Tracing Fraternity in the Social Sciences and Catholic Social Teaching
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Tracing Fraternity in the Social Sciences and Catholic Social Teaching

During the French Revolution fraternity became a political principle together with liberty and equality.1 These principles altered the course of political history asymmetrically. Liberty and equality were incorporated into constitutions and inspired political parties and movements; meanwhile, fraternity, the “strangest in the trinity,” remained relatively forgotten.2 Fraternity is both a normative concept and an empirical phenomenon that requires study and deserves an explanation. Democracies need deep moral roots of a secular or religious nature in order to function. These roots, which cannot generate themselves, assure social cooperation and thereby protect and perpetuate democracy.3 Fraternity can provide such a moral foundation. Despite its potential, the principle of fraternity has languished in the social sciences and broad public sphere.

To philosopher Roberto Mancini, one reason for fraternity’s obscurity has to do with its pretension of universality, which appears to contradict the reality of social exclusion. Ultimately, fraternity appears utopian and unattainable and thus not apt for policy.4 Therefore, in the social sciences—even within the humanities—the notion of fraternity is not widely used. Fraternity would contradict the conflictual nature of power, creating an ontological pessimism in politics.5 [End Page 53] However, the empirical phenomenon to which it refers, that is, an attitude of reciprocal care among citizens, has been recognized and studied largely through the concepts of social cohesion, trust, social capital, pro-sociality, reciprocity, altruism, democratic coexistence, civic friendship, community, and solidarity. We approach fraternity by taking these concepts as a semantic field or semantic domain as they are not synonymous but refer to approximately the same phenomenon.

In this article we also show that, as a semantic field, fraternity is an idea widely used in Catholic Social Teaching (hereafter CST), and that the principle of fraternity has only recently gained a more specific and precise meaning. Indeed, the latest encyclicals argue that the principle of fraternity presupposes the existence of a common Creator or Father, and by extension, that men should live in reciprocal love and respect. From that point of view, CST makes an insistent call for fraternity as a moral virtue at the core of society.

The objective of this article is to advance our understanding of the affinities and differences between academic conceptualizations of fraternity and those of CST. As a first step in this task, this article examines and surveys three social science concepts that seem to have a “family resemblance” to the notion of fraternity: social cohesion, trust, and social capital. We then continue our survey with the concepts of community and solidarity, which have received mixed attention from law and philosophy. Finally, we enter into the realm of civic friendship and fraternity, which, while mostly absent from the social sciences, are often discussed in political theory.6 We do not pretend to engage in a linguistic or post-structuralist approach of the idea of fraternity, but rather in a pragmatic attempt to build a bridge between some of social sciences’ concepts and a philosophical idea widely relevant to CST. Finally, we present some challenges that the study of the idea of fraternity poses and how CST may assist in overcoming them. [End Page 54]

Fraternity’s Semantic Domain in the Social Sciences

The concept of social cohesion has been associated with a great variety of issues such as: values and shared meanings, socioeconomic equality, multiculturality, cooperation, social protection, social bonds, inclusion, and citizenship.7 Since 2001, the European Union has measured social cohesion by social gaps through the so-called Laeken indicators that encompass four areas: income, employment, education, and health. In 2007 the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) adjusted the Laeken indicators to better measure the more pervasive gaps in Latin America and added indicators regarding the role of democratic institutions and the sense of community belonging.8 The development community’s literature on social cohesion assumes that through active social policy socioeconomic gaps may be narrowed, and this in turn generates a sense of belonging; both produce social cohesion.

Nobel laureate in economics Gary Becker defines social capital as a natural part...


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