The assumption that there is an incompatibility between faith and reason underlies many of the debates between modern mores and traditional morality and between Church and state. Last Friday the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis published his first major position paper on precisely this topic. Here Father Carter Griffin explains the major themes of this controversial essay.
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Pope Francis has written an encyclical on faith, Lumen Fidei, not only for those who struggle to believe in Christ, but for those who struggle to believe anything at all. The starting point for this encyclical is that contemporary men and women have painted themselves into a philosophical corner, too confident in their vision of truth to see its inadequacies, too skeptical in their vision of faith to see its possibilities.
Building on the work of his predecessor Benedict XVI, Francis offers a well-timed and well-aimed letter to those yearning for a life of faith built on foundations of objective truth.
The Pope expresses the modern dilemma about faith and truth as follows. “In contemporary culture,” he says, “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.”
Christian faith is then seen as the opposing pole, as the “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.”
To make matters worse, trying to bridge the two is met with deep suspicion as “the root of fanaticism, which proves oppressive for anyone who does not share the same beliefs.” Truth and faith, then, are torn apart and both suffer the loss. Truth is impoverished and superficial, and faith is reduced to idiosyncratic sympathies and yearnings.
Sensing that many people, especially the young, are not satisfied with this artificial dichotomy, that many are seeking a more robust faith with objective claims that still respect the beliefs of others, Pope Francis proposes a way forward rooted in the encounter of love.
He begins by observing that our experience of human love itself depends upon truth; it cannot, he says, “be reduced to an ephemeral emotion. True, it engages our affectivity,” he writes, but “in order to build a lasting relationship, love aims at union with the beloved… If love is not tied to truth, it falls prey to fickle emotions and cannot stand the test of time.”
When we truly love, it is both objective and subjective, both concrete – we love a person, not my idea of that person – and at the same time an individual choice. In binding love and truth together, the Pope opens a path to a fuller, less asphyxiating concept of truth itself, no longer confined to the conclusions of science and the progress of technology.
It is in this “knowledge of love” – in the personal encounter with God – that faith finds its surest foundations, “its power to convince and its ability to illumine our steps. Faith knows because it is tied to love, because love itself brings enlightenment. Faith’s understanding is born when we receive the immense love of God which transforms us inwardly and enables us to see reality with new eyes.” As with any love, it cannot remain an abstraction – real love depends on a concrete other.
Faith without truth, Pope Francis says, “does not save…It remains a beautiful story, the projection of our deep yearning for happiness, something capable of satisfying us to the extent that we are willing to deceive ourselves.”
Without objective foundations in a relationship of love, faith is indeed what our contemporaries claim it to be: a private sentiment that deserves neither contempt nor credence, whether belief in the divinity of Christ or the divinity of Zeus, the Heavenly City of Jerusalem or the Lost City of Atlantis. As G.K. Chesterton once remarked, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.”
So how can we claim an objective, personal encounter with God, the kind of faith that is grounded in a real relationship of love? We need someone, the Pope says, who can introduce us. “In many areas in our lives,” he says, “we trust others who know more than we do. 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.”
This encounter with Christ, the encounter with God, the Pope writes, cannot be an individualistic affair. “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.” This is the role of the Church, the “unbroken chain of witnesses” who unite us personally to Christ through her Scriptures, her teaching, and the sacraments, especially Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.
Such an understanding of faith, rooted in a personal and loving relationship with Christ through His Church, is also its surest protection against fanaticism and tyrannical intolerance. Since the truth of faith is born of love, the Pope continues, by definition “it is not one that can be imposed by force; it is not a truth that stifles the individual… 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.”
In fact, true faith is our strongest hedge against the tyranny of a secularist relativism that strips human beings of their innate dignity. Unlike the harsh functionalism of the technological view of man, faith “teaches us to see that every man and woman represents a blessing for me, that the light of God’s face shines on me through the faces of my brothers and sisters. How many benefits has the gaze of Christian faith brought to the city of men for their common life! Thanks to faith we have come to understand the unique dignity of each person, something which was not clearly seen in antiquity.” (Nor, for that matter, is it clearly seen in postmodernity.)
Faith, then, “is truly a good for everyone; it is a common good. Its light does not simply brighten the interior of the Church, nor does it serve solely to build an eternal city in the hereafter; it helps us build our societies in such a way that they can journey towards a future of hope.”
Faith is above all, however, a bracing call to conversion of heart and transformation of life. “Faith is no refuge for the fainthearted,” the Pope writes, “but something which enhances our lives. It makes us aware of a magnificent calling, the vocation of love. It assures us that this love is trustworthy and worth embracing, for it is based on God’s faithfulness which is stronger than our every weakness.”
When Christians regain their confidence in the assurance and credibility of their faith, they will once again feel the gentle burden of handing that faith on to others. “Those who have opened their hearts to God’s love, heard his voice and received his light,” the Pope says, “cannot keep this gift to themselves.” The light of Christ shines “as in a mirror, upon the face of Christians; as it spreads, it comes down to us, so that we too can share in that vision and reflect that light to others, in the same way that, in the Easter liturgy, the light of the paschal candle lights countless other candles. Faith is passed on, we might say, by contact, from one person to another, just as one candle is lighted from another. Christians, in their poverty, plant a seed so rich that it becomes a great tree, capable of filling the world with its fruit.”
Forty-five years ago, Joseph Ratzinger wrote in Introduction to Christianity that everyone “is bound to have some belief, since every man must adopt some kind of attitude to the basic questions of life. There is a realm which allows no other answer but that of entertaining belief, and no man can completely avoid this realm.” Contemporary men and women often face these basic questions of life without the confidence that faith in Christ can answer them, indeed that any faith can answer them.
In Lumen Fidei, the Pope meets these contemporary seekers on their own terms, proposing a vision of truth expanded to embrace the knowledge of love, open to a life of faith in Jesus Christ through His Church. It is this truth that has offered, and will continue to offer, hope and holiness to a world so eager for the “light of faith”.
Fr Carter Griffin is the Vocation Director for the Archdiocese of Washington DC and the Vice-Rector of Blessed John Paul II Seminary.
Update August 2019:
Father Carter Griffin is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. Raised Presbyterian, he converted to Catholicism while attending Princeton University. After graduating in 1994, he served for four years as a surface line officer in the United States Navy prior to entering the seminary. He attended Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD, for two years of philosophy followed by the North American College in Rome for five years of theology. Later he returned for doctoral studies and published a dissertation on priestly celibacy in 2011. Father Griffin is the Rector of St. John Paul II Seminary in Washington, DC and recently published a book entitled Why Celibacy? Reclaiming the Fatherhood of the Priest (Emmaus Road Publishing).