With exams over and summer days stretching ahead of me, I’ve been eager to explore Pope Francis’ first encyclical Lumen Fidei. Drafted by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, it’s a rare and special thing to have a work created by two popes and coinciding with the announcement of the canonization of two other popes, all of the V2 era. An entirely beautiful message that speaks to harmony and continuity in the communion of saints.
Lumen Fidei addresses, in no uncertain terms, the secular world’s rejection of faith, the claim that faith is illusory at best and destructive at worst. Identifying the mouthpiece for this point of view, the encyclical describes Nietzsche’s “critique of Christianity for diminishing the full meaning of human existence… (blocking) the path of a liberated humanity to its future.” The letter addresses this thwarted view of life, lived out in a culture that has “lost its sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world.”
We have become enslaved to society rather than being able to transcend it in true individuality, and at at the centre of it all is the hopeless rejection of life itself. Our culture has turned Christ into a figure of mistrust, all the while entranced by a dream of limitless human advancement. Blinded by what Paul and Timothy call that “angel of light,” we have been seduced by the vision of heaven on earth as achievable by human ingenuity alone.
Nietzsche’s attack against Christianity claims that the faith is anti-human, prohibiting humanity from realising full freedom of expression and ultimate development. Moral absolutism and the teaching of life-after-death are stumbling blocks in this brave new world. By affirming the equality of all men before God, Nietzsche saw an assault on human heroism – by exalting the servant, he claimed that Christianity debased humanity’s drive for nobility. This stands in contrast to Marx’s assertion that faith is the “opium of the people,” leading them to passive acceptance of an exploitative ruling class.
Lumen Fidei echoes a deeper message, and offers a guiding light out of darkness – it affirms the joy and gratitude for life which are fundamental to the Christian worldview. Christianity fulfills our natures’ deepest needs, opposing the frustration of a naturalistic view of life where humanity is inextricably enmeshed in the world, a mere by-product of its processes. The 21st century’s secular “optimism” is disheartening for this very reason.
It seems fitting that Pope Francis would warm against Pelagianism, when the spirit of the world is imbued with Pelagianism. We are called, by the popes, to acknowledge that in some very fundamental ways human beings do not fit in to the world. We are estranged from it and involved in a primeval duty of praise for the wonder of existence. In fact, we are on a lifelong journey of gratitude for the grace we are given. We are strengthened to endure. because the Christian mission is a call to go beyond ourselves. We participate in a pilgrimage that draws ever deeper into the mystery of God’s love, alive at the heart of creation.