One of the specific areas of Catholic teaching I love is the Church’s social doctrines. So I was very excited when the pope released a new social encyclical (teaching document), Fratelli Tutti, this past fall. I was traveling when I got a copy and was so impatient to get into it that I asked Kristina to read it to me while I was driving!
I channeled that excitement into something productive and earlier this year I created a study guide for Fratelli Tutti. I collaborated with some other Catholic writers, catechists, and theologians I know and Kristina painted the cover art for us. Our goal with this study guide was to encourage regular Catholics to take a look at the new encyclical and to help them get the most out of it. I truly believe that what the pope has to say here is absolutely necessary for the present moment of the pandemic, politics, and social strife. So I wanted to share that study guide with the parish! I’m republishing the introduction that I wrote for it below, and you can download the whole thing here: wherepeteris.com/fratellituttiguide
I hope you enjoy it!
On the eve of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi (October 3, 2020) Pope Francis signed the encyclical Fratelli Tutti at the saint’s tomb. The title of this encyclical comes from the words of St. Francis and means “brothers all.” “With these words,” the pope says, “Saint Francis of Assisi addressed his brothers and sisters and proposed to them a way of life marked by the flavour of the Gospel” (FT 1). The document is a reflection on human fraternity and social friendship as the antidote for the social problems of this world.
In the introduction, Pope Francis names two inspirations for this encyclical. The first is St. Francis himself, who was also the inspiration for his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si and indeed the inspiration for his entire pontificate. The second is the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, by whom the pope has “felt particularly encouraged” and with whom in Abu Dhabi he signed a joint declaration, the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, that stated, “God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and has called them to live together as brothers and sisters” (5).
Fratelli Tutti is a social encyclical, that is, it concerns the Church’s social doctrine, which is a part of the Church’s long-standing moral teaching. Social morality is present throughout all of Scripture. In the Old Testament, God often repeats the command to treat the most vulnerable—the widow, the orphan, the poor, the foreigner—with preferential justice and mercy. God also calls his people to radical economic justice, including the forgiveness of all debts every fifty years and the prohibition on charging any interest on loans.
The necessity of social morality isn’t reduced in the New Testament; rather the opposite is true. Jesus identifies himself with the most vulnerable and is clear that our treatment of them is the criteria for our eternal salvation: “Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45). As the letter of St. James makes clear, this bar for how we are expected to treat the poor is not lowered as the Church grows:
“Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded, and that corrosion will be a testimony against you; it will devour your flesh like a fire. You have stored up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:1-4).
Church Tradition has long incorporated this message of charity as well, with St. Ambrose writing in the fourth century, “You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.” Likewise, St. John Chrysostom taught that "Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. the goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”
In 1891, Pope Leo XIII formally compiled the social and economic teachings of the past centuries into his encyclical Rerum Novarum to address the oppression of laborers and the rise of new ideologies in the modern industrial society. Since then, popes of every generation have contributed to the Church’s social teaching, responding to the needs of their time and the promptings of the Holy Spirit. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The Church's social teaching comprises a body of doctrine, which is articulated as the Church interprets events in the course of history, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, in the light of the whole of what has been revealed by Jesus Christ” (CCC 2422).
In this context, Fratelli Tutti is the work of the Holy Father reading the signs of the times and, assisted by the Holy Spirit, proposing solutions. This encyclical is an invitation to “dream together” of a world firmly grounded on the dignity of all persons, and this invitation isn’t just extended to Christians, but to everyone: “Although I have written it from the Christian convictions that inspire and sustain me, I have sought to make this reflection an invitation to dialogue among all people of good will” (6).
Through Pope Francis, God is showing us the antidote to the viruses of selfishness, violence, and prejudice so prevalent in the world and in our own hearts. The pope prompts us to reject “a mindset that despises the limit that another’s value imposes” (Let Us Dream 34). This attitude that refuses to accept the dignity of others is tragically present in all of us.
This resource offers short introductions and reflection questions for every chapter of Fratelli Tutti that can be used individually or in small groups. The goal isn’t simply to help you understand what Pope Francis is saying, but to prompt and encourage you to apply his teaching and wrestle with the implications of this encyclical in your life. Be forewarned: although grounded in Scripture and Tradition, the pope’s teaching may strike some as countercultural or even radical. He himself acknowledges that it might be seen as "wildly unrealistic" (127).
Nevertheless, we invite you to view every passage that challenges your ideology and lifestyle as an opportunity to ask the Holy Spirit to open your heart and reconsider your choices in order to empower you to live “a way of life marked by the flavour of the Gospel.”
We hope you are as inspired by the encyclical as we were.