First Impressions of Lumen Fidei

Yesterday, Pope Francis issued the encyclical Lumen Fidei, or Light of Faith.  Encyclicals are not intended for the contemporary news cycle, and the richness of this text defies any effort at sound bites.  But a few first impressions may help orient readers towards this sweeping letter.

Pope Francis credits much of his first encyclical to Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI.  In doing so, Francis reinforces the importance of Vatican II in the Year of Faith begun last October by Benedict.  He stresses the continuity of Church teaching both in the Council and in his own pontificate.  Later in the letter, he offers strong reminders of the Magisterium’s authority and importance.

The letter is intellectually powerful but not pedantic, not “intellectualized.”  It is accessible to readers of all backgrounds, deeply grounded in scripture, and devotes much thought to the experience of the Jews, both as true on its own account and as the anticipation of Christ.

Pope Francis makes clear that this letter is to be read with Pope Benedict’s earlier encyclicals, Deus Caritas Est and Spe Salvi. They form a trilogy on the theological virtues, which Benedict and Francis see as forgotten or misunderstood in our age.

Encyclicals are teaching documents in the context of the era in which they are written.  Pius X published Pascendi Dominici Gregis in response to modernism and its ills.  Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum at a time when the problems of capitalism had produced an opening for socialism. Pius XI wrote against those quintessentially modern political forms, fascism and communism, in the 1930s. 

Those encyclicals apply timeless truths of Church teaching to specific circumstances, and this trilogy does the same.  The letters on faith, hope, and love respond to the particular pathologies of post-modern life: the loss of the virtues, the divorce of faith and reason, and the resulting relativism and individual isolation that leave so many in today’s world with the spiritual malaise, the acedia, captured by writers such as Walker Percy and T.S. Eliot, who is cited by Francis.

This letter speaks of faith not as a method or doctrine – though doctrine is important – but as an encounter with God the Father, God the Word, and God the Holy Spirit.  This encounter with Persons is essential for human persons to realize our proper nature and dignity. 

The encyclical draws out the intertwining relationships among faith, hope, and love, and among love, faith, and truth.  It emphasizes the central place of the sacraments and prayer.  It constantly speaks of the light of truth that the gift of faith brings.

And it accomplishes all of this while recalling our concrete circumstances, including material reality. Gnosticism is rejected and the reality both of God’s infinite love and of His creation, which we see around us, is affirmed.

The letter reconnects faith and reason, as Benedict has sought to do in so much of his teaching.  It points to the fruitful relationship between scripture and Greek philosophy, highlights the importance of faith to the pursuit of truth in all domains (from theology to natural science), and reminds us of the dangers of all forms of idolatry, “the opposite of faith.” The pope quotes Martin Buber’s definition of idolatry as “when a faces addresses a face which is not a face.”   

Without true faith, we turn to all sorts of false faces: political ideology, profit and mammon, golden calves.  This encyclical is a call to turn back from all the idols of modernity and post-modernity, to the face of love itself.

The letter is not a political tract, but it has implications for politics and economics, and these are timely for the United States and Europe. We read of  “the light of faith. . .concretely placed at the service of justice, law and peace,”  and Church teaching on the common good as the just aim of all political and economic arrangements, with temporal government based on the “realization that authority comes from God.”  The pope rejects the Hobbesian basis of modern political thought as well as utilitarianism:  

Faith does not draw us away from the world or prove irrelevant to the concrete concerns of the men and women of our time. Without a love which is trustworthy, nothing could truly keep men and women united. Human unity would be conceivable only on the basis of utility, on a calculus of conflicting interests or on fear, but not on the goodness of living together, not on the joy which the mere presence of others can give.

And the letter includes an unmistakable and welcome affirmation of Church teaching on marriage based on sexual differentiation and family, and their relationship to political order:  “The first setting in which faith enlightens the human city is the family. I think first and foremost of the stable union of man and woman in marriage.”

The letter is a treat to read in its references to a wide range of thinkers, from the early Church to the last century:  St Justin, St Thomas Aquinas, Blessed John Paul II, Dante, and, as mentioned, T.S. Eliot. 

But Francis and Benedict put before us two sources in particular:  St John the Evangelist, whose gospel is quoted extensively, and St Augustine, whose thought animates the letter and who is a favorite of the pope-emeritus. 

Both of these great saints stress the same relationships as the letter itself: faith, hope, and love; love, faith and truth.  Both exemplify lives of faith and reason.  Both lived in the Roman Empire, with St Augustine witnessing the beginning of its collapse. 

And perhaps it is of little significance, but the letter was signed by Pope Francis on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, who died in Rome for the faith. 

At a moment when we have the unusual and great gift of both Francis and Benedict living in the Vatican, these bishops of Rome have joined to tell us what our age, and every age, needs to hear.

Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.