Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Pope’s video on fraternity? Let’s go deeper.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 08, 2021

A video promoting universal fraternity, posted by the Vatican on Pope Francis’s Twitter account (Pontifex), has raised more than a few eyebrows. Because the video continues Pope Francis’ now common emphasis on reciprocal respect and charity among people of all religions, the video has prompted fresh discussions of the growing problem of universalism, or the idea that there are many paths to God, and all of them are valid.

Thus, for example, the Pope states in the video that:

The Church values God’s action in other religions, without forgetting that for us Christians, the wellspring of human dignity and fraternity, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The difficulty is that statements like this raise questions that demand clarification if they are not to be received as errors. Certainly God acts in people of other religions; He acts everywhere. But to refer to God’s action in other religions tends to suggest that these “other religions” (whatever they may be) are actively willed by God, rather than only permissively willed. Pope Francis has introduced considerable confusion into this discussion over the past two years—in his joint statement on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” signed along with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar; in his last encyclical Fratelli Tutti, which had very little to say that was distinctively Christian; and in this video promoting his prayer intention “At the service of human fraternity”.

Those on all sides of this delicate question should recognize that, at the very least, huge numbers of those who identify as Christians in the modern West place little or no emphasis on the intrinsic superiority of Faith in Jesus Christ over other religious dispositions. The Christian Faith of many is now so weak, and the salvific value which they ascribe to Christianity so attenuated, that huge numbers would not even agree with the marginal statement by Pope Francis quoted above. I say “marginal”, because its validity depends significantly on how we interpret the phrase “for us Christians”. Does this mean that the Gospel is not the wellspring of human dignity and fraternity for all, whether they know it or not (which is false)? Or does it mean simply that Christians “recognize” that this is so (which is true, insofar, at least, as they are real Christians)?

Re-introducing Mission

One can (and should, of course) interpret anything Pope Francis says in a fully orthodox sense. He rarely offers comprehensive statements, choosing rather to highlight whatever aspect of reality is on his mind at the moment. When we think about it, it can hardly be wrong for the Pope to state that “what is essential to our faith is adoration of God and love of neighbor”. After all, these two points are drawn straight from the two great commandments which Christ explicitly emphasized in answering a question from a lawyer:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” [Mt 22:36-40]

Accordingly, we must temper any negative reactions. But to say that these are essential is not to exhaust our understanding of the essentials. It is hardly wrong to point out that Christ fulfilled the Jewish Law in a Divine mission of love and conversion to the entire world, not just to the Jews, and certainly not just to those who are already at least nominally Christian. This is, I believe, a better way to highlight what ought to be at the heart of our concern about an over-emphasis on the good found in all religions.

After all, we know from Divine Revelation that, apart from Judaism and Christianity, all other religions are human inventions. This human origin limits the goodness we may reasonably ascribe to them. For the purposes of this discussion, we are right to consider them spiritually valuable insofar as they seek to direct our worship to God, a deep impulse and obligation that we can know from nature itself. And we are right to consider them fraternally valuable insofar as they recognize what such worship signifies concerning God as the Creator or Father of all.

Unfortunately, as distinct from Christianity, modern “fraternity” is largely a secularized concept which, while it originated in Christianity, has been severed from its spiritual roots. Thus it all too easily morphs into ideology. In its popular modern forms, it always becomes an exclusive fraternity for the secular “elect”. For cases in point, we should consider the history of movements which have emphasized fraternity in the modern period, since, let us say, about 1789. What this ought to teach us is that fraternity is a very dangerous concept if it is not firmly rooted in Jesus Christ.

These reflections frame the issue. Sensitive to the seemingly intractable divisions of the world into multiple religions, how do we fashion a Christian understanding of what, after all, is also a natural human concept? Or, from the viewpoint of what is so lacking today, by what right do we reintroduce the missionary spirit back into our Christianity, when to do so is often viewed precisely as a violation of a genuine fraternity naturally understood?

A Gospel description of religious difference

I think Our Lord gives us the answer in his discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well. Here is the account:

The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” [Jn 4:19-26]

The fundamental problem with other religions—which are all of human origin—is that, even if in some ways they have avoided being twisted by human errors and diabolical influences, it can still be said of all of their adherents: “You worship what you do not know.”

The missionary spirit of Christianity springs from this simple fact, that Christians know God, and know him personally, through His full self-revelation in Jesus Christ. This is the essence of what we call the Good News, and we should never let familiarity with it breed in us the contempt of refusing to treasure it in our hearts—treasure it so deeply, in fact, that we wish above all things to share it with others at every possible opportunity. Moreover, if any thought or statement mutes this awareness for a moment, we must take great care to rekindle it as soon as we realize it is missing: We Catholics know what we worship, and we worship in spirit and truth.

The giving of gifts entails prudence, of course. Authentic mission always includes self-awareness and respect for the other. But anyone who is forgetful of this priority of genuine love is like a person who, in the midst of darkness, covers or hides his lamp so that others may not see the light. This saying of the Lord is recounted in the first three gospels (Mt 5:15; Mk 4:21; Lk 11:33), while John quotes Our Lord as saying “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).

Should we be reticent about that?

Fresh perspective

Christ is the pearl of great price; there is no greater act of love than to share His Gospel with those who do not know Him. And lest we forget the importance of the light we bear in Christ, Our Lord actually imposed this on us as a duty: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:19-20). We can grant that this task partakes in the art of the possible, but we should not think of it as a burden, either for ourselves or for those to whom we announce the Good News.

In any case, it remains a duty to spread the news of salvation. Cardinal Giacomo Biffi of Bologna (1928-2015) expressed this very well at the dawn of our millennium:

It is an exact order from the Lord, and it does not allow for any sort of exemption. He did not tell us: Preach the Gospel to every creature, except for the Muslims, the Jews, and the Dalai Lama.

And just so you know, this sacred duty and sacred trust was taught once again by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as recently as 2007, by order of Pope Benedict XVI: Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization.

By all means, let us engage in the effort to promote human fraternity. But let us also call to mind that its definitive source is found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If anyone seems to forget or underplay this Divine source and this stupendous gift, let us reflect deeply enough to open fresh perspectives on the cosmic indispensability of Catholic mission.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wenner1687 - Jan. 17, 2021 10:24 AM ET USA

    Your evaluation of the disturbing " Pope video" is the most charitable response to it, addressed to those (typically who read this blog) who are well-grounded and mature in their faith. For those who do not meet this description, the critique of Taylor Marshall (whatever you may think of him otherwise) hits the nail on the head pointing out the dangerous sub-text message of the video. Do give it a look.

  • Posted by: Northern Digger - Jan. 15, 2021 11:36 PM ET USA

    Thank you very much for so thoroughly helping us navigate the way around universalism. We hear the mandate after every Mass yet never have it spelled out which keeps us static in our response to the Missionary Spirit of our Faith. To reread this over and over is to insure our being active whether we encounter others less because of the current constraints in place, this fortifying directive can encourage an ongoing prayer mantra devoted to the Good News!