A new narrative, from an ancient source


Last Friday morning I did something I never do and logged on to Facebook. I wanted to watch a live discussion that TASC was hosting between David Begg and Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan. I was struck by many things in that conversation, most notably his insistence that we needed a new narrative to close the massive gulf between how things that are profitable are prioritised over things that we value.

On Saturday afternoon, Pope Francis signed his third open letter, which contains within it many of the new ideas that are being sought all over our political and cultural discourse.  That answers to our modern problems can be found in one of the oldest – and most unfashionable – fonts of wisdom: the Vatican, is a source of some amusement to me.

Pope Francis’ third encyclical, entitled Fratelli Tutti, considers from different perspectives, over the course of its eight chapters, what it might mean to claim that humanity really is one unified family. There are countless guides and overviews of the missive already in existence, as well as lots of very interesting questions raised by the ways in which this document falls short.

But what I am interested in briefly looking at, is how the letter lands in Ireland, not so much in relation to the church, but in wider society.

As I write, there has been a socially divisive schism between the government and NPHET  regarding advice to move our Covid-19 response to the full lockdown categorised as Level 5. The rhetoric of “we’re all in this together” appears to be disintegrating in inverse relationship to the extent that the curves of infection strengthen. All the heady talk of solidarity from March is forgotten now as politicians direct us to the “big picture” which appears to involve a cost-benefit analysis between allowing a couple of hundred extra deaths now, so as to soften the recession and prevent the loss of tens of thousands of jobs.

What appropriate timing for a letter that insists, with relentless clarity, that we are, in fact, all in this together! That holds not just for crisis pandemics, but for mundane ordinary life. Building on his previous environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’, Francis argues that we are all connected, inter-dependent, and every time we embrace the lie that says we should just look out for ourselves or our kin, or our kind, we diminish and impoverish ourselves.

This is not lofty, abstract theorising. Fratelli Tutti unpacks what this means: the nation state must be relativised and the natural right of migration must be recognised (124), global orders of law, especially dedicated towards the preservation of fundamental human rights must be established (172), private property must be exposed as a delusion and relegated to its proper place as a secondary right, derived from the inescapable fact that every good thing is a gift that is owed to everyone (119).

At a time when our political leaders are searching for a new narrative, Francis has delivered one. It is framed in a document that is implicitly grounded on the radical inclusivity that welcomes all the world’s Muslims into dialogue with all the world’s Christians, and that invitation then extends to anyone at all of goodwill (285). It is an historic document in that it conclusively and finally clarifies that the Catholic Church is now opposed to war (258) and equally and unequivocally set against the death penalty (263).

In an Irish context what might be most remarkable is not the headline shifts in the positions of the Catholic Church around these contentious issues but the concrete suggestion the letter makes for how to achieve this remarkable political manifesto.

Fratelli Tutti anticipates that the reader will think this new narrative – this “alternative way of thinking” will “sound wildly unrealistic” (127). But the fifth chapter lays out what is called a “Better Kind of Politics”. Rejecting both the self-destructive siren songs of populism and the dead-end of neoliberalism – while recognising all politics must be popular and there is much of worth in liberalism – it suggests that “What are needed are new pathways of self-expression and participation in society” (187).

It calls for a fundamental shift away from viewing politics as the battle to control and exert power. In lieu of debate, it proposes dialogue.  It acknowledges the risk of being dismissed as “naïve and utopian” (190) but there really is revolutionary power in encountering the stranger – the one who is different, the one who is threatening, even an active enemy – with openness and respect.

This encyclical can be read as a riff on the parable of The Good Samaritan (84). Resisting the cultural urge to other difference, to cast the stranger out, choosing instead to take the time to listen, to be willing to serve – this is a politics driven by love instead of the lust for domination. Francis argues: “authentic social dialogue involves the ability to respect the other’s point of view and to admit that it may include legitimate convictions and concerns” (203).

We need a new narrative. The cost-benefit-analyses-brokers are bankrupt. The gap between rich and poor is widening unsustainably, as our environment shifts terrifyingly. Fratelli Tutti is calling Christians especially – but welcomes anyone of goodwill to join in – to a culture that is “passionate about meeting others, seeking points of contact, building bridges, planning a project that includes everyone” (216). We can’t decide in advance how to implement the vision of universal fraternity.

Dialogue is no silver bullet. It is not a utopian solution. It’s a process, mundane at that. If it is revolutionary, then it is an unusually sedate uprising. But sitting with, listening to, and respecting the opponent because they are first your neighbour, learning from the stranger because we are of the same global family– this is an idea that could transform the pallid confines that mark Irish political discourse. This could be the map to the new narrative we all so desperately need.