Analysis
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Pope Francis, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Iain Greenshields give a joint blessing in South Sudan, on February 4, 2023.Screenshot/Vatican News

JUBA, South Sudan (LifeSiteNews) –– Both in his ecumenical “pilgrimage of peace” and in his message for the International Day of Human Fraternity, Pope Francis recently called for religions to “increasingly intertwine” in the “service of brotherhood.”

Over the past few days, Pope Francis has once more renewed his oft-spoken calls for increased interreligious dialogue and activity, reawakening concerns that leading prelates have made in the wake of such statements over the years.

Religions must ‘increasingly intertwine’ to promote ‘fraternity’

The first came during his recorded February 4 video-message for the third International Day of Human Fraternity, which is born out of his 2019 Abu Dhabi document on human fraternity – a document which stated that a “pluralism and diversity” of religions is “willed by God.” Francis’ video was also to mark the awarding of the accompanying Zayed Prize for Human Fraternity.

His statement mentioned God, but did not mention Christ or Catholicism. Instead, Francis spoke in a much more abstract manner, describing the purpose of religion as “reminding us that man’s destiny goes beyond earthly goods and lies in a universal horizon.”

Francis argued that religions must be “at the service of fraternity” and consequently “enrich each other:”

Religions, in order to be at the service of fraternity, need to engage in dialogue with each other, to get to know each other, to enrich each other, and above all to develop that which unites and to collaborate for the good of all.

Without highlighting the Catholic Church, the Pope called for “various religious traditions” to draw “from its own spiritual heritage” to “make a great contribution in the service of fraternity.”

Pope Francis’ video message

The Pontiff appeared to also downplay the importance of Catholicism, instead implicitly supporting a more general, accepting stance of many different churches, stating that by having different religions “increasingly intertwine,” humanity can achieve its “common destiny.”

Men and women of different religions walk towards God along roads that increasingly intertwine. Every encounter can be an opportunity to oppose one another or, with God’s help, to encourage each other to go forward as brothers and sisters. Indeed, we share not only a common origin and descent, but also a common destiny, that of fragile and vulnerable creatures, as the historical period we are living shows us so clearly.

Employing language traditionally used in Catholic spirituality to describe a soul’s pursuit of sanctification, Francis described the “path of fraternity” as “a long and difficult one.” While Catholic spirituality also traditionally highlights the sign of the cross, Francis instead promoted the “sign of fraternity,” which would “counter the many conflicts, in the shadows of a closed world, with the sign of fraternity.”

South Sudan ecumenical prayer assembly

On the same day, the Pope also took part in an ecumenical prayer event in Juba, South Sudan, as part of his ecumenical “pilgrimage of peace” to the African nation with the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Iain Greenshields.

Addressing the thousands of participants, Francis concentrated on the themes of “peace” and “prayer.” He did not promote Catholic teaching on the issue but instead urged greater interreligious cooperation.

As has become commonplace at such ecumenical events, Francis referenced the Scriptural passage “That they may all be one” (Jn 17:21).

“That is Jesus’ heartfelt prayer to the Father for all of us who believe,” he stated.

However, Francis’ exhortations of a “fraternity” and a “unity” divorced from the Catholic faith are controversial, especially when viewed in light of Catholic Tradition.

In his 1949 document, “On the Ecumenical Movement,” Pope Pius XII warned against such an interpretation and use of this Scriptural passage. The Pontiff used the phrase to note the importance of evangelization efforts, adding that “care must be taken lest…the purity of Catholic doctrine be impaired, or its genuine and certain meaning be obscured.”

As used by Francis, the Scriptural passage was truncated, since the full text actually reads:

As thou Father, in me, and I in thee; that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou hast given me, I have given to them; that they may be one, as we also are one: I in them, and thou in me; that they may be made perfect in one. (John 17: 21-23)

The Traditional teaching of the Church observed the important aspect of unity in Christ, not simply unity in something outside of the Church.

The Church is the bride of Christ, founded by Him and charged with teaching His word. As taught by previous popes, the phrase “one in us” cannot refer to any unity outside the fullness of the Church, but is a reference to others becoming members of the Church and consequently of the mystical body of Christ.

So also, the phrase “perfect in one” does refer not to a union made by the watering down of Catholic teaching, but to the union only found in the Church as expressed in the fullness of Her teaching.

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Screenshot/ Vatican News

Additionally, when reading this chapter of John’s Gospel, in lines 2-19 the third person pronouns refer to Christ’s disciples. Yet from halfway through line 20, “they/them” refers to those men who are not yet in the Church:

And not for them only do I pray, but for them (non-Catholics) also who through their word (the word of the disciples) shall believe in me.

The desired unity for which Christ prays is not some unity which the Church will gain by others merging with Her at ecumenical events, but is a unity which is only realized by all men coming to the fullness of the faith by joining the Catholic Church. Thus the passage quoted by Francis does not refer to the various disciples, but the men of the world who have yet to join the unity of the Church.

Pope Leo XIII condemned such arguments, so commonly employed today, in his 1888 encyclical Libertas. Referring to the Church’s relationship with other religions, Leo wrote that the Catholic Church tolerates:

certain modern liberties, not because she prefers them in themselves but because she judges it expedient to permit them, she would in happier times exercise her own liberty; and, by persuasion, exhortation, and entreaty would endeavor, as she is bound, to fulfill the duty assigned to her by God of providing for the eternal salvation of mankind.

Leo additionally noted that “one thing, however, remains always true — that the liberty which is claimed for all to do all things is not, as We have often said, of itself desirable, inasmuch as it is contrary to reason that error and truth should have equal rights.”

The ecumenical event, reportedly attended by over 50,000 people, concluded with Francis, Welby and Greenshields issuing a joint blessing in English.

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