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John StoweNovember 18, 2022
Pope Francis greets people as he arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Nov. 16, 2022. (CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters)

The best way to dominate and gain control over people is to spread despair and discouragement, even under the guise of defending certain values…hyperbole, extremism and polarization have become political tools. Employing a strategy of ridicule, suspicion and relentless criticism…one denies the right of others to exist or to have an opinion. Their share of the truth and their values are rejected and, as a result, the life of society is impoverished and subjected to the hubris of the powerful. Political life no longer has to do with healthy debates about long-term plans to improve people’s lives and to advance the common good, but only with slick marketing techniques primarily aimed at discrediting others. In this craven exchange of charges and counter-charges, debate degenerates into a permanent state of disagreement and confrontation….

[When] victory consists in eliminating one’s opponents, how is it possible to raise our sights to recognize our neighbours or to help those who have fallen along the way? A plan that would set great goals for the development of our entire human family nowadays sounds like madness.
—“Fratelli Tutti,” No. 15-16

Viewed in the aftermath of the over-hyped midterm elections, Pope Francis’ description of the distortion of politics sounds pretty accurate. In states with hotly contested races, the barrage of negative advertising and scare tactics have only enhanced the distaste for politics in the United States and have done nothing to entice 18-year-olds and other potential new voters to the polls. Reluctantly, we might have to concede that scare tactics work. Whether voters were warned about losing access to abortion (what is more frequently referred to now as “reproductive rights” or even simply “women’s health care”) or about a vague threat of impending disaster and collapse, many Americans of either political stripe did vote not so much for any candidate but against “them,” the “enemy” as they perceive it.

Viewed in the aftermath of the over-hyped midterm elections, Pope Francis’ description of the distortion of politics sounds pretty accurate.

The characterization of contemporary politics quoted above comes from Pope Francis’ encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” which he signed at the tomb of St. Francis in Assisi on the vigil of his feast, Oct. 3, of 2020. It was presented to the world during the final month of the ugliness of the last U.S. presidential election—a context certainly on the pope’s mind but not the only example of the poor politics he is describing. Many democratic nations have witnessed a similar phenomenon in their electoral politics lately. Pope Francis laments the loss of any concern whatsoever for the common good, and throughout this encyclical he describes the diminished awareness of the dignity of the human person as a regressive reality unexpected in the 21st century. He knows only too well that employing these themes of the common good and inherent human dignity, so central to Catholic social teaching, would be dismissed as strategic disasters in a campaign designed to diminish the opponent rather than debate issues and policy.

The encyclical, however, was released not in response to the U.S. presidential election but amid the global coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic was, according to the pope, an incredible opportunity for the world to come together in the face of a virus that had the power to bring global commerce and social interaction to a halt.

But it was an opportunity missed, despite initial signs that the common experience of vulnerability might move the world toward greater solidarity. It quickly became clear that we were not all in it together in the same way. Some people had the option to work remotely in relative safety while others, disproportionately people of color and the poor, were dubbed “essential workers” and so had to put their own well-being at risk for the good of others, even though there was no elevation of their employment status or benefits corresponding to their “essentialness.” It is curious that workers so “essential” during the lockdown phases are suddenly not so essential when it comes to their immigration status.

The pandemic was, according to the pope, an incredible opportunity for the world to come together in the face of a virus that had the power to bring global commerce and social interaction to a halt.

Pope Francis said that Covid-19 “expos[ed] our false securities…. For all our hyper-connectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all. Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality” (No. 7).

Pope Francis noted that this fragmentation happened in a climate wherein the previous projects toward greater unity such as the European Union were coming apart and what he terms an ahistorical “deconstructionism” was driving people, especially the young, to limitless consumption and empty individualism, which opens the way for the emergence of unscrupulous and deceptive leaders:

If someone tells young people to ignore their history, to reject the experiences of their elders, to look down on the past and to look forward to a future that he himself holds out, doesn’t it then become easy to draw them along so that they only do what he tells them? He needs the young to be shallow, uprooted and distrustful, so that they can trust only in his promises and act according to his plans. That is how various ideologies operate: they destroy (or deconstruct) all differences so that they can reign unopposed. To do so, however, they need young people who have no use for history, who spurn the spiritual and human riches inherited from past generations, and are ignorant of everything that came before them” (“Frateli Tutti,” No. 13, cited from “Christus Vivit,”No.181).

Pope Francis calls this a new form of cultural colonization, which empties words like democracy, freedom, justice and unity of their meaning or manipulates them in order to weaken historical consciousness, critical thinking, the struggle for justice and processes of integration (No. 14). Here he is leading to his own deconstruction of populism in favor of popular politics, fraternity and social friendship, central to the political vision of the encyclical.

A Dreamer and Realist

Pope Francis is both a dreamer and a realist; the first chapter of the encyclical is titled “Dark Clouds over a Closed World,” which conjures up one of the many iconic images of this papacy—Francis standing alone with the Blessed Sacrament in an empty St. Peter’s Square in a cold and dreary rain at nightfall. Both at that moment and in the encyclical, there is no denial of the darkness, but neither is there a submission to it or to its inevitability. As a Christian, the pope is a person of hope. He is willing to dream of what could be and to suggest a path toward its realization. But he is anything but naïve, and he openly describes the obstacles and the opposition. He offers the well-known Lucan parable of the good Samaritan as critical for that path forward, despite its apparent lack of political sophistication.

As a Christian, the pope is a person of hope. He is willing to dream of what could be and to suggest a path toward its realization.

In good Jesuit fashion, Francis describes the scene of the parable in a compelling and visual way. He points out that the Samaritan, on the road to Jericho, was an outsider, a foreigner with no rights. But when those whose religious status gave them rights and respectability did nothing to help the man beaten up on the road, perhaps even for cultic reasons, it is the Samaritan who goes out of his way, uses his own time and resources to care tenderly for the man in need and even brings him to an inn with a blank check for further care. Of course, the pope would like us to consider those who are beaten up on the roadside today and who will be a neighbor to them.

The rest of the encyclical invites the whole world on a journey from being like a mob of strangers inhabiting the same planet to becoming true brothers and sisters who share a common origin and a common home. Original? Not if one accepts the Gospel. Unrealistic and naïve? Only if one would label Christianity that way. Requiring conversion? Certainly.

The Problem of So-Called Populism

Chapter Five (Nos. 154-197) is the part of the encyclical explicitly devoted to politics, a new kind of politics. Reminiscent of how Irenaeus’s refusal to let the falsely so-called “gnostics” (as he referred to their doctrine) to ruin the perfectly good word gnosis in the second century, Pope Francis resents the abuse of the word and the concept of populism. The pope exposes the lack of concern for the vulnerable both in economic “liberalism” and in so-called “populism,” both of which serve the interests of those already in power. A Christian worldview must be all-inclusive and prioritize the most vulnerable. So-called populism has degenerated into another source of polarization. But this classification of populism has nothing to do with the “people,” as its name would imply.

For the pope, the word “people” means that human beings are more than an aggregate of individuals; the notion of a government of the people has to take into account the social phenomena by which men and women create shared goals that transcend individual differences in favor of communitarian aspirations. He calls the “people” a “mystical” category rather than a logical one; “to be part of a people is to be part of a shared identity arising from social and cultural bonds.”

The pope exposes the lack of concern for the vulnerable both in economic “liberalism” and in so-called “populism,” both of which serve the interests of those already in power.

Popular leaders decline into populist leaders when people’s culture is exploited ideologically for the benefit of the leader or when “they seek popularity by appealing to the basest and most selfish inclinations of certain sectors of the population.” Sound familiar? And worsened when it leads to the usurpation of institutions and laws. Sound familiar?

The further problem according to Francis is when politics is exclusively focused on short-term advantages and does not see beyond the next election. Does that seem familiar? The pope offers an alternative that is truly transformational and actually serves the people by promoting the common good over the long term. He has convened what he terms “World Meetings of Popular Movements” bringing together a broadly based group of people working for social change, often from the margins, and in that sense truly “popular.”

In “Fratelli Tutti,” the pope places employment at the top of the list of priorities for popular politics because it is essential to human realization and dignity and for meeting basic human needs. “In a genuinely developed society, work is an essential dimension of social life, for it is not only a means of earning one’s daily bread, but also of personal growth, the building of healthy relationships, self-expression and the exchange of gifts.” Along with work, the World Meeting of Popular Movements adds the priorities of housing and land; in Spanish, they are described as the three “t”s: trabajo, techo y tierra.

Considering the common good, without rooting the common good in one’s own personal needs or advantage, requires the chief theological virtue of charity. We rarely consider charity as a political solution; rather what government is not able or is unwilling to do for the disadvantaged is often left to private or institutional “charity.” Pope Francis invokes the classical meaning of disinterested love and suggests that charity unites the abstract and the institutional; it moves from the theoretical good to the desire to help, which results from a personal encounter with a person in need. But as even the case of the good Samaritan reveals, there is always a need for a structure or institution like the inn to provide the help an individual is unable to offer.

Popular leaders decline into populist leaders when people’s culture is exploited ideologically for the benefit of the leader

Popular movements are truly human, not mechanistic or technological. The pope refers to the marginalized who become protagonists of their own integral human development as “social poets” who move beyond policies for the poor to those which are of, from and with the poor. It is no coincidence that one of the dicasteries of the newly reformed Roman Curia is dedicated to Integral Human Development; just as it is no coincidence that refugees now live in the Vatican and a homeless shelter exists right next to St. Peter’s Square and that the pope celebrates his birthday with the homeless and meets with transgender victims of violence. He lives what he proposes and offers an example of what fraternity can look like.

As if this emphasis on popular movements and human fraternity was not challenging enough for an American church that has fully bought into market capitalism’s values and economic model, the pope also uses this encyclical to address the decline of the usefulness of the nation-state. Cue the world government conspiracy theorists! The encyclical quotes his 2015 address to the U.N. General Assembly, in which he called for a world authority regulated by law because in a globalized economy, economic and financial concerns have come to prevail over the political. He does not necessarily mean an individual with this authority, but there must be a transnational authority to protect the innocent, to work to eliminate world hunger and defend fundamental human rights, especially those of migrants whose struggle to survive transcends national boundaries. He further calls for a reform of the United Nations so that it can truly function as envisioned, as a “family of nations” rather than being dominated by a few overly powerful ones.

The more open world is based on human relationships that, like the good Samaritan, transcend national and ethnic boundaries.

Earlier in the encyclical, following the reflective exegesis of the Good Samaritan parable, Pope Francis offered a reflection on a more open world in contrast to the closed world described in the first chapter. The more open world is based on human relationships that, like the good Samaritan, transcend national and ethnic boundaries. In these chapters, he decries the results of the breakdown of such transcendent relationships, including entrenched racism, anti-immigrant sentiment as well as the lack of attention to the “hidden exiles” in our midst like the disabled or abandoned elderly. The common good requires a recognition of the great worth of each person. Solidarity, he teaches, is born of conversion and is more than sporadic generosity. The fourth chapter introduced the concept of gratuitousness, a concept that removes relationships and even politics from the realm of the utilitarian to one more responsive to the God who allows the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the good and the bad alike. Not everything has to be limited to political favors and exchanges; in fact, the common good requires a certain gratuitousness, which is quite different from a “pay to play” system that has evolved in our country.

Dialogue and the Common Good

In Chapter Six (Nos. 198-224), the pope moves us toward the implementation of the new politics described in Chapter Five, through “Dialogue and Friendship.” Pope Francis describes dialogue as “approaching, speaking, looking at, listening, coming to know, understanding, and finding common ground.” Dialogue is not the exchange of opinions but a desire to come together. Selfish indifference or violent protest can undermine or end dialogue. Dialogue requires clear thinking, rational argument, a variety of perspectives and the contribution of different fields of knowledge and points of view. It does not result in relativism but is rather a search for truth. Respect for the dignity of the other and the recognition that persons are more valuable than material things or ideas are necessary for a dialogue that contributes to the common good.

Here again, the pope leads by example. Not only has he brought Palestinian and Israeli leaders together in the Vatican, as well as warring factions in Sudan, but Pope Francis has initiated a dialogic process in the universal church with the goal of the restoration of synodality in the Western church and expanding synodality in the universal church.

Dialogue is not the exchange of opinions but a desire to come together. Selfish indifference or violent protest can undermine or end dialogue.

But what about in the pope’s own figurative “backyard”? Too much of what is seen in the governance of the universal church would not meet the pope’s own description of good politics; and the notion that the church is above the pettiness of politics is absurd. Politics, Francis insists, is not a dirty word, is not a bad thing or even a necessary evil. Politics is how pluralistic societies operate and make progress. Politics is noble when it involves relationships working toward the common good. The synodal process underway in the universal church is not explicitly described as political, but it, too, is built on encounters in relationship in order to “walk together” toward the future.

Years before the election of Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew addressed the Synod of Bishops in Rome and responded to the central question posed in St. John Paul II’s encyclical “Ut Unum Sint”: How could the Petrine ministry be exercised in a way that would promote Christian unity especially of the Eastern and Western branches of the church? Bartholomew’s unambiguous answer was to moderate the Petrine ministry by a rediscovery of synodality; that is, balance the monarchical papacy with a conciliar or synodal structure. Of course, Bartholomew was thinking of the synod in the traditional way as a gathering of bishops, but Pope Francis is expanding at least the consultation phase of synods well beyond the bishops. The social friendships and political charity needed for the promotion of the common good in society are needed in the church as well and should be modeled by the church.

When church and society become more fraternal, they can make a more substantial witness to the cultivation of peace in the world. The processes that result in peace are not easy, the pope reminds us, precisely because they require facing the stark truth. Truth is an inseparable companion of justice and mercy. Citing the examples of the South African peace process and others from recent history, the pope insists that humanity must learn to “cultivate a penitential memory, one that can accept the past in order not to cloud the future with regrets, problems and pains.” Germany’s coming to terms with the legacy of Nazism and the Shoah is an example of a difficult process based in acknowledgment of the truth and repentance that allowed for the possibility of a reconciled future.

Too much of what is seen in the governance of the universal church would not meet the pope’s own description of good politics.

We might ponder in the United States how different our present circumstances would be had we faced the horrors of chattel slavery soon after its elimination instead of trying to smooth over differences for the sake of a forged but not real unity. Or, had we acknowledged the violation of every treaty with Native Americans and the genocidal approach to acquiring their lands by our own government and tried to make amends, would we see something different than the devastation on so many native reservations? Or, what if the bishops openly faced the cruel reality of the abuse of minors by clergy and sought to bring about healing and reform before being forced to do so?

The commandment to love is universal, but loving an oppressor does not mean allowing the oppressor to continue oppressing or be seen as acceptable when trampling the dignity of others. Reconciliation is not a flight from conflict but, the pope says, “is achieved in conflict, realized through dialogue and open, honest, patient negotiation.” “We can never move forward without remembering the past; we do not progress without an honest and unclouded memory.”

A Fraternity Vision

The eighth and final chapter of “Fratelli Tutti”contains the original theme of the encyclical in the mind of Pope Francis before he expanded its content in response to the pandemic; it considers the role of the religions of the world. Rooted in his experience of issuing a joint appeal with the Grand Imam Al-Tayyib for religions to never incite war and always promote human rights and their duty to the poor, Francis expanded the theme of the encyclical from the place of world religions in a more peaceful world to the need for universal fraternity.

As in his previous encyclical, “Laudato Si,” the pope took the name and inspiration of the letter from his namesake, Francis of Assisi. He describes the relationship between the two encyclicals: “Laudato Si’”was rooted in the famous poem that expressed the saint’s ability to view all of creation as brother and sister, and as interrelated in its revelation of the Creator. St. Francis’ gentleness promoted the simple use rather than the exploitation and individual ownership of the gifts of creation and recognized humanity as the crown of creation.

The title “Fratelli Tutti” comes from a letter of St. Francis to those who would follow his way of life. While never intending to start a movement or an order, St. Francis lived his conversion freely and openly with such authenticity that people were drawn to the joy he radiated. Pope Francis had captured that joy born of an encounter with Christ in several of his apostolic exhortations that speak of joy, most notably the first, “The Joy of the Gospel.”

Pope Francis was also moved by the example of St. Francis, who was willing to create an encounter with the Sultan Al-Malik in Egypt in the midst of the violent crusades. Francis went unarmed into the camp of the Muslims and greeted the Sultan as a brother. He was able to win the respect and appreciation of the Muslim leader through his own genuine regard for the Sultan as a fellow worshipper and child of God. It was an encounter without conversion of religion from either side, and it was an encounter without martyrdom on either side. It was an encounter of mutual respect and of fraternity. Pope Francis believes that such encounters are not only possible but necessary for the future of humanity. He notes that Christians and Muslims together represent about two-thirds of the world’s population. What a great gift it would be if these two large religions could draw on their best traditions of peacemaking and live with mutual respect of the other.

The lost opportunities of the global pandemic lamented at the outset of the encyclical give way to a fraternal vision of universal solidarity based on the simple example of a despised foreigner in a parable and a hope for a different kind of politics promoting human dignity and the common good. The implied consequence of not realizing this dream or vision is that we will not be able to survive a global environmental catastrophe that draws ever closer unless we engage in this new relational and open way of living. As Francis titled his first book in English, “Let us dream.”

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