181. “All Brothers”: The Unbearable Cost of Roman Catholic Universalism

 Image source: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

It has been rightly called the “political manifesto” of Pope Francis’s pontificate. In fact, there is a lot of politics and a lot of sociology in the new encyclical “All Brothers”, a very long document (130 pages) that looks more like a book than a letter. Francis wants to plead the cause of universal fraternity and social friendship. To do this, he speaks of borders to be broken down, of waste to be avoided, of human rights that are not sufficiently universal, of unjust globalization, of burdensome pandemics, of migrants to be welcomed, of open societies, of solidarity, of peoples’ rights, of local and global exchanges, of the limits of the liberal political vision, of world governance, of political love, of the recognition of the other, of the injustice of any war, of the abolition of the death penalty. These are all interesting “political” themes which, were it not for some comments on the parable of the Good Samaritan that intersperse the chapters, could have been written by a group of sociologists and humanitarian workers from some international organization, perhaps after reading, for example, Edgar Morin and Zygmunt Bauman.

Much Politics, Little Theology
These are the themes that Pope Francis has disseminated in many speeches and in his other encyclical, “Laudato si'” (2015), on the care for the environment. Not surprisingly, he himself is by far the most cited author in the work (about 180 times), which evidences the circular trend of his thinking (the need to be self-strengthening) and the “novelty” of his teaching with respect to the traditional themes of the social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. The vision proposed by “All Brothers” is the way in which Rome sees globalization with the eye of a Jesuit and South American pope.

It is only in the eighth (last) chapter of the encyclical that the pope deals with the theme of fraternity with religions, and here the document becomes more “theological”. This section can be considered to be an interpretation of the “Document on human fraternity for world peace and living together” that Francis himself signed in Abu Dhabi with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmad Al-Tayyeb in 2019. More than just a reflection, this section is a jumble of quotations (better: self-quotations) which, by overlapping plans and juxtaposing issues, end up confusing rather than clarifying. Despite this, its basic message is sufficiently clear: we are all brothers as children of the same God. This is Pope Francis’ theological truth. The best comment on this aspect of the encyclical comes from Judge Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Salam, who spoke at the official presentation at the Vatican. Here is what he said: “As a young Muslim scholar of Shari’a (law), Islam, and its sciences, I find myself – with much love and enthusiasm – in agreement with the pope, and I share every word he has written in the encyclical. I follow, with satisfaction and hope, all his proposals put forward in a spirit of concern for the rebirth of human fraternity”. If a convinced and sincere Muslim shares “every word” of the pope, it means that the writing is deist, at best theistic, but not in line with biblical and Trinitarian Christianity.

When “All Brothers” talks about God, it does so in general terms that can fit Muslim, Hindu, and other religions’ accounts of god, as well as the Masonic reference to the Watchmaker. To further confirm this, “All Brothers” ends with a “Prayer to the Creator” that could be used both in a mosque and in a Masonic temple. Having removed the “stumbling block” of Jesus Christ, everyone can turn to an unspecified Divinity to experiment with what it means to be “brothers” – brothers in a Divinity made in the image and likeness of humanity, not brothers and sisters on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ who has died and risen for sinners. “All Brothers” has genetically modified the biblically understood meaning of fraternity by transferring it to common humanity. In doing so, it has lost the biblical boundaries of the word and replaced them with pan-religious traits and contents. Is this a service to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

What Is at Stake Theologically?
Many people, the vast majority of people, will not read Pope Francis’ long encyclical “All Brothers”. They will only hear a few sentences or lines repeated here and there as slogans. However, what everyone will retain lies in the effective opening of the document: “All brothers” – we are all brothers (and sisters). It is a very powerful universalist and inclusive message that communicates the idea that the lines of demarcation between believers and nonbelievers, atheists and agnostics, Muslims and Christians, Evangelicals and Catholics, are all so fluid and relative that they do not undermine the bonds of fraternity that they all share. The French Revolution had already launched “fraternity” as a secular belonging to human citizenship (together with “freedom” and “equality”), but now the pope defines it in a theological sense. We are “brothers” not because we are citizens, but as children of the same God. According to Pope Francis, we are all children of God, therefore brothers and sisters among us.

In “All Brothers” there is the understandable anxiety aimed at dissolving conflicts, overcoming injustices, and stopping wars. This concern is commendable, even if the analyses and proposals are political, and therefore can be legitimately discussed. What is problematic is the theological key chosen to overcome divisions: the declaration of human fraternity in the name of the divine sonship of all humanity. The pope uses a theological category (“all brothers as all children of God”) to create the conditions for a better world.

What are the theological implications of such a statement?? Here are a few. Firstly, “All Brothers” raises a soteriological question. If we are all brothers as we are all children of God, does this mean that all will be saved? The whole encyclical is pervaded by a powerful universalist inspiration that also includes atheists (n. 281). Religions in the broad sense are always presented in a positive sense (nn. 277-279) and there is no mention of a biblical criticism of religions nor of the need for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the key to receiving salvation. Everything in the encyclical suggests that everyone, as brothers and sisters, will be saved.

Then there is a Christological issue. Even though Jesus Christ is referred to here and there, his exclusive and “offensive” claims are kept silent. Francis wisely presents Jesus Christ not as the “cornerstone” on which the whole building of life stands or collapses, but as the stone only for those who recognize him. Above Jesus Christ, according to the encyclical, there is a “God” who is the father of all. We are children of this “God” even without recognizing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Jesus is thus reduced to the rank of the champion of Christians alone, while the other “brothers” are still children of the same “God” regardless of faith in Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, there is an ecclesiological issue. If we are all “brothers”, there is a sense in which we are all part of the same church that gathers brothers and sisters together. The boundaries between humanity and church are so nonexistent that the two communities become coincident. Humanity is the church and the church is humanity. This is in line with the sacramental vision of the Roman Catholic Church which, according to Vatican II, is understood as a “sign and instrument of the unity of the whole human race” (Lumen Gentium, n. 1). According to the encyclical, the whole of the human race belongs to the church not on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ, but on the basis of a shared divine sonship and human fraternity.

The theological cost of “All Brothers” is enormous. The message that it sends is biblically devastating. The public opinion inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church will see the consolidation of the idea that God ultimately saves everyone, that Jesus Christ is one among many, and that the Church is inclusive of all on the basis of a common and shared humanity, not on the basis of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. This is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Roman Catholic Ecumenism Embraces the Whole World
The tragic irony of this pope is that if, on the one hand, he presents himself as the herald of the relaunch of “mission” and the “church which goes forth” (“Evangelii Gaudium“, 2013), on the other hand, he is the pope who, with his Jesuit ambiguity and now with his Roman Catholic universalism, has made authentic Christian mission more complicated than it was. He uses the words “mission”, “announcement”, and “missionary church”, but he has emptied them of their Evangelical meaning, removing their biblical reference and filling them with empty and harmless content. “All Brothers” shows that the mission that Pope Francis has in mind is not the preaching of the Gospel in words and deeds, but the extension to all of a message of universal fraternity.

After the Council of Trent (1545-63) and up to Vatican II (1962-1965), Roman Catholicism related to the “others” (be they Protestants, other religions, or different cultural and social movements) through its “Roman” claims and called them to return to the fold. The “brothers” were only Roman Catholics in communion with the Roman pope. The others were “pagans”, “heretics”, and “schismatics”: excluded from sacramental grace, which is accessible only through the hierarchical system of the Roman Catholic Church. With Vatican II, it was Rome’s “catholicity” that prevailed over its “Roman” centeredness. Protestants have become “separated brothers”, other religions have been viewed positively, people in general have been approached as “anonymous Christians”. Now, according to Francis’s encyclical, we are “all brothers”. The expansion of catholicity has been further stretched. From being excluded from the “Roman” side of Rome, we are now all included by the “catholic” side of Rome.

After “All Brothers”, will Evangelicals better understand that Roman Catholic ecumenism is within an even greater plan that embraces everyone and everything so that the whole world comes cum et sub Petro (with and under Peter, the Roman center)?

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180. “Season of Creation”: The New Ecological-Ecumenical Agenda?

Season of Creation” is the latest ecumenical initiative sponsored by the mainline ecumenical bodies such as – amongst others – the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches (WCC). This initiative covers a period of one month (from 1st September to 4th October, St. Francis’ day in the liturgical calendar), has a focus on creation care issues, and includes a variety of activities. The Celebration Guide is full of suggestions for common prayers and common actions. The aim is to unite all Christians in prayer, strengthening their commitment in favor of the environment. The tone is especially indebted to Laudato si (Praise Be to You), Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on “care for our common home”. In that document, Pope Francis delineated his concerns for the deteriorating health of planet earth and called on humanity to take action in order to stop the degeneration process. The remedy to the downgrade trajectory was deemed to be the adoption of an “integral ecology”, i.e. the blending of green and missiological concerns in the context of Roman Catholic social doctrine. Integral ecology has become a buzzword in present-day ecumenical language and “Season of Creation” is a direct response to what Laudato Si’ called for.

What is particularly interesting is that “Season of Creation” includes among its sponsors a significant representation of the global evangelical movement, such as the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) and the Lausanne Movement through the Lausanne/WEA Creation Care Network. While evangelical networks have cultivated informal relationships with other bodies and have taken part in a number of dialogues for a long time, it is nonetheless significant that they are fully on board with this initiative where – as the official presentation states – “sisters and brothers in the ecumenical family join into common prayer and action for our common home”.

“In Caring for Creation, One Must Exercise Discernment”
The involvement of global evangelical networks at the forefront of “Season of Creation” did not go unobserved in the evangelical world. A statement from the Italian Evangelical Alliance (1st September 2020) is worth considering because it helpfully highlights some critical points that need to be dealt with. Here is the English translation of the text:

Having read the program of the initiative “Season of Creation”, the Federal Executive Council of the Italian Evangelical Alliance encourages the whole church to pray, meditate, and exercise spiritual discernment in these matters, based upon the revealed Word of God. The Italian Evangelical Alliance:

– supports every evangelical initiative aimed at understanding God’s plan for His creation, at the confession of our sin and our responsibilities in abusing it, at the development of educational, social, political and entrepreneurial initiatives in our relationship with creation according to the requirements of the Gospel, in view of the hope of Christ who said: “I will make everything new”!

– is grateful for the evangelical documents already firmly established as being part of contemporary evangelical thought on the theme of creation and creation care, such as: the WEA-related “Statement on the Care of Creation” (2008) and the Lausanne-related “Jamaica Call to Action” (2012).

– supports co-belligerent initiatives for a common and shared purpose (by religious and/or secular bodies) aimed at the care and development of creation, even where the faith and worldview of the subjects and participants involved are different.

– distances itself from the ecumenical initiative “Season of Creation” supported by the Lausanne/WEA Creation Care Network and does not consider itself represented as it believes that it is neither possible nor biblical to unite in prayer to God with men and women representing religious institutions and bodies who profess a flawed gospel that is different from the gospel proclaimed by the evangelical faith.

– encourages the evangelical bodies involved to exercise discernment so as not to gradually slip into an ecumenical project that goes well beyond the care of creation and invites them not to confuse the right attention for creation with an ecumenical initiative.

The Evolution of the Ecumenical Challenge
These comments by the Italian Evangelical Alliance contain several points worth considering. They reaffirm the evangelical commitment to creation care as part of the evangelical calling to live faithfully and responsibly in God’s world. They also show the awareness of important evangelical documents predating Pope Francis’ encyclical and provide a solid platform for evangelicals to promote creation care without unnecessarily “borrowing capital” from papal documents. Evangelicals do have a pool of helpful resources that are biblically framed and practically oriented. The Italian Evangelical Alliance’s comments also witness to the evangelical openness towards co-belligerence on specific issues, such as creation care, with initiatives and networks bringing together people of different religious and ideological backgrounds. Evangelical ethics and mission do allow and – indeed – demand believers in Jesus Christ to work together and alongside non-evangelicals in areas of common concerns on the basis of gospel convictions related to the biblical doctrine of common grace. Co-belligerence is a well-established practice in the evangelical ethos that does not confuse collaboration on specific issues with unity in the gospel and/or sharing a common gospel mission.  

The point of the statement is therefore not to deny the importance of creation care nor to discourage evangelical participation in collaborative initiatives with people of different backgrounds. The main concern has to do with the “ecumenical” framework in which “Season of Creation” was planned and is presented.

When one is told that “sisters and brothers in the ecumenical family join into common prayer and action for our common home”, there are several implicit/explicit points that are signaled. There is a significant ecumenical meta-narrative that is smuggled in.

1. The language of sisterhood and brotherhood indicates the existence of spiritual ties between those who take part. Question: are we sure that all those participating at “Season of Creation”, be they coming from Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or liberal backgrounds, are born-again believers in Jesus Christ according to the biblical gospel and therefore “sisters and brothers” in the Lord? The impression that is given is that all those who are interested in this environmental initiative are intrinsically “sisters and brothers” despite their spiritual standing before God and in spite of their different and differing views of the gospel.

2. The reference to the “ecumenical family” further strengthens the impression that an ecumenical agenda is being pushed here beyond the shared concerns on creation care. The “ecumenical family” includes all the institutions sponsoring “Season of Creation”, i.e. the Roman Catholic Church and WCC. Because we are part of the “ecumenical family”, not only do we need to recognize other individuals participating as “sisters and brothers”, but we are also implicitly pressured to recognize the institutions involved as “sister” churches. Once you accept belonging to the “ecumenical family”, all family members – e.g. the Roman Church as institution, Orthodox churches, liberal churches, etc. – are legitimate Christian expressions of the “one” family. Is this an evangelical belief?

3. The insistence on “common prayer” in the form of “ecumenical prayers” communicates the idea that all who pray them are brothers and sisters in Christ, sharing the same Christian faith, belonging to the same “ecumenical family”, and are therefore different only on secondary, non-divisive issues. It smuggles in the idea of “spiritual ecumenism”, i.e. praying together, experiencing unity at the grassroot level, accepting the idea that we are all “one” despite our differences. Apparently the initiative is on creation care, but there is much of the ecumenical project that is embedded in it. The ecumenical agenda is subtly advanced within evangelical circles even if the issue is not formal ecumenism.

Present-day ecumenism is evolving. It is integrating environmental concerns and joint prayer initiatives on creation care into its activities as a means of advancing the cause of the “ecumenical family”. Evangelicals need to discern what is happening and to understand what is at stake. On the one hand, they need to be good stewards of God’s creation who are willing to work together with all those who are similarly concerned for its care. On the other, creation care does not require “spiritual ecumenism” with non-evangelicals in order to be pursued faithfully and responsibly. Co-belligerence is sufficient for it.

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