On March 8, 2021, the world once again observes Women’s Day. The catchy phrase for this year’s women’s day reads: A challenged world is an alert world, and from challenge comes change. So, let’s all choose to challenge. On this occasion, I would like to share with you my reflections on Fratelli Tutti from women’s perspectives. What is there in this document for women?
The first thing that impressed me about the encyclical was its size. It is large – a work of two hundred and eighty-seven paragraphs in eight chapters. The central argument is that we are one big family bound together in our common humanity, and brothers and sisters to each other. It is for all people, universal, general and inclusive. The language of the encyclical is compelling, forceful, direct, and at times casual. The radicality of the document consists in the examples it gives, and in its vocabulary- at times casual, colloquial, and conversational.
The Biblical inspiration for the encyclical is the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” illustrated in Chapter Two. The story is vivid, appropriate, expressive, effective and profound. The reason Pope Francis chose this parable is found in paragraph 86: Even today there are those who appear to feel encouraged or at least permitted by their faith to support varieties of narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and even the mistreatment of those who are different.
Let me state at the beginning that my attempt is not to find fault with the encyclical, to bargain or argue about gender issues, to complain or clamor.
Fratelli Tutti is not an encyclical on gender relations, church hierarchy or doctrine. It speaks little about women, their contribution or role. It is a document on how to build a society that is inclusive, coherent, embracing all, reconciling, sensitive and respectful of differences.
However, I would like to share with you how some women have read this work. I would like to begin with a comment on Fratelli Tutti that appeared in the October 17 issue of The TABLET. In the Features Column (p 14-15), there was an article called “Silent Witness” by Liz Dodd. She says “the encyclical is a powerful reimagining of the human predicament as a shared opportunity for mutual enrichment in which the gifts and needs of the other are respected and honoured. Yet the experiences of women are neglected, their voices unheard”.
She says, of the 292 sources cited across 288 footnotes in FT, none are women. Every paragraph has at least one footnote. You do not hear from female voice at all in this encyclical, whether it is discussing poverty, peace, ecology, migration, development, death penalty, reconciliation or justice. No women are cited. The only time a woman is mentioned by name, is in the closing lines in paragraph 278 and that is about Mary- the usual way of closing encyclicals.
Pope Francis lists a number of people who inspired him: St. Francis of Assisi, non- Catholics like Martin Luther, Bp. Desmond Tutu and Mahatma Gandhi. He mentions specifically St. Charles de Foucauld and lists numerous Bishops’ Conferences (#286). How come not a single woman writer or thinker is cited as a source of inspiration? I find it both strange and sad.
We know that several women serve as director or president of some very important organizations and hold leadership positions in institutions for peace and justice, poverty eradication, development. The Director of CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development) is Miss Christine Allen; Pax Cristi Co-president is Sr. Theresia Wamuyu, a Kenyan Loreto Sister; and Miss Claire Victor is President of the St. Vincent De Paul Society in Australia (presidents are nationally elected in SVP).
This puts a question back to us as well. Are we aware of women writers, thinkers, activists and contributors and are we inspired by them? There are so many women who do commendable work with empowerment at the grassroots level.
Now, we need to understand that, in encyclicals, popes usually do not quote a lot of writers. They usually refer to the Bible and previous encyclicals of their own or of their predecessors. But the fact that women who constitute half the human race do not feature as contributor or inspirer is an omission. Liz Dodd asks: Why was not one woman allowed to speak in this letter? Giving equal weight to competent opinion, whether coming from a man or a woman, is essential if we are to communicate a message that is believable and attractive.
Having pointed out what is missing, let me express what is present in the encyclical.
You may note that “Brothers and sisters” is how the Pope addresses the readers throughout the document. The content shows openness and inclusivity. This encyclical is a milestone change in that it uses inclusive language throughout the document. This is in sharp contrast to the title Fratelli Tutti which is a direct quote from St. Francis of Assisi’s addressing his brothers. If we compare this work with earlier Church documents, there is a record change in the language. The document does not avoid saying “her”, “sister”, “women”, “she”. Some paragraphs even begin with “children, women and men”.
Earlier encyclicals will impress upon a casual reader as writings addressed exclusively to bishops and priests. In general, ‘mission’ was a matter that pertained to men. The prototype of a true missionary remained clearly male and clerical. Encyclicals used a language that was exclusivist: “man”, “men”, “he”, “brothers”, “brethren”, “venerable brethren”,” “sons”, “beloved sons”, “valiant sons” and so on are used to address missionaries.
So, Fratelli Tutti has tried, in its content, to compensate for the title which has been offensive for many women. The language is inclusive and respectful of women.
Second, all encyclicals in general, and mission encyclicals in particular, applaud the role and dignity of women. There is a progressive development.
I would like to pick up a few lines from Fratelli Tutti that specifically mention women, sometimes directly, sometimes implied by inference.
Dear friends, I would like to close by asking anew the question International Women’s Day 2021 puts before us: How will you help forge a gender equal world? The answer is: Celebrate women’s achievement. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality.
Sr. Mary John comes from the SSpS South Province of India. Since 2014 she is serving the congregation as assistant general. She was mission secretary in the Generalate from 2003-2010. Her professional field is in Missiology (PhD).
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