Kristin E. Heyer is professor of theological ethics and director of graduate studies in the Department of Theology at Boston College. Her books include Kinship Across Borders: A Christian Ethic of Immigration (2012) and Prophetic and Public: The Social Witness of U.S. Catholicism (2006). Her research interests include immigration, the common good tradition, Catholic social movements, and feminist ethics.
In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis draws attention to the forces impacting so many people on the move today, expanding the migration question to consider the impact of populist discourse, neoliberal economics, and virulent individualism. This scope offers a welcome reorientation to discussions that often focus on states’ rights or on border crossers alone. When addressing migration directly, Pope Francis revisits longstanding commitments to the right to remain, duties of reception, and the humanity of migrants and the gifts they bring. He decries the perils facing migrants—from unscrupulous traffickers, to fragmented communities of origin, to physical and psychological abuse on the journey (no. 38)—and he helpfully underscores the threats posed by the political exploitation of fear and xenophobia (nos. 39, 86). His direct treatment of migration revisits themes of welcome, protection, promotion, and integration, but neglects tasks of adjudicating conflicting claims or presenting a blueprint for just entry policies. Nevertheless, the encyclical’s broader emphases reveal how barriers to reception and humane policy are not limited to matters of border fortification and refugee policies alone, but include pervasive tendencies toward isolationism and populist ideologies.
The encyclical’s illuminating analyses of such tendencies contest individualistic approaches in light of its fundamentally social vision. Francis’ treatment of the Christian tradition’s social anthropology, implicit understanding of social sin, and tempering of sovereignty rights by a commitment to the universal destination of created goods reorient responsibility for forced migrants. Persons’ inherently social nature and fulfillment figure prominently, with compelling reminders of how fundamentally we belong to one another—that we survive and thrive only through encounter with others—and how this recovery can serve as an antidote to the individualism, isolation, and indifference that harm persons on the move. In contrast to standard communitarian and cosmopolitan models that tend to primarily address rights to individual freedom of movement or the self-determination of political communities, these relational emphases contextualize the individual acts of migrants and underscore social dimensions of justice and sinful complicity alike.
The pope’s discussion of the universal destination of created goods similarly accents social understandings of what belongs to those in need and constraints on market freedom (nos. 119, 122–24). Understanding each country as “also belong[ing] to the foreigner” (no. 124) offers a strikingly countercultural vision to entrenched nationalism and opportunistic forms of interdependence—even as a focus on generous welcome alone requires further nuance and development with respect to sovereignty rights. These foundational social emphases ground his analyses of structures pushing and pulling migrants across borders like “pawns on a chessboard,” whether exploitative economic models or aggressive modes of international relations. For example, the United States has increasingly viewed international agreements with suspicion, refusing to participate on the ostensible grounds that treaty obligations unduly limit U.S. sovereignty, whether related to migration, criminal courts, climate targets, or the rights of the child. Isolationism that trumpets threats to sovereignty betrays a deeper opposition to the common good.
Isolationism that trumpets threats to sovereignty betrays a deeper opposition to the common good.
Exploitative economic structures have also been of ongoing concern to Pope Francis. Warning that our “economy of exclusion and inequality kills,” he has long challenged not only the reductive market ethos dominating trade and migration policies but also its desensitizing effects. In Fratelli Tutti, he critiques markets rooted in reductive anthropologies that make individuals either consumers or bystanders, strengthening more powerful regions and diminishing weaker ones (nos. 12, 22). His treatment of collective memory also invites reflection on histories of colonialist or trade practices that have contributed to contemporary migration patterns and consequent responsibilities in justice.
Pope Francis repeatedly underscores pervasive ideological threats to our social instincts, as well, convincingly indicating how self-absorption fuels both apathy and hardened insulation or group preservation. Revisiting his theme of globalized indifference, he reflects on the many ways we are tempted, like the priest and Levite, “to pass at a safe distance,” whether we “retreat inwards, ignore others, or [remain] indifferent to their plight” (no. 73). Francis elaborates how a culture of consumerist comfort abetted by social media distractions incubate false ideologies that can manipulate consciences and insulate them from different perspectives (no. 45). This attention to the practices and priorities that shape imagination is welcome, given how indifference and a sense of invulnerability facilitate susceptibility to exclusionary temptations, and yet migration discourse often focuses on political and economic considerations alone.
Recent years have witnessed a rise in nativist populism fueled, in part, by anxieties about the economic and cultural impact of globalization. Politicians running on populist platforms have capitalized on fears of demographic shifts, terrorist activities, and chaotic border scenes—increasingly disseminated through unvetted new media platforms—asserting that they alone are willing to control borders and restore law and order. In the U.S. context, these global trends played out via the politics of exclusion peddled throughout Donald Trump’s campaigning and governing scripts alike. Fratelli Tutti’s analyses of how populism exploits the vulnerable for leaders’ own purposes (no. 155) and how resentful nationalism creates “new forms of selfishness” under the guise of defending a country’s interests uncover forces inimical to migrants today (no. 11). These emphases on structural causes of inequality and poverty (no. 116) and ideological barriers to social friendship reflect Pope Francis’ attentiveness to social sin in ways and degrees distinct from his predecessors. Fratelli Tutti also treats the operations of power (no. 171) more explicitly than is typical of magisterial Catholic social thought, warning against a “dictatorship of hidden interests” (no. 75) and calling for the need for transnational bodies with real teeth and legitimacy (no. 173-4), much like his concerns about political will in Laudato Si.
In line with its concern for forces that malform and distract, the encyclical also demonstrates the potential of religious narratives and symbols to (re)shape moral imagination. The extended meditation on the Good Samaritan not only invites personal self-examination but also serves as a metaphor for shared global responsibility for persons on the move, highlighting people “who bend down to help and those who look away and hurry off” and the “social and political inertia is turning many parts of our world into a desolate byway” (nos. 70–71). Many migrants today face experiences of limbo, robbed of opportunities and stranded on the “roadside”; encounters with biblical and personal narratives may help us to perceive this reality and our summons anew. Pope Francis’ own gestures of solidarity with migrants have been central to his papacy, from his repentance in the “graveyard of wrecks” of Lampedusa to his lived example returning from Lesbos with refugee families. Also symbolic, however, is the gender-exclusive language and failure to include women’s voices in the encyclical: For whereas the text claims that, “in practice, human rights are not equal for all” and laments societal organization fails to reflect women’s equal dignity (nos. 22–23), it perpetuates this marginalization with its language, (all male) sources, and silence on ecclesial structures. Confronting walls “in the heart” as well as “on the land” remains an urgent task for the church ad intra, as well as ad extra.
Confronting walls “in the heart” as well as “on the land” remains an urgent task for the church ad intra, as well as ad extra.
Pope Francis’ deepened attention to the anesthetizing effects of indifference urges a recognition of our fundamental relatedness in light of the harm that borders wreak. Thus far, the shared experience pandemic seems to be a largely missed opportunity to recover our interconnected humanity, for even in crisis, society “has an elegant way of shifting its gaze” (no. 76). Hence Fratelli Tutti’s charge to develop “antibodies” of social friendship remains vital, given the infectious forces that serve to exclude, exploit, and isolate.