Human Fraternity: A “New” Concept to Deal with Religious Diversity?

On February 4, 2019, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyeb signed together the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.

Certainly, there have been other co-signed documents between authorities of the Catholic Church and of Muslim communities around the world, but this was the first time that the Pope himself, and not a delegation, put his signature. This attracted a lot of attention and, favored by the conciseness of the text, many people, at least within the Catholic Church – Vatican officials, clergy, academics, and journalists – read and commented it on the spot. Many applauded this joint Catholic-Muslim effort, which began at the top of the hierarchy,[1] but there were also some critical points that were very quickly brought to the fore. One of them was the approach to religious diversity. Is human fraternity a “new” way of dealing with it?

The Document on Human Fraternity is built around an interesting structure. After an introduction that sets the stage for the theological approach and the conditions under which the text was written, the short document can be divided into three well-defined parts: “Horizon of Responsibility,” “Message” and “Concretization.” In this last part, there are 12 concrete points, which Felix Körner, professor in the Faculty of Missiology at the Pontifical Gregorian University (Rome), callslegal-political theses,[2] as well as what the signatories commit themselves to, what they ask, and what they hope for.

Fraternity is definitely a word that has a great echo in the Catholic tradition and in many branches of theology. It is a word that has described relations within the Church for centuries and millennia. Its use in the context of religious diversity was developed during the Second Vatican Council, which certainly provided food for thought. In the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes we read that: “God, Who has fatherly concern for everyone, has willed that all men should constitute one family and treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood. For having been created in the image of God, Who ‘from one man has created the whole human race and made them live all over the face of the earth’ (Acts 17:26), all men are called to one and the same goal, namely God Himself.”[3] This idea is also present in the Declaration Nostra Aetate: “We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God.”[4]

Is the brotherhood mentioned in the documents of the Second Vatican Council different from the human fraternity that Pope Francis invites us to have “faith in”?[5] Is there something new? From what point of view? The Document on Human Fraternity itself helps us to navigate this question, both in its structure, which leads to “concretization” (as seen above), and in its very introduction, where it states: “It is a document that invites all persons who have faith in God and faith in human fraternity to unite and work together so that it may serve as a guide for future generations to advance a culture of mutual respect in the awareness of the great divine grace that makes all human beings brothers and sisters.”[6] In the minds of the signatories, this document has a clear and practical objective: “To unite and work together.”

The specific contribution of the Document on Human Fraternity and the way in which the concept of human fraternity has been developed under the pontificate of Pope Francis is the attention to the practical implementation or concretization of what believing in human fraternity should lead us to do. Pope Francis traces back the roots of the theological foundation of this document to the Second Vatican Council, and he made it clear on the flight back from Abu Dhabi after signing the Document on Human Fraternity. “I openly reaffirm this – he said – from the Catholic point of view the document does not move one millimeter away from the Second Vatican Council.  It is even cited several times. The document was crafted in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.”

Dos the focus on the call to action that is so characteristic of this document add layers of meaning to the concept of fraternity/brotherhood offered by the Second Vatican Council in its reflection on religious diversity? I think there is room to argue this and to see how, with Pope Francis’s explicit and frequent invitation to the social, political, and legal dimensions to be part of the conversation, human fraternity has not opened a new way, but has suggested a step further and developed into a more transversal concept.



[1] Although this is not what this article is focusing on, we are very much aware of the discrepancy of leadership role that the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and the Pope might claim, as the second one is called to lead the whole Catholic Church while the first one cannot claim the same for clear differences in the structure, theology and organization.

[2] Körner, 96. In these 12 theses we find, for example, the condemnation of terrorism, the protection of places of worship, the call to full citizenship, freedom of belief, protection of the rights of the elderly, the weak, the disables and the oppressed, etc.

[3] Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes (1965), 24.

[4] Second Vatican Council, Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions Nostra Aetate (1965), 5.

[5] Francis – Al-Tayyeb, A., Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together (2019), Introduction.

[6] Ibid.


Cover photo: Pope Francis (C) meets with members of the Muslim Council of Elders, alongside the Grand Imam of al-Azhar mosque Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, in the courtyard of the Mosque of the Sakhir Royal Palace, in Bahrain’s Sakhir city on November 4, 2022. (Photo by Marco Bertorello / AFP.)

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