By Ramon J Santos*
On the eve of Feast of St. Francis of the past year, in the midst of a pandemic that continues to disrupt and to bring so much suffering and death to our world, Pope Francis published his third social encyclical as he continues to call on all of us to embrace not only the joy of the Gospel, but also its the values in meeting the serious social, economic, political and ecological challenges of our time. In this time of social divisions and social distancing, the pope continues a long tradition of teachings begun by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum that calls for greater social responsibility and solidarity in keeping with the equal dignity of each human being and the recognition of our common fraternity. In consonance with the spirit of St. Francis that informs so much of his worldview and spirituality, pope Francis invites us to embrace fraternity as the expression of our love for our fellow human being, and particularly for the least among us.
Early in the encyclical Francis acknowledges the challenges we face. Our present world is one where “our sense of belonging to a single human family is fading, and a dream of working together for justice and peace seems an outdated utopia.” (30) This loss nourishes a “comfortable and globalized indifference” (30) to the plight of others. Echoing a paradox of our time that Benedict identified in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Francis observes that the progressive globalization of our world “makes us neighbors but does not makes us brothers.” (12). The call to fraternity at the center of the encyclical’s message is a call not only to see our neighbor as a brother, but also the other who dwells at a safe distance (from me) in the multiple peripheries of our lives. Like the Good Samaritan, we are called to extend the circle of recognition of our obligations and fraternal love beyond the natural circles of our neighbors, compatriots, family. Like the Good Samaritan, we are challenged each day to respond to the call of the other or remain “indifferent bystanders.” (69) To the reigning individualism that informs much of our social, economic and political discourse, Francis proposes a renewed commitment to a discourse informed by the solidarity generated by the recognition of our common fraternity because individualism “does not make us more free, more equal, more fraternal. The mere sum of individual interests is not capable of generating a better world for the whole human family. Nor can it save us from the many ills that are now increasingly globalized.” (105) In the spirit of solidarity, which “finds concrete expression in service,” (115) we are called, especially, to care for the frail and vulnerable, “who are “constantly tempted to ignore” (64) so we can create a society that is responsive to the needs of those who for a multiplicity of reasons are kept from enjoying the benefits accrued to them in virtue of the human dignity. The biblical parable shows how we must act in rejecting “a society of exclusion, and act instead as neighbors, lifting up and rehabilitating the fallen for the sake of the common good.” (67) The fraternity engendered by our response to the call to love “impels us towards universal communion… By its very nature love calls for growth in openness and ability to accept others as part of a continuing adventure that makes every periphery converge in a greater sense of mutual belonging.” (95) Fraternity is an antidote to the viral infection of an individualism which threatens the health and flourishing of our communal lives. The multiple topics addressed in the encyclical, from questions of the environment to the demands of justice and the common good, from the inequalities that continue to grow in our world to the call for a better politics that breaks free from the temptations of a narrow and exclusionary nationalism, the plight of immigrants, is framed and illuminated by a long meditation on the parable of the Good Samaritan which serves as a lens through which to examine the demands of our fraternal obligations and challenges, laying down a path to true social love and solidarity. As Francis says at the conclusion of his thoughtful meditation on the parable, "The decision to include or exclude those lying wounded along the roadside can serve as a criterion for judging every economic, political, social and religious project." (69)
1 All numbers following citations refer to the paragraph number in the encyclical.
Francis not only warns us of the temptation to continue on our way and ignore, like some of the characters of the parable, the plight and suffering of others, but on 14 separate occasions warns us of the temptation to build “walls” not only as a political program, but also as a symbolic strategy to separate ourselves from others, to deny ourselves the opportunity to hear and heed the voice of the other. Those who raise walls, he cautions, “will end up as slaves within the very walls they have built. They are left without horizons, for they lack this interchange with others.” (27) Closing ourselves off to others and pushing them away is the breeding ground for an unhealthy nationalism and populism that has, sadly, become more and more seductive and prevalent in recent years. The call to love is a radical challenge to any and every attempt to raise barriers, both geographical and existential, between ourselves and others. Love of one’s community and country are not in opposition to love of humanity. The reach of fraternity’s embrace should not be restricted to those closest and like us.
Throughout the encyclical Francis identifies and addresses the challenges the state of the world presents to the promotion and realization of the ideals of social justice: consumerism, inequality, degradation of the environment, an individualist ethos that undermines the possibility of a politics centered on the common good. The encyclical is an attempt to address the challenges presented by all these personal and social ills in a spirit of fraternity that if heeded can lead to a better politics; i.e., a politics centered on human dignity and the protection of human rights, a politics that prioritizes the common good over selfishness, equality over inequality, concern for the environment over indifference (and in many cases degradation) to the plight of our common home, attention to the least among us over indifference to their suffering, cooperation over confrontation. Echoing John Paul II, Francis imagines a politics guided by love oriented to the service of those most in need, but also consistent with the demands of subsidiarity so that it doesn’t devolve into a “soulless pragmatism.” (187) However, Francis cautions, for a politics guided and centered on the common good, for a politics that serves the needs of all and not only the interests of a few to become a reality, a new commitment to fraternity and social love must shape and organize our practice of politics.
Of special concern to Francis’ gospel-based ethics is the plight of immigrants and the socially displaced and alienated. From the beginning of his papacy, he has consistently addressed the world on the gospel’s call to attend to the needs of the other that in our present world addresses us in the form of the immigrant, the foreigner, the refugee, the undocumented, the asylum seekers, the marginalized. The pope is not naïve or insensitive to the challenges this global problem presents to the nations that because of their wealth are burdened with the demands of those who desperately seek a better life, but the difficulties of the challenge are no excuse for indifference, and even worse, open hostility to those in need. Like previous popes have done when addressing the global challenges of their times, Francis reiterates the Church’s call for the development and institutionalization of global forms of collaboration and governance to properly and successfully address in a spirit of solidarity the moral demands facing us.
Kindness figures prominently in Francis’ vision of a decent society. Kindness, in Francis’ vision, has political consequences. The practice of kindness, “is no superficial bourgeois virtue. Precisely because it entails esteem and respect for others, once kindness becomes a culture within society it transforms lifestyles, relationships and the ways ideas are discussed and compared.” (224) Kindness has the capacity to transform not only personal relations, but also social and political relations insofar as it “facilitates the quest for consensus; it opens new paths where hostility and conflict would burn all bridges.” (224) Kindness promotes a “culture of encounter” (216) that dissolves the distances that separate us, that “facilitates the quest for consensus,” (224) that “opens new paths where hostility and conflict would burn all bridges.” (224) Kindness and solidarity are an antidote to the violent nationalism and xenophobia that has, sadly, been in the rise in so many parts of the world. Francis acknowledges the presence of these dark forces and unambiguously condemns them.
As previous popes, Francis stresses the significance of dialogue for the realization of the common good. Dialogue is essential also for the development of the culture of fraternity he envisions as the corrective to many of the ills of our world. In our increasingly pluralistic societies and globalized world, which at the same time is being pulled apart by the forces of nationalism and xenophobia, dialogue’s invitation to seek rapprochement to the other, to listen to one another, to take seriously the point of view of others, to recognize that the other has something valuable to say, that none of us has the whole truth, to find common ground, is indispensable for the better type of politics Francis endorses. Francis imagines a political life nurtured and sustained by a commitment to dialogue about our differences, a political life that appreciates the value of a diversity of views and, more importantly, recognizes “other people’s right to be themselves and to be different.” (218) Dialogue promotes and realizes the culture of encounter to be realized by fraternity. Quoting the Indian bishops Francis says, “the goal of dialogue is to establish friendship, peace and harmony, and to share spiritual and moral values and experiences in a spirit of truth and love.” (271) Dialogue is the path to a true and lasting peace born out of the slow and at times difficult process of respecting one another, of listening to one another and taking each other’s views seriously to ensure we build a world where, in the words of Francis, each of us has the right to be different. The arduous path to a better kind of politics, to a better world, is not one where all differences need to be overcome, or even absolved into a homogeneity that can only do violence to the uniqueness that defines us and is the source of our capacity to contribute to the common good. In the same way that peace does not mean the absence of war, social harmony, social unity, does not mean the absence of difference. In fact, it is the opposite, harmony is the condition where difference can coexist, without violence, in the presence of more difference.
In continuity with the Church’s tradition of social justice, Francis reaffirms the need to orient our choices in all the spheres of human action, individual, social, economic, political, towards the realization of the common good. And like the previous documents of the tradition, he reaffirms the significance of solidarity as both a moral virtue and a social attitude if the common good is not only to be realized, but also identified in the first place.
There is still much to unpack in Francis’s new encyclical, much to meditate on, much take to heart, much to do, if we are to heed the call to fraternity and social responsibility that Francis invites us to embrace.
*Ramón J. Santos, Ph.D.-- Academic Dean, St. John Vianney College Seminary. Associate Professor of Philosophy. Associate Editor Apuntes Posmodernos. 1990 – 2002.