Religious Peacebuilding in Fratelli tutti


Montserrat Gas-Aixendri

The post-9/11 world was marked by an urgent need to theorize about the relationship between religion and violence, but at the same time, it sparked a growing interest in the role of religion in peacebuilding. Much of what has been written on this subject in recent years is based on Scott R. Appleby’s work The ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation (2000). In this book, religion is understood as an internally plural and multifaceted phenomenon, which generates ambivalent responses, ranging from violence to militant pacifism. The reflection on the role of religions in peacebuilding asks to go beyond simplistic discussions, like: Is religion always right? Or is it always wrong? Fratelli tutti contributes to this reflection with a very thoughtful perspective.

The Contribution of Fratelli tutti

The social encyclical Fratelli tutti of Pope Francis proposes ways to move forward on the construction of a more just and fraternal world in ordinary relationships, social life, politics, and institutions. The encyclical remarks that all human beings are members of one human family and God’s children, sisters and brothers regardless of their beliefs. The value and promotion of peace are reflected in Chapter seven, entitled “Paths of Renewed Encounter.” In this chapter, the Pope highlights the connection between peace, truth, justice, and mercy (para. 227). Moreover, this chapter suggests ways to move from the desire for revenge in a “proactive” way and encourages the transformation of our society. This new society needs to be based on service to others and the double pursuit of reconciliation and mutual development through dialogue.

In Chapter eight, “Religions at the Service of Fraternity in Our World,” Pope Francis offers a hopeful outlook on the contribution of religions to human brotherhood and peace. Peace is one of the deepest longings of the human heart, but it is not achieved spontaneously. In the Pontiff’s words, “social peace demands hard work, craftsmanship” (para. 217). Therefore, it requires the contribution of each individual — the “art” of peace together with the social institutions — “architecture” of peace (para. 231). In this “architecture of peace”, the role that religious organizations play throughout the world is crucial.

The Encyclical addresses three important issues regarding the relationship between religions and peace. First, it reveals the roots of violence falsely linked to religion. Second, it remarks on the religious values ​​of authentic peace. Finally, it claims that the contribution of religious communities to peace requires respect for religious freedom and the boost of interreligious dialogue.

Religion and Violence

Pope Francis remarks in Fratelli tutti that violence has no basis in fundamental religious convictions, but on its distortion. In this sense, the Pope quotes the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, which he signed on February 4, 2019, in Abu Dhabi, along with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyib. This document states that “religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood” (para. 285). Those violent movements that claim to be linked to religion are the result of misrepresentation or deviation from religious teachings.

The full respect for human dignity needs to be the fundamental criterion to differentiate between real and wrong religiousness.

It should be noted that authors like Gopin1Gopin, M., Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of World Religions, Violence and Peacebuilding, (Oxford University Press, 2000)., who analyzes the development of religions in their internal history, state that the radicalization periods of violent religious movements are linked to an internal misunderstanding of the religion by its believers.

In this sense, Pope Benedict XVI recalled that fundamentalism is a distortion of true religion. This distortion arises when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. Therefore, the full respect for human dignity needs to be the fundamental criterion to differentiate between real and wrong religiousness.2Benedict XVI, Meeting with the Representatives of British Society in Westminster Hall, 17-09-2010; Encyclical Letter Caritas in veritate, para. 55.

Along with the distinction between real and wrong religiousness, Francis emphasizes that violent religious practices are often the result of political manipulation and a misinterpretation of some religious groups, who, in the course of history, “have taken advantage of the power of religious sentiment in the hearts of men and women” (para. 285). It is not uncommon that the political elites succumb to the temptation of the appropriation of religious values, through exploitation and manipulation. For this reason, religions must be firmly determined.

The Pope strongly condemns terrorism in all its forms and expressions (para. 283), and states that “God, the Almighty, has no need to be defended by anyone and does not want his name to be used to terrorize people” (para. 285). By contrast, “sincere and humble worship of God bears fruit not in discrimination, hatred and violence, but in respect for the sacredness of life, respect for the dignity and freedom of others, and loving commitment to the welfare of all” (para. 283).

Religions and Peace

The different religions, “based on their respect for each human person as a creature called to be a child of God, contribute significantly to building fraternity and defending justice in society” (para. 271). Francis maintains that “religious convictions about the sacred meaning of human life permit us to recognize the fundamental values of our common humanity, values in the name of which we can and must cooperate, build and dialogue, pardon and grow” (para. 283).

There is an undoubted connection between the postulates of the main religious traditions and the values related to peace. Most of the sacred writings and their traditions contain messages of peace and harmony.3Philpott, D., “What Religion Brings to the Politics and Transitional Justice”, Journal of International Affairs 61/1 (2007), 93-110. Religious ethics are capable of promoting attitudes such as humility, the capacity to forgive, patience, or compassion, which are fundamental in promoting peace.4Little, D. Appleby, R. S., “A moment of Opportunity? The Promise of Religious Peacebuilding in an Era of Religious and Ethnic Conflict”, In H. Coward and G. S. Smith (eds.), Religion and Peacebuilding (State University of New York Press, 2004), 14. Among them, forgiveness and reconciliation are central values in Christianity and are also present in other religions in several ways (para. 237-254).

Religious ethics are capable of promoting attitudes such as humility, the capacity to forgive, patience, or compassion, which are fundamental in promoting peace.

Real religious life must bring peace and brotherhood. It is inherent in religion to strengthen the union with divinity and enhance caring relationships among humans. Scott Thomas suggests that the holistic concept of peace present in many religious traditions has decisively influenced the current vision of “sustainable peace”5Thomas, S., The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 196..

Peacebuilding through Religious Freedom and Interfaith Dialogue

The Pope underscores in Fratelli tutti that a journey of peace among religions is possible and is, therefore, necessary to guarantee religious freedom, a fundamental human right for all believers (para. 279). The “Pope of Peace,” John XXIII, considers freedom the pillar for peacebuilding (Pacem in terris, 1963). The positive role of religions in peacebuilding is connected to the full recognition of the right to religious freedom. Pope Francis powerfully asserts that our witness to God benefits our societies. And the deprivation of religious freedom ends up trampling on the dignity of men and women and the deprivation of their rights (para. 274).

Religious leaders are called to be peace promoters through religious peacebuilding; a set of activities are carried out by religious actors to rebuild social relations more peacefully.

Francis highlights the fundamental role of religious leaders, called to be true “people of dialogue,” and to cooperate in building peace not as intermediaries, but as authentic mediators: “work in the construction of peace, not as intermediaries, but as authentic mediators”. There is a significant difference between intermediaries and mediators. While “intermediaries seek to give everyone a discount, ultimately to gain something for themselves, mediators retain nothing for themselves, but rather spend themselves generously until they are consumed, knowing that the only gain is peace” (para. 284).

Interfaith events are good opportunities to meet people from different religious communities and exchange views. These events can help religious communities to become aware of their responsibilities for the good of humanity. As the Encyclical notes

Dialogue between followers of differing religions does not take place simply for the sake of diplomacy, consideration or tolerance. . . the goal of dialogue is to establish friendship, peace and harmony, and to share spiritual and moral values and experiences in a spirit of truth and love (para. 271).

The peacebuilding action of religious organizations is undoubtedly more effective when carried out in a joint and coordinated way. Regarding interreligious dialogue, the Pontiff renews his appeal, in the name of human fraternity, to dialogue “as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard” (para. 285).

Today, perhaps more than ever, the world looks to religions paying particular attention to peacebuilding. Fratelli tutti is a decisive contribution to creating greater awareness that religions, far from causing conflicts and violence, can and must help solve these undesirable problems. ♦


Montserrat Gas-Aixendri is a Professor of Law at the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya School of Law in Barcelona. She holds an International JD from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid School of Law and a Doctor of Canon Law from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross School of Canon Law in Rome. Her research is mainly focused on religious freedom and accommodating cultural and religious diversity under State law, the position of religion within the public sphere, family canon law, and family & society.