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Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter Fratelli tutti – Focal Points and Aspects from the Discussion in Germany

Pope Francis‘ letter on universal fraternity and love without borders – published in the midst of the Covid-19 Pandemic – is a remarkable call to hope and to action in the name of evangelical love. At the same time, it articulates a strong critique of what is going wrong in the world in terms of social and cultural communication, of political development and economic interaction. Once again the Pope raises his voice referring to Francis of Assisi with the title Fratelli tutti quoting the saint, by choosing Assisi as the place and the vigil of Saint Francis’ feast as the date of the encyclical’s presentation. The Franciscan scenery symbolizes an engagement for love, for peace, for interreligious openness and for the growing human awareness of being embedded in and dependent on the community of the entire creation (FT 1-5).

The latter aspect had been the main focus of Laudato si’ (2015). The new document is innovative in that it presents an interreligiously widened perspective of fraternity and love. Significantly Pope Francis refers to the common Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together he signed together with Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb in 2019 in the introduction as well as in the closing part of the text (FT 5;285) and several times in between.

On the one hand the pope reflects fraternal love as the focal point of a virtue ethics for living together in a world shaped by mutual interdependency and diversity in terms of ethnic, social, political and religious belonging. On the other hand, he highlights universal love as a dimension of political interaction, implementation of social human rights and the institutionalization of welfare. It seems that the pope offers his message of universal fraternal love as a counterpart and remedy against the consequences of power asymmetries, the exclusion of the poor and the building of walls both physically and mentally against refugees and migrants looking for access and hospitality. Love functions as the major motif of recognizing the other one as equal human being with equal dignity and equal human rights. It serves as a foundation on which support for the needy is offered regardless of their ethnic or political belonging.

The second chapter of the encyclical (FT 56-86) elaborates what universal fraternity and social friendship truly mean by reflecting the biblical parable on the Good Samaritan (Lk 10,25-37). It is the pharisee’s question ‘who is my neighbour?’ that makes Jesus tell the story. Instead of bluntly answering the question, Jesus offers an inverse perspective by telling how the Samaritan – a person whose belonging to the people of Israel is at least doubtful – makes himself the neighbour of the vulnerated person he met on his way. The story serves as an example of recognition of the ‚other‘ and at the same time of love across borders. Diversity must not impede recognition, and the experience of being different from the other one must not raise walls beyond which I have no further responsibility. The focal question is whether I feel engaged by realizing the situation of a vulnerated person, by being confronted with the neediness of the other one. It is not important whether I know him or not, whether she belongs to my community or not, whether he trusts in my God or not. The story as such and its engagement in the encyclical serve as a strong plea against the dualistic model of ‘we versus the other’.

Pope Francis is very much aware of the counter-factual, if not utopian character of his message. Nonetheless he presents it as not simply idealistic. He trusts in a specific kind of realism nourished by Christian faith which transcends and complements the notion of rational insight. Grounded in the gospel and based on the trust in God’s mercy he nonetheless does not claim the potential of love as exclusively Christian. Religious faith in general is proclaimed as source of hope and trust in the potential of love which functions not only as a measure of social and political critique but also as a motivation to  action. The last chapter of the encyclical (FT 271-287) therefore calls religious communities of all faiths to take their responsibility and to contribute to building a more fraternal and peaceful world.

The basic notion of fraternity and universal love as a leitmotif not only of personalist ethics but also of a political ethics mainly found a positive echo in the German discussion – both in the public discourse and in theological ethics. When it caused some critical reactions even before the document had been published this seemed to derive from a linguistic problem: In the German-speaking context the use of the terms fraternity and fraternal love provoked irritation because the term ‘fraternity’ (in German: Brüderlichkeit) does not sound inclusive in terms of gender. Different from the Romance languages it refers only to brothers. Therefore, the title was criticised for indicating ignorance of the sisters. Although from the standpoint of other language-contexts this critique might seem unwarranted, it cannot simply be denied that Fratelli tutti projects a gender-asymmetric perspective. Even where women are explicitly referred to, it is only with regard to their specific vulnerability and as victims of abuse, violence, human trafficking and enslavement, as especially Catholic women’s associations rightly criticised. Though this specific vulnerability is, unfortunately, part of women’s reality all over the world, it is unsatisfyingly deficit-oriented to focus on women only in this perspective. It reveals a specific ignorance of their agency and strength.

As were the previous texts of Pope Francis, especially the Apostolic letter Evangelii Gaudium (2013) and the Encyclical letter Laudato si’ (2015), the tone and habitus of Fratelli tutti is mainly characterised by prophetic critique and the language of exhortation. Going along with this style Pope Francis calls to mind important normative pieces and convictions of CST – such as the (global) common good and the priority of the universal destination of the earth’s goods over the right to private property (FT 123), the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity and the importance of social human rights and the rights of the peoples as protective shields of human dignity (FT 111).

Within this horizon the pope criticises cultural, political and economic tendencies which ignore the necessities of the common good and foil fraternity and solidarity on the levels of both personal interaction and social cohesion. It is quite obvious that critique as such is not the aim of his intervention. What Pope Francis aims at is a more humane and inclusive perspective on the potential of human existence: He wants to contribute to building a community which is truly universalistic and inclusive. Due to the prophetic gesture, critique is strong and the social analysis remains on a rather generalized level without going into details of the criticised phenomena.

In Germany this attitude caused harsh critique especially with regard to the economy. Economists and journalists criticised how the Pope speaks about the market economy and doubted his expertise in this field. Not taking into account the genus of ‚prophetic‘ speech the critique stated a lack of knowledge as to the functionings of markets and a lack of analytic precision. It is true that the encyclical does not offer a balanced analysis of the potential, the efficiency and the advantages of a market economy (although it is not simply ignorant of its advantages). But its focus is on the lack of just participation and its aim is to raise attention for the poor and the marginalized who remain in the shadow while being excluded from market participation.

More acceptance has been given to the harsh critique of the recently growing phenomena of nationalism, (right-wing-)populism, racism and hate speech especially in the social media. Ideologies fighting religious and ethnic minorities, refugees and migrants seem to have gained strength in recent years. During the months of the Corona-Pandemic quite different groups of opponents against the restrictions to fight the Pandemic showed up in the German public (as elsewhere). Strange coalitions appeared when people came together to demonstrate against the Corona-measures: people who are afraid of a weakening of freedom rights, followers of populist groups and of the right-wing party ‘Alternative für Deutschland’, extremist movements and people who fight the democratic society and doubt the legitimacy of the state as such (‘Reichsbürger’). Although these are rather small minorities in relation to the whole of society their aggressive presence in the public makes people aware of dangerous shifts of political sentiment. In this atmosphere the papal impulse seems timely and realistic. His message of universal fraternity and social friendship forms a counterpart against political tendencies of nationalism, separation and populist agitation on the cost of migrants, minorities and pleas for an order that defends the equal rights of all persons regardless of their belonging and citizenship.

Fratelli tutti is a rich and fruitful contribution to the present social and political situation worldwide as it gives important impulses to reflect the ethical resources of social cohesion, solidarity and justice. Nonetheless the text implies some challenges for ethical reflection in general and especially for social ethics: A major question that needs further discussion is the significance of love as ethical principle and its relation to justice. Even a faith-based social ethics probably needs not to be restricted to fraternal love but to connect it with the complex system of justice as means of analysing complex ethical challenges in the political field as well as in the areas of economics, ecology and culture.

Analogous challenges arise when dealing with solidarity (fraternity). The tradition of CST elaborated solidarity not only as a virtue (although this aspect is often highlighted) but also as a principle on which the structures of society should be based. To meet the major challenges of social justice for each and everyone it remains an urgent task to build, stabilize and develop further structures of solidarity – in terms of public health services, public unemployment insurance, pension funds and the like. With regard to the dense international and global dependencies, global mobility and the asymmetries of social and economic participation it appears more and more as a major challenge to develop structures of solidarity on the international level.

Another question which needs deeper inquiry is the way Pope Francis and the broader CST tradition of the last decades engage with human rights. No doubt there is a strong engagement of the church to defend the social rights of the poor and to strengthen the rights of the peoples as to development, peace and ecological integrity. This seems to go along with a deeply rooted scepticism against individual freedom. The relationship between freedom of the person with all its implications (individual freedom rights; rights to political participation) on the one hand and social and economic justice (social rights) on the other hand turns out to be a crucial issue for the future of humankind right now.

Many other topics would be worth being evaluated and discussed. But one last point must not be missed: The pope’s trust in the resources of faith, of the world’s religions and their responsibility and resilience is not only a call to hope and action. It also raises serious questions to be addressed at the Church herself as a social institution and as a faith-based moral entity. What about fraternal love and social friendship as major orientation within the church? What about recognition of the other one regardless of his or her individual condition in the field of moral teaching? What about the ecclesial communication based on universal love between clerics and Christians without an ordination, between members of the hierarchy and so-called lay people, between men and women? What about the resources of recognition, of love and of justice in dealing with the scandal of sexualized violence and spiritual abuse? – The encyclical does not make many words about the ecclesial aspects of universal love and social friendship. Without a credible testimony of adopting these criteria of social interaction and the building of peace the message will not remain sustainable.