Fraternal vs. Agapic Love

I mentioned the other day that I was reading an essay titled The Open Circle: The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, written by Pope Benedict XVI while he was still Fr. Ratzinger. The essay, as its title suggests, seeks to elucidate the concept of Christian brotherhood.

As the essay discusses, Jesus uses the term “brother” in the Gospels in two different ways. First, he uses it to refer to those “who are united with him in the will of the common acceptance of the will of God.” In Matthew, for example, when Jesus is told his mother and brothers are outside, he responds, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

Second, however, Jesus uses the term brother in a broader sense in the judgment parable in Matthew 25. There Jesus refers to all of the needy of the world as being “my brothers,” expressing a universality not found in passages like the earlier Matthew one. Similarly in Luke the term neighbor refers to anyone in need.

Fr. Ratzinger suggests that one finds in the Gospels and in Paul’s writings the idea of two zones. “The attitude of agape (love) is appropriate toward every man, but philadelphia (brotherly love) only toward one’s fellow Christian. The use of this idea for those other than blood relations seems to be specifically Christian. But it shows very clearly that the Christians together form an inner ring in their ethos, that they are (or should be) held together by a spirit of brotherly love which is even greater than that of the general agape.”

I think it is important to keep both senses of the term brother in mind. While I am uncomfortable with some of the possible implications Fr. Ratzinger draws from the distinction, particularly his citing sources that suggests that Christians “must strive for the greatest possible independence from non-Christians and not choose them for their habitual companions” (which he admittedly says presents difficult questions when such statements are transferred from their original setting into the present), there is something to being part of a community of fellow believers that is strengthening to one’s faith.

On the other hand, we need constant reminder that our call to agapic love is a call to love all, regardless of who they are and what they believe. No one is outside the ken of our universal brotherhood of caring and agapic love. As Fr. Ratzinger puts it, while it is true that the Chruch “must unify itself to form a strong inner brotherhood in order to be truly one brother,” it does so not “finally to shut itself off from the other; rather it seeks to be one brother because only in this way can it fulfill its task toward the other, living for whom is the deepest meaning of its existence, which itself is grounded wholly in the vicarious existence of Jesus Christ.”