by Jonathan Pye.
In Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, Fermina says, ‘nothing is more difficult than love.’[i] Márquez somewhat bleakly characterises unrequited love as a kind of disease often fatal to those people infected by it – love in a time of often fatal disease has unmistakable resonances for us in this time of global pandemic.
Over the past months, when most of us have, by necessity, spent more time in our homes than out and about, one of the (few!) positives is that I have had more time to read those things that would otherwise have had to wait. One such is Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti[ii] – a document of some 43,000 words. While it focusses on contemporary social and economic problems, in this time of Covid-19 (which Francis sees as exposing the failure of the world to work together during the crisis) its breadth is truly exhausting – immigration, racism, social inequality, economic deprivation, international co-operation and relationships, individualism, the free-market and the common good, inter-religious dialogue.
What holds these themes together can be seen in the encyclical’s sub-title: ‘on fraternity and social friendship’[iii]. Its central message is a call for greater solidarity between people and nations, and especially with the most vulnerable in society. Whilst I do not propose to summarise the encyclical, I want to select a few passages and to apply them to our current situation, admittedly in an undoubtedly nuanced way.
The notion of ‘neighbour’, a word which Francis uses frequently, especially with reference to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, is an important thread that runs through the encyclical. What it means to relate to our neighbour, especially when the neighbour is perceived as ‘other’ to us, has been a key theme of our relationships both locally and nationally.
An example of this is the longstanding divide between North and South, which is in reality a divide between rich and poor, the socially advantaged and the socially disadvantaged, with its deleterious effects on education, health and life expectancy, which has in the current crisis become even more starkly delineated. It is seen in the damaging political disagreements between central government (based in the South) and many in local leadership (based in the North) which led, at least in some cases of regional ‘tiering’, to lockdowns in Northern cities and communities being imposed with no dialogue and often little notice. In such circumstances Francis’ statements that, ‘Destroying self-esteem is an easy way to dominate others…’[iv] and ‘the best way to dominate and gain control over people is to spread despair and discouragement, even under the guise of defending certain values’ [v] resonate poignantly.
And if such people ‘push back’ then we need to remember that, ‘often, the more vulnerable members of society are the victims of unfair generalizations’ [vi] and that such reactions arise out of a long history of scorn and social exclusion.Francis makes it clear that even when the ideas themselves may be good or well-intentioned, they are likely to be rejectedif they are ‘presented in a cultural garb that is not [peoples’] own and with which they cannot identify.’[vii] Indeed, Francis goes so far as to liken the radical individualism and lack of social cohesion which consciously or unconsciously underpins such insensitive attitudes themselves to, ‘a virus that is extremely difficult to eliminate’.[viii]
In the end, for Francis, everything depends on our ability to see the need for a change of heart, attitudes and lifestyles (what the New Testament characterises as metanoia) and the recognition that all people are our sisters and brothers, demonstrated, not least politically, in the exercise of self-giving love.
Having begun with a quote from Márquez’s novel, I end with another – words spoken by Florentino that distil the prolixity of Fratelli Tutti to a sentence: ‘Think of love,’ she says, ‘as a state of grace: not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end in itself.’[ix]
[i] Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera. (Penguin Modern Classics, 2007).
[iii] The title of the encyclical has attracted some criticism for its gendered language of ‘fraternity’, unfairly perhaps, because the title is a direct quotation from St Francis of Assisi and because, in the body of the text, Pope Francis speaks throughout of ‘all brothers and sisters’.
[iv] Fratelli Tutti, 52.
[v] Ibid., 15.
[vi] Ibid., 234.
[vii] Ibid., 219.
[viii] Ibid., 105.
[ix] Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera. (Penguin Modern Classics, 2007).