Our Moral Obligations Are Not Bound by Borders

Meghan Clark writes:

Our moral obligation to our neighbor, as explicated in Chapter 2, provides the lens through which the encyclical’s passages on international economics, private property and the universal destination of goods should be examined. While they are fiery in tone and uncompromising in judgment, the economic passages in Fratelli Tutti mostly restate the longstanding Catholic moral tradition and apply it to today’s context.

Reminding us that this goes back to the very beginning, Francis quotes fourth-century St. John Chrysostom: “Not to share our wealth with the poor is to rob them and take away their livelihood. The riches we possess are not our own, but theirs as well.” The universal destination of goods — this belief that the goods of creation are destined for humankind as a whole — helps us imagine what it means to be one human family and who we are called to be.

Positive obligations toward my neighbor should govern questions of economic justice. And when one’s neighbor is in need, meeting basic needs trumps any questions of their moral character. The universal destination of goods is primary. The right to individual private property is secondary, and always in service of the common good.

Fratelli Tutti helpfully argues with precise clarity that positive moral obligations of the universal destination of goods are not bound by borders and are operative on levels of the global economic apparatus.

In particular, Francis identifies both positive and negative moral obligations of nations, stating, “If every human being possesses an inalienable dignity,” then “it matters little whether my neighbor was born in my country or elsewhere.” Every nation has responsibilities to the one human family; and this responsibility can be met either by offering “a generous welcome to those in urgent need, or work to improve living conditions in their native lands by refusing to exploit those countries or to drain them of natural resources, backing corrupt systems that hinder the dignified development of their peoples” (Paragraph 125).

Taking to heart Fratelli Tutti, and especially its economic and political moral obligations, would drastically change the calculation for what is asked of Americans — as individuals, communities and as one nation — with respect to those migrants journeying to seek asylum. We are not only asked to provide welcome, but also both to avoid participating in their oppression and positively support their development.

Our responsibilities are not bound by borders but by our common humanity. Repeatedly, the encyclical calls for listening at the margins, developing policies from the bottom up, and building a radically different social, civil and political global community.