Are Muslims and Jews Our Brothers and Sisters? It’s Complicated.

What does it mean to call non-Christians brothers and sisters? What does it mean with Jews? With Muslims? Actually, it’s complicated.

The Hospitality of Abraham (Holy Trinity) (Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy). 6th century.
The Hospitality of Abraham (Holy Trinity) (Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy). 6th century. (photo: Public Domain)

See also: It’s Complicated: Islam and violence | The problem of evil | The rock God can’t lift | No salvation outside the Church

Can we as Catholics call Muslims our brothers and sisters? How about Jews? Other non-Christians? In what sense?

This question, which came up recently in comments on my most recent homily, was raised a couple of years ago when a USCCB news release highlighted a joint statement of three bishops (the chairmen of the USCCB committees on interreligious affairs, religious liberty, and international justice and peace) expressing solidarity with Muslim refugees facing persecution in their native countries.

The bishops’ statement concluded:

It is our conviction as followers of the Lord Jesus that welcoming the stranger and protecting the vulnerable lie at the core of the Christian life. And so, to our Muslim brothers and sisters and all people of faith, we stand with you and welcome you.

Some Catholics at the time raised their eyebrows at this. Father Dwight Longenecker in a blog at Patheos, wrote:

Not wishing to pick too many nits, but in what sense exactly are Muslims our “brothers and sisters”? I always thought that in the Christian faith our brothers and sisters were those who shared with us, baptism and faith in Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God and our Eternal Redeemer.

Further questions arise. Perhaps the bishops mean that Muslims are our “brothers and sisters” in that they are human beings and we all belong to the “brotherhood of man.” This is a lofty sentiment to be sure and one that is rather inspiring in the abstract.

They do mention “all people of faith” but what does that mean?

The problem with this fuzzy language is that it weakens the concept of our “brothers and sisters” being those who Galatians 6:10 call “the family of believers”. Calling all human beings our brothers and sisters denigrates the idea that those who are baptized and have faith in Christ are “adoptive sons” and “joint heirs with Christ.” (Romans 8:17)

In the end, Father Longenecker concluded, “I simply don’t think it does much good to refer to Muslims as our ‘brothers and sisters’…”

In my homily last week, I wrote:

Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists are our brothers and sisters. Even if many of them reject us, we don’t reject them. The whole human race is one family, all born of Adam, all redeemed in Christ, all sharing the common fatherhood of God, though not brotherhood in Christ.

A reader asked:

Do you believe that a Christian is a spiritual brother of a Jew or a Muslim?  I deny that … I can’t say the Hindu is my brother.

What shall we say to these objections?

As so often, a complete answer involves maintaining both of two complementary truths:

  1. In Baptism Christians come to participate by adoption in the eternal Sonship of Jesus Christ, becoming “sons in the Son,” brothers and sisters in Christ in the family of God and adopted sons and daughters of God the Father — filial and fraternal bonds not shared with non-Christians.
  2. The brotherhood of all human beings in the human family is not a vague, trivial, or abstract idea, but a vitally important reality that is fundamental to the Christian faith. Far from being overshadowed, diminished, or negated by brotherhood in Christ, the brotherhood of all human beings in the human family is the foundation of Christian brotherhood, which both presupposes it and is ordered toward its perfection and fulfillment. Indeed, brotherhood in Christ is the brotherhood of the human family redeemed and glorified.

The indispensable treatment of this subject is that of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood. Before getting to that, though, let’s take stock of the prominence of the idea of the brotherhood of all human beings in the family of mankind in recent magisterial and papal teaching.

To start with, Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution On the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) refers over and over to the human race as “the family of man” or “the human family” (“the whole human family,” “the entire human family,” etc.).

Regarding the brotherhood of all men, the Constitution declares:

Therefore, this sacred synod, proclaiming the noble destiny of man and championing the Godlike seed which has been sown in him, offers to mankind the honest assistance of the Church in fostering that brotherhood of all men which corresponds to this destiny of theirs. Inspired by no earthly ambition, the Church seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served.

So the “brotherhood of all men” is not just a static fact or an abstract idea, but a reality that the Church has a mission to “foster” by way of offering “honest assistance” to all mankind.

Such “fostering” of human brotherhood certainly begins by affirming its reality! If we resist even acknowledging our fraternal bonds with Muslims and other non-Christians, we certainly won’t be “fostering” that brotherhood any time soon.

This language of the universal human family and the brotherhood of all mankind is not limited to one Vatican II pastoral constitution.

Pope St. John Paul II, speaking to Muslims and Hindus in Kenya in 1985, referred repeatedly to “the great family of man” and “the human family,” even going so far as to say, “We are all children of the same God, members of the great family of man.”

In the face of all these human needs — spiritual, material and social — the religions of the world cannot remain passive. The great needs of our brothers and sisters are an urgent plea for a generous response in love, calling for mutual and effective collaboration.

In context, “brothers and sisters” here clearly means “brothers and sisters in the human family,” not “brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Twenty years earlier, Pope Paul VI, in an address at the Church of the Sacred Family in New York, declared:

The work of peace is not restricted to one religious belief, it is the work and duty of every human person, regardless of his religious conviction. Men are brothers, God is their Father, and their Father wills that they live in peace with one another as brothers should.

In his 1959 Encyclical On Truth, Unity and Peace, in a Spirit of Charity (Ad Petri Cathedram), Pope John XXIII wrote emphatically:

We are called brothers. We actually are brothers. We share a common destiny in this life and the next. Why, then, do we act as though we are foes and enemies? Why do we envy one another? Why do we stir up hatred? Why do we ready lethal weapons for use against our brothers? … All men, then, should turn their attention away from those things that divide and separate us, and should consider how they may be joined in mutual and just regard for one another’s opinions and possessions.

A couple of years earlier, Pope Pius XII declared in an address to parliamentary members of CECA (the European Coal and Steel Community):

Europe, battered and humbled … senses, and so does the entire world with her, that all men are brothers and are called to work together in assuming responsibility for all the miseries of mankind and in putting an end to the scandal of famine and ignorance … We express the hope that [rising egalitarianism] will tend to bring minds and hearts closer in a real brotherhood.

In his 1931 Encyclical On Reconstruction of the Social Order (Quadragesimo Anno) — written for the 40th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Encyclical On Capital and Labor (Rerum Novarum) — Pope Pius XI wrote:

All these benefits of Leo’s Encyclical … which We have outlined rather than fully described, are so numerous and of such import as to show plainly that this immortal document does not exhibit a merely fanciful, even if beautiful, ideal of human society. Rather did our Predecessor draw from the Gospel and, therefore, from an ever-living and life-giving fountain, teachings capable of greatly mitigating, if not immediately terminating that deadly internal struggle which is rending the family of mankind. The rich fruits which the Church of Christ and the whole human race have, by God’s favor, reaped therefrom unto salvation prove that some of this good seed, so lavishly sown forty years ago, fell on good ground.

And what did Leo XIII write in Rerum Novarum?

But, if Christian precepts prevail, the respective classes will not only be united in the bonds of friendship, but also in those of brotherly love. For they will understand and feel that all men are children of the same common Father, who is God; that all have alike the same last end, which is God Himself, who alone can make either men or angels absolutely and perfectly happy; that each and all are redeemed and made sons of God, by Jesus Christ, ‘the first-born among many brethren’; that the blessings of nature and the gifts of grace belong to the whole human race in common, and that from none except the unworthy is withheld the inheritance of the kingdom of Heaven.

Clearly, the idea of the brotherhood of all mankind in the human family is not one the bishops of Rome have found trivial, vague, or suspect.

Ratzinger, in The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, illuminates why. In this slim volume Ratzinger develops a sophisticated interpretation of Christian brotherhood. Among key points:

  1. Christian brotherhood is based on a new understanding of God’s Fatherhood, revealed through the unique Sonship of Jesus Christ.
  2. Christian brotherhood is predicated on the removal of all religious and social barriers or divisions between groups of people: above all between Jews and Gentiles, the chosen and the non-elect; but also between ethnicities, nationalities, social classes, etc.
  3. At the same time, there is no shallow or false universalism, for Christianity also introduces a new division, i.e., between Christians, who are brothers in Christ, and non-Christians, who are not. Christian charity embraces non-Christians, but the fraternal love of the Christian community is primary.
  4. This division, however, does not pit Christians against non-Christians, for the unity of the Christian community is ordered toward service to the other and pursuit of the unity of the whole human race in Christ.

“For the Christian,” Benedict writes, “every man is ultimately a brother”: either a brother in Christ or that “other brother” in the parable of the Prodigal Son — standing out in the field, refusing to come in to the party, but not rejected or excluded.

To this line of thought (or parts of it), a commenter replied:

I don’t deny there is a sense in which all people are brothers. I deny that the Christian is a spiritual brother of non-Christians. So yes, I am not a spiritual brother to a Jew or a Muslim.

This, too, seems complicated. What does “spiritual brother” mean? Are Christians and non-Christians “spiritual brothers”?

No, if by “spiritual” we understand, for example, a common share in the Holy Spirit, or a spiritual heritage in common in all essential elements.

On the other hand, non-Christians are bearers of humanity that has been redeemed by Christ and share a vocation to beatitude. God has placed eternity in the hearts of ever human beings, and they too are subject to the restlessness Augustine speaks of — the spiritual restlessness — calling them to rest in God. All human beings share at least something of the light of Christ, “the true light that enlightens every man” (John 1:9).

These are spiritual realities that unite us all. In that sense it might be said that brotherhood in the family of mankind has a spiritual dimension, and could be called a “spiritual brotherhood.”

The common human nature that we share was corrupted by the sin of Adam, by original sin. That’s a spiritual reality. Likewise, in the Incarnation and Paschal Mystery Christ brings redemption to our common human nature. That too is a spiritual reality. If the family of mankind weren’t one in a spiritual as well as a biological sense, neither Adam’s sin nor Christ’s Incarnation and Paschal Mystery would have spiritual implications for us. 

Regarding the Jewish people in particular, in 1938 Pope Pius XI declared “Spiritually we are all Semites.” Pope St. John Paul II called the Jewish people “our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham” and “the beloved elder brother of the Church of the original Covenant never broken and never to be broken.

The situation is much trickier with Muslims, of course. Very briefly:

  1. Islam is a religion corrupted from its foundations by explicit repudiation of essential revealed truths of faith — even if these truths were misunderstood in the act of repudiating them — most obviously the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation and deity of Christ (as well as the historical reality of the crucifixion of Jesus). Violence is also undeniably part of the spiritual DNA of Islam going to its foundations (though this is not a simple topic; it’s complicated).
  2. Islam also affirms a great deal of revealed truth, including many essential attributes of God (notably his oneness, omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, holiness, etc.); creation ex nihilo and the goodness of the created order; man’s ontological superiority to the rest of the material creation, including his spiritual nature and immortal soul; God’s revelation to Adam, Abraham, and the Old Testament prophets; etc. Islam even affirms the Virgin Birth of Jesus and holds Mary in great veneration.

There is a sense in which Islam and Judaism (and therefore Islam and Christianity) are at least semi-fraternal religions, as Isaac and Ishmael were half-brothers.

Of course this isn’t necessarily an entirely positive or hopeful thought, when you consider the history of fraternal relations in the Old Testament, starting with Cain and Abel! There’s no hatred like hatred between brothers.

But where there is brotherhood, even half-brotherhood turned to hatred and murderous violence, there may also be at least the possibility of rapprochement and progress toward healing.

These are not just my own thoughts. Regarding relations between Christians and Muslims, here is Pope Benedict XVI during his 2006 visit to Turkey addressing that nation’s top religious body, the Directorate of Religious Affairs:

As an illustration of the fraternal respect with which Christians and Muslims can work together, I would like to quote some words addressed by Pope Gregory VII in 1076 to a Muslim prince in North Africa who had acted with great benevolence towards the Christians under his jurisdiction. Pope Gregory spoke of the particular charity that Christians and Muslims owe to one another “because we believe in one God, albeit in a different manner, and because we praise him and worship him every day as the Creator and Ruler of the world.”

Note that Benedict cites the 11th-century Pope Gregory VII on what he calls “fraternal respect” between Christians and Muslims. Pope Gregory’s remarkable letter to Anzir, King of Mauritania, is worth reading in full:

God, the Creator of all, without whom we cannot do or even think anything that is good, has inspired to your heart this act of kindness. He who enlightens all men coming into this world (John 1.9) has enlightened your mind for this purpose. Almighty God, who desires all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2.4) and none to perish is well pleased to approve in us most of all that besides loving God men love other men, and do not do to others anything they do not want to be done unto themselves (cf. Mt. 7.14). We and you must show in a special way to the other nations an example of this charity, for we believe and confess one God, although in different ways, and praise and worship Him daily as the creator of all ages and the ruler of this world. For as the apostle says: “He is our peace who has made us both one.” (Eph. 2.14) Many among the Roman nobility, informed by us of this grace granted to you by God, greatly admire and praise your goodness and virtues… God knows that we love you purely for His honour and that we desire your salvation and glory, both in the present and in the future life. And we pray in our hearts and with our lips that God may lead you to the abode of happiness, to the bosom of the holy patriarch Abraham, after long years of life here on earth. (Source: Jacques Dupuis’ The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, pp. 418–419)

None of this is to gloss over the reality, affirmed in the 2000 Declaration On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church (Dominus Iesus), that while

the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.

Salvation comes to humanity only through Jesus Christ, and as the fullness of the means of salvation are available only in the Catholic Church, to belong to the Catholic Church is a normative necessity, a divine command that no one may ignore.

Only in the fullness of Christian brotherhood is our best-founded hope of eternal life. But this doesn’t negate — on the contrary, it reaffirms — the fraternal bonds we share with all mankind, and particularly, as Pope Gregory VII wrote over 950 years ago, with those who share our belief in one God, the Creator of all things who revealed himself to the holy patriarch Abraham.

See also: It’s Complicated: Islam and violence | The problem of evil | The rock God can’t lift | No salvation outside the Church