Fratelli Tutti: In Search of a New Vision of Fraternal Love
Fratelli Tutti: In Search of a New Vision of Fraternal Love

Fratelli Tutti: In Search of a New Vision of Fraternal Love

Monsignor Patrick Burke looks at Pope Francis' latest encyclical

A Very Personal Letter

Fratelli Tutti (Italian for “Brothers All”) is the latest publication from the pen of Pope Francis. Although, historically speaking, papal encyclicals have varied in tone, content and doctrinal significance, the designation is usually understood to have a fairly high degree of formal authority.

In Fratelli Tutti, however, Pope Francis makes it clear that he is elaborating his own personal thoughts on the issues of “human fraternity and social friendship” (5). The majority of quotes and references are to his own writings and public utterances on the subject and he emphasises that he is simply attempting to put his various interventions into “a broader context of reflection” (5) along with contributions he has received from other contemporary commentators, mostly non-believers.

He says that he does not intend “to offer a complete teaching on fraternal love” (6) nor “to study every aspect of our present day experience, [but] simply to consider certain trends in our world that hinder the development of universal fraternity” (9). He therefore makes no claim to authoritative teaching in this letter, describing it, rather, as “a modest contribution to continued reflection” (6) on these undoubtedly important topics.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Encyclicals are traditionally addressed by Roman Pontiffs to their fellow Bishops worldwide together with their clergy and the faithful, and then also to others outside the Church, in order to clarify and give authoritative guidance on the authentic development and application of some aspects of Catholic teaching, often with reference to contemporary philosophies and events. In this letter, however, Francis says: “Although I have written it from the Christian convictions that inspire and sustain me, I have sought to make this reflection an invitation to dialogue among all people of good will” (6).

This distinctly subjective frame of reference underlines the fact that these reflections are more his own individual views than an act of magisterial teaching. And his clearly stated purpose in writing this letter — to prompt a global conversation without explicit reference to Christian doctrine — whatever its pros and cons as an evangelical strategy, also implies that he does not see it as a magisterial document.

As a publication by the current Bishop of Rome this letter of course commands our respectful attention, however it is not surprising to find that it is marked throughout by the strengths and weaknesses of its author, and it should be received and weighed accordingly. The Pope himself offers it as the ‘opening gambit’ of a wider dialogue, so we should not be afraid to take him at his word and respond to it in those terms.

Concern for an Increasingly Divided World

Fratelli Tutti is a long document that covers a wide range of issues. The Holy Father’s principal concern is that rapid economic globalisation and ubiquitous digital communication, far from making the world more integrated and harmonious are resulting in greater inequalities, international conflict, and interpersonal alienation.

He is worried that the emerging global society “lacks a shared roadmap” (31) and “common horizons” (26); and “that the sense of belonging to a single human family is fading, and the dream of working together for justice and peace seems an outdated utopia” (30). Yet was this ever true of the whole of humanity outside the Church, and on what basis could or should it become so if not upon Jesus Christ who “reveals man to himself” (Gaudium et Spes, 22)?

He analyses, often acutely, various factors which are paradoxically creating deeper divisions in our highly sophisticated and interconnected world (9). He points out that such inequalities easily become breeding grounds for criminality which not only entraps and corrupts the poorest, but sooner or later affects the whole community. This is why it is in everybody’s interests to ensure that the poor and marginalised have access to the benefits and opportunities enjoyed by others (28).

So he calls for a new spirit of co-operation and dialogue to mend this increasingly polarised and fragmented world (8). The language of ‘dreams’, of yearning and aspiration used throughout this letter gives it a sense of offering a broad-brush vision that is often lacking in detailed analysis and precision of expression.

A Plea for Sincere Dialogue and Encounter

He pleads for a rediscovery of the art of listening in sincere dialogue as central to authentic interpersonal encounter (48), and warns against “employing a strategy of ridicule, suspicion and relentless criticism, in a variety of ways (which) denies the right of others to exist or to have an opinion” (15). Many in the Church who have been on the receiving end of fierce criticism in recent years (for such sins as ‘clericalism’, for example) might raise an eyebrow, but the point is well made.

He also calls for a more discerning approach to the search for truth in this internet age of boundless information (50). He points to St. Francis’ meeting with the Sultan of Egypt during the fifth crusade as a paradigm because, “Francis did not wage a war of words aimed at imposing doctrines; he simply spread the love of God” (4).

It has been widely pointed out, however, that St. Francis did in fact preach the Gospel to the Sultan and his retinue and he did seek their conversion to Christ. Doctrine matters and is central to real dialogue, but it is true that it will fail to convince unless  it is presented respectfully out of genuine love underpinned by personal holiness and integrity. As St. Peter wrote in his first, indisputably magisterial, letter: “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, therefore, and always be ready with an answer for everyone who asks you the reason for the hope that is within you. But do this with gentleness and reverence, keeping a clear conscience” (1 Peter 3: 15-16).

Economics, Politics and the Demands of Social Charity

Perhaps not surprisingly, many commentators have focussed on some of the specific issues the Pope tackles in this letter. His comments on economics, for example, particularly his criticism of Adam Smith’s classical ‘free market’ thinking (150), has irked some of the hawkish proponents of that theory, especially in America where there can be a tendency simply to equate Christian orthodoxy with support for every aspect of Republican party politics. The accusation that Pope Francis’ understanding of economic theory can be a bit shallow and uncritical is not without justification, but the same might be said of some of the criticisms made in response.

The idea that the sum of individual self-interests inevitably results in the common good is not compatible with Catholic social teaching. For Smith, the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market was his presumption that all players in the marketplace accepted basic Christian morality. There is a higher law which can and should set limits on how money is made and used.

There is a legitimate freedom of initiative and operation in wealth creation, as there is a prima facie right to enjoy the fruits of one’s labour. But Pope Francis rightly reminds us of the thoroughly traditional Catholic teaching that private property is not an absolute right. The goods of the earth are a gift to all and a common inheritance. And there are demands of mutual care and charity — between individuals, groups, nations, and across generations, even to those yet unborn — which also determine what we can morally do with our temporal possessions.

The Pope also confronts the notion that the demands of charity should only be met at the level of individual acts of generosity rather than through organs of the state. He reminds politicians that their vocation is also one of “a lofty form of charity” to serve the common good, not just the cynical manipulation for power and narrow advantage (186). Drawing on his familiar Latin American “Theology of the People”, he tries to steer between the extremes of radical individualism and socialist state control.

Migration, the Death Penalty and Pro Life Issues

On the thorny issue of mass migration he also attempts to strike a balance between the complex demands of justice, charity and political reality. He does not call for unfettered free movement of peoples, but equally he inveighs against the rise of petty and selfish nationalisms. As in so many things, Francis’ response to life comes across as primarily emotional; he is offended by what he perceives to be unjust or uncaring, but his words can at times lack intellectual rigour and consistency.

This is most evident in his remarks on the death penalty, which have also caused much comment. It is not clear whether he thinks the death penalty is forbidden in principle or just that it should be shelved in practice in the modern world. Possibly he does not make much distinction between the two. Yet again the tone and context make clear that he is giving his personal view, not a magisterial pronouncement.

The Pope also links care for the environment to pro-life issues, identifying abortion and euthanasia as symptoms of a selfish culture where even human lives can be sacrificed to others’ convenience as “‘not yet useful’ – like the unborn, or ‘no longer needed’ – like the elderly” (18). He frequently asserts that respecting the absolute dignity of every human person is the key to enduring justice and peace, but he does not expound on where that dignity comes from.

Human Dignity and the Image of God

Many traditionalist minded Catholics take exception to the idea of universal “human dignity”. They see it as an Enlightenment notion that ignores original sin and the need for supernatural grace. Using the term in a Catholic context is taken as endorsement of Karl Rahner’s idea of “anonymous Christians”, whereby everyone is already constituted in saving grace that simply needs to be actualized and awoken within them. The danger of this type of thinking is that it leads to a humanist utopianism that undermines the imperative to evangelise.

In reaction to this, traditionalists often retreat into a neo-scholastic view that human nature has no intrinsic relationship to grace , which means that fallen man has no dignity until he is individually restored in baptism. Since the unbaptised are not children of God through redeeming grace, some even reject the idea that Christians can call all people “brothers” and “sisters”. It is true that there are profound bonds   of grace among those who have been incorporated into the Body of Christ, but this cannot mean that we have no familial relationship with the non-baptised based on our shared humanity.

Such confusion and counter-reaction can be avoided if we derive human dignity from our being created in the image and likeness of God with spiritual souls. Then, as creatures of both matter and spirit in one person we say that we are chosen and destined for communion with God through the Incarnation of his Eternal Word, who is the “Image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) in whom our nature is framed and fulfilled. In which case, it is from him (Christ) that all created meaning and worth, both natural and supernatural, derives.

Human dignity is the gift of Christ through both  nature  and  grace.  Human  nature is severely damaged by the Fall and our eternal destiny in Christ was lost, but all human life still belongs to him by divine right as the Son of Man, and he came to seek out and save those who are lost because they are his. As to whether we should regard the unbaptised as our brothers and sisters in the flesh, even if not yet in the Spirit, Jesus himself told us that on judgment day we will discover how the help or neglect we have shown to our fellow human beings, no matter who they are, has been done to the Lord himself (Matthew 25:40).

The Truth at the Heart of Social Love

The Holy Father does make one passing reference to our being created in the image and likeness of God (24), but he does not spell out the connection to his theme. Which is to say that any social synthesis based on a philosophy that reduces human nature to a material construct without any transcendent spiritual dimension will gradually dissolve its sense of the worth of the human person.

If the communal acceptance of that foundation is missing from the heart of society, then the erosion of human dignity and the subjection of the individual to social and political expediency and the ambitions of the power elite becomes sadly inevitable.

The loss or denial of the fundamental truth that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God in the minds of so many is at the root of much of the widespread breakdown, both personal and social, which is so painfully evident right now.

Pope Francis comes at this from a more oblique and tentative angle: “If everything is connected, it is hard to imagine that this global disaster is unrelated to our way of approaching reality, our claim to be absolute masters of our own lives and of all that exists. I do not want to speak of divine retribution, nor would it be sufficient to say that the harm we do to nature is itself the punishment for our offences. The world is itself crying out, in rebellion. We are reminded of the well-known verse of the poet Virgil that evokes the “tears of things”, the misfortunes of life and history” (34)

A Christian World View

As so often, one gets the impression that the Pope desperately wants to avoid using an older apologetic language which he feels makes God seem arbitrary and punitive, yet the alternative he embraces lacks systematic coherence. As a result, the distinction between God and creation can become worryingly blurred.

In his plea for global integration and peace, Pope Francis quotes from Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate to admonish his readers that: “Charity needs the light  of the truth that we constantly seek. That light is both the light of reason and the light of faith, and does not admit any form of relativism” (185). He also rightly warns of the dangers of ignorance of history, especially among the young, and of cultivating a mindset that despises tradition (13-14).

Yet the decision to approach this subject without linking it directly to a Catholic or even Christian world view is a two-edged sword. Doubtless Francis’ intention is to win an audience among non-believers without tripping over misperceptions and prejudices about specific Catholic doctrines. But this runs the risk of implying that the Catholic faith is just one option among many possible paths to human flourishing, which is why at times the encyclical can seem to endorse a vision of social cohesion based on purely secular values and ideas of human rights. Jesus is only mentioned in Fratelli Tutti to highlight the parable of the Good Samaritan as an inspiring template of compassion and caring from the Christian tradition.

In Search of an Authentically Catholic Vision

There are those, particularly among evangelical Christians, traditionalist Catholics, and others on the right of the American political  spectrum,  who  are   suspicious of the suggestion that “we need to think  of ourselves more and more as a single family dwelling in a common home” (17).

They have a deep-seated aversion to anything that might result in what they call ’one world government’, seeing it as part of a vast conspiracy to create a ‘New World Order’ without Christ.

The integration of humanity as one global village is, however, an inevitability of history, and the idea of global governance and international law is not intrinsically evil. But it is also inevitable that as the saga of humanity reaches its climax so too does the war between its rightful Lord and the forces of anti-Christ who seek to dethrone him. It is important that we do not present Jesus as just the hero of our particular ‘faith tradition’. We must vindicate  him  again  as the Alpha and the Omega, the creator and fulfiller of all things and the key to the meaning of the cosmos, of history, and of every human mind and heart.

Fratelli Tutti makes some incisive points about troubling aspects of contemporary culture that threaten the unity and peace of the worldwide community. And the Pope’s deep concern for those who are trampled on or left behind in the race for technological and economic progress is evident. Hopefully the global dialogue  he  wants  to initiate with this encyclical will lead to further clarifications that help develop an authentically Catholic social ethic for our times, which can then bring us closer to his compelling dream of a world built on true fraternal love.

Monsignor Patrick Burke is a priest of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh.







1. Edward Holloway proposes a solution to this critical debate avoiding the minefields to left and right while preserving Catholic orthodoxy. He also demonstrates how “… the very concept of a ‘pure nature’ which ends in the created order … is not an element of Catholic tradition as it has come down to us from the Fathers of the East or the West. It is not the common doctrine of the schoolmen and … is a purely extraneous element of speculation borrowed from Aristotle … but out of keeping with … Aquinas (who) teaches exactly the opposite for very clear … reasons which introduce a basic correction into Aristotle’s philosophy which is overlooked by many modern Catholic theologians” (Edward Holloway, Matter & Mind, Appendix 3 ‘Nature and the Supernatural’).



Faith Magazine

January / February 2021