Vol. XIX, No. 5
The Encyclical on Faith:
A Quiet New Force in the World for Those Who Seek God, Truth, Goodness, and Salvation
by James V. Schall, SJ
“There is no human experience, no journey of man to God, which cannot be taken up, illuminated, and purified by this light. The more Christians immerse themselves in the circle of Christ’s light, the more capable they become of understanding and accompanying the path of every man and woman toward God.”
— Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, 35
“These considerations on faith — in continuity with all that the Church’s magisterium has propounded on this theological virtue — are meant to supplement what Benedict XVI had written in his first encyclical letters on charity and hope. He himself had almost completed a first draft of an encyclical on faith. For this I am deeply grateful to him, and as his brother in Christ I have taken up his fine work and added a few contributions of my own. The Successor of Peter, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, is always called to strengthen his brothers and sisters in the priceless treasure of that faith which God had given as a light for humanity’s path.”
— Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, 7
It has long been known that Benedict XVI was working on a third encyclical, one on faith, in the years after completing Spe Salvi, his great encyclical on hope. Benedict had designated this as the Year of Faith. He had given several general audiences on the topic before he resigned. So it is both a gracious and profound thing for his successor, Pope Francis, to take up what Benedict had mostly completed to add his own touches to it. Nothing makes more clear the unity of faith as residing in the Chair of Peter than this collaboration of two popes. Though Pope Francis has shown himself quite capable of citing learned authors with the best of them, we know that we see the hand of Benedict when we see Nietzsche cited, then Dostoyevsky, Martin Buber, Dante, Romano Guardini, Ludwig Wittgenstein, T.S. Eliot, and Newman along the way — not to mention numerous fathers of the Church, especially Augustine — and heavy German footnotes. The only thing missing was a quotation from Plato.
What struck me about this encyclical was how little it addressed itself to current events. It does say that marriage is between one man and one woman for their good and that of the child, but that is nothing new. One would think, in a Church that wanted to be “relevant,” with a new pope, that some greater effort would be made to speak of economics and foreign affairs. I can imagine the editorial writers in the world press and media scratching their collective heads trying to figure out how to deal with this obviously important document. They are not used to being told that they cannot explain the condition of their own souls without the faith that addresses itself to the whole of human existence.
I suggest that the encyclical’s purposeful indifference to such things is precisely its point. In the long run, these worldly things are not particularly important if they are not also taken up with the great drama of faith that constitutes salvation history. We cannot explain ourselves by ourselves to ourselves. “Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the center of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands. Once man has lost the fundamental orientation that unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires…” (§13) This encyclical spells out the alternative to the self-centered man. We are not the center of our own reality; yet, we really exist and there is a center.
The faith informs us about the communion within the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The one God is Triune. This communion is revealed to us in faith. It does explain things that we cannot figure out without it, but with it, we can make much sense of it and of other things we already know. It says, with the Apostle John, that God is love, as is everything that flows from the Godhead if we would but see it. Christianity is not about our searching for God. It is rather about God searching for us. While the pagan might seek some explanation for things, a worthy endeavor no doubt, the fact is that Christianity is a gift, a surprise. It is something unexpectedly given in history, beginning with Creation and the call of Abraham. It leads through the history of Israel to Christ and the Church in which He left His Sacrifice to be remembered. It includes the end and completion of things, individual lives, and the world itself. The encyclical is careful to spell out this journey of faith that includes our present understanding of it. In one sense or another, we are required to take a stand for or against it, so important it is to what we are.
“Our belief is expressed in response to an invitation, to a word which must be heard and which is not our own; it exists as part of a dialogue and cannot be merely a profession originating in an individual.” (§39) Recalling a remark in Spe Salvi in which Benedict talked of the dialogue of baptism, this dialogue status of the Creed is emphasized here. It is both “I believe” and “we believe.” The content of the faith is given to the Church wherein it is to be protected and passed on. It is the function of the Church and its authority not to add any new revelation but to be sure that the only revelation given by God through Christ remains what He wanted it to be. This is the only faith that frees us. It is that context of faith that explains what we are.
This encyclical explains what man really is. The full reality of man cannot be explained without understanding his relation to God. It is true that a great many in the world do not know this fact. Many too, for political and ideological reasons, are not allowed to hear of it freely presented in their societies or countries. The pope does not here go into the issues of the need to have a free society in which we are at liberty to state and live what we believe. The Church has already made clear its view on religious liberty as the first freedom. If we do not know what we are to believe, we might as well forget about trying to explain what we are to others. This explanation is why the encyclical, like John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, spends some time on the relation of truth to faith. Faith is not something that we take up when we cannot find the truth by ordinary means. Faith itself is a truth and speaks the truths that God intended to reveal to us for His — that is, for our — uses, for our good.
“At the heart of biblical faith is God’s love, His concrete concern for every person, and His plan of salvation which embraces all of humanity and all of creation, culminating in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” Francis writes. “Without insight into these realities, there is no criterion for discerning what makes human life precious and unique. Man loses his place in the universe; he is cast adrift in nature, either renouncing his proper moral responsibility or else presuming to be a sort of absolute judge, endowed with an unlimited power to manipulate the world around him.” (§54) The notion of a “plan of salvation” that includes everyone is a central element of the faith. Once we rely on our own plan, we are subject only to our own criteria.
“In the love of God revealed in Jesus, faith perceives the foundation on which all reality and its final destiny rest.” (§15) That is, all of reality originates in God’s initial love of us. Each person is included in this plan, but after the manner in which he exists, that is freely. The final destiny is to live eternal life as adopted sons within the Godhead. This destiny is what the encyclical explains to us. It asks us to think of the actual alternatives — unending life in this world, nothingness, or some sort of shadowy existence of our souls. One of the purposes of the encyclical, I think, was to remind us of the superiority of the understanding of man and his destiny that we find in the plan of faith.
The encyclical is bathed in light and acute in listening. It deals with suffering as Christ did. It is not the worst evil. For the Christian, suffering is never without its pointing to resurrection. (§17) God does not remove suffering from the world. But Christ’s life does teach us that it has a purpose. It is not a sign of God’s absence but of His presence among us. The connection of sin and expiation for it remain essential to understanding the faith. We can only face the question of why the innocent suffer when we realize that Christ was innocent. Nothing teaches us that suffering and sin are not the same more than such a realization.
“Our culture has lost its sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world.” (§17) This loss means that we are not really conscious of what is going on among us. The rise and fall of nations is not apart from what is going on in the souls of citizens. “The beginning of salvation is openness to something prior to ourselves, to a primordial gift that affirms life and sustains it in being.” (§19) Pope Francis thus tells us that our very remaining in being is a gift. We do not begin with our own beginning. We do not explain ourselves as if we had done so. This is why we need to realize the “understanding” of faith, what it says about God, the world, and each of us.
Some time is spent on the relation of believing and understanding, reason, and revelation. (§23) Faith increases and completes our knowledge. We read in Scripture that Christ asked Peter: “But who do you say that I am?” We want the answer to this question to be both intelligible and true. It is not necessary that we understand everything. We are not gods. But it is necessary that we realize that what we do know in faith is true. In thinking about what is found in faith, we begin to think more clearly about everything else. To the plan of God, we were given witnesses. We were also told of those who did not believe. We were promised ultimately to see God “face-to-face.” The reason for what first seems like ambiguity was that we remain free. The whole of revelation is thus to be understood in these terms — not just “Do you believe in me?” but “Do you love me?”
The encyclical keeps returning to memory. It reminds us that we do not begin at the beginning. We learn of our beginnings, both of our birth and of our heritage from others. “The question of truth is really a question of memory, deep memory, for it deals with something prior to ourselves and can succeed in uniting us in a way that transcends our petty and limited individual consciousness.” (§24) I suppose few of us like to describe our consciousness of ourselves as “petty and limited.” But this is what they are if we cannot connect them with anything that would explain to us what drives us on. Where are we going? We want to know the truth here. We want to know where we fit in. The plan of God in faith tells us that we do fit in. We may never have realized this before. This realization is one of the reasons the encyclical speaks as it does, to us in our inner consciousness, and not just by some abstract idea.
What is common to John Paul II, Benedict, and Francis is the constant reminder that, in all of this talk of faith and truth, we are also talking of God’s love of us. “The discovery of love as a source of knowledge, which is part of the primordial experience of every man and woman, finds authoritative expression in the biblical understanding of faith. In savoring the love by which God chose them and made them a people, Israel came to understand the overall unity of the divine plan.” (§28) The notion that there is something in love that transcends the love of a man and a woman while revealing what it is makes this a memorable passage. Superficial and passing loves can never understand this. One suspects that one of the reasons for the love-chaos of our society is precisely the failure to understand what is said here. God chose Israel with an “everlasting love.” He remains loyal to us even when we reject Him. This too is the divine plan and is manifest above all in the life of Christ.
“Truth nowadays is often reduced to the subjective authenticity of the individual, valid only for the life of the individual. A common truth intimidates us, for we identify it with the intransigent demands of totalitarian systems. But if truth is a truth of love, if it is a truth disclosed in personal encounter with the Other and with others, then it can be set free from its enclosure in individuals and become part of the common good.” (34) How often is it necessary to distinguish objective truth from subjectivity! The notion that truth is totalitarian implies that untruth is freedom. The reason the encyclical brings up the notion of personal encounter at this point is it shows that if truth is subjective, we simply can never know anything but ourselves. We all become isolated and must protect ourselves from each other.
Yet, the encyclical recognizes the lack of specifically Christian faith. We recognize that some still know and seek what is good, though they may not know its full dimensions. “Anyone who sets off on the path of doing good to others is already drawing near to God, is already sustained by His help, for it is characteristic of the divine light to brighten our eyes whenever we walk towards the fullness of love.” (§35) This point concerns the action of the Holy Spirit in the world. There is only one good and one understanding of it. But the paths to it will vary. This background brings us to the question of the purpose of theology. If anyone can be saved by simply wishing to do good, why bother with anything else?
“Theology is more than simply an effort of human reason to analyze and understand, along the lines of the experimental sciences,” Pope Francis writes. “God cannot be reduced to an object. He is a subject who makes Himself known and perceived in an interpersonal relationship. Right faith orients reason to open itself to the light which comes from God, so that reason, guided by love of the truth, can come to a deeper knowledge of God.” (§36) The one who does good still needs an explanation of what the source and meaning of this good is. The doing good is part of the encounter with God who is good.
The plan of God is not just that we should do good, but also that we should know the truth. The truth is ultimately not an abstraction but a person, who is the Truth. We are led to the Church, to the locus of the proper worship of God. “Faith’s past, that act of Jesus’ love which brought new life to the world, comes down to us through the memory of others — witnesses — and is kept alive in that one remembering subject which is the Church.” (§38) The Church is a “remembering subject.” It all fits together.
This unity of the plan of God is what is most striking in this encyclical. We are led by faith to see again, or perhaps for the first time, what the Church that Christ founded is all about.
“We are reminded of this by the dialogical format of the creed used in the baptismal liturgy. Our belief is expressed in response to an invitation, to a word which must be heard and which is not my own,” Pope Francis writes in words that will conclude my reflections here on faith. “It exists as part of a dialogue and cannot be merely a profession originating in an individual. We can respond in the singular — ‘I believe’ — only because we are part of the greater fellowship, only because we also say ‘We believe.’” (§39)
The encyclical, Lumen Fidei, I think, is a quiet new force in the world for those who seek the good, for those who doubt intellectual isolation is what life is about, for those who know that they are not the cause of themselves, for those who sin and those who suffer. Again, Christianity is not first about our seeking God, but about God seeking us. If we wish to understand how this is so, we can do no better than to read this third encyclical on faith, together with the earlier ones on love and hope. ¦
James V. Schall, SJ taught political philosophy at Georgetown University until recently retiring. He is the author of num- erous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. For more about his writings and work, visit “Another Sort of Learning”: morec.com/schall/edu/index.html.
This reflection on Lumen Fidei, originally published in the online journal Catholic World Report (catholicworldreport.com), appears here with permission.
The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.