What are we to make of this latest encyclical written by the four hands of Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI? Remember that encyclicals make up a very significant part of the magisterial teaching of the Church. Not only are they written and promulgated by the pope, but they focus on and are particularly relevant to the historical context in which they are written. They are attempts to read the signs of the times through the lenses of the Gospel and the living tradition of the Church.
What is the current historical context in which we read Lumen Fidei? Certainly from the faith perspective we must take into consideration the Year of Faith, the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, the New Evangelization, and the resignation of Benedict XVI followed by the election of Francis. Much could be said about each of these points, but it is enough here to isolate a common thread (and there are many) that has helped me begin to digest this latest papal teaching.
All of these events and efforts in the Church over the past year have directly or indirectly said the same thing about faith: that what is needed today, in the contemporary culture and in the Church, is a clear and credible presentation of the basic elements of Christianity. What is the faith? Where did it come from? Who is Jesus?
Pope Benedict must be credited with recognizing this need many years ago, if not decades ago, and especially for taking it upon himself to articulate for the Church in the form of a trilogy of encyclicals on what I would call the basic Christian virtues of Hope (Spe Salvi), Love (Deus Caritas Est), and now Faith (Lumen Fidei). With this in mind we can think of Lumen Fidei as the final piece of a mosaic that Benedict spent many years preparing for us. We can thank Francis for unveiling it to the world.
What do we find in this encyclical? It is through and through a treatise on the most elementary dimensions of faith that have been articulated in various ways throughout the history of the Church. Theologians will find the characteristically Benedictine nuances for discussion and debate, but everyone should be able to see from the outset that this was always intended to be a promotion of the basics, the essentials. Pope Francis, who so far has given every indication that he's a pope of the basics, surely sympathized with this approach during the redaction process.
What I find very interesting about the structure of the encyclical is the initial emphasis on the significance of faith for the progress of collective humanity, that is, for the world outside the Church as well. This theme is found elsewhere in the document, but only for the purpose of reminding the reader of context. That context, which must be the starting point for any discussion on the current crisis of faith that we find in the contemporary culture, is succinctly articulated in the introduction of Lumen Fidei and can serve a greater purpose in coming years, I think, of getting our feet firmly planted so as to confront the crisis with confidence.
In paragraph 3, following a description of the rapid process of secularization that the popes associate primarily with the philosophy of Nietzsche in the 19th century, they write:
There were those who tried to save faith by making room for it alongside the light of reason. Such room would open up wherever the light of reason could not penetrate, wherever certainty was no longer possible. Faith was thus understood either as a leap in the dark, to be taken in the absence of light, driven by blind emotion, or as a subjective light, capable perhaps of warming the heart and bringing personal consolation, but not something which could be proposed to others as an objective and shared light which points the way.
This is a fascinating analysis for two reasons. First, it identifies the initial attempt by many believers and non-believers alike to counter the system of atheist humanism that Nietzsche and others were building. According to Francis and Benedict, it was a futile attempt because in the search for common ground between a rapidly progressing scientific philosophy and the ancient Christian outlook, both reason and faith were watered down. In essence, too much credit was given to the scientific philosophy so that faith lost its sure-footing in the historical (I dare say scientific) reality of the Incarnation. The "God of the gaps" was born.
Second, this analysis is a snapshot of the origin of our current situation. What the popes say about those who tried to save faith by making room for it alongside the light of reason is exactly what many enlightened people are still doing in 2013. Do we not live in a culture that sees faith only as a "subjective light," as a personal and private lifestyle void of any objective or collective reliability?
We could say that Lumen Fidei is a radical challenge to this modern understanding of faith and reason. Francis and Benedict have thrown a curve ball into our collective outlook and leveled the playing field so that a new conversation about faith can begin - an open and honest conversation in which reason and fidelity to truth are paramount. This, it seems to me, is the foundation of Lumen Fidei. The popes go on to describe in considerable depth the roots of our Judeo-Christian faith and its indispensable role in the progress of humanity. It is now up to the bishops and the faithful to delve into this encyclical and bring it to life in the local church.
Finally, in reading and studying Lumen Fidei we must never forget about the world and the people outside the Church. This encyclical is as much for them as it is for us. And it would be a perilous mistake on our part to consider this teaching only insofar as it exposes the disoriented first principles of the modern conceptions of faith and reason. We must avoid, and condemn where necessary, any inclination within the Church toward Gnosticism - the secret faith, the pure faith - that would see nothing good in modernity or the contemporary culture. That is not the Christian faith. "Faith transforms the whole person precisely to the extent that he or she becomes open to love." (Lumen Fidei, 26)