A New Social Covenant, Not a Contract: Reviving Democracies through Political Love

By: David Lantigua

November 30, 2021

Creating a Culture of Encounter

“Keeping democracies alive is a challenge in the present historical moment.” These words from Pope Francis in 2014 at the European Parliament were not a warning against the rise of populism, or even Brexit, but a call for the EU to be true to its motto: united in diversity. Yet how do we breathe new life into democratic cultures and institutions when there is so much distrust, discord, and resentment in our heads and in our smartphones? Protracted divisiveness and polarization marks civil society and the U.S. Church during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are, paradoxically it seems, united against unity.

Many political realists say the construction of enemies—us versus them—is essential to nation-building. Americans needed anti-communism to foment national identity on the world stage in the second half of the twentieth century. Will anti-fascism and anti-racism generate new enemies after the Trump-inspired storming of the Capitol and the gradual reckoning with our nation’s twofold original sin of African slavery and Native American dispossession? Perhaps our country’s current political crisis is a necessary struggle over which enemy—the socialist or the neofascist—is more constitutive of our national identity in the twenty-first century. Populism on the right and left prospers in such a fractious political milieu. 

In his most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis offers another view of realism for political society. Unlike the untrusting world of political realism, with its enemy-making of certain individuals and groups, and international power politics threatened by constant insecurity, Pope Francis deploys the moral realism of the Catholic social tradition to address the challenges afflicting democracies today. He outlines a different kind of politics emerging from a culture that encounters difference by seeking social bonds of friendship, common ground, and climates of trust beyond comfort zones and political groupthink (FT, 216). The genuine Benedict Option is for a hospitality that receives “the gift present in an encounter with those outside one’s circle” (FT, 90). 

Pope Francis outlines a different kind of politics emerging from a culture that encounters difference by seeking social bonds of friendship, common ground, and climates of trust beyond comfort zones and political groupthink.

The task of politics is not protection from enemies to maintain self-preservation among buffered individuals and groups. Rather, politics entails the virtuous construction of a people with a shared identity and commitment to the common good of all, especially society’s poorest and most vulnerable members. Love, more than justice, is the quintessential social and political virtue of our pandemic age. An alternative politics grounded in political love patiently cultivates solidarity with disadvantaged others rather than a distorted form of political justice that terminates in vindictiveness, tweeted or shouted, against declared social enemies. Pope Francis notes that peoplehood is a mythic category above all (FT, 158). To become a people is a long and arduous storied process enacted by popular agency from below in contrast to the domineering transnational corporate class of private owners or careerist political elites. 

The current crisis of democracy demands a new mythos, or story, beyond the social contract thinking of the Lockean or Rawlsian variety with its emphasis on either punitive justice or distributive justice. Justice, even freedom and equality, Pope Francis alerts in Fratelli Tutti, risk becoming vapid cant under “individualistic” and even “false” rights (FT, 111; 171). At first glance, it could appear that the pope is skeptical about rights for democratic politics. Yet he is resisting the hyper-individualism of rights language largely invested, conscientiously or not, by a neoliberal market ideology on a global scale. 

The dogma of neoliberal faith eschews the importance of social responsibilities, the principle of the common good, and the preferential option for the poor. The unimpeachable right of private ownership reigns supreme under an “unchecked liberalism” that, as Pope St. Paul VI identified in 1967’s Populorum Progressio, amounted to a new dictatorship through the “international imperialism of money.” According to Fratelli Tutti, “the rights of some to free enterprise or market freedom cannot supersede the rights of peoples and the dignity of the poor” (FT, 122). The empire of money and the ascendency of transnational corporations has drastic consequences for democratic politics. It imposes a single cultural model of unifying the world yet, in practice, divides persons and nations (FT, 12). The enemy here is not an individual or group, but the chief biblical idol: the Money-god (dios Dinero).

The dogma of neoliberal faith eschews the importance of social responsibilities, the principle of the common good, and the preferential option for the poor.

Democracies are not desperate for an updated social contract comprised of hyperinflated individuals with proliferating rights expanded by the courts or invented by the market. Contracts involve transactional exchanges between associates and partners who get this for that. But the gaze of neighbor love, as seen in the Samaritan parable, transforms our encounter with crippled or abandoned others to accompany them in solidarity, sometimes involving sacrifice, beyond personal convenience and advantage. The loving gaze enables “the poor to be acknowledged and valued in their dignity, respected in their identity and culture, and thus truly integrated into society. That gaze is at the heart of the authentic spirit of politics” (FT, 187). 

Our democracy requires the creation of what Pope Francis calls a “social covenant” to establish a people e pluribus to confront past wrongs, remember distinct roots, capture the reality of the difficult present, and courageously hope for a common future. A social covenant (FT, 218–221) stems from the belief that our origin lies in a diverse yet single human family under a common Father, not a warlike anarchical state of nature between individuals without a government. Only a social covenant constructed on fraternity with the working poor and voiceless can enliven the political will of a government by and for the people. We need creativity and imagination as guides for a robust democratic participation. Pope Francis gives the perennial principle of subsidiarity a renewed importance for our times. 

Man with cart collecting paper in Buenos Aires, Argentina (2017). Photo courtesy of WikiMedia user Harryhesse.
Man with cart collecting paper in Buenos Aires, Argentina (2017). Photo courtesy of WikiMedia user Harryhesse.

Appealing to his native Argentine mythos, Francis often invokes the nineteenth-century poem by José Hernández El Gaucho Martín Fierro, an intercultural or mestizo national icon. In a speech at the UN headquarters in 2015 during Francis’ visit to the United States, the pope emphasized the poem’s symbolic power, which teaches the fundamental law of solidarity and standing by one another, as brothers and sisters. “If you fight among yourselves,” Francis warned, “you’ll be devoured by those outside.” For many Latinos in the United States, Our Lady of Guadalupe has provided a similar wellspring for democratic unity in a mestizo mode.

Only a social covenant constructed on fraternity with the working poor and voiceless can enliven the political will of a government by and for the people.

In 2005, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio delivered a pastoral letter as archbishop of Buenos Aires entitled, For Building the Nation. In addition to Martín Fierro, the letter also referenced St. Augustine’s City of God, in which the bishop of Hippo redefined a people as a rational community bound together by “common objects of love.” This more expansive understanding of the political task beyond party platforms, wrote Bergoglio, is “an elevated form of charity.” Written a few years after the nation’s financial crisis in 2001 that saw deep recession and monumental debt, the letter addressed the growing discontent of citizens feeling orphaned without a sense of unity and patria. This political challenge compelled Archbishop Bergoglio to propose criteria for becoming a people, a theme he would return to in chapter four of his first apostolic exhortation as pope, The Joy of the Gospel

For Bergoglio, a student of the Argentine teología del pueblo, the gaze of God’s love was especially manifest in the slums of Buenos Aires. The Argentine financial crisis also witnessed the rise of a new informal class of excluded workers—cartoneros (waste pickers). Bergoglio encountered these marginalized laborers on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, bringing them the sacraments and supporting their right to organize and secure pay for their livelihood. Pastorally and politically, Bergoglio brought the Argentine Church’s solicitude to include an otherwise disposable class of workers and throwaways. His support for both the curas villeros (slum priests) and the Movement of Excluded Workers (MTE) turned on the dignity of cartoneros and impoverished families. They taught him the true meaning of political love and the dignity of the poor.

Popular movements create the social spaces that generate change and construct a sense of peoplehood by exemplifying solidarity in the struggle to promote the poor’s dignity against an empire of money. 

Pope Francis fondly recalls in his recent bestseller, Let Us Dream, “I was moved by their hospitality: how, when one of them was in need, they joined together for the sake of the person’s family. The cartoneros were an example of people on the margins organizing to survive, and exemplifying the dignity that is the mark of people’s movements.” That is the true spirit of political love, which is expressed not by the beneficent politician from on high, but from the poor worker on the ground in solidarity with his needy neighbor. Popular movements create the social spaces that generate change and construct a sense of peoplehood by exemplifying solidarity in the struggle to promote the poor’s dignity against an empire of money. 

From the standpoint of political love, an alternative way of thinking about dignity and rights emerges. The “sacred rights” of land, labor, and housing pursued by these popular movements accent the correlative social duties to the common good, the poor, and the environment. The Church must encounter and accompany these movements as they make history, and, God-willing, remake American history. We need our poets and artists and dreamers who love this land and its peoples, beginning with its First Nations, Black Americans, working-class poor, disadvantaged farmers, and struggling immigrants and refugees. Pope Francis and the Catholic social tradition do not uphold this political task as a utopian idealism, but a manifold realism revealed through a love that urges us toward truth, justice, and the way of Jesus Christ.

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