SOUTH BEND, Indiana— Voices from around the U.S. Church are praising Pope Francis’s new encyclical on human fraternity, calling it a timely address for the culture and politics of the world’s largest economic power.
Fratelli Tutti, which was released on Sunday, encapsulates the pope’s previous thoughts on human fraternity and the failings of global society to prioritize the marginalized. While observers have noted there’s not much new in the document, it has been lauded as a moral playbook for a post-pandemic world.
A cure for divisiveness
After months of a pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 people, racial tensions that have ignited widespread protests, and a volatile presidential election that has bred vitriolic rhetoric online, commentators say U.S. Catholics can use Fratelli Tutti as a textbook for healing a broken world.
Archbishop José Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Fratelli Tutti reminds Catholics that God’s will “has implications for every aspect of our lives,” affecting everything from friendships to economies.
“The Pope is challenging us to overcome the individualism in our culture and to serve our neighbors in love,” Gomez said in a statement.
Sister Simone Campbell, head of the Catholic advocacy group NETWORK, seconded the words of Pope Francis on solidarity.
“Pope Francis is sending a simple but jarring message to our world world: We must move beyond continuous divisiveness and come together to build a world worthy of all God’s children,” said the Blessed Sacrament sister in a statement.
Campbell also criticized the nation’s elected leaders, citing the encyclical’s call for politicians to focus on the most vulnerable over other interests.
“While millions of Americans worry about getting sick, finding their next meal or paying rent, many elected leaders are prioritizing their own political interest over human decency,” she said. “This is a failure in moral leadership and Catholics cannot stand for it.”
Bishop Joseph Bambera of Scranton, Pennsylvania admired the encyclical’s call for openness among people with different viewpoints. Bambera said it speaks to U.S. culture, where “circling the wagons” can be seen as commendable.
“What he’s doing is he’s calling us to a better understanding of who we are, so we cannot defensively engage the other,” he said. “When you talk about the United States, I think in so many respects, isn’t that kind of where we fall? We’re all so defensive.”
A spirit of openness becomes even more important on social media during a contentious election season, Bambera said.
“When we pit ourselves against another — me against the world, me against you — what do we do?” he told Crux. “In social media, we say something. Well, that’s taken then by a large number of individuals as truth, as Gospel, when it may or may not reflect the reality of a situation.”
For priests and bishops in highly contested swing states like Pennsylvania, Bambera recommended Fratelli Tutti — and especially the pope’s reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan in chapter two — as a template for clergy addressing the election.
“I think there is incredible value in us simply preaching the essence of this encyclical,” he said. “I think there are so many opportunities that we’ll have on the local level to engage this encyclical.”
Bambera also heads the U.S. Bishops’ committee dedicated to interreligious dialogue, one of the key topics Francis addresses in his encyclical. Bambera said Francis’s vision aligns with what his committee is already doing, but Fratelli Tutti “raises the urgency” of its work.
“There are so many things that vy for our attention as a Church,” he said. “This once again catapults [interreligious dialogue] to the forefront of the Church. It’s not an afterthought, it’s not something we did after the [Second Vatican] Council and we can shelve.”
Can war be just?
Perhaps the most novel section of the encyclical, though, focuses on the morality of warfare as a path to peace. Francis casts doubt on the enduring value of the just war tradition, writing that, given the destructive power of modern weapons, war’s costs “probably always” outweigh its benefits.
Debates about the meaning of Francis’s double modifier have already taken off, and U.S. scholars are weighing in on both sides.
Maryann Cusimano Love, a professor of international relations at the Catholic University of America, suggested that Francis’s anti-war message is clear.
“Francis is putting it in very practical terms, saying, ‘you can’t build peace by war,’” she said, noting the pope’s rebuke of the innocent deaths caused by war. “He really calls out how just war tradition has been misused, in his terms, to justify war, rather than the true spirit which was to build peace.”
But some are questioning that interpretation, saying that the pope does not rule out building peace through military means, such as armed actions by the United Nations.
UN intervention “could be justified according to Francis, especially if it is based in nonviolence, and does not incite further violence on the part of the engaged parties in the conflict,” said Daniel Cosacchi, the Director of the Justice and Peace Studies Program at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
But Father Drew Christiansen, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, said interpretations like Cosacchi’s miss the point.
“In principle you may support humanitarian intervention, even with military means, but in practice it’s too often made an excuse for going to war,” the Jesuit priest said.
Differing interpretations of Fratelli Tutti on issues such as just war could take some time to iron out before the U.S. Bishops can use the encyclical as a teaching tool, Christiansen said.
“It’s a long, long encyclical and it’s going to take a lot of work to popularize it. If the Church organizes to do it, it can do it,” the Jesuit priest told Crux. “The question is how hard will conservative clergy… take this on and make it a living part of the tradition.”
“I think it will be difficult in the United States,” he added.
Charles Collins contributed to this report.