Lumen Fidei: a “bleak view of modern society”?

Theologian Tina Beattie’s commentary on Lumen Fidei in The Tablet a few days ago is perhaps more critical than it needs to be (though not entirely so, calling the document “beautifully crafted and erudite”), but it does reflect a criticism that is probably worth making. In my own reading of the encyclical, I was struck and impressed by — as I noted in a previous post — its attentiveness to “secular” thinkers. But I also noticed that in most cases, reference to those thinkers (e.g. Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein) was made for the purpose of criticizing them or illustrating a negative point about the modern world.

Beattie notices it, too, and is particularly troubled by this. She criticizes the encyclical’s “bleak view of modern society,” writing:

Only in one short section which comes about half way through its 88 pages does it acknowledge the possibility that faith might be found outside the doctrines, magisterial authority and sacramental unity of the Catholic Church. This section, titled ‘Faith and the search for God’, is so different in tone that it leads me to suspect that here we detect the influence of a quieter, more pastorally sensitive authorial voice, and a hint of a different vision which is about to emerge. Apart from this one section, there is no suggestion that secular society and other religions might have something positive to contribute to the self-understanding of the Catholic faith, nor that people of faith come in many shapes and forms. The overall impression – apart from that one section – is that European culture is riven between faithful Catholics and godless relativists who have lost all concept of truth and meaning. For an encyclical so concerned with truth, this is not a true picture of the complex realities of the modern world.

This is a point well made about an otherwise strong and important encyclical. It is also almost surely the case that this aspect of the document, like many of its very positive ones, is a strong sign of the influence of Benedict XVI upon the text.

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