A reflection on the Pope's Encyclical
We have entered the 21st century with a tragic laceration: the pandemic. This will go down in the history books as the dividing moment with the 1900s, just as World War I signaled the end of the 1800s. The climate disaster, social injustice, the end of ideologies, the crisis of democracy, the resurgences of fascism and fundamentalist terrorism, the immigration problem, the crisis of the neoliberal capitalist model: all are transformations with a long history. But the pandemic has welded them together with others in a unique, synchronized and violent global thrust, making the end of the 20th century a common and shared planetary experience. It is the classic criss-crossing of history where the many pre-existing knots are now joined. Having refused for years to untie them; having preferred to be content going along looking in the rear-view mirror (consider the beautiful European project, no longer presentable only as a post-war peace success); and having had, all too often, the insecurity of the workings of small adaptations, or the illusion of anachronistic operations (look at Brexit), we now find ourselves thrown into a foreign era, disoriented like castaways on an island we do not recognize. The risk of doing the wrong thing is enormous: suffice it to think about the horrors that followed the first world war. Understanding before acting is therefore vital, but understanding without then acting accordingly would be suicide. For this reason more philosophy, more intelligence, more courage, a greater capacity for leadership and achievement, more Politics (the capital ‘P’ is crucial).
It was in this perspective that I read Pope Francis’ Encyclical Fratelli Tutti. “Our own days ... seem to be showing signs of a certain regression” (n. 11) and the text offers many reflections to avoid this trap, to understand and act better, in a period of profound uncertainties and transformations.
The Encyclical has tremendous conceptual richness, in terms of analysis, and ethics, in terms of suggestions. I do not say this as a believer, but as an agnostic, even in the hope of being between those who “can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers” (n. 74). Often, as I was reading it, I happened to mentally underline “bravo! Yes, that’s exactly right!” (in our internal dialogue we speak informally even to the Pope). Here are a few examples. Evil is not destroyed for ever; it is defeated anew each time (n. 11), with tenacity. I would add: for this reason the moral match is won by scoring more goals (things done well) than missed shots (mistakes made). Not even Saint Francis won 1-0. Economic growth is not development by humans, who must guide it (21). This is why we have to change both capitalism – which must pass from consumption (n. 13) to care (n. 17) of the world and of humanity – and politics, which must pass from individualistic interests to collective participation and to common hope, through political charity (n. 190). The worst thing that can happen is also to lose the sense of shame for having done harm (n. 45). For this reason the hope is to receive the “grace to be ashamed of what we men have done” (n. 247, referring to the Shoah).
I could go on, but I prefer to offer an interpretative key that seemed to me philosophically weighty and cogent: that of time. The Encyclical opens speaking about space, of borders that divide, of walls and barriers that separate. But one quickly understands that time is the most important variable, as indicated by the numerous references to the parable of the Samaritan. The story is noted (n. 63). Just as for the Encyclical, from appearances it seems to be an issue of geometric space: the line of the Judean’s journey intersects, by misfortune, the line of the thieves who assault him at one point; then there are the parallel lines of the priest and the Levite, and that of the Samaritan, who instead stops at the same point and helps him. Then, at another point, the line joins that of the innkeeper who hosts him, and in the end, once more, the line of the journey of the Samaritan who sets out again but intends to return. I have always read the parable as geometrical. But I understood, reading the Encyclical, that it is instead a parable about time: Only the Samaritan gave the Judean “something that in our frenetic world we cling to tightly: he gave him his time.... Without even knowing the injured man, he saw him as deserving of his time” (n. 63). Even evaluating his own time (he is a businessman) the Samaritan stopped. And thus he created a new history, of attention and care, in time, finding the time for the suffering man and offering it to him freely (n. 139), and at his own expense, not only because time is money, but also because he paid the innkeeper, immediately and with a future promise, in time. English has a really beautiful way to say that you find the time for what is important: to make time. The Samaritan makes time for the suffering man. And this “making time” for the other means enriching yourself at the same time, because giving your own time means giving it along with yourself. Without the other person who receives it, the giver cannot make time for himself. This relationality of time, of human relationships, of solidarity among us, of charity among us, runs throughout the entire Encyclical, and I think it is a fundamental key to reading. Suffice it to note that, among the most incisive affirmations, only one is repeated twice: “no one is saved alone” (nn. 32, 54 and also 137 “we are either all saved together or no one is saved”). No one can be embraced alone. Embracing is possible only if a separation exists that is reconnected with another, in which identities unite but are not cancelled out. Therefore, embracing another is the only way to embrace ourselves. Sartre was wrong: hell is not other people; it is the absence of others (n. 150), because we save ourselves only by saving others. This is why we must become neighbours to others, as the Encyclical insists (nn. 80-81). Today it is easier, because in the ‘infosphere’ each of us is just one step away from everyone else.
The opposite of stopping and “making time” is “‘concupiscence’: the human inclination to be concerned only with myself, my group, my own petty interests” (n. 166). It is incoherent to believe we are able to live as if we were parallel lines without the plane to which we belong, knots without the network that constitutes us. It is the rejection of relationality. Closing off in self-concern is the superficial and claustrophobic space of those who do not stop and do not “make time” in order to receive time, of those who by not saving others do not save themselves. The solution to prevent concupiscence is thus to unlock your own self-concern, to force it to be open to hope (at least for this agnostic) if not to faith (for the believer) in transcendence. If this can be a “lay transcendence”, the question remains open for the agnostic, but lay or religious as one may be, it is an opening that bears costs, like the Samaritan’s stopping, and is an opening that we can share with everyone, because it is made possible by the universal recognition of human dignity (nn. 213-214), which transcends the time of history and therefore leaves the closure of one’s own self-concern ever open, like a door that leaves a glimpse of light.
After reading I asked myself: so then what is success to the Samaritan? We know that he set out again. He had things to do. He was expecting to return. The Encyclical made me think that he had continued his journey with a smile. Because in retrospect, he owed to the suffering man the fact that he now knew who he was. By answering the question posed by the human dignity of the suffering man (§218), he also obtained the response to the question about his own human dignity as a charitable and kind person (nn. 222-224). It took effort to stop to understand who he was and to not be ashamed. In the end it was the best possible investment of his time.