Encyclicals are often eagerly awaited within the Catholic Church and then much debated and talked about. This one has caused quite a bit of controversy even before anyone has read it because of the title which is Italian for ‘’all brothers”. Well what about the sisters? Vatican Media insists that that title includes women, saying the subtitle of the encyclical is dedicated to fraternity and social friendship. So women are overlooked not just in the title but also in the subtitle. So what has changed you might ask in a Church that is deeply patriarchal and hierarchical? Nothing, many women would suggest.
I’ve no doubt that there was no intention to exclude women and that Pope Francis wouldn’t want to do this but language is important and forms the way people understand and read the world. The language of brotherhood and fraternity is male and can give legitimation to the marginalisation and even oppression of women today as much as it has in the past. Violence against women, stereotyping their role in the family and society, forbidding them equal status within religious communities is as common today as it has been in the past – and not just within the Catholic Church. What about the Jewish traditions that forbid women becoming rabbis or allow husbands to refuse them a divorce, or the Muslim women who are working for women friendly mosques and a recognition that the Qur’an can also be recited publicly by women? Women are still not treated equally. In too many countries they are treated like servants with no independence, forced into marriage, subject to violence, rape and murder and now we have an Encyclical that is seen to exclude them.
The Catholic Women’s Council, a coalition of Catholic Women’s networks from around the world that campaigns for the full recognition of women’s dignity and equality in the Church has written an open letter to Pope Francis which says,
“the masculine noun will alienate many, at a time when women in many different languages and cultures are resistant to being told that the masculine is intended generically. This is particularly true in English-speaking countries, where exclusive terms such as "mankind" and "brethren" are no longer used when referring to humankind……. this issue presents a problem for many who would otherwise be fully engaged with the encyclical and committed to working with you for lasting social, spiritual and environmental transformation. At best it is a distraction, and at worst it is a serious stumbling block”
Many men don’t sympathise with this outlook, naturally enough, as they’ve never experienced this kind of exclusion. One has said to me –“it will only be a distraction if you let it”. Well I won’t let the title be a distraction from its message which I have every confidence will be a good one but that doesn’t stop me regretting it, recognising the impact that it can have on women and knowing that I will have to explain the title to many women – as I have had to do when talking about the document on Human Fraternity signed by Pope Francis and Sheikh Al-Azhar in February 2019. Nor will I feel angry or dismissive of Pope Francis whom Mary McAleese, the former president of Ireland, thinks is ‘overhyped’ and ‘a big disappointment for those who had hoped he would reform the Church in particular concerning women and abuse.” Nor do I have great expectations of immediate reform of an institution that is as ancient, hierarchical and patriarchal as is the institution of the Catholic Church. It’s entrenched in tradition, has few women working within its governmental structures and has a culture of clericalism that Pope Francis with the best will in the world and an outward looking vision is part of. For me it has to be accepted as it is. I recognise its institutional aspects, which I’m glad I’m not part of. I regret some of these but recognise the good that it does locally and globally, including the Pope attempts at reform. I’m grateful for the faith that has come to me through the Church and I can live within it without taking its institutional aspects too seriously. I’m happy being on the margins.
So we have a new encyclical. I look forward to reading it whenever the English version is available and no doubt will be writing about it sometime in the future. I’m going to call it Tutti rather than Fratelli Tutti as a friend suggested! That ignores the sexist language.