That a pope should speak about fraternity is nothing new. Architects talk about buildings, mechanics talk about motors, dentists about endodontics and the popes about fraternity, charities, sacraments and all the other similar topics. And why not? In the predictability of the theme of the last encyclical of Pope Francis lies the Achilles heel of his communication. There are many believers who have joined enthusiastically the Argentinian Pontiff’s call for fraternity without having read a single line of “Fratelli tutti” (hereafter abbreviated to FT). It is like the old joke about the boy who systematically skipped Sunday Mass and avoided the questioning by his father by always repeating the same phrase: “The priest said that we should be good.” The spontaneous ambassadors of fraternity in the Bergoglian style do not have to read any document to defend what we all already know: that the most important thing is love for others and that we should pray and work for a world over which fraternity rules. What else is a pope going to say? The same thing as always: “Let us be good.”

Faced with these topical interpretations that function as bedtime stories without any social relevance, I propose a critical reading which brings to light the central nerve of an encyclical that I have no doubt in classifying as “urgent”. It is possible that pastoral debates might have time to entertain themselves with theological nuances about the nature of fraternity, but on the geographical frontiers – those social purgatories where today the future of humanity is being played out – the existence or not of fraternity is a question of life or death. For those millions of “orphans” who die daily on the  shores and facing razor wire waiting for the hospitality of brothers who do not come out to welcome them, the building of a universal brotherhood is an urgent task in which is at play the fraternity or fratricide of our attempt at civilization. The question asked by God of Cain concerning the fate of his brother Abel does not arise out of a rhetorical emptiness which is inhabited by the laxity of infinite time, but rather from the memory of a victim who is looking for an urgent response about the fratricide which was committed. Either fraternity or fratricide, there are no other alternatives. “Before so much pain, before so much wounding, the only way out is to be like the Good Samaritan. Any other option ends up being on the side of the assailants or on the side of those who walk by without taking pity on the pain of the wounded man on the road” (FT 67).

The four areas of urgency for Pope Francis

If the intra-ecclesial papal agenda is involved with the necessity of putting order into the perverse outrages of an exaggerated clericalism, his external mission has as its capstone the urgent desire to reweave essential links. In number 70 of his encyclical Laudato si’, Francis presented the eco-social analysis which, in my judgment, determines the pastoral priorities for his pontificate. “The lack of care in the enterprise of cultivating and maintaining an adequate relationship with my neighbor, towards whom I have the responsibility of care and custody, destroys my interior relationship with myself, with everyone else, with God and with the Earth. When all of these relationships are left untended, when justice no longer abides in the land, the Bible tells us that all of life is in danger.” The rupture of the four links that make up a human being (with others, with oneself, with God and with the natural environment) puts into danger social life and the sustainability of the planet. Faced with the evident risks of a dynamic of globalization of a neoliberal type which weakens vital eco-social structures, it is urgent to reweave the fabric of relationships that sustain life.

The invitation to a Global Education Pact (September, 2019) makes magnificently explicit the obsession of the Pope for the reconstruction of links. In barely two pages there overlap the calls to build an “educational alliance”, “to rebuild the web of relationships for a more fraternal humankind”, “to build up a village of education”, to generate “a network of human and open relationships”, to become conscious of the fact that “everything in the world is intimately connected”, to have the courage to form persons available for service to the community and who can establish with those who are least favored “human relationships of closeness, ties of solidarity”. Alliance, web, village, network, interconnection, care, solidarity. I don’t know if Francis would feel himself identified with the job of a weaver, but I don’t believe I am mistaken in saying that his work as Pontiff of building bridges (that is the Latin etymology of the word – pons/pontis, bridge; fex, builder) is ruled by the desire of unleashing and promoting social dynamics capable of braiding an eco-social fabric that becomes frayed at times.

The origins of fraternity

In his spiritual formation as a Jesuit, the Pope would have prayed many times on the meditation on the “two flags” from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. In a moment during that contemplation, a sort of chain reaction is proposed. Beginning with a desire for riches, one moves headlong toward pride passing through vanity. Avarice is presented as the origin of the rest of the vices that hang from it like bunches of cherries. For Francis, the trigger of the domino effect which degenerates into an eco-social sin is the absence of fraternity. As we just read in the text of Laudato si’, the lack of care taken in the relationship with one’s neighbor ends up dragging along behind it the rest of the essential links.

Fraternity is not just one more theme on the list of possible topics on which a pontiff might write. For Francis, this deals with a nuclear category because of the dynamic links that it generates, or, by looking for its absence, because of the perverse ruptures that it reenforces. As he himself confesses, “Questions related to fraternity and social friendship have always been among my preoccupations.” [FT 5]. The Working Paper which develops the general lines of the Global Education Pact maintains that “fraternity is the cultural category that is the basis for and guides paradigmatically the pontificate of Francis”. The document continues, “We are dealing with ‘a fundamental anthropological fact into which to inject all of the principal and positive “grammars” of relationship: encounter, solidarity, mercy, generosity, but also dialog, confrontation and, more generally, diverse forms of reciprocity.’”.

In the Mass which began his Petrine ministry, Francis made the care of others and of the common home the axis of his pontificate. This was a responsibility for protection that extended to both believers and non-believers. “But the vocation of caretaking not only concerns us Christians, it also has a dimension that precedes it and that is simply a human one and which corresponds to everyone. It is caretaking of all of creation, the beauty of creation, as it is told to us in the Book of Genesis and as it is shown to us by St. Francis of Assisi. It means to have respect for all of God’s creatures and for the environment in which we live. It means taking care of people, concern for everyone and for each individual, with love, and especially for children, the elderly, those who are more fragile and who often are found on the periphery of our hearts. It means each one having concern for the other in the family: the spouses watch out for each other and then, as parents, they take care of their children, and then in time the children will become the caretakers of their parents. It means to live sincerely as friends that protect each other with confidence, with respect and with kindness. At root, everything is confided into the care of mankind and is a responsibility that affects us all. ‘Be caretakers of the gifts of God’”. FT is written in this dynamic of caretaking which today is presented with vital urgency by the men and women who are systematically discarded from a plan for universal fraternity.

Brotherhood from the point of view of “neighborliness”

Continuing with the initial proposal to destabilize the possible interpretations of FT, I am passing on to demonstrating my amazement with the passage of the Good Samaritan as the core text of an encyclical about fraternity. As much as we might analyze it, those barely seventeen verses of the parable about the man who is beaten and is left half-dead on the side of the road do not speak of brotherhood anywhere, although they do refer to the necessity of becoming a neighbor and of behaving as such. Brotherhood and “neighborliness” are not synonymous and, in any case, there are other stories in the Gospel in which fraternity as a motivating factor appears with more clarity. The parable, also from Luke, of that father who went out every day to wait for the return of his prodigal son, or the multiple versions of the Lord’s Prayer in which the invocation of a common Father serves fundamentally to build a community of brothers and sisters, bring arguments that are much more evident than those of the Good Samaritan to justify the fraternal disposition that makes up our personal and social being. Affirming the relationship as son, fraternity simply derives from it.

Fatherhood and sonship

The Pope is conscious of the dialectical advantages of the logic of sonship, but he rejects the unconditional certitude of the believer as the justification for a fraternity that he wants to be universal. He writes in number 272, “We believers think that without an opening to the Father of all, there are no valid and stable reasons for a call to fraternity. We are convinced that ‘only with this consciousness of being children who are not orphans can we live in peace among ourselves.’ Because ‘reason by itself is capable of accepting the equality of mankind and of establishing a civic mode of living among them, but cannot achieve the foundation for fraternity’”. It is worth warning that this last argument (that is, that only by calling upon a Father enables the basis of fraternity). Is taken from the encyclical Caritas in veritate (no. 19) of Benedict XVI. There the emeritus Pope recognized that globalization brings us ever closer, but not necessarily more brotherly and sisterly.

Although it is an echo of the argument based on filiation of his predecessor, Francis does not dedicate his encyclical to justifying the philosophical and theological reasons for a common divine fatherhood. In his dream for a social fraternity and friendship open to everyone, believers of not (cf. FT 6), he opts for a “narrative-parabolic” approximation which basis the fraternity on the exercise of “neighborliness”. Outlining a parallelism that would require greater development, we can anticipate in the manner of a headline that the orthodoxy of Benedict XVI sought to base fraternity on the truth (Caritas in veritate) while the orthopraxis of Francis proposes to do it from the point of view of “neighborliness”. It is not a matter of comparing the “magisterial quality” of both proposals. The two of them enjoy the same ecclesiastical and argumentative authority. Nor is it a question of placing the more academic disposition of the former against the supposedly more pastoral one of the latter. The determining factor in whichever of the two arguments is the necessity of finding a new basis and justifying fraternity in a world where it is no longer a given. In the 21st century, the challenge for evangelization in the Church is how to contribute to the recognition of a universal brotherhood that makes us responsible for the lives of everyone else and for the sustainability of the planet, in a multicultural context that contemplates the possibility of settling oneself in a social orphanage which does not need to claim any antecedent fatherhood. It is possible that for believers, the evident result would be to allude to a common Father/Mother as the foundation of dignity, equality or fraternity. But in a secular society, we ought not to presume that all citizens share willingly a personal and social dependence on a divine fatherhood which, apart from the area of religious belief, does not have to be recognized or accepted.

Jorge Riechmann, a writer within the ecological movement, suggests that we ought to begin to think of ourselves as orphan societies. According to him, in the era of a warming climate, the energy debacle and the biological holocaust of a capitalism based on fossil fuels, it only remains for us to propose a humble humanism based on being orphans. This is not the place to debate the thesis of defenselessness proposed by Riechmann, but his proposal can serve us in order to visualize the field of the world vision with which the call of the believer for the construction of a universal brotherhood has to enter into dialog. The world is no longer waiting to receive ecclesiastical instructions in order to orient its social and political dynamics. In a multicultural and multireligious world, the voice of the Pope is only one among many others and his call to fraternity should be seen along with alternatives dealing with being orphaned which do not share the same genesis in the idea of sonship as that of the Pope. How does one build fraternity in an orphaned world? Is it possible to speak of brothers and sisters in the absence of a Father/Mother? This is the context in which FT seeks to present itself as salt and leavening in a “dough” which does not commune with social fatherhoods. It is in this secular world, which reacts to any sort of religious instruction, where the story of that half-dead man who awakened the compassion of the Samaritan when faced with the indifference of the priest and Levite, is presented as a universally understandable semantic link. Not everyone will accept the condition as creature of a human being tied to an Absolute that religions and philosophies call in diverse ways. But all of us are confronted by the unavoidable presence of people who are beaten up on the side of the road before whom we have to decide to approach and bind up the wounds or to go around them and keep on going. “The narration is simple and linear, but it has all the dynamics of that internal struggle which is found in the elaboration of our identity, in all that exists when impelled along the road in order to make human fraternity a reality. Once we set out on the road, we assuredly crash into the wounded man. More than ever today there are wounded people. The inclusion or the exclusion of the person who suffers at the side of the road defines all of the economic, political, social and religious projects. Every day we face the option of being good Samaritans or indifferent travelers who pass on by” (FT).

The question of fraternity is not resolved in the orthodoxy of an intellectual consensus about a possible universal fraternal nature, but rather in the orthopraxis of the real exercise of compassion. We ought not forget that the “intellectual” question about the “being” of one’s neighbor that comes at the beginning of the parable, “The teacher of the law, wishing to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbor?’”, ends with the “orthopraxic” response of Jesus, “Go, and do likewise”. Practice mercy.

From the believers’ way of interpreting the world (religiously and philosophically), fraternity could come to be recognized as a fact that defines the DNA or our relational being. From that of a non-essentialist secularism, fraternity comes to be determined by our response to the pain of another. Said another way, it matters very little if we are, we consider ourselves to be or we feel that we are brothers of everyone else. The relevant thing is that we behave as if we are, if I make myself the brother of someone who is suffering, if I become “neighbor” and take care of him. It is not sufficient to offer rhetorical declarations of fraternity. The inevitable homily lauding over and over again the goodness of a shared paternity is not enough. Nor are the loud speeches of impassive politician-Levites. The orphans of a world crisscrossed by geographical and ideological borders urgently need for us to take a step forward in order to rebuild a battered brotherhood. If we do not do it, we will be accomplices in fratricide.

Perhaps Fr. Jorge Bergoglio is not just repeating the predictable song of “be good”, although we will only be sure of it if, instead of returning to throwing cotton balls, this time we truly hear and act.

[Article originally published in Vida Nueva/Translation by David Brooks/Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay]

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Father, theologian and musician. Member of the Theological Area of Christianity and Justice. He has written several Booklets in this collection: “Vulnerable Bodies. Caring as a Political Horizon” (2020), “Seeking Sanctuary: The Political Construction Of Habitable Places” (2019), “Steeping on the Moon. Eschatology and Politics” (2016), “Evangelical dystopias” (2013), “ Taking stock of reality, taking responsability for reality, and taking charge of reality”(2011) and “And if God were not perfect?”(2000).
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