Pope Francis is signing a new social encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, this weekend. The Holy Father has spoken about human fraternity throughout his pontificate, so it’s not a surprise that he chose this topic for an encyclical. In preparation for this document I want to briefly reflect on one aspect of fraternity that the pope has spoken on: his vision for a fraternal economy.
In the spring of 2017, Pope Francis wrote a message for the participants of a Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences on the theme of “Towards a Participatory Society: New Roads to Social and Cultural Integration.” The first section of that message is devoted to his vision of a fraternal economy.
The pope began by saying that we must expand our understanding of economic justice beyond the assurance of a just wage. Rather, economic production must be reorientated so that labor isn’t seen merely as “a factor in production” that is governed by efficiency. Instead, the entire production process “must be organized in such a way as to enable the human growth of people and harmony between time for family and working life.” In other words, human persons must never be understood as serving the economy, but rather economic activity must serve human flourishing. As Francis teaches in Evangelii Gaudium, “Money must serve, not rule!” (EG 58). And it is precisely the principle of human fraternity that underpins this person-centered economy.
Two key components of a fraternal economy are solidarity and subsidiarity. In Evangelii Gaudium, the pope taught that solidarity is more than “a few sporadic acts of generosity” (188) but is the just actions of “those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property” (189) In other words, God intends for all of creation to provide for all of humanity. This belief precedes the right to private property. Specifically, the Church affirms private property as the means for adequately distributing the goods of the earth to all people. As Francis said, “The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them” (189).
However, solidarity alone is not sufficient for a truly fraternal economy. In his message to the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences, the pope warned that a society characterized “only by solidarity and assistance, without being fraternal, would be a society of unhappy and desperate people from whom everybody would try to flee, in extreme cases even by suicide.” This is why subsidiarity is necessary.
In his encyclical, Centesimus Annus, Saint John Paul II articulated the principle of subsidiarity by saying, “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (48).
Pope Francis explained this further in his Wednesday audience last week. The pope first affirmed the State’s good and necessary role of assisting “single individuals, families, small associations and local communities” when they are not capable of achieving their primary objectives. “For example,” Francis continued, “because of the coronavirus lockdown, many people, families and economic entities found themselves and still find themselves in serious difficulty. Thus, public institutions are trying to help through appropriate social, economic, health interventions: this is their function, what they need to do.”
So it is clear that Pope Francis doesn’t see subsidiarity as being suspicious of higher authorities intervening to help individuals and smaller institutions. Rather he views this principle as requiring these higher authorities to first listen to the people they are trying to serve and to allow them to participate in their own advancement. Participation is the key here. The pope said that persons must be “agents in their own redemption” and that “everyone needs to have the possibility of assuming their own responsibility in the healing processes of the society of which they are a part.” He went on to say that, “the principle of subsidiarity allows everyone to assume his or her own role in the healing and destiny of society. Implementing it, implementing the principle of subsidiarity gives hope, it gives hope in a healthier and more just future.” In other words, local needs can only be understood by the people closest and their participation in the solution is necessary. The higher and lower levels of authority aren’t in competition, but instead must seek collaboration.
An economy formed by solidarity and subsidiarity is truly fraternal because it both recognizes and works for the distribution of resources to meet the needs of everyone while also allowing every individual to freely express their actual needs and to participate in having those needs met. This is an economy that truly respects the dignity of every person without making them cogs in the machine of a libertarian free market system or statist communitarianism.
I imagine this will be a central theme in the upcoming Fratelli Tutti. I look forward to reading his message on these themes and everything else our Holy Father has to teach us about living as brothers and sisters to all.
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.