Fraternity as a principle of social ethics

Archbishop Roland Minnerath

The Social Doctrine of the Church (SDC) is built on principles such as the dignity of the human person, the common good, justice, solidarity, the universal destination of the goods of the earth, as well as participation and subsidiarity. Up until recent times it did not include the word “fraternity”. Yet fraternity may appear as a new version of solidarity. It is more than solidarity. Solidarity may be organized and institutionalized, fraternity is not. Fraternity is a feeling, potentially shared by all human beings following their need for closeness and empathy for others, starting with the family and the local community.

My question is: can “fraternity” be considered as belonging to the very structure of human society? Or is it mainly a moral request of Christianity? In the Encyclical, the concept of fraternity goes hand in hand with “social friendship”. Both need to be clarified, in social philosophy, as soon as Aristotle’s “social friendship” appears as a dynamic inherent to the building up of a community. He called it philia, which means friendship, stating that a society needs to be strengthened by the feeling of togetherness of its members. Alone, the juridical framework of a society is not able to create the necessary bond of common commitment to the common good which is the wellbeing of the whole.

I.               Charity and Fraternity

It is amazing to discover that fraternal love, under the words charity and love, has been a key principle in the social encyclicals since Leo XIII. It came to light in the debate between justice and charity. The social teaching of the Church used to balance the concept of justice with the concept of charity (Rerum Novarum 1891, n. 19) which is a properly Christian virtue, as going beyond the mere requirement of justice. Charity demands social justice. It is not a matter of good will. Charity enhances the sense of justice. Leo XIII highlights “brotherly love” in a Christian sense, as demanding a stronger commitment than “mere friendship” (Rerum Novarum 25). Leo concluded his encyclical by calling for Christian charity (Rerum Novarum 63).

The reason is that there is no justice without charity. Justice alone does not meet the needs of human beings. Only a personal commitment to the well-being of the other helps overcome situations of injustice. The Social Doctrine of the Church started with distinguishing justice and charity. It was clear that society must be governed by justice. Yet to implement the requirements of justice, more than commutative justice is needed. What is needed is charity. Charity was traditionally conceived as a movement of a single person giving generously from her wealth to the poor, with no legal obligation to do so. This understanding of Christian charity is not correct. Charity is the inner conviction that justice must be improved. Helping a poor person to overcome her situation is a duty of justice. So charity moved towards a broader sense of justice. Pius XI said “the poor are not committed to charity alone” (Quadragesimo Anno 1931, 4). Not “the economic dictatorship”, but “loftier and nobler principles – social justice and social charity – must, therefore, be sought” “Instead a juridical and social order (should be established) which will ... give form and shape to all economic life. Social charity, moreover, ought to be as the soul of this order” (Quadragesimo Anno 88). “For justice alone can, if faithfully observed, remove the causes of social conflict but can never bring about union of minds and hearts” (Quadragesimo Anno 137).

It is clear that society must always progress in matters of justice. But individuals may progress in charity. The SDC aims at sharing its views with people of other creeds and world views on the basis of what is common to all humanity. It does not call for faith. But Christian faith always gives new impulses to our vision of human nature and human destiny. Our call is on reason, but our use of reason is enlarged by faith.

Human capacity to love develops on several levels. It may be distinguished as eros – sensual attraction; philia, reciprocal friendship and agape, the Christian name for giving one’s life for the sake of others. This word was unknown to the Greek philosophers. Agape is something more than friendship. It is unconditional and looks at loving one’s neighbour for his own sake. It takes care of individuals and of the common good as well. Agape has its perfect realisation in the person of Jesus Christ, who gave his life for the sake of all humanity. Agape does not search for compensation; it is gratuitous. While solidarity can be enforced by law, charity cannot. Law cannot compel anybody to love another person or give one’s life freely for others.

There is obviously no precise separation between these three feelings. The highest you reach the more spiritual and universal it is. In Christian moral theology agape is a gift of the Holy Spirit which enables a person to overcome all kinds of selfishness and to put himself at the service of others who need his help. The point is that the Holy Spirit does not limit its gifts to those who explicitly believe in Christ. Those who effectively live in an attitude of self-donation are moved by agape and transcend the natural tendency of human beings to concentrate on their own immediate interests.

In Christian moral theology agape is a specific gift of grace. In a word, human persons naturally seek community and justice. But our structural weakness does not allow us to overcome the narrowness of our interests and greed. Grace is an inner power that liberates us from our selfish tendencies and gives priority to pulling us out of ourselves and meeting the needs of the community whose life we share.

In the tradition of the SDC the specific sense of agape has been understood under various wordings. After Leo, Pius XI calls it “social charity”: “Social charity, ought to be as the soul of [a new economic order], an order which public authority ought to be ever ready effectively to protect and defend” (Quadragesimo Anno 88). We need, he said, people able to manifest their care for the working classes “who know them well and their minds and wishes, and can reach their hearts with a tender brotherly love” (Quadragesimo Anno 141).

Paul VI popularizes the expression “civilisation of love” as the expression of bonds of fraternity (25 Dec. 1975).

Relying on his own experience as a worker, John Paul II in his encyclical on human labour did not hesitate to speak of “social love”. John Paul II observed that “man’s situation in the modern world was far removed from the objective demands of the moral order, from the exigencies of justice, and still more from social love” (Redemptor hominis 1979, 16). To be morally acceptable the social construct demands more than a set of laws. It needs social love, streaming from the inner conviction of each member of society.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004) rightly says (n. 207): No legislation, no system of rules or negotiation will ever succeed in persuading men and peoples to live in unity, brotherhood and peace; no line of reasoning will ever be able to surpass the appeal of love. Only love…can animate and shape social interaction, moving it towards peace in the context of a world that is ever more complex”. Social love is a “force capable of inspiring new ways of approaching the problems of today’s world, of profoundly renewing structures, social organizations and legal systems from within”.

Charity, therefore, is by no means limited to interpersonal exchanges, but is at the heart of community making. “Social and political charity is not exhausted in relationships between individuals but spreads into the network formed by these relationships, which is precisely the social and political community; it intervenes in this context seeking the greatest good for the community in its entirety” (n. 208).

With Caritas in veritate (2009) n. 2, Benedict XVI added an important point. Charity goes together with truth and so clarifies its location in the SDC: “Charity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine. Every responsibility and every commitment spelt out by that doctrine is derived from charity which, according to the teaching of Jesus, is the synthesis of the entire Law (cf. Matthew 22: 36- 40). It gives real substance to the personal relationship with God and with neighbour; it is the principle not only of micro-relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups) but also of macro-relationships (social, economic and political ones)”.

Laudato si’ (2015) 228 uses the expression “civic and political love”. “Care for nature is part of a lifestyle which includes the capacity for living together and communion. Jesus reminded us that we have God as our common Father and that this makes us brothers and sisters. Fraternal love can only be gratuitous; it can never be a means of repaying others for what they have done or will do for us. That is why it is possible to love our enemies. This same gratuitousness inspires us to love and accept the wind, the sun and the clouds, even though we cannot control them. In this sense, we can speak of a “universal fraternity”.

Fratelli tutti (2020) 183 restates these concepts: quoting Redemptor hominis, Populorum progressio and the Compendium: “Social love” makes it possible to advance towards a civilization of love, to which all of us can feel called. Charity, with its impulse to universality, is capable of building a new world. No mere sentiment, it is the best means of discovering effective paths of development for everyone. Social love is a “force capable of inspiring new ways of approaching the problems of today’s world, of profoundly renewing structures, social organizations and legal systems from within”.

“For whereas individuals can help others in need, when they join together in initiating social processes of fraternity and justice for all, they enter the “field of charity at its most vast, namely political charity”.

II. How SDC inspires social thinking

Taking fraternity as a principle of social make-up highlights the very nature of the SDC. The social thinking of the Church is not confessional. It aims at convincing beyond the borders of Christianity. It proposes a vision of the human person inserted in social, political and ecological bonds, in a word, in a created order. This order is accessible to reasoning. Yet reason works on pre-established material. Reason is illuminated and fuelled by the horizon of reality opened by faith. It is obvious that the Gospel of Jesus teaches fraternal love as flowing from our common filiation from God creator and origin of mankind. The many who do not believe in God belong to the same humanity. The Christian discourse about the human person living in society must be coherent with the experience and deep feelings embedded in the human heart. So the call for fraternity meets something universally acknowledged as true, even if not immediately recognizable in history.

Therefore, the first question about fraternity is not: is it feasible, but does it fit with the human condition at large? By calling to fraternity the Church opens a way for all, without distinction of culture or creeds. Moreover, it has to be said that if fraternity comes from the Christian creed, then God takes us seriously. Fraternity does not restrain our freedom: it enhances it and gives it huge perspectives of overcoming mistrust, misunderstanding and exclusions of all kinds.

No religious tradition, no philosophical system would feel aggressed by a call for love, by the assumption that what most deeply realizes the human condition is the human capacity to love.

So the SDC does not hesitate to draw from agape – Christ’s love which brings salvation, reconciliation and life – the inspiration which gives consistency to the universal feeling of desired brotherhood.

The huge distance to be observed between this call to love and the daily practice of our fellow human beings does not invalidate this call to fraternity. It will always be a good to be striven for but never totally reached, and so will always be a horizon towards which we would converge.

Social charity is not a privilege reserved to believers. In social life the faithful do not necessarily show a more friendly behaviour towards others. In Catholic doctrine Christ’s grace, which finds its highest expression in love, can be bestowed on non-baptized persons.

III Fraternity by law?

The fact that fraternity should not be considered as a goal out of our reach may be asserted by some legal references. The motto of the French Republic mentions Fraternity after Liberty and Equality. Fraternity was adopted after hesitations and contradictory explanations. Whereas Liberty and Equality are likely to receive a legal definition and application, Fraternity appears more as a moral obligation which cannot be sewed into justice. But in recent constitutional jurisprudence, Fraternité has been evoked in the making of social and care policy. Because of its Christian connotation it is avoided rather than enhanced in the French public debate.

Fraternity appears in the Indian constitution as a bond between Indian citizens “The Preamble declares that fraternity has to assure two things—the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the nation. The word ‘integrity’ has been added to the Preamble by the 42nd Constitutional Amendment (1976)”.

The most convincing reference to fraternity is to be found in the first article of the Universal Declaration of human Rights of 1946: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.

This statement is coherent with the universality of the principle of fraternity. We note the tension between what humans are and how humans should act. While dignity and equality, reason and conscience belong to the essence of a person, are innate and prior to any convention, brotherhood belongs to the sphere of moral behaviour and action. It cannot but be produced freely, in conscience and reason. Fraternity is a matter of education and conviction.

In both International Covenants of 1966, the word is absent, as is the word “solidarity”. At least the word “friendship” appears once in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Art 13 wishes “tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups”.

In a way art. 1 is a call for further progress in the human community, thus overlapping with the mission of the Church, which is to convince that fraternity is the strongest link allowing people of different worldviews to join in a shared access to the goods of the earth.


The world is playing under our eyes a tragedy of national competition, political populism, economic war, exclusion of migrants, human trafficking, denial of justice for the poor, discrimination of minorities, all the contrary of fraternal mutual acceptance. In spite of this regression in local and international affairs, there is no reason to dismiss the call to fraternity as unrealistic or utopic. We must not resign ourselves to be wolves to one another (Hobbes). History bears witness to unexpected reconciliations. I mention France and Germany after three wars in 70 years, and the epochal change in the relationship between Jews and Christians.

More recently we must mention the promising development of the dialogue between the Holy See and the Al-Azhar Mosque with the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” (2019) signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam. It starts by saying: “Faith leads a believer to see in the other a brother or sister to be supported and loved. Through faith in God, who has created the universe, creatures and all human beings (equal on account of his mercy), believers are called to express this human fraternity by safeguarding creation and the entire universe and supporting all persons, especially the poorest and those most in need”. This document is an achievement and should serve as a model for other reconciliation processes.

Between Christians and Muslims fraternity can easily be seen as a common principle as both religions believe in God as Creator. Where there is no faith in a Creator of the human kind fraternity should be deduced from our common nature: conscience, freedom, dignity, reason.

Fratelli tutti is a call for reshaping economic, social and cultural life in accordance with the principle of fraternity. What we need is a new impulse, a change in our mind which implies: stop devastating the planet, stop economic exploitation of the poorest populations. We must return to human integral ecology which is the first step in generating a new feeling of fraternity.


Sull'Enciclica Fratelli Tutti

Webinar – 4 March 2021 Fraternal love is a feeling potentially shared by all human beings. Yet it... Read more

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