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)?