Francis sees things that a lot of us see. In Fratelli tutti, he reflects on how many democratic societies, which for all their disagreements used to function as common projects, are now deeply divided:
Today, in many countries, hyperbole, extremism and polarisation have become political tools. Employing a strategy of ridicule, suspicion and relentless criticism, in a variety of ways one denies the right of others to exist or to have an opinion. Their share of the truth and their values are rejected and, as a result, the life of society is impoverished and subjected to the hubris of the powerful. Political life no longer has to do with healthy debates about long-term plans to improve people’s lives and to advance the common good, but only with slick marketing techniques primarily aimed at discrediting others. In this craven exchange of charges and counter-charges, debate degenerates into a permanent state of disagreement and confrontation.
Amid the fray of conflicting interests, where victory consists in eliminating one’s opponents, how is it possible to raise our sights to recognise our neighbours or to help those who have fallen along the way? A plan that would set great goals for the development of our entire human family nowadays sounds like madness. We are growing ever more distant from one another, while the slow and demanding march towards an increasingly united and just world is suffering a new and dramatic setback (15–16).
He also sees the way our great leaps forward in means of communication have driven us into different camps, each proclaiming their own ‘truth’, and therefore made us lose contact with reality:
This has now given free rein to ideologies. Things that until a few years ago could not be said by anyone without risking the loss of universal respect can now be said with impunity, and in the crudest of terms, even by some political figures. Nor should we forget that ‘there are huge economic interests operating in the digital world, capable of exercising forms of control as subtle as they are invasive, creating mechanisms for the manipulation of consciences and of the democratic process. The way many platforms work often ends up favouring encounter between persons who think alike, shielding them from debate. These closed circuits facilitate the spread of fake news and false information, fomenting prejudice and hate’ [Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christus vivit, 88] (45).
So far, we have perceptions that concur with the insights and opinions of alert liberals, who believe in human rights, democracy, and non-discrimination.
But then Francis also sees things that many of those liberals don’t. He is acutely aware of the way in which our too-great neoliberal faith in globalisation and markets has increased inequality, division, resentment, and a sense of injustice:
What happens when fraternity is not consciously cultivated, when there is a lack of political will to promote it through education in fraternity, through dialogue and through the recognition of the values of reciprocity and mutual enrichment? Liberty becomes nothing more than a condition for living as we will, completely free to choose to whom or what we will belong, or simply to possess or exploit. This shallow understanding has little to do with the richness of a liberty directed above all to love (103).
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. Nor can it save us from the many ills that are now increasingly globalised. Radical individualism is a virus that is extremely difficult to eliminate, for it is clever. It makes us believe that everything consists in giving free rein to our own ambitions, as if by pursuing ever greater ambitions and creating safety nets we would somehow be serving the common good (105).
I would like especially to mention solidarity, which, ‘as a moral virtue and social attitude born of personal conversion, calls for commitment on the part of those responsible for education and formation’ [Message for the 2016 World Day of Peace] (114).
Solidarity finds concrete expression in service, which can take a variety of forms in an effort to care for others. And service in great part means ‘caring for vulnerability, for the vulnerable members of our families, our society, our people.’ In offering such service, individuals learn to ‘set aside their own wishes and desires, their pursuit of power, before the concrete gaze of those who are most vulnerable… 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. Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people’ [Francis’s September 20, 1015, homily in Havana] (115).
The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith. Whatever the challenge, this impoverished and repetitive school of thought always offers the same recipes. Neoliberalism simply reproduces itself by resorting to the magic theories of “spillover” or “trickle”—without using the name—as the only solution to societal problems. There is little appreciation of the fact that the alleged “spillover” does not resolve the inequality that gives rise to new forms of violence threatening the fabric of society. It is imperative to have a proactive economic policy directed at ‘promoting an economy that favours productive diversity and business creativity’ [Laudato si’, 899] and makes it possible for jobs to be created and not cut. Financial speculation fundamentally aimed at quick profit continues to wreak havoc. Indeed, ‘without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfil its proper economic function. And today this trust has ceased to exist’ [Caritas in veritate, 670]. The story did not end the way it was meant to, and the dogmatic formulae of prevailing economic theory proved not to be infallible. The fragility of world systems in the face of the pandemic has demonstrated that not everything can be resolved by market freedom. It has also shown that, in addition to recovering a sound political life that is not subject to the dictates of finance, ‘we must put human dignity back at the centre and on that pillar build the alternative social structures we need’ [2014 address to participants in the World Meeting of Popular Movements] (168).
Here again, he is on ground occupied by some liberals (and social democrats), who are aware of how exploding increases in inequality have undermined democracy.
So far the conclusions we draw from these insights give shape to what we ought to do, or at least strive to do, to build a decent society. The moral lesson gives shape to our obligations. We still seem to be in the realm of “ought,” which is foundational to a certain kind of liberal morality, concerning “what we owe to each other.”
You could walk away from reading Fratelli tutti with just this understanding of obligation (although the encyclical covers international relations, global governance, the need to respect other cultures, particularly those of indigenous peoples, and much more). But you would miss something essential. The encyclical also operates in another dimension, which we might describe as the fullness of humanity and how to reach it.
Human beings are so made that they cannot live, develop and find fulfilment except ‘in the sincere gift of self to others’ [Gaudium et spes, 24]. Nor can they fully know themselves apart from an encounter with other persons: ‘I communicate effectively with myself only insofar as I communicate with others’ [Gabriel Marcel, Du refus à l’invocation]. 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’ [Angelus, November 10, 2019] (87).
In the depths of every heart, love creates bonds and expands existence, for it draws people out of themselves and towards others. Since we were made for love, in each one of us ‘a law of ekstasis’ seems to operate: ‘the lover “goes outside” the self to find a fuller existence in another’ [Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility]. For this reason, ‘man always has to take up the challenge of moving beyond himself’ [Karl Rahner, Kleines Kirchenjahr: Ein Gang durch den Festkries] (88).
The ability to sit down and listen to others, typical of interpersonal encounters, is paradigmatic of the welcoming attitude shown by those who transcend narcissism and accept others, caring for them and welcoming them into their lives. Yet ‘today’s world is largely a deaf world… At times, the frantic pace of the modern world prevents us from listening attentively to what another person is saying. Halfway through, we interrupt him and want to contradict what he has not even finished saying. We must not lose our ability to listen.’ Saint Francis ‘heard the voice of God, he heard the voice of the poor, he heard the voice of the infirm and he heard the voice of nature. He made of them a way of life. My desire is that the seed that Saint Francis planted may grow in the hearts of many’ [Quoted from the film Pope Francis: A Man of His Word] (48).
Our relationships, if healthy and authentic, open us to others who expand and enrich us. Nowadays, our noblest social instincts can easily be thwarted by self-centred chats that give the impression of being deep relationships. On the contrary, authentic and mature love and true friendship can only take root in hearts open to growth through relationships with others. As couples or friends, we find that our hearts expand as we step out of ourselves and embrace others. Closed groups and self-absorbed couples that define themselves in opposition to others tend to be expressions of selfishness and mere self-preservation (89).
There is a lot of (good) moral advice in Francis’s encyclical, but there is also another dimension: a philosophical anthropology that sees us as realizing more fully our humanity through contact and exchange with people and cultures beyond our original comfort zone. Through these exchanges, new creative human possibilities are disclosed and human life is enriched. This is how I understand Francis’s “law of ekstasis.”
Francis is not just telling us that we have not lived up to our moral responsibilities, that we have fallen short of the (moral) demands of the Gospel; beyond these moral demands the Gospel also calls on us to grow, to emerge from our cramped, fear-driven lives. Our new global predicament, where different cultures and faiths are brought into ever closer contact, is not just an occasion for discriminations and exclusions that we must avoid (though we certainly should fight against these), but also a crucial site for realizing the fuller lives that we are called to live.
Charles Taylor is professor emeritus of philosophy at McGill University. His books include Sources of the Self, A Secular Age, and The Language Animal.
With thanks to Commonweal Magazine and Charles Taylor, where this article originally appeared.