On 8th March 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 is the parable  of the Good Samaritan  illustrated in chapter two. The story is very vivid, appropriate, expressive, effective  and profound.  The reason why Pope Francis has chosen 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.

From women’s perspective: what is in there for women?

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 experience 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 persons 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 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 lead 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 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 job at empowerment at 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 a lacuna.   Liz Dodd asks: Why was not one woman allowed to speak in this letter? Giving equal weight to the competent opinion whether coming from man or woman is essential if we are to communicate a message that is believable and attractive.

Having pointed out what is missing, let me now show you what is present in there.

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 an inclusive language in the pages. 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 miss to say “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,  have applauded the role and dignity of women. There is a progressive development.

  • In his encyclical Maximum Illud (1919) Pope Benedict XV applauds the contribution of women and asks men missionaries to invite sisters to their missions and support them.
  • Pope Pius Xll in Acta Apostolicae Sedis (1945) called upon women saying “the public needs you” and placed them under strict obligation not to remain aloof.
  • Same Pope in Evangelii Praecones (1951) called women “fairest flowers” of missionary endeavour (EP# 45). And in Fidei Donum of 1957, (# 63) exhorts all to show zeal in supporting women’s mission.
  • Pope Paul VI in Octogesima Adveniens (1971 # 13) says the participation and contribution of women are “indispensable” and “substantially positive”.
  • In Mulheres Dignitatum (dignity of women) of Pope John Paul ll in 1988: She is another ‘I’ in the larger common humanity” (# 6, 7, 10).
  • Letter to Women, 1995 of Pope John Paul ll, extols the role and contribution of women
  • Pope Benedict XVl says: “without the generous contribution of many women, the Church’s history would have been very different”.

I would like to pick up a few lines from Fratelli Tutti that specifically mentions women, sometimes directly, sometimes implied by inference.

  • God has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity …(# 5)
  • We say one thing with words, but our decisions and reality tell another story. That seems to indicate the truth ( # 23).
  • No one will ever openly deny that they are human beings the (migrant, stranger), yet in practice, by our decisions and the way we treat them, we can show that we consider them less worthy, less important, less human (# 39). This is partly true also of gender relations in the church.
  • # 98 reads: equality is not achieved by an abstract proclamation that “all men and women are equal”.
  • In the context of right to private property , the pope says: As it is unacceptable that some have fewer rights by virtue of being women (# 121).
  • If the conviction that all human beings are brothers and sisters is not to remain an abstract idea but to find concrete embodiment, then numerous related issues emerge, forcing us to see things in a new light and to develop new responses (# 128).
  • We need to ensure that our institutions are truly effective in the struggle against all these scourges: oppression, exploitation, corruption, trafficking, sexual and labor abuses, etc., (# 188).
  • “Beyond fine speeches and good intentions”, he says (# 189).
  • “Sooner or later, ignoring the existence and rights of others will erupt in some form of violence, often when least expected” (# 219)
  • “Truth means recognizing the pain of women who are victims of violence and abuse…” (# 227).
  • “It is wrong when the only voices to be heard in public debate are those of the powerful and “experts”” (# 275)

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? And the answer is: Celebrate women’s achievement. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality.

Happy Women’s Day!