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Pope Francis’s new encyclical is a papal warning about a world going backward

In an encyclical on the theme of human fraternity on Oct. 3, Pope Francis said private property cannot be considered an absolute right. (Video: Reuters)

ROME — Humankind, Pope Francis says, is in the midst of a worrying regression. People are intensely polarized. Their debates, absent real listening, seem to have devolved into a "permanent state of disagreement and confrontation." In some countries, leaders are using a "strategy of ridicule" and relentless criticism, spreading despair as a way to "dominate and gain control."

Amid all that, the pope says, the notion of a kinder, more respecting world “sounds like madness.”

But with the release Sunday of his third encyclical, a book-length paper that feels like something from a bygone time, Francis makes an uncynical case for how people can reverse course. The document amounts to a papal stand against tribalism, xenophobia, and the dangers of the social media age. It also marks a test for Francis in the eighth year of his papacy, at a time when his message has become familiar, and is often overshadowed by the louder voices he warns about.

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The coronavirus has put a near-halt to the public events that had become Francis’s hallmark. The pope began writing the encyclical, called “Fratelli Tutti,” or “Brothers All,” before the pandemic. But he argues that the world’s response to the crisis shows the depth of humanity’s mistrust and fractures.

“For all our hyper-connectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all,” he writes.

For Americans, certain passages will likely read as a warning against Trump-style politics. Those sentiments come as little surprise to anybody who has listened to the pope’s remarks over the years — with frequent denunciations of populism and wall-building — but the paper argues in more details about how the style can exacerbate divisions and lead to other societal breakdowns.

“Things that until a few years ago could not be said by anyone without risking the loss of universal respect can now be said with impunity, and in the crudest of terms, even by some political figures,” Francis writes.

He adds that there are “huge economic interests” operating in the digital world, capable of manipulation and subverting “the democratic process.”

“The way many platforms work often ends up favoring encounters between persons who think alike, shielding them from debate,” Francis writes. “These closed circuits facilitate the spread of fake news and false information, fomenting prejudice and hate.”

Francis’s prescriptions range from the policy-based to the spiritual. He describes steps he says countries should take to more adeptly integrate migrants. He says businesses should direct themselves to eliminate poverty, “especially through the creation of diversified work opportunities.” He says people born into privilege must remember that others — the poor, the disabled — need a “proactive state” more than they do.

Other ideas are more fundamental, and deal with listening to the points of view of others.

“Other cultures are not ‘enemies’ from which we need to protect ourselves, but differing reflections of the inexhaustible richness of human life,” Francis writes.

He includes a critique of consumerism, “empty individualism,” and the free market. Even the right to private property, he says, should be secondary to the common good.

“This is a legacy document,” said Monsignor Kevin Irwin, a research professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, who wrote an introduction to the English edition of the encyclical. “I think this pope is a big-picture guy and he wants to make sure that this is perceived to be the Catholic Church at its best, being welcoming and inviting.” The document is not just for Catholics, Francis says, but for all people of “good will.”

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The pope’s previous encyclical, Laudato Si’, addressed responsibility for the environment, climate change and development. His first, Lumen fidei — The Light of Faith — released in 2013, months after he became pope, was written mostly by Benedict XVI, with only a few changes.

“[Fratelli Tutti] surely is the most political encyclical,” said Monsignor Domenico Pompili, the bishop of Rieti and head of the Italian bishops’ commission for culture and social communication. “One of its clearest critiques is against politics as a sort of marketing with shortsighted goals. It’s aiming to medium-to-long goals, politics as a vision.”

In the lead-up to Laudato Si’ in 2015, the church held a splashy multimedia rollout in a Vatican hall for journalists and other church officials. This time, the process was far more subdued. Francis traveled on Saturday to Assisi, the Italian hill town that is the birthplace of St. Francis, to sign the document at the saint’s tomb. Only a few dozen people were allowed to attend. The pope, who was not seen wearing a mask, traveled to Assisi by car. It was his first trip outside of Rome since the start of the pandemic.

Even before the coronavirus, Francis no longer attracted the fanfare seen in the early years of his papacy. Abuse scandals have bruised his reputation, and there is less novelty about his reform plans for the church. But the pandemic has added to the challenge, keeping the pope mostly confined inside the city-state, where in March he groused that he felt “caged.”

Francis’s year has had some indelible moments — especially a solitary ceremony he held in a rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square — but the virus has denied the pontiff many of his reliable paths for outreach. The Vatican has put on hold all of Francis’s overseas trips, and with it, the news conferences he typically holds aboard the papal plane. In 2019, Francis visited 11 countries and spent a month on the road, often in places on the Catholic periphery that he thought had been overlooked for too long.

“Removed from the people, he’s like a fish out of water,” said one Vatican official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share his frank comments on the pope. “Basically, Pope Francis is still in that cage to this day.”

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Austen Ivereigh, a Francis biographer, said it’s clear the pope had planned to release this encyclical before the pandemic, and it is not his response to the year’s tumult.

“But one might say that the covid crisis has made his message more urgent and relevant,” Ivereigh said. He noted that Francis makes reference to the virus in several passages. “In journalism, we’d say it is pegged to the crisis rather than a response to it.”

Francis does not touch on any of Catholicism’s touchiest issues, such as roles for women and LGBT members inside the church, and though he talks generally about forms of abuse, he does not mention the sex crimes committed by Catholic clerics against minors. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst at the Religion News Service, wrote that the paper “is not a quick read that can be used for partisan bickering.”

Reese noted that many elements of the paper will be familiar to those who have followed Francis’s papacy closely, and the pope widely incorporates material from past speeches and homilies.

“Here Francis is like an op-ed writer who, after seven years of writing, has decided to repackage his work and present his thought in a comprehensive and systematic way,” Reese said.

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