In his new encyclical Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis warns about how the word solidarity, “is not always well received; in certain situations, it has become a dirty word, a word that dare not be said.” (#116). I believe something similar has happened with “fraternity,” especially in some corners of the Church. This accounts for some of the aura of suspicion and uneasiness exhibited by some Catholics when the new encyclical on fraternity was announced, even before its contents were known.

Certainly, this discomfort with the word fraternity has a historical justification. “Liberty, equality, fraternity” was the motto of the French Revolution. Despite its appeal to many noble and idealistic values, the French Revolution ended up killing tens of thousands of people, most of them Catholic. It also initiated a period of intense persecution and repression of the Catholic Church. These events imprinted a certain wariness about the word “fraternity” in the Church, which has echoed through the centuries. This suspicion finds its utmost expression in Catholics who hold an idealized view of the Church prior to the revolution.

In his encyclical, Pope Francis managed to go beyond this false dichotomy. He even had the courage to appropriate “Liberty, equality, fraternity” by using this motto as the title of a subsection of the document (#103-105). Catholics bound to the aforementioned understanding of the past likely found this to be yet another confirmation of the pontiff’s “modernist” views. But is this really the case? What does the Francis have to teach us about this triad of values, and specifically on fraternity?


Catholicism and Assimilation

The fact that a certain value or idea has its origins in a non-Catholic setting (or even an anti-Catholic one) does not always mean it should be rejected. One of Catholicism’s most fascinating properties is its ability to absorb the ideas of its adversaries—filtering from those ideas what is contrary to the faith while retaining the good. Sadly, minds that are heavily ideologized and incapable of evaluating ideas at face value—including those of many Catholic thinkers—will inevitably label such ideas in a tribalistic way (“is it for us or against us?”).

St. John Henry Newman, in his essay on development of doctrine, wrote:

“The phenomenon, admitted on all hands is this—That great portion of what is generally received as Christian truth is, in its rudiments or in its separate parts, to be found in heathen philosophies and religions … Mr. Milman argues from it—’These things are in heathenism, therefore they are not Christian,’ we on the contrary, prefer to say, these things are in Christianity, therefore they are not heathen.”

What the Cardinal-Saint means is that Catholicism exhibits power of assimilation, defined by Newman as “nothing more than a mere accretion of doctrines or rites from without.” He goes on to explain that the fact that a particular concept or idea is more closely associated with a non-Catholic source than a Catholic one does not automatically mean that the idea “has been unduly influenced, that is, corrupted by them, but that it has an antecedent affinity with them.” By “antecedent affinity,” he means those ideas and principles that were compatible with the faith prior to being adopted by another group or school of thought. Does Christianity have an antecedent affinity with the idea of fraternity? I think it would be difficult to deny this, and Francis’s new encyclical certainly makes a strong case for it.

There is another way to approach this, however. One might argue that fraternity is not merely a secular virtue that Catholicism assimilated into itself after purifying it. A case can be made that fraternity has always been a Catholic virtue. I’ve been thinking about this in light of what Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy:

“The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone”

Could we say that with the rise of secularism, the virtue of fraternity was isolated from the other Christian virtues and went mad? This has certainly been the case in certain times and places throughout history. But looking at the state of our contemporary world—the polarization in the Church and society, our throwaway culture, disregard for human dignity, tribalism, economic inequality, oppression, apathy—our greatest challenge today is actually the reverse. The problem is not that fraternity has been isolated from the other virtues and gone mad. As Pope Francis shows quite clearly in Fratelli Tutti, much of the evil that exists today is the consequence of the other virtues being isolated from fraternity and going mad because of this.


When fraternity is forgotten

When we consider the motto “Liberty, equality, fraternity,” and look at the political and historical discourse surrounding it, fraternity seems to be the “ugly duckling” of the three. Liberty and freedom are celebrated ideals. The idea of the modern democratic state is based in human equality. But what about fraternity? When we turn to this virtue—curiously the last of the three to be mentioned—we hear mostly crickets.

According to Pope Francis, the problem lies precisely in liberty and equality excised of their fraternity. He writes in Fratelli Tutti:

“Fraternity is born not only of a climate of respect for individual liberties, or even of a certain administratively guaranteed equality. Fraternity necessarily calls for something greater, which in turn enhances freedom and equality. 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. This shallow understanding has little to do with the richness of a liberty directed above all to love.

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?

Individualism does not make us more free, more equal, more fraternal” (103-105).

Liberty and equality must always be read through the lens of fraternity. When liberty and equality are exercised in isolation, with no fraternity to balance them, things go haywire—as we have seen so many times throughout history, during the French Revolution and countless other conflicts and situations of oppression. We must embrace fraternity. It cannot become simply an empty word in a beautiful motto, with no practical application outside the realm of abstract ideas. Francis warns us against this error:

One effective way to weaken historical consciousness, critical thinking, the struggle for justice and the processes of integration is to empty great words of their meaning or to manipulate them. Nowadays, what do certain words like democracy, freedom, justice or unity really mean? They have been bent and shaped to serve as tools for domination, as meaningless tags that can be used to justify any action (FT 14).

Our commitment to fraternity must be genuine, because without fraternity we will never be able to truly realize liberty, equality, or almost any other virtue.


True Christian Fraternity

Christianity gives the word “fraternity” much greater meaning. Even though Christianity did not inscribe the word “fraternity” into a famous motto, the value of fraternity itself has been present in Christianity since the beginning. The roots of the concept of fraternity run deep in the Christian faith. As Pope Francis writes in Fratelli tutti, “For us the wellspring of human dignity and fraternity is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (277).

This is true. Fraternity was born in the Gospel. It’s right there, in the Gospels of Matthew (Mt 6:9-13) and Luke (Lk 11:2-4). When asked to teach us how to pray, Jesus taught us the Lord’s prayer, the Our Father. Let us read the first two words of this prayer very carefully. If God is a father, and if he is not just my father, but our father, then the implication is that we are all brothers and sisters. For Christians, fraternity was born here, and further developed in the many teachings of Christ (and subsequently of the Church) about how we must treat one’s neighbor as a brother or sister.

The virtue of fraternity underwent the boomerang trajectory I mentioned before. Born of Christianity, it was appropriated by its enemies (and “gone mad”). It is now returning home (and being “assimilated” in the faith). Of course, fraternity has come back changed. Fraternity, as we understood it in the 21st century is not identical to how it was in the 17th century, in Christendom before the French Revolution. This is not necessarily bad, nor should it be viewed with suspicion. We should grow with our experiences. Fraternity should too.

It is inevitable that, during its journey through the wilderness of secular thinking, fraternity incorporated some new elements along the way. If these elements are not evil in themselves, we should let them be. But it is urgent that we allow fraternity to return to Catholic lexicon. These foreign elements can actually enrich our own Christian culture, if we remain open to growth, and cultivate the attitude of listening Pope Francis is so fond of. Fratelli Tutti is filled with calls for listening to other cultures and learning from them, even when we must remain true to our own identity.

Through this marvelous encyclical, Francis has allowed fraternity to return home, openly and without shame or distrust. He provides us with the Christian lens through which we should view the virtue of fraternity. Going forward, fraternity should not be a “dirty word.” On the contrary, it should be incorporated into our orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Likewise, it is imperative that Catholics must not be eager to close what the keys of Peter have opened. Francis wrote this encyclical because he knows that without a fraternal framework to act as a corrective, all the other ideas and virtues will go mad, both inside the Church and out. Without true fraternity, we will never overcome the present moral crisis affecting us all.


Image: Adobe Stock.

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