Pope Francis sets out a vision for a new kind of politics in an encyclical which tackles a rising tide of “myopic” nationalism and moves the Church a step closer to a complete rejection of war.
As the world grapples with a global pandemic the new papal document, Fratelli Tutti, calls for a politics that rejects the “virus” of radical individualism and builds up the common good, with the 83-year-old Roman Pontiff offering the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan and the figure of St Francis of Assisi, his namesake, as guides.
To adapt the famous prayer attributed to St Francis: where there is populism, the Pope wants to focus on people; where there is growing nationalism he calls for a reform of the United Nations; where there is radical individualism he calls for solidarity; where the free market dominates he calls for a fairer distribution of property; where political opponents hate each other, he urges them to dialogue.
And where there is aggression on social media the Pope calls for kindness – and to look away from the screen.
At a press conference to launch the encyclical, Dr Anna Rowlands, a Catholic social teaching professor at the University of Durham, said the encyclical is an attempt to bring a “bleeding and broken world back to health” and is “a devastating challenge to our economical, political and ecological life.”
The 70-page encyclical seeks to build a global movement of fraternity, although the Pope has faced criticism for the title “Brothers, all” a phrase taken from the writings of St Francis but criticised for using exclusive language. In the first line of the newly released papal document, however, the Pope says by using “Fratelli tutti” the Italian saint “addressed his brothers and sisters and proposed to them a way of life marked by the flavour of the Gospel.”
The document covers a range of topics from digital culture, migrants, economics and nuclear weapons and in many instances re-iterates the positions that the Pope has taken on global issues.
But the encyclical also offers some developments to Catholic social teaching, including on war. In Fratelli Tutti the Pope restricts interpretations of the centuries-old “Just War” teaching, which sets the conditions to justify armed conflict morally.
Francis stops just short of abolishing the theory altogether, but talks only of the “potential right” to go to war and warns the development of nuclear and chemical weapons means they have an “uncontrollable destructive power over great numbers of innocent civilians.” One of the conditions for a Just War is that only proportionate force is used.
“In recent decades, every single war has been ostensibly ‘justified’,” the Pope writes in the encyclical, released on 4th October, the Feast of St Francis of Assisi.
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the possibility of legitimate defence by means of military force, which involves demonstrating that certain ‘rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy’ have been met. Yet it is easy to fall into an overly broad interpretation of this potential right.”
Francis has pushed the Church closer to an anti-war position than his predecessors. In 2019, while in Japan, he said both the possession and the use of nuclear weapons were immoral – previously the possession had been permitted.
Fratelli Tutti is the third encyclical of his pontificate. His first encyclical was Lumen Fidei, the light of faith. In the second, Laudato Si’, he sets out a passionate defence of the natural world, and with Fratelli Tutti he addresses the whole of humanity. In addition, in another major document, the apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis offers a manifesto for Church renewal.
Francis explains his encyclical was inspired by “brothers and sisters who are not Catholic”, such as Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and India’s Mahatma Gandhi. He calls for all religions to build up human fraternity stressing that people of faith “know that our witness to God benefits our societies” provided it is “never sullied by ideological or self-serving aims.” Early on in the encyclical, he references St Francis of Assisi’s 1219 peace mission to cross the lines of the crusades and meet the Sultan of Egypt in a bid to end the conflict.
“[Saint] Francis did not wage a war of words aimed at imposing doctrines,” the Pope writes, “he simply spread the love of God.”
Along with Dr Rowlands, Dr Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Salam, a lawyer former adviser to the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar who is secretary-general of an interreligious body formed after the Pope’s visit to the United Arab Emirates, took part in the launch of the encyclical. “I am a young Muslim,” he said. “And I am very much in agreement with the Pope, and I share all the words in his encyclical.”
In the face of populist nationalism and politicians who focus too much on short term gain, the Pope is urging a rebirth of statesmanlike leaders trying to solve the most pressing moral problems of our age such as tackling human trafficking, inequality, a “throwaway culture” that excludes people and ending conflicts. The Covid-19 pandemic, he says, has shown the global community is “all in the same boat.”
Far from rejecting the work of political leaders, the Pope stresses that politics is an act of charity but should be focussed on tenderness, kindness and dialogue.
“Politicians are doers, builders with ambitious goals, possessed of a broad, realistic and pragmatic gaze that looks beyond their own borders. Their biggest concern should not be about a drop in the polls, but about finding effective solutions,” he writes.
“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. While one person can help another by providing something to eat, the politician creates a job.”
But Francis repeats his warning about the rise of populist nationalism witnessed across Europe, the United States and parts of Latin America which the Pope describes as “myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive.” He sees the dream of a united Europe fading, along with efforts for more countries in Latin America to work collaboratively.
“Our own days, however, seem to be showing signs of a certain regression,” Francis writes. “There are those who appear to feel encouraged or at least permitted by their faith to support varieties of narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and even the mistreatment of those who are different.”
He argues the frailest, and vulnerable, members of communities are too often neglected, that society is sill “illiterate” when it comes to supporting those on the margins and pointed to the elderly who died as a result of Covid-19.
“We have seen what happened with the elderly in certain places in our world as a result of the coronavirus. They did not have to die that way,” Francis explains.
Another area of development of Catholic social teaching in the encyclical can be found in the section on the universal destination of goods, the principle that says the world’s resources need to be shared among the whole of humanity but balanced with the right to private property.
In the face of coarsening, polarising and aggressive political environment, Francis wants a politics of kindness, tenderness and love which is embodied by the Good Samaritan who crossed the street to help his neighbour suffering on the side of the road.
His encyclical calls for peacemakers, particularly online. Digital platforms, the Pope says, can build encounters, but “social aggression has found unparalleled room for expansion through computers and mobile devices” and led to campaigns of hatred.
It has also allowed for ideologies to spread: “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.”
Francis’ remedy is a culture of encounter, where people try to “seek the truth in dialogue,” to look for reconciliation, and develop friendships which take place away from a screen.
“Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity,” the Pope says.
Finally, Francis offers up another model of Christian living, Blessed Charles de Foucauld, who witnessed to the radical inclusivity of the Gospel in North Africa by building a monastery in the Moroccan desert and worked among Muslims, the poor and abandoned.
“Only by identifying with the least did he come at last to be the brother of all,” the Pope writes.