Photo credit: Vatican News “Pope Signs Encyclical Fratelli Tutti at tomb of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy.”

This is the sixth in our series, Conscience at the Polls. The goal of the series is to help the discerning voter prayerfully consider the wisdom of our faith tradition when deciding how to vote for particular candidates. All contributors so far are writing in the US context with special focus on the 2020 Presidential election, but the call to participate in political life has global implications.

Pope Francis has just issued a new encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti: On the Fraternity and Social Friendship. The encyclical letter is written “from Christian convictions” as “an invitation to dialogue among all people of good will” (FT, 6). What does the pope mean by social friendship? The entire encyclical aims to explain the affective, natural, and political bonds between people that can foster mutual solidarity in difficult times. The pope says it requires “recognizing that all people are our brothers and sisters, and seeking forms of social friendship that include everyone” (180).

Themes and teachings particularly relevant to the US political conversations include:

A rejection of extremism and polarizing discourse

The pope invites readers to understand how people in power can use manipulative discourse to spread fear, disinformation, and despair. He rejects both fake news and those in power who use hyperbole, distortion of facts, and fear-based rhetoric to control people’s emotions.

“The best way to dominate and gain control over people is to spread despair and discouragement, even under the guise of defending certain values. Today, in many countries, hyperbole, extremism, and polarization have become political tools. Employing a strategy of ridicule, suspicion and relentless criticism, in a variety of ways one denies the right of others to exist or to have an opinion. Their share of the truth and their values are rejected and, as a result, the life of society is impoverished and subjected to the hubris of the powerful. 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 others. In this craven exchange of charges and counter-charges, debate degenerates into a permanent state of disagreement and confrontation.”

Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, 15.

The need to recover an understanding and commitment to the common good

The pope’s descriptive analysis of “a throwaway world” (18-21), of the apathy of powerful (30), and of the dehumanizing tendencies of the market economy (45, 52, 75, 168) lead to a normative analysis reaffirming the social mortgage and the common good. The pope restates the church’s commitment to human rights discourse. The pope reaffirms church teaching on the inherent human dignity of all. He interprets and applies the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) as instructive for today, asking each of us to consider whether we are “indifferent bystanders” in a world of suffering (69). And he reaffirms commitment to the common good of all, including the church’s limits of property rights known as the “social mortgage,” by which previous popes in the tradition of CST have declared limits for hoarding wealth and power (118-120, 182).

“The world exists for everyone, because all of us were born with the same dignity. Differences of color, religion, talent, place of birth or residence, and so many others, cannot be used to justify the privileges of some over the rights of all. As a community, we have an obligation to ensure that every person lives with dignity and has sufficient opportunities for his or her integral development.”

Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, 118.

“In the face of many petty forms of politics focused on immediate interests, I would repeat that ‘true statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good… Thinking of those who will come after us does not serve electoral purposes, yet it is what authentic justice demands.”

Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, 178.

Love over ideology & openness to difference over toxic rigidity

The overarching theme of the encyclical is social friendship, and an emergent theme throughout is the importance of a love that “draws people out of themselves and towards others” (86). The pope critiques foot soldiers in the culture wars, those who impose “their own ideologies upon everyone else, or in a violent defense of the truth, or in impressive demonstrations of strength” (92).

“The spiritual stature of a person’s life is measure by love, which in the end remains ‘the criterion for the definitive decision about a human life’s worth or lack thereof.'”

Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, 92 (quoting Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est).

“Let us realize that as our minds and hearts narrow, the less capable we become of understanding the world around us. Without encountering and relating to differences, it is hard to achieve a clear and complete understanding even of ourselves and of our native land. Other cultures are not ‘enemies’ from which we need to protect ourselves, but differing reflections of the inexhaustible richness of human life. Seeing ourselves from the perspective of another, of one who is different, we can better recognize our own unique features and those of our culture; its richness, its possibilities and its limitations. Our local experience needs to develop ‘in contrast to’ and ‘in harmony with’ the experiences of others living in diverse cultural contexts. In fact, a healthy openness never threatens one’s own identity.”

Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, 147-148.

The pope rejects war

In seven paragraphs (256-262), Pope Francis rejects war, and wonders if the just war tradition does more harm than good by ‘justifying’ the use of force (258). This is a section that needs further scholarly attention and unpacking than I can provide in this space, but it is a significant turn towards the peacemaking tradition of the church, and in alignment with the legacy of St. Francis, whom the pope acknowledges throughout this encyclical as well as in Laudato Si.

“We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably alway be greater than its supposed benefits.”

Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, 258.

“Every war leaves our world worse than it was before. War is a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil. Let us not remain mired in theoretical discussions, but touch the wounded flesh of the victims. Let us look once more at all those civilians whose killing was considered ‘collateral damage.’ Let us ask the victims themselves. Let us think of the refugees and displaced, those who suffered the effects of atomic radiation or chemical attacks, the mothers who lost their children and the boys and girls maimed or deprived of their childhood. Let us hear the true stories of these victims of violence, look at reality through their eyes, and listen with an open heart to the stories they tell. In this way, we will be able to grasp the abyss of evil at the heart of war. Nor will it trouble us to be deemed naive for choosing peace.”

Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, 261.

Death penalty always unethical

Pope Francis restates previous church teaching that “the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice” (263). “Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity,” says the pope (269).

The urgency of inter-religious dialogue and mutual understanding

A final important theme in the encyclical is the importance of “dialogue between the followers of different religions” in order to establish “friendship, peace and harmony, and to share spiritual and moral values and experiences in a spirit of truth and love” (271). The pope joined Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb in declaring that “religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood” (285). Pope Francis describes the logic of holy war within religious traditions to be “a political manipulation of religions” that seriously misrepresent and undermine authentic faith.

“In the name of God… we declare the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard.”

Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, 285, citing Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together (Feb 2019).

Application to the 2020 Vote

Pope Francis reminds readers that “religious ministers must not engage in party politics” (276) but describes the role of the politician this way:

“Their biggest concern should not be about a drop in the polls, but about finding effective solutions to the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion, with its baneful consequences.”

Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, 188.

One way to apply this to current discernments is to ask yourself which candidates are seeking effective solutions rooted in the common good. Those are the only ones worthy of the Catholic vote.