There’s something in the new papal encyclical Lumen Fidei to disappoint everyone who longs for direct political action from the Vatican.

Those who were hoping, for instance, that a radically leftist Pope Francis would repudiate what they saw as the radically rightist work of his predecessor are bound to be saddened by Lumen Fidei, issued on July 5. A draft was prepared under Benedict XVI before his retirement on February 28, and Francis himself has described the completed document as written with “four hands,” Benedict’s and his own.

There’s a venerable tradition of a new papacy adopting a new set of priorities. Benedict XVI did include in his first encyclical, the 2005 Deus Caritas Est, material from a draft of John Paul II’s. But more typical may be Pius XII, who set aside Pius XI’s unpublished encyclical Humanis Generis Unitas in 1939, despite the fact he had worked on it for Pius XI while serving as cardinal secretary of state.

Francis, though, has used the opportunity of his first encyclical to endorse Benedict’s thought and, by implication, his papacy. The Christian faith, Lumen Fidei insists, “must be professed in all its purity and integrity.” Indeed, “because all the articles of faith are interconnected, to deny one of them, even of those that seem least important, is tantamount to distorting the whole.” This will be no papacy in which the elements of orthodoxy are abandoned in the name of the present political agitations of the world.

At the same time, disappointment is bound to haunt those who hoped that a radically traditional Francis​—​a lifelong churchman instead of an academic theologian like his predecessor​—​would step back from the soft socialism of Benedict’s economics and confront the world with the hardest edges of the institutional church. Faith is at “the service of justice, law and peace,” Francis insists. We need it “to devise models of development which are based not simply on utility and profit, but consider creation as a gift for which we are all indebted.” Yes, he notes, all “authority comes from God,” but it is meant for “the service of the common good.” If the 84-page text contains any elements of Joseph Ratzinger, the bulldog he had been as cardinal for John Paul II before he became Pope Benedict, then it is Ratzinger with a smiley face.

Except, of course, that the picture of Ratzinger as inquisitor general in rigid repression was always wrong, and it became even more absurd after he assumed the papal throne. Francis has affirmed Benedict by assuming the central worries of his papacy: the “massive amnesia in our contemporary world” that leads to relativism, the importance of tradition in knowledge, the role of the magisterium, and “a special means” by which faith is transmitted in the sacraments, communicating an “incarnate memory.” We must, Francis demands, live faith in the context of the church.

Not since John Paul II’s great crusade to “live in truth” by opposing communism has the Vatican been easily classifiable by the world’s political categories, despite the incessant effort of the world, left and right alike, to pin the church with those categories. An encyclical on faith was probably inevitable in 2013, designated the “Year of Faith,” following the work on charity and hope, the other two elements of the Pauline triptych of virtues on which Benedict had written. But, even without knowing which parts of the encyclical are new and which survive from Benedict’s draft, Francis is revealed by the 84-page text as a radical Christian​—​so radical that traditionalism and reformism are equally incapable of describing him.

Francis clearly intends the title Lumen Fidei, The Light of Faith, to be taken seriously. “Our culture has lost its sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world,” he notes, and thereby grown not wiser but more blind. Narrowness belongs not to faith but to those whose view of the world is so slender that they cannot see all that truly exists. “Far from divorcing us from reality,” he argues, faith illuminates a richer, thicker universe containing everything that pure reason sees and much more besides. Faith “does not draw us away from the world or prove irrelevant to the concrete concerns of the men and women of our times.” He comes closest to a direct assertion on a political problem when he affirms the “stable union of man and woman in marriage,” but he does so in the context of marriage as the limit and the base of proper governmental power, not by entering into contemporary debates about same-sex marriage.

Along the way, Lumen Fidei mentions medieval architecture, Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Dostoyevsky’s novels, the role of the French Revolution, T. S. Eliot’s poetry, and the mystical theology of the saints​—​a rather amazing collection for a document intended to speak to believers in the Year of Faith, on the fiftieth anniversary of Vatican II, which Francis calls a “council on faith.”

But that points to the second purpose of Lumen Fidei. Many of the first commentators have claimed that Francis is aiming the encyclical at nonbelievers, urging them to see how the light of faith reveals a larger, less circumscribed world. That’s not wrong, exactly, but a careful reading suggests something a little more delicate. The encyclical is addressed specifically to members of the church, though Francis is speaking in a way that reveals he knows he will be overheard. And what he’s telling the church, in the secondary theme of Lumen Fidei, is how to understand and speak to nonbelievers in the most positive and persuasive way.

“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,” Francis writes. “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.”

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

Next Page