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Now on the homepage: Thoughts on 'Lumen fidei'

Head over to the homepage for new pieces from Robin Darling Young and Dennis O'Brien on the encyclical Lumen fidei.

From Robin's "Final Chapter, First Words":

Augustine, head and shoulders above other Latin Christian authors of the early centuries, was no pope – but his mind did shape the discussion of Christian theology in the West until scholastic theology displaced him (and made him attractive to the Reformers). So the new encyclical’s ritual swipes at Nietzsche as a symbol of antireligious rationalism should not distract from the core of Benedict’s project of Catholic renewal to rebuild Christian tradition in the face of secularism – a project particularly poignant in his native Europe, where churches are empty though mosques are filling.

For Benedict, the theological virtues, prompted and assisted by grace, are the key to such a renewal, within a community shaped by ordered worship. Lumen fidei’s four chapters remind its readers that faith has a history, beginning with Abraham; that believing is necessary for understanding, and creates the possibility for scientific reasoning; that faith is also a tradition, passed on through the sacraments and prayer; and that there will be a future city prepared for the faithful, and exemplified in the biblical accounts of Mary.

But if Lumen fidei is Benedict’s last chapter, its last word seems to be Francis’s: “Nor does the light of faith make us forget the sufferings of this world. How many men and women of faith have found mediators of light in those who suffer! So it was with Saint Francis of Assisi and the leper, or with Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her poor.”

From Dennis's "Hard Thinking"

A text that in two paragraphs moves from Wittgenstein to William of St. Thierry is not for the faint of heart and idle of mind. The account of the faith that emerges is complex and paradoxical. Faith is a light by which we see (lumen fidei), faith is a form of hearing (fides ex auditu), faith is touch, “what we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands.” Faith exists only because love opens to truth beyond simple perception. Faith is sacramental. Faith is not individual and subjective; it is necessarily objective and communal; it must be “ecclesial.” Finally, in an unusual and oft repeated phrase, “faith is a process of gazing.” (Assuming that the original was written in German, the word translated “gaze” is Sichtweise, a manner of seeing. Faith is seeing in the manner that Christ sees.)

One could read the encyclical as a pious compendium of exalted phrases about faith: faith is love, life, destiny, hope, and so on. Given its provenance from a learned and dedicated pope, it might reassure the reader that one can cite Nietzsche, Rousseau, and Celsus and still believe — even though one doesn’t understand what it means or how it all fits together. Lumen fidei is not such a pious exercise; it is a profound statement, but one whose foundations are only hinted at in the textual superstructure. It is a document that needs to be read communally, paragraph by paragraph, followed by extended discussion on meaning and implication.

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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someone at "Commonweal" seems averse to encyclicals.

In Dennis O'Brien's piece, Pius X's encyclical is "Pascendi," not "Paschendi."

And, in the same piece, Benedict's is "Spe salvi," not "Spes alvi" -- which interestingly is "the hope of the belly" perhaps attracted into its orbit by "pascendi."

P.S. I'm grateful to Robin Darling Young for her acknowledgement regarding still another encyclical.

Typos aside, Spes alvi pascendi might be a pretty good encyclical, if someone would write it. I see it beginning with a meditation on the Feeding of the Five Thousand and Christ's understanding that it is hard to concentrate on anything else when plain physical hunger is calling insistently. Then apply the lesson to the modern world, where millions of people even in wealthy countries go hungry every day, although the resources are or could be available to feed them. It is a secular disaster as well as a spiritual one.

The hideous irony of the world food situation is that there is enough food for everyone.  The problems are that the poor can't afford to pay for it and in war-torn countries the wars prevent the donated food from getting to the starving.  We have a lot to answer for.

John Prior,

you've turned a sow's ear into a silk purse -- ben fatto!


Poor old Nietzsche. He’s a favorite whipping boy of “culture warriors.” I don’t idolize him, but if I was exiled to a desert island and had to choose between a box of papal encyclicals and a box of Nietzsche’s works, I’d go with Nietzsche.


Benedict and Francis take a swipe at Nietzsche’s contrasting a believer’s “peace of soul and happiness” with a seeker’s pursuit of truth. Comfortable assurance vs. the daring search for truth. (Raymond Nogar,  O.P., similarly contrasted “picture” people and “drama” people in his little book, The Lord of the Absurd). 


However, Benedict and Francis themselves acknowledge the daring nature of faith. Faith guides believers along a “pilgrim way.” It “journeys...into the horizons opened up by God’s word.” It is “participation in [Jesus’] way of seeing.” “[Christ’s] way of knowing the Father and living in complete and constant relationship with him, opens up new and inviting vistas for human experience.” 


“Religious man is a wayfarer...ready to find the God of perpetual surprises.” “Believers are invited to enter into the mystery which they profess and to be transformed by it.” 


“[Faith] teaches us to create just forms of meant for service of the common good...offers the possibility of forgiveness.” 


“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...[it is] an accompanying presence.”


“Faith is no refuge for the fainthearted.” It is a summons to participation and transformation in the divine life.

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