Francis on the 'Light of Faith': First responses to 'an encylical written with four hands'
America asked a selection of writers, theologians and church leaders to respond to Pope Francis' first encyclical, Lumen Fidei. Check this page in the coming days for additional contributions.
Knowing The One Whom We Love
By Drew Christiansen, S. J.
“The Light of Faith,” 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 who had completed most of the text before his resignation: 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.
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, the popes tell us, “[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. “Faith,” they continue, “awakens the critical sense by preventing research from being satisfied with its own formulae and helps it to realize that nature is always greater. 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). While in fundamental theology these dynamics propelling the advance of science may be interpreted as manifestations of implicit faith apart from Christ, when viewed the eyes of faith, by a believing scientist like Teilhard de Chardin, 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 where 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 three, “I Delivered to You What I Also Received,” treats the transmission of faith, and chapter four, “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 Francis’s servant church (the church in the street where accidents happen), but of Benedict’s church, a church that guards the faith against error. The faithful would have benefitted here from some revision on Francis’s part in keeping with his homiletic teaching on the church’s vulnerable engagement in the world.
Pope Francis had indicated that he would fold in 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 (37-39) touch on the sharing of faith and stress the communal, ecclesial nature of faith, rather than mission of evangelization. Most of chapter three, a baptismal catechesis, treats the transmission of faith in the sacrament. Chapter four, 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 Emeritus 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 at its 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.
Further thoughts on Lumen Fidei from Drew Christiansen, S.J., can be found here.
Drew Christiansen, S.J., is a visiting scholar at Boston College and former editor of America. He has been a frequent commentator on papal encyclicals and Catholic social teaching in these pages.
An Extraordinary Collaboration
By Robert P. Imbelli
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. Francis, some days prior to releasing the document, stated it was the work “of four hands,” his and those of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. And in the encyclical itself he 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” (#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 Benedict’s magisterium, written in a lucid, inviting style. Indeed, the sixty 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” (#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 which 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” (#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” (#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” (#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” (#57).
Lumen Fidei offers challenging and enriching spiritual exercises for the contemporary church and the wider world. Tolle, lege–take it up and read!
Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, teaches theology at Boston College.
Francis' Gentle Invitation to Seekers
By James Martin, S.J.
Pope Francis’ first encyclical is a beautiful invitation to believers and seekers alike. While Lumen Fidei is officially addressed to bishops, priests, members of religious orders and “the lay faithful,” it is also a heartfelt attempt to speak to anyone still searching for God.
There is probably little that will be deemed “newsworthy” in Lumen Fidei, save perhaps the strong linkage between faith and “justice, law and peace” which reflects Francis’ emphasis on the poor. Another section speaks explicitly of great figures, like St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa, whose faith impelled them to work directly with the poor. Some commentators may try to parse which pope—Benedict or Francis—wrote which part, rather than looking at the document in its totality. A few may even try to discount one or another part, based on the putative author. But that would be a fool’s errand: if anything the encyclical should enjoy greater influence as the work of two popes.
While many passages will provide material for rich meditation for Catholics and Christians, I would like to highlight a few that might specifically help the seeker, the doubter, the agnostic and even the atheist.
“Faith is born of an encounter with God,” writes Francis. That is, faith is not simply an intellectual process, or the answer to a series of philosophical questions, but is primarily about a relationship—with God, with Jesus, and with others. We can see, says Francis, the progress of that relationship throughout history, in the story of salvation, which begins with Abraham. So for seekers despairing of “figuring out” faith, the pope offers not a philosophical disquisition or a theological debate, but a person: Jesus. Faith is, he says, “a participation in his way of seeing.” We seek to enter into relationship with him.
But that doesn’t mean that the intellect is unimportant. For seekers who worry that becoming a Christian will mean leaving their brains behind, Francis highlights the value of the intellectual path, and reminds us of the experience of St. Augustine. Encountering God did not lead Augustine to “reject light and seeing,” that is, reason. Still, our longing for the truth will only be satisfied when “we will see and will love.”
For, as the pope says, “Love is an experience of truth.” For those still searching for God, then, Francis encourages them to meditate on their experience of love, not simply as an ephemeral emotion, but as a way of tasting faith and experiencing truth, both of which can lead to faith. As we reflect on the love that God has shown us in our lives, as the People of Israel did over history, we slowly come to belief. And here is a beautiful line that will speak to many seekers: “To the extent that they are sincerely open to love and set out with whatever light they can find, they are already, even without knowing it, on the path leading to faith.”
To that end, faith is a journey. Lumen Fidei speaks of the “path” and “road which faith opens up before us.” In other words, don’t be afraid to keep looking. “Religious man is a wayfarer,” says Francis (and I would add religious woman, too), “he must be ready to be led, to come out of himself, and to find the God of perpetual surprises.”
So, to the seeker Francis says: don’t be afraid of using your intellect, see what love might teach you about faith, and stay on the path. Then one day, you may be surprised to discover that you are in a relationship with God and, more important, that God is in a relationship with you.
James Martin, S.J., is editor at large at America.
A Light Unto Our Path
By Peter Folan, S.J.
In one of the closing paragraphs of Lumen Fidei, the encyclical of Pope Francis released this morning, the Holy Father remarks, “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” (§57). One can say likewise of Lumen Fidei itself. The encyclical isa light for the church, and thus, by extension, humankind, not because it eradicates all challenges to belief, but because it shows that the faith of the church stands up to those challenges. In particular, Lumen Fidei engages three of today’s challenges to belief.
First, faith is a backup plan. Those who pose this challenge see faith as a caulk to fill in the ever-shrinking gaps between experience and scientific explanation. Time and deeper learning, these critics say, will eventually expose faith as unnecessary, if not dangerous. Francis, for his part, trumpets the importance of knowledge and truth, for “without these we cannot stand firm, we cannot move forward” (§24), yet he also diagnoses a “massive amnesia in our contemporary world” (§25). Questions of truth and knowledge are fundamentally, he argues, questions of memory, for they “deal with something prior to ourselves” (§25). Stoking the embers of our individual and ecclesial memory through prayer and the sacraments unites us, becoming not a connective tissue between disjointed moments of reality, but the core stuff of reality itself, pointing the way toward the future by being grounded in the past.
Even if faith is not a backup plan, the second challenge responds, faith is an individual pursuit. This challenge, which spawns the popular shoots of “spiritual but not religious” and “faith demands blind obedience,” meets with a strong response in Lumen Fidei. The Holy Father, in reminding his readers that “faith is not a private matter, a completely individualistic notion or a personal opinion,” connects the life of faith with seeing and hearing, concluding that faith “ is meant to find expression in words and to be proclaimed” (§22). The faith-knowledge that this seeing and hearing impart focuses our eyes and ears “on an encounter with Christ” (§30), a meeting that “is kept alive in that one remembering subject which is the Church” (§38). The church, then, sharpens the individual’s seeing, hearing and remembering, that is, the individual’s faith, just as the individual does likewise for the church.
Finally, Lumen Fidei addresses ones who protest that faith is an intra-ecclesial matter. On the contrary, faith, like the church herself, “sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all” (§34). The goal of this dialogue must be no less than the oneness for which Jesus prays in John 17, for, as St. Leo the Great wrote, “If faith is not one, then it is not faith” (§47). This calls for more than ecumenism. It demands the unity of all humankind in a brotherhood anchored not only in equality, but in “a common Father as its ultimate foundation” (§54).
The light of faith, the light that the name and the content of Lumen Fidei broadcast, contrasts with the “smaller lights which illumine the fleeting moment yet prove incapable of showing the way” (§3). The flames of those smaller lights may resolve challenges to belief for a time, though eventually, they will gutter. The light of faith, however, especially as Pope Francis gives voice to it in Lumen Fidei, reveals a course through and beyond those challenges, a course that the church, ever on pilgrimage, must traverse.
Peter Folan, S.J. is a parochial vicar at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C.
The Unity of Faith
By Christiana Z. Peppard
When reading Lumen fidei, the first encyclical of Francis’ pontificate, it can be tempting to speculate about “what Benedict XVI wrote” and “what Francis added.” (Indeed, Francis notes that his predecessor had “almost completed a first draft of an encyclical on faith” [no. 7]). 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 that, “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 presents 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” (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 ecclesial 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” (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 that “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 practice or 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 is an Assistant Professor of Theology, Science, and Ethics at Fordham University in New York.