A Letter for Dark Times: Pope Francis on the Call for a New Politics

By: Anna Rowlands

October 26, 2020

Responding to: Fratelli Tutti and the Future of the Catholic Church

A Letter for Dark Times: Pope Francis on the Call for a New Politics

In the late 1960s, Hannah Arendt wrote a short book on figures in public life who she thought deserved critical attention. The title of the book was Men in Dark Times. Arendt chose the title not because she was intending to be deeply pessimistic or even apocalyptic, but for quite the opposite reason: She believed we come to know the darkness of the times, and combat the gloom, through the lives of those who resist the despair and cynicism and find a way to chart a different path. These are the women and men who come to offer us illumination, and, Arendt asserts, in dark times we have a right to demand some illumination.

Fratelli Tutti is a text that hopes to inspire a new generation of lives that might offer some such illumination. As a text it is imperfect and not entirely systematic; has significant omissions not least in relation to women’s contribution, expertise, and experience; is strongly shaped by a European, Latin, and North American lens; and probably shouldn’t be attempted in a single reading. Nonetheless, it is without question a letter that offers deep illumination and seeks to inspire the same as a lived reality. In its reach, the strength of its critique and in its constructive and open-ended vision for the future, Fratelli Tutti offers a spiritual and intellectual intervention we cannot afford to ignore. 

In its reach, the strength of its critique and in its constructive and open-ended vision for the future, Fratelli Tutti offers a spiritual and intellectual intervention we cannot afford to ignore.

The core of the document is an exposition of society through the moral lens of human kinship. Francis tells us that the politics and theology of naming matters: Before we are anything else, we are brothers and sisters, and, as such, we are called to become neighbors and friends. This logic has a universal reach, and it takes us beyond the boundaries of our own nation-states. Nonetheless, society requires a focus on the concrete, particular, and local contexts that human lives are formed in. We are creatures of time and place. We have become trapped in a false logic of global versus local—in its most extreme form, globalist versus populist. Good ethics and healthy communities require that we spot the binary, closed, and oppositional systems we are increasingly trapped in, and think again about the productive relation, even tensive love, between what is truly universal and meaningfully local. Francis believes that each feeds and is dependent on the other, and this logic is only intensified in a globalized world. The logic of this document is quite simple: We find ourselves by going beyond ourselves in love, and this is true of persons as much as communities and nations.

Developing previous teaching on the nature of contemporary politics, chapter five of Fratelli Tutti calls for “a better kind of politics.” This chapter reads as a critique of both forms of “closed” populism and certain forms of liberalism. Both populism and liberalism—for different reasons—can end up discarding those seen as undesirable, unproductive or revealing to us the vulnerability, equality, and interdependence of the human condition we so shy away from fully acknowledging, even in a viral pandemic.

Particularly notable in this chapter is the treatment given to the question of what it means to say that a political community constitutes “a people.” Pope Francis explores the idea that “the people” is a mythic rather than logic or mystical category. Becoming a people is a process—we encounter, negotiate, and agree on the common loves we think worthy of guiding our law and ordering our cities and nations. To become a people is necessary, but it emerges from a common process of seeking a way of life we believe worthy of living. We work this out together, side-by-side and face-to-face. This is the slow artisanship of public living, born of a desire to know the truth and encounter the other as truly human. It is necessarily incomplete and “open-ended.” He contrasts this sharply with the politics we now witness across the globe: short-termism, a manipulation of this ideal of being “a people” into a local narcissism that identifies and then rejects the other; a failure to secure economic justice and therefore offer material security and decent work; a refusal to enable those who are “experts by experience” in poverty, migrations, and so forth to be part of building new solutions and real change. 

Becoming a people is a process—we encounter, negotiate, and agree on the common loves we think worthy of guiding our law and ordering our cities and nations.

But Francis is not only concerned with populism, he is also critical of the “virus” of individualism which he sees as the weakness of certain forms of liberalism. Preferring the idea of negotiated self-interest, liberalism often also discards the vulnerable to powerful economic interests. 

“Political charity”—the vocation of political leadership to foster social peace through the pursuit of justice—must always start with the needs, voices, and participation of the most socially, politically, and economically marginalized. Healthy political communities co-create solutions with not for their members. Francis is also clear—there is no pathway towards truth that does not pass into questions of justice and charity. Seeking the truth can only take you down the path of justice and charity, and concrete acts of charity and justice draw you to realities of truth. These are not oppositional or merely sequential ideas, but interconnected realities, expressions, and experiences. 

“Life is the art of encounter,” writes Francis. He argues that much of our current social life—in politics and digital communications most explicitly—is dominated by forms of closed-circle monologue rather than genuine dialogue based on mutual encounters, through which we learn to handle difference and otherness. Our politics seeks perversely to build security through maximizing fear and distrust. We are called to something more than just a social contract—we are called to be a people who covenant with each other because there is a prior covenant that binds us together. A covenant is a reciprocal exchange of gifts and care. It eschews a monolithic understanding of identity or the world, and demands the realization that to build something socially enduring requires a process of mutual learning and even a commitment to being willing to renounce something for the common good. However, Francis is clear: The common good is never built by renunciation of basic rights or dignity. This kind of dialogue and watchfulness for the quality of our politics is artisanship, and always unfinished labor. This is the process of human political becoming and membership we are called to as an expression of the dignity of our creation. Lives that illuminate this pathway are what we sorely need.

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