It felt a little like the conclave week all over again inside the Vatican Press Office. Journalists cornering other journalists. Educated guesses and bets. Raised eyebrows of suspicion and plenty of pencil wagging, not to mention the nervous knees bouncing iPads and notepads in the foyer.
While we were not waiting for black or white plumes of smoke to rise from the Sistine Chapel’s chimney, we were anxious to get an embargoed copy of Pope Francis’s encyclical, Lumen Fidei, and hear some of the most expert curial representatives comment on the release of a much anticipated papal encyclical.
Lumen Fidei – “The Light of Faith” – was released to the public this afternoon, July 5. The encyclical, Francis’s very first, is the last of a trilogy of magisterial writings begun by Benedict XVI on the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.
It is masterfully written, both syntactically accurate and semantically clear. And it was published midway through the Year of Faith, which Benedict XVI had proposed and officially inaugurated toward the end of his pontificate, so that we may all renew our commitment to a basic understanding of our Christian theological and cultural heritage.
Lumen Fidei is the “four-handed” encyclical, as some local Italians have likened to call it. It was sketched and begun by Benedict, but later finished and polished by Francis. Given this unique circumstance in papal publishing, one might have expected a confusing encyclical — both stylistically and doctrinally — from two popes that appear so different to the public eye. And yet as the prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith – Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müeller – told us at the press conference: “The encyclical is not [the result] of patchwork. It is a work of true unity”. Indeed, you might say that in this encyclical we enjoy the best writing practices of both popes all in one encyclical: the theological depth of the Professor Pope (Benedict) and the editorial simplicity of Parish Priest Pope (Francis).
One interesting question regarding the potential influence of the encyclical came from one of the Italian press corps in attendance. He asked the curial officials commenting on the text if the Light of Faith had any forward thinking or progressively “illuminating” agenda to help shape political or socio-economic reform during these economic and political dark days, with perhaps some bent toward liberation theology or other liberal interpretation of our faith. He had wondered aloud whether the Vatican’s own newspaper Osservatore Romano had made an intentional decision to publish a multi-page spread on the liberal Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner during the very same week of the presentation of Francis’s Lumen Fidei.
Cardinal Mueller quickly shot this suggestion down, saying that this first of all was not a social encyclical and politically-economically orientated, like John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, and did not reference any Marxist thinking or the condemned liberation theology which had set much of the tone for progressive economic and political reforms in Central and South American Catholic countries in the 1970s and 1980s (misconstruing the classical Catholic anthropology and human flourishing in Marxist materialist terms).
In fact, the Cardinal said, we should be mindful of pursuing utopian visions -Christian or secular — of perfectly working politics and economic systems, while appreciating the role in which our faith plays in the face of evil: “even though Lumen Fidei [as Catholic teaching ] gives us light in these dark times,…we would not have any faith or Christian fulfillment without this very darkness.”
It is almost as if Cardinal Mueller had already read our Rome director’s (Kishore Jayabalan) press release on the new encyclical, urging a realistic understanding of what Catholic theology and the papal magisterial writings might offer in terms of Christian “enlightened” thinking:
With Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis has continued the efforts of Pope Benedict Xvi to propose a type of ‘Christian Enlightenment,’ which, in its own charitable way, sets out to puncture three secularist myths about the world:
1) that we can think of a universal human family, i.e. that we are all brothers and sisters, without some reference to God the Father and Creator, 2) that there is a common good without reference to Jesus Christ, who brought salvation to all and to whom all human activity can be directed, and 3) that any recognition of truth leads to totalitarianism, when the opposite is true.
The ‘dictatorship of relativism’ denies any objective truth and relies on power and force, while the acceptance of Truth by faith makes us humble and appeals to reason to know more. Although the encyclical is the work of two popes, it reminds us that the Church’s Magisterium forms a coherent, continuous whole.