Brothers all

Pope Francis’ latest encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” (Brothers All), a treatise on fraternity and social friendship, comes just when “social distancing” has become a widespread call, in an unfortunate mislabeling of what is better termed “physical distancing.” Now, more than ever, the world needs to pull together, not distance from one another and work in isolation, to confront common challenges facing humanity; COVID-19 is only the latest and most urgent example. He observes: “Aside from the different ways that various countries responded to the crisis, their inability to work together became quite evident. For all our hyper-connectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all.”Humans have indeed managed to develop all the tools for efficiently connecting people and peoples across the globe, yet the biggest irony seems to be that in many ways, people and nations have actually become more divided and isolated—indeed more socially distanced, in the right use of the phrase. America just voted out a president who exemplified, even championed, such isolationist philosophy, and whose moves in the last four years have created, widened, and deepened divisions, not the least among his own people. That the electoral outcome was so close is a sad testament to how badly divided the American people now are, and how nearly half of them actually support the divisive and isolationist sentiments Donald Trump espoused.

Francis devotes a few paragraphs to how the world economic order has gotten in the way of the vision of human fraternity and social friendship he articulates. He rues how “the financial crisis of 2007-08 provided an opportunity to develop a new economy, more attentive to ethical principles,” but that opportunity ended up being squandered. “Indeed, it appears that the actual strategies developed worldwide in the wake of the crisis fostered greater individualism, less integration and increased freedom for the truly powerful, who always find a way to escape unscathed,” he notes.

I have already written, for example, of how at the height of the crisis in 2008, sales of British Rolls Royce luxury cars actually surged to a then record high. The bulk of the sales were in the United States, epicenter of the crisis where bad decisions by financial giants led to their industry’s collapse. Recently, an Agence France Presse report bannered: “10 years after financial crisis, US bank CEO pay soars again.” The story highlighted how the compensation of the top executives of financial giants JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley rose by 5-7 percent in the past year, well outpacing overall economic growth. Meanwhile, the Financial Times reported that pay among JP Morgan’s 256,000 employees rose an average of 4.4 percent, while compensation for Morgan Stanley’s 60,300 workers even dipped 2 percent. At JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley, the CEOs’ salaries are reported to be more than 364 times and 192 times the median employee salary, respectively.

Closer to home, the Philippine banking sector actually grew by a zooming 18.5 percent in the second quarter, even as the economy reeled under a deep 16.5 percent contraction. In the first half of the year, when the economy was in a -9 percent recession, the profit growth of our top banks before provisioning (that is, setting aside allowances for anticipated bad loans) was reported to range from 33 to 120 percent—and even after provisioning, profits still ran in the billions. Amid all this come reports that banks, even as they are awash with cash poured into the system by the Bangko Sentral, have become even more stringent in lending to badly battered small businesses.

These are but some of the contradictions that Pope Francis calls to mind, warning that “unless we recover the shared passion to create a community of belonging and solidarity worthy of our time, our energy and our resources, the global illusion that misled us will collapse and leave many in the grip of anguish and emptiness,” and warns that the world order could “rapidly degenerate into a free-for-all that would prove worse than any pandemic.” It’s indeed a time to assert that we are fratelli tutti.