I bring you greetings from the Acting General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev Prof Ioan Sauca. Thank you for inviting the WCC to be part of this conversation again.
Pope Francis’s latest Encyclical Fratelli Tutti has sparked serious reflection on navigating the important challenges that we confront today and foster the common flourishing of all as brothers and sisters.
Reading Fratelli Tutti from the perspective of women involves thinking about all that impedes and distorts our common kinship and reflective on how we can move together towards a new reality where we live as brothers and sisters, and children of the one creator and in ‘fraternity’ and social friendship.
Bridging the linguistic gap:
I laud Fratelli Tutti for its intentional effort to address some of the linguistic constraints associated with the word ‘fraternity’ as an entry point for conversations on equality and inclusion. This encyclical seeks to qualify the patriarchal language of fraternity by reiterating and thus undersoring at various points the ‘universal scope’ of fraternity, which binds all men and women in familial love as brothers and sisters. The addition of the term “social friendship” to fraternity, included in the very title of the document, further underscores an effort to broaden the scope of the meaning, as a mark of intentional respect for women’s voiced concerns about the exclusively masculine implications of fraternity.
From a Christian theological standpoint, I find the use of the word “friendship” significant especially in an interreligious context. Peter Phan, an Asian American theologian, affirms the importance of Christians cultivating not just love (agape) but also friendship (philia) with non-Christians. Phan states, “Love is a command of Jesus … obligatory for all Christians; unconditional and must be given to all, one's enemies included. By contrast, friendship is optional and preferential.” This element of choice and the exercising of moral agency in making friends out of strangers is essential to interfaith engagement and hospitality.
Interreligious friendships is also the preferred mode of interreligious engagement of women who usually struggle to find a place on institutionalized dialogue tables. Dialogue emerging from such friendships – usually called the ‘Dialogue of Life’ – helps us to understand religion in an embodied sense, blurring the lines between the sacred and secular in the course of daily experience.
Jeanine Fletcher, using the example of the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions session, “Peace-Building for Women – Taught by Middle East Interfaith Women”, helps us to appreciate the distinctiveness of interreligious dialogue shaped by the experiences of women. She writes:
The women began by telling their stories and conveying intimate details of their personal lives as a means to illuminate the challenges and lived reality of a world divided by religiously infused politics, war, and hatred. The dialogue they recounted was not focused on rationally defending the beliefs of particular religions. Rather, their conversations developed out of a keen sense of the necessity to work together to protect the bodies of their sons and daughters, their husbands and parents. They talked about how each of them was vulnerable and how neighbors of diverse religious backgrounds might share the same physical space in a way that allowed for the fullest human flourishing. In the process, they drew on their religions to envision a way forward, but their primary focus was not to compare and contrast the diverse details of doctrine, but rather, to preserve the integrity of vulnerable bodies in a location where human wellbeing was threatened daily.
Bridging the gap between theological vision and political will:
One of the important thrusts of this encyclical is to inspire “a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words”. Speaking specifically of women’s rights and equality, the document acknowledges, “the organization of societies worldwide is still far from reflecting clearly that women possess the same dignity and identical rights as men. We say one thing with words, but our decisions and reality tell another story.” This gap between our words and decisions must become a priority of religious institutions. According to Pope Francis “There are so many and many women who, in their daily commitments, with dedication and conscience, with courage that is at times heroic, have developed and put their genius to use, their precious traits in the most varied, specific and qualified skills combined with the real experience of being mothers and teachers.” Taking these into consideration is part of that exercise.
The current COVID-19 context has exacerbated gender equalities globally. Countering them requires that religious communities take seriously the UN Secretary General Dr Antonio Guterres’ pronouncement that responding to the pandemic is not just about rectifying long-standing inequalities, but also about building a resilient world putting women’s leadership and contributions at the heart of resilience and recovery. By refocusing the dialogue on actions of women heavily involved in transformation and change at the grassroots level, congruence between our talk and action becomes possible. Affirming the agency and contribution of women to peacebuilding, justice and the flourishing of the entire creation, ensures that things often hidden or overlooked in interreligious dialogue tables gain visibility and priority in a world that often is perceived as an exclusively male domain.
In many ways Fratelli Tutti offers the world a fresh opportunity for turning into reality our hopes of a world of justice and equality. We begin by finding the spiritual will to be the change we want to see. In so doing, we become what Christians call a community of equals – engaging women as critical partners in justice and providing women with the affirmation and recognition that is long overdue to them as they carry on their many contributions to our common good and mutual flourishing.
 When the word fraternity was popularised through the ‘Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together’, co-signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmad Al-Tayyeb in 2019 in Abu Dhabi, women highlighted its exclusiveness and gender-specificity.
 Jeannine Hill Fletcher, ‘Women in Inter-Religious Dialogue’, in Catherine Cornille, (ed.) The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Inter-Religious Dialogue, (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell and Sons, 2013, 168-183
 ‘Women play a key role in interfaith dialogue, Pope says’, Catholic News Agency, 2017 - https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/women-play-a-key-role-in-interf….