On the one hand, that’s a problem. Part of preaching the good news entails reminding people explicitly of the bad news. You can’t fully talk about salvation without talking about why we need it. And no one is ever saved in an abstract sense; we’re always saved from something. Yes, Jesus called some “blessed,” but he said “woe” unto others. To acknowledge this is not to wish that the encyclical had had more hellfire and damnation in it. It is to say, however, that more explicit mention of sin would have enhanced the pope’s message, not diminished it.
On the other hand, an unexpected word does appear in Lumen Fidei: idolatry. As is characteristic of his evangelical boldness, Francis notes that in the story of the golden calf, “the opposite of faith is shown to be idolatry.” Faith demands a kind of patience. It requires us to abide the hiddenness of the God we long to see. The pope notes Martin Buber’s definition of idolatry, which he in turn took from the rabbi of Kock: “Idolatry is ‘when a face addresses a face which is not a face.’” Idolatry takes place when we refuse to abandon ourselves to God, when we look at a faceless thing that we can grasp instead of the face of God which sometimes remains invisible. The pope writes,
[Idols exist] as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands. Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants. Idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another. Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth.
Sin and idolatry fragment us. They keep us from living whole, integrated lives. When our hearts do not have the one who is the Good itself at their center, we run hither and thither pursuing lesser goods. Freed from obedience to a higher law, we become slaves of our own whims and desires. We buy more stuff. We trade sexual partners like cards and then drink to cover the pain. We harbor jealousies against our co-workers. We kill the inconvenient. We forget the poor.
Faith, on the other hand, grounds us. It gives us the lenses through which we see the world rightly and thereby begins to put our desires back in order. Faith frees us from the tyranny of self-mastery. Francis continues: “Herein lies the paradox: by constantly turning towards the Lord, we discover a sure path which liberates us from the dissolution imposed upon us by idols.”
Dissolution, after all, does not mean only immorality, but being broken apart, in this case by desires that leave a bitter taste in our mouths when we satisfy them. By contrast, God is able “to gather into one the scattered strands of our lives.”
The law of God is a roadmap to wholeness, the thread that lets us escape the labyrinth of our conflicting desires and live lives of mercy and love. But the law of God is not a do-it-yourself manual. In a passage that could be helpful for ecumenical dialogue, the pope makes clear that people who consider themselves justified on the basis of their own works are in fact self-centered. They forget that goodness comes from God: “Those who live this way, who want to be the source of their own righteousness, find that the latter is soon depleted and that they are unable even to keep the law. They become closed in on themselves and isolated from the Lord and from others; their lives become futile and their works barren, like a tree far from water.”
By contrast, Francis asserts, “The beginning of salvation is openness to something prior to ourselves, to a primordial gift that affirms life and sustains it in being. Only by being open to and acknowledging this gift can we be transformed, experience salvation and bear good fruit.” This accent on the priority and necessity of Christ’s love serves as a welcome vaccine against the soft Pelagianism present in many circles of Catholicism. It reminds us that we cannot be good or do good without the gift of God’s love.
What about those who do not have explicit faith in Christ? Earlier this year, reporters jumped on some remarks Pope Francis made in a homily and suggested that the pontiff had declared that atheists could go to heaven if they do good. Lumen Fidei explains what Francis meant. First, we should note that the blanket termatheists is imprecise. Francis is thinking not of those who want to disbelieve, but those who find themselves unable to believe. The difference is not so much in the intellect as in the will, not so much a matter of strict reason as a disposition of heart. These men and women who do not have faith in Christ “desire to believe and continue to seek.” And so, Francis writes:
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. . . . Saint Irenaeus of Lyons tells how Abraham, before hearing God’s voice, had already sought him “in the ardent desire of his heart” and “went throughout the whole world, asking himself where God was to be found,” until “God had pity on him who, all alone, had sought him in silence.” 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.
These men and women are not along a generic road to an unspecified God; though they are not fully aware of it, they are on the way to Jesus Christ. Perhaps in this life they will discover that; perhaps they will wait until the next. That decision lies hidden in the mystery of God’s providence. In the mean time, to the extent that they are able to do genuine good, they do it by the grace of God. And by that grace, God draws them ever closer to himself.
Is this picture of human beings too optimistic? What about the depth of sin? It is no coincidence that Francis cites Irenaeus and not Augustine here. And yet Francis’ understanding is founded on one of the axioms of Catholic theology, that grace perfects nature. It presupposes that whatever embers of goodness and truth might exist in a person are further enkindled by approaching God, not snuffed out: “This respect on God’s part for our human eyes shows us that when we draw near to God, our human lights are not dissolved in the immensity of his light, as a star is engulfed by the dawn, but shine all the more brightly the closer they approach the primordial fire, like a mirror which reflects light. . . . There is no human experience, no journey of man to God, which cannot be taken up, illumined and purified by this light.” That light is the light of Christ, who enlightens every man that cometh into the world, who promises that he will not quench a burning wick and that those who seek, shall find.
At the same time, in Lumen Fidei as in other writings, Francis is clear about just how easy it is to become ensnared in the idolatry of the world. We need grace, the sacraments, and the preaching of the gospel. Those who do not profess Christ are not simply doing well on their own. Some of them may be on the way, but the dangers of sin are great. Hence the need for faith in Christ, for assent to the truth that sets us free. Hence the need for preaching that truth amidst the clamor of idols. Thus it may be that those who seek the Lord in truth—who could never seek him but for his own prior search for them—may find him and, by grace through faith, be set free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of their lives.
Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in theology at Boston College.
Group member Harrison’s young cousin today provides us with an interesting analysis of a new Vatican encyclical~Lumen Fidei~and~in doing that~raises for the group an interesting ethical question~as to sin~
POPE FRANCIS RELEASES FIRST ENCYCLICAL: LUMEN FIDEI, ‘LIGHT OF FAITH’
Pope Francis’ first encyclical, released on Friday, is actually, as he himself described it, the work of “four hands.” A joint effort by himself and his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the papal letter, entitled Lumen Fidei which, in Latin, means “The Light of Faith,” completes the trilogy of papal teachings on the three theological virtues that was begun by Benedict. The Pope Emeritus had issued his encyclicals, Deus Caritas Est, on Charity, in 2005, and Spe Salvi, on Hope, in 2007.
Philippa Hitchen, at Vatican Radio, reports that Benedict passed on his draft of the letter on Faith to Pope Francis.
Hitchen describes the encyclical:
The document certainly continues many of Benedict’s favourite themes, from the complementarity of faith and reason, to the joy of a personal encounter with Christ. Firmly situated in the Year of Faith, it’s also set in the context of the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, which re-established the central role of Faith at the heart of all human relationships.
Divided into four chapters and a short introduction, the encyclical sets out to show how Faith in the Risen Christ can lead us beyond the narrow confines of individual existence into the all-inclusive community of God’s love. Rather than the notion of ‘blind faith’, which impedes scientific progress and must be kept to the private sphere of personal convictions, we’re called to rediscover the light that can guide all people from the darkness of selfish desires towards a more just and fraternal world, grounded in the faithful promises of God the Creator.
Below are quotes from the encyclical itself.
In Paragraph 4, Pope Francis teaches that the “light of faith” is so powerful that it cannot come from humans, but from God:
The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a more primordial source: in a word, it must come from God. Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love, a love which precedes us and upon which we can lean for security and for building our lives. Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, new eyes to see; we realize that it contains a great promise of fulfilment, and that a vision of the future opens up before us.
In Paragraph 16, the Pope describes the greatest sign of love:
If laying down one’s life for one’s friends is the greatest proof of love (cf. Jn 15:13), Jesus offered his own life for all, even for his enemies, to transform their hearts. This explains why the evangelists could see the hour of Christ’s crucifixion as the culmination of the gaze of faith; in that hour the depth and breadth of God’s love shone forth.
In Paragraph 18, Pope Francis explains that Christians come to know and trust God through the person of Jesus, His Son:
In many areas in our lives we trust others who know more than we do. We trust the architect who builds our home, the pharmacist who gives us medicine for healing, the lawyer who defends us in court. We also need someone trustworthy and knowledgeable where God is concerned. Jesus, the Son of God, is the one who makes God known to us (cf. Jn 1:18). Christ’s life, his way of knowing the Father and living in complete and constant relationship with him, opens up new and inviting vistas for human experience.
In Paragraph 25, the Pope asserts that contemporary culture is suspicious of the real Truth, which comes from God, because it is not the result of “technology,” and not so subjective that it only pertains to one individual:
In contemporary culture, we often tend to consider the only real truth to be that of technology: truth is what we succeed in building and measuring by our scientific know-how, truth is what works and what makes life easier and more comfortable. Nowadays this appears as the only truth that is certain, the only truth that can be shared, the only truth that can serve as a basis for discussion or for common undertakings. Yet at the other end of the scale we are willing to allow for subjective truths of the individual, which consist in fidelity to his or her deepest convictions, yet these are truths valid only for that individual and not capable of being proposed to others in an effort to serve the common good. But Truth itself, the truth which would comprehensively explain our life as individuals and in society, is regarded with suspicion.
In Paragraph 26, Francis teaches that the recognition of God’s love transforms and leads to faith, which, by its light, changes our perception of reality:
Faith transforms the whole person precisely to the extent that he or she becomes open to love. Through this blending of faith and love we come to see the kind of knowledge which faith entails, its power to convince and its ability to illumine our steps. Faith knows because it is tied to love, because love itself brings enlightenment. Faith’s understanding is born when we receive the immense love of God which transforms us inwardly and enables us to see reality with new eyes.
In Paragraph 46, Pope Francis teaches how the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, can guide our lives:
The Decalogue is not a set of negative commands, but concrete directions for emerging from the desert of the selfish and self-enclosed ego in order to enter into dialogue with God, to be embraced by his mercy and then to bring that mercy to others. Faith thus professes the love of God, origin and upholder of all things, and lets itself be guided by this love in order to journey towards the fullness of communion with God. The Decalogue appears as the path of gratitude, the response of love, made possible because in faith we are receptive to the experience of God’s transforming love for us.
In Paragraph 52, Pope Francis teaches that the first experience of faith is in the human family in which one man and one woman bring forth new life, a sign of God’s love on earth:
The first setting in which faith enlightens the human city is the family. I think first and foremost of the stable union of man and woman in marriage. This union is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgment and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation, whereby spouses can become one flesh (cf. Gen 2:24) and are enabled to give birth to a new life, a manifestation of the Creator’s goodness, wisdom and loving plan.
In Paragraph 57, the Pope likens Faith to a lamp that guides our way, even through our pain and suffering:
Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light. In Christ, God himself wishes to share this path with us and to offer us his gaze so that we might see the light within it. Christ is the one who, having endured suffering, is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2).
John L. Allen, Jr., writing at National Catholic Reporter, describes the tone of Francis’ first letter:
The text is marked by striking outreach towards people open to God who have not yet arrived at the fullness of Christian belief.
“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,” it says.
It suggests that a genuine concern for others, even among non-believers, represents the stirring of faith.
“Anyone who sets off on the path of doing good to others is already drawing near to God,” it says.
While insisting that Christian faith reflects objective truth, the encyclical also says that Christians must not be arrogant about it.
“One who believes may not be presumptuous,” it says. “On the contrary, truth leads to humility.”
The 90-page encyclical was presented at a Vatican news conference by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops. Observing the joint effort of the papal letter by two pontiffs, Ouellet said that it “illustrates in an extraordinary way the most fundamental and original theme it develops, the dimension of communion in the faith.”
Rejoice and Glad!!
~~THEOS EK MĒCHANĒS~~
JOHN DANIEL BEGG
Washington, District of Columbia
Monday, 29 Juillet, Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi, 2013~
John Daniel Begg
JOHN DANIEL BEGG
john daniel begg public affairs and speechwriting
~~A joint venture~~
Pope Francis greets Benedict XVI at the Vatican in May (CNS)
Pope Francis’ first encyclical, “Lumen Fidei” (“The Light of Faith”), is a celebration of Christian faith as the guiding light of a “successful and fruitful life”, inspiring social action as well as devotion to God, and illuminating “every aspect of human existence”, including philosophy and the natural sciences.
The document, released today, completes a papal trilogy on the three theological virtues, following Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclicals Deus Caritas Est (2005) on charity and Spe Salvi (2007) on hope. Publication of the encyclical was one of the most highly anticipated events of the Year of Faith which began in October 2012.
Pope Benedict “had almost completed a first draft of an encyclical on faith” before his retirement in February 2013, Pope Francis writes, adding that “I have taken up his fine work and added a few contributions of my own.”