Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, On Fraternity and Social Friendship, advances a plea to all men and women of good will that they “recover the shared passion to create a community of belonging and solidarity” (no. 36), “a universal aspiration to fraternity” (no. 8), embodying brotherhood, not only within the boundaries of local communities, but also cross-culturally, uniting them in their inalienable dignity seeking “free and open . . . authentic encounters,” with a focus on seeking the “the truth in dialogue” (no. 50), for the sake of the common good.
Developing a dynamic and communicative concept of culture in his encyclical, Pope Francis seeks “to create processes of encounter, processes that build a people that can accept differences” (no. 216). This would be a local and cross-cultural encounter embodied in a society “where differences coexist, complementing, enriching and reciprocally illuminating one another, even amid disagreements and reservations” (no. 215).
This essay will consider the processes of the cross-cultural dialogue stressed by Francis, of encounter and engagement, and the attendant nature of a genuinely dialogical but also critical encounter in the search for truth in general and between religions in particular.
What is culture?
What does Francis understand by culture? “The word ‘culture’ points to something deeply embedded within a people, its most cherished convictions and its way of life. . . It has to do with their desires, their interests and ultimately the way they live their lives” (no. 216). The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor gives a more exacting grasp of what is embedded in a culture, saying it is a specific intellectual, moral, symbolic, and institutional form manifesting an understanding of “personhood, social relations, states of mind/soul, goods and bads, virtues and vices.”
Also, Taylor states, it is “a constellation of understandings of person, nature, society and the good” as well as about the relationships of the human person to “God, the cosmos and other humans.” This, too, is the view of the then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in Truth and Tolerance: “Each particular culture not only lives out its own experience of God, the world, and man, but on its path it necessarily encounters other cultural agencies and has to react to their quite different experiences.” In short, man is a culture-bearing creature whose cultures are diverse, permeable, fostering the possibility of interculturality (to borrow a term from Ratzinger), which includes an openness to influence from each other, and changeable because developing and therefore historical.
Foundation of fraternity?
What is the foundation of Pope Francis’ appeal to fraternity in our cross-cultural encounter and engagement? He answers, “Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic [and cross-cultural] co-existence [see no. 273], but it cannot establish fraternity” (emphasis added). Fraternity is the fruit of the knowledge of the Gospel, the transformation that comes from having embraced the faith. Francis explains, “As believers, we are convinced that, without an openness to the Father of all, there will be no solid and stable reasons for an appeal to fraternity. We are certain that ‘only with this awareness that we are not orphans, but children, can we live in peace with one another’” (no. 272).
According to the New Testament, however, one cannot gain access to the Father of all, indeed, to God Himself, we read in 2 John, without “abiding in the teaching of Christ. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (vs. 9).
Given this biblical teaching, one would think that Francis would develop this point by arguing for the urgency of proclaiming and passing on this revealed truth in order for men to acquire this openness. This requires the adherence of faith to the unchanging truth of God’s revelation in Christ, shattering the walls of division, and creating unity. But Francis does not do so. Now, Francis may respond to this lacuna by claiming that he does not purport in this encyclical “to offer a complete teaching on fraternal love.” He only considers “its universal scope, its openness to every man and woman” (no. 6).
Still, I would respond to Francis’ disclaimer that he fails to give the essential foundation of fraternity in the unchanging truth of salvation accomplished by Christ that became a universal offer in the process of encounter and engagement with cultures, collapsing the walls separating the different cultures. What unchanging truth is at stake here to achieve a communion of cultures? St. Paul states:
Now in Christ Jesus you who once where far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the wall of hostility. . . . You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are saints and members of the household of God (Eph 2:13-14, 19)
Again, if the salvation accomplished by Christ is the foundation of fraternity, of communion, then should not evangelization, the preaching of the Gospel, and inter-religious dialogue and apologetics be required in the process of cross-cultural encounter and engagement? Francis is silent as well on these matters precisely in chapter eight, “Religions at the Service of Fraternity in our World.”
Fragments of truth
Furthermore, it is hard to see how the “different religions” can be at the service of fraternity since, according to Francis, fraternity is a fruit of the knowledge, and hence the embracing, of the Gospel. Francis may respond to this point by claiming that “we, the believers of the different religions, know that our witness to God benefits our societies” (no. 274; no. 275; see also, Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, 252).
To support his claim, Francis cites Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate, no. 2: “The Church esteems the ways in which God works in other religions [through his general revelation], and ‘rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions’.” So there are fragments of truth and goods in other religions as evidence of God’s general revelation. Still, he inexplicably fails to refer to the biblical passage immediately cited after the above passage in Nostra Aetate: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. (Jn 14: 6) In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (2 Cor 5:18-19), men find the fullness of their . . . life.” “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14: 6). In sum, as Gaudium et Spes, no. 22 states, “The truth is that it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man takes on light.”
These are universal truth claims of Christianity, and they are missing in this encyclical.
Missing also is that Vatican II speaks of these religions as not entirely positive, of objective error, superstition, insufficiencies, as well as plain evil (see Lumen Gentium, no. 17; Ad Gentes, no. 9). There is more: Francis must recognize—but in fact does not—that the central truth claims of Christianity conflict with the truth claims of other religions. In its 1991 document Dialogue and Proclamation, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue makes precisely this point:
An open and positive approach to other religious traditions cannot overlook the contradictions that may exist between them and Christian revelation. It must, where necessary, recognize that there is incompatibility between some fundamental elements of the Christian religion and some aspects of such traditions.
Dialogue of religions and incompatible truth claims
Francis overlooks the matter of incompatible truth claims that is particularly crucial in inter-religious dialogue. Yes, Francis’ emphasis in this encyclical and in other writings (e.g., Evangelii Gaudium, no. 251) is always on maintaining the uniqueness and identity of being a Christian while seeing a positive value to the differences of religions. Thus, as Christians, we can bring firm commitments to the table of interreligious dialogue.
He stresses, “Let us not compromise our ideas, utopias, possessions, and rights. Inexplicably, however, he adds, “let us give up only the pretension that they [our beliefs] are unique and absolute” (The People Wish to See Jesus, 2014, 68; emphasis added). Again, he says, “To dialogue means to believe that the ‘other’ has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective.” In short, “engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions.” Again, inexplicably, Francis adds, “but [dialogue does mean] the [renouncing of the] claim that they [Christian beliefs] alone are valid or absolute” (Message of Pope Francis for the 48th World Communications Day, June 1, 2014).
There continues to be confusion here in Francis’ thought. I examined that confusion in my book Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II. Religious differences do involve logically incompatible propositions that cannot all be true. A proposition is true if and only if what it asserts is in fact the case about objective reality; otherwise, the proposition is false. As Anglican philosophical theologian Keith Ward correctly remarks, affirming some truth claim excludes that state of affairs “which would render the proposition false. If an assertion excludes nothing, it affirms nothing. In that sense, all truth-claims are necessarily exclusive.”
Ward adds, “It immediately follows that where any truth-claim is made, it is logically possible to make another truth-claim which the first claim excludes. It is logically impossible for all possible truth-claims to be compatible. So it is possible for religious traditions to contain incompatible truth-claims, claims which exclude one another.” For example, if the central truth-claims of Christianity are true, then Islam must be false.
Moreover, Francis speaks without distinction of the “different religions,” of their witness to God, suggesting that they build fraternity and defend justice in society “on their respect for each human person as a creature called to be a child of God” (no. 271). One might be able to make sense of this claim if he were referring to the “creation religions” of Judaism and Islam. But this claim is indefensible philosophically within the presuppositions of “emanation religions” of, for example, philosophical Hindu thought with its concept of monism underlying its understanding of reality, the human person, or individuality, and morality.
The most vital school of Hindu philosophy has been Advaita, or non-dualism, Vedanta, a pure monism. Regarding God, as Ratzinger correctly notes, “the person is not an ultimate reality, and hence God is not conceived of in personal terms: the person, the contrast between I and Thou, belongs to the sphere of distinctions,” that is, the phenomenal world. In other words, as Benedict Ashley, OP, explains, “all things are maya (appearance) and the only reality is the Absolute.” On this view, regarding reality, “Brahman alone is real, the phenomenal world is unreal, or mere illusion.” The world, which includes the individual self, has no separate existence apart from Brahman. That is, “the true nature of the human self is identity with the universal Atman or Absolute.”
Thus, there is no basis for the enduring validity and dignity of the person. Ashley adds, “[T]he plurality of finite selves and the things of the world are not conceived as creations from the one with which they remain substantially identical.” Regarding the human person, the individual, indeed, individuality that belongs to the phenomenal world, is the essential problem so that man must transcend his individuality. The Indian spiritual master, Meher Baba (1894-1969) says, “A real merging of the limited in ocean of universal life involves complete surrender of separate existence in all its forms.” The individual must merge with the Absolute, entailing the negation of individual personality. Finally, regarding monism and morality, good and evil are only distinct in the phenomenal world and hence there are ultimately no moral absolutes, that is, good and evil do not exist in themselves.
In sum, Ashley explains
In this perspective, [philosophical] Hinduism [in distinction to popular Hindus who seem to be polytheists] accepts a wide variety of popular religious practices in honor of many divinities, since all are simply symbols, adapted to the spiritual state of the devotee, pointing to the ultimate Absolute. Each human being may have to pass through the countless reincarnations to attain the enlightenment that finally achieves union with the Absolute either by total identification, as in Non-Dualism, or in a body-soul union in Qualified Non-Dualism.
The emanation monism of Hindu philosophical thought logically excludes a state of affairs where “each human person as a creature [is] called to be a child of God.” In short, it makes no sense to appeal to “different religions” to justify Francis’ claim.
Dialogue in general
Turning now to dialogue in general, local and cross-cultural, Francis stipulates some conditions that express non-negotiable, unchangeable truths.
1) “There can be no dialogue with ‘others’ without a sense of our own identity.” Thus, “I cannot encounter another unless I stand on firm foundations, for it is on the basis of these that I can accept the gift the other brings and in turn offer an authentic gift of my own” (no. 143).
2) “Authentic social dialogue involves the ability to respect the other’s point of view and to admit that it may include legitimate convictions and concerns. . . . When individuals or groups are consistent in their thinking, defend their values and convictions, and develop their arguments, this surely benefits society” (no. 203).
3) “Other cultures are not ‘enemies’ from which we need to protect ourselves, but differing reflections of the inexhaustible richness of human life. Seeing ourselves from the perspective of another, of one who is different, we can better recognize our own unique features and those of our culture: its richness, its possibilities and its limitations” (no. 147).
4) Dialogue in general involves “clear thinking, rational arguments, a variety of perspectives and the contribution of different fields of knowledge and points of view” (no. 211).
5) In dialogue there are certain non-negotiable moral truths, for example, about inalienable human dignity (nos. 207, 213), fundamental human rights (no. 209), human nature (no. 208).
6) These truths are “attained by the use of reason and accepted in conscience” (no. 207). In sum, “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 if certain universal moral demands” (no. 213).
These stipulations are, indeed, necessary conditions for dialogue. Still, stipulation three is flawed. Yes, inter-cultural exchange may lead to the recognition of the limits of some specific cultural outlook and hence to acknowledging complementary perspectives that are neither contradictory not self-sufficient but rather, as Bernard Lonergan, SJ, puts it, “incomplete and approximate portrayals of an enormously complex reality.” Next, inter-cultural exchange may also lead to the recognition that different cultural formation are genetically related—again, in Lonergan’s words—as “successive stages in some process of development. Each later stage presupposes earlier stages, partly to include them, and partly to transform them.” Complementary and genetic perspectives are consistent with Francis’ vision of inter-cultural exchange.
Missing, however, is that truth-claims embedded in cultural formations may also be “opposed dialectically.” In other words, “What for one is true, for another is false. What for one is good, for another is evil.” What this means is that incompatible truth claims cannot just be “differing reflections of the inexhaustible richness of human life,” as Francis claims.
Hence, Francis overlooks the question of incompatible truth claims, not only in inter-religious dialogue, but also dialogue in general. Affirming some truth claim excludes that state of affairs “which would render the proposition false.” If an assertion excludes nothing, it affirms nothing. In that sense, all truth-claims are necessarily exclusive.” Francis ignores this non-negotiable truth in order to affirm the co-existence of diverse perspectives, locally and cross-culturally.
Truth matters. In particular, Francis’ emphasis is always on maintaining the uniqueness and identity of being a Christian while seeing a positive value to the differences of religions. I have argued for the insufficiency of this approach because it ignores the question of incompatible truth claims. Furthermore, Francis denies that Christian beliefs alone are valid or absolute, and hence I am not sure that he can maintain the uniqueness and identity of Christianity. Moreover, since truth matters we need to justify our religious commitment, particularly the claims one holds to be true must be justified. Otherwise, merely accepting fundamental differences, in short, one’s religious identity, says Pope Benedict XVI, “effectively blocks the path to truth.” The fundamental religious choices would consequently appear arbitrary, as having nothing to do with rationality and the truth about reality, particularly “with the possibility that religion has to do with truth.” Hence, truth matters.
Editor’s note: This is the fourth of several CWR essays on Fratelli Tutti and related topics. The other essays are:
• “Fratelli Tutti is a familiar mixture of dubious claims, strawmen, genuine insights” (Oct. 5, 2020) by Samuel Gregg
• “An encyclical filled with tensions and omissions” (Oct. 8, 2020) by Paulo Futili
• “Fratelli Tutti and its critics” (Oct. 9, 2020) by Larry Chapp
• “Brothers without Borders: Pope Francis’s Quasi-Humanitarian Manifesto” (Oct. 10, 2020) by Daniel J. Mahoney
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