Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Fratelli tutti, presents fraternity as  a necessary, Christocentric ingredient of and precondition for the betterment and advancement of society. Though the language of “fraternity” has not made many appearances in previous social encyclicals, and struck many readers as suspect because of its association with Masonry (to which the Catholic Church is traditionally opposed), Fratelli tutti constructively reframes and reassesses the language of fraternity as necessarily Christological. Human society and thus human love have their “origin and perfect model” in the Trinity, a society of three divine Persons in whose image human beings are made (FT 85). Love, in short, is the indispensable ingredient of fraternity, which is in turn a key ingredient of the good and, yes, virtuous society.

In this encyclical the “suspect” history of the language of “fraternity,” most closely associated with the French Revolutionary slogan “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” (liberty, equality, fraternity), clearly diverges into—and arrives at—an inherently Christological meaning. Fratelli tutti applies Catholic moral theology to sociopolitical issues as Pope Francis asserts that it is through the person of Christ that we have this fraternity through which we find true liberty and equality.

We find in Fratelli tutti two quotations from successive sentences in the Benedict XVI encyclical Caritas in Veritate: 

“As society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbours but does not make us brothers. Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity” (CV 19, qtd in FT 12 and 272). 

Fraternity, Benedict and Francis agree, is the indispensable ingredient that perfects the recipe for human flourishing, after reason has brought us to some semblance of social stability. This fraternity is, contra the French Revolutionaries, a gift from God, not the fruit of human reason alone.

As a concept, “fraternity” may have non-Christian origins, but, as my colleague Pedro Gabriel has written of Catholic “assimilation” of initially non-Catholic or even anti-Catholic ideas, concepts can evolve to become not only Christian, but in this case, Christological.  In the way fraternity is discussed in Fratelli tutti, such an assimilation occurs

Taking a non-Christian view of fraternity, philosopher Hajime Tanabe, in his magnum opus Philosophy as Metanoetics, states that “fraternity” resolves the tension or opposition between “liberty” and “equality” that tends to arise in liberal societies—capitalist societies prioritize liberty but lack equality, socialist societies prioritize equality but restrict liberty, fraternity is a potential solution to both. Tanabe’s “fraternity” is informed by both Christianity and Buddhism, but does not purport to be an inherently religious concept.

Francis indirectly expands Tanabe’s notions further by distinguishing between a liberty that is informed by fraternity—a Christocentric fraternity—and a liberty that is not so informed: the liberty of a closed and non-fraternal world:

“What happens when fraternity is not consciously cultivated, when there is a lack of political will to promote it through education in fraternity, through dialogue and through the recognition of the values of reciprocity and mutual enrichment? Liberty becomes nothing more than a condition for living as we will, completely free to choose to whom or what we will belong, or simply to possess or exploit.” (FT 103).

“Nor is equality achieved by an abstract proclamation that “all men and women are equal”. Instead, it is the result of the conscious and careful cultivation of fraternity. Those capable only of being “associates” create closed worlds. Within that framework, what place is there for those who are not part of one’s group of associates, yet long for a better life for themselves and their families?” (FT 104).

The key difference between the approaches of Tanabe and Francis is that a Catholic theory of fraternity must be rooted in the person of Christ. Without a foundation in Christ, it is impossible to properly understand fraternity, due to the otherwise unbridgeable difference between God and humanity. Philosophy as Metanoetics discusses both Buddhism and Christianity at great length without fully committing its author to either; Fratelli tutti, on the other hand, shows a clear interest in grounding the relationships between human beings in the relationship between human beings and our Creator.

J.R.R. Tolkien once said that we make “because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”; Fratelli tutti teaches us that we are brothers and sisters because we are made in the image of a Son. Fratelli tutti primarily mentions Jesus in the context of how his teachings suggest we should treat one another in society. It also affirms the role of the Trinity in creating the possibility for social relationships.  “God infuses” the charity that substantiates the moral virtues (FT 91), this charity is the love that “draws people out of themselves and towards others” (FT 88), and this situates “the love made possible by God’s grace as a movement outwards towards another” (FT 93). Christ is present in our interactions with one another in the human community because the Trinity is itself a divine community (See again FT 85). Thus the language of fraternity, now assimilated into our corpus of social teaching, contains within itself the key to resolving the inequities present in political societies (which are only overcome when we emulate Christ in our actions, views and treatment of one another).

Somebody who was not a Trinitarian Christian could not have arrived at this particular theory of love; it requires and presupposes that human love models and recapitulates the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’s love for one another. Reason and common decency can lead us to an understanding of the virtues, but without the love that is patterned on the love of the Trinity, we cannot fully exercise virtue or fulfill the commandments in the way God desires.

The apprehensiveness with which the encyclical has been met in some Catholic circles derives from a misconception about this. It is difficult for some readers to understand how and why the fraternity that the encyclical describes is a Christological and Christocentric ideal. In a way, this is understandable given the encyclical’s heavy focus on nuts-and-bolts political and economic conditions. However, the teachings of Fratelli tutti have clearly and obviously stated Christological and Trinitarian groundings.  An entire chapter of the encyclical focuses on Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus stares us in the face through the action of the Samaritan in this parable. He is there metaphorically, even apart from the fact that the surface-level meaning of the parable is an example of His moral teaching. The moral teaching is straightforward and, in my opinion, should be fairly easy to understand. Francis’s explication of the Good Samaritan is one familiar to rank-and-file Catholics from the homilies of priests and deacons all over the world.

To be sure, Fratelli tutti includes positive reassessment or reframing of language that previous popes likely would have understood as suspect; however, the fraternity that the encyclical teaches is necessarily Christocentric. What Fratelli tutti is actually describing when it says “fraternity” is wholly consonant with the Catholic social teaching tradition. The main contribution of Fratelli tutti to the social teaching tradition is thus Christological, because the value of fraternity derives from the person and example of Jesus.

The French Revolutionaries, reacting against the world of Ancien Régime Catholicism, called for fraternity as something sharply distinct from the hierarchies of the pre-revolutionary world. Tanabe, writing just after World War II and deeply invested in East-West dialogue, connected fraternity to the Buddhist and Christian monastic traditions. Francis, addressing a social encyclical to a divided and distrustful world, presents the Trinity and the person of Christ as the reason—and the means whereby—men and women become a human family. For Christians, it is the Son who makes us brothers and sisters all.

Image: “The Good Samaritan” by Vincent Van Gogh

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Nathan Turowsky went to elementary school in Vermont, high school in New Jersey, and college in Massachusetts, where he now lives. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in social services.

Fraternity: A Christological Virtue
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