Pope Francis’s new Encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (“All Brothers”), calls for all of us to anchor our societies and our politics in encounter: the actual meeting of people who think differently and have different life experiences. This call to encounter is a refreshing approach to shaping our world not through power dynamics but through the experience of all—especially those who are marginalized. It is an invigorating approach amid the hyper-partisan electoral politics in the United States.
Let me get my complaint out of the way first. Many women were rightly concerned when the Vatican announced the Italian title using a masculine noun to allegedly include women as well. The Vatican defended the title as just an innocent limitation of a Romance language! It is disappointing they could not find a way to be more intentionally inclusive, but I have a deeper critique of the document itself. While I laud Pope Francis’s message, I lament the fact that he does not cite one woman in this entire encyclical. He does not lift up a woman’s perspective anywhere other than a brief reference to Jesus’ mother. He quotes bishops’ conferences from around the world, composed entirely of men. He quotes saints, all men. He quotes theologians, all men. It is shocking to me that the call to encounter leaves out more than half of the people on the planet. Because of this, I believe that the call to encounter must be turned to the Vatican and to Pope Francis himself. If this call is to be believed, there must be a conscious inclusion of women!
Turning from this shortcoming in an otherwise substantive document, let us examine its rich content. As I read, it seemed that Pope Francis was directing this letter specifically to the United States in the midst of our political turmoil. He calls for a use of power that engages those who are marginalized, for us all to learn from the lesson of the Good Samaritan who shatters preconceptions of who is an outsider. He challenges politicians and those engaged in public service to engage in a “healthy politics…capable of reforming and coordinating institutions, promoting best practices and overcoming undue pressure and bureaucratic inertia…. We cannot expect economics to do this, nor can we allow economics to take over the real power of the state.”
The encyclical goes on to call all of us to a political and effective love grounded on listening to the needs of those who reside in each part of our world. The pope claims that such a political love will “spur people to create more sound institutions, more just regulations, more supportive structures.” In this context, politicians must strive to listen and truly care for those who are struggling. Pope Francis writes, “This charity, which is the spiritual heart of politics, is always a preferential love shown to those in greatest need.” This is profound instruction for the chaotic United States, where misplaced government priorities have consistently shifted more money to those at the top of the income and wealth ladder and away from those at the bottom. Everyone with a hand in this country’s refusal to raise salaries for low-wage workers—an absolute moral failure—needs to read this document and take it to heart!
As I read, I remembered attending a Voices of Faith meeting last year in Rome, for which Catholic sisters gathered from many different countries. As we talked about the situation in our respective home countries, I heard of the ways many nations are suffering a similar breakdown of governance. One sister from the Philippines described the horror of extrajudicial killings promoted by President Duterte and carried out by the police. A sister from India described how national leaders were promoting religious and ethnic bigotry and thus tearing down their multiethnic, multireligious society. A sister who had been serving in Bolivia spoke about how her service of marginalized people did not serve the government’s narrative and she was not allowed to return to her ministry after a visit with her family.
From these encounters, it is evident that the United States is not the only country in a societal crisis that threatens our democratic institutions. This is an international reality that we must address. Where do we start?
Pope Francis says:
Government leaders should be the first to make sacrifices that foster encounter and to seek convergence on at least some issues. They should be ready to listen to other points of view and to make room for everything. Through sacrifice and patience, they can help to create a beautiful polyhedral reality in which everyone has a place.
I know from experience that such encounter and listening can make change.
I have the honor of being the leader of a campaign called Nuns on the Bus. Starting in 2012, we have held seven cross-country trips and had the opportunity to listen to the experiences of hundreds of people across our nation. Right now, we are in the middle of our first virtual trip as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In these virtual meetings, I have heard the terror people have about losing their health care—or being unable to afford it. I have heard of integrated, holistic free clinics that provide health care to those who are left out, but may be too overwhelmed to service everyone in need.
In our Dialogues Across Geographic Divides, we have experienced the challenge of many rural communities who lack broadband and have a difficult time simply connecting with the rest of the world. Last week, I spoke with a couple driving around a large parking lot in their town trying to find better reception. How can we learn about one another and grow together if we cannot even see and hear our neighbors in another part of the state?
I have listened to people in California, Texas, Michigan, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania talk about the anguish of the racial divides in our nation and the echoes of slavery and dislocation. We heard from the Angry Tias and Abuelas on the US-Mexico border who are trying valiantly to minister to the needs of migrants now caught in camps on the Mexican side. I have learned of people doing the direct service that is right before their eyes and connecting that to our policies. As Angry Tias member Lizze of South Texas said, “Before this I never knew that politics mattered. Now I see the pain and suffering that bad policy inflicts. I need to be involved in politics.” Speaking from Philadelphia at the Women’s Community Revitalization Project, member Lynette said, “Learning about politics is one of the things that’s making my community stronger.”
This is what Pope Francis means by the call to encounter: Get involved, open your eyes to see and your ears to hear, and then make sure to base your policies on the lived reality of our people. So many of the people we are visiting through Nuns in the Bus are putting this into action. Through my experiences, I have come to believe future presidential administrations need a White House Office of Public Listening. With such an office, proactive listening could begin to heal our nation.
In these difficult times, the United States must heed Pope Francis’s call to encounter, to listening, and to profound reform if we hope to build a more hopeful, more inclusive, and more loving future out of this current suffering and chaos.