Monday, 8 July 2013

Lumen Fidei and the defence of tradition

I want to offer some comments that on Lumen Fidei, the new Encyclical promulgated by Pope Francis, but, as he has acknowledged, largely the product of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

Re-evangelising the Church

Lumen Fidei, at only sixty numbered paragraphs, is a reasonably short Encyclical by recent standards, but it is I think a theologically rich treatment of some issues that are central to the potential success of the 'New Evangelisation'.

A number of other commentators have provided summaries of each section of the document, or focused on particular aspects of it.  Accordingly, what I hope to do is provide a more thematic treatment of some of the ideas that run across the whole document.

In particular, I think the document provides an interesting rejection of the (clearly failed) attempt to reconcile the Church to modernity (think of common interpretations of Gaudium et Spes) and to counter features of post-modernity, including the loss of a sense of a personal God.  A particularly important theme running through the whole document, it seems to me, is the attempt to provide a coherent explanation of the link between the encounter with Christ, and the necessity of the Church and tradition.

First though, a few overall comments on the document.

Four hands?

A number of commentators have suggested we should resist the temptation to subject this document to a form-criticism style analysis of who wrote what, and simply accept it as an authoritative document.  I certainly agree with the argument about starting from its authoritative status, but I have to say that this document that positively invites commentary on who wrote what, and what state the draft was in when Pope Benedict abandoned it.  After all, the document itself says that:

"He [Benedict] 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 has given as a light for humanity’s path." (7)

Hard to avoid speculation then, as to what those few contributions are!

The style up to around paragraphs 49, for example, seems to me fairly typical of Pope Benedict, and is littered with citations and stories of some of Pope Benedict's favourites, most especially St Augustine.

On the other hand, while paragraphs 50 and 51 onwards do echo a very Augustinian focus on the city of God, I could be wrong, they seem to me to point a lot more to certain aspects of Pope Francis' agenda. And I can't really see Pope Benedict coming up with this line: "The God who is himself reliable gives us a city which is reliable."

Getting on the record

I'd also note that while it may be in part the power of suggestion, the document reads to me in some ways like a partially completed draft.  There are several paragraphs that one could imagine being more tightly linked into the argumentation if the document had been longer, but as it is, look awfully like pet points one or other of the two Popes wanted to get written into high level magisterial teaching.  Mind you, they are indeed important points, so I'm not complaining that they made it in!

Vatican II: Pastoral not doctrinal?

One of these is a section on the status of Vatican II as a Council, viz was it a doctrinal Council, or a purely pastoral one.  The answer seems to be the second, described as a 'Council of faith':

"The Year of Faith was inaugurated on the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. This is itself a clear indication that Vatican II was a Council on faith, inasmuch as it asked us to restore the primacy of God in Christ to the centre of our lives, both as a Church and as individuals. The Church never takes faith for granted, but knows that this gift of God needs to be nourished and reinforced so that it can continue to guide her pilgrim way. The Second Vatican Council enabled the light of faith to illumine our human experience from within, accompanying the men and women of our time on their journey. It clearly showed how faith enriches life in all its dimensions." (6)

And in that context, the hermeneutic of continuity gets a guernsey too:

"These considerations on faith — in continuity with all that the Church’s magisterium has pronounced on this theological virtue — are meant to supplement what Benedict XVI had written in his encyclical letters on charity and hope..."

The role of theologians

Another such issue is such as on the role of theologians and their relationship to the Magisterium (pretty much straight out of things Pope Benedict has said before and that recent paper by the International Theological Commission):

"Theology also shares in the ecclesial form of faith; its light is the light of the believing subject which is the Church. This implies, on the one hand, that theology must be at the service of the faith of Christians, that it must work humbly to protect and deepen the faith of everyone, especially ordinary believers. On the other hand, because it draws its life from faith, theology cannot consider the magisterium of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him as something extrinsic, a limitation of its freedom, but rather as one of its internal, constitutive dimensions, for the magisterium ensures our contact with the primordial source and thus provides the certainty of attaining to the word of Christ in all its integrity." (36)

Can non-Christians be saved?

Another such issue, albeit arguably more integral to the overall line of argument, and important to countering both liberal and SSPX claims, is the question of the role of inter-religious dialogue, viz can non-Christians be saved?  The Encyclical gives a nicely nuanced take on the debate, that distinguishes between well-intentioned seekers, and actual faith.  In short, the Encyclical argues, I think, for the imperative of mission:

"...Christian faith in Jesus, the one Saviour of the world, proclaims that all God’s light is concentrated in him, in his "luminous life" which discloses the origin and the end of history. There is no human experience, no journey of man to God, which cannot be taken up, illumined and purified by this light. The more Christians immerse themselves in the circle of Christ’s lightthe more capable they become of understanding and accompanying the path of every man and woman towards God.

Because faith is a way, it also has to do with the lives of those men and women who, though not believers, nonetheless desire to believe and continue to seek
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. They strive to act as if God existed, at times because they realize how important he is for finding a sure compass for our life in common or because they experience a desire for light amid darkness, but also because in perceiving life’s grandeur and beauty they intuit that the presence of God would make it all the more beautiful...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." (38)

Further development?

There are a few other such points as well (on faith and works, contra those Pelagians?!, economics and development theory, and so forth).

There are also some sections and ideas -  such as the reference to the profession of faith, Decalogue and Prayer (which is mentioned almost in passing after the nice analysis of the relationship of the sacraments to faith in the document) and the idea of the link between motherhood and the transmission of the faith - which look like they might originally have been intended to get a fuller treatment.

Nonetheless, there is, I think, an overall unity to the document that comes, I would suggest, from the lines of argument that are consistently developed through it, and I think we do need to treat it as a whole.

Against modernity and post-modernity

The Encyclical is quite direct in setting out, as one of its key purposes, countering the secularism born of modernity (indeed it even uses the word in paragraph 54) and post-modernity.

It opens by rejecting the attempts to find an accommodation between modernity and faith:

"There were those who tried to save faith by making room for it alongside the light of reason. Such room would open up wherever the light of reason could not penetrate, wherever certainty was no longer possible. Faith was thus understood either as a leap in the dark, to be taken in the absence of light, driven by blind emotion, or as a subjective light, capable perhaps of warming the heart and bringing personal consolation, but not something which could be proposed to others as an objective and shared light which points the way...As a result, humanity renounced the search for a great light, Truth itself, in order to be content with smaller lights which illumine the fleeting moment yet prove incapable of showing the way. Yet in the absence of light everything becomes confused; it is impossible to tell good from evil, or the road to our destination from other roads which take us in endless circles, going nowhere." (3)

Personally I read that as an attack of the school of thought that Tracey Rowland describes as 'Whig Thomism, that attempts to reconcile Kant with Thomas, and is mainly popular and popularized by Americans such as George Weigel.  It might also be a response to the claims of the SSPX that the Church seeks to 'reconcile Catholic doctrine with liberal ideas; a magisterium imbued with the modernist ideas of subjectivism, of immanentism and of perpetual evolution'.

Similarly, it takes aim at the secularist excessive trust in science and technology, and rejection of truth as an absolute:

"...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.(25)

Modernity, the Encyclical argues, provides a false basis for relationships between individuals that cannot endure (54).

The Encyclical also targets a number of the tenets associated with post-modernity, including the loss of the sense of a personal God, and the rejection of God as creator in any real sense: instead we worship 'the work of human hands':

"Our culture has lost its sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world. We think that God is to be found in the beyond, on another level of reality, far removed from our everyday relationships. ...Christians, on the contrary, profess their faith in God’s tangible and powerful love which really does act in history and determines its final destiny: a love that can be encountered, a love fully revealed in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection." (17)

The response: a personal God

The counter to this idea of a vague higher power, or outright atheism, the Encyclical suggests, is understanding that our God is a personal one.  It starts from the call of Abraham to illustrate the point:

"...Here a unique place belongs to Abraham, our father in faith. Something disturbing takes place in his life: God speaks to him; he reveals himself as a God who speaks and calls his name. Faith is linked to hearing. Abraham does not see God, but hears his voice. Faith thus takes on a personal aspect. God is not the god of a particular place, or a deity linked to specific sacred time, but the God of a person, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, capable of interacting with man and establishing a covenant with him. Faith is our response to a word which engages us personally, to a "Thou" who calls us by name." (8)

Faith, it argues, requires us to entrust ourselves to God:

"Faith, tied as it is to conversion, is... to turn to the living God in a personal encounter. Believing means entrusting oneself to a merciful love which always accepts and pardons, which sustains and directs our lives, and which shows its power by its ability to make straight the crooked lines of our history. Faith consists in the willingness to let ourselves be constantly transformed and renewed by God’s call..." (13)

More, we are required to participate in the divine life:

"...In faith, Christ is not simply the one in whom we believe, the supreme manifestation of God’s love; he is also the one with whom we are united precisely in order to believe. Faith does not merely gaze at Jesus, but sees things as Jesus himself sees them, with his own eyes: it is a participation in his way of seeing...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...We "believe in" Jesus when we personally welcome him into our lives and journey towards him, clinging to him in love and following in his footsteps along the way."(18)

Faith depends on memory - tradition 

That individual call and response, though, the Encyclical argues, cannot exist outside the historical memory (a word that gets lots of mentions) transmitted by the Church, and through the community that continues to build it up:

"The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence...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...On the one hand, it is a light coming from the past, the light of the foundational memory of the life of Jesus which revealed his perfectly trustworthy love, a love capable of triumphing over death. Yet since Christ has risen and draws us beyond death, faith is also a light coming from the future and opening before us vast horizons which guide us beyond our isolated selves towards the breadth of communion..." (4)

In order to live in faith, it argues, we have to be part of the tradition:

"Faith opens the way before us and accompanies our steps through time. Hence, if we want to understand what faith is, we need to follow the route it has taken, the path trodden by believers, as witnessed first in the Old Testament..." (8)

And tradition is something that is handed down through ritual, story and more:

"...Israel’s confession of faith takes shape as an account of God’s deeds in setting his people free and acting as their guide (cf. Dt 26:5-11), an account passed down from one generation to the next. God’s light shines for Israel through the remembrance of the Lord’s mighty deeds, recalled and celebrated in worship, and passed down from parents to children. Here we see how the light of faith is linked to concrete life-stories, to the grateful remembrance of God’s mighty deeds and the progressive fulfilment of his promises. Gothic architecture gave clear expression to this: in the great cathedrals light comes down from heaven by passing through windows depicting the history of salvation."(12)

Rejecting anti-institutionalism

The Encyclical provides a direct counter to assorted anti-institutional critiques that claim that the Church has lost its connection to the Gospel:

"It is through an unbroken chain of witnesses that we come to see the face of Jesus. But how is this possible? How can we be certain, after all these centuries, that we have encountered the "real Jesus"? Were we merely isolated individuals, were our starting point simply our own individual ego seeking in itself the basis of absolutely sure knowledge, a certainty of this sort would be impossible. I cannot possibly verify for myself something which happened so long ago. But this is not the only way we attain knowledge. Persons always live in relationship. We come from others, we belong to others, and our lives are enlarged by our encounter with others. Even our own knowledge and self-awareness are relational; they are linked to others who have gone before us: in the first place, our parents, who gave us our life and our name. Language itself, the words by which we make sense of our lives and the world around us, comes to us from others, preserved in the living memory of others. Self-knowledge is only possible when we share in a greater memory. The same thing holds true for faith, which brings human understanding to its fullness..."(38)

Faith is born, the encyclical argues, out of those faithful women who appear throughout the Old Testament and New, whose barrenness was turned into fruitfulness; and especially from Our Lady, who pondered all those things in her heart:

"...God ties his promise [to Abraham] to that aspect of human life which has always appeared most "full of promise", namely, parenthood, the begetting of new life: "Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac" (Gen 17:19)... For Abraham, faith in God sheds light on the depths of his being, it enables him to acknowledge the wellspring of goodness at the origin of all things and to realize that his life is not the product of non-being or chance, but the fruit of a personal call and a personal love. The mysterious God who called him is no alien deity, but the God who is the origin and mainstay of all that is..." (11; see also 58-59)

It can only be realised within the context of the Church:

"..Faith is necessarily ecclesial; it is professed from within the body of Christ as a concrete communion of believers. It is against this ecclesial backdrop that faith opens the individual Christian towards all others... Faith is not a private matter, a completely individualistic notion or a personal opinion: it comes from hearing, and it is meant to find expression in words and to be proclaimed... " (22; see also 38)

And it is in the context of the traditions preserved and passed on through the family and Church community that faith must be fostered and grow.  It utterly rejects the idea that children should be left to 'make their own decisions':

"In the family, faith accompanies every age of life, beginning with childhood: children learn to trust in the love of their parents. This is why it is so important that within their families parents encourage shared expressions of faith which can help children gradually to mature in their own faith. Young people in particular, who are going through a period in their lives which is so complex, rich and important for their faith, ought to feel the constant closeness and support of their families and the Church in their journey of faith." (53)

Yet though faith is grounded in tradition and the past, it also opens up the future:

"...As a response to a word which preceded it, Abraham’s faith would always be an act of remembrance. Yet this remembrance is not fixed on past events but, as the memory of a promise, it becomes capable of opening up the future, shedding light on the path to be taken. We see how faith, as remembrance of the future, memoria futuri, is thus closely bound up with hope." (9)

The sacramental nature of faith

One of the most interesting sections of the Encyclical, in my view, is the treatment of the place of the sacraments in relation to faith.

How is the faith handed down?  Not just in mere words, but in the four elements that have long been used to structure the Church's catechesis, the Encyclical argues:

"These, then, are the four elements which comprise the storehouse of memory which the Church hands down: the profession of faith, the celebration of the sacraments, the path of the ten commandments, and prayer..."[46]

But it rejects the direction suggested by some of putting less effort and emphasis on the the liturgy and sacraments:

"Faith, in fact, needs a setting in which it can be witnessed to and communicated, a means which is suitable and proportionate to what is communicated. For transmitting a purely doctrinal content, an idea might suffice, or perhaps a book, or the repetition of a spoken message. But what is communicated in the Church, what is handed down in her living Tradition, is the new light born of an encounter with the true God, a light which touches us at the core of our being and engages our minds, wills and emotions, opening us to relationships lived in communion. There is a special means for passing down this fullness, a means capable of engaging the entire person, body and spirit, interior life and relationships with others. It is the sacraments, celebrated in the Church’s liturgy. The sacraments communicate an incarnate memory, linked to the times and places of our lives, linked to all our senses; in them the whole person is engaged as a member of a living subject and part of a network of communitarian relationships. While the sacraments are indeed sacraments of faith, it can also be said that faith itself possesses a sacramental structure. The awakening of faith is linked to the dawning of a new sacramental sense in our lives as human beings and as Christians, in which visible and material realities are seen to point beyond themselves to the mystery of the eternal."(40)

There is a lot more in this section, and I do recommend reading it for yourself!

No comments: