Special Address by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, Holy See, at the International Conference on Cohesive Societies 2022
6 September 2022
I cordially greet all the speakers and delegates participating in the International Conference on Cohesive Societies; I greet and thank the Singaporean Authorities, especially Madam President Halimah Yacob and the Minister of Culture, Community and Youth, Mr. Edwin Tong, for organizing this conference.
It gives me great pleasure to speak to you today, since the global context in which we find ourselves necessitates even greater introspection and action on our part if we are to foster harmonious communities. In light of this, I believe that the International Conference on Cohesive Communities 2022 is a sign and a signal to not lose hope and to continue with a strong sense of responsibility to establish communities based on fraternity and justice.
From the dignity, unity and equality of all persons derives first of all the principle of the common good, to which every aspect of social life must be related if it is to attain its fullest meaning. According to its primary and broadly accepted sense, the common good indicates “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to achieve their fulfilment more fully and more easily.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 164).
I would like to carry out my contribution on this definition of the common good according to the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, highlighting the relationship between society, the individual person, and the pursuit of the common good. So, what do we mean by “cohesive societies”?
Undoubtedly, many partial or complete answers may be offered, but education for the common good and a sense of “humanity” are the first steps toward constructing cohesive societies. We do, in fact, belong to humanity, and the duty to develop and progress toward the total fulfillment of what is truly “human” rests with everyone, both the individual and society.
This awareness cannot be achieved solely through ideas, discourses, or the theoretical presentation of horizons; rather, it is necessary to promote a specific human willingness to enter into relationships with others through social behavior, that is, intentionally tending to do good to others in everyday life, personally and responsibly committing oneself without expecting anything in return, with the goal of realizing the full dignity of each person created in the image of God.
Societies consist of the networks of relationships that people are able to build with one another, but such encounters are not based on algebra and mathematics, but rather on cooperation, since if individual goods are put together, it is logical that a total good will be produced, but a common good will never be acquired in this manner. The objective of cohesive societies, on the other hand, is the formation of individuals capable of relationships, of inhabiting societies, and of transcending the individualism of “I” to embrace the diversity of “us.” Indeed, it is the connection with the other, particularly the relationship of love, that enables us to grasp our dignity. But, as Martin Buber said, relationships are not produced; they “happen” and come to us. When we are loved, our genuine worth is revealed; when we get a gift, our highest dignity is shown; and when we are forgiven, we become fully conscious of our value. When we obtain what we are entitled to, we become aware of the other, but not of our inherent dignity. This is something we learn when we are appreciated, when we get a free gift that benefits us. To put it another way, modern man has lost sight of the value of human life because he ascribes it to his own efforts rather than acknowledging that he is a mere recipient of it.
Within this context, the idea of social cohesion has been central to the study of sociology and other social sciences from the very beginning and refers to the set of constituent factors of the relationship between the individual and society, and in particular to the dimensions of belonging, trust, and cooperation between individuals, social groups, and institutions.
Opening up the area of social cohesiveness through interventions that recognize the benefits of enlarged cohesion seems to be a worthwhile objective. Another of the tasks that should not be forgotten in order to construct cohesive societies is working on the connection between the efficiency and efficacy of social programs, the engagement of people in the administration of public affairs, and the inclusion of peripheral realities, again in both geographic and social dimensions.
This introductory reflection confronts us with a problem: our contemporary society is characterized by new forms of individual insecurity and community fragmentation as a result of social, cultural, demographic, and economic transformations; a problem that has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. How can we restore cohesion?
To address this subject, I will make an effort to provide some directional guidance from a Christian viewpoint that I believe may aid in the planning and establishment of cohesive societies.
Individualism – Relationship – Fraternity
In 1936, de Lubac, a French Jesuit, theologian, and Cardinal whose works were significant in the formulation of the doctrine of the Second Vatican Council, took a stance against the individualistic and, by extension, self-centered inclinations of his own day by stating: “Catholicism is essentially social in the most profound meaning of the term: not merely because of its applications in the realm of natural institutions, but first and foremost in itself, at the very core of its essence.” (H. De Lubac, Cattolicismo Aspetti sociali del dogma, trad. it. a cura di Elio Guerriero, Jaca Book, 1978, p. XXIII).
From this perspective, the believer is never alone; to begin to believe is to emerge from isolation and into the community of God’s children. In fact, the deepest foundation of this Christian “we” is the fact that God is also a “we.” The God professed by the Christian Creed is not a solitary, self-contained being, but a relationship, just as Pope Francis reminds us, “every day we are offered a new opportunity, a new stage. We should not expect everything from those who govern us; that would be childish. We enjoy a space of co-responsibility capable of initiating and generating new processes and transformations. We must be active participants in the rehabilitation and support of wounded societies. Today, we are faced with the great opportunity to express our being brothers, to be other good Samaritans who take upon themselves the pain of failures, instead of fomenting hatred and resentment […]. The word “neighbor” in the culture of Jesus’ time usually indicated those who were closest, neighbors. It was understood that help should be directed first of all to those who belong to one’s own group, one’s own race. Jesus completely reverses this approach: he does not call us to wonder who are those who are close to us, but rather to make us neighbors, nearer” (Fratelli tutti, nos. 77,80)
Today, we are confronted with a situation in which fraternity and solidarity are widely acknowledged as values, but there is a major crisis of solidarity in our societies: never before has solidarity been more topical, and never before has it been so inactual, in other words, penalized in real experience. Our society is paying less and less attention to the dynamics of solidarity: we are seeing an ever-expanding growth of dependency, which even aspires to become universal, but which is characterized, particularly at the cultural level, by inclinations toward closure.
The subject’s withdrawal within itself corresponds to a withdrawal into daily existence as an eternal present: contemporary man feels less and less of the interaction with the past, interpreted as creative memory, and less and less of the prospect of future openness. The quickening of time makes yesterday’s events appear so remote that they have little bearing on what we feel today. The future is feared rather than expected; as a result, there is a retreat into the present, which is the source of our society’s and the youth’s reluctance to set ambitious goals.
In a post-globalization society, the objective is to begin addressing the challenge of coexistence among many cultures while being proud of each culture’s achievements and without expecting everyone to become like ourselves. Philosopher and theologian Ramon Panikkar distinguished between dialectical discourse and dialogical discourse in his thinking. The first type is that of talk shows, in which participants fight passionately and attempt to convince one another in a dialogue that radicalizes perspectives. Dialogical discourse, on the other hand, is a trip in which both parties are confident of their own ideas but seek a third point that is not in the center but entails a road of change in both parties.
In light of this, what does it mean to construct and create a cohesive community in the present day? In the Christian viewpoint, which is the biblical one, we must state that solidarity, prior to becoming an ethical example, is a theological value: the Christian is invited to practice solidarity in the first place because he encounters a God who has revealed himself to him as a God of solidarity. As Pope Francis has taught us from his first Encyclical: “Today, when the networks and means of human communication have made unprecedented advances, we sense the challenge of finding and sharing a “mystique” of living together, of mingling and encounter, of embracing and supporting one another, of stepping into this flood tide which, while chaotic, can become a genuine experience of fraternity, a caravan of solidarity, a sacred pilgrimage. Greater possibilities for communication thus turn into greater possibilities for encounter and solidarity for everyone. If we were able to take this route, it would be so good, so soothing, so liberating and hope-filled! To go out of ourselves and to join others is healthy for us. To be self-enclosed is to taste the bitter poison of immanence, and humanity will be worse for every selfish choice we make” (Evangelii gaudium, n.87).
Defending such an essential good as social cohesion, as was evident during the pandemic, where many played a secondary role of civil protection and supplemented state intervention in supporting people who were not left alone, made us realize that a different arrangement of welfare and social cohesion systems is possible and can therefore evolve into a welfare community in which the state, other structures, and individual contributions can coexist in a subsidiarity relationship.
What other alternative do we have to the pervasive individualism that seems to exist in every society of today? For the sake of simplicity, we call this the third method, which is a vision in which the person is central; the person is understood in the round, thus in terms of discernment, relationships, and motivations, and with all the repercussions this has for how society and everyday life are conceived. I will now attempt to construct this third approach through four paths:
Discernment as a compass
Together as agents of hope.
For a welcoming city and world
The value of friendship
Discernment as a compass
In realizing one’s existence, man is not called to rely on vague generic prescriptions, to dive headfirst into ideologies, or to graze on hypothetical visions of the future in which there is much heart and little intelligence; rather, man is called to patiently seek his way in today, enlightened by the great truths, which do not absolve him from the responsible, strenuous, and sometimes difficult search.
In this view, discernment is first and foremost an attitude of vigilance, assuming a critical posture, and refining one’s vision in order to separate good components from those that are just seemingly such or not at all, recognizing clearly and precisely the real issues and potential remedies. This entails, among other things, emancipating oneself from relativist examples, which tend to minimize distinctions and see all alternatives, proposals, and values as technically similar.
This task of differentiation contributes to the reconstruction of the horizon within which one is obligated to decide and act, since only a comprehensive perspective enables one to identify the spaces accessible for responsible initiative and to assess the actual opportunities for practical engagement, while also safeguarding unrealized potential. The effective completion of such a process, particularly when it involves a broad reality, cannot be left to the activity of a person or a group, but requires the conscientious and proactive participation of all interested parties.
It is not enough, then, to make a choice; one must also decide, that is, be conscious that the authenticity of a decision implies a dramatic placing of oneself on the line, shifting from the position of a neutral and external observer to that of a person who involves himself and commits himself in first person alongside others.
Together as agents of hope
A strong focus on decision-making projects us into the future and calls attention to the obligation of all those involved in discernment to act intentionally for the common good. In essence, discernment enables us to look around and uncover, in the experiences and occurrences of the human community, those seeds, energies, and reconciling forces that are already clearly at work on many societal levels. This occurs even at those levels and in those realities, such as megacities, where so many negative and disintegrating forces seem to act.
Even though we are living in a confusing historical moment owing to the uncertain transition that is happening throughout the world, the objective is to capture the inherent potential of society and activate its positive energies so that they may be put to work in the service of a better city, in which the dignity of each individual is respected and protected.
Our period seems to be characterized by a gradual rise in frustration and despair. Consequently, it is society’s duty to give people hope, and not only for the future but also for the present.
Even we, men of the third millennium, are challenged by the biblical imperative: Remember! do not forget man, your brother, just as God never forgets you; and Hear! listen to his cry of pain. In the biblical perspective, the children of memory and of listening will be the generous fathers of a future of peace and concord.
The tragic sights of war reminded us once again of how precarious man’s path in history is and of how much horror we may be responsible for or complicit in. As a result, the ethical dilemma of evil has been re-posed with renewed urgency to the consciences of individuals and nations.
But in the common responsibility to build a cohesive society, man is not alone, just as the Prophet Isaiah describes in perhaps the most intimate text in the entire Bible, “Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.’ Does a woman forget her child so that she is not moved by the child of her bowels? Though these women forget, yet I will never forget thee “(Isaiah 49:14-15); or as witnessed by the beautiful page in Luke’s Gospel about the Merciful Father, who waits for his own son to return, and when the Father, who is the image of God, arrives, he runs to meet him moved: everything in this parable is surprising and never had God been depicted to men with these features, showing God’s tenderness for every man.
Let me recall the universal witness of the peace prayer convened by Pope John Paul II in Assisi in 1986, when voices were raised in deep accordance with Isaiah and the Gospel. The Buddhist sage Shantideva (8th century) prayed thus, “May all who are exhausted by cold find warmth, and all who are oppressed by heat find refreshment […]. May all animals be free of the fear of being devoured by one another; may the hungry spirits be content; may the blind see and the deaf hear […]. May the naked find clothing, the hungry find food, […]. May all who are frightened no longer be afraid, and those who are chained find freedom […] and may all men show friendship among themselves.“
Not different were the accents of Hindu prayer, taken from the Upanishads, the ancient meditations on the Vedas: “We confirm our commitment to the building of justice and peace through the efforts of all world religions […]. May Almighty God, the friend of all, be conducive to our peace. May the Divine Judge be the Giver of peace for us.”
We are also well-versed in the rich theological and human connotations of the term “peace,” as expressed in the Muslim (salam) and Jewish (shalom) traditions, which equate peace with the presence of God’s kingdom and the obedience of faith (Islam), and use the desire for peace as a standard form of greeting among believers. These accents of faith and profound humanity, prevalent throughout the sacred texts of the world’s faiths, might remind us of the “book of the peoples” mentioned in the Bible (cf. Psalm 87:6): a celestial book in which God himself writes, but whose pages also appear in the sacred texts of the world’s peoples.
From this brief introduction to the many religious traditions, we may derive an additional lesson for the topic we will be discussing today: to develop a cohesive community, we must labor in the world without losing sight of the hope that only heaven can provide.
For a welcoming city and world
In the 4th century, Saint Ambrose wrote: “The guest does not want wealth, but rather a gracious welcome. Not a lavish banquet, but ordinary food. It is better to provide friendship and generosity with beans than to slaughter calves in the stable with hostility “(AMBROGIO, Opere morali, Tutte le opere di Ambrogio, vol. XIII, p. 303).
I decided to quote this passage from the early periods of the Catholic Church’s existence because it concretely demonstrates the conviviality of disparities at the table of society, where new guests unanticipated by our calculations or plans always appear and swarm in.
Even today, building community with the “different” is not an easy process. On the contrary, it is a sort of misery that is always before our eyes. It is challenging to bring together “diverse” individuals from different ethnicities, beliefs, and backgrounds. Living together, coexisting, and building communities that share everything from labor to welfare, from basic amenities to security, demands a heavy burden that, if accepted, provides the advantage of paving the way for civilization.
It requires fortitude to see beyond one’s own self-interest ghetto or one’s own culture and religion, which, if not open to acceptance, would become an absurd Berlin “walls” blocking all kinds of human growth, of every man who now, more than ever, considers the whole planet to be his home.
For this reason, establishing a cohesive society also requires a moral commitment that must be maintained by the concerted efforts of several people acting at different levels. Starting at the educational level, efforts should be made to instill values of openness, diversity, autonomy, morality, and finally, respect for differences, fraternity, and solidarity, which may subsequently be reflected in public discourse and cultural life. We must begin in a practical manner with brief relationships, regulating our emotions of distrust and rejection of the unfamiliar. We must watch over future generations so that they learn to be welcoming and eliminate the seeds of xenophobia that history and tradition have planted in their hearts.
In addressing the topic of hospitality, we must first approach the situation with a prophetic mindset, ready to see in the daily journey a providential opportunity, a call for a more fraternal and supporting society, and evidence of God’s presence among mankind. We have to make the transition from a homogeneous to a multicultural society, with all its attendant challenges and opportunities. This means that politics should evolve into a platform for the collective human advancement, a terrain for growth in which all individuals provide their different inherent contributions. Saint Paul VI remarked in Octogesima adveniens (no. 48) that it is not enough to recall principles, affirm aspirations, point out glaring injustices, and utter prophetic denunciations; these words will have no real weight unless they are followed by a heightened sense of responsibility and practical action on the part of each individual.
The value of friendship
We are aware that a city is the product of several historical, economic, commercial, political, and even competing circumstances. In the end, however, it is always the outcome of an act of harmony and cooperation: a collection of individuals who choose to live and work together for shared aims and advantages. The fundamental value upon which a city stands is not primarily the goodwill of its citizens, despite the fact that the book of Proverbs correctly states, “By the blessing of righteous men a city is raised” (Ps. 11:11); nor is it the fundamental value of good governance, despite Sirach’s admonition that “a city prospers through the wisdom of its leaders” (Sir. 10:3). In actuality, the classical world attributes the term “friendship” to a considerably more meaningful value. Already, Plato created an equivalency between friendship and harmony that contributes to the prosperity of the community.
Furthermore, Aristotle dares to say that “the highest point of justice seems to belong to the nature of friendship (Ethics to Nicomachus, VIII) by describing friendship as that good without which no one would choose to live, even if he possessed all other goods; he gives this good a political significance by stating that all communities are manifestly parts of that politics, and the particular species of friendship correspond to the particular species of community.
Initial expressions of friendship are directed toward the city as a whole, which is compared to a living person. In a 1954 speech in Geneva, the saintly mayor of Florence, Giorgio La Pira, said, “Cities […] have their own face, they have, so to speak, their own soul and their own destiny: they are not random piles of stone; they are mysterious dwellings of men and, in a certain sense, mysterious dwellings of God: Gloria Domini in te videbitur” (Giorgio La Pira Sindaco, vol. I, p. 383). La Pira grasps the relationship between person and city with such clarity that he asserts that the crisis of our time may be described as the detachment of the individual from the organic setting of the city: “Is it not true that the human being is rooted in the city as a tree is rooted in the soil?” That it is anchored in the key parts of the city, namely the temple for its connection with God and prayer life, the home for its family life, the workshop for its work life, the school for its intellectual life, and the hospital for its physical life?” Moreover, he emphasizes that “just because of this vital and permanent relationship between the city and man, the city is, in a sense, the appropriate instrument for overcoming all the possible crises to which human history and civilization have been subjected throughout the centuries” (Address to the Conference of Mayors of Capital Cities, Oct. 5, 1955, vol. II, p. 108).
The commitment to build connections between individuals and groups beyond each person’s natural affinities is a second aspect of friendship that helps us better grasp the mission of a cohesive society. Too often, the city looks like a collection of distinct bodies, a succession of layers that do not connect with one another. These layers are comprised of social categories, classes, professions, labor interests, political interests, and diverse ethnic and subethnic groups. Occasionally, one has the sensation that the city is too large to feel like a community. In order to bridge these gaps, friendships must be formed between people of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and languages.
There is a need to forge the kinds of connections that crystallize into warm embraces and friendships and which, if genuine and profound, may extend to individuals of other backgrounds. In this framework, it is the responsibility of the Church and all religious groups, in particular, to forge friendships that transcend natural affinities, thus contributing to the civic and moral sense of a community. A broader dedication then follows: the dedication to opening lines of connection between workplaces and academic institutions; places of suffering and places of leisure, cultural institutions and everyday citizens; the socially excluded and the socially connected. Only a strong communication effort can provide a foundation for the many public and private projects that are designed to give the city a new look—the face of a unified society.
The third quality of friendship is the will to foster not just the circumstances for living well, in the sense of being comfortable, but also the conditions for working for good, in the sense of fostering the social and civic conditions essential to the growth of virtue.
In his essay titled “The City of Man,” Giuseppe Lazzati explains why he prefers the phrase “creating the city of man” as a metaphor for politics. By doing so, he hoped to restore politics to its rightful place as the pinnacle of human activity within the natural order, in which each individual being—in his or her particular set of social and religious relations—functions as a subject-artifact and end that composes itself harmoniously for the common good (La città dell’uomo. Costruire, da cristiani, la città dell’uomo a misura d’uomo, Roma, AVE, 1984, pp. 11-17).
This harmonious ideal may be traced back to Plato and Aristotle through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, specifically the Beatitudes, from which he extracts the characteristics of a cohesive community:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-10)
For this reason, Saint Paul VI wrote in Octogesima adveniens (no. 8): To build the city as the place of existence of men and their enlarged communities, to create new forms of contact and relations, to glimpse an original application of social justice, and to assume responsibility for this difficult future is a task in which Christians must engage. Even today, the Church desires to contribute as a friend of the city by becoming nothing less than the voice of the Gospel in it and for it.
As I conclude my presentation, I think that a cohesive society necessitates rewriting the “grammar” of leadership and care for others, taking into account the life, history, and circumstances of each person. In this context, Pope Francis reminds us that “Upholding the dignity of the person means instead acknowledging the value of human life, which is freely given to us and hence cannot be an object of trade or commerce. We are all called to a great mission which may at times seem an impossible one: to tend to the needs, the needs of individuals and peoples. To tend to those in need takes strength and tenderness, effort and generosity in the midst of a functionalistic and privatized mindset, which inexorably leads to a “throwaway culture”. To care for individuals and peoples in need means protecting memory and hope; it means taking responsibility for the present, with its situations of utter marginalization and anguish, and being capable of bestowing dignity upon it.” (Pope Francis, Address to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, 25 November 2014)
Pope Francis identifies compassion as the most effective way to address a sick person. Because an observer without compassion is unaffected by what he observes and moves on; whereas a compassionate heart is touched and engaged, stops, and cares. This is the legacy entrusted to us by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who lived a life of proximity and sharing, recognizing and respecting human dignity till the very end and making death more dignified. Mother Teresa often reminded her sisters that their lives were not in vain if they had kindled even one candle in someone’s darkest hour. (Address to participants at the CDF Plenary Assembly, January 30, 2020).
Before concluding and thanking the Singaporean Authorities and the ICCS organizations once again, I would like to highlight six points that I think will help make the concept of a cohesive society more concrete.
Everyone, without exception, is a promoter of solidarity.
To construct a fair and cohesive society, the commitment of all parties is necessary (Pope Francis, Angelus of January 1, 2014).
Building solidarity with youth leadership.
To construct a better society based on justice, fraternity, and solidarity, the leadership of young people is crucial: they must help solve issues with bravery, optimism, and unity. The world needs young people who are daring and fearless, who come to the streets and refuse to remain inactive. The young people of today and tomorrow are entitled to a peaceful global order based on the unity of the human family, respect, collaboration, solidarity, and compassion (Pope Francis, Message at the Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, December 7, 2014).
Solidarity is a commitment to creating inviting cities.
The cities in which we reside will have an attractive appearance if they are rich in humanity; hospitable; inviting; if we are all attentive and kind to those in need; and if we are able to engage constructively and cooperatively for the benefit of everyone.
Solidarity is assuming responsibility for the other person’s problems.
Solidarity is the disposition that enables individuals to approach one another and to base their relationships on a sense of brotherhood that transcends differences and limits and compels them to pursue the common good together. Solidarity means assuming responsibility for each other’s problems. The mandate of love is to be carried out not from thoughts or notions but from true meeting with the other, from recognizing oneself day after day in the face of the other with his sufferings and heroism. One does not love abstractions or ideas, but rather people in the flesh: men and women, children, and the elderly; faces and names that fill the heart and move us to the gut (Pope Francis, Address to Participants in the Second World Meeting of People’s Movements, July 9, 2015).
Solidarity is defined by closeness and generosity.
Not only does solidarity include contributing to those in need, but it also involves taking care of one another. When we see in one another the face of a brother or sister, there can be no more division or exclusion (Pope Francis, Address at the Meeting with Civil Society, Quito-Ecuador, July 7, 2015).
Solidarity is a way to create history.
Solidarity entails overcoming the damaging consequences of selfishness in order to make way for the bravery of listening gestures. In this sense, solidarity is thus a means of creating history (Pope Francis, address to participants at the World Meeting of Popular Movements, Oct. 28, 2014).
All of this illustrates that the great religious traditions of mankind are capable of motivating the quest for and creation of peace and coherence among people even now, and it seems to me that the persistent and far-sighted dedication of the present Conference fits well within this dynamic.
An appropriate description of this dedication is found in John Paul II’s closing remarks at the 1986 historic prayer for peace in Assisi: “We attempt to find in it a foreshadowing of what God would want the historical evolution of mankind to be: a brotherly journey in which we accompany one another toward the ultimate goal he creates for us.”