Following Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election as pope in March, it was inevitable that comparisons would continually be made between him and his still-living predecessor. There’s been particular focus, for instance, upon the two popes’ different liturgical styles. Some close to both men, such as Australia’s Cardinal George Pell, have suggested that while Pope Benedict XVI provided superb guidance to bishops, priests, and intellectuals, Pope Francis is like a parish priest who’s especially gifted at communicating with, to use the cardinal’s phrase, “ordinary people.”
But if there’s anything demonstrated by Pope Francis’ first encyclical letter Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”), it’s a profound continuity between the two men: i.e., their love for and belief in the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic faith. Right at this encyclical’s beginning, Pope Francis states the text’s first draft was prepared by his predecessor and “as his brother in Christ I have taken up his fine work and added a few contributions of my own” (LF 7).
The point being made here isn’t just that Joseph Ratzinger is probably the greatest theologian to sit on Peter’s Chair and may one day be declared a Doctor of the Church. A more subliminal message is that Catholicism’s content doesn’t change when one pope succeeds another. As many people don’t (and sometimes don’t want to) understand, Catholicism isn’t just another political movement that distorts or abandons its core beliefs under the guidance of consultants to gain votes from fickle voters.
No doubt some will claim (especially after they read Lumen Fidei) that, because Ratzinger penned the first draft, this encyclical “isn’t really Francis’ text.” But, actually, it is. Pope Francis was under no obligation to use Pope Benedict’s initial draft. Yet he did. Moreover, encyclicals are rarely composed in their entirety by a pope. Others, for a variety of reasons (such as expertise in the subject matter), are normally asked to contribute to the drafting process. Naturally there’s always speculation about particular persons’ influence upon individual documents. In the end, however, final authorial responsibility for these texts belongs to the pope who signs them. They are truly his documents, for without his signature denoting his assent to every word of their content, they lack magisterial authority and are destined to be mere archival curiosities.
One of the many things I admire about Pope Francis is his genuine humility. And it’s a truly self-effacing pope who freely acknowledges his predecessor’s profound contribution to the first encyclical of a new pontificate. But Pope Francis is also something else. Yes, he’s an orthodox Catholic and, as this encyclical illustrates, he believes that the Catholic faith to which he has freely given full assent of intellect and will — without quibble, dissent, or mental reservation — is a force for authentic liberation precisely because he believes it contains the fullness of the truth about God and man.
In the Gospels, the idea of faith is often associated with the imagery of light. Lumen Fidei begins by noting that the pagan world, which witnessed “the growth of the cult of the sun god, Sol Invictus” (LF 1), had yearned for light but — because of the pagan mind’s profound limitations — couldn’t realize true illumination. It took, Pope Francis says, the light of Christian faith to reveal the fullness of reality to humanity.
Herein we find, Pope Francis teaches, Christian faith’s great significance today: its capacity to open up a modernity that, despite its genuine achievements, has profoundly cramped conceptions of reason, equality, freedom, and love and which usually ends up emptying all these things of substantive content. Without faith — and not just any faith, but Christian faith as the “theological virtue” as affirmed, Pope Francis carefully footnotes, by both the First and Second Vatican Councils (LF 7) — self-described moderns are, like the Greek and Roman pagans, stuck in an intellectual prison largely of their own making.
Lumen Fidei makes very clear Pope Francis’ deep awareness that religious faith is often understood by many moderns as “darkness” (LF 3). That’s partly because of mischief-making by particular Enlightenment thinkers that’s been uncritically assimilated by most contemporary liberals. But it’s also because many people today associate faith with murderers who fly planes into buildings.
Certainly there are such things as what Pope Benedict XVI once described as “pathologies of faith.” But Lumen Fidei goes to considerable lengths to unpack Christian faith’s true meaning so as to distinguish it from its counterfeits. Pope Francis juxtaposes Christian faith, for instance, with our penchant for putting our trust in contemporary idols. He describes this “as a pretext for setting ourselves at the center of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands.” Conversion to Christian faith, Pope Francis adds, frees man from being nothing more than “the multiplicity of his desires” (LF 13). How? By showing us the Truth that saves us from ourselves.
But how — many Christians and others rightly ask — how can we know that this faith is true? Pope Francis himself poses the question by quoting a line from Rousseau’s famous Lettre à Christophe de Beaumont (Beaumont being the Catholic archbishop of Paris): “Is it really so simple and natural that God would have sought out Moses in order to speak to Jean-Jacques Rousseau?” (LF 14)
Apart from underscoring the egoism underlying Rousseau’s question (no, Jean-Jacques, it’s not all about you), Pope Francis argues that not only is faith God’s free gift to us, but like any other gift, He chose to give it to us in a way that reveals something about His nature. Thus, the “utter reliability of God’s love” is found in the fact of “Christ’s total Self-gift” in His sacrificial death and the restoration of “His body to life.” That’s a not-so-subtle reminder of something Pope Francis believes we’ve lost sight of: “God’s tangible presence and activity in our world” (LF 17). In short, the fact of the physical resurrection matters. Without it, as Saint Paul bluntly stated, Christian faith is absurd.
But there is also what Pope Francis calls the “ecclesial” dimension of the truth of Christian faith. In other words, the Church also matters. The Church is, Pope Francis writes, quoting the theologian Romano Guardini, “the bearer within history of the plenary gaze of Christ on the world.” Indeed, without this dimension, Christian faith dissolves into “a private matter, a completely individualistic notion, or a personal opinion” (LF 22).
There are of course many important implications to Pope Francis’ attention to the Church’s role in demonstrating the Christian faith’s trustworthiness. It means, for example, that theology “cannot consider the magisterium of the pope and the bishops in communion with him as something extrinsic, a limitation of its freedom” (LF 36). It’s no secret that some theologians, now mostly in their twilight-years, have done their level-best to try and marginalize the Church’s teaching authority as just one “voice” (to use their terminology) among many.
Once again, however, such opinions are politely repudiated by yet another pope. For Pope Francis stresses that belief in Christ is radically dependent upon our willingness to trust the witnesses that have gone before us. Christian faith isn’t therefore a “feeling-faith.” It’s “not simply an individual decision” (LF 39). Instead it is, Pope Francis writes, “born of an encounter which takes place in history” and which we know about “through the memory of others — witnesses — and is kept alive in that one remembering subject which is the Church” (LF 38). That’s how we know, for example, that the canon of Scripture that we use today is true and reliable while countless other written testimonies to Christ’s life are false and undependable. Pope Francis then emphasizes that the reliability of the Church’s teaching authority is itself based on its trust in and obedience to the whole truth about the Christian faith imparted to witnesses chosen by Christ Himself (LF 49). Among other things, this highlights the senselessness of Christians picking and choosing what dogmas, doctrines, and teachings on faith and morals they accept and which they don’t. To do so is to destroy the inner unity of Christian faith (LF 48).
Looking beyond questions surrounding Christian faith’s internal coherence and reliability, the last of Lumen Fidei’s four chapters considers how Christian faith can transform the earthly City. For if Christian faith is trustworthy and true, then so too is the way — the choices and actions — of Christian love. In practical terms, Pope Francis tells us, this indicates that justice, the common good, and human relationships can’t be constructed “on the basis of utility, on a calculus of conflicting interests or on fear” (LF 51).
Significantly, however, Pope Francis adds that Christian faith has powerful implications for the first natural institution: the family. Here the pope says he has in mind “first and foremost” “the stable union of man and woman in marriage.” He then stresses the “goodness of sexual differentiation, whereby spouses can become one flesh and are enabled to give birth to a new life,” as well as how “the begetting of children” is “a sign of the love of the Creator” and “mirrors many features of faith” (LF 52). It’s hard to avoid concluding that Pope Francis is sending some very direct messages to a Western world that, beneath its veneer of sophistication, has lost sight of marriage’s true nature and ends.
Nor does Pope Francis hesitate to underscore what happens to the earthly City when true Christian faith disappears from our horizons. “Modernity,” he states, “sought to build a universal brotherhood based on equality, yet we gradually come to realize that this brotherhood, lacking a reference to a common father, cannot endure” (LF 54). That’s very reminiscent of themes explored in a book entitled Christian Brotherhood written in 1960 by one Father Joseph Ratzinger. Here the young German theologian argued that various movements such as Marxism represented secularizations of the Christian conception of humanity as consisting of people who enjoy equal dignity as children of the same God. Lacking, however, the grounding of Divine Love, Ratzinger concluded, such secularized visions could only produce nightmares such as the criminal Communist regimes that once dominated Eastern Europe.
And that forms an important backdrop to Lumen Fidei’s concluding meditation on the perennial problem for faith: human suffering. Of course, God doesn’t will human suffering. He merely permits it. That’s partly because it’s a side-effect of God giving us free will, and partly in order to draw out good from evil. Pope Francis seems to have this latter point in mind when he states that while suffering can’t be eliminated, “it can serve as a moment of growth in faith and love” (LF 56). Saint Francis of Assisi and Blessed Mother Theresa, he observes, “found mediators of light in those who suffer” (LF 57). That’s a helpful caution against excessively intellectualizing Christ’s ways of communicating his truth to us. But it’s also the voice of one who’s spent thousands of hours among the poor of Buenos Aires.
Sadly enough, there are many today who suffer precisely because they profess the Christian faith. In many countries, but above all the Middle East, Christians (mostly Catholics and Eastern Orthodox) are being persecuted, exiled, and even killed for their faith. By some estimates, 100,000 people died in 2012 because of their Christianity. That amounted to 8,500 a month, almost 1,900 a week, or 273 Christians every single day.
The Greek word used in the Gospels for “witness” is martus. And the Greek word for “testimony” is martyrian. This isn’t a coincidence. Like life itself, witnessing to the Christian faith, Pope Francis teaches, isn’t a cost-free endeavor. But as the world’s parish priest reminds us, this should tell us something else: that Christian faith is indeed “the priceless treasure” (LF 7) that, combined with hope and love, “propels us towards a sure future” (LF 57).
And the joy of such a faith, I’d argue, is worth all the risk in the world.
This article first appeared on National Review Online.