Examining the Encyclical

October 3, the day that Francis signed Fratelli Tutti in Assisi, also happened to mark the twentieth anniversary of a somewhat less illustrious moment in the Church’s interreligious outreach.

Oct 17, 2020

By Massimo Faggioli
October 3, the day that Francis signed Fratelli Tutti in Assisi, also happened to mark the twentieth anniversary of a somewhat less illustrious moment in the Church’s interreligious outreach.

On this day in 2000, a planned day of dialogue between Jews and Christians in Rome had to be cancelled because of the negative reaction to Dominus Iesus, a recently published declaration from the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, led at the time by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Around the same time, the Jesuit theologian Jacques Dupuis was under trial on charges brought by the Holy Office for his work on the theology of interreligious dialogue. How far we’ve come in twenty years, thanks to Jorge Mario Bergoglio. His new encyclical may signal not only the papacy’s shift from a strictly Roman Catholic tradition to one more oriented toward global Catholicism, but also to a new paradigm for how the Church approaches relations with other faiths.

Fratelli Tutti comes a little more than five years after Laudato Si’ — the longest interval in papal encyclicals since the gap between Pope Gregory XVI’s Commissum divinitus (“On Church and State,” 1835) and Probe Nostis (“On the Propagation of the Faith,” 1840). Of course, after Humanae Vitae, Paul VI did not write another encyclical in the remaining ten years of his papacy, because of the new bishops’ synods.

Given Francis’ vision for a Church that gives more importance to synods and to other kinds of documents, especially post-synodal exhortations, the space between encyclicals isn’t that surprising.

This is also the first time a pope has issued an encyclical outside Rome since 1814, when Pius VII signed Il trionfo in the Italian city of Cesena, after five years of imprisonment in France during the Napoleonic Wars. (In the same year, he also restored the Society of Jesus, which had been suppressed in 1773.)

Coming in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic that highlights the crises of globalisation and the social order, the timing couldn’t have been better. The encyclical quotes — and therefore includes as sources of the Catholic magisterial tradition — Blessed Charles de Foucauld, Martin Luther King Jr, Desmond Tutu, and Mahatma Gandhi, as well as the German Jesuit Karl Rahner (who was under investigation by the Holy Office through the time he was working with the German bishops in preparation for Vatican II).

Cinematographic citations have also now entered the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church: the document mentions Wim Wenders’s 2018 documentary on Pope Francis three times. There are also five mentions of Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar, with whom Francis signed the February 2019 Abu Dhabi document Human Fraternity, in many ways the predecessor of Fratelli Tutti.

The early reception of the document has been largely positive (deservedly so), while its most important teachings have been highlighted elsewhere. Fears about rejection of the encyclical because of its title have not materialised (in the original Italian, the title sounds more gender-inclusive than in other languages). But it’s a long and deep text, one that should be read closely not just for what it says, but also for how it says it, given that it now becomes part of the long magisterial and theological tradition of the Catholic Church.

A key feature of Fratelli Tutti is focus on the Church in the world and for the world. It envisions a new social system while treating the current ecclesial and ecclesiastical system as a given. In that sense, Fratelli Tutti is a major document in terms of the Church’s shift toward global Catholicism. It deserves to be received as a statement reorienting the posture of Catholicism worldwide, aligning the Church with the poor in the quest for justice. ––Commonwealmagazine

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