Pope Francis, Scripture, and Universal Brotherhood

When I read the Pope’s homilies (I’ve read hundreds) I noticed that he will carefully draw out spiritual applications from that day’s readings that are simple and usually (not always) consistent with the given passage’s meaning. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said regarding many of his other writings and particularly the encyclicals where he cites biblical passages to support his specific instruction.

In the following examples the Pope appears to be manipulating scripture to deemphasize Christian brotherhood and elevate universal brotherhood.

The context of the following is a lesson that spiritual formation of a Catholic is not solely based on doctrinal instruction. But notice how Francis commingles the love commandments:

“…It has to do with ‘observing’ all that the Lord has shown us as the way of responding to his love. Along with the virtues, this means above all the new commandment, the first and the greatest of the commandments, and the one that best identifies us as Christ’s disciples: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’ (Jn 15:12). Clearly, whenever the New Testament authors want to present the heart of the Christian moral message, they present the essential requirement of love for one’s neighbour: ‘The one who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the whole law… therefore love of neighbour is the fulfilling of the law'” (Rom 13:8, 10) (Evangelii Gaudium, 161).

He’s right that John 15:12 is a new commandment, but it’s not the first and greatest; that one is a very old commandment to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and only together with the command to love one’s neighbor is the whole law fulfilled. What the Pope seems to be trying to accomplish here is to identify the “one another” of John 15:12 with the universal “neighbor” of the Golden Rule. However, in John 15 Jesus is only speaking of his disciples:

“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12-14).

What is new is the special love the spiritual siblings of Christ are commanded to express toward one another.

Then there’s Matthew 25:31-46, the separation of the sheep and the goats and the judgment of the nations, which he cites repeatedly (I estimate at least 8-900 times in his writings and speeches). Like the liberation theologians of the 1960s, Francis prefers the “universalist” understanding of who Jesus is identifying with when he refers to His “brothers”, that is, all the world’s hungry and needy:

“…And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

According to the universalist interpretation one’s eternal fate is dependent on acts of mercy to anyone who is poor and needy, and it is these that Jesus personally identifies with.

The correct interpretation, however, affirms that the “brethren” are strictly limited to Jesus’ followers. Until the 20th-century Matthew 25:31-46 was generally understood this way by the Church (St. Augustine, St. Thomas, etc.). Very simply, in the Gospel of Matthew the author uses the word brother (adelphos) only one of two ways: either biologically, as in sibling, or in a spiritual sense, as a reference to Jesus’ followers as members of His family. (See here for a fuller explanation of why the universalist interpretation is not tenable).

Unsurprisingly, Matthew 25:31-46 forms the basis of the Pope’s lectures on immigrant-welcoming:

For us Christians, hospitality offered to the weary traveler is offered to Jesus Christ himself, through the newcomer: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35). …Thus “a change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization – all typical of a throwaway culture – towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world” (Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, August 5, 2013).

In the following he incorrectly cites Matthew 25:40 in identifying Jesus’ reference to the ‘little ones” which comes up several times in Matthew:

“Jesus, the evangelizer par excellence and the Gospel in person, identifies especially with the little ones (cf. Mt 25:40). This reminds us Christians that we are called to care for the vulnerable of the earth. But the current model, with its emphasis on success and self-reliance, does not appear to favour an investment in efforts to help the slow, the weak or the less talented to find opportunities in life” (Evangelii Gaudium, 209).

“Little ones” does not occur in Matthew 25:40 but is from Matthew 10:42 and is an exclusive reference to Christ’s followers:

“And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple—amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward” (see also 18:6, 10, 14).

The Pope here is trying to identify the “little ones” of Matthew 10:42 with the universalist understanding of “brethren” in Matthew 25:40, who he here equates with “the vulnerable of the Earth”. 

There is nothing wrong or contrary to the Christian message to see the face of Christ in those who suffer. The point here is that Jesus never identifies Himself with them in a general sense in Matthew or anywhere else in the New Testament. He identifies only with His followers.

In my estimation there is evidence of a pattern; the Pope appears to be intentionally manipulating scripture to replace references to Christian brotherhood with the concept of universal brotherhood.


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