It is newsworthy that Pope Francis signed Fratelli Tutti on Saturday, October 3, at the tomb of St. Francis in Assisi, despite popes usually signing their encyclical letters—the most authoritative form of papal writing—in the Vatican. It is also newsworthy that Pope Francis, in stating who inspired him most to write this text, after crediting St. Francis cites Grand Imam Al Tayeb of the prestigious University of Al Ahzar in Cairo, Egypt.
Pope Francis’ Apostolic Trip to the United Arab Emirates, in February 2019, was when Francis and Al Tayeb signed the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” (Feb. 4, 2019). According to that document, “God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and has called them to live together as brothers and sisters.” While Islam is not a religion with a hierarchical structure like Catholicism, the Imam of Al Ahzar is considered the most authoritative voice of the Islamic world. Therefore, his agreeing to sign such a declaration raises some questions.
According to Aid to the Church in Need, a papal foundation which every two years publishes a detailed report on religious freedom, one in seven Christians in the world suffers from restrictions on his religious freedom and persecution too. And among the 21 classified as ‘persecution countries,” seventeen are Islamic. Fratelli Tutti devotes just one full paragraph to religious freedom, stating:
We Christians ask that, in those countries where we are a minority, we be guaranteed freedom, even as we ourselves promote that freedom for non-Christians in places where they are a minority. One fundamental human right must not be forgotten in the journey towards fraternity and peace. It is religious freedom for believers of all religions. (par 279)
But in the introduction, the pope does not hesitate to praises the example of St. Francis, when he “urged that all forms of hostility or conflict be avoided and that a humble and fraternal ‘subjection’ be shown to those who did not share his faith” (par 3).
Above all, the Pontiff is worried because history, as he expresses in the document’s start, “seem to be showing signs of a certain regression. Ancient conflicts thought long buried are breaking out anew, while instances of a myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism are on the rise…” He also warns again about the dangers of populism (pars 155ff), a now familiar theme.
Among the eight chapters, the sixth on the theme “dialogue and friendship in society” is particularly dense. But Francis’ view of ‘dialogue’ seems to oscillate between two opposites. “Relativism,” he says, “ultimately leaves the interpretation of moral values to those in power, to be defined as they see fit” (par 206). Then, shortly after, he says dialogue does not “exclude the conviction that it is possible to arrive at certain fundamental truths always to be upheld” (par 211). Thus, Francis recognizes the existence of “basic and non-negotiable ethical principles,” but in the same paragraph observes that “fundamental and universally valid moral principles can be embodied in different practical rules. Thus, room for dialogue will always exist.”
Nevertheless, this “room for dialogue” seems very narrow when it comes to migration, a theme the Pope addresses forcefully, starting with some reflections on private property. Given that the right to private property is not an “absolute or inviolable” (par 120), Francis consequently affirms that “we can then say that each country also belongs to the foreigner, inasmuch as a territory’s goods must not be denied to a needy person coming from elsewhere” (par 124).
With this affirmation, Pope Francis apparently nullifies more cautious statements previously made by himself, according to which “a people that can accept but does not have the possibility of integrating, [is] better not accepting”, as he stated on the return flight from Dublin to Rome in August 2018. In addition, discussing migration, Fratelli Tutti blames the “way of thinking and acting” that “sets certain political preferences above deep convictions of our faith: the inalienable dignity of each human person regardless of origin, race or religion.”
Thus, a contradiction with traditional Catholic Social Teaching emerges. Pope St. John Paul II wrote that “the challenge is to combine the welcome due to every human being, especially when in need, with a reckoning of what is necessary for both the local inhabitants and the new arrivals to live a dignified and peaceful life.” In the same text, the message for the World Peace Day in 2001, he defended the “cultural equilibrium” that “even while welcoming minorities and respecting their basic rights, would allow the continued existence and development of a particular ‘cultural profile’, by which I mean that basic heritage of language, traditions and values which are inextricably part of a nation’s history and its national identity.”
Looking at economic inequalities, Fratelli Tutti states “the fragility of world systems in the face of the pandemic has demonstrated that not everything can be resolved by market freedom,” expressing the Pontiff’s well-known skepticism of the virtues and the capabilities of the free market.
It is not easy, of course, to summarize such a complex text. To define it in one word, some have spoken of a seven-year “recapitulation” of the pontificate’s teachings. No surprise, therefore, if Francis goes on, as usual, branding the liberal vision of society as “dogmatic” and disqualifying it as a “sum of coexisting interests”; or addressing migration in such a unilateral way, compared to the previous popes; or giving to interlocutors of other religions a credit that weakens the reasons for claiming the right to religious freedom.
Fratelli Tutti marks the latest chapter in a seven-year pontificate that has been full of novelties and controversy. While some have defined this encyclical as “Francis’ legacy” for the future world, time will ultimately tell what sort of impact it will really have. In the meantime, commentators will continue to try to make sense of the various tensions and difficulties contained within.
Editor’s note: This is the second of several CWR essays on Fratelli Tutti and related topics. The other essays are:
• “Fratelli Tutti is a familiar mixture of dubious claims, strawmen, genuine insights” (Oct. 5, 2020) by Samuel Gregg
• “Fratelli Tutti and its critics” (Oct. 9, 2020) by Larry Chapp
• “Culture, dialogue, religion, and truth in Fratelli Tutti“ (Oct. 9, 2020) by Eduardo Echeverria
• “Brothers without Borders: Pope Francis’s Quasi-Humanitarian Manifesto” (Oct. 10, 2020) by Daniel J. Mahoney
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