05 February 2021
05 Feb 2021

Community as a space of co-responsibility

Dehonians of the Generalate reflect on the anthropological-moral approach to the encyclical Fratelli tutti.

by  Victor de Oliveira Barbosa, scj

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Pope Francis’s latest encyclical opens up the different perspectives for understanding a human being and one’s communal and social behavior. For us at the Generalate of the Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, it has become one of the tools we use for our ongoing formation this year, having chosen as the community motto, in fact, the same Franciscan expression that gives its name to encyclical: Fratelli Tutti. A few weeks ago, on a Saturday morning, we welcomed the reflection of Fr. Cataldo Zuccaro, priest of the diocese of Frosinone, professor of Moral Theology at the Pontifical Universities: Urbaniana and Gregorian; a resident guest in our SCJ community, who proposed us to an approach of anthropological-moral to the papal encyclical founded on responsibility and co-responsibility.

Fr. Cataldo started from an anthropology underlying the encyclical, that of indigence and vulnerability. We all experience the vulnerability that constitutes the human condition. Being born and dying are already the experiences of this fragility that affects us all. For each of us, being vulnerable is not a question of “yes” or “no”, but a question of “more” or “less”. Thus, we can speak of an ontological vulnerability, rather than a structural vulnerability, which commits us to a common responsibility: there is a relational dimension, vulnerability is not only the experience of our weakness, but rather an openness to others. The experience of vulnerability forces us to overcome all sorts of individualism because we realize that we are all in need. The ontologically vulnerable human being is necessarily constituted in the relationship.

This anthropological conception leads us to an ethical issue: because we are vulnerable and dependent, we must be responsible and co-responsible. Fr. Cataldo identifies three possible answers to the reality of need. The first is indifference, understood as a denial of the existence of the other. Western society wants to mask this attitude with the alleged virtues of tolerance and autonomy, upholding an “ethic of indifference”. The second possible answer is the exploitation of the needy person, according to an “ethics of the strongest”: relationships are based solely on what the other can offer. The risk is to justify paternalism which; however, far from promoting the other, perpetuates the condition of need for him. A third answer is to recognize that we are all indebted to each other. This “social debt” makes us pass from responsibility to co-responsibility because we not only welcome the needs of others but also manifest our own needs. Here we need a “gift ethic” in which the other’s destiny is assumed as one’s own destiny and one’s fulfillment is sought as one’s own.

Here is the change proposed by Fratelli Tutti: the other is no longer a foreigner, but rather a brother. We are called to constitute a “we” who lives in a common home and to express our “being brothers” who take upon themselves the pain of the failures of others (cf. FT 18 and 77). The “need to be” that belongs to our existential condition invites us to place ourselves as a response to everyone’s need. According to the ethics of the gift, responsibility is proportionate to the depth of the other’s need to be and relationships become a space for the mutual realization of our dignity as a person. Responsibility therefore becomes co-responsibility, taking care of one another, and the community of brothers becomes a place where we share both the vulnerability that unites us and our common responsibility. In this sense, our community life is not reduced to egalitarianism, but rather ensures that each receives what is due to him. Indeed, Fr. Cataldo reminded us, our Rule of Life affirms that community life requires that we welcome others as they are (cf. Cst. 66), in their needs, and invites us to live relationships in which we strive to understand what is dear to each one in the hope of what others can become with the help of our fraternal support (cf. Cst. 64). We thus rediscover the community as a space of co-responsibility, of “being for others”, what for the Christian faith has a proper name: love.

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