Pope Francis’s third encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship, is a gift to the Church and to the human race. Building on previous social encyclicals, including his own Laudato Si’ (2015) and Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate (2009), it covers a wide range of themes, including the injustice of capital punishment, war and its false justifications, this economy that kills, as well as the evils of nationalism, xenophobia, and racism. His response to these evils stresses the necessity of dialogue for peace in our age. The pope’s critics argue that his insistence on dialogue, listening, and building mutual respect is a capitulation to the spirit of modernity, and even moral relativism. This misreads Francis’s teaching, which is not relativistic, as I shall explain.

It is no secret that Pope Francis has taken criticism from some conservatives since nearly the beginning of his pontificate. He is supposedly “soft on doctrine.” In this regard, a persistent criticism has been that his model of dialogue with the world (and synodality within the Church) is relativistic. A false narrative has been constructed from this, which pits him against Pope Benedict XVI, who is remembered as having railed (on the eve of his election to the papacy) against the “dictatorship of relativism.” But Francis is no relativist. In fact, he has been insistent on the grave evils of our age, which are not limited to abortion, but include greed, unfettered capitalism, excesses of every kind, a “throw-away culture,” environmental destruction, disregard of the poor, and many other social inequalities.

The charge against him is that by promoting dialogue between different peoples and religions, he implies that every viewpoint, every opinion, every doctrine is “equally valid,” thus betraying the Church’s self-understanding as “the pillar and the bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). This charge is false. When we examine what he actually says about dialogue in Fratelli Tutti, it is clear that he does not promote relativism.

Chapter six of Fratelli Tutti is all about dialogue and “social friendship.” In this chapter, Pope Francis writes:

Inherent in the nature of human beings and society there exist certain basic structures to support our development and survival. Certain requirements thus ensue, and these can be discovered through dialogue, even though, strictly speaking, they are not created by consensus. The fact that certain rules are indispensable for the very life of society is a sign that they are good in and of themselves. (FT 212)

The nature of reality is something intrinsic and objective; the rules that are indispensable for human life and flourishing are “good in and of themselves.” They are per se good, not because of the consensus of the majority. Dialogue is not a process of defining or deciding what is good or true, as if by voting.

If so, what is dialogue for? Dialogue is the process by which we discover what is objectively true and good and then freely assent to it. Life is complicated, and we human beings have limited information. All around us we find conflicting information, hidden agendas, and complex questions. For example, is stealing always wrong, or is it sometimes justified? The nature of reality shows us clearly that, generally speaking, stealing is wrong because it is harmful to the common good. It is a violation of the natural law of love of neighbor. But in particular circumstances, it certainly appears to be good, such as when a starving person steals food. (Which the Catholic Church teaches is morally right; see Gaudium et Spes 69)

When we encounter difficult questions about what is good and what is true, we have to learn more, and we have to think critically about the relevant problems, facts, and principles. The best way to do this is through dialogue with other human beings who are also reflecting on those same problems, facts, and principles. If you look at any field of human inquiry, be it theology, philosophy, history, mathematics—without exception—human knowledge is built up through dialogue between partners, which often manifests in books, articles, essays, lectures, or conversations. In a word: dialogue. Does this mean that the participants are themselves deciding, like a parliament, what is good and true? Of course not. I don’t know a single intellectual who thinks that, because it’s patent nonsense. Think of how you yourself have apprehended truth: did it just dawn on your mind through a ray of revelation? Or did you read books, listen to others, and discuss the questions you had? That’s dialogue.

There is more. The pope continues:

As believers, we are convinced that human nature, as the source of ethical principles, was created by God, and that ultimately it is he who gives those principles their solid foundation. This does not result in an ethical rigidity nor does it lead to the imposition of any one moral system, since fundamental and universally valid moral principles can be embodied in different practical rules. Thus, room for dialogue will always exist. (214)

Here we see that there is a second reason dialogue is valuable. We have to distinguish between the “universally valid moral principles” that undergird objective reality, such as that the wealthy have an obligation to share their wealth with the poor, and the “different practical rules” that embody those principles. There is a difference between theory and practice, the universal and the particular.

When we move from the universal and theoretical to the particular and practical, we discover there are multiple ways to proceed that are still valid, good, and true. For example, take the principle of representative and just government. Tyranny, the domination of a single individual, is objectively wrong because it violates this universal principle; it is intrinsically wrong. But there are many legitimate ways of having a representative and just government. You could have, for example, a democratic republic like here in the U.S., which seeks to restrain the excesses of pure democracy. You could have a constitutional monarchy like in the U.K. There are many forms of government that can be just and representative, obviously. As I said, reality is extremely complicated, which means it is often hard to see what is the best (or even just a good) way to implement the universal principle. “Thus, room for dialogue will always exist” (ibid.). Everyone involved in such decisions must exercise their own prudential judgment, informed by conscience.

But what about when some participants in the dialogue proceed from principles that are wrong or that otherwise conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church? Surely in these cases dialogue must be ruled out and the voices of those in error suppressed and censured? No! Pope Francis writes:

The path to social unity always entails acknowledging the possibility that others have, at least in part, a legitimate point of view, something worthwhile to contribute, even if they were in error or acted badly. (228)

Even when one or more parties is “in error or acted badly,” they still have “something worthwhile to contribute.” It is not an all-or-nothing system. For example, let’s say that an accomplished scientist has published volumes of well-reasoned, demonstrated results on a variety of questions, but also published an essay that misses the mark and defends something that is false. Should this scientist be branded as deficient and excluded from all future scientific dialogue on all topics? Of course not! That would be absurd. And even on the very topic where the error is involved, that person may nevertheless still have “at least in part, a legitimate point of view.” Thus, dialogue should and must continue.  In our age, dialogue is nearly the only way to show people their error. Appeals to authority are no longer practically effective. Penalizing, excluding, or stigmatizing the person in error will not be effective. Dialogue is the path to, hopefully, showing them their mistake.

This principle applies to nations, groups, and individuals, but also to the Catholic Church itself. This is not something that Fratelli Tutti really gets into, but one can read the documents of the Second Vatican Council on inter-religious dialogue (Nostra Aetate) and ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) to see how it applies. The fact that other religions are, from the Church’s point of view, in error on certain points, does not mean that the Church cannot dialogue with them, on the basis of the points and principles we do have in common (see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1,1,8). Denunciations are ineffective, but through dialogue those other groups may advance closer to the truth, and equally so the Catholic Church itself may advance closer to the truth.

The Church does not possess the truth as a static thing, like a crystal ball; rather, over time, “there is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on” (Dei verbum 8). The Church’s dialogue with Lutherans has, for example, led to a better understanding of the doctrine of justification and clarified greatly where we agree and disagree. And there are countless other examples. Because the Catholic Church will not reach a perfect understanding of everything on this side of God’s Kingdom, dialogue with other religions, philosophies, and worldviews will always be possible and desirable. Christian theologians have followed this principle since the Church’s beginning (e.g., St. Justin, Origen, St. Basil, St. Augustine). St. Thomas Aquinas, who dialogued with both Jewish and Muslim thinkers, is an outstanding example of this, a fact that has frequently been pointed out by the modern popes.

The principle of dialogue was foundational to Vatican II. In addition to the two documents I just mentioned, it is found especially in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes. For example:

While rejecting atheism, root and branch, the Church sincerely professes that all people, believers and unbelievers alike, ought to work for the rightful betterment of this world in which all alike live; such an ideal cannot be realized, however, apart from sincere and prudent dialogue. (GS 21)

This document laid out the Church’s open and non-judgmental dialogue with modernity. Central to Pope Francis’s pontificate has been the further implementation of this dialogue. Those Catholics who eschew dialogue do so because they believe they already have all the “right answers” and “absolute truth” on every important subject. In this, they delude themselves and fail to think with the Church. They do not follow the path to which the Church has committed itself. The Catholic Church, by its own admission, does not have all the answers. We also seek the truth.

In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of human beings in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships. (GS 16)

The Church guards the heritage of God’s word and draws from it moral and religious principles without always having at hand the solution to particular problems. (GS 33, emphasis added)

Let the laity not imagine that their pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the laity take on their own distinctive role. (GS 43)

Fratelli Tutti serves as a reminder from Pope Francis to all Catholics that dialogue is the only way forward for the Church in the modern world:

Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all. (FT 6)

Pope Francis teaches in this encyclical that fraternal dialogue does not mean compromising our principles. For dialogue to be authentic and fruitful, and not merely a papering-over of differences, each partner must proceed unapologetically from its own deeply-held values and beliefs. We do this not to impose those beliefs upon others (see FT 4), but in a spirit of listening and learning, as we seek common ground in our shared humanity and desire for life, peace, and happiness.

Image: United Nations General Assembly Hall in the UN Headquarters, New York, NY. By Basil D Soufi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15465435

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Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).

For Pope Francis, dialogue isn’t relativism
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