61. Lumen Fidei. The First Encyclical by Pope Francis

July 8th, 2013

As supreme teachers of the Roman Catholic Church, Popes write encyclicals to expound aspects of Christian belief that they deem particularly relevant or important for their time. Encyclicals mark the theological profile of a given pontificate and provide a helpful interpretative grid to it. It is, therefore, interesting to read Pope Francis’ first encyclical which was officially presented today (July 5th, 2013), and is titled: Lumen Fidei (LF), The Light of Faith. It is Bergoglio’s first theologically articulate work since becoming Pope Francis.

Benedict XVI’s Blueprint

The first element worth noting is that it is actually a work that comes from Benedict XVI, now Pope emeritus. Ratzinger had planned a trilogy of encyclicals on the theological virtues of Love, Hope and Faith (in this order). In this respect he wrote Deus Caritas Est (God is Love, 2005) and Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope, 2007) and was about to publish the final one on Faith, having already completed the first draft. His unexpected resignation brought everything to a halt. Evidently he passed the manuscript on to Francis who thought it would be a good idea to release it as part of his own teaching and after adding “a few contributions” of his own (7). We are therefore confronted with an encyclical signed by Francis but largely shaped by Benedict XVI.

Ratzinger’s contribution is evident throughout the text. Nearly all the quotations come from either the German tradition (e.g. F. Nietzsche, 2; M. Buber, 13; R. Guardini, 22; L. Wittgenstein, 27; H. Schlier, 30) or the larger European culture (Dante, 4; J.-J. Rousseau, 14; F. Dostoevsky, 16; J.H. Newman, 48; T.S. Eliot, 75). It is clear that a scholar like Ratzinger stands behind these discussions. The beloved Augustine is by far the most quoted Church Father (e.g. 10, 15, 19, 23, 31, 33, 43, 48). It was Augustine’s theology that was the subject of Ratzinger’s doctorate. The themes and the tone of Ratzinger’s thought are also powerfully reflected in how this encyclical deals with the issue of truth and relativism (e.g. 25), or modernity and its “totalitarianism” that excludes faith (e.g. 54).

Apparently Francis is at ease with all this and therefore makes no changes or modifications. LF recalls “the gift of apostolic succession” through which the Church’s memory is granted continuity (49) and the encyclical itself testifies to the unbroken succession of the Papacy even as far as doctrine is concerned.

Evangelical Language but …

LF is a long reflection on faith which is divided into four parts. It starts with the Biblical character of Abraham and the subsequent story of the people of Israel. The language is biblical (e.g. faith departs from idolatry, 13) and the tone is Evangelical (e.g. faith is a “personal encounter”, 13). At one point the text goes as far as saying that “We believe in Jesus when we personally welcome him into our lives and journey towards him, clinging to him in love and following in his footsteps along the way” (18). Stopping here, one might think this is an Evangelical document which stresses the personal language of faith. This is not the whole story, however.

Continue reading, however, and one finds a section entitled “Salvation by faith”. Notice the absence of the adverb “alone”, which is of course foundational for an Evangelical understanding of salvation. The XVI century Protestant Reformation insisted that salvation is “by faith alone”, but ever since the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church has not accepted the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. In fact, Francis writes that “the beginning of salvation is openness to something prior to ourselves” (19). Faith, suggests the Pope, is only the beginning of the process, but the journey of the believer requires faith plus works, faith through the sacraments, and faith with the Church that imparts the sacraments. In other words, the faith of the LF is the faith that the Council of Trent defined in its decrees and canons. Part of the language has become Evangelical, but at its core the theological substance is Roman Catholic.

Sacramental Faith

The third part of LF explains in further detail. Here Francis (and Benedict) want to underline the fact that the Church is “the mother of our faith” (37-38). Our faith is never originated in ourselves as individuals, but precedes us and follows us. It is through “the apostolic Tradition preserved in the Church” that faith is born and nurtured. Quoting Vatican II, Francis writes that “the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes” (40). It is no longer the Word of God that leads the way, but the Church. The way it does so is through the sacraments. In one revealing passage, LF says that “faith itself possesses a sacramental structure” (40). According to LF, faith is a personal encounter, but faith is also received through the sacraments. These are the two sides of the same coin. What follows is a brief explanation of the Roman Catholic doctrine of baptismal regeneration (41-43) and the Eucharist (44-45), which are the gateway of faith and its highest expression. The Pope goes on to say that this doctrine is one and the same, i.e. the personal and the sacramental dimensions of faith are undivided (47-49).

As it is common in encyclicals, LF also ends with an invocation to Mary, “Mother of the Church, Mother of our faith” (58-60). While the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith (Luke 17:5), LF ends with a prayer to Mary: “Mother, help our faith!”.

Lumen Fidei well depicts the current appropriation of Evangelical language by important sectors of the Roman Catholic Church. It started with “evangelization” and now continues with faith as “personal encounter”. Pope Francis seems to be leading the way in this process. This appropriation, however, must be put in the context of the traditional Roman Catholic doctrine that is Tridentine, sacramental and Marian.

Share Button