86. Redefining Fraternity. At What Cost?

August 11th, 2014

“Where is your brother?” asked God to Cain (Genesis 4:9). This standing question challenges all people not to harm one’s brother. The assumption though is that the identity of the brother is clear enough. Therefore the issue is: who is my brother? The Bible has two answers to this question: brothers and sisters are those who belong to the same family group. Jesus had brothers and sisters (Matthew 13:55-56), i.e. people who were part of his inner family circle. According to Scripture brothers and sisters are also those who do the will of the Father who is in heaven (Matthew 12:50), i.e. people who belong to the same spiritual family that has God as Father, Jesus as Lord and Savior and the Spirit as guarantee. On the one hand there is the natural family (or people group) and on the other there is the “household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).

What about the rest? The Bible says that all other people are “neighbors”, people who are around us, near or far, but who live where we live and share part of our journey. “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) is the other standing question for all people. Neighbors are all those who are next to us and we are called to love them as ourselves (Matthew 22:39).

Towards a Genuine Fraternity Between Christians and Muslims?

The Bible draws a distinction between natural or spiritual brotherhood and general neighborhood, though the Vatican no longer recognizes such a distinction. In a message sent to Muslims at the end of  Ramadan and significantly entitled “Towards a genuine fraternity between Christians and Muslims” (June 24th, 2014), the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue reaffirmed the idea that Christians and Muslims are “brothers and sisters”. The message itself traces the origin and the official endorsement of this language from John Paul II to Francis:

Pope Francis … called you  “our brothers and sisters” (Angelus, 11 August 2013). We all can recognize the full significance of these words. In fact, Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters in the one human family, created by the One God. Let us recall what Pope John Paul II said to Muslim religious leaders in 1982: “All of us, Christians and Muslims, live under the sun of the one merciful God. We both believe in one God who is the creator of man. We acclaim God’s sovereignty and we defend man’s dignity as God’s servant. We adore God and profess total submission to him. Thus, in a true sense, we can call one another brothers and sisters in faith in the one God.” (Kaduna, Nigeria, 14 February 1982).

What is happening here is the blunt re-definition of what it means to be brothers and sisters. First, while being “in Christ” becomes only one way of being brothers and sisters, fraternity is extended to all those who live “under the sun”, i.e. “the one human family”. Secondly, as far as Muslims are concerned, fraternity is further consolidated by the shared belief in “one God” whom is adored by both Christians and Muslims. The result is that they are truly “brothers and sisters in faith in the one God”.

An Unwarranted Stretch

The re-definition of what it means to be brothers and sisters is an attempt to blur what the Bible expects us to distinguish. Neighbors become brothers and sisters. Our common humanity takes over the spiritual connotation of being “in Christ” as the basis for the shared fraternity. What are the implications of such a stretch? Here are two main ones.

First, Popes John Paul II and Francis are taking the responsibility to reconstruct Biblical language forsaking its own meaning and reshaping it at the service of the Roman Catholic view of the Church representing the whole of humanity, Muslims and all others included. The assumption is that the finality of Scripture is undermined, the clear meaning of Scripture is questioned and the living tradition of the Church is thought of being entitled to “actualize” Scripture by way of changing its plain message.

Second, there is a whole set of crucial issues related to this re-definition. What does “genuine fraternity” mean in theological and soteriological terms? It seems to mean that the Biblical God and the Muslim Allah are the same God who accepts worship indifferently, both in the Christian way and in the Muslim way. After all, we are all “brothers and sisters” under Him. Moreover, it seems to imply that, as brothers and sisters “in faith in the one God”, Christians and Muslims will ultimately be saved as Christians and Muslims. The universality of salvation is clearly envisaged, if not openly stated. This message is a further extension of the very “catholic” theology stemmed from Vatican II which shifted the locus of salvation from the profession of the faith in Jesus Christ to the shared humanity of all created beings. However it remains to be seen whether or not this is biblical at all.

Beside these serious biblical flaws, you don’t need this re-defined fraternity to love Muslims and to seek to live in peace with them, as the Vatican message wants everybody to do. There is no reason to distort the plain words of Scripture: a biblically defined neighborhood is more than sufficient to promote civic engagement and peaceful co-existence with all men and women.

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