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Fratelli Tutti: seeking the common good

  • 07 October 2020
  Pope Francis’ latest encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti is, as we might have anticipated, a reflection on our times. Its timing was fortuitous, bridging the inarticulate hostility of the presidential debate and Joe Biden’s decision to forego negative campaigning in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis. The burden of the encyclical is to commend fraternity and social friendship and deplore selfishness and hostility in the response to the crisis.

The first words of the encyclical are part of a quotation from St Francis of Assisi, in which he commends a fraternity that crosses all boundaries of distance and culture as central to his followers. Social friendship — which refers to the privileging of respect for persons and so for the common good over individual interests in social, economic and institutional relationships — flows from an attitude of fraternity.

St Francis has deeply influenced the Pope, who took his name, has attended gatherings of religious leaders in Assisi to pray, and signed this encyclical there. Francis of Assisi, who had a deep sense of God’s presence in nature, also undertook a dangerous journey to meet the Sultan in Egypt and dissuaded his Friars from dispute when meeting Saracens. In an encyclical initially intended to focus on the fraternal relationships between religions, exemplified in the common statement Pope Francis signed in Abu Dhabi with Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, the association with the saint was apposite.

As the encyclical developed, Pope Francis expanded its scope to reflect on the COVID-19 crisis and on the dangers and opportunities created by the need to respond to it. Stylistically, the change of focus makes for a baggy elephant of a document. The influence of Francis of Assisi, however, hangs over it. He was contemplative, radical in his poverty and his association with people who were poor, was a standing reproach to the greed and violence of his own society, and had an influence out of proportion to his social standing.

The encyclical begins by examining the signs of a lack of fraternity in society that contribute to a closed world. The list is long and comprehensive, including the erosion of human rights, the dominance of ideologies of economic self-interest over the common good, the treatment of refugees, the poisoning of public conversation and communication, and the many forms of discrimination. All these evils find expression in disrespect for vulnerable human beings.

The moral compass of the document is then provided by an exposition