“The Light Of Faith”


Friday marked the release of Pope Francis’s first encyclical, Lumen Fidei – “The Light of Faith.” Rocco Palmo provides context for the how the document came into being:

While the less than four month period between Francis’ election and the rollout of his first major document is a modern record, the pontiff let slip in mid-June that he was reworking a draft text given him by Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI, and that the finished product – ostensibly prepared to mark the ongoing Year of Faith – would be “the work of four hands” …

[W]hile Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus caritas est, was likewise rooted in a late effort of Blessed John Paul II, it emerged some nine months after Joseph Ratzinger’s 2005 election. Until now, the quickest time-lapse between a Pope’s ascent and first encyclical was held by John Paul, whose Redemptor hominis was given in March 1979, four and a half months into his pontificate, while Paul VI and Blessed John XXIIII respectively waited fourteen and eight months before publishing their first top-tier messages.

Elaborating on the theme, Samuel Gregg emphasizes the basic continuity between the two popes – and Francis’s humility:

No doubt some will claim (especially after they read Lumen Fidei) that, because Ratzinger penned the first draft, this encyclical “isn’t really Francis’s text.” But, actually, it is. Francis was under no obligation to use Benedict’s initial draft. Yet he did. Moreover, encyclicals are rarely composed in their entirety by a pope. Others, for a variety of reasons (such as expertise in the subject-matter), are normally asked to contribute to the drafting process. Naturally there’s always speculation about particular persons’ influence upon individual documents. In the end, however, final authorial responsibility for these texts belongs to the pope who signs them. They are truly his documents, for without his signature denoting his assent to every word of their content, they lack magisterial authority and are destined to be mere archival curiosities.

One of the many things I admire about Pope Francis is his genuine humility. And it’s a truly self-effacing pope who freely acknowledges his predecessor’s profound contribution to the first encyclical of a new pontificate.

Reading Lumen Fidei, David Cloutier reaches back to then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s early theological work and the argument that faith includes more than mere belief in certain intellectual propositions:

[I]n Joseph Ratzinger’s 1968 Introduction to Christianity…faith is named as “taking up a position” and “to take one’s stand on something.” Ratzinger is trying to identify faith with a certain type of stance toward reality, rather than with any formulae, claiming that faith is the prerequisite of all real human understanding. Without faith, he suggests, all understanding eventually is reduced to “making” – that is, not to standing somewhere, but to remaking the world in one’s own image…

The overall outline of the [encyclical] suggests its central concern, set out in the initial paragraph, to counter the idea that religious faith is in fact a form of “darkness.” Rather, faith means standing somewhere, taking a stand, one that illuminates rather than darkens. In the first chapter, the existential or dynamic (rather than propositional or doctrinal) aspect of what faith means is vividly described, in particular using Abraham.

Kyle Cupp notes that the encyclical’s description of faith leaves room for life’s uncertainties:

We read that “faith opens the way before us and accompanies our steps through time,” summoning us to an unseen future, but then the encyclical says something striking:  “the sight which faith would give to Abraham would always be linked to the need to take this step forward: faith ‘sees’ to the extent that it journeys, to the extent that it chooses to enter into the horizons opened up by God’s word.”  In other words, to see by the light of faith, you first have to take a step in the darkness.  Faith is a choice to move, to journey, and only on this journey is the path illuminated by faith.  The light shines after the taking of each step, and as faith is a choice one must make at each moment of each day, the sight of faith is neither immediate nor constant.  The light and the dark go together.  In the words of the Lumen Fidei:  “Faith by its very nature demands renouncing the immediate possession which sight would appear to offer; it is an invitation to turn to the source of the light, while respecting the mystery of a countenance which will unveil itself personally in its own good time.”

James Martin elaborates on how Francis connects faith to love, a move that he hopes will appeal to “the seeker, the doubter, the agnostic and even the atheist”:

[A]s 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.

John Allen, Jr., reads the encyclical in much the same way:

[T]he new pope’s first encyclical insists that Christian faith “must be professed in all its purity and integrity,” but also strikes a  pose of open arms to all the “seekers” of the post-modern world.

Anyone who is “open to love,” the document says, is “already, even without knowing it, on the path leading to faith.”

In a sense, the document amounts to a synthesis of the spirit of “affirmative orthodoxy” under Benedict, which is now seemingly being extended into the papacy of Francis: Tenacity in defending the content of orthodox belief, but a determination to phrase that content in the most positive and outward-reaching fashion possible.

For those not inclined to read the entire encyclical, you can read a helpful summary of it here.

(Photo: Pope Francis smiles after his weekly general audience in St Peter’s square at the Vatican on June 12, 2013. By Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)