By Rajan Philips –
On Saturday, October 3, Pope Francis issued the second encyclical letter of his papacy, in Assisi, Italy. Entitled “Fratelli Tutti”, or Fraternity and Social Friendship in its English translation, the encyclical is a call for renewed hope in a world beset by pathogens and prejudices, through sisterhood, brotherhood, and social friendship. The Pope travelled from Rome to Assisi to sign the encyclical at the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi, after whom the Pope took his papal name and from whom he draws spiritual and temporal inspiration to fight the dominant prejudice of our time targeting Muslims.
Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) is one of the most venerated medieval Christian saints. Born to an Italian silk merchant father and a French mother, he converted himself from a wealthy and worldly young man to a spiritual poverello (little poor man), and at the age of twenty four met with and managed to persuade the then Pope (Innocent III) to support a reform movement within the Church led by the so called mendicant orders. They were founded on poverty, humility, simplicity, and peripatetic preaching, and they helped rehabilitate a growingly decadent Church by reidentifying it with the life and sufferings of Christ. Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscan Order of Brothers and the St. Clare Order of Sisters.
The special relevance of Saint Francis today, to the Church today and to Pope Francis, is in the inter-faith linkages that Saint Francis strove to create with his Muslim brethren during the Crusades (1096-1271), the religious wars of the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1219, during the Fifth Crusade, Francis travelled to Egypt, crossing battlelines, to meet with the Sultan of Egypt, who graciously gave him permission to visit Christian sacred places in the Holy Land and to establish the presence of Franciscan monks in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The Franciscan Order has been a continuous and constant presence in the Holy Land ever since.
It is to this inter-faith legacy of St. Francis of Assisi that Pope Francis constantly turns for inspiration and encouragement. It is not the only legacy of Saint Francis. There are other legacies – elevating tolerance over condemnation, inclusion over exclusion, fraternity over alienation, friendship over enmity, and nature conservation over destruction. Pope Francis draws from all of them in his leadership of the Church and in his messages to the world. Even the encyclical title “Fratelli Tutti” is a phrase that the Saint used to address the brothers and sisters of the Franciscan and Saint Clare Orders. And the encyclical recounts the meeting between St. Francis and the Egyptian Sultan, and the Saint’s instruction to his Brothers during the Crusades, that in dealing with Muslims (Saracens) and other non-Christians, they (the Brothers) were not to “engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature, for God’s sake.”
Urgency and futility
Pope Francis holds out as example the leadership Saint Francis showed 800 years ago in dealing with Muslims and other non-Christians, that Christians should eschew hostility and intolerance and embrace humility and brotherhood. What is wrong with this message in the current situation of – what the Pope calls – the “wounded world”? The encyclical is a spirited effort to provide a long and elaborate answer to that question. The Pope was already working on the text of the letter when the Covid-19 pandemic “unexpectedly erupted, exposing our false securities, and the inability of various countries to work together.” Without Covid-19, the encyclical would have been a lamentation and a call for action on poverty, racism, and violence, the chronic scourges of the early 21st century. It would have been a sequel to his 2015 Apostolic Exhortation, “Laudato Si” (Care for our Common Home), and his joint declaration with Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb of “The Document on Human Fraternity,” in Abu Dhabi on February 4, 2019.
Alas, within two weeks of the release of the encyclical came the brutal beheading of Samuel Paty, a French school-teacher in Paris, by an 18-year old Chechen-born French Muslim, underscoring both the urgency and the futility of the Pope’s message. Sri Lanka experienced the same horror firsthand and on a mass scale in the 2019 Easter bombings. The reverberations are still continuing not only at the human level of those who were victimized, but also at the political level of others bandying ethnic misgivings and given to mischief making.
Fratelli Tutti may not have much of an impact on the men of the cloth in Sri Lanka, but it shows up what the Pope commends as the Christian approach inspired by the parable of the Good Samaritan – whose imitation the Pope calls for among fellow Christians everywhere “in order to rebuild (our) wounded world” of which they are very much a part. “The decision to include or exclude those lying wounded along the roadside,” writes the Pope, “can serve as a criterion for judging every economic, political, social and religious project.” The alternative is the path of political revenge and legal retaliation targeting whole communities and victimising innocent individuals for the crimes of a few desperados.
Elsewhere, the violent ISIS movement may have become dormant, but there are flashpoints of conflict everywhere in the Middle East. In his own maddening ways Trump has redrawn the region’s frontiers of conflict disregarding international law, agreements, and conventions, and emboldening similar actions by other countries in their own backyards. The Netanyahu government in Israel has got whatever it wanted from Trump – relocating the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, new settlements in contested sites including the Golan Heights, and new agreements between Israel and Arab States further isolating the Palestinians, and thinks it can do whatever it wants in the Middle East.
In India, the Modi government followed suit in Kashmir, China snuffed out protests in Hong Kong while continuing to be heavy handed in its treatment of the Uyghur Muslims, Lebanon is left abandoned in permanent chaos, Belarus in permanent protests, while Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran are jostling for positions in proxy wars from Yemen and Libya, to Cyprus, and to the Caucasus states of Armenia and Azerbaijan. All of this in the midst of a global pandemic and its second wave.
The pandemic is nowhere as horrendous as in Trump’s America, where the people are also in the throes of a hugely consequential election. Arriving in the middle of a bitterly contested election campaign, Pope Francis’s encyclical has generated varying reactions among American Catholics. Liberal Catholics are reading the encyclical as a rebuke of Donald Trump, while conservative (Republican) Catholic commentators are calling it an overreaching “humanitarian manifesto” that is of little practical value even as it deviates from some of the traditional teachings of the Church. These criticisms are not inaccurate, but they are wrong.
Points of departure
For an encyclical, Fratelli Tutti is a long document, with eight chapters in 90 pages. A conservative American Catholic critic has commented on its “sheer length,” which at 43,000 words (in English including footnotes), is apparently “more than the Book of Genesis (32,046) and three times the size of the Gospel of John (15,635).” Much of it is also a recounting of the Pope’s statements and writings on human fraternity and social friendship during the seven years of his papacy. But the points of departure for this new compilation are in its timing, contextualization, and clear departures as well from some of the longstanding Catholic doctrinaire positions on private property, solidarity/subsidiarity, and justifying ‘just wars’. Like Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis is looking to embrace not the rich and the powerful, but the meek and the marginalized, the heretics and the outcasts.
Historically, as laid out in the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII, written as a direct response to the spectre of socialism in the late 19th century, property rights have been divine rights in the eyes of the modern Church. In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis falls back on anterior Christian experiences to declare that “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.” In the same vein, the Church has privileged individual subsidiarity over the solidarity of the collective. Francis emphasizes the value of solidarity, and potentially as a basis for rethinking the foreign debt obligations of less developed countries. He decries the market being celebrated as the panacea to satisfy all the needs of society, and in the context of globalized inequalities, he calls for strong and efficient international institutions.
Although written from a “Christian perspective,” the encyclical is “an invitation to dialogue among all people.” Without “dialogue and friendship in society,” people will drift apart and grow insensitive and indifferent to the difficulties and problems of one another, leading to conflicts and violent eruptions. The Pope advocates “the culture of encounter,” and stresses “the need for peacemakers, men and women prepared to work boldly and creatively to initiate processes of healing and renewed encounter.” To be successful, “every peace process requires enduring commitment. It is a patient effort to seek truth and justice, to honour the memory of victims and to open the way, step by step, to a shared hope stronger than the desire for vengeance.”
While “forgetting is never the answer,” there can be no closure to any upheaval without “forgiveness and reconciliation.” Francis calls for the resolution of conflicts through negotiation and the United Nations Charter, and decries the rationalization of military aggression by “all sorts of allegedly humanitarian, defensive or precautionary excuses.” Given the proliferation and the hugely destructive capacity of weapons, the Pope asserts that societies “can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war’. ”
To digress and end on a different historical note, Hans Kung, the celebrated German Catholic Theologian, has contrasted the positively transformative encounter between the young Francis of Assisi and Pope Innocent III with the disastrous encounter, 300 years later, between Pope Leo X (1513-1521) and a young German reformist called Martin Luther (1483-1546). The first encounter led to reformation of the Church from within, and the second encounter involved condemnations and persecution and precipitated the Protestant reformation outside the Catholic Church. As well, Luther was an ordained priest; Leo was not. A scion of the decadent Medici family in medieval Florence, Leo was the last man to become pope without being ordained as priest. Kung calls him the “superficial playboy” pope.
Saint Francis of Assisi was also not a priest. He backed away from ordination because of his humility and because he believed he was not worthy of that sacred calling. He chose to be a friar, vowed poverty and lived it. Throughout the history of the Church, many unworthy men have become priests, and gone on to be made bishops, cardinals and even popes. Pope Francis is not one of them.