Ghostwriting the Faith: Reflections on Pope Francis’ Lumen Fidei

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.


Lumen Fidei Casts Light on Key Catholic Social Teachings

Pope Francis released the fantastic new encyclical “Lumen Fidei” (“Light of Faith”) on Friday, which Pope Benedict started before his resignation this past winter. Encyclicals are the most important form of papal teaching and comprise much of the vast body of our Catholic social tradition.

Here is a collection of some of the quotes from the encyclical, by paragraph, which demonstrate how loving care for human life and commitment to social justice are essential parts of our faith as Christians. A brief reflection follows each quote.

No. 17: Our culture has lost its sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world. We think that God is to be found in the beyond, on another level of reality, far removed from our everyday relationships. But if this were the case, if God could not act in the world, his love would not be truly powerful, truly real, and thus not even true, a love capable of delivering the bliss that it promises…Christians, on the contrary, profess their faith in God’s tangible and powerful love which really does act in history and determines its final destiny: a love that can be encountered, a love fully revealed in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.

God is here and now at work among us as much as God has ever been anywhere. How easily even we believers can forget that. It’s our job to let God’s always-available love inspire us to make that love visible in the world through our lives.

No. 22: Faith is necessarily ecclesial; it is professed from within the body of Christ as a concrete communion of believers. It is against this ecclesial backdrop that faith opens the individual Christian towards all others.

Our faith must be lived out in community.We are social creatures made to be in relationship with God and others. Commitment to the communal life leads us to notice and care about the needs of others.

No. 46: The Decalogue [Ten Commandments] is not a set of negative commands, but concrete directions for emerging from the desert of the selfish and self-enclosed ego in order to enter into dialogue with God, to be embraced by his mercy and then to bring that mercy to others.

We don’t have commandments and doctrines and dogmas as Christians because we really like rules. We have them because believing in God comes with responsibilities and real-world implications. Faith cannot just be words or beliefs without action, but must reach out to others, especially to those in need.

No. 51: Precisely because it is linked to love (cf. Gal 5:6), the light of faith is concretely placed at the service of justice, law and peace.

Christian love, rooted in faith, is not just found in affections of the heart, but also in an action of hands.

No. 52: The first setting in which faith enlightens the human city is the family…Faith also helps us to grasp in all its depth and richness the begetting of children, as a sign of the love of the Creator who entrusts us with the mystery of a new person. So it was that Sarah, by faith, became a mother, for she trusted in God’s fidelity to his promise (cf. Heb 11:11).

A pre-born child is not a choice or a burden, but a miracle that a family and community are called to embrace.

No. 54:  The boundless love of our Father also comes to us, in Jesus, through our brothers and sisters. Faith teaches us to see that every man and woman represents a blessing for me, that the light of God’s face shines on me through the faces of my brothers and sisters.

This reminds me of a great Dorothy Day quote: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

No. 54: Thanks to faith we have come to understand the unique dignity of each person, something which was not clearly seen in antiquity…At the heart of biblical faith is God’s love, his concrete concern for every person, and his plan of salvation which embraces all of humanity and all creation, culminating in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without insight into these realities, there is no criterion for discerning what makes human life precious and unique.

Our faith that each human is a unique, beautiful creation of God is the bedrock of Catholic social teaching. We don’t work to protect life and promote justice because of some vague philanthropic concern. We do it because in each person, we find the face of God.

No. 55: Faith, on the other hand, by revealing the love of God the Creator, enables us to respect nature all the more, and to discern in it a grammar written by the hand of God and a dwelling place entrusted to our protection and care. Faith also helps us to devise models of development which are based not simply on utility and profit, but consider creation as a gift for which we are all indebted; it teaches us to create just forms of government, in the realization that authority comes from God and is meant for the service of the common good.

There are two important points in this passage. First, the Earth is a gift from God to us, and it’s our job to take care of it by conserving natural resources and taking meaningful action to combat climate change, for instance. Second, faith calls us to build societies and economies that serve the common good. We do not judge our success based on how the wealthy are doing, but how the most poor and vulnerable are treated.

No. 57: Nor does the light of faith make us forget the sufferings of this world…Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light.

Our God is compassion, and calls us to be compassionate: literally, to “suffer with” those who are hurting. It’s so difficult to see another suffering and to go toward that pain. It’s much easier to put blinders on and to turn away. But faith demands movement toward those who are lonely and forgotten.

Thank you, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, for this wonderful gift that enlivens our faith and sends us out to take God’s love to others.

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.


23 Quotes from Lumen Fidei

Humility prevents me from giving this post the title ‘Top 23 Quotes from Lumen Fidei’, so I will simply say that these are the passages that caught my eye as I read the encyclical, which was released earlier today:

  1. “Yet in the absence of light 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.”
  2. “The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence.”
  3. “For Abraham, faith in God sheds light on the depths of his being, it enables him to acknowledge the wellspring of goodness at the origin of all things and to realize that his life is not the product of non-being or chance, but the fruit of a personal call and a personal love.”
  4. “Faith consists in the willingness to let ourselves be constantly transformed and renewed by God’s call. Herein lies the paradox: by constantly turning towards the Lord, we discover a sure path which liberates us from the dissolution imposed upon us by idols.”
  5. “Christian faith is thus faith in a perfect love, in its decisive power, in its ability to transform the world and to unfold its history.”
  6. “Paul rejects the attitude of those who would consider themselves justified before God on the basis of their own works. Such people, even when they obey the commandments and do good works, are centred on themselves; they fail to realize that goodness comes from God. Those who live this way, who want to be the source of their own righteousness, find that the latter is soon depleted and that they are unable even to keep the law. They become closed in on themselves and isolated from the Lord and from others; their lives become futile and their works barren, like a tree far from water.”
  7. “Faith in Christ brings salvation because in him our lives become radically open to a love that precedes us, a love that transforms us from within, acting in us and through us.”
  8. “The image of a body does not imply that the believer is simply one part of an anonymous whole, a mere cog in great machine; rather, it brings out the vital union of Christ with believers, and of believers among themselves (cf. Rom 12:4-5). Christians are “one” (cf. Gal 3:28), yet in a way which does not make them lose their individuality; in service to others, they come into their own in the highest degree.”
  9. “Faith without truth does not save, it does not provide a sure footing. 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.”
  10. “Faith transforms the whole person precisely to the extent that he or she becomes open to love.”
  11. “Faith knows because it is tied to love, because love itself brings enlightenment.”
  12. “Love cannot be reduced to an ephemeral emotion. True, it engages our affectivity, but in order to open it to the beloved and thus to blaze a trail leading away from self-centredness and towards another person, in order to build a lasting relationship; love aims at union with the beloved. Here we begin to see how love requires truth. Only to the extent that love is grounded in truth can it endure over time, can it transcend the passing moment and be sufficiently solid to sustain a shared journey. If love is not tied to truth, it falls prey to fickle emotions and cannot stand the test of time. True love, on the other hand, unifies all the elements of our person and becomes a new light pointing the way to a great and fulfilled life. Without truth, love is incapable of establishing a firm bond; it cannot liberate our isolated ego or redeem it from the fleeting moment in order to create life and bear fruit.”
  13. “Christian faith, inasmuch as it proclaims the truth of God’s total love and opens us to the power of that love, penetrates to the core of our human experience. Each of us comes to the light because of love, and each of us is called to love in order to remain in the light.”
  14. “Religious man is a wayfarer; he must be ready to let himself be led, to come out of himself and to find the God of perpetual surprises.”
  15. “The transmission of the faith not only brings light to men and women in every place; it travels through time, passing from one generation to another. Because faith is born of an encounter which takes place in history and lights up our journey through time, it must be passed on in every age. It is through an unbroken chain of witnesses that we come to see the face of Jesus.”
  16. “Persons always live in relationship. We come from others, we belong to others, and our lives are enlarged by our encounter with others.”
  17. “It is impossible to believe on our own. Faith is not simply an individual decision which takes place in the depths of the believer’s heart, nor a completely private relationship between the “I” of the believer and the divine “Thou”, between an autonomous subject and God. By its very nature, faith is open to the “We” of the Church; it always takes place within her communion.”
  18. “The sacraments communicate an incarnate memory, linked to the times and places of our lives, linked to all our senses; in them the whole person is engaged as a member of a living subject and part of a network of communitarian relationships.”
  19. “Faith is born of an encounter with God’s primordial love, wherein the meaning and goodness of our life become evident; our life is illumined to the extent that it enters into the space opened by that love, to the extent that it becomes, in other words, a path and praxis leading to the fullness of love.”
  20. “Young people in particular, who are going through a period in their lives which is so complex, rich and important for their faith, ought to feel the constant closeness and support of their families and the Church in their journey of faith. We have all seen, during World Youth Days, the joy that young people show in their faith and their desire for an ever more solid and generous life of faith. Young people want to live life to the fullest. Encountering Christ, letting themselves be caught up in and guided by his love, enlarges the horizons of existence, gives it a firm hope which will not disappoint. Faith is no refuge for the fainthearted, but something which enhances our lives. It makes us aware of a magnificent calling, the vocation of love. It assures us that this love is trustworthy and worth embracing, for it is based on God’s faithfulness which is stronger than our every weakness.”
  21. “We need to return to the true basis of brotherhood.”
  22. “Faith teaches us to see that every man and woman represents a blessing for me, that the light of God’s face shines on me through the faces of my brothers and sisters.”
  23. “Faith also helps us to devise models of development which are based not simply on utility and profit, but consider creation as a gift for which we are all indebted; it teaches us to create just forms of government, in the realization that authority comes from God and is meant for the service of the common good. Faith likewise offers the possibility of forgiveness, which so often demands time and effort, patience and commitment. Forgiveness is possible once we discover that goodness is always prior to and more powerful than evil, and that the word with which God affirms our life is deeper than our every denial.”

‘The Light of Faith’ Encyclical Arrives Friday

Via CNS:

Pope Francis’ first encyclical, which he has said is largely the work of retired Pope Benedict XVI, will be published July 5.

The Vatican announced July 1 that “Lumen fidei” (The Light of Faith) will be presented at a news conference featuring Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops; Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization.