Intro: The Inspiration of and in Fratelli Tutti

What and who inspires Fratelli Tutti? Why is Pope Francis writing about human fraternity, and why now?

In the introductory paragraphs, Pope Francis identifies two inspirations, and in the closing two paragraphs he names a number of others. The introduction places at the outset his extraordinary meeting in 2019 in Abu Dhabi with Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb and the document they signed, Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together. While the encyclical is not about interreligious dialogue, it is meaningful that Francis starts by referencing this breakthrough encounter, which in many ways exemplifies the primary theme of the encyclical. He also grounds this starting point in context, both by referring to the inspiration of his dialogue with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew for his previous encyclical, Laudato Si, and by connecting his encounter with one of Sunni Islam’s most authoritative leaders to the story of St. Francis of Assisi’s meeting with Sultan Malik-el-Kamil during the time of the Crusades. (It’s striking how the pope so consistently connects his work to encounters; recall that he chose his papal name in response to an encounter with a Franciscan brother Cardinal immediately after his election.)

In his closing paragraphs, Pope Francis also cites not only his namesake saint but Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi, and Blessed Charles de Foucauld. Thus he orients his message to the wider world beyond Church boundaries to the world at large (while subtly underscoring the role of racism in his reading of the issues of the day).

But why did he write this now? Rerum Novarum, the first encyclical written on social issues by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, is such a watershed document that many of the social encyclicals that the Church celebrates were inspired by anniversaries of the document. Pope Francis had a chance, in 2016, to commemorate 125 years of Rerum Novarum, and he didn’t (though Laudato Si came just a year before). In many ways, Fratelli Tutti reads like a summary of Pope Francis’ messages across his pontificate, so there is a temptation to read this as a pontificate-framing “Cliff’s Notes to Francis” text, in some ways similar to the way St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans summarizes Paul’s overall theology.

I’m persuaded, though, that Pope Francis was inspired to write this now, not because he wanted a grand summary of his thought, but in response to the times. I keep coming back to comparisons of Popes Francis and St. John XXIII, and this may be another one. As Pacem in Terris is an example of an encyclical in response to the signs of the times (in that case the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War), so Fratelli Tutti is a response to the crises of our times. Which ones? As we break open Chapter 1, you’ll see.

But what inspires Francis’ message in Fratelli Tutti? Clearly (as we’ll see in Chapter 2), it’s the question Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment, His response to love God and neighbor, and the ensuing parable of the Good Samaritan. This is the center of the Christian life for Francis, and Fratelli Tutti reads as an extended meditation on “We are one human family. How would the world be, if we lived as if we believed it were so?”

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