Universal Love and Borderless Rights: Attending to Our Neighbor with Pope Francis and the Good Samaritan


Greg Marcar

In his previous encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis claims that the contours of biblical teaching “suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor, and with earth itself” (para. 66). It may be observed that these three overlapping relationships are also the subjects of Francis’ encyclicals to date: Lumen Fidei (God); Laudato Si (the environment) and now Fratelli tutti — the neighbor. In this post, I will briefly trace one way in which Pope Francis’ latest encyclical takes us from the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 to an understanding of being human based upon universal love, and finally towards an obligation on all countries to welcome the other in their midst.

Love, Attention, and Theological Anthropology

At several points in Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis draws upon the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is detailed in Luke 10:25-37. Before Christ begins the parable, a scholar of the (Mosaic) law approaches Jesus and asks him what he must do to enter the kingdom of heaven. Christ solicits the correct answer from the lawyer that one must “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”; and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The legal scholar then asks Christ a follow-up question as to who his “neighbor” is. In response, Christ tells the story of a person who has been robbed, stripped, and beaten on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Two people — a priest and a Levite, respectively — notice the wounded man but pass by on the other side of the road without helping him. A Samaritan then encounters the victim, but instead of walking by takes pity on him, attends to his wounds, and brings him to an inn where he pays for his care. This Samaritan, the legal scholar correctly surmises once asked, is the “neighbor” whose actions he must emulate to fulfill the imperative of neighbor-love. 

The Good Samaritan by Rembrandt. 1630. Wikimedia Commons.

For Francis, as for Christian commentators throughout the centuries, this parable epitomizes the reciprocity of selfless love made normative by Christian ethics. One of the interesting aspects which Fratelli tutti highlights is the reorientation and recentering of our attention which this parable brings about, both through its form and in its content. Jesus does not describe the crime which is said to have taken place or the identity of the criminal(s). As Francis notes, all of the listener’s attention is directed towards the person who is acting to attend to the injured man (para. 72). Questions that might otherwise occupy a judicial response to the situation — questions, for instance, of accountability and liability — are thereby notably side-lined, with all the attention being given to the response of love. The legal scholar’s original inquiry of “who is my neighbour?”, along with its underlying queries into defining what proximity is sufficient to constitute neighborliness, etc, is deliberately diverted by Christ to the ulterior matter of how we “become neighbours” to one another (para. 80, emphasis added). 

Another recentring is brought about by the parable’s unlikely protagonist. Margaret Thatcher once remarked that “no one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.” From the perspective of Pope Francis’ reading of the parable in Fratelli tutti, such comments construe the story’s message almost entirely backward. What first distinguishes the Samaritan from those who pass by is not that he provided assistance, or even that he had the intention of doing so. Antecedent to both of these, the Samaritan extended to the injured man that which, as Francis notes, might be considered increasingly valuable in our frenetic culture: his “time and attention” (para. 63).1The relevance of time and attention to this parable was powerfully illustrated by the famous Princeton University “Good Samaritan” study during the 1970s. In this experiment, seminary students were scheduled (with varying time constraints) to teach on this parable. Organizers of the study arranged for the students to encounter a person en route to their sermon location who had apparently been wounded and mugged. Only 45% of participants who believed they were “on time” and 10% of those who believed they were “late” attended to the stranger. The importance of Francis’ observation here is worth expanding upon. As the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch (drawing upon the thought of Simone Weil) points out,2See also Simone Weil’s highly thought provoking remarks on intention and the parable of the Good Samaritan in Simone Weil, Waiting for God (New York: Harper & Row 1973), 146-151 a person’s attention is highly significant in determining both the boundaries and character of her subsequent moral deliberations:

I can only choose within the world I can see…if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value round about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over.3Murdoch, I. The Sovereignty of the Good (New York: Routledge, 2014), 36. See also Iris Murdoch, ‘The Darkness of Practical Reason’, in Peter J. Conradi and George Steiner (eds.), Existentialists and Mystics Writing on Philosophy and Literature by Iris Murdoch (London: Random House, 1997), 193-203.

The attention that we give helps shape the evaluative frameworks around which our choices are made, which in turn results in the actions we take (or refrain from taking). In Laudato Si, Francis talks of our own gaze being directed by “the gaze of Jesus” so as to become “attentive to the beauty that there is in the world.”4Pope Francis, Laudato Si, paras. 96-97. Here, the attention which we give to Christ is deflected by Christ towards the natural world (Matthew 6:26: “Look at the birds of the air…”) and the fundamental relationship of Creator to creation.5See also Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate: On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World”, in which Francis lists several accounts and parables in which Christ asks his disciples to pay attention to specific significant but seemingly small details, such as wine running out at a party (John 2), a missing sheep (Luke 15), or a widow offering two small coins (Mark 12; Luke 21). In Christ’s telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, attention is directed towards the actions of the Samaritan, whose own attention in turn directs us towards the wounded person. Francis issues a challenge to his readers:

Each day we have to decide whether to be Good Samaritans or indifferent bystanders…there are only two kinds of people: those who care for someone who is hurting and those who pass by; those who bend down to help and those who look the other way and hurry off. (para. 69-70)

The Good Samaritan’s loving attention towards the other contrasts with the (in)attention of the story’s Levite and Priest who, despite being “religious” and having a doxological commitment to God, did not (or could not) include the wounded man within their fields of attention and concern. Whereas the Samaritan “was able to interrupt his journey, change his plans, and unexpectedly come to the aid of an injured person who needed his help”, the passers-by did not attend to the injured man because he did not fit within their compass of concerns — their duties, social status and professional position within society: the injured man was simply “irrelevant” to their plans (para. 101). Underlying these two different bandwidths of attention, Fratelli tutti suggests, are two opposing visions of what it is to be a fulfilled human being. Turning to today’s society, Francis notes that for those who (like the aforementioned Levite and Priest) “organize themselves in a way that prevents any foreign presence” within the “closed and self-referential structures” which comprise their identities, “[t]he word ‘neighbour’ loses all meaning; there can only be ‘associates’, partners in the pursuit of particular interests” (para.102). The web of relations through which human beings both know and define themselves must remain expansively open to others, rather than become a self-interested, inward-looking closed circuit. For Francis, this openness to the other is “part of the mystery of authentic human existence” and the telos for which we are made. In a nod to the work of Karol Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II), Francis refers to the “law of ekstasis” which Wojtyla posits is ingrained within human nature: to fulfil our own nature, we need to go outside ourselves towards others. In giving to others and receiving ourselves from them, human beings are enriched and become more than they previously were. Although he does not say so explicitly, Pope Francis perhaps has in mind sentiments from a prayer commonly attributed to his namesake, Saint Francis: “for it is in giving that we receive.” 

Such an understanding of the human condition corresponds to an ethic of universal love and hospitality, which Francis sees as exemplified within the desert fathers of the Christian tradition and the medieval monasteries under the Rule of Saint Benedict, which states that “all guests…are to be welcomed as Christ.”6Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 53. As the encyclical’s title itself asserts, from this perspective all human beings are to be regarded as sisters and brothers (Fratelli) in one large extended family. 

Love, Refugees and the “destination of created goods”

We are now in a position to explore how Fratelli tutti frames the obligation of countries towards those who are amongst the most politically sensitive category of guests: immigrants and refugees. 

In addition to expounding an ethic of universal love towards the other, Francis also draws attention to the “common destination of created goods” as having profound ethical and political implications for the world today. The notion of external goods being for the benefit of all human beings has deep roots within Catholic theology. Writing in his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) for instance asserts that a person who takes a good essential for life (such as food or clothing) out of necessity is not guilty of theft under natural law (ST II-II, q. 66, a. 7). In her excellent work tracing the historical ancestry of rights-discourse to the early medieval period, Jean Porter notes that Aquinas’ position may be said to amount to a claim that the needy have a sort of “subjective immunity”, under which they may be said to have a “right” to goods necessary for their existence without interference from others.7See for instance Porter, J. “From Natural Law to Human Rights: Or, Why Rights Talk Matters.” Journal of Law and Religion 14.1 (1999): 77–96; Porter, J. Ministers of the Law: A Natural Law Theory of Legal Authority (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010). It may, however, be argued that Aquinas’ reasoning can be leveraged to go even further than this. While Aquinas defends the legitimacy of private property as essential for the order and proper functioning of human society, a state of urgent and existential need renders goods “common property.” In a sense, the goods become the property of the needy person because of their need. Aquinas here cites with approval the assertion of the Patristic Church Father St. Ambrose (340–397) that, in such situations, it is in fact “the hungry man’s bread that you withhold” and “the naked man’s cloak that you store away” (emphasis added). It is against this provocative backdrop that we can most fully understand Pope Francis’ reminder of the Church’s teaching that

[t]he right to private property is always accompanied by the primary and prior principle of the subordination of all private property to the universal destination of the earth’s goods, and thus the right of all to their use…we can then say that each country also belongs to the foreigner, inasmuch as a territory’s goods must not be denied to a needy person coming from elsewhere (para. 123-24).

Seen in this light, Pope Francis’ message in Fratelli tutti may be described as both radical — a description which its opponents and advocates alike might share — and consonant with established Catholic theology. Perhaps more controversial, however, is how Francis proceeds to extend the logic of the “destination of created goods” to nation-states themselves, such that “each country also belongs to the foreigner, inasmuch as a territory’s goods must not be denied to a needy person coming from elsewhere” (para. 124). Francis here combines his previous remarks on universal charity towards others — paradigmatically illustrated in the attention and attitude of the Good Samaritan — with the common destination of created goods to conclude that “it matters little whether my neighbour was born in my country or elsewhere…Our response to the arrival of migrating persons can be summarized by four words: welcome, protect, promote, and integrate” (para. 125-29). In a global context in which many states continue to find ever more creative ways of obfuscating their responsibility towards non-refoulement (the principle that refugees not be returned to states in which they will face persecution, torture, degrading, or cruel treatment), Pope Francis’ remarks in Fratelli tutti should present a sharp reminder of our duties towards one another. ♦


Greg Marcar is the Harold Turner Research Fellow at the Center for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago, where he is also a Teaching Fellow within the Theology program.