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Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Fratelli Tutti and the French Republic’s Motto

Town hall of Reims (Marne, France), entry of ceremony room.

“Fraternity” is not an easy word to use in the English speaking world: gendered, churchy.  Most frequently it denotes rather problematic student organizations. In French (and especially in France) it raises far fewer problems and indeed provides a significant basis for dialogue between Christians and others because it is part of the patrimony of the French Republic. “Fraternity” appears on the pediments of many town halls; it is printed in the header of administrative papers, and carved on monuments at the memory of war veterans. For “Fraternity” is one of the three values that constitute the motto of the French Republic since 1848: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

In Fratelli tutti (FT), without making any explicit reference to France, Pope Francis dedicates a subsection of three paragraphs to these three words. The subsection is part of a development on “fraternity” as founded on universal love, going beyond a world of mere associates pursuing common interests. “Fraternity is born not only of a climate of respect for individual liberties, or even of a certain administratively guaranteed equality. Fraternity necessarily calls for something greater, which in turn enhances freedom and equality” (FT 103. Emphasis mine). Fraternity, thus, appears as a necessary complement to the quest for freedom and equality and as a check and balance on what could become problematic excesses if those two notions are left as absolutes. Fraternity is the virtue to be promoted so that the end achieved by liberty and equality is truly humanizing. Without fraternity, without the cultivation of dialogue and “the recognition of the values of reciprocity and mutual enrichment” (FT 103), we are left with individualism; and “individualism does not make us more free, more equal, more fraternal” (FT 105).

Indeed, freedom reduced to “a condition for living as we will, completely free to choose to whom or what we will belong, or simply to possess or exploit” reflects “a shallow understanding” of liberty that “has little to do with the richness of a liberty directed above all to love” (FT 103). This is to be read in connection with the affirmation a few paragraphs later that “if a society is governed primarily by the criteria of market freedom and efficiency”, there is no place, for example, for “a disabled person, someone born in dire poverty, those lacking a good education and with little access to adequate health care” (FT 109).

Similarly, equality is not “achieved by an abstract proclamation that “all men and women are equal.” Such an abstract proclamation may be sufficient to create “associates” motivated by common interests, but “within that framework, what place is there for those who are not part of one’s group of associates, yet long for a better life for themselves and their families?” (FT 104). Abstract proclamation of equality does not provide sufficiently for the integration of everyone. As pointed out in a previous section, “Every brother or sister in need, when abandoned or ignored by the society in which I live, becomes an existential foreigner, even though born in the same country” (FT 97) Conversely, fraternity moves the society in a different direction. It prompts the solidarity that is “the ‘solidity’ born of the consciousness that we are responsible for the fragility of others as we strive to build a common future” (FT 115).

In 2018, the French Conseil Constitutionnel (the highest jurisdiction in France, in charge of declaring the constitutionality of the laws) explicitly mentioned the “principle of fraternity” in one of its decisions. The case concerned articles of a law about illegal migration which made it an offense to help “directly or indirectly a foreigner illegally to enter, circulate or stay in the country.” Humanitarian organizations working with migrants had pointed out that the law as formulated put at risk people helping migrants on humanitarian grounds. For these organizations, it amounted to making solidarity a legal offense:  lInfraction de solidarité. Without entering into the technicalities of the case, we can note that the highest jurisdiction in the land recognized “fraternity” as a “constitutional principle” that served as a basis for protecting those offering humanitarian assistance to people in need whatever their legal status. Reasoning in terms merely of liberty and equality would not have been sufficient. The legal reasoning of the Conseil Constitutionnel has nothing to do with theological and religious motivations. Rather, it shows that the fraternity promoted by Fratelli tutti is not foreign to the principles of the French Republic.

If “fraternity” is recognized as a basic principle of French social cohesion, or, to speak Pope Francis’ language, as a principle on which to build the “we” that we are in France, could it help us move beyond some of the tensions the country faces concerning religion in the public space? In a very secularized country, shaped by several fierce conflicts between the State and the Catholic Church since the French Revolution of 1789, debates regularly reopen about whether the “right to blasphemy” is essential to freedom of speech. The debate was dramatically reignited last October when a high-school teacher was savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist following his use of satirical cartoons concerning prophet Muhammad during a class on freedom of speech. Many, including President Macron, reaffirmed that freedom of speech, a sacrosanct pillar of democracy, includes the right to blasphemy.

Now, it is obviously important to reaffirm the right to freedom of speech regarding religious matters against those who use pseudo-religious justifications to commit unqualifiable acts, or states which condemn people of minority religions to death by invoking anti-blasphemy laws. There is, nonetheless, a need also to protect ordinary people professing a religion from being hurt as regards their religious beliefs. Of course, slander is an offense punished by the law, as is hate speech targeted at a specific group of people. Is it sufficient? Any society clearly needs an appropriate balance between freedom of speech, including satirical speech, and freedom of religion including respect for one’s sacred beliefs. In a situation where some hold religious beliefs that make absolutely no sense for the majority of the population, something more is needed than the limitation of one right by another, one liberty by another. Any law attempting to regulate the freedom of speech in this way risks becoming a means of censorship.

An appeal to the principle of fraternity would enable another approach. It would foster the consciousness that it might make sense, and even be necessary, for me voluntarily to limit my personal freedom of speech because of the suffering which the exercise of that freedom might cause for another person whom I consider a brother or sister. It would not be that a law dictated what was and was not acceptable in a cartoon satirizing religion. Rather, in order not to jeopardize the principle of “fraternity”, I would be freely accepting not to draw a cartoon that will hurt a group of other people profoundly. But, in order to act that way, I need to have a minimal knowledge of this group of people and of what is dear to them, even if I do not understand and do not share their beliefs and their ways of acting. This would be an example of the enactment of “fraternity.” And this version of “fraternity” would certainly protect and reinforce freedom of speech.