Philosophical Reflections on Fratelli Tutti

Vittorio Hösle | PASS Academician

Philosophical Reflections on Fratelli Tutti

Pope Francis’ third encyclical, “given in Assisi, at the tomb of Saint Francis, on 3 October, Vigil of the Feast of the Saint, in the year 2020”,[1] is clearly conceived as a complement to his second encyclical, Laudato si’, which, too, referred to Saint Francis already in its title. While the earlier text had its focus on the relation of humans to nature (and of course also its repercussions on human society), the central concern of the later one is from the beginning the relation between humans. Thus, it is connected to a much longer history of theology as well as of the ecclesiastic magisterium; for the ecological problem began to be understood as a crucial scientific, political, philosophical, and theological problem only in the course of the 20th century. This does not entail that the second encyclical addresses less urgent themes or is less original in its conceptual work. As a philosopher, I want to focus on three issues that I found particularly striking. First, I will analyze how the sources used by the Holy Father express the basic content of the encyclical (I). Second, I want to reflect on the theory of moral knowledge, which is partly explicitly exposed, partly alluded to by the encyclical (II). Third, I want to discuss the duality of personal and institutional fraternity recognized by Pope Francis and the complex relation and even tension between these two forms (III).


Let me begin with a delineation of the very clear structure of the encyclical. In the first chapter, “Dark clouds over a closed world”, Pope Francis engages in a critical descriptive account of the world’s contemporary state. Despite all its opportunities, globalization can lead to a general superficiality and indifference, which can easily be strengthened by the modern media. This explains the need to go back to the core of the Christian message, exposed in the second chapter, “A stranger on the road”. This message can help us in “Envisaging and engendering an open world”, opposed to the closed world mentioned at the beginning, and in shaping “A heart open to the whole world” – these are the titles of the third and fourth chapter. This conversion of the heart must not be limited to the individual, however; it must manifest itself in “A better kind of politics” as well as in “Dialogue and friendship in society” and “Paths of renewed encounter”, to quote the titles of the next three chapters. The eighth and final chapter, “Religions at the service of fraternity in our world”, exposes a theology of the various religions and their common concern to spread God’s love to human society in form of fraternity.

One of the most striking formal features of the encyclical is certainly the frequent quotation (most extensively in the antepenultimate paragraph, § 285) from the document signed by both Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmad Al-Tayyeb. For the Sunnite Imam inspired his thought in a way similar to the impact that the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew had on the composition of the earlier encyclical, as he tells us at the beginning (§ 5). Not being a theologian myself, I can only hazard the guess that this is the first time in the history of papal encyclicals that a text co-authored by a Muslim plays such an important role beside the traditional quotations from the Bible, the Church Fathers, for example Irenaeus, Lactantius, and Augustine, the Scholastics, particularly Aquinas, and ecclesiastical documents by episcopal synods, earlier pontiffs, and by the author himself. But not only a Muslim authority is quoted with approval. Concerning the command Lev 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”, we read that it “was usually understood as referring to one’s fellow citizens, yet the boundaries gradually expanded, especially in the Judaism that developed outside of the land of Israel. We encounter the command not to do to others what you would not want them to do to you (cf. Tob 4:15). In the first century before Christ, Rabbi Hillel stated: ‘This is the entire Torah. Everything else is commentary’” (§ 59, whose footnote points to the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat, 31a). The passage is fascinating for two reasons.

First, it recognizes a gradual evolution in the moral doctrines of the Bible. That such an evolution occurred is evident to everyone who can think historically and is trained hermeneutically; but whoever remembers that the oath against modernism was required of all clergy and professors in philosophical-theological seminaries until 1967, that is, nine years after Jorge Mario Bergoglio joined the Jesuits (and two years before his ordination), cannot help being surprised by the speed with which reasonable doctrines once condemned are now acknowledged in the most authoritative Church documents. Second, the passage suggests that already before Christ Judaism had begun to develop more universalistic ethical ideas than “in the oldest texts of the Bible” (§ 61). But Jesus goes beyond Rabbi Hillel because he turns the Golden Rule from its negative form into its positive one. “In the New Testament, Hillel’s precept was expressed in positive terms: ‘In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets’ (Mt 7:12). This command is universal in scope, embracing everyone on the basis of our shared humanity, since the heavenly Father ‘makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good’ (Mt 5:45)” (§ 60). Even if it has a Christian origin, its validity and its range are not limited to Christians. Based on this command, Pope Francis reiterates the recent condemnation of the death penalty by the magisterium (§§ 263 ff.) and, while not denying the right to defend oneself and to fight against injustice (§ 241), warns against “an overly broad interpretation of this potential right” in the recourse to war (§ 258).

These reflections are found in the context of a splendid interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the main focus of the second chapter of the encyclical. Why is this interpretation so profound? On the one hand, it is fed by knowledge of the historical context; on the other hand, it is not simply an erudite reflection on a text of the past but applies it to our own situation and shows that we all share traits of the various characters of the story – the robbers, the people who pass by without helping (“the secret allies” of the robbers, as Pope Francis calls them, § 75), the victim, and ideally the Samaritan too, if we make the right choices. It is exactly this combination of historical contextualization and application to the present that leads to the central point of the interpretation. For we must know that the Jews looked down on the Samaritans and considered them impure (§ 82). By depicting a member of this despised religious community as true “neighbor”, unlike the priest and the Levite, Jesus shows us that the mere belonging to a religious community is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for fulfilling God’s central command. And clearly Pope Francis teaches that this applies also to membership in the Catholic Church. Living love is more important than preaching it, as Saint Francis showed in his visit to Sultan Malik-el-Kamil. “Francis did not wage a war of words aimed at imposing doctrines; he simply spread the love of God” (§ 4). Despite all their dogmatic differences, the world religions can and should agree on condemning violence, opting for a meaningful interreligious dialogue, and recognizing the values, rights, and duties flowing from human dignity. Pope Francis, who, in the great tradition of Christian humanism, did not hesitate to quote pagan authors like Virgil (§ 34) and Cicero (§ 35) in his text, at the end declares his intellectual debt to non-Catholic Christians such as Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu, but also to the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi (§ 286). Yet he ends, before the two final prayers (the first of which can be shared by all believers in God, the second by all Christians), with quotes from Blessed Charles de Foucauld. His commitment to the Christian identity, and to the doctrine of the Trinity as the metaphysical foundation of the imperative of love (§ 85), is not diminished by the respect for other religious traditions (§ 277). And this respect he does not only teach or demand; he expresses and lives it in the way in which he uses sources from other traditions and integrates them into the rich magisterium of the Catholic Church.


Pope Francis’ tireless engagement in interreligious dialogue must not be constructed as suggesting that theological truths are a function of what happens in such dialogues. On the contrary, he insists most forcefully on the necessity of an ontological basis for consensus and thus rejects the consensus theory of truth. Something is not true because a consensus may be found with regard to it; a consensus should receive a doctrine because it is true. While Pope Francis recognizes pluralism as an undeniable fact of the contemporary condition, he rightly warns against relativism with the excellent argument that ultimately it corrodes the belief in any objective value order – and thus also in the duty to love. If there is no ideal value order, values are merely a matter of social forces, and therefore they will be at the mercy of raw or, which is perhaps even worse, hidden and manipulative power. “The solution is not relativism. Under the guise of tolerance, relativism ultimately leaves the interpretation of moral values to those in power, to be defined as they see fit” (§ 206). It is crucial that we understand that the moral law is not made but only discovered by society. “Murder is not wrong simply because it is socially unacceptable and punished by law, but because of a deeper conviction. This is a non-negotiable truth attained by the use of reason and accepted in conscience. A society is noble and decent not least for its support of the pursuit of truth and its adherence to the most basic of truths” (§ 207). Pope Francis rightly underlines that this “metaphysics of morals” (if I may use this term not to be found in the encyclical) must be accompanied by a corresponding epistemology. It is not sufficient that there are moral values, our mind must be conceived as being able to relate to them and grasp them as the truth par excellence, and this means: It must be able to go beyond the sensual inclinations that characterize our animal nature. “This calls for acknowledging that the human mind is capable of transcending immediate concerns and grasping certain truths that are unchanging, as true now as in the past. As it peers into human nature, reason discovers universal values derived from that same nature” (§ 208). If we do no longer uphold a sound metaphysics and epistemology of moral values, there is the real risk that those in power may deny fundamental human rights and still manage to forge a consensus in “an apathetic or intimidated population” and even beyond their own country in a large group of nations (§ 209). “As a result of the displacement of moral reasoning, the law is no longer seen as reflecting a fundamental notion of justice but as mirroring notions currently in vogue. Breakdown ensues: everything is ‘leveled down’ by a superficial bartered consensus. In the end, the law of the strongest prevails” (§ 210).

Pope Francis’s central aim is to find a balance between a justification of the current practice of dialogue (to which in a pluralistic society there is no alternative except violence or manipulation) and the traditional metaphysics of values. Such balance is only possible if the practice of the dialogue is itself inspired by the recognition of certain metaphysical principles. For merely spending time together and chatting, while better than going to war against each other, is not yet a true dialogue. A dialogue that really searches for truth must fulfill certain criteria: The concepts used must be clear and distinct, the arguments must be valid and, ideally, they must be even sound – that is, they must start from true premises. Since the premises are often controversial, it is important that various positions are seriously debated and investigated with respect to their consequences; and since the specialization in the various disciplines is based on a deliberate abstraction from other aspects of reality that continue to exist, the various disciplines must be united in a common search. “Such dialogue needs to be enriched and illumined by clear thinking, rational arguments, a variety of perspectives and the contribution of different fields of knowledge and points of view. Nor can it exclude the conviction that it is possible to arrive at certain fundamental truths always to be upheld. Acknowledging the existence of certain enduring values, however demanding it may be to discern them, makes for a robust and solid social ethics. Once those fundamental values are acknowledged and adopted through dialogue and consensus, we realize that they rise above consensus; they transcend our concrete situations and remain non-negotiable. Our understanding of their meaning and scope can increase – and in that respect, consensus is a dynamic reality – but in themselves, they are held to be enduring by virtue of their inherent meaning” (§ 211). The lighting upon ultimate truths is not something to be regretted because of its supposed limitation of further discussion; rather, it is the starting point of all subsequent dialogues that try to apply the general principles to various practical rules (§ 214). And in this process, it is crucial that the people concerned by certain actions and policies get a chance to speak and are not simply objects of paternalistic care from above. At the same time, the empirical knowledge of the scientists is required in order to find the means that are really able to achieve the intended ends. Pope Francis seems to imply that many norms are the result of a syllogism containing both evaluative (or normative) and descriptive premises.


Modern ethics in both its major modern variants, the Kantian and the utilitarian form, is universalistic in nature. It recognizes that if someone is forbidden, permitted, or obliged to do something, this holds, ceteris paribus, for everybody else. The expansion of the reach of moral duties to all human beings is often connected with the axial age, but one has to recognize that Plato and Aristotle still had a particularistic vision of ethics: Most of their moral norms are limited to the members of one’s own polis. Only with Stoicism a process sets in that will lead to the great Christian tradition of natural law, sketched already in the first book of Augustine’s De libero arbitrio, worked out by Aquinas in the Summa theologiae, and completed by the Late Spanish Scholastics, who finally recognized that subjective individual rights have to be considered as a crucial part of the objective legal system. The extension of the moral horizon was certainly fostered by the increase of interconnectedness – first in the empire created by Alexander the Great, then in the Roman Empire and its medieval successor, finally in the Spanish Empire extending to the New World. The increase of power had to be matched by more comprehensive moral norms, and there is little doubt that no age of human history has achieved the degree of reciprocal dependence that we witness today. We certainly need a truly universal ethics.

Fraternity is an ethical concept that goes beyond the duty to omit certain acts – it asks for positive help. And here one has to recognize that there are unsurmountable limits and there is a danger of overburdening the addressee of the norm. Since fraternity entails at least a perception of the individuality of the person that I consider my sibling (and of course, on this basis, also much more), there is simply no way one can practice real fraternity with regard to several billion people – our life span is too short to seriously get to know more than several thousand people. The only way that a truly fraternal society can be erected is by harnessing one of the greatest social inventions, the division of labor. Only by ascribing concrete responsibilities to specific individuals can we achieve the desired social successes. I would even go so far as to say that in some cases we not only have the right but even the duty to ignore the stranger on the road – if, and only if, taking care of him conflicts with more pressing duties (such as that of a teacher or a doctor to arrive in time at school or the hospital) and if we can trust that there are institutions to help, like an ambulance that we can call. But we are allowed to neglect such duties only if we support the appropriate institutions that already exist, nowadays still mainly at the national level, for example by faithfully paying our taxes, and if we contribute to form more comprehensive institutions from the local to the international level. Despite many errors, probably inevitable given the complexity of the matter, I do think that institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization have diminished human suffering considerably, as is visible, among other things, in the increase of life expectancy over the last decades. Furthermore, one cannot deny that our duties to positive help, unlike the easily implementable duty not to harm anybody, must be graduated according to moral proximity.

All this is not denied by Pope Francis, who clearly connects the moral ideal of charity to social and political institutions, writing that even the Good Samaritan needed an inn (§ 163 f.) and recognizing that building bridges is as important as helping an elderly person cross a river (§ 186). But I think that he is right that our trust in these institutions can become a cheap way to evade responsibilities. First, such institutions have to be measured by their success, and their success is not guaranteed. Circumstances may change and demand new ideas – Pope Francis criticizes, for example, the traditional model of development that tried to impose a uniform world culture without sensibility for local varieties, which, however, should not be sacrificed (§§ 142 ff.). Second, human nature is such that it may even hijack such institutions and deliberately use them for ends that are different from those for which they were created (§ 166). And third, Pope Francis insists on the fact that the personal encounter with the individual in need cannot be replaced by even the smartest economic policies, as necessary as they are to help people find employment (§ 162). We need individual virtues, particularly the capacity of sacrificing oneself. “Only a gaze transformed by charity can enable the dignity of others to be recognized and, as a consequence, the poor to be acknowledged and valued in their dignity, respected in their identity and culture, and thus truly integrated into society. That gaze is at the heart of the authentic spirit of politics. It sees paths open up that are different from those of a soulless pragmatism” (§ 187). We have to recover kindness (§224), knowing that the “architecture” of institutions, often in the hand of experts, needs to be supplemented by the “art” of individual care, which is accessible to everybody (§ 231). From the point of view of ethical theory, it seems to me that Pope Francis wants to “tame” utilitarianism and discourse ethics, the two dominant forms of public ethical reflection, partly by appealing to certain absolute prohibitions, as they are upheld in the Kantian tradition, partly by insisting on ideal values, as they were defended by Max Scheler, and partly by continuing the rich tradition of virtue ethics from Aristotle to Aquinas. The ultimate aim of Fratelli tutti is to remind us all that the spring from which all the great institutional achievements of modernity originate is the command to love our neighbor and that even a culture which would solve all social problems but was no longer consciously connecting all its activities back to this source, would only be “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal”.



[1] I quote the encyclical according to the online version of the Vatican: