Pope Francis celebrates Mass at the tomb of St. Francis in the crypt of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, Oct. 3, 2020. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

In what may turn out to be his final major teaching document, Pope Francis has issued a bracing call to a fractured world to discover what he calls “a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words.” It could hardly be more timely.

Although he did not pen Fratelli tutti in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the virus hovers over its first chapter, in which he grimly surveys a world sliding back into fragmentation, egotism, and polarization, incapable of the consensus needed to cope with the challenge. But the encyclical was conceived in response to a much broader crisis in modernity, not just the pandemic, and it is on the persuasiveness of its diagnosis and prescription that it will be judged.

Like Laudato si’ in 2015, Fratelli tutti is inspired by the saint of Assisi, where on Saturday Francis signed his encyclical after Mass at the basilica. It was his first trip outside Rome since the lockdown, and the first time an encyclical has been signed outside the Vatican in more than two hundred years.

Fratelli tutti looks back to that iconic medieval act of border-blind fraternity: the meeting of the poverello with Sultan Malik al-Kamil in Egypt in the midst of the Crusades. The 800th anniversary of that event lay in the background to the so-called Abu Dhabi “document on human fraternity,” which Pope Francis co-signed with the grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar institute, Sheikh al-Tayyeb, in February 2019. Fratelli tutti develops the themes of that document, and ends with its declaration of principles.

To describe Fratelli tutti as valedictory encyclical does not mean—pace Italian commentators speaking of “the beginning of the end of the pontificate”—that this papacy is running out of steam: if anything, the COVID-19 crisis has re-energized Francis with an urgent sense that the Church needs to be at the center of reshaping the post-pandemic world. Many popes—one thinks of Saint Paul VI—can go on for many years after penning their final encyclical.

The main reason to think of Fratelli tutti as just that is that it bundles together a number of themes that in recent years have been rumored to be the basis for his final teaching document: the challenge of migration, the globalism-nationalism debate, as well as the need for a more definitive magisterial rejection of the idea that a “just war” is still possible in our time. It is almost as if, sensing his time coming to a close—not an irrational thought for a pope on the eve of his eighty-fourth birthday—he needed to package them all together.

Yet while it can feel like a potpourri—chapters on globalism/localism, politics, peacemaking, religions acting together for the common good—there is at the heart of Fratelli tutti a big idea, which I will come to shortly. And it has many of the virtues of his other landmark documents: streams of quotes from local bishops’ conferences and other religious leaders (especially al-Tayyeb), as well as contemporary culture—my favorite footnote is from a famous samba by the Brazilian poet-musician, Vinicius de Moraes— along with thinkers (especially Paul Ricoeur) and previous popes. Benedict XVI’s 2007 social encylical, Caritas in veritate, is especially prominent.

There is a second reason for thinking that Fratelli tutti closes out the teaching of this pontificate: it is the last of a triptych of landmark teaching documents concerned with restoring the three vital relationships of human existence: with our Creator (Evangelii gaudium, 2013), with creation (Laudato si’, 2015), and now with our fellow creatures (Fratelli tutti). There is little doubt that these three documents—the first of which, an exhortation, had the length, depth, and magisterial weight of an encyclical—will be considered the teaching backbone of the Francis era.

How does Fratelli tutti compare with the other two? At 43,000 words it is shorter than Evangelii gaudium (47,000) and Laudato si’ (45,000), but will still strike some as too long. Despite some impressive chapters and some brilliantly acute depictions of the contemporary world, Fratelli tutti has neither the personal, charismatic power of Evangelii gaudium nor the startling genius of Laudato si’; and, as is to be expected of any teaching document issued this late in a highly expressive pontificate, much of it will feel familiar.

Still, it remains an impressive document that speaks with uncanny directness to the breakdown of our time. Who but the pope could mobilize the Good Samaritan to confront post-truth politics, the corrosion of civility, the lies of populism, and the decline of the nation-state? Simply to hear Francis say that “things that until a few years ago could not be said by anyone without the loss of universal respect can now be said with impunity, and in the crudest of terms, even by some political figures,” or that “the biggest issue” facing the world right now is employment, brings a sense of relief. At least the pope gets it, and says it doesn’t have to be that way.

Fratelli tutti has one clear advantage over all his previous documents: it is superbly translated. Take, for example, paragraph 42 on the growing loss of privacy. A typically unimaginative Vatican translation from the Spanish original might have read: “In digital communication everything wants to be shown and every individual becomes the object of gazes that poke at people, stripping and exposing them, often anonymously.” Yet the English version of Fratelli tutti reads: “Digital communication wants to bring everything out into the open; people’s lives are combed over, laid bare and bandied about, often anonymously”—a fine rendition. Having read both Spanish and English, it’s clear that little has been lost in translation, and there are quite a few gains.

Still, the challenge of rendering the title remains. Because Fratelli tutti has no official English translation—the Vatican is leaving it as it is, because the pope did not want to change St. Francis’s own words—some Catholic feminists in the Anglo-Saxon world have claimed the title excludes women, because the saint was addressing his fellow friars.

Yet the original words of St. Francis in the Admonitiones were in Latin, fratres omnes, which could be rendered as either frati or fratelli. By using the latter, the encyclical universalizes the saint’s audience: he is addressing not just his fellow friars but the whole of humanity. Like hermanos in Spanish, fratelli in Italian is a masculine plural noun that includes the female. When Italians want to know how many brothers and sisters you have, they ask, “Quanti fratelli hai?” So the English translation of Fratelli tutti can only be “Brothers and Sisters All.” In case there’s any doubt, the encyclical resolves the issue not just in its first line—“‘FRATELLI TUTTI’: With these words, Saint Francis of Assisi addressed his brothers and sisters…”—but throughout the text, which speaks always of “men and women.”


Without fraternity, liberty descends into permissiveness and avarice, a license for the powerful to possess and exploit, while equality is reduced to a kind of abstraction.

At the core of Fratelli tutti is Francis’s conviction that the world is fast losing its sense of the oneness of the human family. With the disappearance of the common good, dialogue, and solidarity as animating social ideas, humanity is fast sliding into the darkness of civil strife, conflict, tribalism, and nationalism.

In part this is the outgrowth of a lopsided modernity. Of the three great aims of the French Revolution—liberty, equality and fraternity—the Western world has been obsessed with the first two, while ignoring or downgrading the third. Yet without fraternity, liberty descends into permissiveness and avarice, a license for the powerful to possess and exploit, while equality is reduced to a kind of abstraction, with endless squabbles over identity and a constant temptation to uniformity. Only a proper sense of the worth of every person and a recognition of his or her dignity provides an adequate basic principle of social life. “Unless this basic principle is upheld,” says Francis, “there will be no future either for fraternity or for the survival of humanity” (107).

These observations come in the third chapter, “Envisaging and engendering an open world.” The first chapter—about the world’s need of a savior—is called “Dark clouds over a closed world,” while the second chapter, “A stranger on the road,” features an exegesis on the Good Samaritan. The pattern of conversion can be read in those headings: from a fearful, isolated clinging to identity and tribe to another kind of humanity, in which compassion for the needs of all living beings—the foreigner, the stranger, the outsider—become a new kind of identity.

“Now there are only two kinds of people: those who care for someone who is hurting and those who pass by; those who bend down to help and those who look the other way and hurry off,” says Francis in paragraph 70. Religious belief and belonging are not enough to save us from this choice: the fact that it was the priest and the Levite who passed by is not to be overlooked: “It shows that belief in God and the worship of God are not enough to ensure that we are actually living in a way that is pleasing to God…. Paradoxically, those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers” (74).

Toward the end of Chapter Two, Francis gently applies the screws again. Given what believers come to understand through the words and presence of Christ in the poorest and neediest—that God loves every man and woman with infinite love, so conferring dignity upon them—“I sometimes wonder why,” the pope ponders, “it took so long for the Church unequivocally to condemn slavery and various forms of violence.” Today, he says, there can be no excuses, yet there are Christians who justify violent nationalism, xenophobia, and contempt, a fact that should prompt preachers and catechists to “speak more directly and clearly about…our reasons for loving and accepting all our brothers and sisters.”

Chapter Three then fleshes out the implications of this hermeneutic shift, which expresses itself in self-transcendence, ultimately the measure of a person’s spiritual stature. “Yet some believers,” Francis adds pointedly, “think that it consists in the imposition of their own ideologies upon everyone else, or in violent defense of the truth, or in impressive demonstrations of strength.”

He defines fraternal love as action directed toward others, “considering them of value…apart from their physical or moral appearances.” This is the love that, when cultivated, makes possible social friendship: now, “every brother or sister in need, when abandoned or ignored by the society in which I live, becomes an existential foreigner, even though born in the same country.” Such social friendship creates a “true universal openness,” as opposed to “the false universalism of those who constantly travel abroad because they cannot tolerate or love their own people.”

It is at this point, halfway through the third chapter, that Francis touches on what is arguably the big idea of Fratelli tutti. If the unifying idea of Laudato si’ was Romano Guardini’s contrast between the exploitative “technocratic paradigm” and the Gospel way of relating to the created world as gift, here Francis tells us in a footnote that his reflections have been inspired by an early essay by the French Protestant philosopher Paul Ricoeur titled “Le Socius et le Prochain” published in a collection called Histoire et Verité. The hermeneutic contrast here is between “the Associate” and “the Neighbor”: the person reduced to their static role, versus the fellow creature of God.

Reflecting on the Good Samaritan, Ricoeur says Jesus’s answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” is that “the neighbor is not a social object but a behavior in the first person…. One does not have a neighbor; I make myself someone else’s neighbor.” To do so requires moving out from a social role (le socius) to make yourself a neighbour (le prochain). The priest and the Levite are trapped in their roles and social functions, and are defined and limited by them; whereas the Samaritan—as a “nobody” and a despised foreigner—demonstrates a capacity for encounter and self-transcendence. Hence the shock of Matthew 25, to discover that Jesus is “in” the poor who are helped and served, a secret that remains veiled to those stuck in their social identity.

Francis notes that “those capable only of being ‘associates’ create closed worlds,” frameworks within which there is little or no room for those who are not part of their group. But he does not run with the rest of Ricoeur’s interesting reflection—that today’s world is increasingly defined by social function, as people move away from nature into organizations and institutions. The problem, says Ricoeur, is not modernity or technology per se, but the tendency to objectify people within the abstract, impersonal relationships of modern life, which in turn “dissimulate the movement of charity behind which stands the Son of Man.” Yet the associate and the neighbor are not antithetical but two dimensions of the same story: our relationship to our neighbor often passes through social institutions. The key is charity: whether directly or indirectly, it is the service of the needs of the other that creates fraternity.

Interestingly, the philosopher observes that it becomes easier to see each other as we are—beloved sons and daughters of a loving God—when struck by what Ricoeur calls “the failures of the social realm,” such as wars or great historical disasters. Only then, “socially stripped,” do we perceive “the depth of human relationships.”

It is odd that Francis did not develop this idea as a key theme of the encyclical, especially in the light of the “social stripping” wrought by the coronavirus. When he concludes Chapter Three by calling for “an alternative way of thinking” based on the “the great principle that there are rights born of our inalienable human dignity,” it is unclear how this conversion comes about (and what prevents it). To this reader, at least, the move from the road to Jericho to the language of rights is too abrupt. Although he later returns to the Ricoeur essay, developing its argument might have made it easier to understand the conversion of mindset Francis is urgently calling for.


Chapters Four, Five, and Six offer fruitful contributions to the challenges facing contemporary modernity: of the local/global debate, of the need for a new kind politics to transcend neoliberalism, and of the urgent need for a new kind of civic dialogue that can overcome the paralysis of contemporary polarization. In a darkening time, Fratelli tutti carves out a place in the sun for Catholics and anyone of goodwill who cares about the state of humanity.

Call it a new Christian humanism, an integral personalism, or simply commonsense wisdom at a time when that commodity is scarce: this space will be a vital refuge in the coming years, comparable, in its way, to the one created by the popes of the 1920s and ’30s in the face of totalitarianism. The so-called “third way” of the French personalists, nurtured in the face of fascism and war and promoted in the social encyclicals, became the basis for Christian democracy in the postwar world, and the incubator of the great multilateral institutions the populists now want to throw over.

Francis believes, naturally, in an open world of fraternal gratuitousness capable of welcoming the stranger who brings no apparent benefit. He argues here—as he did in Laudato si’ and as Benedict did before him—for new international bodies capable of meeting border-blind challenges at a time of enfeebled nation-states. But he is no unthinking globalist: the local has something the global lacks, and only the well-rooted can reach out to the other. The local and the global are in polar tension, but they are not antithetical: what is needed is a “healthy relationship between love of one’s native land and a sound sense of belonging to our larger human family” (149).

Francis’s critique of contemporary politics is robust. A neoliberal technocracy transfixed by the market and a populism that exploits fear to attain power are both failing to work for the common good. The pope calls for a politics of service, motivated by charity, that works to change the social conditions behind suffering; and he wants to see bold international political objectives: the elimination of hunger, for example, and an end to human trafficking.

Chapter Six, on dialogue and friendship in society, takes up the pressing issue of a communications world increasingly marked by verbal violence, in which people jostle to impose their ideas in power plays rather than engage in authentic dialogue to expand everyone’s horizons. “The heroes of the future,” Francis predicts, “will be those who can break with this unhealthy mindset and determine respectfully to promote truthfulness, aside from personal interest.” In an intriguing rebuttal to fundamentalists of all stripes who fear that dialogue erodes truth, Francis argues that there is no need “to oppose the interests of society, consensus, and the reality of objective truth,” which can be harmonized “whenever, through dialogue, people are unafraid to get to the heart of an issue.” He ends by arguing, simply, for a daily effort to be kind, which he says “frees us from the cruelty that at times infects human relationships.”

Chapter Seven, on war and conflict, closes off attempts to justify modern warfare on the basis of St. Augustine’s just-war framework. Although popes have long argued that the sheer destructiveness of modern warfare makes just-war doctrine all but obsolete, Francis’s footnote to paragraph 258 is unambiguous: St. Augustine, he says, “forged a concept of ‘just war’ that we no longer uphold in our own day.” In the text itself he explains that in view of the risks of war, it cannot be thought of as a solution, any more than the death penalty can be thought of as a solution to criminality. It would be hard to imagine George Weigel now penning a just-war defense for the invasion of Iraq while continuing to claim the mantle of orthodoxy.

Francis ends Fratelli tutti by taking up the theme of the Abu Dhabi document: that when they reject extremism and fundamentalism and collaborate in freedom, the world’s faiths open the eyes of human beings to their shared dignity and worth, calling them to a human fraternity that embraces all people and makes them equal. If this is to be, after all, Francis’s last encyclical, it is a powerful note on which to end.

Austen Ivereigh is a British biographer of Pope Francis, and a Fellow in contemporary Church history at Campion Hall, Oxford.

Also by this author
This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.