Pope Francis’s Fratelli Tutti is a timely and welcome meditation on “fraternity and social friendship”—as the subtitle tells us. The Holy Father announces the intention of the encyclical by highlighting St. Francis’s counsel for a “love that transcends the barriers of geography and distance,” and his call for us to love our brother as much when he is distant as when he is close. St. Francis “did not wage a war of words aimed at imposing doctrine,” the Pope explains. “He simply spread the love of God.”
Papal critics—including some of Pope Francis’s implacable detractors—often seize upon such language to complain that his emphasis on various aspects of social issues and causes comes at the cost or compromise of sound moral doctrine. While I do not gainsay such a concern about this or any pope, the criticism should not cloud the more basic point that refraining from imposing doctrine, and being open to the possibility of human fraternity, is an application of important aspects Catholic moral doctrine. Neither do I gainsay concerns over the pope’s use of the great Umbrian mystic and saint—rather popular and possibly somewhat anachronistic—but that is at worst a literary failure and in any case beyond the scope of these preliminary considerations.
Solidarity, the doctrine that accounts for the kind of friendship with which Francis is chiefly concerned, is not ancillary to the Church’s teaching, but a foundational doctrine. It goes to the very heart of the Gospel. Solidarity names our commitment to overcoming the walls that separate us.
Denying or violating solidarity cuts against the entirety of Catholic social thought. In the aftermath of the murder of his brother, Cain denies that he is his brother’s keeper with his rhetorical response to God’s inquiry. “Abel’s whereabouts are not my concern,” he effectively declares, denying the natural solidarity of the brothers and everyone else. Pope Francis’s intention in Fratelli Tutti is to reaffirm that, contra Cain, we are accountable to our brothers and sisters.
He does this, in part, by addressing the “hyperbole, extremism, and polarization [that] have become political tools” for denying natural solidarity and denigrating civic friendship. This is a condition in which “a strategy of ridicule, suspicion and relentless criticism . . . denies the right of others to exist or even have an opinion,” observes the Pope. “In this craven exchange of charges and counter-charges, debate degenerates into a permanent state of disagreement and confrontation.”
Such an admonition could hardly be timelier for an American audience, in which the currency of public debate is divisive hostility, paid in zeros and ones, and tapped out at keyboards in front of screens. These “[d]igital campaigns of hatred and destruction,” explains the Pope, “tend to disguise and expand the very individualism that finds expression in xenophobia and in contempt for the vulnerable.” And this includes those who identify as Christians, even in Catholic media, where “defamation and slander become commonplace,” and destroy the “fraternity that our common Father asks of us.”
Thus Pope Francis encourages us to resist the insularity of digital echo chambers, and to open ourselves to the broader relationships that can teach us lessons in fraternity and solidarity. This not only compels us toward fuller moral lives, but also contributes to the healing of that rift exemplified by Cain and his walled city. “[W]e find that our hearts expand as we step out of ourselves and embrace others,” in contrast to “closed groups that define themselves in opposition to others.” If this is, in fact, how we define ourselves, we are contradicting sound moral doctrine, and violating the principle of human solidarity and friendship at the heart of human dignity. And we are bearing false witness to the Gospel that we claim to proclaim.
While this is only an initial glimpse at the general theme and approach of the encyclical, it is also an invitation to take it up and read it more carefully and with an open heart and mind, embracing solidarity and civic friendship as essential elements of Christian faith, practice, and witness. “Only by cultivating this way of relating to one another will we make possible a social friendship that excludes no one and a fraternity that is open to all.”
This is a true account of human sociality, rejecting Cain’s rhetorical assertion that he is not his brother’s keeper. In the words of Bob Dylan, “You and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate/So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”
Kenneth Craycraft is a licensed attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He holds the Ph.D. in theology from Boston College, and the J.D. from Duke University School of Law.
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