Fraternity and social friendship as ‘spiritual heritage’ of Pope Francis. Comment on the Encyclical Fratelli tutti
The encyclical Fratelli Tutti is a kind of “spiritual heritage” of Pope Francis, as Rafael Navarro Walls of the Spain Academy of Social Sciences wrote, since according to the Pope himself, it refers to “issues related to fraternity and social friendship that have always been a concern of mine. In recent years I have spoken of them repeatedly and in different settings. In this encyclical I have sought to bring together many of those statements and to situate them in a broader context of reflection” (n. 5).
Which is this broader context of reflection? Not only should we mention the irruption of the Covid-19 pandemic that has left many dead or locked down in hospitals and at home, affecting employment, trade, education and many other important social activities. To this new context also belong his frequent interreligious encounters with Orthodox Christians, Jews and Muslims, his addresses to many governments and to the United Nations, his pastoral visits to different churches and his daily sermons in Santa Marta, which are nowadays an important milestone to understand Pontifical teachings. Above all, we should consider in a special way his devotion to the figure of the Saint of Assisi, who inspired his famous encyclical Laudato si’ and whom the Pope venerates not only as a brother in the faith but as a father. The encyclical stands out: “Francis did not wage a war aimed at imposing doctrines; he simply spread the love of God... In this way he became a father to all and inspired the vision of a fraternal society. Indeed, ‘only the man who approaches others, not to draw them into his own life, but to help them become ever more fully themselves, can truly be called a father’” (n. 4).
It seems to me very important to highlight this paternal allusion of the encyclical, because it reflects the vital attitude with which the Pontifical teachings have considered social reality through the times. Often, with good or bad will, the Social Teachings of the Church have been criticized for abandoning their religious approach to concentrate exclusively on the profane. But as also done by his predecessors the Pope teaches that creation cannot be addressed without considering God’s action and without taking into account His deep mark left behind on his work. With much greater reason this must be said for the human being, made in the image and likeness of God and called to a loving and fruitful dialogue with his Creator.
But furthermore, as the Pope points out in the above-mentioned quote, the paternal character of God does not manifest itself once and for all but, according to the vital dynamism of His own creature, it manifests itself step by step according to the maturity of its conscience and of its free response to this dialogue invitation. The filial condition of the human being develops in each circumstance. Human dynamics therefore are not separable from the paternal dynamism of God Himself.
This approach allows us to better understand anthropology but also the evolutionary character of society or, as sociologists prefer to call it, the “processual” dimension of social facts. Just as God manifests himself paternally and creatively in human life in a progressive way, so does society structure the human phenomenon with a temporal dynamism in constant movement and adaptation to changing historical circumstances. When someone speaks of “globalization”, for example, it is not referring to a phenomenon structured in a fixed and invariant way, but rather to a process that has taken several centuries to mature and show itself, but is also open to the future. Therefore, the main conceptual error on understanding social reality is to be carried away by “the shadows of a closed world”, as the Pope titles the first chapter of his encyclical. It manifests an ideological, normative, pedagogical, communicational and existential confinement, that is, a temporary confinement, that hides the living mystery of God, reducing Him to one of the many idols in the forum.
What are – according to the Pope – the main shadows of this confinement? Under the generic mantle of globalization, he identifies two dynamisms, both antagonistic and convergent: the dynamics of the market and the dynamics of populism. Although from different spheres, both have managed to converge in a single great dynamic that moves the contemporary world. On the one hand, the dynamics of the market has become autonomous through the stability of financial mechanisms, which increasingly regulate social expectations, regardless of the particular and collective rights recognized to economic actors. On the other hand, the dynamics created by the demands of the population for public and private benefits regarding their living standards, the social security of unemployment, of the retired and the elderly, the extension of education, of secure housing and many other demands have become more acute, all of which generates populist tendencies, very violent at times, which, far from protecting personal rights, use them for conjunctural purposes far from people’s well-being.
Both dynamisms tend to contradict, even though at times they also converge and mutually support each other in the use of violence, as it has occurred in the realm of migratory population, the pressure over urban real-states prices and the control of the pandemic virus last year. Anyway, according to the Pope, the contradiction between both dynamisms, represents one of the greatest social tensions in the present, far beyond the ideological and geostrategic debate of the world powers.
Although the encyclical has focused on the two above-mentioned mechanisms considered most relevant to human wellbeing today, it could be said that other analogous mechanisms go through the governance of the social order as a whole, such as planned reproduction of human beings, science, public health and education policies, massive public and private media net connections and many other social subsystems that have been formed throughout the centuries with the evolution of society. Sociologists usually refer to all of them as the emergence of a functionally differentiated society, in which people count according to the function they fulfill in a certain subsystem without regarding the functions they significantly fulfill in others. The resulting disaggregation is valid for society as a whole, particularly for its governance, for the lack of trust among people, for the warranty of social order. This cultural tendency is indeed more important nowadays for the integrity of each and every person having difficulties to rebuild the unity and and the truth of the self. In family and among friends, not functional systems, the self still seems possible, but equally subjected to the tensions of the functional order.
Following the terminology at hand, the Pope calls this functional disaggregation “deconstructionism” (n. 13), pointing out that it generates a culture of discarding, since it abandons or discards ordinary people when weak, sick, disabled, unemployed or stateless. They have to live in a world being sometimes victims of political and institutional violence or unable to defend themselves against it. For the Pope, an emblematic example of these “shadows of confinement” has been present for years in the migratory phenomenon, both in Europe and in other parts of the world, making evident how economic, political and cultural tensions are imposed on helpless people, both in their countries of origin and in destination countries.
But in a certain way, and as a result of the tensions described above, all human beings have become migrants in their respective countries. That is why the Pope emphasizes that it is not enough to generically demand justice and equality. Fraternity, social friendship and the interhuman valuation that is possible in the local sphere, in face-to-face relationships, as often happens in the relationship between men and women, in families, in schools and in all cultural institutions, are urgently required. The expressions “fraternity” and “social friendship” not only define a small area of human scale interaction outside social complexity, but above all a dynamism, a development that drives and stimulates human potentialities, and the desire for a shared future. Friendship combats the indifference observed among those who consider themselves only as material available for economic or political projects and are deprived of being protagonists of their own lives. In return, it offers participation in a shared life.
Universal brotherhood is undoubtedly a proposal for peace and justice, as has been the constant inspiration of the magisterium of all Popes after Vatican II and certainly of the present Pope. In my modest appreciation, this renewed vision also represents a great advance in the formulation of the Social Doctrine of the Church, insofar as the traditional ideological discussion of reference between liberalism and Marxism is subsumed in a broader reflection on the objective social mechanisms that condition the development of human existence in the context of a more globalized and interdependent world. This requires a deeper understanding of God’s Plan at this moment in history. It requires, above all, a vision and experience of God in whom fraternity is founded in His fatherhood. That is also the reason why he concludes this encyclical with a deep prayer to God as the common Father of mankind.