On the eve of his election to the papacy in 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke of the “dictatorship of relativism.” He spent the following eight years returning to the theme, explaining how, if nothing is acknowledged as objectively real, then competing views cannot be evaluated against the standard of truth, to judge which is valid. Instead, the only way to resolve disputes becomes an assertion of power — whether tyrannical or clothed in democratic processes — and, hence, the door to dictatorship is opened.
What, then, can liberate us from this dictatorship? The truth can set us free, and to know the fullness of truth about man and his place in the world requires faith or knowledge of those truths which need to be revealed to us.
At the end of his pontificate, Benedict XVI was working on an encyclical on faith, to complete the “trilogy” on the theological virtues, having written previous ones on love (Deus Caritas Est, 2005) and hope (Spe Salvi, 2007). After his renunciation of the papacy, he left the text to his successor, and Pope Francis, having made some minor emendations, published it as his first encyclical under the title Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith).
Lumen Fidei is clearly Benedict’s work, written in the sublime style perfected by Joseph Ratzinger over a lifetime of limpid theological work and biblical preaching. It is “Benedict’s” finest encyclical, even though it carries Francis’ name. Much has been made of Pope Francis’ humility in irrelevant things, like what shoes he wears or whether he does tasks his staff could handle for him. A more impressive mark of humility is publishing as his first encyclical the work of another man, a man whose writing and insight is singular in his generation.
Relativism’s Bleak Landscape
Lumen Fidei first sketches the bleak landscape left by the dictatorship of relativism, which regards faith with suspicion, as it sees as a threat any claim to know the truth with certainty.
“It would become evident that the light of autonomous reason is not enough to illumine the future; ultimately, the future remains shadowy and fraught with fear of the unknown,” the Holy Father writes. “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.”
If, in the absence of truth, there can only be conflict between those wandering in confusing and contradictory directions, what can liberate us from the limits of our own reason and depredations of our will?
“There is an urgent need, then, to see once again that faith is a light, for once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim,” Lumen Fidei continues. “The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves, but from a more primordial source: In a word, it must come from God. 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. Transformed by this love, we gain fresh vision, new eyes to see; we realize that it contains a great promise of fulfilment and that a vision of the future opens up before us. Faith, received from God as a supernatural gift, becomes a light for our way, guiding our journey through time.”
Here, the Holy Father weaves together the three theological virtues as part of one vision. Faith is born from an encounter with God, which in turn provides confidence for our journey through history. Faith is not a mere shortcut to knowledge, a quicker way to assemble dry facts. It embraces the whole person, as it arises from meeting the God who is love and, therefore, provides a future full of hope.
Reasons to Believe
Taking up a theme articulated by Blessed John Paul in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, that “at the heart of every culture is the attitude that man takes toward the greatest mystery: the mystery of God,” Lumen Fidei makes the observation that every person and every culture has to live by faith in something. Faith is knowledge that we accept because we trust the one passing it on to us, without the capacity to verify it entirely on our own. We cannot choose to live without faith, but we can choose in what or whom we put our faith.
“In many areas in our lives, we trust others who know more than we do,” observes Lumen Fidei. “We trust the architect who builds our home, the pharmacist who gives us medicine for healing, the lawyer who defends us in court. We also need someone trustworthy and knowledgeable where God is concerned. Jesus, the Son of God, is the one who makes God known to us.”
The specific difference of Christian faith is that we trust not because of credentials or expertise or authority, but because of the revelation of God’s love. God is love, and because he loves us — fully revealed on the cross — then we can trust him to teach us the truth. Everyone needs faith in something, but only Christian faith proceeds from a perfectly reliable love.
Faith that proposes truth without love is not reliable, which is why the world is suspicious of it, and for good reason, given the experience of recent centuries.
“Truth nowadays is often reduced to the subjective authenticity of the individual, valid only for the life of the individual,” notes Lumen Fidei, explaining why relativism might be attractive. “A common truth intimidates us, for we identify it with the intransigent demands of totalitarian systems.”
‘A Truth of Love’
Christian faith is not this threatening truth, though, as Lumen Fidei explains in perhaps the passage that is most directly addressed to a world afraid to believe and afraid of religious believers:
“But if truth is a truth of love, if it is a truth disclosed in personal encounter with the Other and with others, then it can be set free from its enclosure in individuals and become part of the common good. As a truth of love, it is not one that can be imposed by force; it is not a truth that stifles the individual. Since it is born of love, it can penetrate to the heart, to the personal core of each man and woman. Clearly, then, faith is not intransigent, but grows in respectful coexistence with others. One who believes may not be presumptuous; on the contrary, 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.”
Lumen Fidei makes an attractive and compelling contribution to that dialogue. Whether a world that is suspicious of faith is interested remains to be seen. Suspicion and fear are the allies of dictatorships, including the dictatorship of relativism, from which Benedict, and now Francis, wishes to free us.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.
He was the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1998-2003.