Being Brothers and Sisters in Social and Political Co-existence

María Aparecida Ferrari

Associate Professor of Applied Ethics at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (Rome).


Holiness in ordinary life influences every action of a Christian. “Think, for example, of your activity as citizens. A man who knows that the world, and not just the church, is the place where he finds Christ, loves that world. He endeavors to become properly formed, intellectually and professionally. He makes up his own mind with complete freedom about the problems of the environment in which he moves, and then he makes his own decisions. Being the decisions of a Christian, they result from personal reflection, in which he endeavors, in all humility, to grasp the Will of God in both the unimportant and the important events of his life.”[1]

With these words of St. Josemaría we open our reflection on what it means to be brothers and sisters in social and political co-existence, in light of the teachings of the encyclical Fratelli Tutti.[2] In the first part of this study we will examine the political common good from a relational perspective. We will try to show that all citizens are called to make this a reality, each according to his or her place in society. The following sections, guided by the papal document, will highlight in what sense fraternity, in the social and civic sphere, should be seen as one of the basic ethical principles from which the political common good stems.

Fraternity is not usually highlighted as one of the structuring principles of political co-existence. Both the social doctrine of the Church and philosophical and political thought emphasize other principles as shapers of the common good: the inalienable dignity of the human person, justice, solidarity, subsidiarity, freedom of association, etc. Fraternity appears above all in other spheres, such as the family, religion and relations of friendships. In fact, one of the most important novelties in the encyclical Fratelli Tutti is the link it stresses between fraternity and the political common good.

These two realities are not, in fact, independent of each other, since “to make possible the development of a world community, capable of realizing fraternity based on peoples and nations living social friendship, the best politics at the service of the true common good is needed” (FT 154).

Relational nature of the political common good

The “relational” understanding of the political common good highlights something new with respect to the most widespread assumptions in philosophy and the social sciences. While in the latter the common good is usually viewed in terms of a “property” of citizens or the state, the relational understanding identifies it essentially as that form of co-existence that allows social subjects to pursue their own ends with autonomy and responsibility. From this point of view, the political common good consists of “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment” and comprises “rights and duties with respect to the whole human race.”[3]

Hence the common good, the good life in political co-existence, is composed primarily of strong human relationships. Achieving the common good entails generating, preserving and strengthening the relationships that allow individuals and groups to advance freely towards the good of all, which also enriches one’s own particular good. In fact, the goods necessary for the fulfilled life of individuals in society flow from human relationships, so that one’s own good and the common good are brought about and possessed together; they are relational.

Modern thought has developed a different understanding of the political common good, viewed as a collective, material, useful good, which the state should make available to all individuals. From this point of view, the “common” would correspond essentially to the sum of individual goods or to the set of physical elements, advantages, techniques and laws that facilitate material progress.

In contrast, Christian social doctrine stresses that the political common good cannot be reduced to the sphere of useful goods, since it is above all a human good. That is, it is a response to the fundamental demands of the dignity of the person, which are the decisive foundation, and also the horizon or ultimate goal of living together in society. Therefore the political common good goes beyond the strictly political, that is, beyond the action of governing. This implies, on the one hand, that no association of persons, not even political society as such, can achieve by itself the totality of human goods, and also that no one can be autonomous with respect to the others in relation to the human good as such.

Likewise, if the common good is first and foremost the social bond on which both material and rational or spiritual ends depend, it must be concluded that the citizen does not find his or her fulfillment in himself or herself, but in the interaction with others and for others.[4]

The Christian conception of the common good holds that people, individually and in association, as well as political society itself, are called to put into practice an “open fraternity, which makes it possible to recognize, value and love each person beyond physical proximity, beyond the place in the universe where he or she was born or where he or she lives” (FT 1).

It could not be otherwise, since it is not from the imposition of laws, that certain essential goods of co-existence come about, such as peace, justice, love of neighbor, gratuitousness, forgiveness, protection of the environment, love for the good of others, the exercise of freedom oriented to the collective good, gratitude, industriousness, etc. These are eminently political common goods, since they are personal and relational, and the role of political authority consists in supporting them and, as far as possible, in promoting the fabric of relationships in which they come about and grow. How? By guaranteeing and promoting the freedom of individuals and groups. Therein lies the precious specific service that the state is called to render to the dignity of each person and to politically organized social life. Fratelli Tutti highlights this forcefully, quoting Ricoeur: “there is in fact no private life if it is not protected by a public order; a warm home has no intimacy if it is not under the tutelage of legality, of a state of tranquility founded on law and force and on the condition of a minimum of well-being ensured by the division of labor, commercial exchanges, social justice and political citizenship” (FT 164).[5]

Thus the encyclical stresses that the agents of the political common good are not only state agencies or civil society. The political common good is the joint task of political institutions and social agents, that is, citizens and intermediate societies.

In contemporary culture, however, we find a recurring vision of the political common good and the role of government that is very different, and that makes it difficult to put into practice and preserve fraternity in the social and political sphere. There is a tendency to relegate the common good to the sphere of the functions of the state, which is responsible for establishing justice through laws that guarantee public interests and for repressing antisocial behavior with penal and administrative sanctions. This attitude leads to overlooking the reality that civil laws are not sufficient to guarantee justice in social and political relations, and that the pursuit of the common good through the progressive tightening of legal controls generates passivity in civil society, since it encourages citizens to believe that what goes wrong stems from some defect or shortcoming in the laws. Moreover, it diverts citizens’ attention from the more important issue, namely their own duty to commit themselves to the common good either individually or in union with others. In short, instead of fostering solidarity, fraternal cooperation and a spirit of initiative, it encourages a mentality of minimum effort, lack of concern and indifference, so that a socially passive attitude ends up holding sway: “I mind my own business, obey the laws, pay my taxes, do no harm to anyone; everything else, that is, the needs of others, is the business of those who govern.”

From this perspective, social and political coexistence is reduced to “citizens busy with private goods” and “the state busy with public goods.” This is a combination that in many places has led the state to appropriate activities that are the responsibility of citizens, such as the beginning and end of life, education and schooling, health care and the fight against poverty. Thus the welfare state, denounced in the encyclical Centesimus annus, has taken shape. The great expansion of the sphere of state intervention, as St. John Paul II stressed, “has come to constitute in a certain sense a state of a new kind: the ‘welfare state.’” The effort to combat forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person, the document continues, has led to “excesses and abuses that, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the ‘Social Assistance State.’ Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the state. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected.”[6]

In contrast to these mistakes, and following the guidance of Fratelli Tutti, we can say that the common good to which life in society is ordered is in itself the manifestation and exercise of fraternity, the promotion of the good of others that configures the personal good: a horizon of fraternity in which the effort to bring about the good of others leads to achieving one’s own good.

The civic and political face of fraternity shines forth, therefore, in individual and social actions that generate the common good, that is, that promote the vital and relational conditions that allow all men and women to attain their goals with freedom and responsibility. In this perspective, everything becomes an opportunity to be a brother or sister to others.

Social fraternity, the face of political citizenship

If the political common good is generated by the joint action of the state and civil society, then an essential part of this political common good is the ability – the competence and concern – of citizens to achieve the personal and social good. In the absence of this ethical heritage, it becomes difficult to resist, to say “no.” For example, to unjust benefits in situations where it is feasible to obtain them, especially when, as people say with greater or lesser truth, “everyone does it,” or when the unjust conduct goes unnoticed by the legal systems of control. In other words, being an agent of the common good requires of the citizen more than strict obedience to the established legal order; it implies an exercise of freedom that exceeds legal limits, for it requires industriousness, honesty, solidarity, prudence, subsidiarity, trust, temperance, etc.

In the exercise of citizenship thus understood, social fraternity comes about, so that when citizen relates to others with a sense of respect and reciprocity, competently carry out their profession or duties, look after common interests, they are showing the face of fraternity in the social and political sphere. And in so doing they bring about the political common good in its most authentic meaning. Fratelli Tutti illustrates this clearly by taking up the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Addressing men and women of good will – each and every person – the encyclical calls them to let themselves be challenged by this parable, regardless of a diversity of religious convictions (FT 56). It points out that the Gospel story invites them to strengthen their “vocation as citizens of their own country and of the whole world, builders of a new social bond.” And it stresses that this is “an ever-new call, even though it is written as a fundamental law of our being: that society be directed towards the pursuit of the common good and, on the basis of this goal, rebuild again and again its political and social order, its fabric of relationships, its human project” (FT 66).

Every person incarnates in some way, in the course of his or her life, either one or the other of the characters in the parable. But for our concerns here it is worthwhile to focus on the one who is apparently less central, the innkeeper.This character, who in the usual exegesis often goes unnoticed, demonstrates even better than the others that every person, with their simple and ordinary life, can practice social fraternity in a stable way and in accord with their specific role as a citizen.

As the encyclical stresses, “even the Good Samaritan needed the existence of an inn that would allow him to resolve what he alone at that moment was not in a position to ensure” (FT 165). Thus, in political society, everyone – including the state itself – needs citizens and intermediate societies to fulfill their daily tasks in the different spheres of co-existence and professional work. Everyone in his or her social relationships needs to continually be an “innkeeper,” and therefore a brother or sister, not only in welcoming and caring for others in one’s family and in the various communities founded on the basis of friendship and trust, but also in the other areas of social relationships.

In this sense, civic and political action are also an exercise of fraternity, since they are directed to persons, just as any fraternal gesture of love, of mutual care, is also a civic and political action, since it truly helps to construct a better society[7](cf. FT 181). Certainly, in society today, relationships are usually broad and anonymous, but this does not exclude their fraternal dimension. For example, someone who cleans up a public space (whether as a municipal employee or as a user of that space), in doing so respects and cares for all the other citizens, even if they do not know their faces or have a direct relationship with them. They exercise civic friendship, social love or social fraternity, that is, the relationship of benevolence (wanting the other person’s good) based on co-participation and common responsibility for the public good. Thus they exercise a fraternity that can become a social virtue, a firm and habitual disposition to act always with respect for and promotion of the good of others; a virtue that, in turn, can generate countless forms of solidarity. And as they become more widespread in society, these actions of solidarity will also help to strengthen the entire culture.

The exercise of fraternity in society can therefore be seen as the personification of the innkeeper in daily life: respecting traffic regulations when driving, paying taxes, performing one’s work responsibly and efficiently, not allowing illicit practices (bribes, corruption, etc.) for one’s own benefit or that of others, respecting the rules of civility, behaving honestly in all situations, using creative intelligence to meet one’s own needs and those of others.

3. Fruitfulness for the whole of society

If everyone can and should be “innkeepers” in social relationships, it seems pertinent to reconsider the question from which the parable of the Samaritan stems, replacing “who is my brother?” with “who is my brother in social and political co-existence?” The obvious answer is: “the one who is hungry, thirsty, in prison or sick.” But while true, this answer is also incomplete, since the other person is not my brother or sister only because he or she is in need or neglected. Fraternity in society entails the availability of each person for the others in any situation: the capacity to always be sensitive to their true good and needs and to express this concern in effective support.[8] It is a question, therefore, of seeing in the other person – and not merely in their neediness – that he or she is a brother or sister, that is to say, someone constantly deserving of the readiness to give oneself in freedom.

In this broad exercise of fraternity, most citizens act as “innkeepers,” while remaining anonymous. They perform their daily work as “innkeepers” in their profession, without attracting attention, and bring about the political common good. In this multitude of “innkeepers,” each person, without drawing attention to themselves, in fact becomes the brother or sister of all men and women. The parable guiding our reflections is known as the “parable of the Good Samaritan,” but it would be equally correct to call it the “parable of the innkeeper.” As in Jesus’ story, the innkeepers of all times and societies remain almost unnoticed, despite the fact that they provide an indispensable service for everyone else: for those who act as the Good Samaritan, for those who are wounded, and also, more generally, for the proper functioning of society as a whole.

Therefore, reflection on the figure of the innkeeper enables us to better understand Pope Francis’s warning: “We do not have to expect everything from those who govern us . . . We enjoy a space of co-responsibility capable of initiating and generating new processes and transformations. Let us take an active part in the rehabilitation and relief of wounded societies. Today we have a great opportunity to manifest our fraternal essence” (FT 77).

It is a “space of co-responsibility” and a “great opportunity” because most of what constitutes the political common good is the work of citizens who act as “innkeepers,” although they also sometimes have to act as the Good Samaritan. The most frequent reading of the parable focuses on the great generosity of the second person, and only rarely is it made explicit that the care of the wounded man is also the work of the innkeeper. In fact, however, it was this person who did most of the work, and he did it in accord with his duty, with naturalness and professionalism, that is to say (as we would say today) without trying to appear in the media or on social networks. The innkeeper was the brother of the others (of the Good Samaritan and the wounded man) in carrying out his work.

Let us also reflect on the fact that “innkeepers” do not usually act alone, but are inserted in a set of relationship and are oriented to the good of all. Consciously or unconsciously, they find in their tasks more or less direct and clear opportunities to render a service to someone, to exercise fraternity, and also to involve others in it. As Pope Francis urges, “let us not do it alone, individually,” when he points out that “the Samaritan looked for an innkeeper who could take care of the man” (FT 78). In fact, without the innkeeper’s job that was well done, he would not have been able to care for the suffering man effectively,[9] just as the innkeeper would not have been able to fulfill the commitment he had taken on without the work of those who ran the inn with him.

Specifically, each one’s profession or trade (and in general any activity of service to others) represents for every citizen a privileged path for exercising social and civic fraternity, since it constitutes a continuous opportunity to act uprightly, to foster justice, solidarity and the good of others in an effective way. As the Samaritan rendered a service and “left without expecting recognition or gratitude,” the “innkeepers” of the world show responsibility, in their daily lives and work, for the “wounded person who is the people itself and all the peoples of the earth.” From their place in society (with their role as “innkeepers”), they respond personally to the needs of others. As Pope Francis urged: “Let us care for the fragility of every man, every woman, every child and every elderly person, with that attitude of solidarity and attentiveness, the attitude of proximity of the Good Samaritan” (FT 79).[10]

This generous attitude can transform the whole earthly city, like leaven mixed in with the dough (cf. Mt 13:33). As Pope Francis says, citing the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, social love is a “force capable of inspiring new ways of approaching the problems of today’s world, of profoundly renewing structures, social organizations, legal systems from within.”[11] (FT 183).

4. Social fraternity and political charity

The “leaven” of social fraternity that permeates the actions of every citizen (whether as innkeeper or Samaritan) enriches the specifically political terrain, in which the laws that determine the conditions for serving the common good (whether as citizen-good Samaritan or as citizen-worker) are drawn up. We need only think of the great importance in our daily lives of the laws on the family, marriage, education, work, social benefits, freedom of association, freedom of expression, and so on.

Certainly, not all citizens have a vocation for working professionally in government. But no one is exempt from the obligation to be well informed and to follow his or her conscience in everything that concerns the key dimensions of human existence and the common good of society. To be a brother or sister in public debate implies a commitment to learn about the various issues and to contribute to the solution of social problems. This conduct is a requirement of social love, of charity, but even more so of the cardinal virtue of justice. Therefore, putting into practice these demands of social fraternity is a duty even with regard to issues that perhaps do not directly or immediately affect one’s own life or personal interests and where it would be more comfortable to close one’s eyes and not take part in the public debate.

On the one hand, it is true that active, free and responsible participation in political life depends on each person’s level of education and culture, as well as on the compatibility with other family, professional and social commitments. On the other hand, however, all men and women (and especially those endowed with greater competence and capacity) are called to be a brother or sister to others by freely and loyally fulfilling civic and political duties and striving to have an adequate knowledge of issues related to public administration and government, so as to be able to personally offer a serene and constructive social critique.

The more highly educated also have a special responsibility in matters of solidarity and subsidiarity. As Fratelli Tutti points out, “politics cannot renounce the objective of ensuring that the organization of a society provides each person with some way of contributing his or her abilities and efforts [to the common good]” (FT 162). Likewise, in another passage, he makes clear that the local agent “has something that the global [the state or international organization] does not possess: to be a leaven, to enrich, to set in motion mechanisms of subsidiarity” (FT 142). Individual citizens and local associations, in fact, since they are closer to specific needs, are better positioned to care for people and heal their wounds.

In short, it is a matter of stressing the “we” instead of the “I” in the public sector (as Pope Francis said in a recent interview) in order to achieve “political charity” or “social charity”, understood as overcoming the individualistic mentality and deepening the sense of “we” that spurs one to truly seek the good of all people (cf. FT 182).[12]

In the path traced out by the encyclical Fratelli Tutti, political charity does not act blindly, nor does it depend on more or less good intentions. It needs the light of truth, which comes from both reason and faith. Hence “it also presupposes the development of the sciences and their irreplaceable contribution to finding the concrete and surest ways to obtain the expected results. For when the good of others is at stake, it is not enough to have good intentions, but to achieve effectively what they and their nations need in order to be fulfilled” (FT 185). Pope Francis does not hesitate to focus on the real wounds of humanity, not in order to make people suffer, but to encourage everyone in their efforts to heal these wounds. For example, he points out: “While we often engage in semantic or ideological discussions, we still allow sisters and brothers to die of hunger or thirst, without a roof over their heads or access to health care. Along with these unsatisfied basic needs, human trafficking is another shame for humanity that international politics should no longer tolerate, regardless of speeches and good intentions. These are minimums that cannot be postponed” (FT 189). Or also when he warns that “a politician’s greatest anxieties should not be those caused by a fall in the polls, but by not effectively resolving ‘the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion, with its baneful consequences: human trafficking, the marketing of human organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of boys and girls, slave labor, including prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism and international organized crime’[13]” (FT 188).

In this perspective, the encyclical calls on everyone to recognize their responsibility: ordinary citizens, public and private institutions, state and international organizations. It is a matter of avoiding the polarization that divides and alienates, without shirking the necessary debates. The common goal of these efforts is to achieve “a globalization of the most basic human rights” (FT 189). If this goal is still far off, it is not because it is unattainable, but for other reasons.


The recent pandemic, an important framework for the reflections contained in the encyclical Fratelli Tutti, has revealed, with its tremendous challenges for most of the world, the inability of hyper-connected humanity to act in a united way (cf. FT 7). Hence the urgency of a better understanding of fraternity, of stressing that all men and women, “brothers and sisters all,” as Pope Francis reminds us, “are invited to convene and meet in a ‘we’ that is stronger than the sum of small individualities,” since “the whole [the common good] is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts”[14] (FT 78).

The ordinary or extraordinary circumstances of living together, whether positive or negative, represent special opportunities not only to give to others something of what each one possesses, but also to give oneself with a commitment that is total, in the sense of doing all that one can. That is why we wanted to open these reflections with the words of the “saint of the ordinary,” St. Josemaría, “chosen by God to announce the universal call to holiness and to point out that daily life and ordinary activities are a path to holiness. One could say that he was the saint of ordinary life.”[15] The Christian vocation entails seeking holiness in daily life, loving God by becoming a brother or sister in every aspect of human existence, finding a fruitful path in all upright work and in the fulfillment of daily tasks. “For when people try to live in this way in the middle of their daily work, their Christian behavior becomes good example, witness, something which is a real and effective help to others. They learn to follow in the footsteps of Christ, who ‘began to do and to teach’ (Acts 1:1), joining example to word.”[16]

[1] St. Josemaría, Conversations with Monsignor Escrivá de Balaguer, no. 116.

[2] Pope Francis, Encyclical Fratelli Tutti, on Fraternity and Social Friendship, 3 October 2020. Hereafter: FT. For all quotations from the Magisterium, cf. www.vatican.va.

[3] Second Vatican Council, Past. Const. Gaudium et spes, no. 26.

[4] Cf. P. Donati, I fondamenti socio-antropologici della sussidiarietà: una prospettiva relazionale, in Idem. Verso una società sussidiaria, Bononia University Press, Bologna 2011, pp. 25-52.

[5] P. Ricoeur, Histoire et vérité, Le Seuil, Paris 1967, p. 122.

[6] Cf. St. John Paul II, Encyclical Centesimus annus (1 May 1991), no. 48. Experience shows that the attempt to achieve a legal system that maximally imposes good conduct in the public sphere actually results in the progressive diminution of real freedom (cf. E.-W. Böckenförde, Die Entstehung des Staates als Vorgang der Säkularisation, in Id., Recht, Staat, Freiheit. Studien zur Rechtsphilosophie, Staatstheorie und Verfassungsgeschichte, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt 1991, pp. 92-114).

[7] Cf. Pope Francis, Encyclical Laudato sì (24 May 2015), no. 231.

[8] Cf. St. John Paul II, Encyclical Salvifici doloris (11 February 1984), no. 28.

[9] Blessed Alvaro del Portillo illustrates this clearly in a 1993 letter: “To take care of the wounded man, the Samaritan also had recourse to the innkeeper. How would he have managed without him? Our Father [St. Josemaría Escrivá] admired the figure of this man – the innkeeper – who went unnoticed, did most of the work and acted professionally. As you contemplate his conduct, on the one hand, you should understand that all of you can act like him in the exercise of your work, because any professional task offers in a more or less direct way the opportunity to help people in need. Certainly this is possible in the work of a doctor, lawyer, or businessman who does not close his eyes to the material needs that the law does not oblige him to attend to, because he knows that justice and love oblige him to do so; but also in that of an office worker, a manual laborer or a farmer who finds a way to serve others, perhaps in the midst of great personal hardship. Without forgetting – I insist once again – that the faithful performance of one’s professional duties is already an exercise of charity towards people and society” (Letter of 9 January 1993, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, no. 21).

[10] The Christian leavening of the world is carried out not only by acting directly on behalf of the poor and needy – the “seriously wounded” along the roads of this life – but also by imbuing all human realities with the Gospel spirit through the fulfillment of professional duties and the witness of an exemplary family, social and civic life (cf. St. John Paul II, Rise, Let Us be On Our Way, Warner Books, 20024, pp. 107-108).

[11] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 207.

[12] Unfortunately, contrary to these principles, “today in many countries the political mechanism of exasperating, exacerbating and polarizing is used. By various means, others are denied the right to exist and to express their opinions, and to this end, the strategy is to ridicule them, to suspect them, to encircle them. Their part of truth, their values, are not taken into account, and in this way society is impoverished and reduced to the arrogance of the strongest. Politics is no longer a healthy discussion on long-term projects for the development of all and the common good, but only immediate marketing recipes that find in the destruction of the other the most effective resource. In this petty game of disqualifications, the debate is manipulated into a permanent state of questioning and confrontation” (FT 15).

[13] Pope Francis, Address to the United Nations, New York (25 September 2015).

[14] Idem. Apostolic Exhortation. Evangelii gaudium (24 November 2013), no. 235.

[15] St. John Paul II, Address to pilgrims gathered for the canonization of St. Josemaría Escrivá (7 October 2002).

[16] St. Josemaría,Conversations with Monsignor Escrivá de Balaguer, no. 62.

Romana, n. 73, July-December 2021, p. 95-109.

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