On Nov. 3, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, his namesake, Pope Francis, went to that beautiful little town in Umbria, Italy to celebrate Mass in its basilica and announce to the world the publication of his third encyclical letter “Fratelli Tutti.” The words in Italian are taken from a letter of St. Francis to his friars and translate “Brothers All,” a nice historical touch. Titles of encyclicals traditionally begin with the first two nouns, adjectives or verbs of the letter. However, Pope Francis was quick in his first sentence to address “brothers and sisters.” The name of the letter is also appropriate because the letter stresses the equality of all human beings, inclusiveness and fraternal charity, as antidotes to the divisiveness, inequality and estrangement that plagues modern society around the globe. In the fifth paragraph Pope Francis says, “Issues of human fraternity and social friendship have always been a concern of mine.” 

The encyclical is quite long, 287 paragraphs plus some prayers that Pope Francis adds at the end. Commentators suggest that readers take one of its eight chapters at a time, read it and meditatively digest it before going on. It would be difficult to read in one sitting.  

The encyclical is a moral assessment of modern society with very direct statements of the spiritual solutions needed to heal its problems. As usually happens when I read encyclicals, the chapters I like are those that stress sacred Scripture. Pope Francis gives a whole chapter to Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan as an example of fraternal charity and inclusiveness. The Samaritan himself was an outcast, looked down upon by the predominantly orthodox Jewish society, yet it was he, not the Jewish priest nor Levite who took care of the Jewish man beaten by robbers. He was much more than just a neighbor, the question to Jesus that prompted the telling of the parable.  

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The priest and the Levite show that “belief in God and worship of God are not enough to ensure that we are actually living in a way pleasing to God. The guarantee of an authentic openness to God is a way of practicing the faith that helps open our hearts to our brothers and sisters.”  

I began with Chapter Two because I think that Pope Francis is best when he uses Scripture to explain his points about living an authentic Christian life in today’s world. His opening chapter is a critique of our technological-informational society as some of its weaknesses have been highlighted by the global pandemic. Pope Francis says that COVID-19 exposed false securities in our national relationships. The inability of various countries to work together during COVID-19 became evident. There are dark clouds, the pope says, over a closed world, trends that hinder universal fraternity. 

These are: The exploitation of resources that can end in completely depleting them. A large increase of wealth has been gained but with an equally large increase in inequality. Human rights are not equal for all. In many countries hyperbole, extremism and polarization have become political tools. We are growing ever more distant from one another. Wastefulness, especially of food, is deplorable. Worldwide, women do not have the same dignity as men. War, terrorist attacks, racial and religious persecution constitute “a real third world war fought piecemeal.”  

The economy and technological progress gave us false security. Then came the pandemic.  

“We had gorged ourselves on networking and lost the taste of fraternity. It is urgent,” says Pope Francis, that we rethink our styles of life, our relationships, the organization of our societies and, above all, the meaning of our existence.  

Pope Francis strongly defends immigrants. He names the next section “An Absence of Human Dignity on the Borders.” He claims that “certain populist political regimes, as well as certain liberal economic approaches maintain that an influx of migrants is to be prevented at all costs.” And then he adds, “No one will ever openly deny that they are human beings, yet, in practice, by our decisions and the way we treat them, we can show that we consider them less worthy, less important, less human. For Christians, this way of thinking and acting is unacceptable, since it sets certain political preferences above deep convictions of our faith: the inalienable dignity of each person regardless of origin, race or religion and the supreme law of fraternal love.”  

Nowhere does the pope name any specific countries as acting in an unchristian way towards immigrants. This is a global problem with people fleeing persecution in Africa as well as Central and South America. The borders of many nations are being crossed. The God of the Old Testament as well as the New Testament demands they be welcomed and helped.  

At the end of Chapter Two Pope Francis swings back to the role of the media in forming human response to the world’s problems. He says that digital platforms can now group people who think alike. This actually shields them from debate with those who have contrasting views, resulting in ideologies which weaken true democracy and produce fake news, false information, prejudice and hate. All of this is hurtful to the “fraternity that our common father asks of us.” Nonetheless, there is hope, for in the pandemic we have seen the “good Samaritan” in the persons of so many in medical and service work. Then follows the beautiful meditation in Chapter Two on Jesus’ parable where I began. 

Chapter Three is about “Envisaging and Engendering an Open World.” It is the theology of our response to the stranger in our world. Jesus died for all of us. “No one,” Pope Francis says, “is beyond the scope of his universal love.”  

And furthermore, we are all created in the image of God whom Jesus revealed as a trinity of love, father, son and Holy Spirit. Therefore, we have to oppose those who support “varieties of violent nationalism, xenophobia, contempt and even the mistreatment of those who are different.”  

Our relationship with Christ can led us to love the least of his brethren. Such love is more than a series of benevolent actions. It leads us to esteem and appreciate the value of others and see them as pleasing and beautiful in themselves. It is this love, inspired by God’s grace, that moves us to seek the best for their lives. Not everyone, of course, is a believer. But even for agnostics and atheists, the dignity of every person has to be based on the intrinsic worth of every human being. “Unless this basic principle is upheld,” Pope Francis warns us, “there will be no future for fraternity or for the survival of humanity.”  

Upholding the dignity of every person means that we are responsible for the fragility of others as we strive to build a stronger nation. We cannot forget the slow, the weak and the less talented. So we need institutions that are concerned with individuals and the common good. With this in mind, Pope Francis writes, “If a society is governed primarily by the criteria of market freedom and efficiency, there is no place for such persons, and fraternity will remain just another vague ideal.” The operative word here is “primarily.” It cannot mean “only.” We want a strong market and efficient government, but not at the expense of the slow, the weak (ill) and the less talented. They are part of the common good, part of us.  

I hope to complete a summary of chapters 5-8 in the next issue of The Catholic Commentator.  

Father Carville is a retired priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge and writes on current topics for The Catholic Commentator. He can be reached at johnnycarville@gmail.com.