A few months ago, I wrote an article imploring Pope Francis to finish Benedict XVI’s encyclical on faith. My rationale? The theological virtues exegesis that began with Benedict XVI’s encyclicals on hope (Spe Salvi) and charity (Deus Caritas Est) was incomplete without a corresponding papal discussion of faith. It was the appropriate hour, during the Year of Faith and at the start of the New Evangelization. With an encyclical on faith, the complete trifecta of virtue encyclicals (plus a fourth on justice) and the three volumes of Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth would serve as a foundation for 21st century Catholicism.
From the looks of it, Pope Francis was thinking the same thing. Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis’ first encyclical and a completion of the writings of Benedict XVI, may come across as a paradoxical document at first glance. The underlying thesis of Lumen Fidei appears in the fourth stanza of the encyclical: “There is an urgent need, then, to see once again that faith is a light, for once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim” (4). In this statement, Francis touches upon three key threads to his argument on faith: the urgency, the light, and the consequence for man.
First, Francis (and his “papal ghost writer” Benedict XVI) does not view Lumen Fidei as an academic reflection of theological musings, but instead as an urgent exhortation to a world in crisis. The Pope looks out from Rome and finds “a massive amnesia in our contemporary world” on the question of truth and faith (25). Faith enables us to make sense of our common human experience: as Francis writes, without faith, “everything becomes confused; it is impossible to tell good from evil, or the road to our destination from other roads which take us in endless circles, going nowhere” (3). Therefore, the welfare and salvation of men and women is at risk because the idea of faith is under siege. In perhaps the most poignant and haunting passage of the encyclical, Francis – channeling Benedict XVI’s penetrating language – notes:
“Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants. Idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another. Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth” (13).
Therefore, Lumen Fidei reads not as a comforting or politically correct policy paper, but instead as a sharp and brutal critique of the times. Francis reproaches those Catholics and Protestants alike who would make the Christian faith entirely an internal, personal matter. “Faith is not a private matter,” the Pope argues, but instead “it is impossible to believe on our own” (22, 39). Francis argues that faith is neither an individual decision nor a relationship between the divine and an individual alone, but instead is always in community – hence, the necessity of a “church” of believers. The mantra ‘spiritual but not religious’ will not stand up under scrutiny – but neither will relativist notions of a faith based on emotion and subjectivity alone. Here the Pope writes:
“Faith without truth does not save…it remains a beautiful story, the projection of our deep yearning for happiness, something capable of satisfying us to the extent that we are willing to deceive ourselves. Either that, or it is reduced to a lofty sentiment which brings consolation and cheer, yet remains prey to the vagaries of our spirit and the changing seasons, incapable of sustaining a steady journey through life” (24).
The modern world, Pope Francis agrees, was right-intentioned in seeking “a universal brotherhood based on equality” (54). But because that brotherhood sought to excise faith and, therefore, truth, it crumbled into sentimentality and indefensible positions, settling finally on the creed that “I have the right to do whatever I want, save that which infringes on your right to do so.” The world needs and cries out for what once existed, a faith only now found in the memory of contemporary culture, and so Lumen Fidei must be proclaimed and heard by all Christians everywhere.
The second thread of Francis’ encyclical builds on the themes of light and darkness, sight and sound, and past and future to weave together the reflections and prayers of Lumen Fidei. Light is perhaps the most prominent, for faith was once associated with the light, as Christ was considered the Light unto the World (4). Yet, as Francis relates, “In modernity, that light might have been considered sufficient for societies of old, but was felt to be of no use for new times” (2). Instead, “Faith came to be associated with darkness,” and the metaphor was turned on its head (3). Instead of illuminating the path to knowledge, truth, and a good life, faith was deemed an obstacle to the potency of man. What Francis leaves unanswered is whether that reversal of understanding was unintentional or, as St. John suggested, because “the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light” (John 3:19). The two Popes, however, are quite adamant about restoring the attributes of light to the notion of faith. Faith empowers man “not because we will be able to possess all the light, which will always be inexhaustible, but because we will enter wholly into that light” (33). Faith is not an obstacle to human rationality because “our human lights are not dissolved in the immensity of his [i.e. God’s] light, as a star is engulfed by the dawn, but shine all the more brightly the closer they approach the primordial fire, like a mirror which reflects light” (35).
Pope Francis continues beyond the metaphor of light: the Gospel is a message of proclaimed Good News, and therefore the sight of light is always accompanied by the sound of interaction. Faith cannot assume the immediacy of light because it is “a knowledge bound to the passage of time, for words take time to be pronounced, and it is a knowledge assimilated only along a journey of discipleship” (29). Here appears the third thread of Lumen Fidei: the personal, discipleship, calling of faith (8). Faith ultimately is a human experience.. “Through our encounter with others, our gaze rises to a truth greater than ourselves,” writes the Pope (14). And this interaction is not limited to Catholics or Christians alone, for it stems from a primordial longing. With the force of Vatican II behind him, Francis speaks to the ecumenical nature of faith, for “once we discover the full light of Christ’s love, we realize that each of the loves in our own lives had always contained a ray of that light, and we understand its ultimate destination” (32).
With urgent, sensory, and human language, then, Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI present the case for faith in Lumen Fidei. The faith proclaimed by Catholics is a faith that understands the challenges of contemporary times. It is a faith that serves as both a message of sight and sound, a Gospel both proclaimed and seen. It is a faith that is both personal and in community with others. Within the fibers of these strands are the musing and reactions of Spe Salvi and Deus Caritas Est, for both Popes are adamant: faith, hope, and love are interwoven, bound together by the fundamental truth that is God.
Michael Fischer is a recent graduate of Georgetown University.