Pope Francis
Pope Francis signs his new encyclical, 'Fratelli tutti', during a visit to Assisi, Italy, on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020. (Photo by Vatican Media)

Topics: Spirituality | Society

Pope critiques racism, ‘violent nationalism’ in third encyclical

The document doesn't name any country, but many will take some of Francis's thoughts as a warning to the United States


VATICAN CITY (RNS) — In a time of global pandemic, social unrest and widespread armed conflict, Pope Francis released his third encyclical on Sunday (Oct. 4), mapping out the moral guidelines for “an open world” that places human dignity at the forefront, ahead of national borders, private property and racism.

Francis signed the encyclical, the third of his pontificate, on Saturday (Oct. 3) in Assisi, Italy, the birthplace of his namesake, St. Francis. The encyclical, titled Fratelli Tutti (strictly, Brothers All, though in Italian the implication is all of humanity), tackles the challenges faced by today’s globalized society, from racism to immigration to inter-religious dialogue.

“If every human being possesses an inalienable dignity, if all people are my brothers and sisters, and if the world truly belongs to everyone,” he writes in the document, “then it matters little whether my neighbour was born in my country or elsewhere.”

Braving a renewal of the criticism he got for allegedly pushing a socialist political agenda in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, Francis questions in Fratelli Tutti the West’s attention to private property, saying it “can only be considered a secondary natural right” to that of human dignity.

Fratelli Tutti doesn’t deny the right to property, however, but tries to reorient it as a responsibility, suggesting, for instance, that it should translate into care for the planet. “All this brings out the positive meaning of the right to property: I care for and cultivate something that I possess, in such a way that it can contribute to the good of all,” he writes.

The encyclical, addressed to the entire community of Catholic faithful and people of good will around the world, doesn’t name any nation, but many will read Francis’ thoughts on political and social division, rampant nationalism and instances of xenophobic and racist violence as a warning to the United States, which has been embroiled in many of these issues of late.

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But Francis makes clear he is holding Catholicism to account, asking why “it took so long for the Church unequivocally to condemn slavery and various forms of violence” and criticized those faithful who continue to “support varieties of narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and even the mistreatment of those who are different.

“Racism is a virus that quickly mutates and, instead of disappearing, goes into hiding, and lurks in waiting,” Francis writes in the document, stating that “every brother or sister in need, when abandoned or ignored by the society in which I live, becomes an existential foreigner, even though born in the same country.

“They may be citizens with full rights, yet they are treated like foreigners in their own country.”

He returns in the new encyclical to a consistent theme of “throw-away society,” in which human dignity is only extended largely to those considered “useful” and in which those considered a burden, especially the poor, the elderly and people with disabilities, are dismissed or discarded. The pope urges people of faith to speak and preach “more directly and clearly,” to promote the understanding of the intrinsic human dignity of each human being.

Francis contrasts the plight of these discarded members of society with the privilege enjoyed by those who have a good education, stable families and economic security. “They will certainly not need a proactive state; they need only claim their freedom,” he writes, while adding that the same cannot be said for the many who have no access to those basic sources of support.

The pontiff took as his central text the parable of the Good Samaritan. The story, told by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke about a foreigner who helps a man beaten and robbed at the side of the road, drives Francis’ many reflections, especially his championing of the cause of immigrants and refugees who have been among the main concerns of this pontificate.

“No one, then, can remain excluded because of his or her place of birth, much less because of privileges enjoyed by others who were born in lands of greater opportunity. The limits and borders of individual states cannot stand in the way of this,” Francis writes.

He ties the rights of individuals irrespective of national borders to his thoughts on property and distribution of wealth and goods. “Each country also belongs to the foreigner,” he writes, “inasmuch as a territory’s goods must not be denied to a needy person coming from elsewhere.”

“No one, then, can remain excluded because of his or her place of birth, much less because of privileges enjoyed by others who were born in lands of greater opportunity.”

The pope clearly recognizes the encyclical’s proposals may be dismissed as “utopian” or “unrealistic,” but his outline for “a new network of international relations” demands countries set aside concerns based solely on partisan interest. “We can aspire to a world that provides land, housing and work for all,” he writes. “This is the true path of peace, not the senseless and myopic strategy of sowing fear and mistrust in the face of outside threats.”

The encyclical draws strongly from the ecumenical document Francis signed in February 2019 with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, in Abu Dhabi, on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.” The final chapters especially encourage dialogue between different faiths to promote peace among their followers.

“From our faith experience and from the wisdom accumulated over centuries, but also from lessons learned from our many weaknesses and failures, we, the believers of the different religions, know that our witness to God benefits our societies,” Francis writes.

War, nuclear weapons and terrorism are all called out as misguided substitutes for dialogue and a means of primarily furthering national agendas.

“We Christians ask that, in those countries where we are a minority, we be guaranteed freedom, even as we ourselves promote that freedom for non-Christians in places where they are a minority,” the pope writes.

This passage gains importance in view of the Vatican’s current negotiations for a controversial deal with China, where Christians and other minorities have been reportedly persecuted.

The encyclical has been met with some criticism ahead of its publication from those who believe its title to be discriminatory toward women. In the text, Pope Francis goes to some length to ensure the situation of women globally be taken into greater account.

“The organization of societies worldwide is still far from reflecting clearly that women possess the same dignity and identical rights as men,” he writes.


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