Seeing Beyond Walls in Fratelli Tutti: Can Catholics Preach What They Cannot Do?

By: Julie Hanlon Rubio

October 27, 2020

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

Seeing Beyond Walls in Fratelli Tutti: Can Catholics Preach What They Cannot Do?

Fratelli Tutti is anchored by a persistent, prophetic call to look beyond the self and the world we see in front of us—beyond our people, tribe, and nation to all the world’s peoples with whom we share a common human nature and a common home. As necessary as this message is in 2020 with nationalism and polarization increasing around the globe, it is not clear that the Catholic Church is in a position to deliver this message.

As a scholar who specializes in Catholic social thought and a Catholic who is deeply grateful for Pope Francis and has a history of loving encyclicals, I came to this document with high expectations. Yet as much as I affirm the document’s core vision, I cannot muster confidence in its reach, because its tone, genre, and language inescapably grate against its core message.

Yet as much as I affirm the document’s core vision, I cannot muster confidence in its reach, because its tone, genre, and language inescapably grate against its core message.

To be clear, the call to “love beyond” where one is comfortable loving is significant. “[L]ove creates bonds and expands existence, for it draws people out of themselves and towards others.” (no. 88). Like John Paul II, who called families to a mission beyond their own good (Familiaris Consortio, 1981), and Benedict XVI, who proclaimed charity the virtue for both personal and social relations (Caritas in Veritate, 2009), Francis sets self-gift at the center of human morality, roots it in relationships with family and friends, but then insists it must go further “to reach those who…I do not naturally consider a part of my circle of interests” (no. 89). 

Though Catholic social thought has long sought to expand people’s circle of concern, Francis pushes not just individuals but countries to love neighbors beyond borders (nos. 78, 153). Forgoing the usual caveats about national sovereignty and the right to protect borders, Francis provocatively states, “each country also belongs to the foreigner, inasmuch as a territory’s goods must not be denied to a needy person coming from elsewhere” (no. 124). Borders appear to be artificial lines of division. What matters is invisible, so it follows that “If every human being possesses an inalienable dignity, if all people are my brothers and sisters, and if the world truly belongs to everyone, then it matters little whether my neighbour was born in my country or elsewhere” (no. 150).

The tone and genre of Fratelli Tutti are not notably different from those of other encyclicals, but in the context of pleas for a trans-border love expressed in authentic dialogue (nos. 198–224), they do not play well. The phrase “those who” appears 76 times and, along with other phrases describing inadequate approaches, evokes a sense of superiority. Problematic trends are placed in tension with the certainty of answers provided by the encyclical. The generalizations contain truth but lack specificity, which seems to deny the very encounter Fratelli Tutti advocates. The encyclical genre—a long, authoritative document on a general topic whose only citations come from ecclesial sources—seems ill suited for this content. The lack of women’s voices, noted by Meghan Clark, is, at the very least, regrettable. It is especially strange given women are understood in Catholic social thought as having special gifts in “going out to people” and seeing them “with their hearts,” and given the reality that Catholic women are so prominent in Catholic life: in the pews, doing the work of lay ecclesial ministry, and in peacemaking and dialogue. 

The tone and genre of Fratelli Tutti are not notably different from those of other encyclicals, but in the context of pleas for a trans-border love expressed in authentic dialogue, they do not play well.

Though Catholic social thought now says “men and women” instead of “men” when it means people, the title of the encyclical, as other women have noted, pretends that a male term is generic, a claim feminists have long denied. Women, not men, are asked to read themselves into the document. The masculine resonances of the fraternal language are underlined by male exemplars: St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, and Blessed Charles de Foucauld, upheld as “the universal brother” (no. 287). Brotherhood is universal but sisterhood is not. Despite the outcry from women when word of the title emerged, no change was made. “A love capable of transcending borders” (no. 99) was seemingly not capable of transcending gender.

Francis criticizes what he calls “local narcissism,” which is “born of a certain insecurity and fear of the other that leads to rejection and the desire to erect walls for self-defence” (no. 150). Though acknowledging that it is “unacceptable that some have fewer rights by virtue of being women,” little urgency is attached to this admission, especially in comparison to the strong language around denial of rights linked to one’s “place of one’s birth or residence” (no. 121). Women’s marginalization in church and society is at best an afterthought, at worst invisible because of walls erected for self-defense.

Women’s marginalization in church and society is at best an afterthought, at worst invisible because of walls erected for self-defense.

The Church’s failures to attend to the structural causes of gendered oppression, and to male appropriation of power within and outside its walls, are made painfully visible by words calling for a solidarity in which “the lives of all are prior to the appropriation of goods by a few…[and] the structural causes of…inequality…[are addressed]” (no. 116) because those with power are able to “look beyond themselves and the group to which they belong” (no. 117). The Church’s desire to call others to look beyond walls is hampered by its inability to see new possibilities when it comes to women (no. 186).

The most promising part of the encyclical is the final section calling for the world’s religions to act together against violence (nos. 271–287). Perhaps it is time for more social action and less social doctrine. This is where Francis has had his greatest impact, as he did most recently in the controversial documentary released last week, when he coupled criticism of walls that keep out immigrants with a crack in the wall of Catholic teaching on LGBTQ justice. The world needs to hear Fratelli Tutti’s call to “love beyond,” but first it needs the Church to show by example that walls can come down and new possibilities can emerge.

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