On the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, 4 October 2020, the Vatican released the long-awaited encyclical by Pope Francis. Entitled “Fratelli tutti”, Brothers (and Sisters) all, which he signed at Assisi yesterday. Matthew Charlesworth SJ explains it is the Pope’s latest magisterial contribution to Catholic Social Teaching focusing on human fraternity and social friendship, following his landmark encyclical Laudato Si’, on human ecology, the environment and the economy.

The Pope explains his purpose in writing this encyclical which is a call to greater human fraternity and social friendship in the following way:

The following pages do not claim to offer a complete teaching on fraternal love, but rather to consider its universal scope, its openness to every man and woman. I offer this social Encyclical as a modest contribution to continued reflection, in the hope that in the face of present-day attempts to eliminate or ignore others, we may prove capable of responding with a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words. 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. (FT no. 6)

The Structure of this Encyclical

The Encyclical is 78 pages long, and is divided into eight chapters and has 288 footnotes, more than half of them referencing his own previous writings. The Pope is a realist and he begins in the first Chapter to sketch the many problems that plague our world at the moment, made only starker by the current COVID-19 pandemic. He insists, however, on finding the hope that is presently shining even through these ‘dark clouds’ since hope “can open us up to grand ideals that make life more beautiful and worthwhile” (FT, no. 55).

Similar to his previous encyclical there is a reflection from Scripture which will ground the rest of the document. In this case, it is about the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Pope Francis contextualises the story for us, helping us to see it in our present day and encouraging us to see our neighbours without borders, i.e. pro-actively crossing cultures and any form of barrier, historical or otherwise, to respond to the plea of the stranger in our midst.

What he earlier described as a world that is closed, Chapter 3 imagines what it would be like if we could open it up by allowing love to guide our actions rather than our collective individualisms. He proposes the need for societies built around social friendship and universal human fraternity that respect the liberty and equality of all.He challenges the individualism of our age, noting that “[u]nless the rights of each individual are harmoniously ordered to the greater good, those rights will end up being considered limitless and consequently will become a source of conflicts and violence.” (FT, no. 111).

As part of describing this open world, he re-examines such notions of individualism, the social role of property grounded in the correct understanding of the universal destination of the earth’s goods, and the rights of peoples. He proposes an alternative and practical way of thinking about the world, a new model of international relations, and as such makes a contribution to political theory.

Having described an open world made possible by love, Chapter 4 emphasises the importance of a heart open to the whole world. He applies this openness to the way we accept migrants and the movements of peoples, and he urges us to welcome, protect, promote and integrate migrants in a spirit of fraternity that respects difference instead of being threatened by it.

Likewise, he draws attention to the plight of the elderly who are also excluded to become ‘other’. He cautions us not to see the other as a competitor or as an enemy from whom we must protect ourselves, but as a friend, from whom we can learn much and develop fruitfully with together.

Chapter 5 is his call for a better form of politics that allows “the development of a global community of fraternity based on the practice of social friendship” (FT, no. 154) to take root and grow. He examines the sort of political love or charity that is needed, and the type of politician called to transform our politics. He poses the following questions that good politicians should be asking themselves: “How much love did I put into my work?” “What did I do for the progress of our people?” “What mark did I leave on the life of society?” “What real bonds did I create?” “What positive forces did I unleash?” “How much social peace did I sow?” “What good did I achieve in the position that was entrusted to me?”

In his sixth chapter, he looks at the importance of dialogue and friendship in society, that builds, through consensus and attention to the truth, a new culture born of encounter with the other. He suggests that we should all cultivate kindness to each other. He explains:

Often nowadays we find neither the time nor the energy to stop and be kind to others, to say “excuse me”, “pardon me”, “thank you”. Yet every now and then, miraculously, a kind person appears and is willing to set everything else aside in order to show interest, to give the gift of a smile, to speak a word of encouragement, to listen amid general indifference. If we make a daily effort to do exactly this, we can create a healthy social atmosphere in which misunderstandings can be overcome and conflict forestalled. (FT, no. 224)

In his seventh chapter he looks at conflict and the path of peace that is possible if we consistently renew our attempts to encounter each other. We can break the cycle of violence and retribution by engaging with the least and most vulnerable. Here he quotes the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, who wrote in 1986:

The Bishops of South Africa have pointed out that true reconciliation is achieved proactively, “by forming a new society, a society based on service to others, rather than the desire to dominate; a society based on sharing what one has with others, rather than the selfish scramble by each for as much wealth as possible; a society in which the value of being together as human beings is ultimately more important than any lesser group, whether it be family, nation, race or culture”. (FT, no. 229)

In this chapter he also describes the importance of forgiveness (whilst not forgetting), and how violence, whether it be an injustice, or a vindictive or fearful response that proposes war or capital punishment, is rooted only in fear, not love, and can never bring about peace.

His final chapter, after having considered the private and public manifestations of love and its consequences in political life, turns to the role of religions. He explains how the journey of peace is possible between religions too, and in closing recalls the document on Human Fraternity that he signed last year with Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb

Sources of this Encyclical

As a new source and development of Catholic Social Teaching, Pope Francis necessarily grounds his work on earlier precedent and teaching. He mostly references his previous work (166 times, with 56 of those being his previous major works, e.g. Laudato Si’: 22 times; Evangelli Gaudium: 20 times; Christus Vivit: 9 times; 3 times he quotes Queridia Amazonia, and once each for Amoris Laetitia and Gaudete et Exsultate.)

As a document of social doctrine, he references the Catechism of the Catholic Church in two places, paragraphs 2309 and 2267, referring “to the concept of ‘just war’ that we no longer uphold in our own day” (Footnote 242), and his earlier change of Church teaching around the moral acceptability of capital punishment. Aside from those two references, he makes much more reference to the lesser known Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: 9 times.

The Second Vatican Council is mentioned three times, with one reference to Nostra Aetate and two to Gaudium et Spes), and this mainly in reference to affirming an openness to peoples of other faiths. Like his previous encyclicals, he includes references to what his brother Bishops have said around the world. Contributions from Episcopal Conferences are made to twelve times, from six continents: Australia, Colombia, India, Korea, France, Croatia, Congo, Portugal, United States, with our very own Southern Africa Catholic Bishops Conference featuring too, along with a joint statement from Mexico and the United States and Pope Francis’ favourite Aparecida Document from Latin America. This demonstrates his willingness to listen to others - a value he insists upon as part of the welcoming attitude he invites us to cultivate (cf. FT, no 48.)

He naturally quotes previous popes (Benedict XVI: 22 times (with 19 references to his Caritas in Veritate document), John Paul II: 17 times, Paul VI; 6 times (with 5 references to Populorum Progressio), John XXIII: once, and Pius XI: 3 times), thereby grounding what he says in the Papal magisterium of previous Catholic Social Teaching, especially around fraternity, peace and justice.

He also makes passing references to Saints, like Augustine, Irenaeus, Bonaventure, Basil and Blessed Charles de Foucald, and thinkers like Karl Rahner, Paul Ricoeur, Gabriel Marcel… and even Virgil, Aristotle and Cicero are referred to once or twice. St Thomas Aquinas is mentioned five times, but pride of place goes to St Francis of Assisi in whose life and example much of this document - and Pope Francis’ papacy - is inspired.


This encyclical merits prayerful attention and in an age where there seems to be no unifying voice or world leader who is worthy of the name, Pope Francis is offering inspiration, leadership and prophetic guidance. We would do well to listen to him, and so it is fitting that Pope Francis be given the final word:

It is my desire that, in this our time, by acknowledging the dignity of each human person, we can contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity. Fraternity between all men and women. … Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all.

Pope Francis ends the encyclical with two prayers:

A Prayer to the Creator

Lord, Father of our human family,
you created all human beings equal in dignity:
pour forth into our hearts a fraternal spirit
and inspire in us a dream of renewed encounter,
dialogue, justice and peace.
Move us to create healthier societies
and a more dignified world,
a world without hunger, poverty, violence and war.

May our hearts be open
to all the peoples and nations of the earth.
May we recognize the goodness and beauty
that you have sown in each of us,
and thus forge bonds of unity, common projects,
and shared dreams.  Amen.

An Ecumenical Christian Prayer

O God, Trinity of love,
from the profound communion of your divine life,
pour out upon us a torrent of fraternal love.
Grant us the love reflected in the actions of Jesus,
in his family of Nazareth,
and in the early Christian community.

Grant that we Christians may live the Gospel,
discovering Christ in each human being,
recognizing him crucified
in the sufferings of the abandoned
and forgotten of our world,
and risen in each brother or sister
who makes a new start.

Come, Holy Spirit, show us your beauty,
reflected in all the peoples of the earth,
so that we may discover anew
that all are important and all are necessary,
different faces of the one humanity
that God so loves.  Amen.

Read the Encyclical

For a more in-depth analysis, please read the response to the Encyclical by Fr Anthony Egan SJ; and for a critique of the Encyclical, especially around the issue of women, Dr Annemarie Paulin-Campbell has written an incisive commentary.

This article is archived here from my work for the online publication, Spotlight.Africa which I wrote whilst working for the Jesuit Institute South Africa. Spotlight.Africa was a work of the Society of Jesus in South Africa from 2017-2021.

This was originally published at: https://spotlight.africa/2020/10/04/vatican-releases-pope-francis-new-document-fratelli-tutti-brothers-and-sisters-all/