Friday, December 20, 2013


Four decades ago, when I was in graduate school studying such things, a great 20th-century student of American political thought, Wilson Cary McWilliams, wrote a book called The Idea of Fraternity in America (U. of California Pr., 1973). This year, Pope Francis himself has made fraternity the subject of his 2014 World Day of Peace Message , "Fraternity, the Foundation and Pathway to peace."

Now, I admit I've never been much excited by either of the last century's accretions to the calendar of the Christmas season - neither the feast of the Holy Family (originally on the Sunday after Epiphany, then moved in the new calendar to the Sunday after Christmas), nor the "World Day of Peace" invented by Pope Paul VI in 1967 and somewhat awkwardly attached annually to New Year's Day. I don't know how many World Day of Peace  Messages I've actually read. But, even if I did read them, I can't actually recall the content of any. But such is the excitement that daily still seems to surround "Person of the Year" Pope Francis that I eagerly anticipated and read his first such message, issued a few days ago. And I was not disappointed!

In the heart of every man and woman is the desire for a full life, including that irrepressible longing for fraternity which draws us to fellowship with others and enables us to see them not as enemies or rivals, but as brothers and sisters to be accepted and embraced. So begins Pope Francis' 2014 World Day of Peace Message.

Fraternity, the Holy Father continues, is generally first learned in the family, which the Pope calls the wellspring of all fraternity and the foundation and the first pathway to peace, since, by its vocation, it is meant to spread its love to the world around it. That may be a tall order for many actually existing families, but it testifies to the importance family holds in the human imagination. After all, everybody begins life, biologically at least, as a member of a family. Families come in all kinds and shapes and sizes, but family life in some form remains universally the basic unit of social organization. And for most people it remains the focus of their day-to-day lives. Thus, even those of us without families of our own treasure our extended family connections and family-like connections.

One of the striking things about God’s relationship with the human race, as revealed in both the Old and the New Testaments, is how it is largely a series of family stories - beginning with the creation of a family, from whom the whole human race is descended. In his World Day of Peace Message, the Pope refers to the problematic story of that first family, in which  we see the origins of human society and the evolution of relations between individuals and peoples. From the tragic story of Cain and Abel. the Pope says, we learn that we have an inherent calling to fraternity, but also the tragic capacity to betray that calling. Jumping forward to Jesus' teaching about his and our Father, we find the basis of all fraternity to be found in God's fatherhood - not some generic fatherhood, indistinct and historically ineffectual, but rather the specific and extraordinarily concrete personal love of God for each man and woman. It is this specificity, I think, that grounds us biblically, for the biblical stories (as the accounts read at Mass in these last ferial days before Christmas illustrate) portray a state of affairs in which God is intimately and directly involved in the human world.

Pope Francis cites his predecessor's reminder in Caritas in Veritate on the link between poverty and the lack of fraternity. In many societies, Francis notes, we are experiencing a profound "poverty of relationships" as a result of the lack of solid family and community relationships. We are concerned by the various types of hardship, marginalization, isolation and various forms of pathological dependencies which we see increasing. Addressing our contemporary crisis of income inequality, the Pope recalls the Church's teaching on the so-called "social mortgage" - the principle that, while it is lawful for people to have ownership of goods, "they possess them as not just their own, but common to others as well, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as themselves." (The Pope here quotes Gaudium et Spes 69, referencing also Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum, John Paul II's Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.)

The necessary realism proper to politics and economy, the Pope concludes, cannot be reduced to mere technical know-how bereft of ideals and unconcerned with the transcendent dimension of man. When this openness to God is lacking, every human activity is impoverished and persons are reduced to objects that can be exploited. Only when politics and the economy are open to moving within the wide space ensured by the One who loves each man and each woman, will they achieve and ordering based on a genuine spirit of fraternal charity and become effective instruments of integral human development and peace."

All of which brings me back to Carey McWilliams' famous book  (which sadly I no longer own!), which saw in American history more than the dominant "liberal" tradition, so often seen as univocally expressing American values. Echoing the earlier analysis of de Tovqueville, McWilliams recognized the powerful role of communitarian association and resilient religion in shaping American society and culture and ameliorating the more individualist dominant "liberal" tradition. Of course, both community and religion have for some time been under stringent assault - from the libertarian forces of modernity on the economic right and post-modernity on the cultural left.

All the more reason then to recall a notion that is not just some alternative tradition to modern and post-modern individualism, but is also at the heart of human history, experience, desire, and hope.

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