On the eve of the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, 4 October 2020, Pope Francis published his third encyclical letter: ‘Fratelli tutti‘.
As the person in charge within an international congregation that fulfils a clear mission in the world, more specifically in the world of education and health care, on the basis of its own charism, Bro. René Stockman offers here a short summary of each chapter followed by a more personal reflection.
Chapter 5: A better kind of politics
The next chapter deals with another growing problem that we are facing all over the world: social tendencies where populism and growing liberalism are emerging and which are having a profound effect on politics. There is no need to say that this issue is highly sensitive on an international level and also provoked immediate reaction when the encyclical came out. Nevertheless, nothing new is being put forward, only a clear summary of the vision which Pope Francis has been expressing to the political world from the very beginning of his pontificate, with a profound concern for the preservation and further growth of the care for the common good in which no one is left out. He is sometimes accused of being too socio-political, but it is actually a consistent extension and an update of the Gospel message in today’s world. The Gospel does not call us to be apolitical; on the contrary, it calls us to be politically sensitive. Putting up an image of a boat with hundreds of refugees of different nationalities and religious backgrounds on Saint Peter’s Square in Rome is a symbolic act that seeks to highlight not only the problem of migration, but also the growing trends of populism and liberalism, and the disastrous consequences it entails.
The basic premise stated here is clear: the disdain of the weaker members of society can be hidden in various forms of populism which use these weaker members demagogically to defend their views and also in forms of liberalism which only protect the economic interests of the powerful.
First of all, populism. It is as if today we are divided into two camps: those who call themselves populists and those who oppose it. As soon as one formulates one’s own opinion, it is immediately decided in which camp one should be put. When a particular culture develops into a self-righteous ideology and serves the power that one wants to develop over others, it very quickly evolves into a treacherous form of populism. Very typical of leaders who start to behave in a populist way is the fact that they want to achieve everything immediately and consider all means appropriate to do so.
With the rise in liberalism, we have to note that more and more weaker people are at risk of falling by the wayside. The community is becoming more and more individualistic, and society is consequently perceived as a sum of individuals. So- called neo-liberalism focuses solely on economic systems aimed at acquiring more and more. In the meantime, however, it turns a blind eye to the large groups that are increasingly being sidelined as a result. Attention to quality employment is giving way to the pursuit of greater profits and the further technicization of jobs. This affects the necessary political concern that must be there for the promotion of personal well-being together with the promotion of the common good. It was thought that the financial crisis of 2007-2008 would lead to a new economic system that would pay greater attention to ethical principles of proper governance, but in the meantime it has become apparent, and very clearly so during the COVID-19 pandemic, how individualism still prevails over concern for the global good of society.
The twenty-first century is the scene of a further weakening of the United Nations’ influence, because time and time again, the economic and financial dimensions are overriding the political dimension, which should focus precisely on global well-being. The need for further reflection on reform within the United Nations is reiterated, so that this important international and umbrella organization can carry out its mission properly. While respecting the autonomy of nations, there must be a body to ensure that human rights and the dignity of every human being are respected and promoted within all countries in order to build greater fraternity throughout the world. Primordially, it must continue to call for joint action against the scourge of food shortages in so many places. Perhaps it is a good sign that it is precisely the United Nations World Food Programme that has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It seems to confirm what the encyclical says about the fact that there can be no world peace when so many harrowing forms of poverty continue to plague so many people. Often, the United Nations Organization also seems paralysed when it comes to reaching peace agreements, because the law of power seems to prevail over the power of law.
When we look around on an international scale, we can see that in many places politics have become an internal power struggle in which the general interest is compromised. It is understandable that, in such a situation, an aversion arises to everything that has to do with politics. However, aversion is not the right answer. On the contrary, we must work towards a renewed form of politics in which concern for the common good becomes a genuine priority once again. For this to happen, however, a new mentality is needed among those who conduct politics, namely a mentality of social love. Only then can politics be seen as a true vocation serving the community. Love should not only be there on an interpersonal level, but also within a wider community, thus exerting a beneficial influence on the whole social, economic, and political process. This social love makes us love the common good and makes us creative to continue to look after the good of every citizen effectively. There is no room for individualism or for the desire for power here. It is through this social love that people can grow towards a true civilization in which love is the main theme. This social love unleashes forces to confront world problems and respond to them by renewing the existing social, political, economic, and legal structures from within. This social love will always need the light of truth: truth about human beings as people, about society as a community where everyone can be heard, is respected, and where special attention is paid to the weak. The latter must always remain a major concern in any form of politics. A society must therefore continue to give room to forms of solidarity that grow from the bottom up and promote them on the basis of the sound principle of subsidiarity. Politics must also have the courage to combat all forms of abuse that enslave people and all forms of terrorism, arms trafficking, drug trafficking, and international crime that have only one aim: to disrupt the social system.
Social love will also pay attention to the fact that no one is excluded and will therefore fight against forms of fundamentalism that disregard all forms of tolerance.
Looking at the person who makes a political commitment, it should be noted that they must excel in solidarity and true love for their neighbours. The word ‘tenderness’ is even mentioned, which, of course, is in stark contrast to the harshness with which politics can sometimes be done. A politician must indeed be concerned for the common good, but must not turn a blind eye to the injustice they observe in their close environment. Attention to this will have a positive impact on the wider political work. Good politics must therefore always be based on love, hope, and confidence that the good is still alive in the hearts of many and that it can be brought to the surface through targeted action as a powerful counterweight to the negative that also exists.
None of us can remain insensitive to what is happening at an international level. With modern means of communication and the media, we are confronted with it on a daily basis. Learning about it is one thing, forming a clear idea is the next step. Perhaps, however, we should not stop there, but we should also have the courage to take a clear stand where we are, especially when the weak are being exploited, when human dignity is being disregarded. We are not being called upon to take an active political stance or to adopt strong political positions. However, we are called upon to be politically sensitive and also sufficiently critical of what is happening around us. We all have different responsibilities within society and that is why we need to see how we can give shape to this political sensitivity at our level. It is also important which choices we make in our reading, and with which opinion-formers we go along. It is certainly desirable to pay closer attention to tendencies towards populism and neo-liberalism. The term ‘social love’ sounds new in this context, especially in a world where there seems to be room only for power, for money, and love is dismissed as something for the weak. In the apostolate in which we are especially committed to the weakest in society, we can continue to urge politicians not only to engage with those who are of electoral importance, but also, and above all, to continue to pay attention to those who are at the bottom of the social ladder.
Bro. René Stockman,
Superior General of the Brothers of Charity.
Source: Brothers of Charity Website.