On Oct. 3, Pope Francis released to the world his Encyclical Letter titled “Fratelli Tutti,” which means “brothers all” and those are the same words St. Francis of Assisi so often used when addressing his followers. The Pope’s encyclical is a 90-page document, a statement that lays out, in considerable detail, the pope’s ‘platform’ for what he considers to be the most important issues facing the Church and the world today. The encyclical’s subtitle is “On Fraternity and Social Friendship.”
Oh, how I wish such a detailed document existed that explained the platform of President Trump in this election. Remember, the Republican Party announced in August it would not adopt a party platform for this election. The party’s platform from 2016 bears no relationship to the actions of President Trump, other than his ignoring that platform.
Oh, how I so wish we could hear from this president what his motivations and goals are and how these relate to the common good of our country and the world. No coherent statement like that has come forth nor will come forth. Is it really too much to ask, to demand one? Too late now.
Instead, we have an election process taking place that seems utterly devoid of any serious, rational discussion of any of the crucial issues facing our country and our world — except one, COVID-19, over and over and over, like a dog that does only one trick.
To display the level of my frustration with our presidential election so far, it will help simply to list a number of the topic headings in the text of the pope’s encyclical: The End of Historical Consciousness; The Illusion of Communication; A Throwaway World; Forms of Subjection and Self-Contempt; Globalization Without a Shared Road Map; Human Dignity on the Borders; The Social Role of Property; Popular vs. Populist; Recovering Kindness; The Architecture of Peace; Religion and Violence; Social Dialogue for a New Culture.
Is it hopelessly naive to have expected an insightful discussion and debate, during this election, of at least a couple of these topics or similar ones? After all, the office in question is the presidency of the most powerful nation on the face of the Earth. Yet we have heard almost nothing of any substance regarding the real issues of our time.
Non-Catholics, and even some Catholics, often ask, “Isn’t the Roman Catholic Church a relic of the past and hopelessly out of step with the modern world?” I don’t see how, upon reading this encyclical from Pope Francis, one can harbor the idea that the Catholic Church is living in the past and is out of touch with what’s happening in the world. Just read “Fratelli Tutti.” It is readily available for free on the internet — and in just about any language you might prefer to read. This document has been created by a man and an institution that is highly informed and thoroughly engaged in the issues of the contemporary world, global economics, globalization and the plight of the world’s exploited poor.
Pope Francis, in a scant 90 pages (and no TV time), has given us far more information on world affairs and more motivation to do what we need to do than we have heard from any quarter during this entire presidential election. Something is very, very wrong with politics in the United States right now.
What’s wrong is the cancer of populism. One of the worst problems with populism is it always avoids hard, detailed and rational discussion. Trump is a populist politician without a shred of doubt. Populism “is a political program that champions, or claims to champion, the common person, usually by favorable contrast with a real or perceived elite or establishment” (Britannica). It always caters to the lowest common denominator.
Populism, when injected into the democratic process, will always lower the standards of discourse and debate — because those who take the trouble to be well-informed and well-spoken are, for that very reason, attacked as being “of the elite.” The populist politician does not want to engage in “learned argument” because he will thereby turn himself into his enemy — and he will lose his followers.
In paragraph 155 of “Fratelli Tutti,” Francis says, “Lack of concern for the vulnerable can hide behind a populism that exploits them demagogically for its own purposes ...” This is exactly what is happening in Trump’s America today. The vulnerable are worse off now than they were four years ago; they have been exploited in many and various ways. They are very angry.
The populist politician feeds off of, and into, this anger. Instead of fostering the common good through fraternity and social friendship based upon respect for all human persons, populism always pits one group against another — very often to the point of extreme violence. We are likely to see more soon.
On a different front, we should all rejoice that we have the establishment clause in the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...” But this clause does not mean there should be no encounter and no dialogue between government and religion. As Francis says in paragraph 215: “Life, for all is confrontations, is the art of encounter... capable of transcending our differences and divisions.” And in paragraph 217: “Social peace demands hard work, craftsmanship.”
What I so admire in “Fratelli Tutti” is the recognition that social friendship, dialogue, consensus, compromise, the common good and kindness are things that require constant, hard work. We used to call this work statesmanship. The word seems hardly ever used today — that is sad and dangerous.
When I read a document like “Fratelli Tutti,” I am glad that the Vatican, technically “the Holy See” in international law, has an official presence in the United Nations — ever since it was granted the status of “permanent observer state” in 1964. The Holy See’s voice is heard around the world.
Near the end of the encyclical, Pope Francis provides himself with a powerful finale by recalling his various meetings with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb of Egypt, perhaps the most important Sunni Islam leader in the world. Francis reaffirms that he and Al-Tayyeb have issued a joint statement: “that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood (which) result from a political manipulation of religions ... by religious groups that have taken advantage of the power of religious sentiment in the hearts of men and women.” That’s what true world leaders sound like.
So, Mr. Biden and associates, you do have my support, but I beg you: read “Fratelli Tutti.” You will find a great deal of material that will lift up the level of discourse in the final days of this all-important election. Heaven knows, it needs lifting.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.