Lumen Fidei: Questions of Interpretation and Insights

Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”), Pope Francis’ first encyclical, was written by “four hands,” as he has said. It represents the intellectual and pastoral collaboration of what some might call an unlikely duo: Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The current Pope notes at the outset that “[Pope Benedict] himself had almost completed a first draft of an encyclical on faith… As his brother in Christ I have taken up his fine work and added a few contributions of my own” (7). This collaborative drafting process, combined with the fact that the encyclical was published on the same day as Pope Francis approved recommendations for the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, bolsters for some, as one news source has suggested, the perception that its publication is “less the act of a particular pope and more the faithful exercise of… apostolic succession.” Pope Francis meets Benedict XVI

But in contrast to this interpretive stance, other interpreters have considered the document less as a unified whole, instead seeking to identify which Pope crafted which sections of Lumen Fidei, not unlike redaction criticism in biblical interpretation. Drew Christiansen, S.J., for example, argues that the thinking of Pope Benedict is apparent in the document’s “concern for (unitary) truth as the object of faith, defense of the integrity of the deposit of faith, [and] the ecclesial context of faith and the responsibility of the magisterium to guard the wholeness of faith against attrition over time.” Conversely, he suggests that “chapter 4, on the church’s service to the world, hints of the present pope’s pastoral touch, especially the closing section (56-57) on the consoling role of faith in suffering and dying.”

So how should Lumen Fidei be read? As a unified whole, or even “the faithful exercise of apostolic succession,” or rather, as a multi-authored encyclical with editorial layers that must be detangled? Leroy Huizenga’s response to attempts to determine who authored which parts of the document or to “read it piecemeal” raises important, albeit controversial, points regarding Lumen Fidei’s interpretation. He writes:

“I think we ought to approach official documents in the final form in which they are promulgated, for that is how they are promulgated…. [Otherwise] that which we hold most certain–the text itself–suffers eclipse. Whatever hands lie behind the Pentateuch, the Gospels, Dei Verbum, Caritatis in Veritate, or Lumen Fidei, they are given and received as coherent wholes. This is not to evade history or the messiness of a text’s production in history or to do an end-run around hard critical questions, but rather to raise real questions about an adequate theory of interpretation for such documents. To read a text for sources when the text itself does not advert to those sources by quotation or allusion is to read a text against their grain. ”

In any case, perhaps attempts to dissect Lumen Fidei to determine which content appears characteristic of the thought and charism of Pope Francis or Pope Benedict XVI is less fruitful than considering what are some of the document’s most insightful contributions to contemporary Catholic thought. I’d like to briefly consider just three of these here: first, the relation of faith and science; second, the status of non-believers searching for truth; and third, the relation of faith and social engagement.

Some of the encyclical’s most striking, while brief, passages describe the penetration of science by the light of faith, pertinent too to this blog’s discussions on the sociological study of religion. Lumen Fidei highlights that “the light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence,” among which scientific inquiry is no exception (4). Expanding Pope Benedict’s previous thought on the complementary relationship between faith and reason, Lumen Fidei links science to the human experience of awe at the natural world: “By stimulating wonder before the profound mystery of creation, faith broadens the horizons of reason to shed greater light on the world which discloses itself to scientific investigation” (34). Rather than circumscribing scientific inquiry, “faith encourages the scientist to remain constantly open to reality in all its inexhaustible richness,” he writes. The encyclical relies imaginatively on sensory imagery to underscore this very richness by which faith touches the whole of a person, rooted in a love which “unifies all the elements of our person and becomes a new light pointing the way to a great and fulfilled life. While the image of sight serves as the starting point for the encyclical, we are reminded that the biblical witness speaks of faith as that which is heard and “touched with our hands” as well (27-31; Cf. 1 Jn 1:1).

Another important contribution of Lumen Fidei is its affirmation of the religious experience of those who lack explicit faith. The Pope describes as “religious” one who “strives to see signs of God, in the daily experiences of life, in the cycle of the seasons, in the fruitfulness of the earth and in the movement of the cosmos.” And strikingly, he insists of such persons that “to the extent that they are sincerely open to love and set out with whatever light they can find, they are already, even without knowing it, on the path leading to faith” (35).

Finally, a key feature of Lumen Fidei is its insistence that faith never impels believers to abandon concrete social engagement.  Indeed, faith fortifies and sustains such engagement. Raising hands in prayer, it suggests, strengthens those hands to build an earthly city founded on justice, charity, peace and mercy: “The hands of faith are raised up to heaven, even as they go about building in charity a city based on relationships in which the love of God is laid as a foundation” (51). Furthermore, authentic faith moves beyond incomplete justifications for justice and equality in human relations such as fear or utilitarianism. Using a memorable architecture motif, the Pope suggests that “faith makes us appreciate the architecture of human relationships because it grasps their ultimate foundation and definitive destiny in God, in his love, and thus sheds light on the art of building; as such it becomes service to the common good” (51).

I encourage readers to read Lumen Fidei or its official summary for themselves to see whether they find it to be a unified whole or clearly containing the signs of “four hands.”

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