Monday, August 12, 2013

Leonardo Boff on Lumen Fidei, Benedict (and Francis's) Encyclical on Faith: "Without Love, Truth Is Insufficient for Salvation"

Leonardo Boff
At his blog site, theologian Leonardo Boff recently offered a response to the encyclical of Popes Benedict and Francis on the virtue of faith, Lumen fidei. After I read Boff's valuable commentary, I also discovered that early in July, Rebel Girl had provided an outstanding translation of the Spanish version of Boff's response at her Iglesia Descalza site. In what follows, I'll excerpt some key passages of Boff's important commentary, with brief notes.


Boff prefaces his analysis by noting that Lumen fidei is essentially the work of Benedict XVI, the capstone of his tripartite encyclical statements on love, hope, and faith. As with all of the theological work of Benedict, it reflects a "high" theological style. It's part of a conversation addressed primarily to other academic theologians, and, in particular, to Western theologians. As Boff notes, only European authorities (male ones, at that, I'd add) have any voice in the text. It totally elides the theological reflections and testimony about faith of theologians and believers outside the European context, though only 24% of the Catholic population of the globe lives in Europe.

Not only that: the text is addressed primarily to those within the church who take Catholic teaching for granted. It points no way, provides no helpful reflections, for those seeking faith, who are not already inside the Catholic context taken for granted by Benedict as he talks about what constitutes faith. Boff states,

The text is addressed to the Church. It speaks of the light of faith to those already within the world enlightened by faith. In this sense, it is an intrasystemic reflection.

As Boff also notes, Lumen fidei continues an almost obsessive focus that has dominated the thinking of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict: this is the argument that modernity combats dogmatic truth, and that the primary obligation of the Catholic church in its connection to modernity is to fight back, to assert dogmatic truth claims in the face of the claims of modernity, with its emphasis on the autonomy of the subject, the use of reason to understand the world, and its penchant for human rights and democracy:

The thread of theological argumentation is typical of the thought of Joseph Ratzinger as a theologian -- the preponderance of the issue of truth -- almost obsessive, I would say. In the name of that truth, he frontally opposes modernity. He has difficulty accepting one of the most cherished themes of modern thought: the autonomy of the subject and its use in the light of reason. J. Ratzinger sees it as a way to replace the light of faith.

This obsessive focus on truth has led Ratzinger/Benedict and his followers to speak as if truth somehow eclipses love in the Christian tradition: as if the primary obligation of the believer is to pursue and speak the truth, and not to love. But as Boff points out, this is an extremely problematic claim of the Ratzingerian era in the church, because from the gospels forward, it's entirely clear that the primary focus, the raison d'├¬tre, of the Christian life is love, not truth, with its concomitant, obedience, which has become a shibboleth of the Catholic right under John Paul and Benedict:

For Ratzinger, love itself must submit to the truth, without which the isolation of "ego" could not be overcome (no. 27). However, we know that love has its own reasons and obeys a distinctly different logic, without being contrary to the truth. Love can not see clearly, but it sees reality more deeply. St. Augustine, following Plato, said that we only truly understand what we love. For Ratzinger, "love is the experience of truth" (no. 27) and "faith without truth does not save" (no. 24). 
This statement is problematic in theological terms since the whole tradition, especially the Councils have stated that only "that truth [faith] that is informed by love" (fides caritate informata) saves. Without love, truth is insufficient for salvation. In pedestrian language, one would say that what saves is not truthful preaching but effective practices. 

And so, in the final analysis, the fact that this encyclical on faith addresses those already within the dogmatic circle of faith in the Catholic tradition, accenting truth at the expense of love (which is to say, accenting reflection rather than praxis), assures that the encyclical will have little of value to those seeking faith outside the Catholic tradition. It in no way engages the world outside the church, except by hurling dogmatic affirmations about "the" Truth at a world envisaged as entirely in darkness--in contradiction to Vatican II's insistence that the Spirit speaks to us both through the church and through the signs of the times, through events in the world outside the church:

But one notices a painful gap in the encyclical that takes away much of its relevance: it does not address the crisis of faith of human beings today, their doubts, their questions that not even faith can answer: Where was God in the tsunami that decimated thousands of lives, or at Fukushima? How does one believe after the massacres of thousands of indigenous people at the hands of Christians throughout our history, the thousands tortured and killed by the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s? How does one still have faith after the millions of deaths in the Nazi death camps? The encyclical does not offer any evidence to answer those questions. Believing is always believing in spite of...Faith did not eliminate the doubts and anxieties of a Jesus who cried out on the Cross, "Father, why have you forsaken me?" Faith has to go through this hell and become hope that there's sense in everything, but that it is hidden in God. When will it be revealed?

As this conclusion also suggests, in this encyclical with its preponderant emphasis on truth at the expense of love, Benedict's reflections about what constitutes faith also ignore the struggle to maintain faith in which many Catholics are ourselves involved, in a church that seems all too frequently to ignore Jesus's central teaching on the indispensability of love for the Christian life, as it hammers away at "truth" that barely touches the world in which most of us live our daily lives. A "truth" defined entirely by a clerical elite far removed from us, who hurl down dogmatic aphorisms at the rest of us, without ever bothering to listen to the truths we lay believers struggle to understand and to claim in our lives of faith lived far from the top of the church, down on the ground where Jesus seems to us to walk. . . . 

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