Anyone seeking to transcend much of current partisan political discourse might enjoy supplementing their diet of social media with a few sections each day of Pope Francis’s encyclical Fratelli Tutti, or Brothers All, published this weekend. In it, Pope Francis makes clear the culture we should seek: “It is closeness; it is the culture of encounter. Isolation, no; closeness, yes. Culture clash, no; culture of encounter, yes.”
The pope’s reflections point the way not just to a more hopeful approach to politics but to a way of being in the world that can resonate outside the halls of government—particularly in the halls of our schools. Indeed, Pope Francis speaks directly to teachers in one section of the letter:
Teachers, who have the challenging task of training children and youth in schools or other settings, should be conscious that their responsibility extends also to the moral, spiritual and social aspects of life. The values of freedom, mutual respect and solidarity can be handed on from a tender age.
My first reaction was gratitude to the pope for acknowledging that teaching is hard, particularly because the current public health crisis and the political and social upheavals of our day have made a difficult job even more challenging.
Like the shrewd pastor he is, though, Pope Francis butters up us educators with that acknowledgement—and then lays on an expectation. He reminds us that our “responsibility extends also to the moral, spiritual and social aspects of life.” So we’re responsible for students’ academic progress—and now their mask protocols and remote learning logins—and as if that weren’t enough, the state of students’ souls and their social interactions also rest in our realm of responsibility. It can be enough to make us want to crawl back under the covers some mornings.
Yet this call to tend to students’ values can also the greatest source of relief educators have right now. Many people I know feel frustrated and almost powerless in the face of toxic elements of our culture—even when they don’t agree about what those toxic elements are. But as educators, particularly in Catholic schools, we have the chance each morning to rise and to help create a different world—in our classrooms, in our hallways, and even among our colleagues.
And the vision of a different world that Pope Francis points us towards is a truly refreshing one. He elevates three virtues for teachers’ particular focus: “freedom, mutual respect and solidarity.” While mutual respect likely undergirds most of the behavioral expectations we see on posters above the whiteboards in classrooms across the country, freedom and solidarity may be worth a few minutes’ consideration.
Catholic schools aren’t exactly famous for a focus on freedom. And yet freedom is an integral part of human nature, as our faith understands it. We are endowed with free will. While the worst excesses of Catholic education in the past have often centered around suppressing students’ freedom rather than forming young people for its use, I believe that our institutions are growing beyond this short-sighted approach. And the educator arguably most famous for structuring freedom into students’ learning—Maria Montessori—came at her instructional vision from a profoundly Catholic place: “there is no such thing as an individual,” she declared, “until a person can act by himself.”
At a time when all we are restricted from doing may be top of mind, it’s worth considering how we provide students age-appropriate opportunities to exercise freedom; to gain awareness of it; and to learn from their natural failures to use it for good. After all, the ultimate promise of Catholic education isn’t students who merely obey; it is the development of young people who have the intellect, zeal, and personal strength to choose freely and often that which is good, for themselves and others, even when no one is watching.
Saint John Paul II noted that “there is no freedom without solidarity.” Pope Francis echoes this interdependence in his encyclical. He has clarified elsewhere that solidarity involves thinking “in terms of community and the priority of life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.”
Throughout this letter, Pope Francis makes clear that solidarity is, crucially, a way of seeing others. It recognizes, quite simply, what the Pope’s title conveys: that we are brothers—and sisters—all.
Imagine a group of eighth grade girls going through “mean girl” phase being effectively guided to solidarity—growing able to see each other with new eyes, focused on commonalities. Imagine more Catholic high schools where racism is met with the uncomfortable work of finding “solutions that achieve value and respect for everyone,” as Regis High School Senior Rainier Harris recently explored in the New York Times.
Root beliefs like “we are better together” can be a key part of teaching solidarity, if embedded in the operational norms of a school day. But educating for solidarity also requires cultivating the imagination, to see what may be obscure; it calls on us to tease out history lessons not just of conflict but of collaboration; indeed, prioritizing solidarity can transform what we teach and how, if we let it.
Much of Fratelli Tutti speaks to political life. For those of us in education, it might be interesting to read a couple of sections each day and substitute the word “school” every time we see “government” or “society.” For as Pope Francis repeatedly suggests, the goal of reflecting on brother- and sisterhood is not words but action, lived out concretely in the most impactful levels of social organization—like families and schools.
Individually, we may not be able to change a whole country or city. But we can make Pope Francis’ vision of “brothers and sisters all” a lived reality in the classrooms and schools where we work. And it is work; as Pope Francis says, “goodness, together with love, justice and solidarity, are not achieved once and for all; they have to be realized each day.” But if our students experience schools where such values are realized more days than not, then we stand a better chance of helping each of them go forth from us to infect others with the love of God that they have experienced first-hand. And that, eventually, can make the world a far better place.
Beth Blaufuss is the Vice President for Strategic Affairs for Partnership Schools.