Lumen Fidei: how does it respond to the “spiritual but not religious” crowd?

I have enjoyed reading through Pope Francis’s new encyclical on faith, Lumen Fidei, over the past several days. It is quite accessible, blessedly free of the heavy and almost impenetrable verbiage of the most recent (and otherwise masterful) papal encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (which was, in fact, made public four years ago today!).

And so someone coming to this in the mode of a questioner, a seeker, a doubter, could surely find a helpful answer to the question, “What is faith really about for these Christians?” Indeed, Pope Francis said just today in his Sunday Angelus address, “I think that this encyclical, at least in some parts, can also be useful to those who are searching for God and for the meaning of life.”

Lumen Fidei has four chapters. They are on

  1. the “history” of faith, or central place of faith in the stages of salvation history
  2. the relationship between faith and truth
  3. the transmission of faith
  4. the social/communal aspects of faith

That this text was formed under the influence of Pope Benedict is obvious. The most tell-tale signs, in my opinion, are the strong presence of St. Augustine throughout the text, the insistence on essential connection between faith and truth, and the similar attentiveness to the connections between faith and the other two theological virtues, hope and love. I will mention some other fingerprints left by Pope Benedict below.

Particularly interesting to me are the many references to “secular” writers, philosophers, and poets. These include Friedrich Nietzsche, Dante Alighieri , Martin Buber, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and T.S. Eliot. This is certainly not an encyclical that is disengaged from the broader context of (Western) culture and history.

Neither is it disengaged from modern concerns, doubts, and attitudes about faith. On the contrary, it faces these head-on and wishes to address them constructively. This is illustrated clearly, for example, by the quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche’s letter to his sister: “this is where humanity’s paths part: if you want peace of soul and happiness, then believe, but if you want to be a follower of truth, then seek.” Most of us know people who would see their own ideas about faith reflected in this comment.

Along the same lines, the text does a good job of responding to the prominent “spiritual but not religious” way of framing the question of faith today, without referring to the phrase specifically. There are probably two important elements to that response in what Francis has to say.

First, he insists on the personal aspect of faith — and here I do not mean simply that it’s personal to the believer, but rather that faith is a personal relationship. Faith — or authentic Christian faith, anyway — cannot be reduced simply to an awareness of a spiritual aspect of reality or a willingness to approach one’s life reflectively. In a passage that is quite characteristic of Joseph Ratzinger’s lifelong work, the encyclical says: “God is not the god of a particular place, or a deity linked to a specific sacred time, but the God of a person, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, capable of interacting with man and establishing a covenant with him. Faith is our response to a word which engaged us personally, to a ‘Thou’ who calls us by name” (8).

Second, Francis also insists (again, in a characteristically Ratzingerian way) on the communal and ecclesial aspects of faith: faith unites us with others and calls us to live out this unity authentically. I loved, for example, this passage from the encyclical’s fourth chapter: “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” (51).

Finally, another strong point of the encyclical is that at no point does it suggest faith to be something which draws us away from the world in introspective, exclusive contemplation of God or ourselves. On the contrary, Francis insists that faith must have real world consequences and demands an engagement with the concerns of this world. “Far from divorcing us from reality,” he writes, “our faith in the Son of God made man in Jesus of Nazareth enables us to grasp reality’s deepest meaning and to see how much God loves this world and is constantly guiding it towards himself. This leads us, as Christians, to live our lives in this world with ever greater commitment and intensity” (18).

Shortcomings? Perhaps a few worth noting briefly.

Though Francis has made clear that this document will serve in place of the post-synodal apostolic exhortation that has been expected to follow the Synod on the New Evangelization held in Rome last October, its approach to that topic is, at the very least, subtle and downplayed. Certainly, there is a full chapter on the transmission of faith, but much of this addresses the transmission of faith through the sacraments, especially baptism. There is little here that could be said to be about the new ardor, methods, and expression that John Paul II said are what makes the new evangelization “new.”

Does this suggest that Francis will be downplaying the prominent place that the past two popes have given to this concept of “new evangelization”? I hope not. In fact, I was rather hoping to see him “purify” the concept, freeing it from the traditionalistic, neo-apologetic spin that many in the Church today have given it.

Finally, it is perhaps too easy to criticize an overly Western and masculine point of view here, but it’s worth mentioning. As I noted above, the encyclical, to its credit, engages the thinking of many “secular” thinkers. But the entire list is made up of white, Western men. “Okay, but the popes who wrote this are white, Western men, too,” some will say, “we should not expect otherwise.” But of course, the nature of an encyclical means that they’re speaking to the whole Church, the Church universal. (Fr. Z may have a good point, though he makes it somewhat snarkishly, when he notes that Francis presents himself here as the “Supreme Pontiff,” not the “Bishop of Rome,” since the latter is a job description he appears to prefer.) For example, what rich insights about faith might we gain from the ecclesial experience of Francis’s place of origin, Latin America, marked by both a rich Catholicism and deep poverty? What might we learn from the culture and churches of Asia or Africa? From women’s experience of ecclesial faith?

All in all, Lumen Fidei is surely a gift to the church from two extraordinary popes.


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