Unpacking ‘Fratelli Tutti’: Theologian David Cloutier Discusses Pope Francis’ Third Encyclical

The new writing calls on the world to unite in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty and political and social turmoil.

A special edition of  the Vatican newspaper containing the new encyclical is distributed in St. Peter’s Square  at the end of Pope Francis’ Sunday Angelus blessing  on Oct. 4 in Vatican City. Pope Francis introduced ‘Fratelli Tutti’ (All Brothers) and said he had the ‘joy of giving the new encyclical.’
A special edition of the Vatican newspaper containing the new encyclical is distributed in St. Peter’s Square at the end of Pope Francis’ Sunday Angelus blessing on Oct. 4 in Vatican City. Pope Francis introduced ‘Fratelli Tutti’ (All Brothers) and said he had the ‘joy of giving the new encyclical.’ (photo: Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

On Oct. 4, Pope Francis issued his third encyclical and his second social encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, calling on the world to come together in fraternal love in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and global social, economic and political fragmentation. 

Fratelli Tutti reiterates many of the major themes that Pope Francis has focused on throughout his pontificate, including his concern for the peripheries, a throwaway culture, mass migration, the disintegration of social cohesion and the need for human fraternity. Pope Francis also builds on the themes first expressed in the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” which he signed with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar, in Abu Dhabi in 2019. The encyclical is likewise unusual in that it is intended as “an invitation to dialogue among all people of good will.”

To assess the encyclical and its teachings, EWTN News Executive Editor Matthew Bunson interviewed David Cloutier, associate professor of moral theology at The Catholic University of America. 

Bunson-David Cloutier
David Cloutier, associate professor of moral theology at The Catholic University of America, explained the major themes of the new encyclical to the Register.(Photo: Courtesy of David Cloutier)


Pope Francis writes in this encyclical that “by acknowledging the dignity of each human person, we can contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity.” Why exactly does he have this sense of urgency about this message at this particular moment?

I think there are two contrasts that come out throughout this document that suggest the context for why he is urging us to acknowledge the dignity of every person. The first is he sees the world as divided and fragmenting, as lacking a sense of unity, as constantly involved in conflicts between camps that exclude, leave people out, wound people, harm people in various ways, and he thinks emphasizing the dignity of each person will be something that the world can unify around. It’s well known that one of the spurs for this document was his meeting in Abu Dhabi with the imam. I think he clearly suggests that all of the world’s religions can somehow come together behind defending the dignity of every person and that this can be a way to combat this division and fragmentation. The other contrast that runs throughout the document is a contrast between an open world and a closed world, or open and closed in various kinds of ways. A closed world is one where we focus on ourselves or on people who are near to us and therefore shut out people who are wounded and suffering, thereby harming their dignity. And so, the document over and over again, urges us to openness in all kinds of ways: on political grounds, on personal grounds, openness to others, especially to others who are suffering and wounded, rather than responding by closing ourselves off from that.


And talking about reaching out, Francis addresses Fratelli Tuttito the world. This reminds me perhaps incorrectly of Pope St. John XXIII, with his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris and his including “people of goodwill” at that moment of the Cold War and the social and political upheaval also taking place at that time. In a similar way, Francis seems very direct about wanting his letter to go to the world.

It’s well known that John XXIII issued Pacem in Terris in part because of his probable role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was perhaps the closest we ever came to an actual nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. And it’s rumored at least that the Pope was an important intermediary trying to stave off that conflict. And so he developed a real sense of urgency about the need to speak clearly to everyone in the world to head off such a global catastrophe. I think that Pope Francis feels the same way in the wake of coronavirus. Certainly, that incredibly stirring ceremony that he had early on in the pandemic in St. Peter’s Square was a sign of the way in which he seeks to be a light in the darkness of the age. And so this address to people of goodwill [included] the real intentional reaching out throughout the whole document to even nonbelievers. [Such a direct address also] signals his desire to somehow reconcile the world in this dark time.


In the first part of the encyclical, talking about a dark time, the Pope sort of provides a diagnosis of the many challenges and crises facing the world, but then he pivots almost immediately to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. What does he want us to learn from this?

Well, I hope people perhaps start their reading of the document with Chapter 2, where Pope Francis engages in this very close reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It really is the heart of what he has to say in the document. What does he want us to learn from that? Well, he follows the classic Ignatian scriptural contemplation of trying to get the reader to put themselves in the scene and imagine that they are either the passerby or they are the one who stops to help the wounded man and suggests to us that every day we make a decision to be the person who stops, who takes the time and the effort, and even the expense, to reach out to people who are wounded and suffering rather than pass by in fear and anxiety on the other side. In a way, that’s really the whole message of the encyclical. Are we the kind of person that sees suffering and responds like the Good Samaritan, or are we the kind of person who sees suffering and tries to pass by on the other side? And so it’s a very beautiful scriptural meditation.


And that question of all of us being part of the human race and that stress, then, on unity of the human race?

Right. Obviously Francis uses the scenario that Our Lord has given us, with the Samaritan being the one who helps the wounded Jew, to emphasize that this kind of aid to those who are wounded should not stop at the boundaries of our family or ethnic group or our nation, but, rather, it should reach out to any and every human being who is suffering. So there is this emphasis on the fact that we are all brothers, right? That’s the title of the document. And so this underlying emphasis on the idea that the human race is not a group of contesting people, or especially a group of contesting individuals, but, rather, that … we need to act in ways that open ourselves to this connection to other people.


In your analysis of the encyclical, you wrote about the universalisms and that there are a lot of “isms” under attack here. You document, for example, individualism, racism, consumerism neo-liberalism, nationalism, local narcissism. But then you also make the important point that none of what is articulated in these condemnations is new in the encyclical tradition. Certainly, as far as Pope Francis is concerned, we can add to that list [the flaws in] populism. So how does all of this sort of fit into his vision, then, of unity of the human race?

On this issue of “isms,” it’s important Francis offered as one of his maxims in his first writing, Evangelii Gaudium, that reality is more important than ideas [divorced from reality]. And when you see “ism,” you know you are not talking about an actual thing in the world: You are in fact talking about some kind of an idea. So I think the focus on the “isms” is the way in which we divide up the world by certain kinds of ways of thinking or ways of imagining the world. He uses the term “ideology” in a proper way and that these kinds of habits of mind or, you might say, attitudes infect us like diseases; but the focus is not attacking one or the other political party or group or something like that. It’s rather diagnosing diseases of the heart. I mean, that’s really important because that’s the reality — that all of these isms name a certain [mistaken] way of approaching reality. And all of them divide up reality into parts rather than looking for the whole.

In terms of [Pope Francis’] approach to populism, how much of his background informs his understanding — this is somebody who grew up in Argentina, lived through the age of Perón, who saw the juntas, the desaparecidos (disappeared ones). All of that certainly had a hand in shaping his worldview on a lot of things. So could you talk a little bit about his conception of populism as potentially being different from, say, an American conception of it?

Well, it is interesting, if you look at the section in Chapter 5 on populism, it’s one of his more nuanced sections. He clearly wants to condemn a certain kind of populism, but he also speaks very positively about the idea of the people. He says that if we give up on the idea of the people, that we’re not going to get a good politics, and that there is a kind of proper idea of the people and the voice of the people and the spirit of the people that is somehow distorted by what he sometimes calls a narrow populism. And this narrow populism, he defines, if I could just quote him, as a way of [how some government leaders] exploit politically a people’s culture for the leaders’ own personal advantage or to continue their own grip on power. So leaders use the proper spirit of a people in order to serve their own particular political interests. I think that’s the kind of populism that he’s condemning. 

But I do think it’s very interesting, given [Pope Francis’] basically populist background in Argentina, that he doesn’t offer a straight up condemnation of populism. Rather, he condemns a certain kind of populism that isn’t actually from the people, but rather as a matter of manipulating the people towards certain kinds of ends of the politically powerful.


Now, we’ve certainly seen in earlier social encyclicals from the popes — I think in particular of some of the encyclicals from John Paul II — that the popes had some very remarkable critiques, I would say, of capitalism. Francis himself has been accused of an anti-capitalist tendency. So, in this encyclical, what is someone in business going to derive from this? And what is Francis actually calling on them to do?

He reemphasizes the point that St. John Paul II made very clearly: that business should operate for the good of the society and that the broader social objective he defined is not a welfare state … but rather a dignified life through work. The emphasis, I think, for business leaders should be to look at ways in which they can create truly dignified jobs, jobs that are inclusive, that bring in people [who] honor people’s dignity, who are attentive to the ways in which they [who work for them] are wounded. 

He doesn’t use this example, but I’m just thinking of employment programs that try to help ex-prisoners find jobs. Ex-prisoners have great difficulty finding jobs in our society because criminal background checks are pretty universal, and there is no way for an employer to tell the difference between a criminal who has mended his ways and [one who has] not. And so the employer just sees a criminal background and says, “No thanks. I won’t go there.” I think one instantiation of this as a business person would be to realize that, in fact, the ex-prisoner needs work, needs dignified work to live a good life. And so they [business leaders] should seek ways to include these [people] rather than pass by on the side of the road.


And there’s also quite a bit of a stress in this document on the universal destination of goods, which is obviously a pretty significant aspect of Catholic social teaching.

And not as well-known as it should be. He, you know, suggested in Laudato Sithat this is the golden rule of Catholic social teaching. John Paul II calls it the first principle of Catholic social teaching. The teaching states that essentially our property is not ultimately ours, that it has a “social mortgage.” It’s simply a teaching that private property ultimately is destined for the good of all. And so people should use it in ways that promote the good of all, rather than simply their own private good. Now, of course, that does not mean you don’t feed your family and all of those kinds of things, but the teaching is clear. Francis also reemphasizes the centrality of the universal destination of goods in this document in particular, to emphasize the duty that rich countries have to welcome migrants from poor countries. As a way of practicing the universal destination of goods, essentially rich countries share their wealth by allowing people to migrate and find a dignified form of life in their country, if they’re unable to do it in their home country.


But this would in no way be sort of an abrogation of the rights of private property that were first so beautifully articulated by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum.

Oh, certainly not. It’s a clear ordering of principles, which is to say that the right of private property is the ordinary way in which we exercise the universal destination of goods. We give people property so that they can be stewards of it, and Leo, of course, was writing at a time when socialism and the abolition of private property was on the rise. And certainly the universal destination of goods does not suggest that the proper owner of goods is the government. Nowhere does Catholic teaching suggest that that is the case. What it does suggest is that owners have responsibility — ownership means responsibility. And it is a moral error when I think “This is my property, and I can do what I want with it.” That second part — “I can do what I want with it” is the moral error. No, in fact, to have property is to have responsibility and to think about how to constructively use that property for the good of all.


Now, one of the other aspects that sometimes is misinterpreted in terms of Francis is his view of the death penalty. He has some things to say in this encyclical about it, but some are claiming that he has somehow changed a Church teaching. What does he actually say in Fratelli Tutti about that?

Fratelli Tutti simply reiterates the statement Pope Francis made in 2018: that the death penalty is inadmissible. He doesn’t use the term “intrinsic evil,” and that seems significant, from the perspective of moral theology. But, in fact, what he is teaching in Fratelli is simply an explication of what particularly John Paul II put into motion in Evangelium Vitae, suggesting that the death penalty is never an appropriate punishment for crime. That is to say, the death penalty never fits the crime. And so it can never be an appropriate retributive punishment. Francis makes it clear that the death penalty always involves a certain kind of attitude of vengeance. And here again, this is not a new teaching. In fact, the first edition of the Catechism, which was published before John Paul II, included a traditional statement that certain crimes could deserve the death penalty. 

That is injustice. The idea that death could ever be a justifiable punishment was refuted and excised from Church teaching by Joseph Ratzinger and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith after John Paul II issued Evangelium Vitae,in which he stated that the death penalty was only appropriate in cases where society could not otherwise defend itself from further harm, essentially subordinating capital punishment to an argument for self-defense, instead of understanding it as a matter of justice. And Francis in Fratelli Tuttisimply explains that the change in the Church’s understanding of the death penalty is a matter of saying the death penalty can never be understood as a just action in the sense of a person deserving death for the actions that person has taken.


Similarly, he’s sometimes misinterpreted in his view of politics, and he uses a very interesting phrase in Fratelli Tutti about building a “politics of love.” Given the political situation which we find ourselves globally, that’s a rather ambitious phrase, it seems to me.

Ambitious or utopian, he does say at one point that this document requires a kind of alternative way of thinking or else we’ll look, quote, wildly unrealistic.


Pope Paul VI was accused of something similar with Populorum Progressio, wasn’t it? In 1967.

What does he mean by political love, though? And what he means is this: to go back to the theme that comes out in the document, over and over again, of fraternity and social friendship. Those aren’t phrases that, especially in the United States, we’re used to; we don’t really use them in the public realm. But what both of them are supposed to suggest is that there is a way in which political society, political relationships between citizens, aren’t simply kind of balance-of-power relationships, where we bargain with another person, and we have interests in rights, and they have interests and rights, and we try to get a good deal that works out for everyone. There are times when that’s the appropriate relationship, but to talk about fraternity or to talk about social friendship is to say that, in some sense, we are meant to be friends with everyone.

We’re not meant to regard friendship only as a private relationship, just as we are not meant to understand brotherhood or sisterhood merely as a private relationship within the family; rather, the kinds of bonds that we experience with brothers and sisters and friends are supposed to be enacted analogously in the political realm. And so, again, that is not at all a new concept, but the emphasis is clearly to push us away from this idea that politics is merely a matter of trying to strike a bargain with someone or, even worse, trying to destroy someone. Because when you can’t strike a bargain, then you just have to defeat them somehow. And that would really be the opposite of social friendship.


Talking about social friendships and unity and fragmentation, he has some very strong words for those in media and communications, including many of us in Catholic media. He writes, for example, that “the media’s noisy potpourri of facts and opinions is often an obstacle to dialogue.”

Yes, well, the document offers some striking criticisms of the virtual world, and especially in the wake of COVID, where so much activity has shifted online, and many people are speculating about how much more online activity there will be even after the pandemic. Francis is extremely critical of the virtual space. And I think the criticisms of media polarization and the harsh words that he uses about media go back to the fact that the media have to function these days in such a difficult uncivilized environment in the digital space. Pope Francis is seeking political leaders who are open to dialogue, look after the interests of the wounded and the difficult, and who take time to listen and process. In a similar way, the Pope is looking for media that emphasize all of those same qualities, because those are the qualities that develop genuine relationships. So you could in fact say that the criticisms of the media, politics and individuals in the marketplace are all the same criticism. They’re all criticism of whether you are taking the time in your encounter with other people to develop real relationships.


And these are critiques or analysis that we have seen in other social encyclicals from many other popes. So I guess my last question for you is: How does Fratelli Tutti stand in continuity with those social encyclicals, especially the modern Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II and, of course, Benedict XVI.

It seems to me that the document is in complete continuity with those social encyclicals. It does not set out to offer any novel teachings. What it does to develop tradition I would sum up in three ideas: One, it focuses so intensely, as Francis almost always does, on the personal attitude of the person towards other persons; that at the heart of Christianity is how you encounter other people, especially other wounded, suffering people. And so it takes all of these social themes and focuses it on that very strongly. Two, the document says more about immigration than any document in the encyclical tradition in many ways, and immigration is the subtheme of all of these different criticisms. He thinks countries should be welcoming to immigrants, and there is the potentially developed teaching in what he says about immigration.

And then, third, while he does not say anything on war that is discontinuous with tradition, he does have a section on war that tries to push beyond traditional just-war teaching towards a commitment to peace. At the very least, he suggests that just-war reasoning is often abused; that wars are often called “just” when they are not truly just. And I would say, in that way, he is developing a teaching. But again, even on these points, he does not say anything that we haven’t seen other popes in the modern times say, and he quotes copiously from them to prove it.