Rev. Andrea Vicini, S.J., is Michael P. Walsh Professor of Bioethics in the Department of Theology at Boston College. He is co-chair of the international network Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church. His research interests include theological bioethics, global public health, new biotechnologies, environmental issues, and fundamental theological ethics. Vicini is co-editor of Just Sustainability: Technology, Ecology, and Resource Extraction and The Legacy of Vatican II.
Within Christianity, fraternity is neither merely a pious aspiration nor the description of exclusive and potentially excluding family ties. Narrowing the encompassing and inclusive character of fraternity would betray it. For Pope Francis, in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, fraternity expresses the “inalienable dignity of each human person regardless of origin, race or religion, and the supreme law of fraternal love” (no. 39). Without being an unreachable ideal, fraternity guides us in examining our personal and social lives and points to what humankind should strive to pursue. Hence, fraternity appropriately should inform political life and particularly “a better kind of politics, one truly at the service of the common good” (no. 154).
Following a way of proceeding that characterizes his writings, preaching, and teaching, and that is particularly emphasized in this encyclical, Pope Francis offers a critical assessment of today’s political reality. While some might be surprised by such a focus, the mystery of Jesus’ Incarnation confirms we should examine what is happening to our sisters and brothers across the planet. Moreover, liberation theology trains us to develop a skilled reading of the signs of our times by focusing on structures and their power dynamics. Pope Francis paints a vivid picture of the dangers of both populism (no. 159) and neoliberalism (no. 168). At the same time, he reaffirms the role that international institutions (no. 172) should play to promote the common good (no. 178); avoids their delegitimization, particularly in the case of the United Nations; and calls for reform, including the reform of multiple economic and financial international institutions (no. 173) and multilateral agreements (no. 174).
A bleak picture of reality, however, would not honor the Incarnation, would frustrate any reasonable hope (no. 196), and would disempower people of good will by hindering the transformation of powerful structures and how they operate. Hence, Pope Francis prophetically and courageously urges us to renew our political engagement, caring for the most vulnerable and respecting different cultures (no. 155). Moreover, he longs for political leaders who truly inspire, unite, and lead us (no. 159), who stimulate political arrangements, compromises, and solutions that promote personal and social flourishing, improve the quality of life of humankind, and protect the Earth.
Pope Francis prophetically and courageously urges us to renew our political engagement, caring for the most vulnerable and respecting different cultures.
For Pope Francis, three dimensions characterize the political life that we need. First, politics should be shaped by social and political charity while fostering social charity (no. 180) and openness to everyone (no. 190), trusting “in the reserves of goodness present in human hearts” (no. 196). Second, politics should promote political love. Third, politics should be fruitful and achieve results. In this threefold proposal we can recognize the approach that informs liberation theology: to see, judge, and act. In other words, we are invited, first, to see our political reality as it is, “to see the need for a change of heart, attitudes and lifestyles” (no. 166) and, at the same time, to see how our reality can be informed and transformed by our incarnated charity, by social and political charity. Second, we are called to discern and judge how charity can leaven politics with political love. Third, we are invited to act “with the poor” (no. 169) by bearing good social fruits and by promoting “an integral human development” (no. 169).
Dismissing any understanding of charity that reduces it to self-centered realization (no. 182), petty paternalism, or to a colonial sense of superiority, with the parable of the Good Samaritan (ch. 2; no. 165) Pope Francis stresses how charity is political because it “calls for an effective process of historical change that embraces everything: institutions, law, technology, experience, professional expertise, scientific analysis, administrative procedures, and so forth” (no. 164).
Hence, political life is essential and constitutive of what it means to be Christians at the point of incarnating and actualizing the core of Christianity—the commandment to love self, the neighbor, and God—in multiple and diverse relational dynamics both at the micro- and macro-levels (no. 181). Love is “social” and opens up each one to any other (no. 183). Being social, love builds bridges, inspires commitments, and leads to action in participatory and collaborative ways (nos. 183-186). Moreover, love makes a preferential option for the poor, promotes subsidiarity among diverse social forces, strengthens solidarity, and avoids any social exclusion and violation of human rights (nos. 187-189).
Political life is essential and constitutive of what it means to be Christians at the point of incarnating and actualizing the core of Christianity…
Such understanding of political life rests on a profoundly social anthropology. For Pope Francis, “‘People’ and ‘person’ are correlative terms’” (no. 182). Hence, he holds on and retrieves the importance of the “people” for democracy. However, the “people” is not a descriptive notion, which could foster populism and nationalism, but a “mythic category” (no. 158), which describes how we share our “identity arising from social and cultural bonds” (no. 158). As in the case of our own individual identity, discovering that we are a people is a dynamic and “open-ended” process (no. 160), and cultural, political, and religious diversity are blessings.
Expanding Pope Francis’ reading of the story of Babel (Gen 11:1–9; no. 144), even God’s response to the clumsy attempt to create a forceful unity centered on a towering power could be interpreted as a blessing. Described as the beginning of all languages and cultures, with their rich diversity and beauty, Babel becomes God’s blessing on the peoples, as the French Jesuit François Marty suggested in his 1990 book La Bénédiction de Babel: Vérité et Communication (The Blessing of Babel: Truth and Communication). God blesses our longing for unity in diversity. Respectful dialogue and social friendship (ch. 6), authentic and peaceful encounters (ch. 7), and the richness of diverse religions (ch. 8) contribute to realize “the global common good, the elimination of hunger and poverty and the sure defence of fundamental human rights” (no. 172) in our “shared responsibility for the development of the world” (no. 162).
A “sound political life,” independent from any economic and technocratic manipulative pressure, is essential to foster an “effective process of growth towards universal fraternity and social peace” (no. 176). With urgency, let us embrace Pope Francis’ call to renew our political life.