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.”