Rethinking Our Method

By Rodrigo Guerra, 29 May 2022
'Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven' by Fra Angelico (circa 1395 –1455). Image: Wikimedia Commons


The following article is the text of a presentation, titled “Rethinking Our Method: ‘Fratelli tutti’ and the need to reconsider the nature and approach of Catholic social teaching and social engagement,” given on May 12, 2022, at Forum Plus, the European Catholic Forum for Social Engagement at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium.

I am very happy to be able to share these brief comments with you. Nine years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a meeting organized by “Forum Plus” in Dubrovnik, of which I have fond memories. Now, as time goes by, I meet again with friends who have matured in the quest to create a relevant Christian presence in the face of contemporary social challenges in Europe—a search that has been creative and that undoubtedly bears fruit, as this Congress attests.

The subject on which you have invited me to present, in a certain sense, is an invitation to delve into the experiences that you have lived, and in which many groups and communities live. It allows us to show that the Christian faith is not exhausted in a proposal for private life, but that it has an important historical and cultural dimension.

The Christian faith, of course, is based on a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. This encounter is lived as an experience in the inner world, in the secret universe that lives in the heart of each person. However, from that intimate place, due to its own dynamism, it tends to expand towards our elemental solidarities: our friends, our family, our community, and, eventually, the entire world.

Expanding the experience of faith to a social horizon, even a global one, does not spring from a strategic program of action or from the search for fame in the manner of a “rock star.” On the contrary, the Christian faith, when embraced in its entirety, becomes expansive mainly according to the logic of the Incarnation—that is, by the formal affirmation that the God in whom we believe has taken flesh, and has become one of us (cf. Jn 1:14). Thanks to the Incarnation, everything human is a way for the Church, and everything human is called to find its fullness in Christ[1]. In other words, the expression “everything human” encompasses both private and public life, the interior experience of Jesus Christ, and the transformation of the world according to Him.

Thus, when Christianity affirms itself without its historical and cultural dimension, it not only prevents us from seeing a certain social dimension of faith, but also affirms a heretical Christology in which Jesus Christ is a God who only appears to become “incarnate”, but who does not really possess all that is human within himself. This type of Christology has a name: “docetism”. Docetism is a spiritualist deformation that upholds only the divine dimension of Jesus Christ, without embracing the fullness of his humanity. A “docetist” god may be interesting to a scholar, but he is existentially boring to a man or woman who is serious about the challenges of his or her own life. Furthermore, a “docetist” god is meaningless in the face of the social challenges of our time.

Quite the contrary, when we let Jesus Christ, true God and true man, break into our lives, life changes because the certainty arises that we are not abandoned and left to our own devices. We are not thrown into a purely individual existence. On the contrary, faith in an incarnate God is experienced precisely through the often fragile and clumsy encounters in life with the neighbor, not in spite of them. It is the concrete flesh of the other with whom I am “Church” that puts me in contact with the living experience of faith and grace. The “faith of the Church” is found by immersion in the experience of friendship and companionship that Jesus Christ offers us and that mysteriously unites us all. Thus, our “being together” becomes a (sacramental) sign that Christ remains in history.

In this way, the social dimension of Christianity is not an accidental or secondary element with respect to faith, but rather it is a constitutive dimension of the good news of the gospel. Understood in this way, the so-called “Catholic Social Doctrine” can be conceived not only as a set of more or less interesting principles that must be applied, but also as the reflexive and critical response to a practical movement.

Indeed, Christianity is a movement before it is a concept, it is an experience before it is a theory, it is astonishment before the humanity of the neighbor in whom the Incarnation continues, more than a set of values. Saint John Paul II, in his programmatic Encyclical Redemptor Hominis tells us something particularly astute in this regard:

In reality, the name for that deep amazement at man’s worth and dignity is the Gospel, that is to say: the Good News. It is also called Christianity. This amazement determines the Church’s mission in the world and, perhaps even more so, “in the modern world.” This amazement, which is also a conviction and a certitude–at its deepest root it is the certainty of faith, but in a hidden and mysterious way it vivifies every aspect of authentic humanism–is closely connected with Christ. It also fixes Christ’s place–so to speak, his particular right of citizenship–in the history of man and mankind.[2]

These words describe many things in a concise way. One of these is that faith in Jesus Christ is not alien to the multiple paths that every human being travels, it is not alien to integral humanism, it is not alien, even, to what happens here, in the European Parliament.

Being a Christian means, among other things, constantly and radically living an elemental sympathy for the whole of human reality. Yes, for all human reality.

This does not mean that our human condition is immaculate. Real human life is full of wounds, limits, and betrayals. Christians do not love evil. However, the call to freedom offered by Christianity is universal. And that is why it does not matter so much that some are closer and others are farther from the fullness in Christ. For all, there is good news, before censorship. For all, there must be patience and companionship, rather than rejection.

All the words said so far are not intended to go in the direction of a spiritual retreat or to be a meditation to encourage our devotion. It is necessary to repeat these words, again and again, because they constitute the heart of the new synthesis of “Catholic Social Doctrine”, as Pope Francis gives it to us today.

In fact, “Catholic Social Teaching” is not a lactose-free version of Christianity. It is Christianity in its community horizon. For this reason, although it may be important to study some “handbook,” or our beloved “Compendium,”[3], the most important thing is that our religious experience fosters a renewed passion for each human person, that is, for each unique, unrepeatable and irreplaceable history.

When in “Catholic Social Teaching” we speak of the primacy of the person, what we mean is not that one concept is more important than others. The human person is not a concept. In fact, the person is unconceptualizable. “Person” is not a universal and abstract representation; this word always refers to the concrete rational-relational singular, that is, to you and me in a total way and in relation to others. This includes even our most specific biographical data—that is, everything that makes us truly unique, and therefore more valuable.[4]

For this reason, understanding that “Catholic Social Doctrine” affirms the primacy of the person, is always, more than a theoretical declaration, a call to live an experience of radical responsibility for the other. We may suddenly think, hearing this, that we want to immediately introduce a second principle: the principle of “solidarity.” However, Pope Francis proposes something that surpasses the very horizon of solidarity. It is necessary to be “brothers”:

Indeed, while solidarity is the principle of social planning that allows the unequal to become equal; fraternity is what allows the equal to be different people. Fraternity allows people who are equal in their essence, dignity, freedom, and their fundamental rights to participate differently in the common good according to their abilities, their life plan, their vocation, their work, or their charism of service. From the beginning of my pontificate, I wanted to point out that “our brothers and sisters are the prolongation of the Incarnation for each of us” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 179).[5]

Why is it so important to speak openly about fraternity in the current context and within “Catholic Social Doctrine”? Antonio Spadaro SJ has expressed it succinctly and particularly eloquently:

Fraternity […] subverts the logic of the apocalypse that prevails today, a logic that fights against the world because it believes that the world is the opposite of God, that is, an idol, and therefore must be destroyed as soon as possible to accelerate The end of the ages. Before the abyss of the apocalypse there are no longer brothers, but only apostates or “martyrs” in a race “against” time. But we are not militants or apostates, but all brothers.

Fraternity does not burn time or blind eyes and souls. Instead, it occupies time, it requires time. The one of the discussions and the one of the reconciliations. Fraternity “loses” time. The apocalypse burns it. Fraternity demands the time of boredom. Hate is pure emotion. Fraternity is what allows equals to be diverse people. Hate eliminates what is different. The fraternity rescues the time of politics, mediation, encounter, the construction of civil society and care. Fundamentalism nullifies it like in a video game[6].

In a context strongly marked by polarization, in which the “social center” is shrinking and extremism–from one side or the other–devours communities, Pope Francis insists that we Christians should not allow ourselves to be absorbed by ideologies that seek to tear the world apart, but that we must show our specifically Christian contribution. True fraternity does not call for a crusade against “enemies,” but instead seeks to create reconciliation processes and inclusive solutions. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, already saw this need when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires:

We are divided because our adherence to men has been replaced by adherence to systems and ideologies. We have lost the sense of man and of the concrete people with all their historical experiences and their clearest aspirations. We must not listen only to the call of the systematic coherences that seek to manipulate men according to their interests. Man, who is the origin, subject and end of every institution, has been absorbed and manipulated by them[7].

Indeed, what we need to build is a post-ideological society marked not by a nihilistic vacuum or by a more or less exalted irrationalism, but by a fraternity that becomes political charity. In other words: we have to discover that the logic of cultural battles is not enough to understand and face the challenges of our time, to understand this particular cultural moment that we call “change of era”. It is the logic of charity, in its most sublime sense, that we must introduce in all our strategies to be relevant to the secret yearnings of everyone’s human heart.

Believing in dialogue, reconciliation, and charity as a political action method is usually considered naive, cowardly, or typical of the faint-hearted. Those who have been conquered by ideology seem to think that the brave, consistent, and efficient position is that of the radicalized, the extremist, the one who does not build bridges but breaks down walls and, eventually, the one who is willing to destroy people.

Jesus of Nazareth was undoubtedly a radical man. However, he was radical in patience, in mercy, in tenderness. He radically affirmed the truth with charity. He knew well that one does not build by destroying. Peace is not affirmed by attacking. The authentic common good is only built when it is interpreted as the set of conditions that make it possible for all of us to recognize ourselves as brothers and sisters and to be responsible for one another. “Common good” primarily means sustaining fraternity, that is, promoting recognition of the dignity of people, especially the poorest, the most marginalized, and the most vulnerable.

In fact, Pope Francis reminds us that:

Now there are only two kinds of people: those who care for someone who is hurting and those who pass by; those who bend down to help and those who look the other way and hurry off. Here, all our distinctions, labels and masks fall away: it is the moment of truth. Will we bend down to touch and heal the wounds of others? Will we bend down and help another to get up? This is today’s challenge, and we should not be afraid to face it.[8]

And later he states:

The spiritual stature of a person’s life is measured by love, which in the end remains “the criterion for the definitive decision about a human life’s worth or lack thereof”. Yet some believers think that it consists in the imposition of their own ideologies upon everyone else, or in a violent defense of the truth, or in impressive demonstrations of strength. 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 (cf. 1 Cor 13:1-13).[9]

Pope Francis, through Evangelii GaudiumLaudato Si’, and especially Fratelli Tutti, invites us to take a new step in Christian social commitment and to rethink our fundamental method of interpreting reality and committed action.

From a methodological point of view, the question can be summed up as follows: in fidelity to the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption, Christians, as missionary disciples, must risk advancing to the last frontier. The “last frontier” is more thematic and existential than geographical. The “last frontiers” are the peripheries inhabited by men and women who may be far from God and the Church, but yearn for truth, goodness, beauty, and justice. A moralistic Christianity, focused on a defensive or merely combative attitude, does not exhibit what is specifically Christian. It is the love of God lived radically with the wounded brother, with the fallen brother, with the “adversary” brother, which can generate a novelty greater than that offered by the logic of power or the logic of ideology.

To put it even more concisely, what we need from a methodological point of view is a more intelligent look, a more intelligent perspective, and a more intelligent understanding of reality. This is what “Catholic Social Teaching” consists of. Faith expands the horizon of reason and allows us to look at reality with more fullness of meaning, with more depth, with less anger, and more hope. Only then it is possible to act in a different way. Only then it is possible to overcome the “mainstream” approach that lets pure pragmatism and the search for power animate our struggles.

The future of our society is at stake. Violence is at the door and easily erupts at the slightest provocation. That is why we need a new generation of young people capable of living in community, in communion, to experience being Christians—the protagonists of a new creation capable of affirming co-responsibility for the other and thereby reducing the risk of new wars.

It is not enough to give individual testimony. It is necessary to walk together (“synodality”), so that our unity may be an eloquent sign of our faith. It is not enough to react to “enemies” or “adversaries”, it is necessary to relearn that being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice,[10] a reactionary attitude, or a purely defensive gesture. The beginning of Christian faith is an encounter, it is the “Kerygma”, which, if deepened in life, generates an inexhaustible creativity capable of always finding ways of peace and fraternal inclusion among people and among nations.

This is the beginning of a new kind of politics.[11] This is the hopeful beginning of a new society that we can be proud of, instead of ashamed.

Thank you very much!

Rodrigo Guerra López is the secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.

Originally from Mexico City, he graduated in philosophy from the Free Popular University of the State of Puebla, Mexico; he was then awarded a higher degree in university humanism from the Ibero-American University, Mexico, and a doctorate in philosophy from the International Academy of Philosophy of the Principality of Liechtenstein.

He has held the role of academic coordinator of the John Paul II Pontifical Institute in Mexico City and has served as professor of metaphysics, bioethics, and philosophy of law at the PanAmerican University, Mexico. In 2013 he held the Karol Wojtyla Memorial Lectures at the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland.

From 2004 to 2007 he directed the Observatorio Socio Pastoral of the Latin American Episcopal Council. In 2008 he founded the Centro de Investigación Social Avanzada (CISAV), of which he is professor-researcher of the Division of Philosophy and member of the Consejo de Gobierno.

He is a member of the theological commission of the Latin American Episcopal Council and of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and is the author of numerous publications in the field of anthropology, bioethics, and social philosophy.

With thanks to Where Peter Is and Rodrigo Guerra López, where this article originally appeared.



[1] Cf. Saint John Paul II, Redemptor hominis, n.n. 10, 13, 14.

[2] Saint John Paul II, Redemptor hominis, n. 10.

[3] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Continuum, 2006.

[4] Cf. R. Guerra López, Afirmar a la persona por sí misma, CNDH, México 2003.

[5] Pope Francis, Message to Prof. Margaret Archer, President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, 14 April 2017.

[6] A. Spadaro SJ, “Fratelli tutti. Una guía para la lectura”, en R. Luciani – D. Portillo (coords.), Fraternidad abierta 2.0, Khaf, Madrid 2021, p.p. 16-17.

[7] J. M. Bergoglio-Papa Francesco, “Testimonanza di sangue” (CIAS, Bs. As. 1976), trad. it. en Pastorale sociale, Jaca Book, Milano 2015, p. 243.

[8] Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti, n. 70.

[9] Ibidem, n. 92.

[10] Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, n. 1.

[11] Cf.  Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti, Ch.V; R. Buttiglione, Il problema politico dei cattolici, Piemme, Casale Monferrato 1994; C. Aguiar – R. Guerra (Coords.), Católicos y políticos, Prólogo de Jorge Mario Bergoglio SJ, Agape, Bs. As. 2006.


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