Fratelli Tutti in the Time of COVID-19: Inspiration, Challenges, and Questions

By: Katherine Marshall

October 26, 2020

Fratelli Tutti and the Future of the Catholic Church

The realities of the COVID-19 emergencies are closely woven through the many topics Pope Francis addressed in the encyclical Fratelli Tutti, issued in early October 2020. COVID is not the subject, but the urgent imperative to understand the ills and the strengths that the pandemic crises have exposed and to move together to launch reforms that address future challenges can be read as its principal and most urgent message.

Pope Francis’ diagnosis highlights the dual narrative that echoes today in different forms. A first is positive: “[T]he brutal and unforeseen blow of this uncontrolled pandemic forced us to recover our concern for human beings, for everyone, rather than for the benefit of a few (no. 33). But the second has harsh truths: “Today we can recognize that ‘we fed ourselves on dreams of splendour and grandeur, and ended up consuming distraction, insularity and solitude. We gorged ourselves on networking, and lost the taste of fraternity. We looked for quick and safe results, only to find ourselves overwhelmed by impatience and anxiety. Prisoners of a virtual reality, we lost the taste and flavour of the truly real” (no. 33).

Thus “pain, uncertainty and fear, and the realization of our own limitations, brought on by the pandemic” highlight urgent needs for a far-reaching rethinking of “our styles of life, our relationships, the organization of our societies and, above all, the meaning of our existence” (no. 33).

During the wide-ranging discussions during the October 13–17 G20 Interfaith Forum, the encyclical was cited repeatedly, especially for its focus on notions of human dignity, solidarity, and core values shared among very different religious traditions. My own priority focus on global inequalities and how to translate inclusion, equity, and sustainability into action highlights five topics.

Global Governance

Serious weaknesses in international cooperation, the ability of countries to work together, and systems of governance are starkly revealed. More fundamentally, the COVID crisis has exposed a false sense of security (no. 246). Lost momentum of international cooperation is linked to a rising myopic, extremist, resentful, and aggressive nationalism (no. 11). Pope Francis’ diagnosis focuses on local conflicts that are exploited by the global economy. Again, the ills have deep roots: The global economic culture may unify the world, “but divides persons and nations” linked to “a moral deterioration that influences international action and a weakening of spiritual values and responsibility,” contributing, in turn, to “a general feeling of frustration, isolation and desperation” (no. 29).

Especially in times of crisis, the true worth of the different countries of our world, he argues, is measured by their ability to think “not simply as a country but also as part of the larger human family” (no. 141). With the intense interconnectedness of the contemporary world, “we need to attain a global juridical, political and economic order” to “give direction to international cooperation for the development of all peoples in solidarity” (no. 138). “Development must not aim at the amassing of wealth by a few, but must ensure ‘human rights—personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples.’ The right of some to free enterprise or market freedom cannot supersede the rights of peoples and the dignity of the poor, or, for that matter, respect for the natural environment” (no. 122). “Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations” (no. 126). This demands “a new network of international relations,” as the world’s serious problems cannot be resolved by thinking only in terms of “mutual assistance between individuals or small groups” (no. 126). 

An interesting reflection takes on the lively contemporary discussion contrasting globalization and localization. The global, argues Pope Francis, can help to avoid narrowness and banality, while the local keeps our feet on the ground. “Together, the two prevent us from falling into one of two extremes” (no. 142). Love of country also has its place: “The common good likewise requires that we protect and love our native land. Otherwise, the consequences of a disaster in one country will end up affecting the entire planet” (no. 143). “Universal does not necessarily mean bland, uniform and standardized, based on a single prevailing cultural model, for this will ultimately lead to the loss of a rich palette of shades and colours, and result in utter monotony” (no. 143). He highlights the weakening power of nation-states, “chiefly because the economic and financial sectors, being transnational, tend to prevail over the political” (no. 172). Therefore, stronger, fairer, and more efficiently organized international institutions are essential. The hope for reform of the United Nations is that that “the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth” (no. 173).

​Charity, Compassion, and Rights

Human rights are far from equal for all, and ideals of an equitable and sustainable future are far from being achieved. The COVID-19 emergencies reveal starkly gaps in “accompanying, caring for and supporting the most frail and vulnerable members of our developed societies” (no. 64) and those in poorer countries. The story of the Good Samaritan is evoked often to highlight underlying obligations. The challenges for refugees and migrants and for those caught in modern forms of slavery are underscored. Pope Francis, nonetheless, highlights the complexities of working to end poverty. “The claim that the modern world has reduced poverty is made by measuring poverty with criteria from the past that do not correspond to present-day realities…Poverty must always be understood and gauged in the context of the actual opportunities available in each concrete historical period” (no. 21).

Pope Francis focuses on the important concept of solidarity, noting though that, in certain situations, it becomes a dirty word, “a word that dare not be said” (no. 116). He links solidarity, instead, to thinking and acting in terms of community and to “combatting the structural causes of poverty, inequality, the lack of work, land and housing, the denial of social and labour rights….Solidarity, understood in its most profound meaning, is a way of making history.” The work of social movements and other parts of civil society play vital roles to this end. The underlying force here is concern for others, which is what “true charity” is about.  

​Interreligious Dialogue

Divisions and tensions are a deep source of concern. Today, Pope Francis fears, “hyperbole, extremism and polarization have become political tools” (no. 15). Political life “no longer has to do with healthy debates about long-term plans to improve people’s lives and to advance the common good, but only with slick marketing techniques primarily aimed at discrediting other,” with a “craven exchange of charges and counter-charges,” where debate degenerates into a permanent state of disagreement and confrontation.

A source of hope, evoked often, is the 2019 “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” signed by Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb. It highlights the importance of dialogue and understanding among religious traditions and the vital core of common, shared values. Dialogue can be “a constant stimulus to a better grasp of the truth, or at least its more effective expression. It keeps different sectors from becoming complacent and self-centred in their outlook and their limited concerns…Differences are creative; they create tension and in the resolution of tension lies humanity’s progress” (no. 203). Differences also help in making the whole greater than the parts, “working to create a many-faceted polyhedron whose different sides form a variegated unity” (no. 205).


Brotherhood and fraternity are underlying themes for the encyclical, starting with its title. These ideals are linked to human dignity as a path to contributing “to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity” (no. 8). The encyclical acknowledges that “the organization of societies worldwide is still far from reflecting clearly that women possess the same dignity and identical rights as men. We say one thing with words, but our decisions and reality tell another story” (no. 23). The use of brotherhood as the theme and the focus on words versus realities do suggest important questions about how women’s equal rights and roles are understood. For example, how might the flavor and messages differ if the word sisterhood were used instead? What is missing is perhaps a robust affirmation that both women and men have equal rights and aspirations and that their full and common engagement is a vital part of rebuilding the post-COVID-19 world.


Peace is also a central theme, linked to questions about the causes of conflicts, the horrors of wars, and issues of reconciliation. Comments on peacebuilding ethos and process are significant: “It is always helpful to incorporate into our peace processes the experience of those sectors that have often been overlooked, so that communities themselves can influence the development of a collective memory” (no. 231). Inequality and lack of integral human development “make peace impossible,” as “without equal opportunities, different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode” (no. 235). Different institutions of society contribute to an architecture of peace, but also significant is an art of peace, a “delicate harmony between politics and law” that involves ordinary people (no. 231).

A bottom line is evoked in the repeated phrase “if only”: “If only this immense sorrow may not prove useless, but enable us to take a step forward towards a new style of life. If only we might rediscover once for all that we need one another, and that in this way our human family can experience a rebirth, with all its faces, all its hands and all its voices, beyond the walls that we have erected” (no. 35).

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