarised conflict.
Francis’ papacy has been paradoxical – he is plainly spoken, feels little need to justify himself to his detractors, is unafraid of conflict, and yet he is also committed to trying to get beyond an age of polarising binaries, a culture of crude likes and dislikes, which is mirrored in both church and politics. This letter is another example of precisely this paradox. Francis calls boldly for a politics of radical welcome and care. He insists that only an acceptance that the created goods of the world are meant for the use of all, that recognition of equality and rights is the only way to enable the full development of the creative potential of persons and cultures. But he refuses any binary of globalists versus localists, he rehabilitates the idea of being “a people” committed to rootedness as much as he argues for openness of borders to human movement. He takes on the populist language of being “a people” and takes us straight back to Augustine’s City of God, but with a Latin American inflection: a people is not, says Francis, a mystical or logical category, but a mythic one. It is something we become by negotiating together, creating together, a law and way of life that discovers and upholds worthy goods and loves. It is a community with a historical memory, with a commitment to creating and preserving culture. Above all, it is judged by the evident fruits of social peace; it renews itself and secures this peace from the outside, as well as from within. What you love as a culture, and who you love, are held up to questioning in the light of the creative dignity and potential of all people, within local, national and global contexts. That’s the kind of open populism Francis is interested in.
A final note should also be made about the origins of this letter. This is the first social encyclical to be inspired by an inter–faith encounter. The Pope and the Grand Imam of Al–Azhar Ahmed el–Tayeb issued a joint statement on Human Fraternity in February 2019, on dignity, dialogue and encounter between peoples. The final section of this encyclical talks about the role of religions in modelling and brokering peace in a broken world. Equally noteworthy however, is the fact that Francis talks about the failings of religion itself in the social realm. There is no excuse, Francis says, for the complicity of the Church in various forms of historical injustice. A reference here to clerical sexual abuse as much as to slavery or racism was surely necessary and is lamentably missing, but the reference to the need for repentance and self–reflection on the part of the Church is a notable remark. The document does note the double injustice faced by women, but a further failing is the absence of examples of women as intellectual guides and social leaders involved in the front line of peacebuilding and social friendship.
Fittingly, the overall message of this document is that being human is a process of becoming, and one that is not inevitably linear or straightforward. It is a pathway of recognition and misrecognition; and we learn to traverse it only by learning to practice deep attention to God and neighbour. We become human, become neighbours, become communities and nations, and that’s a process that happens in the gift exchange and the graced and broken interaction between us. The process of human and community formation is necessarily incomplete and open–ended, and is most ethical and least violent when viewed as such.
I had the privilege of being involved in the launch of this document in Rome and spending a few days offering briefings and answering media questions. What struck me most was the quizzical media reception of Francis’s teaching on two things in particular: the teaching that the goods of the earth are destined for the use of all, which relativizes private property to a right but one with a prior social purpose and “mortgage” tied to it; and the notion that politics can promote and embody a logic of non–domination and radical peacebuilding. Both are social teachings as old as Christianity itself, there is nothing new in either, but they are not easily received or digested in our current context. I was asked repeatedly “yes, but isn’t this just naïve idealism?” I suspect Francis would turn the question on its head, and say in response, “no, it is simple realism. It is to look at things as they really are, and to point to the fact that there is only one way out of our current trajectory.” At the end of Martin Luther King’s treatment of the Good Samaritan he tells us that the only way to negotiate the tricky curve on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem is to risk cultivating a “dangerous unselfishness”. That is the tricky, game–changing message I think Francis wants us to hear.
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