Universal fraternity and social friendship: Utopia or Realpolitik?

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A reading of Fratelli Tutti from a political point of view (part 1/2)

(from the Alphonsian Academy Blog)

By happy coincidence or perhaps by divine providence in the Alphonsian Academy, we recently had a nice discussion about Tommaso Moro’s Utopia in the course on socialism. We reflected on the idyllic form of life that leads to this famous island. If you have read the first reactions to Fratelli tutti, you will have noticed that the encyclical is often accused of being utopian. This is how the title of this short intervention was born: Universal Fraternity and Social Friendship: Utopia or Realpolitik? In the second part of this post, I will give my answer to this question. First, I would like to read the encyclical from a political point of view briefly.

Hermeneutics teaches us, and not since yesterday, that the first thing to do in interpreting a new text is to identify its literary genre: one cannot read a poem as if it were a treatise on physics. The literary genre “social encyclical” is quite well known in the specifics of its purpose, its style, its contents, and its recipients. Often such an encyclical deals with a specific social issue: the situation of the workers in Rerum Novarum, the desirable post-Soviet economic model in Centesimus Annus, or ecology in Laudato si’. Of course, while dealing with the specific issue, these encyclicals touch on various other topics.

What is the literary genre of the Fratelli tutti, and what is its specific social question? An adequate answer to these questions must include two somewhat particular considerations. Fratelli tutti is indeed a social encyclical; the text also says so. But one could call it a social encyclical, which is also explained in the introduction to the text. Pope Francis presents the encyclical as a kind of general revision of his Magisterium, also because of non-believing readers. Grasping these two points helps us understand the length of the encyclical and its often use of a universal and not specifically Christian language. As for the question on the specific social question, the answer is not easy. Since it is a general revision, the text speaks of many topics. Many of them have already been dealt with in other encyclicals, particularly in Laudato si’. If we wanted to identify two relatively new themes central to the encyclical, they could be populism and migration. In this blog entry, I would like to note what the text says about these themes and then suggest that the central ideas of universal fraternity and social friendship are the basis of the Pope’s response to these two serious social issues.

As a theme, populism is present above all in two sections of the encyclical: in the first chapter, which is a type of photograph of the world’s social current affairs, and in the fifth chapter as well, which is dedicated directly to politics. Taken together, these texts constitute a severe denunciation of the tendency in many countries of the world to make abusive ideological use of the very idea of “people,” understood as a closed and self-referential group. Worse, according to the Pope, is the tendency in populism to manipulate the fears and emotions of the people to ensure their success at the polls.

The theme of migration is more widespread in the encyclical, but it is the fourth chapter’s central theme. Here too, it is easy to perceive a clear denunciation of certain national and international political choices. It insists on the conditions of security and poverty in the countries of origin, the abuse of human trafficking, the lack of reception in the countries of arrival, and the lack of a coordinated policy at the international level. In the fourth chapter, we move on to a more proactive discourse that includes a long list of measures that could facilitate the integration of migrants in the countries of arrival.

It is clear that these two social issues of our time are intimately linked: the theme of migration, presented as a dangerous invasion, is central to populist political discourse.

Fr. Martin McKeever, C.Ss.R.

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