The Vatican is digging itself into a hole trying to defend the gender inclusiveness of the Pope’s new encyclical Fratelli tutti, or ‘Brothers all’.

Ever since it was officially announced September 5, the title of the Pope’s new teaching document has drawn criticism for its apparent sexism.

“It is sad to see the Church continue to suffer from self-inflicted wounds”, Thomas Reese, for example, wrote at RNS September 8.

“It would have been so easy to have titled the encyclical ‘Fratelli e sorelle tutti’ [“Brothers and sisters all”]. The concern about language in the title will increase the focus on the language of the entire encyclical”, the Jesuit lamented.

The Vatican finally came out to face the critics September 15. In an editorial – “An encyclical for all brothers and sisters” – published on the official Vatican News website, Vatican editorial director Andrea Tornielli wrote that “the formulation of the title in no way intends to exclude women, that is, more than half of the human race”.

“On the contrary, Francis chose the words of the Saint of Assisi to initiate a reflection on something he cares about very deeply: namely, fraternity and social friendship. He therefore addresses all his sisters and brothers, all men and women who populate the earth: everyone, inclusively, and in no way exclusively”, Tornielli insisted.

Stressing that the Italian Fratelli tutti “will be used, without being translated, in all the languages in which the document is published”, the Vatican editorial director justified the choice of “Brothers all” for the title of the encyclical as being a direct quote from St Francis of Assisi (taken from the Admonitions, 6, 1: FF 155) which “the Pope has obviously not changed”.

Fair enough. Scholarly precision may dictate that a direct quote cannot be modified.

But what about what we know of the content of the encyclical so far – namely, that it will be about “fraternity and social friendship”?

“All readers should be able to understand the title Fratelli tutti with the absolutely inclusive connotation that is intended”, Tornielli explained.

But will that pleading have any effect with regard to the focus on fraternity (from Latin frater, “brother”)?

The sexism that ideas of humanity as a “brotherhood” can lead was well demonstrated in another Vatican text devoted to unpacking the promise of Fratelli tutti, this time written by the deputy editorial director of Vatican Media, Alessandro Gisotti, and also posted on the Vatican News website.

“All of us are brothers because all of us are children of the same Father”, Gisotti wrote. As if women and sisters had been airbrushed from the entirety of human history.

All-male fraternities and fraternity – from monasteries to the Freemasons to the medieval guilds – have dominated public life throughout history and pushed women into private spaces. Some feminists, then, propose the creation of sororities (from Latin soror, “sisters”), to unite women in their sisterhood and struggle against all-pervasive patriarchy.

Perhaps it is too much to ask that the Pope, the Vatican and Catholics speak of Fratelli tutti as a text on “sorority and social friendship”, in honour of those women – and men – who continue to fight against male domination in Church and society, conscious of the fact that male supremacy is the biggest sacrilege ever perpetrated.

But why do the Pope and the Vatican continue to put so much emphasis on fraternity, when words like “kinship”, “solidarity”, “affection”, “collegiality”, “unity”, “congeniality” and “community” surely capture the same idea that Fratelli tutti will drive at, only without the sexist overtones?

More on Novena on the Pope’s new encyclical:

Cardinal Hollerich: Pope’s new encyclical is ‘Brothers and sisters all’

Pope to visit Assisi October 3 to sign new encyclical ‘Brothers all’

New encyclical on need for “human and ecological conversion”, “human fraternity” to drop October 4

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