This is a long encyclical letter; it’s why I’d like to summarize it for you and pull some important quotes for your consideration. But first, I want to make a couple of clarifications.
The title (translated brothers all) was attacked in the press (before the encyclical was published) for being non-inclusive. But the fact is that the content of the encyclical is very inclusive, and the title is from a direct quote of the writings of St Francis. So let’s let this red herring pass away. Second, Pope Francis is enough of an academic to know that there’s no point in using 3 words when 9 can be used! Yes, the document is repetitive in the points made. But the points made are worth making, and that’s why (contrary to the thinking of some) it is a worthwhile effort (for me, anyway).
The thrust of the encyclical is an effort to describe the dynamics of what he refers to as “social friendship” in neighborhoods, communities, nations, and the world. It focuses on the ways we can and should acknowledge one another as related; when we fail to stand together (as during this COVID crisis, he says) we find ourselves falling alone (paragraph 7). He laments that “as society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbors, but does not make us brothers” (#12). It is the urgency of embracing the “other” in a “culture of encounter” by which we can affirm each other’s fundamental dignity that is driving the Pope’s motives.
“A decline in birthrate, which leads to the aging of the population, together with the relegation of the elderly to a sad and lonely existence, is a subtle way of stating that it is all about us, that our individual concerns are the only thing that matters” (#19). This critique can also be applied to countries, he says, when we see others only in terms of commodities. Too often, he says, we see others as objects to be manipulated—others like women, or the victims of trafficking, of wars and terrorism, of racial or religious persecution, all become justifiable because the “other” is seen as an object (##23-25). His prayer is that as a result of the pandemic we might learn not to see “them/those” but only “us” (#35).
The light of respecting the integral dignity of others as persons, Francis of course highlights the problems of migrants and refugees. But far from thinking that the fundamental right is to migrate, he also insists that “…there is also a need to reaffirm the right not to emigrate, that is, to remain in one’s homeland” (#38)—the right of people not to be forced to emigrate by impossible social situations like war, persecution, economic collapse, criminal activity, and so on.
The Holy Father also laments the “digital campaigns of hatred and destruction” (#42) that plague our societies, allowing us to build artificial worlds in which actual listening to the other is less and less likely to happen (##47-50). And we all know this, especially in this election year in our country, with the kinds of rabid posts (often not only misinformation but disinformation—deliberate spreading of falsehoods in an effort to smear someone else).
I am going to end this portion of my presentation because what is in many ways the real heart of the encyclical is coming up in Chapter Two: a meditation and application of the parable of the Prodigal Son. That will be next week’s essay.