On Social Love and Hard Truths in Fratelli Tutti

By: Craig A. Ford, Jr.

October 30, 2020

Fratelli Tutti and the Future of the Catholic Church

If Fratelli Tutti has a future in the Catholic Church in the United States, it will be because we have summoned the courage to meet Francis where he has called us: at the place where we can accept the consequences not only of the truths that are fundamental to our identity as Christians, but also of those truths that are undeniably hard to accept—those truths that, when we hear them in the bright clarity of direct, contemporary language freed from pretense and the false securities of endless argument, summon us to action. If we accept this invitation, it will mean recognizing that there is a large moral difference between the thoughts of Christians and thoughts that are Christian, and that what distinguishes the latter from the former has nothing to do with theological sophistication and everything to do with whether those thoughts are good news to those who are marginalized in our society—and in our world that means good news to the hearts of people of color, of people who are migrating, and of people who are threatened with execution by a state, whether by acts of war or by capital punishment.

In the encyclical, the fundamental truth that Francis imparts about our lives as Christians is the conviction that each person possesses an “inalienable dignity” (no. 27). It is the recognition of this dignity that further radiates into the conviction that we are all drawn together as siblings enclosed within the destiny of a single planet, and that nothing less than love—a love that transcends borders—can stand as evidence of sufficient recognition of this fact. “Love,” Francis writes, “impels us towards universal communion” (no. 91), drawing us toward Francis’ concept of a social love that stands at the heart of the letter. For when social love is present, the human heart “creates bonds and expands existence” (no. 88) because it gazes upon each person, “considering them of value, worthy, pleasing, and beautiful apart from their physical or moral appearances” (no. 94). Such a gaze creates relationships that are evidenced in the cultivation of solidarity—at one point defined as “thinking and acting in terms of community” (no. 116)—and it settles for nothing less than the establishment of a human family of universal extension. “If every being possesses an inalienable dignity, if all people are my brothers and sisters, and if the world truly belongs to everyone, then it matters very little whether my neighbor was born in my country or elsewhere” (no. 125). 

In the encyclical, the fundamental truth that Francis imparts about our lives as Christians is the conviction that each person possesses an 'inalienable dignity.'

These observations are so fundamental to the Christian tradition that the illustration Francis uses to emphasize his point is the story of the Good Samaritan, the story of the person who creates relationships of hospitality not only where there are none, but—even more incredibly—creates them where there is hostility: “In this context, we can better understand the significance of the parable of the Good Samaritan: love does not care if a brother or sister in need comes from one place or another. For ‘love shatters the chains that keep us isolated and separate; in their place, it builds bridges. Love enables us to create one great family, where all of us can feel at home…Love exudes compassion and dignity’”(no. 62). 

But if these are some basic truths, they lead, in turn, to a series of hard truths—truths that may require metanoia, a conversion, a “change of heart, attitudes, and lifestyles” (no. 166). Proclamation of these truths requires not only a boldness that is willing to name the various evils in our society—and Francis names evils like racism (no. 20), sexism (no. 23), xenophobia (no. 27), ableism (no.98), as well as poverty, inequality, and lack of work (no. 116) among others—but also boldness that is willing to name the attitudes and initiatives that we need to enact in order to dismantle them. “No one can remain excluded because of his or her place of birth, much less because of privileges enjoyed by others who were born in lands of greater opportunity” (no. 121); “The right to private property can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of the universal destination of created goods” (no. 120); “All Christians and people of good will are called to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty…but also to work for the improvement of prison conditions, out of respect for human dignity of persons deprived of their freedom” (no. 268). These are just a few.

Now, whatever specific policies these attitudes and initiatives speak for, there is certainly no doubt about what they speak against: In issuing Fratelli Tutti, Francis is telling the hard truth that Christians cannot maintain an anti-immigrant stance; that Christians cannot believe that personal property cannot be reclaimed for the common good; and that Christians cannot support the death penalty and a culture that believes it is acceptable to allow people to rot in our prisons. 

Now, whatever specific policies these attitudes and initiatives speak for, there is certainly no doubt about what they speak against.

How do we incarnate these truths? To do that, we need to embolden the structures by which we come to moral discernment in this country by taking the two paths that Francis does in the encyclical: First, by being willing to denounce unjust attitudes and states of affairs, and, second, by being willing to recognize that a justice animated by social love must be “a preferential love shown to those in greatest need” (no. 187). This means that we must disabuse ourselves of the callous position that moral clarity is incompatible with the existence of multiple perspectives on a given question. For Christians, the truth is a person, Jesus Christ, and that person’s face is refracted most radiantly in the faces of those whom society shuns and disregards. If the marginalized cannot rejoice in the face of our purported truth, then we are not offering it to them in the first place.

How do we restore this moral clarity? Part of the response—which is not spelled out fully by Francis in the encyclical—is a demonstrated commitment to social love among our church’s leaders, something that lies in the middle of the refusal to engage in party politics, on the one hand, while, on the other, of the refusal to “renounce the political dimension of life itself” (no. 276). And Francis is convinced that preaching and catechesis are important mechanisms for communicating this clarity. “It is important that catechesis and preaching speak more directly and clearly about the social meaning of existence, the fraternal dimension of spirituality, our conviction of the inalienable dignity of each person, and our reasons for loving and accepting all our brothers and sisters” (no. 86). Another part of the response involves enacting a “process of education that promotes the value of love for one’s neighbor, the first indispensable step towards attaining a healthy universal integration” (no. 151). And a third is being willing to recognize that peace is impossible without justice: “When a society—whether local, national or global—is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility” (no. 235). In our country, this means that Black Lives Matter. 

In a phrase, moral clarity attends our ability to abandon the indifference towards others that betrays the presence of individualism, the consistent object of critique in Francis’ encyclical. This individualism, which Francis maintains acts like a “virus” (no. 105), encloses us in ourselves and is obsessed with the construction of walls, both internal ones and external ones, with the result that “new walls are erected for self-preservation, the outside world ceases to exist and leaves only ‘my’ world, to the point that others, no longer considered human being possessed of an inalienable dignity, become only ‘them’” (no. 27). 

Moral clarity attends our ability to abandon the indifference towards others that betrays the presence of individualism, the consistent object of critique in Francis’ encyclical.

For Christians, the invitation of Fratelli Tutti is as simple as Francis’ prayer that the church “goes forth from its places of worship, goes forth from its sacristies, in order to accompany life, to sustain hope, to be the sign of unity…to build bridges, to break down walls, to sow seeds of reconciliation” (no. 276). It will take courage to do this, indeed: courage to proclaim these fundamental truths anew; courage to tell the hard truths; and the courage to preach, educate, and take action in ways that illuminate the connections between the two. And we will even need more courage to continue to make new connections that go beyond the words of the document but certainly not beyond the logic of it: connections that hopefully will inspire many women, as well as many LGBTQ+ people in our church, to tell their hard truths and then see bridges in the places where formerly they’ve seen only walls.

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