October 3, the day that Francis signed Fratelli tutti in Assisi, also happened to mark the twentieth anniversary of a somewhat less illustrious moment in the Church’s interreligious outreach. In 2000, a planned day of dialogue between Jews and Christians in Rome had to be canceled because of the negative reaction to Dominus Iesus, a recently published declaration from the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, led at the time by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Around the same time, the Jesuit theologian Jacques Dupuis was under trial on charges brought by the Holy Office for his work on the theology of interreligious dialogue. How far we’ve come in twenty years, thanks to Jorge Mario Bergoglio. His new encyclical may signal not only the papacy’s shift from a strictly Roman Catholic tradition to one more oriented toward global Catholicism, but also a new paradigm in how the Church approaches relations with other faiths.
Fratelli tutti comes a little more than five years after Laudato si’—the longest interval in papal encyclicals since the gap between Pope Gregory XVI’s Commissum divinitus (“On Church and State,” 1835) and Probe nostis (“On the Propagation of the Faith,” 1840). Of course, after Humanae vitae, Paul VI did not write another encyclical in the remaining ten years of his papacy, because of the new bishops’ synods.[*] Given Francis’s vision for a Church that gives more importance to synods and to other kinds of documents, especially post-synodal exhortations, the space between encyclicals isn’t that surprising. This is also the first time a pope has issued an encyclical outside of Rome since 1814, when Pius VII signed Il trionfo in the Italian city of Cesena, after five years of imprisonment in France during the Napoleonic Wars. (In the same year, he also restored the Society of Jesus, which had been suppressed in 1773.) Coming in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic that highlights the crises of globalization and the social order, the timing couldn’t have been better. The encyclical quotes—and therefore includes as sources of the Catholic magisterial tradition—Blessed Charles de Foucauld, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, and Mahatma Gandhi, as well as the German Jesuit Karl Rahner (who was under investigation by the Holy Office through the time he was working with the German bishops in preparation for Vatican II). Cinematographic citations have also now entered the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church: the document mentions Wim Wenders’s 2018 documentary on Pope Francis three times. There are also five mentions of Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar, with whom Francis signed the February 2019 Abu Dhabi document Human Fraternity, in many ways the predecessor of Fratelli tutti.