On the 'Light of Faith': First responses to 'Lumen Fidei'

America invited several writers, theologians and church leaders to respond to Pope Francis’ first encyclical, “Lumen Fidei”, “The Light of Faith.” Visit www.americamagazine.org/light-faith for additional contributions.

Knowing the One Whom We Love

"Lumen Fidei,” Pope Francis said, would be an encyclical written “by four hands”—those of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and his own. Much of the encyclical shows the thinking of Benedict: extensive appeal to the doctors of the church, a sacralizing of Hellenistic philosophy and a preoccupation with 19th-century atheism. With these come a concern for (unitary) truth as the object of faith, defense of the integrity of the deposit of faith, the ecclesial context of faith and the responsibility of the magisterium to guard the wholeness of faith against attrition over time.

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Naturally enough for a text begun by Benedict, the letter also touches a number of times on the modern antagonism between faith and reason. At the same time, there are splendidly positive passages on the human search for God and on the penetration of science by the light of faith.

With a bow to the religious sensibility of searchers who lack explicit faith, the letter recognizes that “religious man strives to see signs of God, in the daily experiences of life, in the cycle of the seasons, in the fruitfulness of the earth and in the movement of the cosmos” (No. 35). It continues, “To the extent that they are sincerely open to love and set out with whatever light they can find, [searchers] are already, even without knowing it, on the path leading to faith.”

According to the letter, moreover, faith illumines the whole of life, including scientific inquiry. “Faith encourages the scientist to remain constantly open to reality in all its inexhaustible richness,” the popes write. “By stimulating wonder before the profound mystery of creation, faith broadens the horizons of reason, to shed greater light on the world which discloses itself to scientific investigation” (No. 34). In fundamental theology these dynamics propelling the advancement of science may be interpreted as manifestations of implicit faith apart from Christ. But when viewed with the eyes of faith by a believing scientist, like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., for example, they gain a Christic depth. It is to that greater depth of life lived in faith that the two popes want to draw our attention.

Except for one introductory passage in which Pope Francis speaks of Benedict’s preparation, it is more difficult to make out Francis’ own contribution. I suspect it includes elements of two chapters: Chapter 3, “I Delivered to You What I Also Received,” treats the transmission of faith; and Chapter 4, “God Prepares a City for Them,” treats the vivifying role of faith in family and society. To this reader’s consternation, however, the ecclesiology of the encyclical is not that of a servant church (or, as Pope Francis has described it, a church in the street where accidents happen), but of a church that guards the faith against error. The faithful would have benefitted here from some revision on Francis’ part in keeping with his homiletic teaching on the church’s vulnerable engagement in the world.

Pope Francis had indicated that he would fold the recommendations of the last synod of bishops on evangelization into this encyclical rather than issue a separate apostolic exhortation closing the last synod. Yet only three numbers (Nos. 37 to 39) touch on the sharing of faith; and these stress the communal, ecclesial nature of faith rather than the mission of evangelization. Most of Chapter 3, a baptismal catechesis, treats the transmission of faith in the sacrament. Chapter 4, on the church’s service to the world, hints of the present pope’s pastoral touch, especially the closing section (Nos. 56-57) on the consoling role of faith in suffering and dying.

This would have been the fourth encyclical prepared by Pope Benedict XVI. It completes a trilogy on the theological virtues. Since two of the previous three—“God Is Love,” on the mystery of God, and “Love in Truth,” on truth and love in the moral life—dealt with dimensions of Christian love, it should be no surprise that love plays a central role in this joint encyclical’s treatment of faith as well.

It is ultimately the love of God, which comes to us by grace, the encyclical affirms, that enables us to believe. Quoting St. Paul, “One believes with the heart” (Rom 10:10), the letter says: “Faith knows because it is tied to love, because love itself brings enlightenment.” It is love that opens the eyes of the mind. “Faith’s understanding is born,” it says, “when we receive the immense love of God which transforms us inwardly and enables us to see reality with new eyes” (No. 26). It is remarkable that Pope Benedict, for all his concern with the truth content of faith, not only must turn to love to seal his argument about faith, but that it is with his description of love’s knowledge that the argument of the encyclical is most convincing. God, the encyclical confesses, “is a subject who makes himself known and perceived in an interpersonal relationship” (No. 36).

In the end, the image of sight that was the starting point for “Light of Faith” proves insufficient to capture the fullness and vitality of faith. The biblical witness itself, the popes remind us, speaks of faith as hearing and even as touch. The Gospel testifies to “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 Jn 1:1; LF No. 31).

True love, the encyclical tells us, “unifies all the elements of our person and becomes a new light pointing the way to a great and fulfilled life” (No. 27). Appealing to all the senses and the whole person, the Gospel invites us to encounter Christ (No. 31). Love yields knowledge because it alone embraces the whole person. The love at the heart of faith is the love that unites us with Christ.

Drew Christiansen, S.J.

An Extraordinary Collaboration

At the end of the new encyclical, “Lumen Fidei,” the simple signature appears: “Franciscus.” Officially, it is thus the first encyclical of the new pope.

Yet things are not as simple as they appear. In the encyclical Francis writes: “[Benedict] himself had almost completed a first draft of an encyclical on faith. For this I am most deeply grateful to him, and as his brother in Christ I have taken up his fine work and added a few contributions of my own” (No. 7). Thus we are witnesses to an extraordinary collaboration that might equally be called the Testament of Benedict and the Inaugural Address of Francis.

Those familiar with the three encyclicals and other writings of Benedict will quickly recognize favorite themes and sensibilities. In many ways, this lovely exposition of Catholic faith can serve almost as a “Summa” of Pope Benedict’s magisterium, written in a lucid, inviting style. Indeed, the 60 succinct paragraphs beg to be pondered and prayed.

At the heart of the encyclical’s meditation on faith is this conviction: “In the love of God revealed in Jesus, faith perceives the foundation on which all reality and its final destiny rest” (No. 15). Christian faith arises from the loving encounter with Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Thus it engages the whole person: understanding, will and affections.

As a result, before being formulated in propositions (necessary though these be), faith is a deeply experiential reality that sets the person on a new way, enabling him or her to see reality in a new light, the light of Christ, and opening up a new horizon and mission. “Those who believe are transformed by the love to which they have opened their hearts in faith” (No. 21). They are being transformed by the indwelling of Christ in the Spirit.

The I of the believer becomes incorporated into Christ’s ecclesial body, the “I believe” of the individual situated in the “we believe” of the community. In a rich passage, the encyclical teaches: “This openness to the ecclesial ‘We’ reflects the openness of God’s own love, which is not only a relationship between the Father and the Son, between an ‘I’ and a ‘Thou,’ but it is also, in the Spirit, a ‘We,’ a communion of persons” (No. 39).

Moreover, the ecclesial communion experienced and enjoyed is not self-enclosed but impels us to our responsibilities for the common good. “[Faith’s] light does not simply brighten the interior of the Church, nor does it serve solely to build an eternal city in the hereafter; it helps us build our societies in such a way that they can journey towards a future of hope” (No. 51).

Rooted in the soil of Christ’s paschal mystery, faith does not deny or ignore the sufferings of the world. It seeks to bring the service of hope and love, especially to the most needy and abandoned. “Faith is not a light which scatters all darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey” (No. 57).

“Lumen Fidei” offers challenging and enriching spiritual exercises for the contemporary church and the wider world. Tolle, lege—take it up and read!

Robert P. Imbelli

The Unity of Faith

When reading “The Light of Faith,” the first encyclical of Pope Francis’ pontificate, it can be tempting to speculate about what Pope Benedict XVI wrote and what Pope Francis added. But does authorship make a difference here?

Readers may observe that early references (to Nietszche, Justin Martyr, Dante and Dostoevsky, among others) resonate with the style of Benedict XVI; likewise, key terms surface later that evoke themes of Francis’ early pontificate (relationships, the common good, economy and creation).  But to interpret this document in this manner is problematic. Encyclicals are not fragmentary documents. Even when written by collaboration or committee, there is a unity of authoritative voice. The genre brooks no majority opinion and minority dissent.

Unity and univocality are important themes of “Lumen Fidei,” which strives to affirm, “The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence” (No. 4). Cognizant of contemporary realities, it worries about the “crisis of truth in our age” and “relativism,” which present a fundamental challenge to the relevance of “the question of God” (No. 25). It notes the importance of the new evangelization; it specifies that science and faith are complementary: “By stimulating wonder before the profound mystery of creation, faith broadens the horizons of reason to shed greater light on the world which discloses itself to scientific investigation” (No. 34). Certainly these are all topics worthy of further conversation.

But the encyclical—both its authorship and its topic—prompts another question for me: What does it mean to speak univocally and universally about faith in a time when the global church is becoming conscious of its own internal diversity? Two issues are worthy of further exploration.

First, the encyclical views truth as a straightforward and univocal endeavor. In this view, truth is magisterial; through apostolic succession, “the magisterium ensures our contact with the primordial source and thus provides the certainty of attaining to the word of Christ in all its integrity” (No. 36). This is by no means a new claim. But it is noteworthy in light of ongoing conversations about the role and authority of theologians vis-à-vis the hierarchical magisterium.

Second, how is Catholic unity understood? Of course, “Lumen Fidei” explains that liturgy, sacraments, biblical witness, prayers and creed are how the church preserves and transmits the foundational claim: “The history of Jesus is the complete manifestation of God’s reliability” (No. 15).  These features endure across space and time and are foundational sources of Catholic unity.

But what is the topography of unity in a global church? This is an important and complicated question. The church may be unified in faith, but it is not uniform in its constitution. How, then, is the diversity of human experience in a global, pluralistic church incorporated into—or omitted from—the univocal utterances of magisterial teaching? Such reflection is absent from “Lumen Fidei,” which offers affirmation of unity without delving into the church’s constitutive diversity. This is unfortunate, because unity is not necessarily reducible to uniformity.

Perhaps the plurality of the contemporary—and future—body of Christ will be addressed in other ways during Francis’ pontificate. But readers will not find it in “Lumen Fidei,” where Benedict and Francis speak with unity about the uniformity of faith.

Christiana Z. Peppard

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