In Lumen fidei (The light of faith), Pope Francis’s first encyclical, he shows us more of his simple style and central themes which have been the constant undercurrent in his daily homilies and Wednesday audiences. Short and clear, the document from the still-new Pontiff provides us with an accessible teaching about the importance of faith to family, society, theology and Church at a time when everywhere secular individualism is the rule of the day.
In the first few paragraphs the Holy Father makes it clear why defending faith is important, “for once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim.” (#4) This question of faith extends beyond the Christian or Catholic context and into the wider culture. All of society suffers if faith is not defended. This is a crucial message as we fight now and with increasing frequency for faith in the public square.
Having just celebrated Independence Day in the United States, Americans may still have the words of the Declaration of Independence fresh on their minds: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights….” Without faith, however, the self-evident truths of equality granted by a creator are not so self-evident. It is exactly this faith in a God who taught us of our fundamental human dignity that makes something like the Declaration meaningful and possible.
Pope Francis recalls the words of the pagan Celsus who saw no real difference between the actions of man “and those of the ants and bees.” (#54) It was the Christian God who elevated man’s status in the cosmos and so provided for us the foundation for something like fundamental human rights. Pope Francis is also clear that this faith, so important for appreciating our fundamental dignity, is not an isolating faith.
We read that the faith begins with a relationship. Faith, he tells us is “our response to a word which engages us personally, to a ‘Thou’ who calls us by name.” (#8) Faith directs us to truth, but “the truth which faith discloses to us is a truth centered on an encounter with Christ, on the contemplation of his life and on the awareness of his presence.” (#30)
The encounter with this “Thou,” with the God who is willing to become one of us and to suffer and die for us, is an encounter that opens our eyes, ears, hearts and minds to a completely new reality. This reality bears the fullness of truth about human nature but also the fullness of who we are as individuals. We are not just talking about an alternative lifestyle but rather about a fundamentally new way of looking at reality which can set us free. Indeed, faith does not just open our eyes, but it also allows us to see everything as Christ sees it. Our blindness without faith is not the inability to see anything, it is the inability to see ourselves and our neighbor for who we really are.
In this way, the faith connects us with each other. The common good is only truly understood in the context of faith. This is an important principle in the social teaching of the Catholic Church, but it is one wholly lost on many dissenting Catholics who hope to defend their support for candidates who advance horrid crimes against humanity. As some Catholics argue about the bishops’ stance on abortion or religious liberty, the words of the Pope here remind them that faith is the foundation of an authentic justice. You desire social justice? Then see with the eyes of faith and not with the eyes of political expediency.
Ultimately, the liberal, secular project to build a brotherhood outside the context of faith is one doomed to failure. “Brotherhood, lacking a reference to a common Father as its ultimate foundation, cannot endure.” (#54) So a country wholly free from having to listen to pastors preach about social policy, or free from having to respect the consciences of business owners, or free from having to consider whether late term abortions are indeed infanticide is a country shackled to liberal individualism. Faith teaches us that sacred ground is not being free from answering tough questions, but rather free to answer them in the context of the fundamental dignity of all human life. Would that our Catholic politicians read this with care.
Similarly, the faith makes us more keenly aware of the suffering of the poor. Christian charity is not just humanitarianism, but rather a deeply held care for those whom Jesus loved so dearly. Faith helps us put aside fears about our personal wealth, in order to more generously offer our aid to all those who seek the fundamental goods of human existence.
The encyclical also has something to say to dissident theologians who believe it is their calling to push the Magisterium toward a development which contradicts the truth of faith. “Theology,” we read, “must be at the service of the faith of Christians, that is must work humbly to protect and deepen the faith of everyone, especially ordinary believers.” (#36) Woe, then, to those who see their work as theologians to free the young minds of ordinary believers from the faith of the Church. And the Pope warns theologians who wish to ignore the Magisterium as the norm for Catholic faith, “for the Magisterium ensures our contact with the primordial source and thus provides the certainty of attaining to the word of Christ in all its integrity.” To deny even just one aspect of the faith, writes the Holy Father, “is tantamount to distorting the whole.” The cafeteria is still closed.
Lumen fidei is conscious of the challenges of today. References to pagan philosophers and even Nietzsche show that the Holy Father is aware of the voices which bombard the public square. Faith is seen today as a limit to our human desires. Idolatry is a way of seizing control over our own lives while ultimately shackling ourselves. Some have a faith in a foreign God who lives distant from everyday lives. In the end, faith today suffers from a “massive amnesia,” says Pope Francis. We have forgotten where our sense of those self-evident truths came from.
The timing of this encyclical is fortuitous for we in the United States who are battling a government and society bent on removing the faith from the public square. After having our faith about human sexuality labeled as hateful by the U.S. Supreme Court, this encyclical shores up the conviction that our faith founded on an authentic understanding of human nature is the starting point for what is truly the common good.
All the more reason, then, for the Church to continue to stand up for the truth of the faith in the public square and to remind society of the Christian underpinnings it has forgotten. In doing so, the Church preaches the social teaching and helps to build up a just society. The laity is especially called to live the faith in the public square. We can live it in the work place and in the culture in a way the bishops and pastors cannot. By bringing our faith into the open, we help to advance the foundations of our republic. This is why the question of religious liberty is so important.
That said, Pope Francis has not given us a battle cry in this encyclical. Rather, he has given us an invitation. He is calling us into deeper relationship with Christ Jesus so that we might deepen our faith and so given a better witness for it in the public square. The focus must always be on Christ. It cannot be on public policy. We shall not triumph with arguments, but with lives lived in witness to the love of Jesus.
Faith is an encounter with truth, and that truth is the love of God for all of us. Outside of God, nowhere is that love so clearly expressed than in our mother Mary. Pope Francis ends his encyclical with a beautiful prayer to Our Lady to remind us that by her help we can begin to believe and to live the faith in her Son, Jesus Christ. In so doing we might have enough faith to lead in love.