St Francis meets with Sultan Malik-el-Kamal of Egypt by Zacarías González Velázquez. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Points of reflection on Fratelli tutti

Father Gerard Louis, CSsR

Pope Francis published his latest encyclical issued on Aug 4, 2020 on the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi. A year earlier, Pope Francis had met with Grand Imam Ahmed-el-Tayib of Al-Azhar University in Abu Dhabi. Together, they produced the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.

It brought back memories of St Francis’ meeting with Sultan Malik-el-Kamal of Egypt during the Crusades almost 900 years ago. St Francis’ way of sharing the Christian faith was simply to spread the love of God and to treat everyone like his brother and sister. This vision of human fraternity is not just an idealistic dream but a serious commitment of faith.

Here is a summary of the document in four key points; I hope it will inspire everyone to read the whole encyclical.

  1. Catholic social teaching

Fratelli tutti (“Brothers all”) is the latest addition to the Church’s 130-year history of Catholic social teaching – which is a series of documents and themes, based on Scripture and Tradition, that articulates how we can live our faith in response to the challenges of our day.

Some of the key encyclicals in the Church’s social teaching are Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (“Of new things”) published in 1891, which is considered the mother of all social encyclicals. It was in response to the Industrial Revolution that had radically changed politics and economics. In 1963, when the world faced the real threat of nuclear annihilation, Pope John XXIII condemned the arms race that was being waged from both sides of the Iron Curtain in Pacem in Terris (“Peace on earth)”. Just a few years later, Pope Paul VI published Populorum progressio (“The development of peoples”) which identified inequality as the root of conflict and violence.

  1. Economics

One fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching is the universal destination of goods. This means that all the earth’s resources are for the benefit of all people. Although individuals and families do have the right to private property, Pope Francis says that private ownership is only a secondary right that must be subordinated to the service of the common good.

In the words of St John Chrysostom: “Not to share our wealth with the poor is to rob them. The riches we possess are not our own, but theirs as well”. Unfortunately, what we have today is growing inequality between the rich and poor.

Economic models have sought to ensure a just distribution of wealth. However, at times, they have been taken to their extreme and become exploitative. The Church does not endorse any particular economic model – neither capitalism (where the production and supply of goods and serves are owned and controlled by private businesses), nor socialism (where the production and distribution of goods and services are regulated by the government). Pope Francis describes business as a noble vocation, whose aim is to the development of others and the elimination of poverty.

  1. Migration

Migration has been a human phenomenon for millennia. People have fled war, persecution or natural disasters, while some seek a better life for themselves and their families. How can we promote a society that is welcoming?

In Singapore, most of us are descendants of immigrants but, during the pandemic, the most affected were migrant workers living in dormitories, exposing the fault lines in our society. The encyclical challenges our attitude and approach to immigrants. Today, migration will play a pivotal role in shaping the world and we are called to welcome, protect and integrate migrants into society and the church. This does not merely mean implementing programmes but committing to journey with migrants. We have much to learn from each other.

  1. Politics

For centuries, Catholic theology has struggled to balance the relationship between things supernatural and earthly. Is the role of Church to proclaim salvation in Christ, or to be involved in works of charity, justice and human development? The answer is both. Our faith must move us to serve those in need and to create a better world.

In the encyclical, Pope Francis laments a politics that is preoccupied with self-interest and ideologies, associated with corruption, inefficiency and polarization. Like business, politics is a noble calling to serve the common good and those in need. The Church has a duty to form believers who feel called to public service.

Fratelli tutti has not been without its critics. The criticism is founded on the belief that the encyclical does not focus on proclaiming the Christian faith in an explicit way. That it makes scant reference to salvation in Christ and the Trinity and negates the need for faith. It is even suggested by some, that the Pope is placing the hope of humanity in human organisations like the United Nations rather than in God. Pope Francis responds: the Church cannot remain on the sidelines in the building of a better world. While party politics are the proper domain of the laity, the Church has to do its part to encourage a politics that serves the common good and promotes integral human development.

Pope Francis devotes an entire chapter to a reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan. In making the Samaritan the hero of the story, Jesus means to teach us that everyone is our brother and sister.

Here in Singapore, we have the chance to put the teachings of Fratelli tutti into practice as we celebrate Catholic200SG. Pope Francis and Archbishop William Goh have urged Catholics to discern what kind of renewal is needed in the Church. Our mission is not only to build up the Church and to proclaim the Gospel, but also to recognise Christ in the poor and abandoned, and to foster a society based on truth and justice where all humanity sees themselves as brothers and sisters in the one God.

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