The Magisterial Laziness of “The Light of Faith”

Does the post heading mean I think Pope Francis’s honeymoon is over? Not necessarily, because near the beginning of the first papal encyclical to go out under his name he acknowledges that his predecessor Benedict XVI is the real author and that he just added a few touches. Other than the clear reference to Benedict by Francis in section 7, we could resort to parsing the text with some quick redaction criticism, but suffice to say the voice of Francis seems apparent mainly toward the end of the document. We can thus withhold judgment on Francis’s theological priorities for now–or assess his theology via his homilies (which have been widely reported on, sometimes without benefit of official Vatican publication, almost like samizdat; another sign of Francis bypassing Curial filtration), not to mention all the tweets.

How could I possibly charge J. Ratzinger/Benedict with lightness and laziness, when he has seemed so unbearably heavy and serious for so long? Because while he undeniably produces detailed exegeses of many Scriptural passages as well as ante-Nicene and post-Nicene Patriarchal texts, with special reference to Augustine (a real pity, by the way, that Pope Benedict never did get around to an ex cathedra reversal of the condemnation of Jansenism), Ratzinger displays inexcusable laziness of two kinds. First, he pretends to transcend the onesidedness of Nietzsche (section 2), Wittgenstein (27), Greek thought (29), and the Enlightenment (3)–but typically by setting up straw men, so as to facilitate proof of the superior comprehensive Truth of the magisterium. For example, he announces that “slowly but surely, it would become evident that the light of autonomous reason is not enough to illumine the future”(3), as if that’s where the serious discussion really stands, and as if the only alternative to naive belief in enlightenment-as-both-necessary-and-sufficient is “vigilance in ensuring that the deposit of faith is passed on in its entirety” (48). Second, Ratzinger’s transparent horror at the pluralism of the actual world drives him to hysterical panic in section 13. He notes approvingly that “Martin Buber once cited a definition of idolatry proposed by the rabbi of Kock: idolatry is ‘when a face addresses a face which is not a face.'” Ratzinger might well have taken the chance right there to offer an interpretation of Emmanuel Levinas on the face of the Other. But no, off he goes into a rant: “Once man has lost his fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires…a myriad of unconnected instants…an aimless passing from one lord to another…a plethora of paths leading nowhere…a vast labyrinth.” Goodness gracious! Makes one just want to give up and admit that Prada is the one true shoe.

The gravitas of this papal encyclical on faith is marred if not overshadowed by a sometimes defensive and authoritarian tone. A fitting coda well described by Eugene C. Kennedy today in the National Catholic Reporter: “Why is it that, although Pope Francis only entered our lives a season ago and Pope Benedict XVI spent eight long–and I mean long–years as our Holy Father, does Francis seem like someone we have known a long time while we may say of Benedict what the Irish say of Johnny, that we hardly knew ye?” Speaking not at all as an insider, that seems to sum it up well. The time of sinners in the hands of an angry old Ratzinger is done. If Pope Francis threw Benedict a bone by publishing this encyclical, that might be a meritorious, generous act. If Francis really buys into the whole magisterium-focused package of Lumen Fidei, well, then he would not be the happy warrior he appears to be. Guess the next ecumenical council (in case you missed the secret announcement, it starts next fall) will tell.