The new encyclical of Pope Francis, signed at the tomb of Francis of Assisi, in the city of Assisi, on October 3rd, will be a landmark document in the social doctrine of the church. Its themes are vast and detailed, always aiming to highlight values, and to strongly criticize liberalism. It will certainly be analyzed by Christians and non-Christians since it is directed to all people of good will. Here I will point out that which I consider innovative in light of previous teachings of Popes.
In the first place it needs to be clear that the Pope presents a paradigm alternative to our forms of living in our Common Home, subject as it is to multiple threats. He describes the “dark clouds” which he equates, as he himself has asserted in various pronouncements, to a gradual third world war. Actually there is no common plan for humanity (n.18). But a thread is evident throughout the encyclical: “the realization that no one is saved alone; we can only be saved together” (n. 32). That is the new plan, expressed in these words: “I offer this social encyclical as a modest contribution to reflection in the hope that in the face of present-day attempts to eliminate or ignore others, we may prove capable of responding with a new vision of fraternity and of social friendship” (n.6)
We must understand this alternative well. We have arrived at and are still within the paradigm which is at the base of modernity. It is anthropocentric. It is the reign of the lord: the human being as the lord and master of nature and of the Earth which only have meaning to the extent that they are valuable to him. He has changed the face of the Earth and he has brought many advantages, but he has created the essential of autodestruction. Actually it is the impass of the “dark clouds”. Faced with this cosmic vision, the encyclical Fratelli tutti proposes a new paradigm: that of brother and of frater, a universal fraternity and one of social friendship. It moves the center: from an individualistic and technological-industrial civilization to a civilization of solidarity, of preservation and of care for all life. That is the natural intention of the Pope. In that about face is our salvation; we will overcome the apocalyptic vision of the threat of the end of the species by a vision of hope that we can and must change course.
To do this we need to feed hope. The Pope says: “I invite everyone to renewed hope that speaks to us of something deeply rooted in every human heart, independently of circumstances and of the historical conditions in which we live” (n.55). Here resounds the hope principle, which his more than the virtue of hope, but a principle, an interior mover to project new dreams and visions, so well formulated by Ernst Bloch. He emphasizes: “the statement that as human beings we are brothers and sisters, which is not an abstraction but a concept that becomes concrete and enfleshed, puts before us a series of challenges that displaces us, forcing us to see things in a new light and to develop new responses” (n.128). As is inferred, we are dealing with a new route, with a paradigmatic change of course.
Where to begin? Here the Pope reveals his basic stance with frequent references to social movements: “We shouldn’t hope for anything from the powers that be because it is always the same story or worse; begin by yourselves”. For that reason he suggests: “We can start from below and, case by case, act at the most concrete and local levels, and then expand to the farthest reaches of our countries and our world” (n.78). The Pope now encourages ecological discussion. Our local experience needs to develop “in contrast to” and “in harmony with” the experiences of others living in diverse contexts (n. 147).
There are long reflections about the economy and politics but he says: “politics must not be subservient to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy ” (n.177). He makes a bruising critique of the market. The marketplace, by itself, cannot solve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith. Whatever the challenge, this impoverished and repetitive school of thought always offers the same recipes. Neoliberalism simply reproduces itself by resorting to the magic theories of “spillover” or “trickle” – without using the name – as the only solution to societal problems” (n.168). Globalization brings us closer but not more as brothers (n.12). It only creates partners but not brothers and sisters (n. 101).
In the parable of the Good Samaritan there is a rigorous analysis of the various players who come on the scene and it applies to political economy culminating with the question: “with whom do you identify (with the wounded person on the road, with the priest, with the Levite or with the stranger, the Samaritan, despised by the Jews)? This is a blunt, direct and resolute question. With which of these do you identify” (n.64)? The Good Samaritan is a fitting model of social and political love (n.66).
The new paradigm of fraternity and of social love is displayed in publicly rendered love, in the care for the weakest, in the manner of dialogue and encounter, in habitual tenderness and affection. In terms of the culture of encounter, I take the liberty of citing the Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes in his Samba of Blessing in his world of 1962 “Encontro Au bon Gourmet” where he says: “Life is the art of encounter although there can be so many divergencies in life” (n.215). Politics is not to be reduced to disputes over power and to the separation of powers. Surprisingly he says: “Even in politics there is a place for tender loving care: for the youngest, the most debilitated, the poorest; they must touch us and they have the “right” to fill us, body and soul; yes, they are our sisters and brothers and we must love them and trust them as such: (194). And if someone asks what tenderness is, here is the response: “love that is close and concrete; it is a movement that comes from the heart and reaches the eyes, the ears, the hands” (n. 196). Here we recall the words of Gandhi, one of the inspirations of the Pope, alongside Saint Francis, Martin Luther King, and Desmond Tutu: politics is a gesture of love for people, of care of common things.
Together with tenderness comes politeness which we would translate as courtesy, recalling the prophet Courtesy who proclaimed to all passersby on the streets of Rio de Janeiro “Courtesy begets courtesy” and “God is Courtesy” in the style of Saint Francis. And politeness is defined as: “a state of mind which is not sharp, rude or hard, but rather pleasant and delicate, which strengthens and encourages; a person who has this quality helps others so as to alleviate their burdens” (n.223). This is a challenge to bishops and priests: to create a revolution of tenderness. Solidarity is one of the foundations of human and social life. It finds concrete expression in service which can take a variety of forms in an effort to care for others: in great part it is caring for human vulnerability” (n.115). That solidarity showed itself absent and is only efficacious in the struggle against COVID -19. Solidarity avoids the bifurcation of humanity into ‘my world’ and the ‘others’ that is ‘them’. Many are no longer considered human beings with an inalienable dignity, and become only “them” (n.27). The Pope concludes with a profound wish: “that we will think no longer in terms of ‘them’, but only ‘us’” (n.35).
So that that challenge of a dream of universal fraternity and of social love can be enfleshed he calls upon all religions “to make a rich contribution to building fraternity and defending justice in society” (n.271).
Finally he evokes the figure of the little brother of Jesus Charles de Foucauld who wanted to be “definitively the universal brother” among the Muslim population in the desert of north Africa (n.287). Making this his proposal Pope Francis observes: “Only by identifying oneself with the least can one be a brother of all; may God inspire that dream in each one of us. Amen” (n.288).
We stand before a man, Pope Francis, who in following his inspiring source, Francis of Assisi, also made himself a universal man, embracing all and identifying himself with the most vulnerable and invisible of our cruel world. He ignites the hope that we can and must nourish the dream of fraternity of universal love without borders.
He has done his part. Now it is up to us to not leave the dream as only a dream but that it be a seed of a new form of life together, as sisters and brothers and the environment, in the same Common Home. Will we have the time and wisdom to make that leap? The “dark clouds” will certainly continue. But we have a lamp in this encyclical of hope of Pope Francis. It does not dispel all the clouds. But it is sufficient to discern well the road to be traveled by all.
Leonardo Boff is an ecotheolgian, philosopher and Brazilian writer who wrote Francis of Assisi and Francis of Rome, published by Editora May de Ideias, Rio, 2015.