In ‘Fratelli Tutti,’ the Good Samaritan Becomes an ‘Icon for Our Time’
NEWS ANALYSIS: Pope Francis’ new encyclical teaches that ‘universal scope’ of fraternal love should animate world’s response to political, social and economic divides.
When Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis’ encyclical on fraternity and social friendship, was published on Oct. 4, the reaction in the partisan-charged, politically-inundated United States was somewhat predictable.
Some quarters framed the document as a position paper on contentious public-policy issues, like the death penalty and immigration. Others presented it primarily as a rebuke of capitalism and populist politics, suggesting the Pope’s decision to release the document on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi had more to do with influencing the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 3 than with the inspiration of “the saint of fraternal love” (FT, 2).
According to Pope Francis’ fellow Jesuit William McCormick, these sorts of approaches miss the mark. The Saint Louis University political theorist and Jesuit priest-in-formation tells the Register that Fratelli Tutti “cannot be reduced to sound bites.” He called the 43,000-word document “an extended meditation upon solidarity,” a principle of Catholic social teaching described by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “a direct demand of human and Christian brotherhood” (1939).
McCormick recommends interpreting Fratelli Tutti not through a framework of policy considerations or partisan perspectives, but through a person: the Good Samaritan, as described by Jesus Christ.
A Paradigmatic Parable
For Pope Francis, McCormick recently wrote, the Good Samaritan is the exemplar of the solidarity called for in Fratelli Tutti.
The Pope writes in the encyclical’s second chapter that the Good Samaritan’s love is not bound by his cultural differences with the Judean man to whom he ministers (62). Nor does he use inconvenience as an excuse not to provide aid, as the Levite and the priest do (63), or to expect some kind of reward for his generosity (79). Instead of focusing on whether the man he encounters is “close enough” to be his neighbor, the Samaritan is an example of Christians’ calling “to become neighbors to all” (81).
“Jesus’ parable summons us to rediscover our vocation as citizens of our respective nations and of the entire world, builders of a new social bond,” writes the Pope.
Kim Daniels, associate director of the Initiative for Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University, suggests that Pope Francis has pointed to the Good Samaritan as an “icon for our time.”
“[The Pope] is calling us to resist ‘abstract moralizing’ and instead act as neighbors in solidarity with the suffering and vulnerable,” Daniels, who moderated a discussion on Fratelli Tutti on Oct. 5, told the Register.
Francis’ treatment of the Good Samaritan and solidarity is also the heart of the entire document. It’s preceded by a chapter entitled “Dark Clouds Over a Closed World,” which describes many of the ways — from economic exploitation to politics of fear and hate, empty individualism to cultural colonization — that humanity is currently failing its call to universal fraternity, made all the clearer by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gladden Pappin, Ph.D., a professor of politics at the University of Dallas, described this first chapter as “a searing critique of how the sentiment of fraternity was co-opted by an economic system, which created endless division in the name of a corrupt globalism.”
The second chapter on the Good Samaritan is then followed by chapters that consider practical realities like economics, immigration and politics through the perspective of universal fraternity.
“The encyclical thus has to be understood as rooted in the caritas that nourishes the virtue of solidarity,” said McCormick, who has challenged agenda-driven perspectives on the papacy before, “and in Pope Francis' understanding of how Catholic social teaching should be applied to the complex and varied social realities of our times.”
Other experts are pointing out the importance of considering Fratelli Tutti in light of Francis’s other social encyclicals, Evangeli Gaudium (2013) and Laudato Si (2015). While those two encyclicals focused on, respectively, restoring man’s relationship with God and creation, Fratelli Tutti attends to right relationships within the human family.
The document is also being described as both building upon the teachings of previous popes while also synthesizing and reemphasizing many of the themes Francis has underscored during his seven-year pontificate. In fact, most of Fratelli Tutti’s citations refer to previous addresses or writings by the current pope, and several of its 288 paragraphs are mostly or entirely block quotes from these sources.
One focus of Francis’ that was reasserted: The Holy Father’s statement that the death penalty is “inadmissible.” This referred to a change in the Catechism (2267) made during the Argentinian’s papacy, which a leading theologian recently told Catholic News Agency was both a “prudential application” of Church teaching, but also one that required a degree of assent from the faithful.
“There can be no stepping back from this position,” reiterated Pope Francis, who asked Christians “who remain hesitant on this point” to look to Jesus’ instruction to his disciple in the Garden of Gethsemane to “put your sword back into its place” (Matthew 26:52) as “an enduring appeal” that “reaches the present.”
Encounter and dialogue are other constancies of Pope Francis’ magisterium present in the new document, with chapters devoted to both “Dialogue and Friendship in Society” and “Paths of Renewed Encounter.” In contrast to “the feverish exchange of opinions on social networks” and “the media’s noisy potpourri of facts and opinions,” Francis says that authentic social dialogue “involves the ability to respect the other’s point of view and admit that it may include legitimate convictions and concerns” (FT, 203).
Commenting on this papal emphasis, Stephen White of the Ethics and Public Policy Center notes that a solidarity that grows to embrace “the common good of all people,” regardless of their country or creed, can only begin with each person’s interactions with those immediately in his/her life through a “culture of encounter” (FT, 216-217).
“This vision of human fraternity is a challenge to both the radical individualism and abstract internationalism prevalent in our day,” he said.
While encounter and dialogue are central themes of Francis’ vision for authentic fraternity — whether on an interpersonal level or between nations — Pia de Solenni, the president and executive director of The Global Institute of Church Management, notes that they’re also needed by those who wish to have a fruitful reading of Fratelli Tutti, something she hasn’t seen much of in the encyclical’s immediate reception.
“The document itself requires encounter, and, instead, many of us are just trying to fit it into our preconceived narratives,” said Solenni, a moral theologian who formerly served as chancellor of the Diocese of Orange, California.
While Francis’ spiritual reflection on Christian solidarity is the heart of his new encyclical, the document also undeniably generates direct and often challenging teachings on real-world realities.
“The Church’s social teaching is beautiful and good, but it is finally a practical teaching,” said McCormick, who says that, for Pope Francis, “contemplation and action are always closely linked.”
Two of the most forceful areas of application in the encyclical are politics and economics.
The Pope levels harsh criticism against a kind of rigid adherence to free-market principles in spite of, he suggests, evidence that such systems do not serve the common good nor respect person’s dignity.
“The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith,” the Pope writes in Paragraph 168, a lengthy and pointed critique of today’s global economic status quo. “There is little appreciation of the fact that the alleged ‘spillover [of wealth]’ does not resolve inequality that gives rise to new forms of violence threatening the fabric of society. “
Elsewhere, Pope Francis criticizes systems that incentivize greed and ambition while claiming that “safety nets,” presumably referring to welfare, are adequate safeguards of the common good (105). He also decries the dominance of politics by economic factors (177) and says fraternity “will remain just another vague ideal” in a society “governed primarily by the criteria of market freedom and efficiency” (109). Among his corrections, Francis insists that economies must prioritize providing meaningful work to all citizens (162).
Some Catholics have criticized Fratelli Tutti for what they say are inaccurate characterizations, not of the Church’s moral teachings, but of economic realities. Samuel Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute, praises much of the encyclical, but recently wrote that it is littered with “economic strawmen.”
“It seems that, no matter how many people highlight the economic caricatures that roam throughout Francis’ documents, a pontificate which prides itself on its commitment to dialogue just isn’t interested in a serious conversation about economic issues outside a very limited circle,” said Gregg.
In Fratelli Tutti, the Holy Father also calls for “re-envisaging the social role of property.” Francis draws on the teachings of his predecessors to declare that “the right to private property can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of the universal destination of created goods.” Referencing his own words in Laudato Si, he reiterates that “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable.”
The final statement, especially, has raised eyebrows among some, because it seems to contradict the teaching of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, an 1893 encyclical on capital and labor that inaugurated modern Catholic social teaching. In that document, Leo states that “the inviolability of private property” must be “a first and fundamental principle.”
Some commentators have speculated, either worriedly or hopefully, that Francis’ teaching here amounts to a break from Church Tradition. But Meghan Clark of St. John’s University and Dominican Father Aquinas Guilbeau of the Dominican House of Studies, two theologians who spoke with the Register on the topic, rejected this account and instead said that Francis is emphasizing that the right to private property must always be considered in relation to service of the common good and with the understanding that it is subordinate to God’s providence over all creation.
Arguably one of the most relevant sections of Fratelli Tuttifor Americans as they prepare to vote is “A Better Kind of Politics,” the encyclical’s fifth chapter. Francis begins this account with a critique of political liberalism, which he says can privilege the individual over the common good, but also of populism.
The Holy Father says that “closed populist groups” are actually not for “the people” as they claim, because a true people is “living and dynamic,” open to new encounters and the possibility of being enriched by others.
Elsewhere, Francis harshly critiques instances of “myopic, extremist, resentful, and aggressive nationalism,” which he says are on the rise. In some cases, he says, concepts of national unity create “new forms of selfishness and a loss of social sense under the guise of defending national interests,” and he condemns demagogic politics that sow fear in the face of perceived outside threats like immigration.
Pappin at the University of Dallas notes that while the Holy Father criticizes a certain version of populism, he is “favorable to popular leaders who would voice the genuine concerns of real people.”
“A populism which simply closed borders and hearts would be a corrupt one,” said Pappin. “A good popular leader, the Pope suggests, would engender shared responsibility among a particular people and from there open its hearts to the rest of the human community through neighborliness and fraternity.”
Commentators also note that while Francis is critical of a kind of recalcitrant nationalism that closes itself off to broader horizons, he is just as insistent that persons need a firm foundation in a particular people from which to practice universal fraternity.
“I can welcome others who are different, and value the unique contribution they have to make, only if I am firmly rooted in my own people and culture,” said Francis, who also criticized a “false openness to the universal, born of the shallowness of those lacking insight into the genius of their native land or harboring unresolved resentment towards their own people.”
Despite Francis’ concern for the state of contemporary politics, he is unflaggingly affirming of the positive role politics must play in society, reiterating previous teaching that political engagement is an especially high form of charity because it serves the common good.
Jason Adkins believes this message should inspire political participation beyond mere elections.
“Francis’ repeated reference to the lofty vocation of politics should inspire pastors to nurture a faithful citizenship that encourages participating in political institutions, not just an awareness among the faithful of key legislative decisions and election issues,” said Adkins, who directs the Minnesota Catholic Conference and is a visiting scholar at the Saint Paul Seminary and School of Divinity this fall. “This message is especially important during a time when people are cynical about politics because they believe it is only about power and not service and when they feel they have lost their political agency altogether beyond the ballot box.”
Fratelli Tutti is addressed widely to all peoples and is in many ways an “interfaith” encyclical. Francis cites his 2019 meeting in Abu Dhabi with Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayyeb as a source of inspiration and pulls frequently from the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” co-authored by the religious leaders. InFratelli Tutti, Francis writes “from the Christian convictions that inspire and sustain” him, though he intended “to make this reflection an invitation to dialogue among all people of good will.”
And Francis’ encyclical ends with two prayers, one an interfaith “Prayer to the Creator,” the other an ecumenical Christian prayer addressed to the Trinity. The Christian prayer asks the triune God to “pour out upon us a torrent of fraternal love” and for the gift of “discovering Christ in each human being,” including the abandoned and forgotten, before petitioning the Holy Spirit.
“Come, Holy Spirit, show us your beauty, reflected in all the peoples of the earth, so that we may discover anew that all are important and all are necessary, different faces of the one humanity that God so loves. Amen.”
Some have expressed concern that the document is insufficiently clear in its affirmation of the truth of Catholic doctrine and sacrifices clarity for the sake of openness. The Pope’s telling of St. Francis of Assisi’s visit to a Muslim sultan, for instance, has been criticized for mischaracterizing the saint’s intentions as unconcerned with arguing for the truth of Christianity, when the stated purpose of his visit, according to a recent biography, was to win the sultan’s soul for Christ.
But in many ways, Fratelli Tutti is quite clear that the type of better world proposed by Pope Francis is impossible apart from firm conviction in certain objective truths. For instance, Francis offers a forceful criticism of relativism and underscores that only an openness to moral objectivity can serve as a basis of consensus.
The Holy Father also makes clear that true human fraternity is impossible without a relationship with God. For one, the Holy Father underscores the reality of concupiscence and human sin and says that union with others “is made possible by the charity that God infuses.” The Pope also describes the Holy Trinity as “the ultimate source of love” and the “origin and perfect model of all life in society.”
“As believers, we are convinced that, without an openness to the Father of all, there will be no solid and stable reasons for an appeal to fraternity,” said Pope Francis in a section of the final chapter entitled “The Ultimate Foundation.”
De Solenni says that it is not a coincidence that Christianity, which allows mankind to overcome sin and selfishness only by receiving and partaking in divine love, has led to examples of radical solidarity like the Good Samaritan.
“For Christians, the other becomes one’s neighbor,” she said. “Without [God’s grace], we are like every other religion, every other culture, and it is nearly impossible to live true social friendship.”
Related read: Father Raymond J. de Souza column.