Reflections on Fratelli tutti

Something Old, Something New, Much Ado about Not too Much

Charles J. Russo

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This article is part of our “Fratelli Tutti: Reflections on Pope Francis’s Call for Fraternity in Law and Religion” series.
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On October 3, 2020, Pope Francis took the unusual step of traveling to the birthplace, home, and tomb of his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, to sign1Gerard O’Connell, Pope Francis will sign new encyclical on human fraternity at the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi, America, Sept. 5, 2020, pope-francis-will-sign-new-encyclical-human-fraternity-tomb-st-francis-assisi (Reporting that “Pope Francis will travel to Assisi on Oct. 3. to sign a new encyclical on human fraternity at the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi….”). his third encyclical, or papal pastoral letter,2Encyclical, Catholic Encyclopedia online, Fratelli tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship,3The complete text of the encyclical is available at after celebrating Mass in the crypt of the lower basilica.4Pope signs his encyclical “Fratelli tutti” in front of San Francisco’s tomb, Noticias Financieras – English, October 3, 2020, 2020 WLNR 28002587. The first time that a pontiff signed an encyclical outside of Rome,5John L. Allen, Jr., As Pope named ‘Francis’ heads to Assisi, a lot rides on new encyclical, Crux, Oct. 3, 2020, Pope Francis officially released the letter, which he reportedly started writing before the COVID-19 pandemic struck this past spring,6Market capitalism failed in pandemic, Pope Francis says, Chi. Trib., Oct. 5, 2020, at 11, 2020 WLNR 28113882. in Rome on Sunday, October 4, 2020,7Christopher Altieri, Pope Francis releases Encyclical Letter Fratelli tutti, Catholic Herald, Oct. 4, 2020, the feast day of St. Francis.

At eight chapters, 272 numbered paragraphs, and an English text of more than 38,000 words, almost 43,000 words including its 288 footnotes, Fratelli tutti is lengthy. Perhaps the best that can be said about Fratelli tutti is that it is a mixed bag. Controversial from the start, the Pope was criticized for his tone deafness because the encyclical’s non-inclusive title, translated as “Brothers All,” fails to refer to women.8Christopher Vondracek, Pope’s latest encyclical draws ire of Catholic feminists, Wash. Times (D.C.), Oct. 2, 2020, See also Nicole Winfield, What’s in a name? At the Vatican, a debate on inclusiveness, Crux, Sept. 17, 2020, 2020/09/whats-in-a-name-at-the-vatican-a-debate-on-inclusiveness/sup

Fratelli tutti is typical of the rambling style that Pope Francis seems to prefer as he addresses something old in the form of traditional Church teachings and something new by reflecting on current issues facing the global community. He intended Fratelli tutti to serve as “a new vision of fraternity and social friendship.”9Fratelli tutti, supra note 3 at para. 6. Interspersed among his spiritual gems, though, are instances of what can be described as his “shooting from the hip,”10Another recent example of how Pope’s speaking informally created a firestorm emerged after he spoke out about civil unions for same-sex couples in a documentary about his life, Franceso. For different perspectives on his statement, see, e.g., Pope Francis calls for civil union law for same-sex couples, in shift from Vatican stance, Catholic News Agency, Oct. 21, 2020, _medium= email&_hsmi=98003298&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-9YGfMnmmGccMxoIRW5yfAyvYfxYznVa8hjb3 uQqIYzGTXxDB6Q_qLCQSGn982TIZEKfOVUPJ69owYBZfOd46x5RAzb9oYpFxUiBuAIxh Uihm3d1M&utm_content=98003298&utm_source=hs_email; Christopher Vondracek, Pope endorses same-sex civil unions in new documentary film, Wash. Times (D.C.), Oct. 22, 2020, 2020 WLNR 29993704, thereby creating confusion,11See, e.g., Hannah Brockhaus, Mexican broadcaster: Vatican held back Pope Francis’ words on same-sex civil unions in 2019 interview footage, Catholic New Agency, Oct. 23, 2020, Daily &utm_medium=email&_hsmi=98158108&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-_rXjPg6wM5x PLEVG5g Z6bnQSpJaJXzURUHldx4h73nKMDqAWHrzVmGzAGDze7Fxzq51SEU-mm0J0ZRpz2y QqkwFS3uK4m3vmRBepSMsVHyl2rM5uE&utm_content=98158108&utm_source=hs_email; Carla Hinton, Oklahoma Catholic leaders: Pope’s statement on same-sex civil unions ‘confusing’ The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City (OK), Oct. 22, 2020, 2020 WLNR 30048266, 5674483/local-catholic-leaders-popes-statement-on-same-sex-civil-unions-confusing. pontificating on issues beyond his expertise, such as market capitalism12See infra notes 28-30 and accompanying text. as he dispenses unsought advice on secular concerns better left to experts in those fields.

Key among the Pope’s insights on what can be described as traditional topics are the need for love to build bridges as reflected in the parable of the Good Samaritan,13Fratelli tutti, supra note 3 at parars. 62-71, 77-83, 101. virtues present in the parable as well as throughout Jesus’ teachings as reflected in the Gospels, hope,14Id. at 3 at paras. 54-5. kindness,15Id. at 222-24. the value and meaning of forgiveness,”16Id. at 236-49 and reconciliation, which the Pope described as “central themes in Christianity and, in various ways, in other religions.”17Id. at 237. Further, Pope Francis followed the lead of his predecessors, Saint Pope John Paul II18This text is available at hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor.html and Pope Benedict XVI, who cautioned19Fratelli tutti, supra note 3 at para. 185, 206ff. about the need to guard against the “dictatorship of relativism.”20Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Dean of the College of Cardinals, Mass Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice, Vatican Basilica, April 18, 2005,

Between its brief opening and its final reflections on interfaith leaders who influenced his thinking, in Fratelli tutti, the Pope saw it as his duty to remind Catholics about the need to remain faithful.

Not surprisingly, Pope Francis criticized the evils of “human trafficking, the marketing of human organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of boys and girls, slave labor, including prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism and international organized crime.”21Id. at 188. Yet, he made only two, brief passing references to abortion, another key moral issue of the day, one in decrying the contemporary “throwaway world,”22Id. at 8 “‘persons are no longer seen as a paramount value to be cared for and respected, especially when they are poor and disabled, ‘not yet useful’ – like the unborn, or ‘no longer needed’ – like the elderly.’” For a brief commentary on this point, see Catholic Sensibility: Fratelli tutti 18: A “Throwaway World,” Oct. 21, 2020, wherein those who have are not often respectful of the needs of those who do not have, and the other when addressing slavery.23See id. at 24. Criticizing slavery in all forms, he added it is a “[a] perversion that exceeds all limits when it subjugates women and then forces them to abort.” Perhaps Pope Francis avoided an outright condemnation of abortion for fear of placing too much emphasis on this one subject so he could address other unresolved pressing concerns.24David E. DeCosse, Catholics, voting and abortion: Time to correct the record, National Catholic Reporter, Sept. 14, 2020 (Reporting that “Pope Francis has long signaled his disagreement with a selective Catholic emphasis on abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception. “It is not necessary to talk about these things all the time,” he said in a widely noted 2013 interview shortly after his election to the papacy. More recently, he re-affirmed the church’s opposition to abortion while noting other issues of similar significance.”). For a story about the 2013 interview, see Joshua L. McElwee, US bishop responds to pope regarding abortion language, National Catholic Reporter, Sept. 20, 2013,

Among the contemporary and enduring topics Pope Francis addressed are meeting the needs of individuals and societies impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the plight of immigrants25Fratelli tutti, supra note 3 at paras. 7, 32 54. while reiterating his opposition to both capital punishment26Id. at 263-70. Interestingly, as resolutely as he opposes the death penalty, Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, of whom Pope Francis spoke so highly of, infra note 32, has stated that “[t]he four schools of law all concur that apostasy is a crime, that an apostate should be asked to repent, and that if he does not, he should be killed.” Robert Spencer, Pope Condemns Death Penalty While Praising Pro-Death Penalty Imam, PJ Media, Oct. 7, 2020, culture/robert-spencer/2020/10/07/pope-condemns-death-penalty-while-praising-pro-death-penalty-imam-n1017636. and war.27Fratelli tutti, supra note 3 at paras. 255-62. Another recurring topic was the global economy wherein the pontiff’s critique of market capitalism28See, e.g., id. at 12, 14, 21-2, 108-10, 122-23, 165ff. described it as “this dogma of neoliberal faith.”29Id. at 168. He was also critical of some of market capitalism’s technological accoutrements.30In his critique of digital communication, he wrote that “[r]espect for others disintegrates, and even as we dismiss, ignore or keep others distant, we can shamelessly peer into every detail of their lives.” Paragraph 42. He makes a good point that technology seems to have taken on a life of its own. Still, though, what missed is that the difficulties associated with the use of technology are inherent in their users rather than the devices themselves.

These comments suggest that he is out of his depth when commenting on economics in his capacity as a pastoral leader because he offers one-sided criticisms without recognizing the good that capitalism has done for untold millions, if not billions, of people. Fratelli tutti thus amounts to much ado about not too much, because the pontiff moved beyond the realm of being a spiritual shepherd in his wide-ranging musings.

Pope Francis opened his encyclical with the words of his beloved namesake, Francis of Assisi, Fratelli tutti, to speak to his brothers and sisters in faith as a way of accentuating the need for fraternity and social friendship. Moving into the body of his encyclical, Pope Francis set the tone for the remainder of his letter by praising St. Francis for his 1219 trip to Egypt to engage in interfaith dialogue with Sultan Malik-el-Kamil, a journey made difficult both by Francis’s poverty and the dangers associated with traveling even as the Fifth Crusade was being fought.31Fratelli tutti, supra note 3 at para. 3.

Suggesting that he was modeling his own behavior on that of his namesake, the Pope reflected on how deeply he valued interfaith dialogue. Accordingly, he highlighted how he was influenced positively by his meeting in Abu Dhabi in early February 2019 with Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb. Together the two religious leaders released a document and joint statement that “God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and has called them to live together as brothers and sisters.”32Id. at para. 5, citing to Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, Abu Dhabi (Feb. 4, 2019): L’Osservatore Romano, Feb. 4-5, 2019, p. 6. The full document is available at outside/ documents/papa-francesco_20190204_documento-fratellanza-umana.html

Between its brief opening and its final reflections on interfaith leaders who influenced his thinking, in Fratelli tutti, the Pope saw it as his duty to remind Catholics about the need to remain faithful. Pope Francis was up to the task of exhorting Catholics to remain faithful by applying their faith in action. Still, he would have been well-advised to have toned down some of his critiques, especially of market capitalism, because while it is far from perfect, it continues to secure untold benefits for many throughout the world.

It would be remiss not to applaud a particular strength of Fratelli tutti, namely how the Pope reminded readers that despite the pandemic, “God continues to sow abundant seeds of goodness in our human family.”33Fratelli tutti, supra note 3 at para. 54. He eloquently encouraged all to remain hopeful and thankful for the many whose interwoven work lives, whether as “doctors, nurses, pharmacists, storekeepers and supermarket workers, cleaning personnel, caretakers, transport workers, … essential services and public safety [workers who] … make it clear that… [t]hey understood that no one is saved alone.”34Id. In this way, Pope Francis reiterated one of the central tenets of the Christian tradition, namely that people are saved in and through their faith communities. This is one of the letter’s high points, as Pope Francis exhorts people to retain their faith even as dark clouds have appeared on the horizons of human life.35The Pope titled Chapter One of Fratelli tutti, id. paras. 9-56 as “Dark Clouds Over a Closed World.”

In his encyclical, Pope Francis contributed worthwhile reflections on the pandemic, viewing it as a global concern needing a global solution.36See id. at paras. 32-36. Positing that national borders offer limited protection from COVID-19, he segued to one of the most challenging issues of the day for governmental leaders, namely, the status of immigration and migrants, seeking “a form of global governance with regard to movements of migration.”37Id. at para. 132. For more evidence of his support for international governance, see id. at para. 138 (internal citation omitted): “We need to attain a global juridical, political and economic order “which can increase and give direction to international cooperation for the development of all peoples in solidarity.”

Emphasizing that human rights should not be subject to boundaries, Pope Francis explained that “[m]any migrants have fled from war, persecution and natural catastrophes. Others, immigrants described as “seeking opportunities for themselves and their families. They dream of a better future and they want to create the conditions for achieving it.”38Id. at para. 37 (internal citation omitted). Decrying that “in some host countries, migration causes fear and alarm, often fomented and exploited for political purposes,”39Id. at para. 39 (internal citation omitted). he “ask[ed] everyone to move beyond those primal reactions”40Id. at para. 41. by welcoming migrants.

While one can respect the Pope’s sense of Christian charity and humanitarianism, he does not distinguish between lawful and unlawful migration. Neither does Pope Francis address the need to ensure that immigrants respect the laws of host nations by being mindful of the rights and freedoms of their residents and others as identified in internationally accepted instruments and national laws,41See, e.g., Article 29.3 of the 1948 Declaration on Human Rights, the first internationally accepted document to identify basic human rights, which mandated that “everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.” even as they can enjoy the customs and cultures of their home countries,42See, e.g., The 1992, Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. Pursuant to Article 2.1 of this instrument, “[p]ersons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, and to use their own language, in private and in public, freely and without interference or any form of discrimination.” subject only to the need for public safety.43See, e.g., the 1976 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, rt. 18.3: “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” Legal immigrants, of course, remain free to enjoy the customs and cultures of their home countries in their new countries.44See, e.g., The 1992, Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. Pursuant to Article 2.1 of this instrument, “[p]ersons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, and to use their own language, in private and in public, freely and without interference or any form of discrimination.”

Another reality the Pope overlooks is that national governments have systems in place regulating legal entry for immigrants, including exemptions for those seeking to escape dire conditions such as religious persecution. At the risk of becoming a literalist in biblical interpretation, it is worth recalling that Jesus did say that it was proper to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”45Mark 12:17 (King James Version Online).

Based on Jesus’ words, national leaders have the duty to ensure the well-being and security of their own citizens and legal residents by having processes in place regulating immigration. Certainly, the Pope must realize that only by following their duty to control their national borders to monitor the flow of immigrants can leaders plan accurately for such necessities as safety, schooling, and health care in a way that allows them to protect the common good of all lawful residents of their countries. Against this background, the Pope’s plea for apparently unfettered immigration must be viewed with grave caution as it reflects his antipathy for “nationalism”46See, e.g., Fratelli tutti, supra note 3 at para 12, (“instances of a myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism are on the rise…”); at para. 86, (“[many] support varieties of narrow and violent nationalism , xenophobia and contempt, ….”) at para. 141 (“Narrow forms of nationalism are an extreme expression of an inability to grasp the meaning of this gratuitousness.”). as he seeks a world “without borders.”47The Pope had a separate heading under this title, id. at paras. 3-8. The Pope should have qualified his support by speaking about legal immigrants because if national leaders allow people in without some form of background checks, they risk opening Pandora’s Boxes of violence if they inadvertently admit terrorists who seek to kill and harm many innocent individuals in their countries.

Aware of the need to serve their own populations while considering the plight of immigrants, the United States Supreme Court, for instance, addressed how to achieve such a balance in a pair of cases from Texas, albeit in the context of education. In 1982, the Court upheld the rights of the children of undocumented residents to attend public schools in Plyler v. Doe.48457 U.S. 202 (1982). The court found that children could not be accountable for the proverbial sins of their parents by being denied access to public education because, in accompanying their families and/ or being born after their parents arrived, they did not choose to enter the country.

American Catholics will be unreceptive to Fratelli tutti’s criticism of market capitalism because, as imperfect a system as it is, it has improved many of their lives with the upshot that they will reject this message as an unwarranted attack on their way of life.

A year later, the Court acknowledged the wisdom of enforcing reasonable residency rules in Martinez v. Bynum. According to the Court, “a bona fide residence requirement, appropriately defined and uniformly applied, furthers the substantial state interest in assuring that services provided for its residents are enjoyed only by residents.”49Martinez v. Bynum, 461 U.S.321, 328 (1983). In so ruling, the Court forbade an eight-year-old boy, who was born in Texas, and as such, an American citizen, from attending public school tuition-free, because by living with his sister, who was his custodian, but not his guardian, he failed to satisfy the state’s residency requirement.

On another matter, it is unclear why the Pope, a product of socialism, thought it necessary to use his powerful teaching authority as leader of the universal Roman Catholic Church to make general and unfounded criticisms about capitalism, of which he apparently knows little and understands less.50Interestingly, although Saint Pope John Paul II, growing up as Karol Wojtyla, was raised in a communist regime, he became one of its harshest critics whose actions contributed to the demise of the former Soviet Union. Writing 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,”51Fratelli tutti, supra note 3 at para. 120 (internal citation omitted). For St. Thomas Aquinas’s discussion and defense of private property, see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, q 66, a 1-2. Pope Francis thereby reduced capitalism, a system that has lifted untold millions from poverty while allowing members of societies where economic freedom is available to fund much of the Church’s good work, to a straw man52For instance, he mentioned “those who would have had us believe that freedom of the market was sufficient to keep everything secure,” but failed to identify supporters of this perspective. Id. at para. 33. which he then rebutted with generalizations.53See Market capitalism failed in pandemic, Pope Francis says, Chi. Trib., Oct. 5, 2020 at 11, 2020 WLNR 28113882. While Pope Francis’ pronouncements follow in the notable tradition of encyclical commentary on economic matters, his apparent rejection of capitalism stands in contrast to the views of his predecessors and Catholic Bishops in the United States. See, e.g., Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, On Capital and Labor (1891); Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, Forty Years, On Reconstruction of the Social Order, (1931); Saint Pope John Paull II, Laborem Exercens, On Human Labor (1981) and Centesimus Annus, 100 Years (1991). Domestically, in 1986, the American Catholic Bishops promulgated Economic Justice For All, Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy. One can only wonder where the Roman Catholic Church and its people, let alone believers in other Christian faiths and religions, would be without the donations made possible by capitalism or the hard-won benefits of peace won by war, because without the sacrifices of millions, tyranny would rule many parts of the world.

On the subject of war, Pope Francis issued the pacifist declaration that “…we can no longer think of war as a solution…. Never again war!”54Fratelli tutti, supra note 3 at para. 258 at note 242, indicating that Saint Augustine “…forged a concept of “just war” that we no longer uphold in our own day….” (internal citation omitted). In so doing, Pope Francis sought to rebut the “just war” theory advanced by St. Augustine. To be clear, the Pope accurately observed that “[w]ar is a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil.”55Id. at para. 260. Clearly, war is an unspeakable horror that must be used as a last resort, if then, during an era when human annihilation as a result of the use of “nuclear, chemical and biological weapons”56Id. at para. 258. remains a frightening possibility.

An apt retort to Pope Francis’ well-intentioned, if utopian, opposition to war can be found in a quote attributed to the Eighteenth-century Irish parliamentarian and conservative theorist, Edmund Burke: “[t]he only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”57Attributed to Edmund Burke, in John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations 332 (Justin Kaplan ed., 16th ed. 1992). This quote has not been found in any of Burke’s writings, see id. at 332 n. 3. Given Burke’s words, are there not some things still worth fighting for? While it is a stretch to suggest that it is the same as war, even Jesus resorted to a controlled form of violence when he overturned the money-changers’ tables in the Temple at Jerusalem.58See John 2:13-16.

In this way, Pope Francis reiterated one of the central tenets of the Christian tradition, namely that people are saved in and through their faith communities. This is one of the letter’s high points, as Pope Francis exhorts people to retain their faith even as dark clouds have appeared on the horizons of human life.

Readily conceding that war should be a last resort, it would be interesting to imagine what a conversation about it would be like between Saint Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. It is doubtful that Saint Pope John Paul II, who risked his life resisting the evils of Nazism in the battle to free not only his native Poland, but also Western Europe, would see eye-to-eye with Pope Francis on this issue. One can only wonder what might have become of St. Peter’s, the Vatican, and the good works of the Roman Catholic Church had the United States and the Allies not prevailed over the Nazis.

In the penultimate paragraph of Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis explained that “I felt inspired particularly by Saint Francis of Assisi, but also by others of our brothers and sisters who are not Catholics: Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi and many more.”59Fratelli tutti, supra note 3 at para. 286. He identified his final source of inspiration as Blessed Charles de Foucauld,60Id. at 286-87. a former military officer who once lost his faith, but regained it and was ordained a priest, working and living among the poor in North Africa before he was murdered in his home.61Charles de Foucauld, liturgy/saints/ ns_lit_doc_20051113_de-foucauld_en.html

In sum, it remains to be seen what, if any, impact Fratelli tutti has on the lives of Catholics in the United States. As an invitation to Christian fraternity and social friendship, most American Catholics are likely to heed this uplifting dimension of the encyclical. Conversely, the encyclical’s progressive tone, evidenced by its exhortation to “liberty, equality, and fraternity,”62Fratelli tutti, supra note 3 at para. 103. an earmark of the French Revolution, and wanting to rely on “the United Nations Organization, and likewise of economic institutions and international finance, so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth,”63Id. at para. 173. is likely to be largely ignored by many faithful American Catholics who support the Church financially and spiritually.

Moreover, mindful of the adage that “one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar,” Fratelli tutti’s critical assessment of market capitalism, however well-intended, is likely to fall on deaf ears. American Catholics will be unreceptive to Fratelli tutti’s criticism of market capitalism because, as imperfect a system as it is, it has improved many of their lives with the upshot that they will reject this message as an unwarranted attack on their way of life.64Christopher Vondracek, Pope Francis’ political detours anger some Catholics, Wash. Times (D.C.), Oct. 6, 2020, 2020 WLNR 28217037 (reporting that “Popes can and should express moral guidelines,” Mr. [Eric] Sammons [a Catholic author] told The Washington Times. “But Francis goes beyond this. He instead gives specific policy advice in areas best left to the laity to determine the prudent course of action.).”

Charles J. Russo, M.Div. J.D., Ed.D., is Panzer Chair in Education & Director, Ph.D. Program in Educational Leadership, School of Education and Health Sciences, Research Professor of Law, School of Law, University of Dayton, USA. Russo is also an Adjunct Professor in the Law School of the Sydney campus of Notre Dame University of Australia.

Recommended Citation

Russo, Charles J. “Reflections on Fratelli tutti: Something Old, Something New, Much Ado about Not too Much.” Canopy Forum, November 25, 2020.