Liberty and fraternal responsibility. An important statement by Pope Francis closely regarding the Social Doctrine of the Church.

Pope Francis has had occasion to address the issue of social integration over the past few days, and did so explicitly in the Message sent on 24 April last to Ms Margaret Archer, President of the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences.

At times it is thought that the thrust of charity suffices for the presence of Christians in the social and political world in the face of today’s outstanding challenges which the pope has called by their names in very realistic terms. Yes, charity is fundamental and, in fact, the Social Doctrine of the Church itself is the expression of Christian charity and the Church’s love for the world following the example of Jesus Christ. The Social Doctrine of the Church, however, is also “knowledge” pieced together in the tradition of the Church, “knowledge” that expresses categories for both orientation and evaluation, and requires the mediation of scientific and operational competencies in order to reach the concreteness of issues and solutions. In the Message to Ms Archer, the Holy Father evokes this knowledge of the Social Doctrine of the Church, reviving it in many aspects and updating it in others. The result is an authoritative cluster of reflections and orientations suited to our times. Noteworthy are the explicit references to the Encyclical Letter Caritas in veritate of Benedict XVI, and especially the implicit ones.

A first point touched upon by Pope Francis is justice, which he does not hesitate to call “virtue” (“of persons and institutions”, as he writes), while it is so often attributed or assigned to impersonal systems or mechanisms. Justice is a virtue, a way of customarily acting in conformity with good. By calling it “a virtue” the pope returns justice to its legitimate sphere, the sphere of morals, where its ultimate orientation to good (the common good) is to be found.

Implicitly referring to concepts expressed in both Caritas in veritate and in his citations from Gaudium et spes whereby justice must not be placed at the end of an economic process as a form of distribution, but be present throughout the process as of the very beginning, Pope Francis makes an unprecedented distinction between solidarity and fraternity, whose harbingers are to be found in Caritas in veritate. The “code of solidarity” runs the risk of contrasting with the “code of efficiency”, while the code of fraternity is able to transcend them both, leading to something truly new and beneficial for social togetherness. Very beautiful are the pope’s following words: “solidarity is the principle of social planning that permits those unequal to become equal, while fraternity is the principle that permits those equal to be different persons”. In other words, the aim of solidarity is to render all persons equal in their dignity. Conversely speaking, fraternity begins from this equality they share to open them to give of themselves according to the diversity of personal vocation. The former moves from diversity to equality, while the latter moves from equality to diversity, where the word ‘diversity’ naturally assumes two different meanings. This is tantamount to saying that once solidarity has been exercised and applied, there is still much to be done in seeking to live the fraternity that was the hidden driver of solidarity itself. This new approach is not in contrast with the teaching of John Paul II, who defined solidarity as “the willingness to feel oneself responsible for all”. What it does, however, is  render explicit and clarify the fact that said responsibility includes not only bringing about a society more equal, but also a society more different in the sense of a society where each stakeholder, whether individual, natural society or social group, may be him/her/itself in response to a vocation proper.

This concept of liberty as response to the vocation leads Pope Francis to the second reflection in the Message to Ms. Archer. There is a concept of liberty understood not as response to a vocation (that is to say liberty “for”) but as negative liberty (or liberty “from”) with neither impediments nor limits, or as positive liberty (or liberty “to”) understood as pure free choice at one’s absolute discretion. A degenerative form of liberty unencumbered by vocations is, according to Pope Francis, the modern individualist libertarianism that does not intend to be limited or restricted by any bond.  As the Holy Father notes, the difference between “constraint” and “bond” is not clear in people’s minds. A constraint is an extrinsic limitation of liberty, while bond is the concrete possibility for the realization thereof since it determines the vocation, rendering it true liberty, liberty “for”. Evident in these observations offered by Pope Francis are echoes of the traditional Christian, philosophical and theological vision of liberty at large so there would not be void liberty, and hence slavery towards “self and one’s own cravings”, but true liberty, liberty rendered such by good and truth. In fact, as Pope Francis says when using a rather original expression, vocation is not the result or outcome of “self-causality”, but issues forth from a project about us that we neither designed nor created ourselves. This is why liberty requires bonds, and therefore requires what the Message began with, with justice and the common good.

These aspects are concretely visible in the world of labor, the world of work. Work, writes Pope Francis, is not only a right; it is above all “a capacity and an indomitable need of a person”. In other words, it is a vocation. Rights can be suppressed, writes the pope, but needs innate in the very nature of man cannot be suppressed. Therefore, issuing forth from the selfsame human nature of a person is his/her vocation, and this includes work. Considered in these terms, work has a primary moral dimension on which to base the search for its justice.

The title of the Academy’s plenary assembly was: “Towards a participatory society: new roads for social and cultural integration”. The words used in the title may have given the impression that the focus of interest was mainly on a sociological and horizontal consideration of the issue. In his Message the Holy Father highlights that participation without vocations produces not true integration, but the juxtaposition or arithmetic sum of isolated and libertarian individuals. Integration calls for participation according to justice, the common good and above all fraternity, and these are all things persons do not give to themselves. Even though the words ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘God’ never appear in the Message,  the transcendental reference is evident.


Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi

Bishop of Trieste and President of the Observatory Cardinal Van Thuân