Pope Francis and the Revolution of Tenderness *

Leonardo Boff
Eco-Theologian-Philosopher and member of the Earth Charter Commission

The new encyclical of Pope Francis, signed on October 3rd on the tomb of Francis of Assisi in the city of Assisi, will be a landmark in the social doctrine of the Church. It is broad and detailed in its subject matter, always seeking to add values, even from the liberalism that it strongly criticises. It will certainly be analysed in detail by Christians and non-Christians alike, since it is addressed to all people of good will.

In this article I will highlight what I consider innovative with respect to the previous magisterium of the Popes.

First of all, it is clear that the Pope presents a paradigmatic alternative to our way of living in the Common Home, which is subject to many threats. He gives a description of “dark clouds” which are equivalent, as he himself stated several times, “to a ‘third world war’ fought piecemeal”.

Currently there is no “shared roadmap” for humanity (see paragraph no. 29 of the encyclical), but a guiding thread runs through the whole encyclical: the awareness “that no one is saved alone; we can only be saved together” (no. 32).

This is the new project, expressed in these words: “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” (no. 6).

We must understand well this alternative. We come from and are still within a paradigm that is at the base of modernity. It is anthropocentric. It is the kingdom of the dominus: the human being as owner and lord of nature and of the Earth, which only make sense to the extent that they are subject to him. It changed the face of the Earth; it brought many benefits but also led to a principle of self-destruction. It is the current impasse of the “dark clouds”.

In the face of this vision of the world, the encyclical Fratelli tutti proposes a new paradigm: that of the frater, the brother, of universal brotherhood and social friendship.

It shifts its centre from a technical-industrial and individualistic civilisation to a civilisation of solidarity and the preservation and care for all life forms.

This is the Pope’s innovative intention. In this shift lies our salvation: we will overcome the apocalyptic vision of the threat of the end of the human species with a vision of hope: that we can and must change course.

For that, we need to nourish hope. The Pope says: “I invite everyone to renewed hope, for hope speaks to us of something deeply rooted in every human heart, independently of our circumstances and historical conditioning” (no. 55).

Here resonates the principle of hope, which is more than the virtue of hope: it is a principle, an interior motor for projecting new dreams and visions, as was well formulated by Ernst Bloch.

The Pope emphasises: “if the conviction that all human beings are brothers and sisters is not to remain an abstract idea, but has to find concrete embodiment, then numerous related issues emerge, forcing us to see things in a new light and to develop new responses” (no. 128). As we can deduce, it is a new direction, a paradigmatic shift.

Where to start? Here the Pope reveals his basic attitude, often repeated to social movements: “Do not expect anything from above, because more of the same or worse always comes; start with yourselves”. That is why he suggests: “We can start from below and, case by case, act at the most concrete and local levels, and then expand to the farthest reaches of our countries and our world” (no. 78). The Pope suggests what today is at the forefront of the ecological discussion: working at the region level, as bioregionalism allows for true sustainability and the humanisation of communities, and connects the local with the universal (no. 147).

The Pope offers long reflections on the economy and politics, but emphasises: “politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy” (no. 177). He criticises the market forcefully: “The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of the neoliberal faith. Whatever the challenge, this impoverished and repetitive school of thought always offers the same recipes. Neoliberalism simply reproduces itself by resorting to the magic theories of “spillover” or “trickle” – without using the name – as the only solution to societal problems” (no. 168). Globalisation brought us closer, but did not make us more brothers (no. 12). It creates only “associates” but not brothers (no. 102).

In a reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Pope offers a rigorous analysis of the various characters that appear on the scene, and applies them to political economy, culminating with the question: “Which of these persons do you identify with? With the wounded man on the road, with the priest, with the Levite or with the foreigner, the Samaritan, despised by the Jews? This question, blunt as it is, is direct and incisive. Which of these characters do you resemble? (no. 64). The Good Samaritan becomes a model of social and political love (no. 66).

The new paradigm of fraternity and social love unfolds in love in its public materialisation, in the care of the most fragile, in the culture of encounter and dialogue, in politics as tenderness and kindness.

As for the culture of encounter, the Pope takes the liberty of quoting the Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes in his Samba da Bênção, on the 1962 album Um encontro no Au bon Gourmet where he says: “Life, for all its confrontations, is the art of encounter” (no. 215).

Politics is not to be reduced to a dispute for power and the division caused by power. The Pope affirms in a surprising way: “Politics too must make room for a tender love of others… the smallest, the weakest, the poorest should touch our hearts: indeed, they have a ‘right’ to appeal to our heart and soul. They are our brothers and sisters, and as such we must love them and care for them” (no. 194).

The Pope asks himself what tenderness is and responds: “it is love that draws near and becomes real. A movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears and the hands” (no. 194). This reminds us of the phrase of Gandhi, one of the inspirations of the Pope, along with St. Francis, Luther King, Desmond Tutu: politics is a gesture of love for the people, care for the things held in common.

Along with tenderness comes gentleness, which we would translate as kindness, remembering the prophet Gentileza [“Kindness”] (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gentileza), who in the streets of Rio de Janeiro proclaimed to all who passed by: “Kindness begets kindness” and “God is kindness”, very much in the style of St Francis. The Pope defines kindness as “an attitude that is gentle, pleasant and supportive, not rude or coarse. Individuals who possess this quality help make other people’s lives more bearable” (no. 223). This is a challenge for politicians, but also to bishops and priests: to carry out the revolution of tenderness.

Solidarity is one of the foundations of the human and the social. It finds “concrete expression in service, which can take a variety of forms in an effort to care for others. And service in great part means caring for vulnerability” (no. 115). This solidarity proved to be absent, and only recently did it come into its own in the struggle against COVID-19. Solidarity prevents humanity from dividing itself into “my world” and “the others”, “them”, since “others, no longer considered human beings possessed of an inalienable dignity, become only ‘them’“ (no. 27). And the Pope concludes with a great wish: “God willing, after all this, we will think no longer in terms of ‘them’ and ‘those’, but only ‘us’” (no. 35).

The Pope calls all religions to this challenge of giving a body to the dream of universal fraternity and social love, because they “contribute significantly to building fraternity and defending justice in society” (no. 271).

At the end the Pope evokes the figure of the Little Brother of Jesus, Charles de Foucauld, who in the desert of North Africa, together with the Muslim population, “wanted to be, in the end, ‘the universal brother’“ (no. 287). Pope Francis observes: “only by identifying with the least did he come at last to be the brother of all. May God inspire that dream in each one of us. Amen.” (no. 287)

With Pope Francis we are before a man who, following his inspiration, Francis of Assisi, has also become a universal man, welcoming everyone and identifying with the most vulnerable and invisible of our cruel and inhumane world. He gives rise to the hope that we can and must nourish the dream of brotherhood without borders and of universal love.

The Pope has done his part. It is up to us not to let the dream be just a dream, but instead the fundamental principle of a new way of living together, as brothers and sisters plus nature, in the same Common Home.

Will we have the time and the wisdom to make this leap? Surely the “dark clouds” will continue, but we have a lamp in this encyclical of hope from Pope Francis. It does not dispel all the shadows, but it is enough to glimpse the path to be travelled by all.


*Originally published on the site  https://leonardoboff.org/2020/10/07/fratelli-tutti-una-revolucion-paradigmatica-del-dominus-dueno-al-frater-hermano/

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