Throwing Down the Gauntlet of Faith

The uniquely penned encyclical "Lumen fidei" is about the light of faith, as well as divine life, true love, and absolute truth

“The future is made wherever people find their way to one another in life-shaping convictions. And a good future grows wherever these convictions come from the truth and lead to it.” — Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Preface to the Second Edition (2004) of Introduction To Christianity

“Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God—an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. But it is also a purifying force for reason itself. From God’s standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly.” — Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est

There have already been some fine overviews written about Lumen fidei (“The Light of Faith”), the co-authored and unique encyclical released by Pope Francis on July 5th, but written largely in the months prior by his predecessor, Benedict XVI. Rather than trying to summarize a document that deserves to be read in its entirety, or to provide a “greatest hits” list, I will content myself in making a few loosely related points about the text that might be of interest to readers, especially those (again, hint!) who have or will read it in full.

Pope Francis notes that Benedict XVI “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” (7). My impression is that the vast majority of the encyclical came from Benedict’s pen. That said, the passages by Francis are fairly obvious, but rarely in a disconcerting or jarring fashion; quite the contrary. There are moments of repetition, which are likely meant to be points of reiteration but sometimes are simply repetitive. That is a minor quibble, for Lumen fidei is a strong and challenging document that has some exceptional and even surprising passages. This text is like a gauntlet of faith that has been thrown down in the midst of a confused and deeply wounded world with a combination of humility, love, and exhortatory firmness.

Granted, those of us who love reading theological texts can sometimes get carried away in reacting to them. I understand that many Catholics won’t bother to read the encyclical, and I know the larger world, if it pays attention at all, will simply try to find the “controversial passages.” That’s sad, but predictable, and that’s all I’ll say about that at the moment.

As I read Lumen fidei, I was struck by the many passages that drew upon themes and insights found in several of Ratzinger’s books, going back to his Introduction to Christianity, but also including Spirit of the Liturgy and Daughter Zion, as well as his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Although it has the name of Francis on it, the text bears the theological and stylistic imprint of Ratzinger, and it is to Francis’ everlasting credit that he so humbly and warmly presented it as he did.

In addition to the specific, previous works, there is a heavily Johannine, Augustinian quality to the encyclical. Note, for instance, that Deus Caritas Est opened with a quote from 1 John (4:16) and that the first reference in Caritas in Veritate is to John 8. Similarly, this new encyclical’s first paragraph quotes from John 11 and 12; all told, there are 23 references from the Johannine writings. There are only four other references to specific passages in the Gospels, and all of those are from the Gospel of Luke. This isn’t surprising when you consider that the word “light” (referring directly to Christ), by my rough count, appears some 22 times in the Fourth Gospel compared to a total of about the same number in the Synoptics. What is surprising to me, considering the theme of the encyclical, is that none of the references from John’s Gospel are from the Prologue (1:1-18), which establishes the theme of Jesus Christ being the light of world and so uses the word “light” six times (Jn 1:4-9).

The two theologians mentioned most in Lumen fidei (over twenty times each, in various ways) are St. Paul and St. Augustine. There are, of course, references to several other saints and writers, including Justin Martyr, Cyril of Jerusalem, Irenaeus, Thomas Aquinas, Gregory the Great, Martin Buber, Romano Guardini, and Dante, among others. But the Apostle to the Gentiles and the Bishop of Hippo get the lion’s share of non-biblical quotes and references, including an entire section (33) focused on the experience and witness of Augustine: “In the life of Saint Augustine we find a significant example of this process whereby reason, with its desire for truth and clarity, was integrated into the horizon of faith and thus gained new understanding.”

Augustine, of course, has had a tremendous influence on Ratzinger. As Fr. Raymond J. de Souza wrote several years ago:

St. Augustine is more than the principal intellectual influence on Benedict; the greatest of the first millennium’s Christian scholars is the Pope’s constant intellectual companion. His preaching and teaching are unfailingly leavened with Augustinian quotations. If John Paul II was a great philosopher pope, teaching the wisdom of Saint Thomas Aquinas to the late 20th century, Benedict is doing the same for Augustine in the 21st.

I’ve not yet read any reaction by Evangelical Protestants to the encyclical, but I’d be curious to know what they think about a lengthy papal text about faith that mentions justification a grand total of one time: “Paul rejects the attitude of those who would consider themselves justified before God on the basis of their own works” (par 19). Granted, the encyclical was not written in the 1540s, nor is it focused on Catholic-Protestant dialogue.

But with that lone reference in mind, here is a number worth pondering: 161. That’s the number of times the word “love” appears. The word “light”? 149. The word “life”? 91. Those three words, I suggest, are together a sort of thematic trinity (all the more memorable, I suppose, because of the alliteration, at least in English). The other key word is “truth”, which appears 83 times. Put in very short form, an essential point of the encyclical is that the light of faith, which is always a gift of God, reveals the path to divine life, which is a sharing in Trinitarian communion and love, which in turn is the very ground of truth and reality. For instance:

Faith is born of an encounter with God’s primordial love, wherein the meaning and goodness of our life become evident; our life is illumined to the extent that it enters into the space opened by that love, to the extent that it becomes, in other words, a path and praxis leading to the fullness of love.  (51)


If love needs truth, truth also needs love. Love and truth are inseparable. Without love, truth becomes cold, impersonal and oppressive for people’s day-to-day lives. The truth we seek, the truth that gives meaning to our journey through life, enlightens us whenever we are touched by love. 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. (27)

There are several other (and interconnected) themes that warrant attention, but I’ll note just three.

First, the depiction—regularly used by both Benedict and Francis in other texts and addresses—of faith as an encounter with Christ, a movement toward the Savior that involves an opening up to the future—an advance, a transformation, a turning, and a journey. The word “journey” appears nearly forty times, and I suspect it is primarily used by Francis, whereas the word “future” appears 21 times, and is, I think, used mostly by Benedict. In short, there is a strong sense of movement into the future (and eventually eternity), in the light of faith, and an emphasis on the action of faith, which is a mysterious but real dynamic of call and response, beckoning and harkening, imploring and acknowledging. God is the God of “covenantal love” and the “God of fidelity” (28), the “God who is Amen” (50).

The movement, which is relational and filial and transformative, takes place in history and makes sense of history. “Faith-knowledge, because it is born of God’s covenantal love, is knowledge which lights up a path in history. That is why, in the Bible, truth and fidelity go together: the true God is the God of fidelity who keeps his promises and makes possible, in time, a deeper understanding of his plan. … Faith-knowledge sheds light not only on the destiny of one particular people, but the entire history of the created world, from its origins to its consummation” (28). This emphasis on the rootedness of history is coupled with an appeal to memory, another deeply Augustinian theme: “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” (25). One of the great challenges to faith today is living in a culture that has little real regard for history or concern for memory, that is, a shared understanding of where we come from (God) and the end for which we were created (communion with God).

Which brings us to a theme that Francis, as I’ve noted, has touched on repeatedly in the first few months of his pontificate: “Christ’s work penetrates the depths of our being and transforms us radically, making us adopted children of God and sharers in the divine nature” (42). Or, in another passage:

Faith is thus linked to God’s fatherhood, which gives rise to all creation; the God who calls Abraham is the Creator, the one who “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17), the one who “chose us before the foundation of the world… and destined us for adoption as his children” (Eph 1:4-5). (11)

And, in a reference from one of Francis’s favorite passages:

In accepting the gift of faith, believers become a new creation; they receive a new being; as God’s children, they are now “sons in the Son”. The phrase “Abba, Father”, so characteristic of Jesus’ own experience, now becomes the core of the Christian experience (cf. Rom 8:15). (19)

Finally, one of the great insights of this encyclical is found in a striking section (13) about “the temptation of unbelief”. If asked what is the opposite of faith, most people will respond, “Disbelief” or “skepticism” or even “atheism”. But Pope Francis explains that what really opposes faith, in the end, is idolatry. We either seek God or we seek, knowingly or otherwise, to replace God with false gods. History certainly bears this out, as do our own struggles with temptation and sin. Idolatry, the pope explains, “is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another.” But faith “consists in the willingness to let ourselves be constantly transformed and renewed by God’s call. Herein lies the paradox: by constantly turning towards the Lord, we discover a sure path which liberates us from the dissolution imposed upon us by idols.”

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.