By Catherine Pepinster
Pope Francis has continued his habit of addressing the world’s most pressing issues with publication this week of his encyclical, or teaching document, on the world post-pandemic and how it needs to be reformed.
Five years ago, it was the environment and the urgent need to combat climate change that Francis focused on in his encyclical, Laudato Si’ (Praise Be to You), pointing out how the world’s poorest people were those likely to suffer the most if the world did not wake up to the dangers of exploiting the planet.
Now in his latest encyclical, Tutti Fratelli, he turns his attention to Covid-19 and how we can rethink the way we work together, or fail to do so. And once more, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church highlights how the poorest will suffer most if we do not change our ways.
Tutti Fratelli proved controversial even before publication. It is the habit of popes to call their encyclicals by the first few words of the text when written in Latin. Tutti Fratelli comes from an admonition St Francis of Assisi made to his friars who were all men, and means literally “all men” or “all brothers”.
This led to intense critical debate in Catholic circles, with commentators accusing the Pope of showing a gender bias. But in Romance languages such as Italian, the masculine version of nouns is used when speaking or writing about both men and women. And in this document, the Pope focuses on fraternity, another word that is used to mean both men and women showing mutual support.
That mutual support is something that Pope Francis advocates, but believes is glaringly lacking from today’s world as he articulates in this encyclical.
In Tutti Fratelli he turns his attention to the forces that so distort society: individualism that leaves people to focus on their needs, and not on other people; populism and nationalism that makes one country’s needs dominant at the expense of other people.
His most blistering critique is of free-market capitalism which has achieved huge financial growth — and profits — for particular individuals at the expense of large numbers of people across the world who gain none of the benefits. He is not impressed by the neoliberal experiment, and its alleged trickle-down benefits, that has only served to create a class of the super-rich and left behind the people who are most in need — such as people with disabilities and those born into such abject poverty that they need state-provided education and healthcare.
“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,” Francis warns. For him, fraternity is not so much an ideal but a necessity, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed “a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all”, he observes.
The Pope also used the encyclical to warn that political leaders need to do more than return to pre-pandemic norms, for, he says: “Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learnt was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.”
The document also covers a range of topics from digital culture, migrants, economics and nuclear weapons and confirms the positions that the Roman Catholic Church has developed on these issues in recent years, through the body of work known as Catholic social teaching.
Francis makes clear that the church’s position on abortion is not a one-off but rather part of a pro-life perspective that is as opposed to the deliberate ending of life through capital punishment as it is to termination of a life in the womb.
Just as his commentary on the misguidedness of populism might be seen as a critique of Trumpian politics, as the US presidential election campaign enters its final stages, so might his commentary on the death penalty be perceived as an intervention in an issue that inspires controversy in the United States, home to 70 million Catholics. He calls the death penalty “an abolition of life”.
One area where this encyclical seeks to go further than Catholic social teaching is in the teaching on “just war”, which has been used on countless occasions to justify Catholic support of military intervention. In the encyclical, he rejects the idea of “just war”, arguing that in the modern world no violent conflict can ever be justified.
Above all, though, it is the Christian idea of love that permeates Tutti Fratelli and he calls for social charity to be the “spiritual heart of politics”.
“It undergirds everything we do on their behalf,” Francis writes. “It makes us realise that the scandal of poverty cannot be addressed by promoting strategies of containment that only tranquillise the poor and render them tame and inoffensive.” What is needed, he says, “are new pathways of self-expression and participation in society”.