So now we know – for L’Osservaore Romano has told us: the papal buzz word for 2019 is ‘fraternity’. We can expect it to appear with predictable ubiquity in every allocution, every official document, every spontaneous intervention. ‘Fraternity’ will litter the homilies at the Santa Marta, and pepper every public audience.
But what – beyond banal generalities – does it mean?
Liberte, egalite, fraternite. Since the catchphrase was coined in 1789, it has had a chequered history. Liberty has subsided into licence, equality into envy, and fraternity into cliquishness (Francis’s word for that is ‘clericalism’).
In order to help us discern true fraternity, Andrea Monda, the new head of L’Osservatore Romano, has given us a useful geometrical analogy: ‘From this vision springs the image of the polyhedron, an image so dear to Pope Francis, which explains human complexity better than the flat and ideological image of the sphere.’ In truth, the Pope more frequently uses the analogy of the human family: ‘The experience of families teaches us this: as brothers and sisters, we are all different from each other. We do not always agree, but there is an unbreakable bond uniting us, and the love of our parents helps us to love one another’.
Both analogies are wide of the mark. The polyhedron is static and unchanging. The family can equally well be a source of enmity rather than unity. 69% of all crimes of violence are committed by one member of a family against another.
What Francis surely means is not ‘fraternity’ – the brotherhood of man – but agape, the self-giving love of God. ‘This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. ‘ (I John 4:10) It is common redemption, not mere biological propinquity, which makes of us radical moral demands to support, cherish and sustain.