The encyclical Lumen Fidei has been much appreciated in terms of what it says about religious faith, but it also has an explicitly social dimension, which is present in the fourth chapter, entitled “God has prepared for them a city.” (Heb. 11:16) Pope Francis addresses four themes there: “Faith and the common good,” “Faith and the family,” “A light for life in society,” and “Consolation and strength in suffering.” It’s worth looking at each of these
The first – faith and the common good – is extremely important, since it touches on a fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching that has been the subject of great debates: the person as imago Dei. This notion, so clear in religious terms, has always been subject to opposing interpretations by different schools of social thought. In the social sphere, it’s often been reduced to purely utilitarian or economic perspectives. In other contexts, it’s been turned into something paternalistic or purely rhetorical.
All of these are distortions from the anthropological perspective on which Catholic social teaching is based: we are made in the image of God and are, therefore, both free and called upon to be responsible.
Pope Francis tells us that the strength of faith has to do with the “city that God is preparing for men.” The relationships between acting persons can reveal the presence of that city already in this world. It is Faith, however, that shows the proper nature of the social bond, a bond that at the very same time enhances the freedom of each and of all, as well as illuminating the kinds of institutions made possible by such bonds.
Citing the Conciliar Declaration Dignitatis Humanae, Pope Francis makes clear that the light of faith does not found the City of God on earth, but rather provides Christian principles for the institutions that men should build for themselves and others.
These involve “Faith and the family.” The first area in which the faith illuminates the city of man is precisely in how it conceives of the family. The family, from the Christian point of view, implies the recognition of a life project that goes far beyond its own immediate members, both in terms of relationships and of time.
It’s only when we discover a larger project than our own desires – and realize that it is attainable on account of the relationship with a loved one – that we can promise love and give ourselves totally to the other.
Faith enlightens us about the most intimate and personal aspects of the family and, at the same time, its civil and public meanings. In its light we begin to see the fundamental reason by virtue of which the “common good” is actually a plural notion. To use a technical term, the family is the institution that best expresses the “polyarchical” character of civil society – a society built on multiple principles and competencies.
Idolators: Worship of the Golden Calf by Filippino Lippi, c. 1500
The light of faith also sheds its rays also on the relationship between man and nature. This issue has drawn the attention of recent popes and has become a fundamental part of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Pope Francis’s reflections encourage Catholics around the world to consider these issues in a context irreducible to mere action by the state, or of a mythical, fanciful, dangerous, and unnecessary “Global Government.” Here, too, the preference is towards “subsidiary and polyarchical governance,” which at all levels undertakes the “institutional path of charity,” in the beautiful and powerful expression from Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate.
Finally, the pope addresses a little noticed dimension of the social sphere: the theme of suffering. He reminds us that the Christian knows that suffering cannot be eliminated. It is in the mystery of the Cross-scandal that it takes on a meaning, to such an extent that it becomes “an act of love and trust in the hands of God who does not abandon us.” In this way suffering becomes a stage of growth in faith and love.
In particular, personal suffering helps us not to lose sight of suffering in the world, to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground, to be people aware of our dependency on God, of the fact of being creatures, imperfect persons and in need of the aid of the Father.
The light of faith, then, becomes an antidote to the idolatry of man, the “fatal conceit” of those who imagine creating, shaping, and directing institutions around a deliberate design, an idea of society that they themselves – not God – have decided must be realized in history.
These are more than personal matters. Institutions cannot perform moral acts. They are neither good nor bad per se. Instead, they reflect the actions and ways of thinking of the people who work in them.
Wealth and influence as such are also neither good nor bad. It is making money and power into idols that is to be condemned. When we bow to an idol we sacrifice our free choices before an unworthy object.
These idols present themselves in the ordinary garments of everyday professional success. Those idols are generally tolerated because they captivate us all a little. And we’re all more or less self-indulgent – and make excuses – about it.
In short, idolatry becomes an attitude, a predisposition, a behavior that becomes habitual – the very air we breathe – which then goes so far as to intoxicate our consciences and corrupt the institutions of democracy and the market.
It’s by such subtle idolatry that we come to put our own short-term interests, “at any cost” and “at any price,” before those around us or even of someone innocently growing in the womb.
We need the lumen fidei, the light of faith, to rescue us from all our idols – and our blindness.