We Are Family: On Fraternal Liberalism

In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI makes a surprising claim about integral human development: “The development of peoples depends, above all, on a recognition that the human race is a single family.” What are we to make of this claim? It is neither a policy prescription nor a partisan position. Rather, it is a way of thinking about the nature of human relation. Benedict connects his claim directly to another startling assertion from Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio: “The world is in trouble because of the lack of thinking.” Awash with news, data, marketing slogans, and a belief in science, we are not thinking.

What are we not thinking about? The relationality of our earth’s collection of 7.9 billion people. What do we think of us? How do we think of each other? Benedict XVI teaches that “a new trajectory of thinking is needed in order to arrive at a better understanding of the implications of our being one family.” Other issues—global warming, income disparities, the invasion of Ukraine—are secondary expressions of the primary problem: we are not thinking as a family.

All political theories and systems depend on a theory of relation that accounts for the connections between members of a community and between communities. Politics is, as William Desmond puts it, metaxological. It requires we articulate (logos) of what lies between us (the metaxu). This is understood differently—Schmittian friend-enemy distinctions, liberal social-contracts, Marxism’s master-slave dialectic—but it must be accounted for whether implicitly or explicitly. Benedict teaches that human relations, and so political relations, are fundamentally family relations.

Thinking as a family is the beginning of a trajectory for attending to the socio-political issues of our time. To think of the human family is to think of a mode of human relationship beyond our decaying liberal social contract. It is beyond because it is fundamentally prior to it and so operates within it. This familial vision of the political is not anti-liberal or postliberal. It proposes a different liberalism because it offers a different account of relationship. Like Fred Bauer’s account of off-liberalism, this requires thinking about different models and origins of liberalism. Rather than social contract theory, a fraternal liberalism is shaped by an ethics and politics of care prior to contractual agreements. To understand this requires a critique of liberalism but also a resituating of liberalism within the fraternalism of human relations.

In this trajectory of thought inspired by Benedict XVI I will dialogue with Roger Scruton, William Desmond, and Hannah Arendt. Where we will end up is Pope Francis’s Fratelli Tutti, which offers the fraternal thinking called for by Pope Benedict. Along the way, I hope to offer a vision of human relationship that grounds a fraternal politics of care best depicted in the story of the Good Samaritan.

Liberalism in Crisis

There is a growing sense of malaise in contemporary society combined with a sense that liberalism is in crisis. We see both this malaise and this crisis in three contemporary problems. The first is the rapid decline in trust, in the fides that Augustine claimed all human sociality depends on. For Augustine, “If trust of this kind were to disappear from human affairs, who would not be aware of the confusion and appalling upheaval which would follow?” Such a decline in trust is happening now (see: here and here) along with a growing fear of the upheaval that may follow.

The second crisis is that too many are dying of sadness. We see this in the increase in deaths from addiction, a rise in deaths from despair, the violence afflicting some urban neighborhoods, and in the depression and anxiety that afflicts our young people. Lastly, our growing world-weariness underlies the dramatic decline in birth rates. The disappearance of babies indicates a society that lacks real newness. We are left with our cultural repetitiveness of ersatz novelty and yet another iPhone.

 A political community in crisis is one in which its substance is being corroded or overthrown. Specifically, this happens when its mode of relationality fails. So if liberalism is in crisis, its distinguishing relationship must be. Thus a liberal society in crisis is one in which the social contract is unraveling. For a liberal polity to lose the agreements that bind it together is for it to lose the shared reality that makes it a polity. Our social contract is straining under the pressures of economic inequality, racial divisions, collapsing civic trust, and deepening culture wars.

If liberalism is to be repaired—and defended against rising threats on the right and left—the social contract must be bolstered. And yet there is something peculiar about a liberal polity, it relies on depth dimensions antecedent to its own existence. In other words, liberalism depends on realities it cannot forge (and often rejects). A crisis in a social contract can cause and be caused by a weakening of those depth dimensions.

A social contract (or any contract) depends on social relations with both a temporal priority (they come before in time) and a per se priority (they come before because they matter more). The priority of pre-political realities is important for Catholic Social Thought. For Pope Leo XIII, “man is prior to the state” and the family is a “true society, older than the state.” For this reason, there is a “dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man.” There is something older and deeper than whatever political or economic arrangements we forge. These older and deeper things determine the justness of subsequent political realities (such as liberalism). While we construct the latter, we do so according to the depth dimension of the former.

This sense of antecedent realities that undergird subsequent relationship shapes the thought of the philosopher Roger Scruton. He writes, “we can make sense of the social contract only on the assumption of some pre-contractual ‘we.’” Before we can agree to be “us,” we were already a “we. » The social contract—as a shared agreement to be an « us »—cannot be restored or justified unless we reconsider and restore the pre-contractual « we.” The danger of many forms of political thought is that they prioritize a subsequent contractual union (a political party or a polity) over the essential communion of neighboring selves. When that subsequent contract is threatened, it needs to rely on the essential communion of persons.

Liberalism is not essentially corrosive but without a strong orientation to deeper realities, it tends to undermine those realities. It then frantically looks for sustenance for itself and cannot find it. If essential realities have been corroded, there is no place to turn. Things fall apart in the social contract because central forms of communion have not held. We see this in our lack of trust, our dying from despair, and our rejection of new life.

For Scruton, social contract theories “presuppose a first-person plural, in which the burdens of belonging have already been assumed.” The first-person plural in which burdens have already been assumed refers to specific social realities that are prior to social contracts. However, we ought not settle with Scruton’s localized accounts of first-person plural communities. These localized communities too easily devolve into us-versus-them forms of life.

For instance, a tightly knit Irish neighborhood is a good thing. But it can easily transition into an anti-Italian neighborhood if there is not some way to see that those Italian-Americans are also in a community with me. This becomes especially threatening when a community loses its own cohesiveness. The opposition to others then substitutes for robust community life. We need ways to have localized communities that are in relation to other communities. We need a community that transcends my local community without negating it.

Political tribalism can quickly poison a polity. We see that poison in the many forms of identity politics that mar the American polity. On the right, this takes the form of right-wing identity politics. This includes growing and pernicious forms of white supremacy but also “America first” nationalistic projects that seek to identify the « real » America and then walls off what is not American. These walls do not only separate us from foreigners, they separate us from people considered to be « American in name only. » On the left, a new race essentialism grips people’s thinking leaving little room for the beloved community of reconciliation that should animate movements for justice. Along with new forms of gender politics, these movements seek to cancel both liberalism and conservativism.

Alongside identity politics, there is a cosmopolitanism that undermines localized communities. Those who are wealthy—in social or financial capital—thrill to the idea of being global citizens. This is abstraction heaps benefits on “global citizens” while allowing them to ignore the unsavory folks who live down the street. We look down on those who live on the margins, in the wrong urban neighborhoods, in the hollowed-out rural parts of our country. Diversity becomes a luxury good to consume while ensuring that actual social justice practices are squelched in favor of hiring yet another DEI specialist.

Getting Back to Us

What liberalism too often neglects or undermines are these pre-contractual communities that are essential for any contractual community. Undermining the former has corroded the latter. In contrast, conservativism rightly defends the coherence of communities. It sees that there is a proper intimacy to any community, an identity that makes a “we” possible. Knowing the rhythms of speech, the local spaces, the culinary forms, the gestures of greeting, and the symbols of meaning are essential to human life.

These forms of life allow for the web of communities that make life rich and morally complex. But conservative thought is tempted to over prioritize certain communities without a deeper account of the whole human community. If we lack an account of the universal—of what makes all humans an “us”—identities become the only defining feature of ourselves. Just as a social contract depends on the intimate communions that make up the warp and woof of human life so too does it depend on the universality of humanity that holds together disparate identities.

We need a trajectory of thought that fosters these communities of identity without allowing them to be shaped by walls that exclude. This entails developing a political conception that embraces both the local and the global, the particular and the common. Along these lines, William Desmond has advanced a deeper understanding of what he calls the intimate universal. For Desmond, if we lose the universal as a philosophical principle we are reduced to a particularity without communion. Being would be a heap of disparate things and our language just a deceptive papering over of the unnamable difference. However, if the universal is all there is, then the intimate particularity of what is—this of things—would be lost.

Like Benedict and Francis, Desmond is a thinker of communion and communication. Universality and particularity make possible our being and our talking together. If we attend only to the sheer particularity of individuals or groups, we lose the connectivity of humans that allows us to speak of humanity. But if all we attend to is “human nature” we lack the needed attention to the sprawling diversity of persons. For Desmond, there is then “a universality that is radically intimate; there is an intimacy of being that calls into the community of the universal.” This vision of being and of humanity accounts for existence as communal. You cannot have community without difference (intimate particularities) or without commonalities (the universals).

Political liberalism tends to suffer from a lack of universality and intimacy in that it depends on an abstraction (as a substitute for universality) and an unmoored individuality (as a substitute for intimacy). The social contract is an abstraction hard to encounter in a concrete sense and impossible to be attached to. Within it, we end up isolated subjects united by an abstraction because we begin, as Benedict puts it, by thinking of ourselves as “a group of subjects who happen to live side by side.”

For Desmond, the attraction of the liberal option is the “space of the relatively anonymous autonomy that it seems to offer an individual.” We get to construct ourselves detached from others and the weight of community. But this anonymity is alienating and untrue to life in which we are persons with names and faces living amidst laws and customs that do not arise from my autonomy. In response to this anonymity, critics of liberalism seek to supplant liberalism with appeals to particular communities prior to the social contract, whether based in race, class, creed, or national identity. While they offer “the sense of intimate belonging to a community” with a “more face-to-face encounter with one’s own kind,” they lack a universality that extends beyond our own kind.

In rejecting the social contract and prioritizing one’s kind—whether ideological or ethnic—they endanger the position of the marginalized and the weak. Those who do not fit our “kind” are driven from the public square. We seem torn between “anonymous generality versus engaging exclusivity.” One finds the intimacy of a particular group, but that intimacy collapses into an identity-politics without room for people outside the group.

In our political existence, we need some account of how to have an intimate universal that fosters relationships within the intimacy of communities and the universality of humanity. We need a trajectory of thinking that allows for the fostering of the particularity of an “us” within the broader web of all of “us.” Liberalism itself cannot offer that. It depends on both of those communities—local communities and humanity—to foster the agreement necessary for a polity to hold together. It supports both through a representative political framework, collaborative institutions, legal structures, and systems of deliberation. But it is not meant to create pre-contractual communities and can undermine them because of its insistence on the autonomy of subjects, its agnostic response to questions of ultimate concern, and its unreal account of why we are an “us.”

We Are Family

If we are looking for a universal claim about humans that has sufficient intimacy to the human condition of plurality, we would be wise to return to the idea of humanity as family. It offers us a trajectory-setting principle for our political thinking because it takes seriously relationships beyond and before contracts. For Benedict, to think of the human family “requires a deeper critical evaluation of the category of relation.” Liberalism, dependent on only one form of relation (contract), is fundamentally shallow. The thinking of relation we need must go deeper into the intimate universal of the human family. The advantage of the idea is that it combines universality—it is made up of all persons—with the intimacy of family. Just as a specific family or community has its gestures, mores, practices, and forms of life, so too does the broader human community. We have only to see this in the human face in its joys and sorrows. Face to face, I recognize you as another self, a fellow human, a brother.

This idea of grounding political life in community is not only a feature of modern popes. Augustine saw the need to ground the universal sociality of humanity in the idea of the family. God provided a shared parentage of humanity precisely to provide the ground of our universal sociality. He writes in The City of God, “God’s intention was that the unity of human society and the bonds of human sympathy would be more emphatically brought home to man, if men were bound together not merely by likeness in nature but also by the feeling of kinship.” The Genesis account brings home the radical sociality of the human person while also grounding the truth that there is only one race: humanity.

Nothing can better remind us of this sociality than the realization that we are kin. The unity of humanity (the universal) and the sympathy of persons (the intimate) is drawn out and deepened by the recognition that all of humanity is a family. This human sociality is restored in the pilgrim city of God which “summons citizens of all nations and every tongue” without negating any of those nations’ customs or practices. The parochial and local is maintained within the universal and global.

Just as Leo XIII argued that families, humanity, and justice are antecedent to both the state and contracts, so too the family of humanity is prior to any socio-political arrangement. With this priority in mind, communities are to be judged. But what practical salience does the principle of the human family have? The first and most important has to do with what families do. Fundamentally, families take care of each other. A political trajectory of thought shaped by a family ethos is a political imaginary of care. Before discussing the human family, Benedict teaches that “one of the deepest forms of poverty a person can experience is isolation.”

Ours is a cultural of isolation, a culture that too often does not care. We do not care because we do not think of others—the drug addict, the depressed teen, the immigrant at the border—as our family members. To think of them as family necessitates that we care for them as family. These dual obligations—of thinking and caring—do not arise from a contract. They are antecedent to contracts and so act as principles of judgement for the justice of any contract. Political love is prior to contractual justice. My brother and I may agree on terms of a deal but prior to this deal” we are brothers. To not see him as my brother is a failure of thinking that inevitably leads to a failure of caring.

A Trajectory of Thinking: Pope Francis’s Fraternal Liberalism

Here we should consider an important objection to a political trajectory of thought shaped by the family. For Hannah Arendt, an important failure of Roman political thought (and so Catholic thought) was that it thought of the family as the model for political life. This led it to see “political communities in the image of a family whose everyday affairs have to be taken care of by a gigantic, nation-wide administration of housekeeping.” For Arendt, there are a number of problems that arise from this image. The primary problem is that it destroys the freedom of the political sphere. For her, the familial model of political thought is paternalistic. To think of the political as familial is to think of the state as the pater familias who provides necessities to those who are dependent upon him without having the freedom of equals.

The ancient polis was “distinguished from the household in that it knew [sic] only ‘equals,’ whereas the household was the center of the strictest inequality.” A familial trajectory of thought shifts political life away from the realm of free persons initiating actions that foster new forms of life and new modes of discourse. In its place is the strictest inequality that may care but can only care for those it controls. A father feeds, clothes, and shelters those who have no say in the life of the community.[1]

Along these lines, integralism expresses the paternalized family model of politics that Arendt rightly critiqued. Integralists can take up Benedict’s admonition to think of the human family, but they do so in an essential paternal way. Drawing on this intimate universal, they envision a state shaped by paternal and patriarchal control. The state, subordinated to the Church, takes control of the public square and orders it (and those within it) to the common good. Like a family, the father decides and opposition to this ordering is to be disciplined and reordered. The father determines the good of the whole, makes the children eat their food, wear certain clothes, and attend certain religious services. Restrictions are placed on sexual practices, decisions are made, and discipline doled out. This vision of family shapes the political in an essential illiberal, and for Arendt, anti-political way. Precisely because integralism/paternalism eliminates or suppresses pluralism, it ends the political.

But a paternal model is not the only model of family life and so not the only mode of political life. James Chappel, in Catholic Modern, argues that two rival forms of Catholic modernity arose in the 1930s. The first was paternal Catholicism, which was shaped by inequality, social control, and patriarchalism. While it was not necessarily fascistic, it was comfortable with fascism’s emphasis on social control and enforced cohesion. In contrast, a group of anti-fascist Catholics envisioned a different political family seeing “it as a site of cooperation and activism, symbolized less by paternal authority than by brotherly solidarity.” Our thinking of political life can be shaped by a trajectory of thought based in the relationships of brothers and sisters.

This life is shaped by care for siblings especially those that are suffering or oppressed. Brothers and sisters—from when they are little until their dying days—take care of each other. But siblings are not in positions of control or dependence. They exist in equality and so plurality. They live in relationships of dialogue, activity, and freedom. A fraternal politics is not shaped by the patriarchal model that Arendt critiqued and integralists celebrate. However, it is also not a neutralized and atomized relationality in that being a brother or sister is not a matter of choice but an antecedent relationship that is the measure of decisions and connections forged from within that relationship.

A fraternal politics is a vision of relationship that is not shaped by either contract or warfare. The shaping of that relationship is enacted within the reality of the relationship and enacted within the context of freedom and equality. To think of all people as my brothers and sisters is to think of myself in relationships of duty and responsibility. But it is also to think of the freedom of brothers and sisters, capable of living out forms of life in new ways shaped by gratuity and love. In other words, a fraternal political order is one with the antecedent depth dimensions necessary for liberalism and the freedom and creativity that is necessary for political life, especially in the form of liberalism. Beyond the isolation of liberalism and the repressive paternalism of integralism is the communitarian ethos of a fraternal liberalism.

This is why Pope Francis’s Fratelli Tutti is so important for our times. He does not offer a new social contract; rather, he argues for an account of human community necessary for any just political community. He proffers both an explanation of the conditions for the possibility of community and a rule and measure of judging communities. Francis advocates for “the sense of belonging to a single human family” both to critique the fragmenting of global fraternity but also to critique forms of globalization that deny the richness of local life. He sees the various crises that afflict liberalism and argues that “individualistic liberal approaches, which view society as merely the sum of coexisting interests” cannot maintain a vision of human community “without roots in a shared narrative.”

That shared narrative is the trajectory of thought that sees our political relationality as fraternal. All subsequent relationships are to be understood according to this one. For Francis, we do need the localized community that “keeps our feet on the ground” without falling into “the temptation to build a culture of walls . . . walls in the heart, walls on the land.” But we also need an account of the human community beyond the flattening banality of globalism.

Francis does not see this account of community in paternalism but in fraternal love: in an intimate and universal love, in a love between equals, in a love shaped by care. Like Benedict, he thinks fraternity “calls for an alternative mode of thinking.” In a mode of thought like Desmond, Francis wants to understand two essential features of fraternal love, its universality and its intimacy. The text is such a robust celebration of diversity and unity, cultural particularity and global solidarity. He celebrates localism and cultural pride but views these goods as essentially dialogical, a chance for distant brothers to meet up again.

The problem with walls is that they separate brothers and sisters, disrupting a fraternal politics of dialogue among equals. This does not mean getting rid of cultural or national particularity through the counterfeit universality of globalism. It means seeing that beyond my borders is my brother. When my brother needs help or a place to stay, I am to help him, I am to open my doors, I am to let him in. I do this because he is my brother, an equal for whom I care.

Fratelli Tutti follows through on Benedict’s trajectory of thinking. Francis does so by developing the virtues of fraternity: dialogue, kindness and benevolence, forgiveness, and openness. This is encapsulated in Francis’s reading of the Good Samaritan. Francis writes a modern mirror for princes but repurposes the genre for a liberal world which needs to see beyond mere liberalism and for a postliberal world which needs to see beyond borders and control.

For Francis, “the decision to include or exclude those lying wounded along the roadside can serve as a criterion for judging every economic, political, social and religious project.” Why is this a criterion for judgement, a standard to which we must measure up? Because it “evokes the interior struggle that each of us experiences as we gradually come to know ourselves through our relationships with our brothers and sisters.” A mirror reveals us to ourselves.

The mirror of the Good Samaritan reveals that we are brothers and sisters. The questions that frame the Good Samaritan are questions of relationship, questions that shape the entirety of Scripture. Who is my neighbor? Who is close to me? The robbers saw a person on the roadside as an adversary, as a figure to be exploited. The priest and Levite saw a person beyond the confines of their relational network, seeing “the imperative to love and care for others appears” as “limited to relationships between members of the same nation.” In contrast, the Samaritan sees a neighbor.

He recognizes himself in a relationship that is intimate (he must care for this man with his own hands) and universal (all people are in this relationship). The one who lies there—though unknown to him—is near to him. The relationship of nearness is neither a prior contract nor an ethnic, national, or ideological association. The bruised and beaten “stranger” is his bruised and beaten brother. Thus the goal of the Samaritan is not paternal. He does not seek to exert control; rather, he seeks to restore the wounded to his rightful position as an equal. He sets him free by enabling him to stand again. This is the politics we need, the relationality we need to enact in a life of equality, freedom, and care. In other words, we need a politics that begins with the insight that we are family.

[1] This is not my actual vision of family life but is the one Arendt is working with.