Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti, and the Quest for a “Civilization of Love”


Robert Fastiggi

On October 3, 2020, the vigil of the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis issued his third papal encyclical. The title, Fratelli tutti — literally meaning “all brothers” — comes from an admonition of St. Francis of Assisi (ca. 1181–1226) to his Franciscan brothers and sisters to follow a way of life marked by the Gospel. St. Francis recognized that the heart of the Christian message was “a fraternal openness that allows us to acknowledge, appreciate, and love each person, regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives” (Fratelli tutti [FT], 1).

Pope Francis is the first Roman Pontiff to choose the name “Francis,” and his papal name expresses an admiration of the medieval Italian saint who “sowed seeds of peace and walked alongside the poor, the abandoned, the infirm and the outcast, the least of his brothers and sisters” (FT, 2). One remarkable example of St. Francis’s love for peace was his encounter with Sultan Malek el-Kamil of Egypt during the time of the Crusades. According to Pope Francis, the saint of Assisi was not so much interested in waging a war of words with the Sultan as he was in spreading the love of God. St. Francis was moved by “the vision of a fraternal society” and was “free of the desire to wield power over others” (FT, 4).

As Fratelli tutti is a long and wide-ranging encyclical, in this article, I will summarize its eight chapters for the average reader interested in its contents and impact on our current socio-political sphere. Providing insights on contemporary realities such as the COVID-19 pandemic and social media, the encyclical is still, as one author has noted, a very traditional document. Pope Francis makes reference to the Scriptures, Church Fathers, and thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Paul Ricoeur. He notes that while he writes from Christian convictions, he intends “to dialogue among all people of good will” (FT, 6). In light of this, it’s not surprising that he manifests esteem for the wisdom of Rabbi Hillel (FT, 59) and Mahatma Gandhi (FT, 286) and that he highlights the 2019 Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together that he signed with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb of Al-Azhar (FT, 192 and 285).

Fratelli tutti contains eight chapters. Chapter one — “Dark clouds over the world” — provides an overview of many problems plaguing our world, such as “aggressive nationalism” (FT, 11); “empty individualism” (FT, 13); “extremism and polarization” (FT, 15); “trafficking in persons and other contemporary forms of enslavement” (FT, 24); “war, terrorist attacks, racial or religious persecution, and many other affronts to human dignity” (25). In light of these threats, Pope Francis laments that in the world today, “the sense of belonging to a single human family is fading” (FT, 30).

The pope notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has “momentarily revived the sense that we are a global community” with the realization that “we can only be saved together” (FT, 32). Though there are “digital campaigns of hatred and destruction” (FT, 42) and “social aggression [that] has found unparalleled room for expansion through computers and mobile devices” (FT, 44), Pope Francis invites us “to advance along the paths of hope” (FT, 55).

Chapter two — “A stranger on the road” — presents a reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke 10: 25–37. In this parable, a man on the road to Jerusalem falls into the hands of robbers who strip him, beat him, and leave him half-dead. A priest and a Levite see the beaten man but pass him on the other side. A Samaritan, however, sees the man and is moved with pity. He bandages the wounds of the beaten man, brings him to an inn, and pays the innkeeper to take care of the afflicted victim.

Through the parable, Jesus holds up the foreign Samaritan as the true neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers. Pope Francis sees in the parable the message of love for one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18) and the command “not to do to others what you would not want them to do to you” (Tob 4:15). He then cites Rabbi Hillel who said: “This [golden rule] is the entire Torah. Everything else is commentary” (FT, 59). The call to fraternal love is also a major theme in the New Testament, which recognizes that the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14).

While Pope Francis sees the story of the Good Samaritan as a reminder that each of us can be like the characters in the parable, he rebukes those who use their faith “to support varieties of narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and the mistreatment of those who are different” (FT, 86). He writes that today, “we have a great opportunity to express our innate sense of fraternity, to be Good Samaritans who bear the pain of other people’s troubles rather than fomenting greater hatred and resentment” (FT, 77).

While Pope Francis sees the story of the Good Samaritan as a reminder that each of us can be like the characters in the parable, he rebukes those who use their faith “to support varieties of narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and the mistreatment of those who are different” (FT, 86).

In chapter three — “Envisioning and engendering an open world” — Pope Francis states that “love impels us towards universal communion” (FT, 95). He warns, however, about a false kind of globalism that tries to make everyone uniform and “destroys the rich gifts and uniqueness of each person and each people” (FT, 100). A true universalism promotes “social friendship and universal fraternity” and recognizes “the worth of every human person, always and everywhere” (FT, 106). Social friendship must be grounded in benevolentia, the virtue that “wills the good” of others (FT, 112). Benevolence is expressed through solidarity and caring for the vulnerable. It also requires “care for our common home, our planet” (FT, 117).

In terms of economics, Pope Francis believes solidarity is expressed in “the common destination of created goods,” a principle upheld by early Christian writers such as St. Basil as well as by popes such as Paul VI and John Paul II (FT, 91). Although the encyclical affirms the right to private property, Pope Francis writes that “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property” (FT, 120). The word “inviolable” is actually “untouchable” in the Italian, Spanish, and French texts of the encyclical (intoccabile, intocable, intouchable). Some critics claim that Pope Francis is contradicting prior Catholic teaching on the inviolability of private property. This, though, is not true, especially if we understand “inviolable” as “untouchable.” In his 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII recognized the right of the State to control the use of private property “in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether” (no. 47). If the State can control the use of private property for the common good, it is not “untouchable.” Pope Francis upholds “the legitimacy of private property and the rights of citizens,” but he strives to balance these rights with “the first principle of the common destination of goods” (FT, 124). He is aware that what he is saying “will sound wildly unrealistic,” but remains convinced that “a real and lasting peace will only be possible” if based on “a global ethic of solidarity and cooperation in the service of a future shaped by interdependence and shared responsibility in the whole human family” (FT, 127).

In chapter four — “A heart open to the whole world” — Pope Francis reflects on the reality of migration in the world today. In regard to migrating persons, he offers four words to guide our response: “welcome, protect, promote, and integrate” (FT, 129). He says that countries should recognize that they are enriched by the ways of life and culture of the people they welcome, noting how Latino culture has enriched the United States and how Italians and Jews have enriched the culture of Argentina (FT, 125). He warns about “narrow forms of nationalism” that lead to “an inability to grasp the meaning of gratuitousness” (FT, 141). For Pope Francis, “universal fraternity and social friendship are thus two inseparable poles and equally vital poles in every society” (FT, 142). The Argentine pontiff affirms the importance of loving and protecting one’s native land (FT, 143), but he is worried about a local “narcissism” that “leads to rejection and the desire to erect walls for self-defense” (FT, 146).

If the State can control the use of private property for the common good, it is not “untouchable.”

In chapter five of Fratelli tutti, entitled “A better kind of politics,” Pope Francis reflects on the different ways “populism” is understood and sees the need for “a sound critique of demagoguery” (FT, 157). He warns of the danger of “concupiscence,” which he defines as “the human inclination to be concerned only with myself, my group, my own petty interests” (FT, 166). Citing his predecessor, Benedict XVI, Francis affirms the need for “some form of world authority regulated by law,” which would seek “to provide for the global common good, the elimination of hunger and poverty, and the sure defense of fundamental human rights” (FT, 172). In this regard, Francis believes there exists a need for a reform of the United Nations as well as of “economic institutions and international finance” (FT, 173). Upholding the principle of subsidiarity, he commends those communities and organizations which, at lower levels, serve the common good and manifest “something of the grandeur of which our humanity is still capable” (FT, 175).

Pope Francis embraces the concept of “political charity” espoused by his predecessor, Pius XI, in 1927 (FT, 180). He likewise shares Paul VI’s hope for a “civilization of love” that is motivated by “social love” (FT, 183). Drawing upon John Paul II, Francis upholds charity “as the spiritual heart of politics,” which is manifested “by a preferential love for those in greatest need” (FT, 187). Political charity is needed to address serious issues such as “the marketing of human tissues and organs, the sexual exploitation of boys and girls, slave labor, including prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism, and international organized crime” (FT, 188). Although aware that the notion of political charity “may seem naïve and utopian,” Pope Francis stresses that “we cannot renounce this lofty aim” (FT, 190).

In chapter six — “Dialogue and friendship in society” — the pontiff expresses his hope for genuine dialogue that transcends special interests. Recognizing the internet as “a gift from God,” he also warns of its potential danger to “bring out the worst in people” instead of being used for truth and the common good (FT, 205). Francis expresses his belief in objective truth that transcends an ethical relativism in which “good and evil no longer exist in themselves” (FT, 210). A pluralistic society requires dialogue “enriched and illumined by clear thinking, rational arguments, a variety of perspectives and the contribution of different fields of knowledge and points of view” (FT, 212).

Chapter seven — “Paths of renewed encounter” — points to truth as “an inseparable companion of justice and mercy,” which leads to “reconciliation and forgiveness” rather than revenge (FT, 227). The pursuit of peace must move beyond violence. We must “flee from the temptation for revenge” and “violent public demonstrations” (FT, 232), recognizing that “forgiveness and reconciliation are central themes in Christianity and, in various ways, in other religions” (FT, 237). Francis asserts that “authentic reconciliation does not flee from conflict, but is achieved in conflict, resolving it through dialogue and open, honest, and patient negotiation” (FT, 244). Forgiveness, though, does not mean we lose the memory of past horrors and injustices. In this regard, “the Shoah must not be forgotten” because it is “the enduring symbol of the depths to which human evil can sink” (FT, 247). Likewise, we must not forget “the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki” (FT, 248).

Francis knows that conditions that favor war “are once again increasing,” and this means “we must work tirelessly to avoid wars between nations and peoples” (FT, 257). He affirms the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2309 on the “rigorous conditions” for the moral legitimacy for the use of military force (FT, 258). Nevertheless, he speaks of war as “a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil” (FT, 261). He reaffirms the Catholic Church’s opposition to the death penalty, and he shows that from the earliest centuries of the Church there were some — such as Lactantius and Pope Nicholas I — who “were clearly opposed to capital punishment” (FT, 265).

Members of the Church must recognize from their own experience of sin and grace “the beauty of the invitation to universal love” (FT, 278).

In the eighth and last chapter — “Religions at the service of fraternity in our world” — Pope Francis considers the importance of religion in the world as a whole. Quoting John Paul II, who believed that without transcendent truth “there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between peoples” (FT, 273), the pope asserts that when “there is an attempt to remove God from a society, that society ends up adoring idols, and very soon men and women lose their way, their dignity is trampled or their rights violated” (FT, 274). The Catholic Church upholds religious freedom, committed to working alongside other religions for “the advancement of humanity and of universal fraternity” (FT, 267). The Church seeks to imitate the Virgin Mary “to accompany life, to sustain hope, to be a sign of unity … to build bridges, to break down walls, to sow seeds of reconciliation” (FT, 276).

For Christians, “the wellspring of human dignity and fraternity is the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (FT, 277). Members of the Church must recognize from their own experience of sin and grace “the beauty of the invitation to universal love” (FT, 278).

Pope Francis’s final appeal is for religions to be sources of peace – not war. Both he and the Grand Iman Ahmad Al-Tayyeb resolved in 2019 that “religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood” (FT, 285).

Before ending with a “Prayer to the Creator” and “An Ecumenical Christian Prayer,” Pope Francis points to the example of Blessed Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916) who lived as a hermit in the African desert and who “expressed his desire to feel himself a brother to every human being” (FT, 287). Blessed Charles wished to be “the universal brother,” and, in this way, he embodied the spirit of human fraternity that comes from “a total surrender to God” and “an identification with the poor’ (FT, 287).

Fratelli tutti is, in many ways, Pope Francis’s most significant encyclical, incorporating themes he has articulated throughout his pontificate. Although Francis is aware of the depths of evil towards which humans can go, he remains hopeful that a “civilization of love” remains possible if people and nations recognize their common humanity and affirm charity as “the spiritual heart” of politics, ethics, and religion. ♦


Robert Fastiggi is Professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. He teaches and writes on courses in Ecclesiology, Christology, Mariology, church history, sacramental theology, and moral theology.