Chapter 3: Don’t Lose the Trees for the Forest

Maybe sometimes the real risk is losing the trees for the forest.

This week I stumbled into an essay by David Brooks in The Atlantic about the “moral convulsion” we’re going through. It’s a pretty depressing read; it’s not as long as a papal encyclical, it just feels that way. But as is always true with Brooks, it is well-researched, grounded in history and the current moment, and I find he expresses with more eloquence and historical context than I could muster something that sounds like what I’ve been noticing, too.

Brooks offers very little hope in the face of such widespread social distrust – and by “social distrust” he means that we have so little faith not only in our institutions but in each other that we generally believe that everyone else is only out for themselves and cannot be trusted to help us if we need it. Despite the massive scale of the societal problems he identifies, Brooks argues that the only way forward to a new era of social trust requires the “nitty-gritty work of organizational life,” combined with individual commitment to trustworthiness in the face of distrust: “trust can be rebuilt through the accumulation of small heroic acts—by the outrageous gesture of extending vulnerability in a world that is mean, by proffering faith in other people when that faith may not be returned.” Rebuilding a functional society, in other words, starts with the little and boring acts of trust-building, and someone has to go first.

What does this have to do with Fratelli Tutti’s third chapter? Pope Francis makes a couple of points on the political-societal level in this chapter that are bound to be controversial – even though they’ll likely be twisted out of their context to make them sound more damning to his opponents’ ears than they really are. But the real challenge in Chapter 3 is to keep in mind that the call to be one human family, to value the dignity of each life, and to live out the parable of the Good Samaritan is not first through implementing new policy but in doing the “nitty-gritty work” of conversion of our hearts.

So before we get to what the pope does and doesn’t say about private property or borders or government, we need to recognize that those forest-level issues all stem from the same seed: What does it mean to recognize that every person is my brother or sister?

The conversion that answering this question requires starts with re-translating what it means to be human. We are first and foremost, in the Christian understanding, created to live for others. So “Human beings are so made that they cannot live, develop and find fulfilment except ‘in the sincere gift of self to others’. Nor can they fully know themselves apart from an encounter with other persons….No one can experience the true beauty of life without relating to others, without having real faces to love. This is part of the mystery of authentic human existence. “Life exists where there is bonding, communion, fraternity; and life is stronger than death when it is built on true relationships and bonds of fidelity. On the contrary, there is no life when we claim to be self- sufficient and live as islands: in these attitudes, death prevails” (87). This call to connection is one that requires us to always expand the circle of who we call “us”. The pope challenges those of us whose instinct is to live in a tight social bubble: “Closed groups and self-absorbed couples that define themselves in opposition to others tend to be expressions of selfishness and mere self- preservation” (89).

This social understanding of humanity is another way of establishing the primacy of love before any other virtue. “Yet if the acts of the various moral virtues are to be rightly directed, one needs to take into account the extent to which they foster openness and union with others” (91). “The spiritual stature of a person’s life is measured by love…All of us, as believers, need to recognize that love takes first place: love must never be put at risk, and the greatest danger lies in failing to love” (92). Francis cites I Corinthians 13 as the Scriptural reminder of this.

What love in practice looks like is the Latin term benevolentia. “This is an attitude that “wills the good” of others; it bespeaks a yearning for goodness, an inclination towards all that is fine and excellent, a desire to fill the lives of others with what is beautiful, sublime and edifying (112).”

Brooks doesn’t cite Fratelli Tutti in his essay, but he could have. “Here, regrettably, I feel bound to reiterate that ‘we have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good. Once the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicting interests’.” Instead of this profound social distrust, Francis says, “Let us return to promoting the good, for ourselves and for the whole human family, and thus advance together towards an authentic and integral growth. Every society needs to ensure that values are passed on; otherwise, what is handed down are selfishness, violence, corruption in its various forms, indifference and, ultimately, a life closed to transcendence and entrenched in individual interests.” (113).

Finally, Pope Francis ties this individual conversion to social change. While there is a temptation for policy-focused people like me to think of changing systems in ways that don’t require us to actually engage in the “nitty-gritty” of personal contact with those in need, the pope says that that is insufficient, because “we are responsible for the fragility of others as we strive to build a common future…Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh, senses their closeness and even, in some cases, ‘suffers’ that closeness and tries to help them” (115). At the same time, love expressed through “[s]olidarity means much more than engaging in sporadic acts of generosity. It means thinking and acting in terms of community. It means that the lives of all are prior to the appropriation of goods by a few. It also means combatting the structural causes of poverty, inequality, the lack of work, land and housing, the denial of social and labour rights” (116).

So is Pope Francis against private ownership? No, but he sees the need to put the right to private property in its historic place as a secondary right. Citing early Church Fathers and Saint John Paul II, he reminds us of a principle most Western Catholics have forgotten, the universal destination of goods. “The world exists for everyone, because all of us were born with the same dignity (118);” the early Church realized “that if one person lacks what is necessary to live with dignity, it is because another person is detaining it. Saint John Chrysostom summarizes it in this way: “Not to share our wealth with the poor is to rob them and take away their livelihood. The riches we possess are not our own, but theirs as well” (119). Knowing that this was likely to irk politically conservative Catholics, Pope Francis cites one of their heroes, Saint John Paul II: “The principle of the common use of created goods is the “first principle of the whole ethical and social order”; it is a natural and inherent right that takes priority over others…The right to private property can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of the universal destination of created goods” (120).

This means that “development must not aim at the amassing of wealth by a few, but must ensure “human rights – personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples”. The right of some to free enterprise or market freedom cannot supersede the rights of peoples and the dignity of the poor, or, for that matter, respect for the natural environment, for “if we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all” (122). 

Francis is pro-private enterprise, but in a qualified way, as a means to a greater end. “Business abilities, which are a gift from God, should always be clearly directed to the development of others and to eliminating poverty, especially through the creation of diversified work opportunities. The right to private property is always accompanied by the primary and prior principle of the subordination of all private property to the universal destination of the earth’s goods, and thus the right of all to their use” (123).

This understanding of property as a secondary right extends not only to individuals but to nations. “Nowadays, a firm belief in the common destination of the earth’s goods requires that this principle also be applied to nations, their territories and their resources….As the Bishops of the United States have taught, there are fundamental rights that “precede any society because they flow from the dignity granted to each person as created by God” (124).

By extension, Francis puts limits on an over-glorification of markets, because they weigh individuals not by their inherent dignity but by their economic value. “Some people are born into economically stable families, receive a fine education, grow up well nourished, or naturally possess great talent. They will certainly not need a proactive state; they need only claim their freedom. Yet the same rule clearly does not apply to a disabled person, to someone born in dire poverty, to those lacking a good education and with little access to adequate health care. If a society is governed primarily by the criteria of market freedom and efficiency, there is no place for such persons, and fraternity will remain just another vague ideal” (109).

Is Pope Francis in favor of a totalitarian, communist, globalist government? Hardly. “I am certainly not proposing an authoritarian and abstract universalism, devised or planned by a small group and presented as an ideal for the sake of levelling, dominating and plundering. One model of globalization in fact ‘consciously aims at a one-dimensional uniformity and seeks to eliminate all differences and traditions in a superficial quest for unity… If a certain kind of globalization claims to make everyone uniform, to level everyone out, that globalization destroys the rich gifts and uniqueness of each person and each people’” (100). What conservatives rail against in totalitarianism is what Francis opposes: the loss of individual freedom means the loss of cultural diversity. 

Even so, Francis does see an active role for government in regulating society. “What we need in fact are states and civil institutions that are present and active, that look beyond the free and efficient working of certain economic, political or ideological systems, and are primarily concerned with individuals and the common good” (108). While personal conversion to fraternity may come first, “only when our economic and social system no longer produces even a single victim, a single person cast aside, will we be able to celebrate the feast of universal fraternity” (110).

Is he demanding open borders? Not exactly. Francis is (rightly) reminding us that if we are all brothers and sisters, that all extends beyond any human borders, and that means anything necessary to guarantee the dignity of each person does as well. “Social friendship and universal fraternity necessarily call for an acknowledgement of the worth of every human person, always and everywhere. If each individual is of such great worth, it must be stated clearly and firmly that “the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer resources or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity…Every human being has the right to live with dignity and to develop integrally; this fundamental right cannot be denied by any country. People have this right even if they are unproductive, or were born with or developed limitations” (106-107).

This understanding of the universality of the human family means nations have responsibilities, not only to their citizens, but to others as well. “If every human being possesses an inalienable dignity, if all people are my brothers and sisters, and if the world truly belongs to everyone, then it matters little whether my neighbour was born in my country or elsewhere. My own country also shares responsibility for his or her development, although it can fulfil that responsibility in a variety of ways. It can offer a generous welcome to those in urgent need, or work to improve living conditions in their native lands by refusing to exploit those countries or to drain them of natural resources, backing corrupt systems that hinder the dignified development of their peoples” (125).

Then why are people accusing him of these positions? One of the maddening things about Pope Francis is that he doesn’t openly engage his detractors. But I think one of the themes he returns to in this chapter helps explain the disconnect: the paradox of the dignity of every individual and the temptation to individualism. While the entire document (and all of Catholic social teaching) revolves around the dignity of each person, individualism perverts that dignity to an unholy and unrealistic degree. “Today there is a tendency to claim ever broader individual – I am tempted to say individualistic – rights. Underlying this is a conception of the human person as detached from all social and anthropological contexts, as if the person were a “monad” (monás), increasingly unconcerned with others… Unless the rights of each individual are harmoniously ordered to the greater good, those rights will end up being considered limitless and consequently will become a source of conflicts and violence” (111). “Individualism does not make us more free, more equal, more fraternal. The mere sum of individual interests is not capable of generating a better world for the whole human family” (105).

A last, hopeful word: “If we accept the great principle that there are rights born of our inalienable human dignity, we can rise to the challenge of envisaging a new humanity. We can aspire to a world that provides land, housing and work for all. This is the true path of peace, not the senseless and myopic strategy of sowing fear and mistrust in the face of outside threats” (127).

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