An urgent call to all people of goodwill to unite in a politics of brother/sisterhood.

My title, I hope, captures the central concern of Pope Francis’s encyclical, Fratelli tutti, a long and wide-ranging document. It can be read as the third in a trilogy preceded in 2015 by Laudato Sí‘, and Laetitia Amoris.  Each of these reflects on the connections that are at once given to us in creation, and that we are called to respect, restore when broken, and to enrich as we engage with others in building God’s Reign on Earth. The focal connections in Laudato Sí‘ are between all the things of creation. The connections in Laetitia Amoris are between human persons in their intimate relations. The connections in Fratelli tutti are the connections between all humans in social, political, and economic life.

Francis describes the latter connections as broken and deteriorating at all levels – local, national, international, and global. The deterioration is saddening when he views it against the hopes for justice and peace around the world in the years after World War II. He deplores it, given advances in technologies for production, exchange and communications which should have rendered the realisation of those hopes ever more possible.

For Francis, the brokenness of connections between all humans is also paradoxical: our hyper-connectivity as symbolised by the world-wide internet co-exists with our fragmentation into competing, hostile tribes nationally and internationally. It is as if we have forgotten how to engage with those who are ‘other’ across the lines of race, class, and nation that divide us. As Pope Francis looks around the world, what he sees are broken connections stemming from a practical lack of brotherly/sisterly love.

He talks of the latter not in abstract conceptualisation but in stories and cameo portraits showing that form of love in its practice. It can be seen in the Gospel story of the good Samaritan, the foreign stranger who reaches across lines of religious and social difference to help a Jewish neighbour who has been robbed and left for dead in the street. It can be seen in the life of St. Francis of Assisi, and in particular encounters with those ‘others’ whom he went far out of his way to find. St. Francis made the dangerous journey to Egypt at the time of the Crusades to create an encounter with the Moslem leader Sultan Malik-el-Kamel, seeking peace and mutual understanding.

Nearer our own day, Pope Francis finds exemplars of brotherly love in such diverse figures as Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, and Charles de Foucauld. He might well have added women like Dorothy Day and Rigoberta Menchú.

‘Others’ as partners seeking justice & peace for all

Pope Francis speaking at the US Capitol in 2015. Vice-President Joe Biden and John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives, stand behind him. US Government photo. flickr cc.

Through such stories and portraits, Francis expands on the notion of ‘fraternal’ love. Beyond our immediate family, it enters our lives when we seek out our ‘others’ and go out of our every-day circles to encounter them. They may be foreigners far away, but for most of us they will be found among “the hidden exiles” in our midst who, because of disability or poverty, or foreign provenance (e.g., recently arrived migrants and refugees), are not recognized as fellow citizens, still less as our “social friends”.

Once we have sought out and found our ‘others’, we exercise fraternal  love when we include them in an expanding circle of brothers and sisters – not just as passive recipients of our charity but, as best we and they can, as partners seeking justice and peace for all.

Intentional encounters with our others starts us towards healing the brokenness of our multicultural, multi ethnic/racial, multiclass societies, which are ever more complex because of various types and degrees of connection outwards to global society. But what comes next? Francis points to sustained dialogue in which one-time strangers share their life-stories and unpack for one another the wisdom of their diverse cultures of origin.

In Chapter 5 of his encyclical, he offers us snapshots of ordinary people in dialogue – exchanging dreams and practical projects for social justice in their neighbourhoods, seeking out the hidden exiles in their neighbourhoods, and going out of their way to make space for encounters with ‘others’ close at hand. This dialogue is already the first tier of that “better kind of politics” which the chapter calls for. Francis is clearly thinking here, not of party politics in the political arenas of nation states, but of the every-day life politics of civil society.

When he speaks of “the conscious and careful cultivation of fraternity” he seems to have in mind discussions and social action planning in the Basic Christian communities in Latin America and the preceding ‘Meetings of Brothers’ which Dom Helder Câmera initiated in Recife, Brazil in the late 1960s.

At national and international levels, it seems harder for Francis to find examples of a better kind of politics. Instead, he sees a lack of fraternal dialogue in a range of areas where there is urgent need to map and monitor policies and social engagements for the greater public good. The range of issues to be addressed in this politics is vast. At its most philosophical, public dialogue will consider the social, as distinguished from the individual meaning of existence. A little less abstractly, it will consider, in specific contexts, how to realize universal human rights, as distinct from exclusively sectional or national rights.

It will involve probably contentious public discussion about the social role of property over, but not necessarily to the exclusion of, individual property rights. Closer still to actual policy debates, Frances hopes for brotherly/sisterly dialogue on the application of key principles in Catholic social thinking. One of these is the “principle of the common use of all created goods” and its application in policy regarding such matters as public housing and urban renewal. Another is “the principle of subsidiarity” and its meaning under conditions of accelerating globalization.  According to Richard P. McBrien’s classic book Catholicism (p.835), subsidiarity holds that “nothing is to be done by a higher group, agency or level of authority that can be done better or as well by a lower group, agency, or level of authority.”

 Lending urgency to the writing of this encyclical, Francis notes the absence of such public dialogue in both the civil and political societies of most nations. In state arenas, he finds too many instances of ruling elites or dictators governing as though their economic power gave them the entitlement to rule and then to operate domestically with tactics of divide and conquer. He finds little healthy debate about public goods and projects related to increasing fullness of life for all. In many nations he finds popular leaders appealing to “abstracted universalism” as they set about eliminating differences and persecuting unwanted ethnic groups, new migrants, and refugees, rather than drawing new voices from these groups into national conversations.

On neo-liberalism & political populism

Francis in Chapter 5 critically reviews the two dominant trends in contemporary political economies. Both negate and even seek to destroy a politics of brotherly/sisterly love the world around. One of these is neo-liberalism which downplays the service of public interest and elevates free market relations between individuals as the supreme means and end of social, political, and economic life. The other is populist nationalism which often attracts those who have been impoverished and marginalised as the operation of free markets on a global scale leaves them unemployed and without political voice. Thus excluded, members of these groups can be rallied as members of a tribe gathered in support for a populist leader.

Despite their differences, Pope Francis sees both neo-liberal and populist-nationalist regimes stand together in rejecting the basic premise of a political economy of brotherly/sisterly love. That is ‘the social meaning of existence’ which views all humans as essentially and primarily social rather than individual, self-contained beings. According to this principle, humans are constituted in their social relations and find meaning and fullness of being only when engaged in relationships of ‘social love’.

Populist nationalism, in effect if not explicitly, denies that the premise applies to all humans in all their engagements. To the contrary, populist-nationalist regimes confine social meaning only to engagements within the circle of followers of the populist leader. Those outside the circle must look after themselves, always making way for the leader and his followers to pursue their collective interests to the exclusion of all others. Neo-liberalism simply denies the premise: there is no ‘social meaning’ because there is no society, only aggregates of individuals.

Pope Francis notes similarities between these dominant regime types, despite their differences. The ‘monologue’ form of political discourse is found in both. In a society that responds to the call to brotherly/sisterly love we will find a ‘dialogical politics’ in which debate is geared to discernment of public interest and determination of the best means of its realisation. By contrast, in neo-liberal regimes only the babble of private or sectional interest is heard, finally to be resolved by the monologue of authoritarian fiat.

Likewise, in nationalist populism the one final voice to be heard is that of the leader speaking for the people and the nation of his invention. Francis is particularly concerned by leaders claiming thus to speak for the people. For him, the identity of a people is formed only in a long, shared, often-disputed history and is not to be defined or claimed by a single party or leader.

It is important to note that Francis does not name leaders or countries in his critical reviews of neo-liberal and populist-nationalist politics. This for many good reasons, one of which is that he does not think it his business to refer in an encyclical to the actual politics of any country – that is the business of locals, but not the Pope. Rather, he invites us to think of these types as tendencies in all contemporary political economies.

We may think of archetypes to help our examination of our own political economies. Think of Margaret Thatcher for whom there was no such thing as society, as the avatar of neo-liberal politics. Think of Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and the USA’s Donald Trump as exemplars of the populist-nationalist leader.

Implications for Australia?

JG. flickr cc.

But Francis clearly does not want us to stay with these archetypes. Instead, I think, he would have Australians, for example, to ask questions like: How far are we from the politics of brotherly/sisterly love in our refugee policies and (even harder) in our every-day social relations with recent arrivals and refugees? How close are we to the neo-liberal type when we examine the core values (such as summarised by Ross Gittins in The Age of 17 October 2020), compared with those expressed in the recent Federal Budget?

How close are we to nationalist populism in our border policies and their applications? Are we even close to entertaining Francis’s shocking proposition that “each country also belongs to the foreigner” (124)? Regarding our First Peoples, to what extent do we negotiate with them as agents in the formulation and delivery of indigenous policy? Are we anywhere near to a consensus that the ultimate aim of indigenous policy is the formation of what Francis calls a new mestizo society and culture in which differences have not been eliminated but a new people born in negotiations about the common good.

Pope Francis issues no precise instructions about actions to be taken when our answers to these questions show us falling short on the criteria for brotherly/sisterly love. Obviously, appropriate actions will vary according to our individual, group, and national capabilities and resources. Francis, however, offers advice in chapter 6 that speaks to most of us. He invokes the principle of subsidiarity in the advice to start in community-building in civil society. We can only start to create a society of brotherly/sisterly love from the simplest acts of heartfelt kindness in every-day life. Gradually, a cumulative ‘recovery of kindness” will come to replace “consumerist individualism” in whole societies.

At the same time, we can  create “processes of encounter” with our others and develop a “culture of encounter” in which we, as a people, become passionate about meeting others, seeking points of contact, building bridges, planning a project that includes everyone” (paragraph 216).

Francis is aware of the hard work and the pain that is involved when past wrongs are faced up to, and reconciliation of the kind attempted in South Africa is underway. He is aware too that the victims of confessed oppression, in the national sphere as much as internationally, may be unwilling or unable to engage in encounters, let alone in prolonged work for reconciliation. Nationally, cycles of revenge may recur. Indeed we may need to face up to the “never-ending task of building a country’s social peace”(231).

The challenge for world religions

The difficulties facing those who seek brotherly and sisterly love at the international level are surely even more daunting. But at all levels, Pope Francis sees hope in “Religions at the Service of Fraternity in our World”. That is the title he gives to his final chapter in which he claims several services. First, religions may foster belief in “the Father of us all [without whom] there will be no solid and stable reasons for an appeal to fraternity” (272).

Second, religions may preserve the notion of “transcendent truth” without which “the force of power takes over” leaving each of us to use whatever means are available to advance our interests. Third, religions may keep before us the notion of the transcendent dignity of the human person who is made in the image of God and whose rights cannot be abrogated “by any individual, group, class, nation or state.” (273).

At several points the Pope shows he is aware that his own Church has often failed to practice or understand the implications of its teachings about brotherhood. He wonders how the Church could have been so slow to condemn slavery, the supreme negation of the dignity of each human person.

He is also thinking about how the contemporary Church is delivering on a fourth potential service to Fraternity in addition to the three noted above. That is the service of the Church itself in being a witness and a sign of what Fraternity means in key social institutions. His expression in this final chapter of his hopes for the Church would suggest that he thinks the actual Church still has a way to go:

We want to be a church that serves, that leaves home and 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. (276)

Rowan Ireland retired some years ago from La Trobe University, where he worked in Latin American Studies and in Sociology. He has recently been involved with the Sense of the Faithful website.

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