At the core of Fratelli tutti is Francis’s conviction that the world is fast losing its sense of the oneness of the human family. With the disappearance of the common good, dialogue, and solidarity as animating social ideas, humanity is fast sliding into the darkness of civil strife, conflict, tribalism, and nationalism.
In part this is the outgrowth of a lopsided modernity. Of the three great aims of the French Revolution—liberty, equality and fraternity—the Western world has been obsessed with the first two, while ignoring or downgrading the third. Yet without fraternity, liberty descends into permissiveness and avarice, a license for the powerful to possess and exploit, while equality is reduced to a kind of abstraction, with endless squabbles over identity and a constant temptation to uniformity. Only a proper sense of the worth of every person and a recognition of his or her dignity provides an adequate basic principle of social life. “Unless this basic principle is upheld,” says Francis, “there will be no future either for fraternity or for the survival of humanity” (107).
These observations come in the third chapter, “Envisaging and engendering an open world.” The first chapter—about the world’s need of a savior—is called “Dark clouds over a closed world,” while the second chapter, “A stranger on the road,” features an exegesis on the Good Samaritan. The pattern of conversion can be read in those headings: from a fearful, isolated clinging to identity and tribe to another kind of humanity, in which compassion for the needs of all living beings—the foreigner, the stranger, the outsider—become a new kind of identity.
“Now there are only two kinds of people: those who care for someone who is hurting and those who pass by; those who bend down to help and those who look the other way and hurry off,” says Francis in paragraph 70. Religious belief and belonging are not enough to save us from this choice: the fact that it was the priest and the Levite who passed by is not to be overlooked: “It shows that belief in God and the worship of God are not enough to ensure that we are actually living in a way that is pleasing to God…. Paradoxically, those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers” (74).
Toward the end of Chapter Two, Francis gently applies the screws again. Given what believers come to understand through the words and presence of Christ in the poorest and neediest—that God loves every man and woman with infinite love, so conferring dignity upon them—“I sometimes wonder why,” the pope ponders, “it took so long for the Church unequivocally to condemn slavery and various forms of violence.” Today, he says, there can be no excuses, yet there are Christians who justify violent nationalism, xenophobia, and contempt, a fact that should prompt preachers and catechists to “speak more directly and clearly about…our reasons for loving and accepting all our brothers and sisters.”
Chapter Three then fleshes out the implications of this hermeneutic shift, which expresses itself in self-transcendence, ultimately the measure of a person’s spiritual stature. “Yet some believers,” Francis adds pointedly, “think that it consists in the imposition of their own ideologies upon everyone else, or in violent defense of the truth, or in impressive demonstrations of strength.”
He defines fraternal love as action directed toward others, “considering them of value…apart from their physical or moral appearances.” This is the love that, when cultivated, makes possible social friendship: now, “every brother or sister in need, when abandoned or ignored by the society in which I live, becomes an existential foreigner, even though born in the same country.” Such social friendship creates a “true universal openness,” as opposed to “the false universalism of those who constantly travel abroad because they cannot tolerate or love their own people.”
It is at this point, halfway through the third chapter, that Francis touches on what is arguably the big idea of Fratelli tutti. If the unifying idea of Laudato si’ was Romano Guardini’s contrast between the exploitative “technocratic paradigm” and the Gospel way of relating to the created world as gift, here Francis tells us in a footnote that his reflections have been inspired by an early essay by the French Protestant philosopher Paul Ricoeur titled “Le Socius et le Prochain” published in a collection called Histoire et Verité. The hermeneutic contrast here is between “the Associate” and “the Neighbor”: the person reduced to their static role, versus the fellow creature of God.
Reflecting on the Good Samaritan, Ricoeur says Jesus’s answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” is that “the neighbor is not a social object but a behavior in the first person…. One does not have a neighbor; I make myself someone else’s neighbor.” To do so requires moving out from a social role (le socius) to make yourself a neighbour (le prochain). The priest and the Levite are trapped in their roles and social functions, and are defined and limited by them; whereas the Samaritan—as a “nobody” and a despised foreigner—demonstrates a capacity for encounter and self-transcendence. Hence the shock of Matthew 25, to discover that Jesus is “in” the poor who are helped and served, a secret that remains veiled to those stuck in their social identity.
Francis notes that “those capable only of being ‘associates’ create closed worlds,” frameworks within which there is little or no room for those who are not part of their group. But he does not run with the rest of Ricoeur’s interesting reflection—that today’s world is increasingly defined by social function, as people move away from nature into organizations and institutions. The problem, says Ricoeur, is not modernity or technology per se, but the tendency to objectify people within the abstract, impersonal relationships of modern life, which in turn “dissimulate the movement of charity behind which stands the Son of Man.” Yet the associate and the neighbor are not antithetical but two dimensions of the same story: our relationship to our neighbor often passes through social institutions. The key is charity: whether directly or indirectly, it is the service of the needs of the other that creates fraternity.
Interestingly, the philosopher observes that it becomes easier to see each other as we are—beloved sons and daughters of a loving God—when struck by what Ricoeur calls “the failures of the social realm,” such as wars or great historical disasters. Only then, “socially stripped,” do we perceive “the depth of human relationships.”
It is odd that Francis did not develop this idea as a key theme of the encyclical, especially in the light of the “social stripping” wrought by the coronavirus. When he concludes Chapter Three by calling for “an alternative way of thinking” based on the “the great principle that there are rights born of our inalienable human dignity,” it is unclear how this conversion comes about (and what prevents it). To this reader, at least, the move from the road to Jericho to the language of rights is too abrupt. Although he later returns to the Ricoeur essay, developing its argument might have made it easier to understand the conversion of mindset Francis is urgently calling for.
Chapters Four, Five, and Six offer fruitful contributions to the challenges facing contemporary modernity: of the local/global debate, of the need for a new kind politics to transcend neoliberalism, and of the urgent need for a new kind of civic dialogue that can overcome the paralysis of contemporary polarization. In a darkening time, Fratelli tutti carves out a place in the sun for Catholics and anyone of goodwill who cares about the state of humanity.
Call it a new Christian humanism, an integral personalism, or simply commonsense wisdom at a time when that commodity is scarce: this space will be a vital refuge in the coming years, comparable, in its way, to the one created by the popes of the 1920s and ’30s in the face of totalitarianism. The so-called “third way” of the French personalists, nurtured in the face of fascism and war and promoted in the social encyclicals, became the basis for Christian democracy in the postwar world, and the incubator of the great multilateral institutions the populists now want to throw over.
Francis believes, naturally, in an open world of fraternal gratuitousness capable of welcoming the stranger who brings no apparent benefit. He argues here—as he did in Laudato si’ and as Benedict did before him—for new international bodies capable of meeting border-blind challenges at a time of enfeebled nation-states. But he is no unthinking globalist: the local has something the global lacks, and only the well-rooted can reach out to the other. The local and the global are in polar tension, but they are not antithetical: what is needed is a “healthy relationship between love of one’s native land and a sound sense of belonging to our larger human family” (149).
Francis’s critique of contemporary politics is robust. A neoliberal technocracy transfixed by the market and a populism that exploits fear to attain power are both failing to work for the common good. The pope calls for a politics of service, motivated by charity, that works to change the social conditions behind suffering; and he wants to see bold international political objectives: the elimination of hunger, for example, and an end to human trafficking.
Chapter Six, on dialogue and friendship in society, takes up the pressing issue of a communications world increasingly marked by verbal violence, in which people jostle to impose their ideas in power plays rather than engage in authentic dialogue to expand everyone’s horizons. “The heroes of the future,” Francis predicts, “will be those who can break with this unhealthy mindset and determine respectfully to promote truthfulness, aside from personal interest.” In an intriguing rebuttal to fundamentalists of all stripes who fear that dialogue erodes truth, Francis argues that there is no need “to oppose the interests of society, consensus, and the reality of objective truth,” which can be harmonized “whenever, through dialogue, people are unafraid to get to the heart of an issue.” He ends by arguing, simply, for a daily effort to be kind, which he says “frees us from the cruelty that at times infects human relationships.”
Chapter Seven, on war and conflict, closes off attempts to justify modern warfare on the basis of St. Augustine’s just-war framework. Although popes have long argued that the sheer destructiveness of modern warfare makes just-war doctrine all but obsolete, Francis’s footnote to paragraph 258 is unambiguous: St. Augustine, he says, “forged a concept of ‘just war’ that we no longer uphold in our own day.” In the text itself he explains that in view of the risks of war, it cannot be thought of as a solution, any more than the death penalty can be thought of as a solution to criminality. It would be hard to imagine George Weigel now penning a just-war defense for the invasion of Iraq while continuing to claim the mantle of orthodoxy.
Francis ends Fratelli tutti by taking up the theme of the Abu Dhabi document: that when they reject extremism and fundamentalism and collaborate in freedom, the world’s faiths open the eyes of human beings to their shared dignity and worth, calling them to a human fraternity that embraces all people and makes them equal. If this is to be, after all, Francis’s last encyclical, it is a powerful note on which to end.