The Heart of Fratelli Tutti

I know well the adage that “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” But sometimes, it really is a nail.

The heart of Fratelli Tutti is Chapter 2, in which Pope Francis gives an extended reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). You could do worse, as an examination of conscience, than follow his lead and ask yourself which of the characters in the parable you most associate with, and when in your life you have been each of them (because all of us at some point have been each of them). When are we the robbers? When the victim? When the priest and Levite, who pass by to stay away from the mess of a crime scene? When the Samaritan, crossing norms and taboos to provide help to a dying man? When the innkeeper, playing a supporting role to the hero of charity?

This is a social encyclical, not a devotional, though. If you stop with this reflection, you will have gotten only part of a point. Because while Pope Francis uses the parable to call all those of goodwill (noting that Jesus’ casting of a Samaritan as the hero breaks down all our barriers over who belongs and who doesn’t to God’s story) to reframe our existence around mutuality, fraternity and love, he extends that call beyond individual conversion to social challenge. Francis makes it clear that the parable of the Good Samaritan should challenge us to embrace each other as neighbors and siblings, not only in our personal and individual ethics but in the society, economy and politics we work to create together.

And this is where the hammer I have comes in handy.

There is a tension that runs throughout Fratelli Tutti that risks being lost in our bipolar world. If you actually read the document, you’ll see that Francis both calls for more global cooperation and critiques the effects of widespread globalism. He mourns the glorification of selfish individualism while amplifying the essential dignity of every human life. How can he have it both ways?

As it turns out, my honors thesis in seminary was about an esoteric principle of Catholic social teaching called subsidiarity. First articulated by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno

Wait! Don’t go to sleep yet! I’ll skip the history lesson.

The principle of subsidiarity says that bigger institutions shouldn’t do for smaller institutions what they can do for themselves. (I am sparing you 100 pages of grad school thesis writing here.) So individuals should do what they can, supported by families, supported by friends, supported by neighborhood groups, supported by local organizations, supported by local governments, supported by regional and state and national and international groups/businesses/organizations/governments. But the bigger needs to support the smaller, not replace it.

The Good Samaritan parable is the heart of Fratelli Tutti, the Why, the call to a new way of being. But the principle of subsidiarity is the head of Fratelli Tutti, the head, the guidestar to How.

I will be honest; I have not always been sure Pope Francis, as a pastoral pope, really got the principle of subsidiarity. He gave a series of talks that wrapped up recently on Catholic social teaching, and his version of subsidiarity in that series boiled down to, essentially, “nothing about us without us,” which is a good mantra but not really the point.

But in Chapter 2 of Fratelli Tutti, he nails it. In (77), he says, “We should not expect everything from those who govern us, for that would be childish. We have the space we need for co-responsibility in creating and putting into place new processes and changes. Let us take an active part in renewing and supporting our troubled societies.” In (78), “We can start from below and, case by case, act at the most concrete and local levels, and then expand to the farthest reaches of our countries and our world, with the same care and concern that the Samaritan showed for each of the wounded man’s injuries.” In (79), “All of us have a responsibility for the wounded, those of our own people and all the peoples of the earth. Let us care for the needs of every man and woman, young and old, with the same fraternal spirit of care and closeness that marked the Good Samaritan.” These point to the balance that Pope Francis strikes in pushing for all of us to embody the Good Samaritan in our personal actions as well as in our global society. We’ll see elsewhere that subsidiarity pops up along the way, usually unacknowledged, to help us figure out how we can see everyone as our brother and sister while maintaining their and our uniqueness and contribution.

Incidentally, in Quadragesimo Anno, Pius XI also faces an atomized world in which mediating institutions had largely melted away in the face of avaricious totalitarian governments and greedy multinational corporation….OK, I’ll quit.


Unrelated to the principle of subsidiarity, here are some of my other favorite (and inspiring) passages from Chapter 2:

The parable shows us how a community can be rebuilt by men and women who identify with the vulnerability of others, who reject the creation of a society of exclusion, and act instead as neighbours, lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good. At the same time, it warns us about the attitude of those who think only of themselves and fail to shoulder the inevitable responsibilities of life as it is. (67)

We were created for a fulfilment that can only be found in love. We cannot be indifferent to suffering; we cannot allow anyone to go through life as an outcast. Instead, we should feel indignant, challenged to emerge from our comfortable isolation and to be changed by our contact with human suffering. That is the meaning of dignity. (68)

The decision to include or exclude those lying wounded along the roadside can serve as a criterion for judging every economic, political, social and religious project. Each day we have to decide whether to be Good Samaritans or indifferent bystanders. And if we extend our gaze to the history of our own lives and that of the entire world, all of us are, or have been, like each of the characters in the parable. All of us have in ourselves something of the wounded man, something of the robber, something of the passers-by, and something of the Good Samaritan. (69)

It could be said that, here and now, anyone who is neither a robber nor a passer-by is either injured himself or bearing an injured person on his shoulders. (70)

The Samaritan discovered an innkeeper who would care for the man; we too are called to unite as a family that is stronger than the sum of small individual members. For “the whole is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts. (78)

Jesus asks us to be present to those in need of help, regardless of whether or not they belong to our social group. In this case, the Samaritan became a neighbour to the wounded Judean. By approaching and making himself present, he crossed all cultural and historical barriers. Jesus concludes the parable by saying: “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37). In other words, he challenges us to put aside all differences and, in the face of suffering, to draw near to others with no questions asked. I should no longer say that I have neighbours to help, but that I must myself be a neighbour to others. (81)

Faith has untold power to inspire and sustain our respect for others, for believers come to know that God loves every man and woman with infinite love and “thereby confers infinite dignity” upon all humanity.[61] We likewise believe that Christ shed his blood for each of us and that no one is beyond the scope of his universal love. If we go to the ultimate source of that love which is the very life of the triune God, we encounter in the community of the three divine Persons the origin and perfect model of all life in society. Theology continues to be enriched by its reflection on this great truth. (85)

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