This interview of Rodrigo Guerra by Miroslava Lopez was originally published in Spanish at Vida Nueva (link). This English translation is published with permission.

The Vatican has announced a new encyclical by Pope Francis entitled Fratelli tutti, about human fraternity and social friendship. The pope will sign the document on October 3, 2020 in Assisi and it will be released to the public on October 4.

Vida Nueva interviewed Rodrigo Guerra López on the significance of Francis’s new teaching document and what the pope is saying in the context of our present situation. Dr. Guerra, who is from Mexico, is a philosopher, an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and serves on the Theological Commission of the Latin American Conference of Bishops (CELAM). He is president of the Center for Advanced Social Research (CISAV).

Q: What can we expect from the next Encyclical of Pope Francis on the themes of human fraternity and social friendship?

GUERRA: My impression is that Pope Francis will surprise us again by announcing the Gospel in its essential simplicity. Of course, we should take a few days to study and meditate on the text and not rush to conclusions. That said, we can already glean from the various messages and documents he has given us throughout his pontificate that “fraternity” will have to be understood as an analogous concept—that is, in its multiple possibilities within Christian semantics.

Ideologues always look for a narrow, “univocal” meanings of words. They try to set traps and trip up the Successor of Peter. It was enough that in the “Document on Human Fraternity,” signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, when the concept “brothers” was introduced, some immediately raised suspicions as if they were trying to build an immanentistic inter-religion in order to dissolve the specificities of faith. Something similar also happened when Laudato si’ was published. From the first lines, we were reminded of the importance of recognizing—following Francis of Assisi—not only our neighbor but our “common home” as a “sister.”

True Christian intelligence always operates animated by “analogy,” that is, by verifying what things are “similar” and “different”. The “analogia entis” and the “analogia fidei” are a constitutive dimension of authentically Christian thinking.

Q: It seems that the world marked by the pandemic is the great scenario that Pope Francis reflects on in his new document. Why might the issue of fraternity be relevant in this context?

GUERRA: The pandemic has provided a heuristic dimension: it forced us to learn to recognize things that we have been carrying around for a long time and to which we have not paid enough attention.

One of these is the way we resolve conflicts. The logics of power that prevailed in the 20th century has established a pattern that would make Hegel or Nietzsche very happy: conflicts are resolved through the triumph of force. This mentality not only inhabits non-Christian or anti-Christian groups and movements but is held even by some within the Church. For them the important thing is to “win,” even if this involves postponing or canceling the truth.

In ongoing electoral processes or in certain struggles over fundamental values, the logic of combat tends to prevail. Those who build bridges, those who recognize something of truth in the adversary, or those who—when fighting—seek not to destroy but to leave a door open through which it is possible to walk, are viewed with distrust. The Christian faith, on the other hand, points in another direction: unity is superior to conflict, communion is a method of political action, and we are all brothers and called to behave as such even when we have disagreements.

The political manipulation of faith

Q: Does the combat mentality really mean “postponing or cancelling the truth”?

GUERRA: Recently, when I was speaking with some friends who are very committed to the defense of marriage and the family, they told me that sometimes to keep people motivated and encouraged it is necessary to “scare” people a little, by creating simplified interpretations of the origins of evil and its agents. They told me, for example, that it may not be very accurate—philosophically and politically speaking—to affirm that “cultural Marxism” and the “New World Order” are the cause of the pro-gay mentality, but that affirming these things does serve to maintain tension and draw attention in the civic struggle. I tried to explain to them that this type of oversimplification is a misdiagnosis—philosophical and political—that leads to equally bad strategies in the practical order. Among other things, it will blow up any bridges of dialogue that have been built with those who do not think like us.

The conversation ended when my friends told me that maybe this would happen and that it would be up to others, not them, to do the evangelization work of rebuilding “what is left” after the war is over. From my point of view, this is an example of how truth is sacrificed in the name of force. The important thing in these worldviews is to succeed—even if it means using things like “white lies,” ideological oversimplification, and the sacrifice of bridges of communication and Christian charity. Of course, it must also be said that the examples of those who—from the other side and also renouncing the truth—seek to justify sexual behaviors contrary to the complementarity and reciprocity between men and women, do not help. Like in a hall of mirrors, the extremes—conservative and liberal—feed off each other, and over time, they tend to resemble each other in their fundamental forms of behavior.

Q: How does this translate to the current political landscape?

GUERRA: In countries with neo-populist governments, such as those of Mexico and the United States, who are currently experiencing intense political and electoral processes, polarization tears brothers and sisters apart. Perhaps what is new—in cases like these—is the political manipulation of faith. The clash between opposing sides has led to irrational exaltations, as well as the manipulation of extremely delicate aspects of people’s consciousness, such as their religious sensitivity.

Q: Is it legitimate for a bishop or priest to participate in a convention organized by a political movement or party?

GUERRA: When a priest or a consecrated person participates in partisan activities, they create serious scandal and compromise the universality of the Church’s invitation to all. The priestly and episcopal ministries carry specific responsibilities and obligations. Among the obligations is the duty to refrain from actions that may be worthy in themselves, but are for we, the laity, to carry out according to our own vocation. The “Directory for the Ministry and the Life of Priests” states it clearly: political parties or labor unions, “even if these are good things in themselves, they are nevertheless foreign to the clerical state since they can constitute a grave danger of division in the ecclesial communion.”

Likewise, the Code of Canon Law explicitly prohibits clergymen from taking an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions  (canon 287 § 2). Bishops are not exempt from this regulation.

Q: In the United States, Catholics—Republicans and Democrats—disavow each other. How is it possible to announce the gospel of fraternity within these conflicts?

GUERRA: When Catholic Republicans remind us that there are real possibilities that the crime of abortion will expand through a Democratic government, they are right. Likewise, when the Catholic Democrats point out the possible tightening of measures that harm the dignity and rights of the migrant population and the disregard for the environment by the Republicans, they hit the mark. The real problem begins when Republican or Democratic Catholics become uncritical about their respective parties and are not able to recognize that the demands of faith, and very specifically the Social Doctrine of the Church, which would enable them to have a broader and more objective view of the serious deficiencies of both ideological-partisan positions.

The Social Doctrine of the Church is a true “critical theory” that helps us maintain our Catholic identity above party membership. It helps to remember our essential fraternity, and therefore reminds us of the importance of never destroying the other. Furthermore, the Social Doctrine of the Church safeguards our necessary freedom and prevents us from becoming enslaved to partisan ideological slogans. Before being politicians, we are Catholics. When this is reversed, ideology floods our minds and confuses our hearts. Fraternity with everyone is possible when we live our faith seriously and in our core. Only then is it possible to defend the adulterous woman with courage and tenderness without justifying her adultery. Only in this way is the sincere embrace of the Republican Catholic by the Democrat possible, and vice versa.

Q: In Mexico, the electoral processes that will culminate in the summer of 2021 have just begun. Do you find scenarios similar to those you just described? Can the fraternity that Francis promotes help heal the social upheaval in Mexico?

GUERRA: Mexico is, in effect, torn by multiple kinds of violence. In this context, political manipulation of faith also occurs on all sides. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador likes to use expressions, images, and theological or para-theological language ​​to legitimize his political positions. He recently screened a video that featured statements from Pope Francis during a press conference, and began to say in front of the cameras that the heart of the Gospel is the poor in order to try to suggest the pope endorses his controversial initiatives in the field of social development.

Q: This is not new, is it?

GUERRA: No. Since the time of Theodosius I and the edict of Thessalonica in 380, some rulers have instrumentalized the Christian experience in politics. The use of politicized faith has benefited neither the State nor the Church. And it hardly matters whether people’s religious sensibilities are manipulated from the left or the right. The problem is the same: faith is used to radicalize positions, to divide groups, and to legitimize people’s decisions with the absoluteness of the divine, leaving aside the true teaching of Jesus and the Magisterium: the same faith can give rise to diverse political positions. The plurality of political positions among Catholics is legitimate.

The gospel and the experience of faith must transcend political-partisan commitments and help us maintain a constant dissatisfaction with the political groups and organizations in which we participate. What Pope Francis once said to some Jesuits applies very well here: a good Catholic committed to politics is always someone whose “thought is incomplete,” who is open to correcting and revising our intellectual convictions. Only in this way, with a real openness of mind and heart, is it possible to appreciate the truth that is in the other—whether they are my friend or my opponent. Only in this way can fraternity emerge as a heartfelt response to the wonder provoked by the restless humanity of the other.

Embrace fraternity and work for the common good

Q: Politics always seems to oppose human fraternity. Should we dream about a world without politics?

GUERRA: Contemporary politics is sick. It has lost its original “ethos.” Pope Francis in his important speech of March 4, 2019 said it briefly and clearly: “Politics is not a mere search for efficiency, strategy and organized action. Politics is a vocation to service, a lay diaconate that promotes social friendship for the generation of the common good. Only in this way does politics help the people to become protagonists of their history.” It is impossible to think about the life of the people without social friendship, that is, without understanding politics as a service of fraternal construction for the common good. There is an essential connection between fraternity and the common good. The common good is nourished qualitatively when those who have been estranged have reconciled in their hearts and work together without manipulating each other. This way of understanding politics is a constitutive dimension of social life and a lay projection of the commandment of love.

Q: Is it necessary for the lay faithful to rediscover political commitment as a part of ordinary Christian life?

GUERRA: The lay faithful who reduce their faith to merely an experience of interior life censor decisive aspects of the mystery of Redemption. Jesus has come to save and liberate everything human, whether interior or exterior. Likewise, those who turn to “Christian” political action without taking care of their inner life end up torn apart by activism and efficient functionalism. It is in the intimacy of sincere conversion, in the painful recognition of our betrayal and sin, that we can start over with the help of grace in the Christian life and dispose our hearts to embrace our brothers and sisters and eventually build the common good.

I remember one of my professors during my undergraduate studies. He was trying to convince me of his combative way of seeing things. He had read a lot of Meinvielle, Plinio Correa, Ousset, and much of that allegedly “traditional” (but deeply Gnostic) kind of fundamentalist thinking. He told me that those who did not “fight” in the same way he did were the adherents of a “light spirituality.” One day, trying to persuade me to join his position, he rebuked me: “we have to be friends and brothers, if not, we will be your implacable judges.” I remember the impact that phrase had on me. I was 21 or 22 years old. I sensed something threatening about him. I think the new Encyclical of Pope Francis is coming precisely to correct our gaze on this point. Jesus invites us to always be more friends and brothers than judges of others. He no longer wants us “slaves” but “friends” so that from that experience we proceed to manifest the cultural consequences of faith with joy and courage, but without reactionary attitudes. Fraternity, to a large extent, means broadening the horizons of the selfish heart to horizons that go beyond mere interest in power.

Q: How can fraternity be learned?

GUERRA: The life of Jesus is a proposal of friendship. Following Jesus is following someone who wants to be my brother—and everyone’s brother! In Latin America we have a special helper in learning this: Our Lady of Guadalupe. When in the 16th century, the conflict and resentment between the indigenous and the Spanish seemed unsolvable, the Virgin of Guadalupe reconciled the peoples and introduced them to a pedagogy based on fraternity. It never ceases to amaze me how Saint Juan Diego, being an indigenous and a layman, was chosen by Mary to bring the good news to the bishop. The prelate showed his skepticism but finally his heart gave way.

One of the losers of history, the most forgotten and marginal, once again thus becomes an instrument of the mysterious action of God. In this way, the “defeated” natives and “victorious” Spaniards both kneel before our common Mother. Over time a new mestizo people, a baroque culture, and a fraternal vocation arises that we hope will fully flourish in this “Continent of Hope.” The flowering will have to be personal and communal until new forms of regional integration are achieved to put Latin America in its proper place in the community of nations. This is an educational path that we will all have to go through. We will not be spared from the effort it will take, but God will accompany us, as always, with patience.

This is our translation of the original Vida Nueva interview, originally published in Spanish as, “Fraternidad: un corazón que se expande más allá de las luchas de poder


Image: Pope Francis addresses the General Assembly during his visit to United Nations headquarters. Credit: UN Photo/Kim Haughton. Photo Date: 25/09/2015. NICA ID: 644147. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/un_photo/21524853099/

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