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On the Pope’s ‘Madness’

In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis approaches the reader out of the Jesus-like basis of brotherhood and personal character of truthfulness. This truth is not at our disposal; on the contrary we answer to this truth. Ethical aspects of Fratelli Tutti reveal a strategy that does not give up on the idea of the absolute horizon of the truth in God’s revelation, yet instead of deducing the truths from Revelation the pope chooses to look in the opposite direction – faith is embodied in attitudes that point to the absolute horizon of Revelation. A practical question arises: What reaction does the author expect? How practically to achieve the attitudes of brotherhood and solidarity? The pope portrays the reality lacking in both principles. The main ethical question arises here: What are we to do? And it is doable?

The encyclical engages the reader, whether religious or secular, as a partner in a dialogue inviting them to what might be a fruitful journey in the search for fundamental truth and enduring values[1] that anchor human dignity and social justice. The attitude creates a ‘culture of dialogue’ rooted deeper than in ephemeral agreement, in eternal values that for Christians are embodied in the story of Jesus Christ.[2] In this sense the pope’s attitude is both dialogical and missiological.

There is a hint at the beginning of Fratelli Tutti pointing to the biblical source of the pope’s ethical approach demonstrated in the document. The approach serves as an example of faith embodied in attitudes: ‘A plan that would set great goals for the development of our entire human family nowadays sounds like madness.’[3]

The pope summarises his persistent effort of peaceful living of the entire human family in the word ‘madness’. Further on, the text explains reasons for such a strong expression not commonly used in the official language of declarations and encyclicals. A poignant and realistic portrait of society in the 21st century shows growing estrangement between individuals and a failing effort to make the world less divided and more just. The word madness, in this sense, may point out the inequality of the means to reverse the trend. The concept of reason coming short, of madness or foolishness in this context might, in a document relying so often on biblical imagery, point in yet another direction: when the apostle Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians defines his approach to the Gospel among Greek and Jewish culture and thinking, Paul coins the phrase ‘foolishness’ (μωρία) of the Cross.[4]

Paul addresses his message of ‘foolishness’ of the Cross to the Church in Corinth divided and disagreeable about whether to follow Paul, Apollos, Cephas, or Christ. The unusual term ‘madness’ in Fratelli Tutti therefore might suggest that the strategy that Paul uses in the divided Church in Corinth is that which Pope Francis suggests and plans on using in our divided world. What seems ‘mad’ is a reference to the humility and kenosis of Jesus Christ on the Cross as a fundament of strategy in the divided world of particular opinions.

The Pope in this strategy of the ‘madness’ of the Cross adopts the concepts that the modern world was built on – freedom, equality, and the brotherhood of all people – and connects them again with their meaning. Embracing these concepts has its precedents especially in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The novelty here is the Pope’s radical emphasis on the ethics of brotherhood. The Pope’s struggle to care for the polis is summarised here: the polis meaning the whole world and all people as its legitimate citizens. As the Pope notes in Fratelli Tutti, ‘extremism and polarisation have become political tools’.[5] Solidarity and mutual love in this sense can be considered political qualities and tools. Therefore, either directly or non-directly, we can speak albeit unusually of ‘political love’, which is even the name of one chapter in Fratelli Tutti.

Differences in opinion about organising and leading society and values have become tools in the hands of populists. The social networks on the internet encourage and capitalise on the users’ inclination to controversy. There is an unlimited number of creating and dividing lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The pope addresses this principle as one of the reasons for the current growth of nationalism and repeatedly warns against this phenomenon, recalling the inauspicious historical lessons with nationalism.

This might be a point where we can afford a sceptical approach to what is described at the beginning of Fratelli Tutti as ‘madness’. How can such trends be reversed? No less than a steady change in attitudes is asked for. This might be the reason why the parable of the Good Samaritan is the axial text in Fratelli Tutti trying to attract our moral imagination. The core of the parable is the Samaritan’s attitude.

The parable in which a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan come across a hurt man by the side of the road speaks to reality on a deeper level; when the pope explains the inherent human dignity in Fratelli Tutti, he implies that the reflection of reality and a real dialogue brings us to fundamental ethical principles:

For this reason, human beings have the same inviolable dignity in every age of history and no one can consider himself or herself authorized by particular situations to deny this conviction or to act against it. The intellect can investigate the reality of things through reflection, experience and dialogue, and come to recognize in that reality, which transcends it, the basis of certain universal moral demands. To agnostics, this foundation could prove sufficient to confer a solid and stable universal validity on basic and non-negotiable ethical principles that could serve to prevent further catastrophes. As believers, we are convinced that human nature, as the source of ethical principles, was created by God, and that ultimately it is he who gives those principles their solid foundation.[6]

The parable of the Good Samaritan uses the same logic, warning the reader against the knowledge (truths) about God yet abstracting from reality (and the neighbour beside the road). This is why the late German theologian Dorothee Soelle calls this parable ‘an anti-fundamentalist one par excellence’.[7] Warning against fundamentalism, political or religious, is the ethical heritage of Fratelli Tutti. When reading the parable, it is obviously very easy to identify with the Samaritan and in this way get ahead of the moral of the story. The moral is a constant examination of whether the truth about God becomes reality in the relationship with the neighbour.

[1] FT 211.

[2] See FT 277. The pope adheres to the idea that God is present in different religious traditions (as stated in the document Nostra Aetate). Yet the Pope strongly affirms the idea that Jesus Christ is the fundamental and unique source of values for Christians and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the approval of human dignity and brotherhood of all people.

[3] FT 16. In Pope Francis and Ahmad Al-Tayyeb: Document, family is often mentioned in the context of a basic cell in society, the place of moral education and safety, deserving respect, protection, and support. Pope Francis uses the wider term ‘human family’ 41 times in Fratelli Tutti.

[4] 1Cor 1:18-25.

[5] FT 15.

[6] FT 213, 214.

[7] Quoted in Maureen Junker-Kenny, Approaches to Theological Ethics (London: T&TClark, 2019), 94.