By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

The Papal encyclical “Fratelli tutti” has aroused a lot of interest around the world as well as provoked sharp criticism, voiced above all by liberal economists that fervently defend the neoliberal economic dogma. The social encyclical was signed by Pope Francis on Oct 3rd in Assisi. He worked on this document, that consists of 8 chapters, during the last 7 months – a period, during which almost the entire world had to live under the lock down conditions of the Covid- 19 pandemic. This was a period – as the title of the first chapter indicated – were “dark clouds (gathered) over a closed world.”

Rather than fighting the pandemic ‘together’, as Pope Francis underlined in his introduction, the pandemic has increased the worst tendencies in our societies, leading to more isolation of states and societal fragmentation that is accompanied by the spread of radical individualism. The pandemic showed that “we all sit in one boat” and that there is all the more the need to fight for a world that is based on true “fraternity” in which every individual can live in dignity. The Pontiff harshly criticizes the excess of today’s globalization, which finds itself expressed in “populism and liberalism,” while he emphasizes that the 2007/08 global financial crisis has opened the doors for even “more speculative financial activity” and that no lesson was drawn from that crisis. According to recent statistics, the richer become richer and the poor poorer. Hence, there is the need to strengthen society on the basis of introducing the category of “fraternity” and “charity” as principle for our societies’ existence and precondition of social and world peace.

Some economic journalists, as for example Johannes Pennekamp from the daily German newspaper FAZ and his colleague Daniel Deckert have recently demonstrated their polemical mindset by stating in two different articles that in essence this encyclical has nothing to do with the social encyclical of his predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. According to Pennekamp with his harsh “capitalism critique” the Pope “breaks with the social teaching” of the Church.  A further proof is the reference to the German economist Clemens Fuest (IFO Institute Munich) who according to Pennekamp was “upset” about the papal writing, arguing that the Pope’s fight for a society based on fraternity and love is “dangerous since it offers space for ‘dictators’ and their socialist promise of salvation such as Hugo Chavez.”

This example being multiplied in many other incompetent remarks, illustrates what is the true challenge for today’s politicians, economists and scientists. The papal document demands from people who seek an alternative to the present situation, to ruthlessly engage in critical self- examination.  Even if the encyclical  doesn’t name any names, it is clear that with his repeated criticism of today’s world sliding into pure “egoistic actions” as well as propagating nationalist solutions in order to avoid a global answer to humanity’s problem, he indirectly hints at US  President Trump and his slogan “America first” – which the President, who flatly denied the pandemic, even more offensively repeated during the crisis: He broke  with international organizations like the WHO and UN related organizations as well as launched a bellicose fight against market competitors (such as China and Europe).

Promoting the Common Good

The issues of “human fraternity and social friendship” have always been a deep concern for Pope Francis and he reports that he felt particularly inspired by his meeting with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al Tayyeb in Abu Dhabi, whom he met February 4, 2019. At that occasion the two religious leaders issued a common declaration in which they underlined that “God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties, and dignity, and has called them to live together as brothers and sisters.” The Pope stressed in the introduction that he wrote the social encyclical as a modest contribution to continued reflection in the “hope that in the face of present-day attempts to eliminate or ignore others, we may prove capable of responding with a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words. As of writing we witnessed the Covid -19 pandemic unexpectedly by exposing our false securities. Aside from the different ways that various countries responded to the crisis, their inability to work together became quite evident …we witnessed a fragmentation (despite hyper- connectivity) that made it difficult to resolve the problems that affect us all.”

According to the Pope humanity has not learned the lessons of history and political life has become increasingly fragile in the face of transnational economic powers that operate with the principles of ‘divide and conquer’. He speaks about new forms of “cultural colonization” which weaken historical conscience, critical thinking, our struggle for justice and the processes of integration become empty words. “While one part of humanity lives in opulence, another part sees its own dignity denied, scorned or trampled upon and its fundamental rights discarded or violated.” Together with the Grand Imam Al- Tayyeb, the Pope had emphasized that while one cannot ignore the positive advances made by medicine, technology, industry and welfare in the developed countries, nonetheless “we wish to emphasize that, together with these historical advances, great and valued as they are, there exists a moral deterioration that influence international action and awakening of spiritual values and responsibility.”

The Pope notes that the Covid -19 tragedy only for a brief moment revived the sense that we are a “global community”, all sitting in the “same boat”. “Yet the storm has exposed our vulnerability and uncovered those false and superfluous certainties around which we constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities (…) amid this storm the façade of those stereotypes with which we camouflaged our egos, always worrying about ‘appearances’, has fallen away, revealing that we are part of one another, that we are brothers and sisters of one another.”

The paradigm of the Good Samaritan

In order to illustrate what a future society based on solidarity and love could look like, the Pope reflects upon the famous parable of the “Merciful Samaritan”, inviting the attentive reader to draw the right lessons for today’s life. The Samaritan, as the Pontiff explains, showed “mercy” in helping a man that was assaulted by robbers on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho, lying injured at the side of a side walk. He, unlike others who passed by “indifferently”, showed a moral quality which today’s world very much needs. It’s that quality of “love (which) shatters the chains that keep us isolated and separate; in their place it builds bridges. Love enables us to create one great family, where all of us can feel at home. Love exudes compassion and dignity.”  There are many people in society in important social positions who “lack the concern for the common good, the pope reflects. They would not waste a couple of minutes caring for the injured man or even calling for help. Only one person stopped and was able to put all that aside when confronted with someone in need. Without even knowing the injured man, he saw him as deserving of his time and attention”. The Samaritan parable according to Pope Francis invites us to revive our “vocation as citizen”, as an architect of a new social connectedness. Society must devote her attention to the shaping of the Common Good. As the Pope reflects in the third Chapter “Envisaging and engendering an open world”, “life exits when there is real bond on communion, fraternity”, while radical individualism is “the worst virus”. He extensively quotes from the social encyclical of Pope John Paul II (Centesimus annus 1991) who reaffirmed the quality of “Solidarity” as a building stone in constructing society and a just economic world order. “Solidarity means fighting against structural causes of poverty and inequality” and “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone.” This implies that the right to property is not “absolute” or “inviolable”. It is the “first principle of the whole ethical and social order”- a natural and inherent right that takes priority over others. True justice requires recognizing not only the rights of individuals, but also social rights and the rights of peoples. This means finding a way to ensure “the fundamental right of peoples to subsistence and progress, a right which is at times severely restricted by the pressure created by foreign debt.”(Benedict XVI and John Paul II in Centesimus annus)

Statecraft and nation-building

Such “Samaritan” paradigm as basis of a just society and world order invites us to reflect upon today’s politics. In sharp contrast to the development of a global community of fraternity based on the practice of social friendship, where politics considers itself as being at the “service of the common good”, we are confronted today with “populism and liberalism, two sides of the same coin, which impede a sound political leadership of society. “Lack of concern for the vulnerable can hide behind a populism that exploits them demagogically for its own purposes, or a liberalism that serves the economic interest of the powerful. In both cases, it becomes difficult to envisage an open world that makes room for everyone, including the most vulnerable, and shows respect for different cultures.”  Aside the fact that populism is another way to “disregard” the legitimate meaning of the word “people” any effort to remove this concept from common practice could lead to the elimination of the very notion of democracy as “government by the people”. Closed populist groups distort the word “people”, since they are not talking about true people.

The Pontiff criticizes harshly what he calls “dogma of neoliberal faith” and makes ample reference to Benedict XVI social encyclical Caritas in Veritate: “The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith (…) It is imperative to have a proactive economic policy directed at ‘promoting an economy that favors productive diversity and business creativity’ and makes it possible for jobs to be created and not cut. Financial speculation fundamentally aimed at quick profit contributes to wreak havoc. Indeed ‘without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfill its proper economic function…. The prevailing economic theory has proved not to be infallible. “The fragility of world systems in the face of the pandemic has demonstrated that not everything can be resolved by market freedom. It has also shown that, in addition to recovering a sound political life that is not ‘subject to the dictates of finance’, we must put a dignity back at the center and on that pillar build the alternative structures we need.”

Dialogue – instead war and conflict

Hence the Pontiff emphasizes that lamentably society and politics have not learned the lessons from the devastating financial crisis of 2007/08, which provided an opportunity to develop a new economy, that is more attentive to ethical principles, and new ways of ‘regulating speculative financial practices and virtual wealth’.  He refers to the United Nations Charter underlining that “the work of the United Nations according to the principles set forth in the Preamble and the first Articles of its founding Charter, can be seen as the development and promotion of the rule of law, based on the realization that justice is an essential condition for achieving the ideal of universal fraternity. “True statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long term common good. Political powers do not find it easy to assume this duty in the work of nation- building, much less in forging a common project for the human family, now and in the future.”

The encyclical Fratelli Tutti is echoing in essence the social doctrine of the Church that was elaborated in previous social encyclicals by the various popes, since “every commitment inspired by the Church’s social doctrine is ‘derived from charity which according to the teaching of Jesus is the synthesis of the entire Law.

The building of a country’s social peace is an open-ended endeavor, a never-ending task that demands the commitment of everyone and challenges us to work tirelessly the unity of the nation, the Pope states. “The truth is that no family, no group of neighbors, no ethnic group, much less of a nation, has a future if the force that unites them, brings them together and resolves their differences in vengeance and hatred, as St Augustine had stated.” While the Pontiff declares that we should never forget the Shoah, as well as the disastrous wars, he states very clearly that “war and death penalty” are to be considered as “false answers” that do not solve the problems.

Abolish nuclear weapons

“Since conditions that favor the outbreak of wars are once again increasing, I can only reiterate that war is the negation of all rights and a dramatic assault on the environment. If we want true integral human development for all, we must work tirelessly to avoid war between nations and peoples. The Charter of the United Nations should be an obligatory reference point of justice and a channel of peace. Here there can be no room for disguising false intentions or placing the partisan interest of one country or group above the global common good.” (!) And he adds, that “we can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably be always greater than its supposed benefits.” He qualifies the present situation as a “third world war fought in piecemeal which we experience in today’s world, since the destinies of countries are so closely interconnected on the global scene” and he recalls the famous encyclical from Pope John XXIII Pacem in terris which was issued at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. At those times of great international tensions, the Pope supported the conviction that the arguments for peace are stronger than any calculation of particular interests and confidence in the use of weaponry.

According to the Pontiff peace cannot be maintained on the basis of mutual deterrence. Thus, the pope goes even one step further by demanding instead that the ultimate goal must be the total elimination of nuclear weapons and that in this global interconnected world any response to the threat of nuclear weapons should be collective and concerted, based on “mutual trust.” This mutual trust can be built only through dialogue that is truly directed to a common good and not to the protection of particular interests. The Church as mediator, the document shows, emphasizes, has an important role to play and one of the reasons for the crisis of the modern world is a “distancing from religious values and the prevailing individualism accompanied by materialistic philosophies that deify the human person and introduce worldly and material values in place of supreme and transcendental principles. Following in line with the Centesimus Annus Encyclical (John Paul II), the Pontiff underlines that “the root of modern totalitarianism, is to be found in the denial of the ‘transcendent dignity’ of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights that no one may violate – no individual, group, class, nation or state. Not even the majority of the social body may violate these rights, by going against the minority.”


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