Back in the day, at a theological college that shall not be named, I faced a problem. I was a seminar tutor for undergraduates, and I noticed that many of them were using exclusive language in their weekly submissions –man, mankind– and so on. The school didn’t have an inclusive language policy, so I thought that, among ourselves, postgraduate tutors could at least agree to encourage students to use ‘humanity’, ‘humankind’ and so on –after all, what publishing house or workplace would let ‘mankind’ through in printed material these days? So off I went to the postgraduate committee to propose that we adopt such a policy. This is where it began to unravel: I was basically laughed at, and told by members of the committee that they weren’t going to change the way they wrote, or ask their students to do so. And when I said that adopting such a policy might help to address the problem that many female postgraduate students regularly felt excluded and marginalised in the college on the basis of their gender, I was simply told ‘No they don’t.’
This is the deal: you’re not included just because someone tells you that you are included. The meaning of inclusion and equality needs to be defined by those who seek them, and not only by those who control them.
This is why the title of Fratelli tutti matters. It’s not about whether the Italian plural ‘fratelli’ includes women (and that raises a whole heap of questions anyway), and it’s not about whether it’s okay to transplant a quotation from St Francis without changing it. It’s about the unilateral definition, by those who hold the power, of what inclusion and equality mean. Women’s protestations that they didn’t feel included were simply met with, ‘Well you are.’ But that isn’t how it works, and it’s not just about the title: the title is symptomatic of a broader issue.
In other areas, Catholic social teaching is good at recognising that the meaning of inclusion, equality, development and so on need to be defined with reference to the self-understanding and agency of those who seek them. Laudato si says that indigenous people should be the principal dialogue partners where projects affecting their land are concerned (§146). Querida Amazonia recognises that the peoples of the Amazon need to be included in the working out of forms of liturgy and ministry that make sense for their context and culture. Fratelli tutti recognises that countries have the right to define what development means for themselves, rather than have the meaning of ‘development’ imposed by outside interests (§51); it criticises forms of false universalism defined by small groups in their own interests (§100), and social projects that are ‘a policy for the poor, but never with the poor and never of the poor’ (169). It states that peace processes need to be inclusive of ordinary people affected by violence (§231). Heck, it even states that ‘Nor is equality achieved by an abstract proclamation that “all men and women are equal”’ (§104). But women’s right to be included as active participants in the dialogue that defines what equality means for them (§23), inside the Church as well as out, is systematically overlooked.
Why does this matter? Because the inclusion of women matters. It also matters because this issue undermines the Church’s moral authority. Fratelli tutti is an important document, and deserves a serious hearing. But as long as people outside the Church look at the Church and compare its talk to its walk, particularly in relation to women and LGBT persons, the moral force of this document, like others, is undermined. As Fratelli tutti itself recognises: ‘Paradoxically, those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers.’ (§74)