Faith Lights life
The New Atheists don’t know what they’re missing.

Pope Francis


George Weigel

And in doing so, Jesus draws us beyond our myopia and cures our astigmatism: “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.” Moreover, this new capacity to see draws us into the community of the Church, for “faith is not a private matter, a completely individualistic notion or a personal opinion. . . . Faith . . . enables us to become part of the Church’s great pilgrimage through history until the end of the world.”

Biblical faith, then, is a remedy for “the massive amnesia of our contemporary world.” For, as Lumen Fidei insists, “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. It is a question about the origin of all that is, in whose light we can glimpse the goal and thus the meaning of our common path.”

That truth, however, is not truth-on-ice. “Without love,” Lumen Fidei teaches, “truth becomes cold, impersonal, and oppressive for people’s everyday lives.” Thus “love and truth are inseparable . . . [for] the truth we seek, the truth that gives meaning to our journey through life, enlightens us whenever we are touched by love.” Love itself is a “source of knowledge,” a way of seeing the human condition against a more ample horizon, for “one who loves realizes that love is an experience of truth, that it opens our eyes to see reality in a new way, in union with the beloved.” Truth and love meet in the person of Christ, who declares himself the way, the truth, and the life; who witnesses to the truth of that claim by laying down his life for his brethren; and who is then vindicated in that salvific act of love by the Resurrection.

And against the indictment that convictions about possessing the truth inevitably lead to arrogance and intransigence, Lumen Fidei reminds both believers and unbelievers that “truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all.”

As for what all of this has to do with the grave public issues of the moment, Lumen Fidei has a simple answer: Just about everything.

Modernity, the encyclical teaches, “sought to build a universal brotherhood based on equality, yet we gradually came to realize that this brotherhood, lacking a reference to a common Father as its ultimate foundation, cannot endure.” That realization took some time, and some hard experience, as early political modernity tried to force fraternité and égalité into history. The hard experience in question involved experiments with various forms of totalitarianism, from the French prototype rolled out in 1789, through the mid-20th-century models that brought the world Auschwitz, the Gulag, the Great Leap Forward, and the Holodomor in Ukraine, and on to the gentler, but no less democratically destructive, “dictatorship of relativism” (in Ratzinger’s signature phrase) that besets the West today. Ultramundane man, it seems, is terminally lethal man. Or, as Henri de Lubac pointed out in the mid-1940s, “atheistic humanism” proved that, while men could indeed organize the world without God, they could only organize it against one another.       

Biblical faith is also essential for underwriting modernity’s commitment to the unique and inviolable (or, as the Founders preferred, “unalienable”) dignity of every individual human being, regardless of race, sex, or condition of life — the moral claim that is at the basis of the modern political architecture of human rights. Classical antiquity did not see this clearly; the dignity of every human person is a truth that Jerusalem taught Athens. Thus it is precisely in those venues where Athens has broken its tether to Jerusalem, such that a cold rationality of utility is the dominant social norm, that the dignity of the person is gravely at risk throughout the western world.

And there is still more, at the intersection of faith, truth, and public life:

Faith . . . .by revealing the love of God the Creator, enables us to respect nature all the more, and to discern in it a grammar written by the hand of God and a dwelling place entrusted to our protection and care. Faith also helps us to devise models of development which . . . consider creation as a gift for which we are all indebted; it teaches us to create just forms of government, in the realization that authority comes from God and is meant for the service of the common good. Faith likewise affords the possibility of forgiveness . . . [which] is possible once we discover that goodness is always prior to and more powerful than evil, and that the word with which God affirms our life is deeper than our every denial. . . . Faith illumines life and society. If it possesses a creative light for each new moment in history, it is because it sets every event in relationship to the origin and destiny of all things in the Father.

Before and after its publication, it was said (even by Vatican officials) that Lumen Fidei would not be a “programmatic” first encyclical, in the sense that it would not lay out an agenda for Pope Francis’s pontificate. Yet that seems not quite right.

By focusing sharply on the question of a humanism adequate to the challenges of the late 20th century, John Paul II’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, announced the evangelical program that he would unfold over the next quarter-century, bending the course of history in unexpected directions: the proclamation of Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life. By underscoring at the very beginning of Lumen Fidei that his reflections on faith, drawn largely from the draft left him by Benedict XVI, were “in continuity with all that the Church’s magisterium has pronounced on this theological virtue,” Pope Francis has quietly but unmistakably announced that, modest alterations in the “accidents” of papal clothing and residence notwithstanding, the “substance” of the Petrine Office in the Church remains unchanged. For, as he writes, “the Successor of Peter, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, is always called to strengthen his brothers and sisters in the priceless treasure of the faith which God has given us as a light for humanity’s path.” That strengthening comes for a constant proclamation of the truth of Christian faith, which is a constant invitation to friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ and incorporation, through that friendship, into his Church — a communion of disciples in mission.

A pontificate of evangelical reform is underway. Its path will be illuminated, not by Catholic Lite, but by the full symphony of truth that the light of faith reveals.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His most recent book is Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (Basic Books).