· Vatican City ·

Reflection on the Holy Father’s Encyclical

Challenges to be accepted

“The Good Samaritan” by Olga Bakhtina (detail)
16 April 2021

“If the conviction that all human beings are brothers and sisters is not to remain an abstract idea..., then numerous related issues emerge” (cf. Fratelli Tutti [FT], 128). The first of these challenges is to understand if and why we are brothers and sisters, all. In the face of daily wars, of all forms of hatred, past and present, of terrorism, of individual and collective cruelty, we wonder whether and how one can speak of fraternity; a word that has even given rise to ideological and political misunderstandings, and the 18th century French Revolution itself made it a cornerstone of the “new” era; an era in which we do not disdain violence, racial segregation, colonialism, war and, subsequently, the exploitation of labour, the birth of complex ideologies of domination and supremacy (Nazism, communism and dictatorships from various inspirations).

For Christ and for the culture that originates in him, fraternity has a different, profoundly human and existential history — the Biblical one — which does not ignore the the assertion of homo homini lupus (a maxim derived from Plautus’ Asinaria, II, 4, 88), which was meant to explain human selfishness and to designate the condition in which men compete against one another to survive.

The vision — as a true novelty — that Jesus outlines is “different”. And from this viewpoint which is to be understood as the total expression of the Admonitions attributed to Saint Francis, who called on his brothers to look to Christ to understand the meaning of fraternity that he wanted among them.

Biblically speaking, the idea of fraternity (predating every form of brotherhood with a somewhat reductive and apparently comradely flavour) originates not simply from sharing the same biological maternity/paternity, but from surpassing the aspect of the biological benefit expressed in Psalm 51, which confesses: “in sin did my mother conceive me” (v. 5); according to this Psalm, the human being, in other words, is aware that, in life he becomes a companion to thieves and adulterers, to fomenters of deceit, and will even kill his own kind in the greatest contempt even of God (cf. Ps 50, vv. 16ff.). The wicked conscience almost leads Cain to delude the Eternal One, trying to call himself outside Abel’s fraternity; this story continues in humanity. Original sin (now nearly dispensed with in theology and contemporary preaching), instead, we carry with us; without it, then, there is not even a baptism from on high (cf. Jn 3:3-8), according to Jesus’ teaching to Nicodemus: he sought to understand what was the “novelty” preached by Christ; nor would there have been a role for that “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29), Jesus, whom John the Baptist pointed out as he saw Him coming towards him.

To what novelty does this refer? Jesus was teaching the crowds and the disciples the heart of relationships with God, with society (including religious) and with others; then he decisively states: “you are all brethren” (Mt 23:8). Here the intention is not simply an affinity with Judaism; He was broadening the view, since “you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Mt 23:9). The question with Jesus thus becomes transcendent. The origin of fraternity — Jesus says — is our heavenly Father and, for this reason, overcomes any discrimination related to skin colour, culture and traditions; an “Origin” which, even in the ecclesial realm, seems to be discounted or ignored. Should the appeal to transcendence fail, fraternity would be shattered; equality would not stand up to the various pressures, including socio-economic, and freedom would become selfishly wrapped up in itself. Fraternity has a transcendent reach. This is even recalled in the Papal Encyclical, quoting John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus (cf. FT, 262).

A further challenge is posed to us: if the transcendence were true, which God are we talking about? The question was posed to me in a simple but profound way, by a Christian who was living in Iran at the time of my service in that country and which constantly had to confront the ‘God of Islam’: “Is the God of Jesus Christ” — he asked with some perplexity — “the same as the God preached by Muslims?”. It was not an idle question. The concrete contradictions, the fact of feeling called “unfaithful” (kāfir), were/are real. Abu Dhabi, with the relations between Christians and Muslims, (Doc-u-ment on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, 4 February 2019) is a new step, at least for not waging war and not creating further humanitarian cri-ses. Terrorism and extremism are contrary to Abu Dhabi. But the hope that the Abrahamic root of the three monotheistic religions, of which the Second Vatican Council speaks (cf. Lumen Gentium, 16), can bear fruit has not withered. Thus in this climate it is not risky to think that the Abraham Accords (between the Arab Emirates, Bahrein and Israel) may be an initiative of not only diplomatic but also economic, cultural and religious consequences that were previously unthinkable. To leave the logic of conflict is to change and elevate thinking.

When Jesus speaks of the “heavenly Father” he is of course referring to the God of Abrahamic revelation. He was not speaking of an abstract or philosophical God; to the Samaritan woman (remember that there was no good blood between Samaritans and Jews) who asked him which God should be worshipped, Jesus answers by going beyond the nearby Mount Gerizim on which the Samaritans worshipped “their” God, but also the mount of Jerusalem on which the Jews worshipped the Most High. Instead, Jesus speaks of a “Father” who wants to be worshipped “in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23-24). This God is then revealed by/in Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who is no longer possible to disregard. With Him one returns either to pantheism or to the irenic-theosophical divisions of a God of a Platonic or esoteric flavour. The God of Jesus Christ has the nature of the Father who in the Son illuminates, redeems, reconciles us and on the cross opens up to fraternity. Which?

To remove any further misunderstanding, to the doctor of the Law who asked for explanations, Jesus tells the splendid parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:25-37); there is no theory, but exemplification, and especially that powerful “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37); Pope Francis’ Encyclical illustrates with undeniable clarity this parable which represents the theological heart of Jesus’ teaching on fraternity and is at the centre of the papal document (cf. nn. 56ff.). The parable — the Pope explains — highlights “the best of the human spirit” (FT n. 71) which takes shape and originates in truth.

In truth? Once again the Christian thinks of Christ: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). In understandable terms, we say that Jesus perfects, so to speak, his teaching for us by talking about the most difficult human acts, such as, for example (cf. Mt 5:20ff.), vengeance (But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil…”: Mt 5:39), human relationships (“…if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles”: Mt 5:41), the attitude toward those in need (“do not refuse him who would borrow from you”: Mt 5:42) or the adversarial relationship (“‘…how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ … ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven’”: Mt 18:21-22). Attention! — says Jesus — a certain brotherhood even exists between ‘publicans’ and ‘pagans’, but for a Christian, fraternity has as its reference “your heavenly Father” (Mt 5:48)!

The fraternity that Jesus speaks of, then, cannot be simply reduced to an anthropological or sociological fact; for a Christian the question is theological, transcendent (cf. FT 85); that is, he needs the Father-God, a principle of reference and keystone of all architecture of fraternity. Without Father-God, fraternity goes into crisis and is in constant need of support: tolerance, pact, norm, judgment, strength. Reason alone cannot establish fraternity (cf. FT 272).

Jesus, as Teacher, guarantees a vision that transcends the anthropological limit in itself. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, to a woman religious who wanted to leave the Congregation because she could no longer bear the stench of the poor, asked who was that poor man that she had welcomed that day: “Did he not have the face of Christ?”, she asked, and the woman remained in the Congregation. “For Christians” — says the Pope — “to recognize Christ himself in each of our abandoned or excluded brothers and sisters” (FT 85) allows us to overcome the many motivations and questions that entrap us. This calls into question the third of the theological virtues, charity, which warms every relationship. Charity goes well beyond every sociological or biological dimension; it is founded in a God to be loved “above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1822); charity is fulfilled in Jesus who loved his own to the end (cf. Jn 13:1). The Letter to the Hebrews explores an interesting explanation about the humanity assumed by Christ, commenting splendidly on the “fitting” (decèbat, éprepen ) (Heb 2:10) redemptive incarnation of Jesus, “he who sanctifies” and “is not ashamed” to call us brethren (Heb 2:11).

A final challenge: We are all brothers and sisters, but “diverse” brothers and sisters? Yes. Diversity does not nullify the social meaning of existence or the conviction of the dignity of every person, nor the dimension of spirituality (cf. FT 86). Diversity promotes human richness and beauty. That is, we think about a diversity not with a generic philanthropic or universalistic flavour, but as creator of a true form of social “friendship” that generates, through the rectitude of the heart, truth, the common good and peace.

Fernando Filoni