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Fratelli Tutti and Impulses for Renewal Politics

Pope Francis makes no secret of the fact that he considers politics important. He commented on politics because he considers politics to be one of the most important human activities having a fundamental influence on the life of people. However, he always adhered to the principle that, as a representative of the church, he does not support any specific political party or ideology but offers politicians ethical criteria for their activities. Therefore, it is not surprising that he pays a lot of attention to the field of social and political ethics even as the bishop of Rome. It can be observed already in his ‘program document’ Evangelii gaudium, in many shorter texts and speeches, and, of course, it can also be observed in his two social encyclicals. It is worth noting that Pope Francis became only the third pope in history (after John XXIII and John Paul II) writing more than one social encyclical. In the light of the current situation in Europe, which is shaped in many ways by Russia’s aggressive war in Ukraine and the related energy crisis, I would like to return briefly to his second social encyclical and the principles for politics that we find in it.

To express his point of view, Francis uses the notion of political love, which was used already by Pius XI approximately one hundred years ago: “For whereas individuals can help others in need, when they join together in initiating social processes of fraternity and justice for all, they enter the ‘field of charity at its most vast, namely political charity’.” (FT 180) He explains in article 186 what political love means: “It is an act of charity to assist someone suffering, but it is also an act of charity, even if we do not know that person, to work to change the social conditions that caused his or her suffering. If someone helps an elderly person cross a river, that is a fine act of charity. The politician, on the other hand, builds a bridge, and that too is an act of charity. While one person can help another by providing something to eat, the politician creates a job for that other person, and thus practices a lofty form of charity that ennobles his or her political activity.”

Political love manifests especially in solidarity. Here, Pope Francis again refers to Pius XI and his social encyclical Quadragesimo anno (1931), where we find the concept of social love, i.e. primary regard for the poor, weak, vulnerable and marginalized people, related to the common good. Furthermore, the Pope says that politicians should not solve the situation of the poor in a paternalistic way but should proceed according to the principle of subsidiarity (cf. FT 187). And finally, it is about concern for people, respect for human dignity and efforts to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights (cf. FT 189-191).

This is, of course, nothing completely new, as all this was already formulated in earlier documents of the Catholic Social Teaching. However, some accents are new: Pope Francis very often encourages dialogue. In the encyclical Fratelli tutti, he devotes the entire sixth chapter to the topic of dialogue.

An important element of political love is respect for the truth: Politicians should know the reality of the people and take into account professional research and scientific expertise. Furthermore, they must handle information responsibly which, among other things, means not to manipulate information and reality for personal profit as well as not to bend them in favour of their own ideology.

Responsibility is for Pope Francis one of the foundations of ethics. He realizes that for a long time the Catholic Church promoted rather an ethic of obedience. Starting with the Second Vatican Council at the latest, the Church is moving towards an ethic of responsibility. Each person should take responsibility for his actions and therefore should also think critically about the demands of political authorities. But it seems that some people want to go in the opposite direction: Faced with the complexity of the world and unwillingness to accept responsibility, they choose politicians who claim to solve all their problems in exchange for loyalty. According to Pope Francis, this is dangerous because the power entrusted to such politicians in this way can be easily abused.

In the context of the war in Ukraine, we should also mention Francis’ reflections on war, which we find in Fratelli tutti. Here, we also find some critical views on just war theory:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the possibility of legitimate defence by means of military force, which involves demonstrating that certain ‘rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy’ have been met. Yet it is easy to fall into an overly broad interpretation of this potential right. In this way, some would also wrongly justify even ‘preventive’ attacks or acts of war that can hardly avoid entailing ‘evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated’. At issue is whether the development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and the enormous and growing possibilities offered by new technologies, have granted war an uncontrollable destructive power over great numbers of innocent civilians. The truth is that ‘never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely’. We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war’. Never again war! (FT 258)

However, according to the pope’s recent statements, it seems that the Ukrainian war motivated him to make some modifications. And even in the encyclical itself, Pope Francis explicitly emphasizes the right to self-defense: “We are called to love everyone, without exception; at the same time, loving an oppressor does not mean allowing him to keep oppressing us, or letting him think that what he does is acceptable. On the contrary, true love for an oppressor means seeking ways to make him cease his oppression; it means stripping him of a power that he does not know how to use, and that diminishes his own humanity and that of others.” (FT 241) Just war teaching, when placed in the context of efforts for a just peace and shaped by a human rights ethos, does not lose its relevance even today.[1] As Eberhard Schockenhoff says: “The just war teaching should no longer be understood as a contradiction, but rather as a complement to the paradigm of peace ethics.”[2] Initiatives of Pope Francis can be understood as a contribution to the transformation of mentality and compass on the way to peaceful coexistence between nations. Reading the encyclical Fratelli tutti and thinking about its message is very worthwhile, especially in these times.

[1] Cf. essay by Ingeborg Gabriel from June 2022:

[2] Eberhard Schockenhoff, „Welche Impulse kann Theologie der Friedensethik geben?“ In: Veronika Bock et al. (ed.), Christliche Friedensethik vor den Herausforderungen des 21. Jahrhunderts, Baden-Baden: Nomos 2015, 47-69, here 69; cf. Alexander Merkl, „Das „trügerische Gespenst des Krieges“ (FT 260): ein Umbruch in der kirchlichen Friedenslehre?“ In: Ursula Nothelle-Wildfeuer/Lukas Schmitt (ed.), Unter Geschwistern? Die Sozialenzyklika Fratelli tutti: Perspektiven – Konsequenzen – Kontroversen, Freiburg i. Br.: Herder 2021, 193-206.