Lumen Fidei: Encyclical for the Year of Faith
A priest of the Archdiocese of Johannesburg FAITH MAGAZINE 2014
This extended article, originally given as a conference to the members of the spiritual family of The Work, explores the major themes of Pope Francis’ encyclical Lumen Fidei.
Certain aspects concerning Lumen Fidei assert themselves even before one consults the text of the encyclical itself. First, the timing. It seems apparent that Lumen Fidei is intended as the guiding magisterial document for the “Year of Faith”, a celebration which outlasted the reign of the pope who convoked it in commemoration of the opening session of the Second Ecumenical Council in the Vatican 50 years before. This in turn raises the question of authorship: Benedict or Francis (or both)? To the believer, this is only of incidental importance. As with sacred Scripture, so with the exercise of the Petrine ministry: the truth or otherwise of a teaching is based on the authority invested in it – in both cases, by God himself, guaranteed by his Holy Spirit – rather than on the identity,oftentimes unknown, of this or that composer (or composers) of a particular text.
Having said that, anyone familiar with the style and substance of Joseph Ratzinger’s scholarship will readily recognise in Lumen Fidei what is freely admitted, in fact, by the one who signs the encyclical simply “Francis”; namely, that Benedict XVI left a substantially completed encyclical unpublished at the time of his abdication. As an aside, the publication of Lumen Fidei speaks volumes for the humility of both pontiffs: that one should risk much by vacating office before its publication while the other considered he risked nothing by publishing it tellingly soon after his own accession to office.
''That which the Church transmits is no mere series of formulaic expressions of the faith faithfully repeated over and again through the centuries, but rather the transmission of a Word who is “alive and active” and cuts to the quick of our existence, touching our workaday concerns, discerning deeply all our dimensions.''
It seems reasonable, then, also to consider Lumen Fidei as the final instalment in Benedict’s trilogy on the theological virtues – his encyclical on faith, whereas Deus Caritas Est and Spe Salvi had treated love and hope, respectively. One might surmise that by commencing his pontificate with the publication of Deus Caritas Est Benedict concurs with the Apostle Paul that “the greatest of these is love”; or again, that he wished to leave the best till last (Lumen Fidei as a sort of last will and testament). Having had an evident hand in the drafting of Fides et Ratio (Blessed John Paul’s encyclical on faith), however, Ratzinger hardly needed to await the final hour of his pontificate to issue his own encyclical on this theme. The peculiar significance of its timing,therefore, attracts legitimate curiosity.
All speculation aside, the dramatic circumstances surrounding its publication scarcely permit one to evade a third noteworthy consideration confronting the reader prior to engaging the text itself, namely the context. As one of the Second Vatican Council’s more enthusiastic experts – as well as one of its first critical interlocutors during the years of its sometimes questionable presentation in the popular imagination – Ratzinger can scarcely be accused of having a less than astute sense of the context within which the Church has to evangelise. Considering the vast array of geopolitical issues with which a Supreme Pontiff is burdened in his solicitude for the whole of the universal Church, that Benedict should choose to close his pontificate (or Francis to open his own) with anencyclical on the theological virtue of faith indicates a very pointed discernment of the signs of the times made by the papacy in our age; namely, that what is most lacking in the century in which we live – what is most crucial to today’s society and what this era of history most requires, therefore, from the Church – appears to be faith.
The Structure of the Encyclical
Delving into the text of the encyclical itself one finds that it addresses, appropriately, the utter incomprehension the dominant culture manifests towards something quite taken for granted in generations past: the very notion of faith. In 60 paragraphs arranged across four succinct chapters, the Pope treats what he evidently considers the fundamental question of our times: how the believer can render an account for faith in a world that considers it little more than mere sentiment, and which rejects out of hand the very notion of universals. As the encyclical well notes, rejection of absolutes excludes philosophically the possibility of God – risking a nihilistic society in a state of wholesale amnesia in which nothing is regarded as prior to self; nothing transcends us: nothing,therefore, can ultimately unite the multitude in the face of the tyrannous caprice of the petty individual whim.
Moreover, the prevailing notion of truth disregards the truism that love never coerces – which is why the encyclical reiterates St Paul’s admonition that believing be done by the heart. Truth needs love, since only love moves the individual outside of self in a relational quest for union with the beloved. Even non-believers (such as Ludwig Wittgenstein) grasp the notion of belief being akin to falling in love – save where love itself has been degraded to the purely subjective; and Lumen Fidei begins well by insisting that only faith unites all human dimensions – the intellect, affectivity and the will: opening the heart to the love that needs truth because only “true” love can transcend what is fleeting and establish what is lasting. In consequence, reason and the sciences benefitimmensely from the attitude of faith, since it opens them up continually to the full complexity of reality, preventing research from becoming satisfied that it has grasped the fullness of it all.
Fundamental theology does not shy away from the empirical. “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands,” begins the First Letter of St John: “this we declare to you.” Lumen Fidei makes immediate appeal to the senses in exploration of the act of faith. Fundamentally, this is so because the principle of the Incarnation has made it possible to touch the Lord with hearts that believe (St Augustine). The first sense treated by the encyclical is sight. “Seeing is believing” is the chorus of doubting Thomases everywhere; even the Gospel remarks of Mary Magdalen in the garden of the resurrection that she “saw and believed”.
Starting with its very title (The Light of Faith), this encyclical contemplates the cry of the man born blind (“Lord, that I may see!”) as emblematic of humanity’s universal longing no longer to dwell in darkness. “Let there be light” is the first utterance of God’s creating Word issuing forth at the dawn of creation. Early Christian iconography depicts this primordial victory as a stand-off between the cockerel (dawn’s herald) and the turtle (the Latin for which suggests what is dark and hidden). Lumen Fidei likens faith-that-sees to the experience by which one’s eyes become accustomed to gazing into the darkness (as wonderful a definition of prayer as can be imagined). By their innate desire for light in the darkness many unbelievers act as if God exists, perceiving life’s grandeur andits beauty. Even the pagans saw in the dawn of each day the portent of victory in a cosmic battle in which each of us is invested. Yet, as the early Church Father St Justin points out, not even the fervent devotees, or worshippers, of Sol invictus (“unconquered sun”) were prepared to lay down their lives for the sun – unlike the decisive witness of martyrdom of Christians.
The blind faith of sentimentalism and the purely personal faith of those prepared unreasonably to leap into the dark, on the other hand, utterly fail to convince unbelievers – who ask whether these be not illusory lights, rather, that shine without illuminating (in Aquinas’s expression). Such lights, after all, tend only to blind the believer – and have brought them no closer to the transformed vision promised. Faced with weak witness, unbelieving minds even invert the association; thus, the Age of Faith is renamed the Dark Ages, while its casting off is styled the Enlightenment. Lumen Fidei does not deny the “leap” of faith; on the contrary it insists on it – only with equal insistence it refutes that it be reckless or unreasonable because made in self-referential darkness.
The encyclical also insists much on the “hinge” of the Incarnation of God’s Word in Jesus, which alone makes it possible that one might journey where another has gone before. In this regard, is it unbelievers who show themselves fundamentally unreasonable when, while trusting lawyers to represent them in court or architects to construct their buildings or pharmacists to prescribe their medicines, they cannot also acknowledge another (the Word) as trustworthy where God is concerned. If unbelievers have failed to see, however, it is believers who have failed to show them. The Pope makes urgent appeal in this encyclical to all who profess faith to allow that faith’s guiding light to transform them wholly, so that they may receive the eyes of faith which establish in the believer a new way ofseeing the journey which lies ahead.
The encyclical would have us consider first the journey already charted by the faith of Abraham and Moses: how the believer has been called out of prehistoric notions of a god of this or that place or season into the truly personal response (“I”-“Thou”) to a Word whose divine utterance both precedes us and calls us forth to journey towards a horizon which the Word himself illuminates and for which the Word himself acts as guarantor. Even the remembrance of this journey’s great milestones has the power of illuminating the present, as is vividly demonstrated by Gothic catechetical windows through whose Old Testament scenes light streams into the cavernous interior of cathedrals, infusing them with brilliant light.
Thus, faith sees to the extent that it journeys, and is guided throughout by a Word that liberates. In this regard, Lumen Fidei will offer the Magi as emblematic of homo religious, the wayfarer: they that seek God find the path towards him illuminated also by him. Fuelled by the desire to see his face, our fathers in the faith became progressively purified of the perennial threats to faith of heresy and idolatry. Rather than regarding his son as the sine qua non of the promise that he will become the father of a multitude of believers, Abraham must place his faith in God’s Word alone as guarantor of its promises. Citing the pithy expression Martin Buber attributes to the Rabbi of Kock, idolatry occurs when a face addresses a face that is not a face. Authentic faith requires,therefore, that humanity relinquish excessive confidence in the work of its hands – including technology and possessions. Faith’s negation ultimately results not in atheism but in polytheism, since the continuum of life’s journey breaks down, then, into a plethora of diversions through which the idolatry of desire leads necessarily into a labyrinth from which there is no true liberation.
The Mosaic experience demonstrates, further, that a mediator is no obstacle to faith but serves rather to facilitate the knowledge proper to love: shared knowledge – in which Abraham’s “I believe” becomes the resolute “we believe” of the multitude of his descendants. Finally, the witness of the Patriarchs deepens appreciation for a faith secured in the reliability of the future fulfilment of God’s promises – in the expected arrival of a Messiah who must become, in time, the guarantor of the Word into which they entrusted their destinies.
We can entrust our very selves, however, only to a Word that will certainly uphold us; one who is revealed to be the wellspring of our being – and certainly not a mere product of chance or in any way alien to our being. Despite what the prince in Dostoevsky’s Idiot says about the crucified Christ constituting a sight that could cause one to lose faith, it is precisely upon the Pierced One that the believer must gaze – for in contemplating the length and breadth and depth of a God whose love recoils not from his enemies (nor even from death), even the least faithful believer is offered the greatest proof of the reliability of the Word into which they entrusted their destiny. The fact that this really happened in history not only means that it can beencountered – but that it must be reckoned with. Were it otherwise, asks the encyclical, what difference would it make whether one believed the tale or not?
It is in grappling with the incarnate Word of God that believers undertake the quantum leap which constitutes the very heart of their act of faith: convinced by Christ, the believer no longer “believes” Jesus (nor even “in” Jesus) – Jesus, himself, becomes our faith. His way of seeing things becomes our own – possible only because he first made our way his own, seeking the Father in time and space. Not for nothing did the first Christians call their faith “the Way”. The leap of faith is a “quantum” leap, however, precisely because in taking it the believer is remade, enabled in the one through whom (uniquely, for he is the only Son) he or she becomes adopted into the paternity of God. The believer, thus refashioned, becomes conformed to this Word in whose indwelling presence he or shegrows in knowledge; and begins to see as he sees, to hear as he hears, to share his mind and to partake of his own filial disposition to the Father. Any focus on one’s own efforts here is entirely misplaced, for it fails to situate this “leap” purely in Christ (quite outside the potential of the self) – which is why the Church never hesitated to confer infant baptism. None of our individuality is lost when we commence our life in Christ, since grace builds on nature. Rather, we find ourselves expanded by the gaze of the other within, in whose reflection (as in a mirror) we see all others also with the same eyes in whose loving gaze the many are being drawn into the one: the mystical body of Christ that is the Church. With Romano Guardini’s memorable description of the Church as “thebearer within history of the plenary gaze of Christ on the world”, the chapter concludes with the assertion that faith is necessarily ecclesial.
Lumen Fidei proceeds to examine the crisis of truth in which our relativist age founders. Wounded as it has been by the absolutist claims of 20th-century totalitarianism, contemporary consensus demotes truth – on the one hand to something purely subjective (signifying fidelity solely to one’s own sentiments and often offending against the principle of non-contradiction), on the other to the merely convenient (namely, to “what works”). The act of faith might be a leap, but the encyclical insists it must be a reasonable one if it is also to be credible. The one we take at his word must be equal of it (he must serve as its guarantor). A necessary philosophical nexus exists between truth and faith, which is a truth on which one may rely in order to stand fast. No king would stake the securityof his kingdom on lofty sentiments or cheery consolations alone: the Prophet Isaiah, therefore, must persuade King Ahab that the word in which he would place his trust is one which will establish him.
Having explored belief as sight, the encyclical now turns to explore “fides ex auditu” (faith through hearing). Faith is the relationship of a word spoken to each soul – requiring from it a response which the Apostle Paul calls the “obedience of faith”. This must include recognition of the speaker and also the acknowledgement that his reward to those who seek him is to allow himself to be found (as good a definition of prayer as can be conceived). Professors of theology admonish their students that theirs is a science best studied on their knees: requiring of them the humility that allows them to be imprinted by the Word they regard and readily acknowledges that we do not possess the truth but rather it is the truth that possesses us. God’s Word is not an object, but a subject who makeshimself known through relationship. This is not to say, however, that belief can be purely personal, either: the Word heard is not one’s own. Faith is not done alone, nor does anyone baptise himself. Lumen Fidei affirms that theology is impossible without faith and concludes its second chapter with the affirmation of the specifically ecclesial dimension of the faith.
In its third chapter, Lumen Fidei locates this dimension in the dynamic of confession: the appropriate response to the Word received. Faith’s transmission through confession is likened to the conflagration of Easter light from the paschal candle to the torches of all gathered in the church’s nave such that faith reflects from the face of one believer to another (in the Pauline expression). Mother Julia Verhaeghe exhorted her spiritual sons and daughters in Familia Spiritualis Opus: “Our faith must be so radiant, that the people are attracted by it.”
That which the Church transmits is no mere series of formulaic expressions of the faith faithfully repeated over and again through the centuries, but rather the transmission of a Word who is “alive and active” and cuts to the quick of our existence, touching our workaday concerns, discerning deeply all our dimensions. The encyclical refers, in this regard, to the sacraments, par excellence, as those incarnate faith-encounters most intimately acquainted with the milestone moments in the faith journey through time and space of each believer. Our incarnate faith is no esoteric one, no stranger to our actual condition: belief is also an empirical experience that disdains not even sensory experiences. Each sacrament is, accordingly, possessed not only of form but also of matter (oil, water,bread, wine, etc).
Baptism is the first and essential of these: by it, the believer is made a new creation. With it he or she receives a deposit of faith – requiring from them a confession which comprises specific elements. The classic elaboration of these (in catechesis) rests on four pillars: the profession of faith (the Creed), the celebration of faith (the sacraments), the living of faith’s consequences (the moral law, particularly the Decalogue), and the spirituality of faith (in particular, the seven filial petitions of the Lord’s Prayer).
Characteristic of Ratzinger’s thought is that the communion of believing must include not solely all those now making up the pilgrim Church on earth (synchronic communion) but all those who have come before us marked with the sign of faith (diachronic communion). Each of us comes from someone, and in turn, belongs to others: the Church also possesses, therefore, a maternal memory animated by the Holy Spirit, whose love will remind us of all that Jesus said and did. This same Spirit renders each of us a contemporary, as it were, of this Jesus – astonishing as it is to comprehend – in a faith encounter in which God’s Spirit effects living contact for each believer with the foundational experience of belief: the encounter with the Lord.
Our faith, then – while deeply personal – is not merely personal: it is a person, the unique Word of the Father of all creation. An obvious consequence of monotheism is this: if faith is not one it is not faith. Accordingly, faith’s veracity becomes externally verifiable in the consistency (synchronically as well as diachronically) of its profession of this deposit. This is a consistency guaranteed by the Lord himself: both in the unity of his Person and in the unity of his gift of inerrancy to the Church through the apostolic succession. Her faith must certainly be inerrant if it is to be that word that you can rely on. Being essentially a seamless garment, faith’s confession must needs be whole and entire: the articles of the faith are intimately interconnected and cannot beindividually accepted or rejected on the rupturing principle of the caprice of whim, the consequences of which are the wounds of heresy. This explains the apostles’ insistence that the Church guard the deposit in its entirety. There is no incompatibility here with individual freedom since it is into freedom that the Word leads us through love’s empowering ability to expand each believer’s capacity to see things through the eyes of another.
Whereas the faith journey fixes its eyes firmly on the celestial horizon, it does not remain indifferent to the urgency of fashioning here and now, even, a dwelling in which all God’s creatures might encounter his justice and peace. This is verified throughout faith’s journey from Noah’s ark to Abraham’s tent of meeting, to Solomon’s temple. Since faith – to be true – must be good for everybody, the encyclical turns in this chapter to the manner in which the believer translates the interior experience of faith into a tangible expression befitting the common good. The light of faith cannot illuminate only the interior of the Church, after all: unless society itself is founded on the same reliability of mutual respect, it will remain a cohabitation based solely on mutual convenience ormutual fear.
Since it is, in fact, the basic unit of communion best reflecting the dynamic of faith itself, the family has been privileged from the beginning of salvation history as the cornerstone of all human society: a stable sign, born of love, acknowledging the complementarity of human differentiation, in which the spouses’ promises of mutual reliability in the engagement of the whole of their lives beget fruitfulness and endurance for the good of all. Only persons capable of acknowledging something greater than their own projects can undertake a task of such courageous faith. For this reason, the family also constitutes the best school of faith, where future generations learn to place their trust in the word of those who have generated their being. The experience of recent World Youth Daysabundantly demonstrates the hunger today’s youth manifests for expanding the horizons of the faith family and the concrete experiences of the faith.
Societies which devalue faith find themselves inevitably destabilised, their principle of bonding reduced to fear or convenience alone. Utopian substitutes for fraternity, such as communism – fatally flawed as they are by the obvious absence of a common Father – are destined to fail. This experience has amply demonstrated how humanity, without faith, possesses no criterion for its own unique worth. This, in turn, leads invariably to one of two extremes: the renouncement of all responsibility; or the assumption of total control in the manipulation even of truth, in a vainglorious and idolatrous projection of self on to the very canvas of creation. Contemporary models of development become, thus, based purely on profit or mere utility. Faith’s love for the Creator, on the other hand,engenders respect and reverence for the work of his hands, and protects creation with forms of government cognisant that all authority stems from God and is at the service of the common good.
As the enduring mystery of iniquity attests, even though faith is a lamp illuminating our journey, it does not extinguish the darkness altogether. Since suffering cannot be eliminated entirely, it must be given meaning in the experience of the God who does not abandon us to nothingness. This is not to say that faith is a crutch; on the contrary, it is the courage of believers like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta which impels them to reach up out of the self into the condition of others, sharing with them in their existential angst the meaning that only faith can give; namely, that even in the face of suffering and death, life is worth living. It is precisely when greatly afflicted by suffering and weakness that faith readies one to experience God’s power to triumph.
Faith expands the capacity of the believer to embrace the concerns of all along life’s journey towards a horizon quite different from the illusive enticements the idols of this world appear to offer. Forgiveness, too, is only possible with a faith that affirms goodness to be prior to (and more powerful than) its denial. The word that sustains our life proves stronger, again and again, than every denial of it. In closing this chapter, the Pope admonishes believers to minister Christ to a suffering world desperately longing for the consoling presence of the God who is with us. This is precisely the service of faith: extending the hope which, grounded in the resurrection of one of us from the dead, does not disappoint.
The closing lines of Lumen Fidei are aptly dedicated to “[her] who believed” and who so treasured in her heart all that she had seen and heard of God that she veritably conceived the Word. Mary is presented as the icon of faith. Her disposition is alike to the good soil of the parable which receives the seed of faith and bears fruit with patient endurance all the way to the cross, and beyond. From the foot of the cross her maternity is extended to all believers, who gather around her in Pentecost’s upper room, which stands at the wellspring of the Church. In closing the Year of Faith, Francis and Benedict reunited in the presence of the statue of the Blessed Virgin of Fatima to dedicate to her immaculate heart the entire world.
Although in issuing Lumen Fidei as the first encyclical of his papacy, Pope Francis might not have offered the world a programmatic outline of his pontificate, shortly afterwards he gave a clear hermeneutical key for interpreting Lumen Fidei also as a “Franciscan” encyclical – in a letter to the editor of an Italian newspaper whose editorial had questioned the relevance of the encyclical (as well as the notion of faith itself).
Pope Francis writes that Lumen Fidei serves not solely to confirm the faith of those who already believe but to dialogue with those who do not believe. This dialogue is indispensable for the believer, not because he or she is presumptuous, but because the security of the faith alone makes it possible for the Church to speak to everyone (the meaning of the word “catholic”). Our new Pope discloses that faith arises from a personal encounter with God’s Word that infuses a person’s existence with new meaning – but that this encounter is possible only within the faith community, in which are rendered accessible the sacred Scriptures, sacramental grace, fraternity and service to the Lord in others. Thus, Francis reaffirms that it is not possible to encounter Christ outside the Church.
Passing on what Jesus’s words and deeds mean to the Church renders irrelevant contemporary endeavours to excavate a “historical Jesus” in some archaeological space outside of the Church, divorced from the contributions of the Pauline epistles or the Johannine corpus. Reckoning with Jesus, even in the concreteness of the most ancient Gospel account (Mark’s) reveals that the scandal he provoked stemmed precisely from the authority with which he claimed to speak – his relationship of equality with God. This authority runs no competition with the world, nor does it signify a usurpation of human freedom, for its goal is service of life and freedom. Jesus demonstrated this to the point of laying down his life in the experience of being misunderstood, betrayed, rejected, condemned, and abandonedon the cross.
That God has come into our flesh to share our joy and pain makes of the Incarnation the cardinal pivot of our faith. Only the Incarnation permits each of us to participate in the unique relationship God has with his Word – the distinguishing feature of Christianity among transcendental religions. As the centurion discovers in the love that proves stronger than death, in the forgiveness stronger than sin, in the life that is worthwhile to the end, it is Christ’s fidelity which reveals him to be God’s Word among us. This is the faith of the Church, which is not for exclusion but for communication – so that all who are called to be children of the one Father are brought to the way of his love, which alone renders us brothers and sisters to one another.
Returning in conclusion, then, to the observations made in the introduction, it seems most pertinent that it is to virtue that Christ’s Vicar would have us harness our hopes for the sake of a world increasingly awash with vice. The Latin word for virtue (virtus), in which the meaning of man (vir) finds its root, conveys the idea of virtue as strength. Beyond the brute sort of strength of which a caricature of a man (like a gladiator) is capable, however, there is the kind of strength one perceives in a father, in a soldier, in a king – that inner, virtuous strength of a man for which one might consider him a gentleman. It is not to say he is gentle, precisely, for that is only the appearance of it; rather, it is to say that he is dependable – in short, a man of his word.
Philosophically speaking, the virtuous life is regarded as the life worth living (the life lived well, or rightly); and so it seems fitting to conclude this summary of Lumen Fidei on the note struck at the outset; namely, that in this encyclical one finds the sort of word on which one can rely – a word one might expect, in fact, from a conscientious father such as we have had in both popes with which the Lord has graced our times.