A friend of mine told me that after reading Fratelli tutti he wondered how a document that is so full of obvious truisms could also be so radical. Pope Francis’s latest encyclical breaks little new ground, but the ground upon which we all stand has shifted to such an extent that talk of “fraternal love” sounds both outdated and revolutionary. Part of the reason it sounds outdated is the use of gender-specific language. Would it have killed the Vatican to be more inclusive? But the encyclical also sounds utopian—in a shocking and, I think, necessary way—when set against the divisiveness and hopelessness we are currently experiencing.
The first chapter of Fratelli tutti surveys the devastation in dispiriting detail. The “openness” trumpeted by neoliberalism turned out to be an empty slogan that allowed international capital to take advantage of vulnerable localities, “massifying” the world but further dividing the haves from the have-nots. The aggressive nationalist response to globalism exacerbates division and the fear of others, especially migrants and refugees. People uprooted from traditional forms of community are easily mobilized by ideologies that feed on resentment and create enemies within their communities. Politics today seeks not the common good but power through scapegoating and discrediting others. The pandemic has both revealed our interconnectedness and exposed and increased our fragmentation. We have made the isolation and death worse by treating health care as a consumer item available to those who can pay for it. Through all of this desolation, truth-telling and leadership have been in short supply. “Things that until a few years ago could not be said by anyone without risking the loss of universal respect can now be said with impunity, and in the crudest of terms, even by some political figures.” Surely it cannot be a mere coincidence that this sentence appears in paragraph forty-five!
Because the encyclical was released in the heat of the U.S. election season, I was particularly interested in Pope Francis’s chapter on “A Better Kind of Politics.” The fact that Francis does not get there until chapter five, however, is an important indicator of the kind of politics he has in mind. Toward the end of the first chapter, he makes clear that we are faced with too much information and not enough wisdom. The solution to the devastation will not be merely political—at least not in the sense of technocratic answers implemented from above. A change of leadership at the top, the triumph of one party over another, will not suffice. What is needed is a more patient and grassroots process of “interpersonal encounters” (48) among people who live and think differently: “The process of building fraternity, be it local or universal, can only be undertaken by spirits that are free and open to authentic encounters” (50). A better kind of politics will come only through sustained and genuine engagement with our sisters and brothers.