Recently I’ve received several queries about a video message that Pope Francis sent to an ecumenical gathering in Arizona.
A Zenit news story implied that the pope stated that Jesus doesn’t care what kind of Christian you are.
But that’s not what he said at all.
Here are 9 things to know and share . . .
1) What were the circumstances of the video?
An ecumenical gathering was held in Phoenix, Arizona last Saturday (May 23), and the organizers—the John 17 Movement—had invited Pope Francis to attend.
He didn’t, but he did send a video message—mostly in Spanish.
You can read the full text of the message (in English) here.
2) What did Zenit say about the message?
The Catholic news agency Zenit did a piece reporting on the video message, which you can read here.
The piece was headlined
Pope to US Christian Unity Event: Jesus Knows All Christians Are One, Doesn’t Care What Type
At one point, the text of the story reads:
Francis pointed out that Jesus knows that Christians are disciples of Christ, and that they are one and brothers.
“He doesn’t care if they are Evangelicals, or Orthodox, Lutherans, Catholics or Apostolic…he doesn’t care!” Francis said. “They are Christians.”
UPDATE: Zenit has issued a corrected version of the story here.
3) Did Pope Francis actually say that Jesus doesn’t care what kind of Christian a person is?
No. The Zenit story is flatly incorrect.
Both the headline and the passage quoted above mistake the pope as speaking about Jesus when he is actually speaking about the devil—that is, he is saying that the devil doesn’t care what kind of Christian you are.
Here is the relevant passage from the pope’s remarks:
Division is the work of the Father of Lies, the Father of Discord, who does everything possible to keep us divided.
Together today, I here in Rome and you over there, we will ask our Father to send the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and to give us the grace to be one, “so that the world may believe”.
I feel like saying something that may sound controversial, or even heretical, perhaps.
But there is someone who “knows” that, despite our differences, we are one.
It is he who is persecuting us. It is he who is persecuting Christians today, he who is anointing us with (the blood of) martyrdom.
He knows that Christians are disciples of Christ: that they are one, that they are brothers! He doesn’t care if they are Evangelicals, or Orthodox, Lutherans, Catholics or Apostolic…he doesn’t care! They are Christians.
As you can see, Pope Francis establishes a chain of referents for the pronoun “he” (in “He doesn’t care”) that repeatedly identifies the individual in question as the devil.
Jesus is not even mentioned except in the phrases “the Spirit of Jesus” and “disciples of Christ.”
4) Would it be a problem if the pope had said that Jesus doesn’t care what kind of Christian you are?
If intended in the absolute sense, yes. That would be a form of the error of indifferentism—the idea that it doesn’t matter what religion you are.
God is a God of truth, and so the truth of one’s religious beliefs matters to him.
5) Why does the pope describe his remark as something “that may sound controversial, or even heretical, perhaps”?
Presumably because it’s an unfamiliar thought for many.
The idea that the devil stirs up persecution of Christians without respect to their particular affiliation, precisely because he knows that they are all Christians, is not something that one commonly hears—particularly in an age when many people aren’t even comfortable talking about the devil.
I can imagine any number of modernist theologians taking exception to this thought. That, of itself, could result in it sounding controversial.
6) Why did he say it might sound “even heretical, perhaps”?
The most likely explanation is that this is a touch of hyperbole, or exaggeration to make a point.
The pope is speaking informally, and his words have to be understood accordingly.
In Catholic theology, the term “heresy” has a precise, technical meaning: The obstinate post-baptismal doubt or denial of a truth that must be believed with divine faith (i.e., God has revealed it) and with Catholic faith (i.e., because the Church has infallibly defined it as such).
Since he is speaking to an ecumenical group that consists largely or principally of non-Catholics, he cannot expect them to interpret the word “heretical” in the technical, Catholic sense.
This is further confirmed by the fact that there would be no grounds on which to criticize his main proposition–that the devil stirs up persecution against Christians because they are Christians–as heretical in the technical sense. God has not revealed that the devil does not persecute Christians of all stripes because they are Christians, and the Church has not infallibly defined that God has revealed this.
As a result, the pope isn’t using the term “heretical” in its technical sense. He’s speaking informally and hyperbolically.
Properly speaking, his proposal not only isn’t heretical, it doesn’t even sound heretical.
In rhetorical terms, the function of including the statement is to draw a line under what he is about to say, to call attention to it and invite people to think about it rather than passing over it quickly.
7) Is there anything problematic about his statement that “despite our differences, we are one”?
No. He acknowledges both that Christians have differences (true) and that, despite these differences, we also are in another sense one (also true).
Elsewhere in his message, he says:
We will search together, we will pray together, for the grace of unity.
The unity that is budding among us is that unity which begins under the seal of the one Baptism we have all received.
It is the unity we are seeking along a common path. It is the spiritual unity of prayer for one another.
The idea that Christian unity is rooted in our common baptism is a commonplace of Catholic theology.
He also acknowledges that, despite being one in a sense he has already alluded to, we are also seeking “the grace of unity” and that this unity is “budding” (meaning: an incomplete reality).
He is thus seeking to acknowledge both the things that unite and divide Christians.
8) Doesn’t the devil hate all human beings?
Yes, but he hates Christians in a special way, because we love and serve Christ.
9) How does the pope see the growth of Christian unity unfolding?
This [the “ecumenism of blood,” our common persecution by the devil] must encourage us to do what we are doing today: to pray, to dialogue together, to shorten the distance between us, to strengthen our bonds of brotherhood.
I am convinced it won’t be theologians who bring about unity among us. Theologians help us, the science of the theologians will assist us, but if we hope that theologians will agree with one another, we will reach unity the day after Judgement Day.
The Holy Spirit brings about unity. Theologians are helpful, but most helpful is the goodwill of us all who are on this journey with our hearts open to the Holy Spirit!
The pope thus sees Christians working to grow closer to each other through prayer, dialogue, goodwill, and openness to the Holy Spirit.
He sees theologians as being able to play a helpful role in this, but he does not envision Christian unity being fully restored in this age simply because of Christian theologians getting together to talk.
Instead, Pope Francis is focusing on practical ways that Christians can “strengthen our bonds of brotherhood” and “shorten the distance between us” in the here and now.