Pandemic, Politics, and Solidarity: A Discussion of Fratelli Tutti
Five years since his last encyclical, Pope Francis' Fratelli Tutti is a powerful message to a suffering world. In light of its release, the Boisi Center will host a theological ethicist, a preeminent ecclesiologist and church historian, a former journalist and specialist in the U.S. Catholic Church, and an attorney and director of policy for the AFL-CIO to discuss the new document, situating it within Catholic social teaching and the larger theological conversation, evaluating its implications for our current political situation, and exploring Pope Francis' vision for the post-pandemic world.
Meghan Clark, Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, St. John's University
Massimo Faggioli, Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, Villanova University
David Gibson, Director, Center for Religion and Culture, Fordham University
Damon Silvers, Director of Policy and Special Counsel, AFL-CIO
Moderator: Mark Massa, S.J, Director, The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Boston College
Date: Tuesday, October 27, 2020
Time: 2 - 3p.m.
This fall, Pope Francis released his newest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. The Boisi Center took the opportunity to discuss the document with an all-star panel: Meghan Clark, professor of theology and religious studies, St. John’s University; Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology and religious studies, Villanova University; David Gibson, director, Center for Religion and Culture, Fordham University; and Damon Silvers, director of Policy and Special Counsel, AFL-CIO.
Mark Massa, S.J., director of the Boisi Center moderated the discussion and opened by asking Clark to situate Fratelli Tutti within the larger papal tradition of social teaching. Clark noted that while encyclicals are often long and overwhelming for the average reader, Pope Francis expanded the audience beyond traditional Christians and “all people of good will” to include everyone on the planet. This is illustrative of the document’s themes: fraternity and social friendship. From the outset, she noted, the document’s second chapter is the theological key for the whole encyclical. Grounding his thoughts in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the pope—in an Ignatian way—draws the reader into discernment on the question, “Who is my neighbor?” This is the key question for the whole document.
Massa noted that the issue front-and-center is not abortion, but is rather a criticism of trickle-down economics and free-market capitalism and asked what that might mean. Faggioli noted that there are few things that are actually new in the encyclical. Instead, it is the context that makes the difference. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI also criticized capitalism, but it was easier to ignore it in their contexts. With our current environmental, health, and economic situation, Francis’s message cannot be ignored. He argued that this was the genius of Pope Francis—his spiritual insight of the moment. He leans into this context by reasserting the Tradition of the Church, unafraid to put the Church on the side of the poor and marginalized, denying neutrality.
That neither the United States nor Trump were mentioned was Massa’s next observation, though he noted that the issues Pope Francis has taken up seem to gesture this way, as he asked Gibson about the true agenda of the encyclical. Gibson agreed that while the criticism of populism and nationalism as well as economic models is one that could be applied broadly around the world, the U.S. certainly is one of the larger objects of that critique.
Turning to Silvers, Massa asked if the solidarity central to the argument of Fratelli Tutti is a message that resonates with labor organizations and workers, or if it is too theological. Silvers said that it would be difficult for the average person to grasp every aspect of the encyclical in its place within the Tradition. But there are many aspects that are simply written and accessible. Francis is asserting, Silvers argued, that the two primary destructive forces in the world are populism—not that particularity is not important, but that exploiting that particularity for political gain is; and market fundamentalism—though private property is not at issue, but making the market an idol is. While it is a call for governments to act, it also communicates to everyone a new psychological model to accept a different worldview.
Clark was asked to discuss feminist critiques of the encyclical. She noted that while the title, “Brothers All,” is obviously problematic, the document is also devoid of women’s voices or activities. There are no women’s voices or experiences referenced, which is especially problematic because it is women’s communities who are doing much of the work on migration, peacebuilding, and human trafficking. This shows an ongoing problem with women’s absence in the drafting of these documents, and while Pope Francis approaches a criticism of the Church on this front, he never actually criticizes it.
Faggioli continued on some of the flaws with the document, noting that the footnotes make it easy for the Catholic fundamentalists, integralists, and new traditionalists to dismiss as it frequently cites the pope’s own words and does not ground the document in the more theologically appropriate documents, like those of the Second Vatican Council. This also exacerbates the challenge many young Catholics face of situating Vatican II in Catholic theology. Gibson added that he believes that Francis continues to quote himself as a way of trying to concretize his papal teaching, which is often considered merely pastoral.
Massa raised our society’s polarization, asking if the encyclical will fare well in communicating the pope’s message. Gibson argued that Fratelli Tutti will ultimately need to be broken up into segments. Central to Gibson, though, is the eight-page section, “The Illusion of Community,” in which the pope diagnoses the need to communicate across the chasms existing between persons, despite the appearance of being more connected.
Returning to an observation Silvers made earlier, Massa asked whether the encyclical successfully draws the readers into a new location—not choosing either of the typically juxtaposed sides. Silvers said that he is aware of the vision Francis is trying to communicate, both the broader concepts and the particular recommendations. But Silvers thought that he was not as political (in its narrowest sense) as he could have been, which would have been a sharper criticism. As such, many can ignore his calls.
Massa concluded his own line of questions by asking the panelists to speculate on the bishops’ silence on this encyclical. Clark noted that Francis does not have the political edge that the USCCB does. While some bishops express more radical views, illustrative of their bad ecclesiology, the other bishops’ silence is a result of a good ecclesiology. As such, there is no counterweight to them and Francis’s message is a move toward that counterweight. Until now, this has mostly taken the form of speeches, interviews, etc. But now the form adds weight. Faggioli believes this silence is the result of the single-issue mentality that applies to papal teaching. If the encyclical touches on the issue of the pastor, the pastor will likely say something. Otherwise, it is largely considered non-binding. Gibson said the bishops have become too concerned with doctrinal apologetics, whereas this encyclical is an apologetics of action. Because of the centrality of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Francis is calling readers to go and do.
The audience was then given an opportunity to ask questions. First was about the longevity of this encyclical—will it last? Faggioli argued that, while many encyclicals are forgotten, social encyclicals are typically more effective in analyzing and addressing problems, so it will be read for a long time. Silvers noted that Fratelli Tutii is getting to the underlying concerns in humanity that, if unchanged, will never allow for other encyclicals that are now well-known, like Laudato Si, to be implemented. Then the audience asked about Francis’s self-citing, which was noted to be a departure from his earlier documents. Faggioli thought that this was to cement a definitive assertion of what is fundamental to his pontificate. Finally, a question was raised about the role of social media and whether that will affect reception of the encyclical, especially since the pope’s legitimacy and orthodoxy are often called into question. While many of the panelists expressed concern, they noted that social media is a world of its own. Gibson noted that on social media, “everyone is their own pope and CDF,” and Faggioli added that on Catholic social media, alive and well is “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.”