Pope Francis has been in the news lately in stories both about his lifestyle and his pronouncements on various topics. Many regard him as someone who represents a radical break with papal customs and Catholic traditions and doctrine. He has adopted a more simple, less insulated mode of living than his predecessors; he has urged his fellow Catholics not to place too much emphasis on the church’s teachings on issues such as contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage; he has even said a few kind things about atheists. Much debate has ensued over whether Pope Francis will bring about significant changes in the church’s doctrines and rules or whether his statements are no more than an indication of a change in tone. On the latter view, he is less hectoring than his predecessors, and he may have different priorities, but ultimately his beliefs are not significantly different.
I lean toward the latter view. Among other reasons, every time Francis has made some statement that suggests a departure from prior church teaching, a clarification has quickly followed to assure the faithful that Francis is not saying anything inconsistent with established church teaching. The sad reality is that even if Francis were inclined to modify church doctrine, the institutional, ossified weight of the church would likely prevent him from doing so.
In any event, in this editorial I’m not going to focus on the statements from Francis that have caught everyone’s attention. Instead, I am going to discuss his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, or The Light of Faith, which he issued in early July. This document has received relatively little attention because—well, it’s an encyclical, not something considered light reading. Furthermore, this encyclical largely restates what everyone knows already: that the Catholic Church, along with most other religious bodies, believes faith is a virtue. Faith is something that supposedly can give the believer special insight into dimensions of reality undiscoverable by reason or science. As suggested by the title of the encyclical, faith is considered illuminating.
But precisely because the encyclical does not constitute breaking news, it merits attention. It confirms that the Catholic Church, like other religious institutions, continues to claim a special way of knowing that differs starkly from secular methods of acquiring knowledge. Regardless of any subtle shifts in the church’s position on various ethical issues, it will continue to insist on the importance of faith. The same can be said for other religious bodies, of course. This insistence on the importance of faith constitutes a crucial difference—arguably, the crucial difference—between most of the religious and the nonreligious. The former cling to the view that faith gives them special access to realities that exist apart from the natural world. Moreover, the faithful believe this claim of privileged access does not require rational justification. Indeed, faith cannot be justified through reasoning, because the concept of faith is of some special awareness that goes beyond the awareness obtained through the ordinary exercise of human cognitive faculties. Furthermore, because assertions based on faith cannot, as matter of principle, be subject to testing, there are no criteria for their truth other than the pronouncement of some religious authority figure or the subjective experience of the believer. By contrast, the critically thinking nonreligious individual tries to conform his or her beliefs to the available evidence, which, in principle, is publicly available to all. The nonreligious person claims no knowledge of truths revealed only by spirits.
Although faith cannot be rationally justified, this doesn’t prevent theologians from trying their best to make faith seem not only reasonable but a good thing. One certainly cannot fault them for lack of ingenuity. To the contrary, defenses of faith can be labyrinthine in their complexity, and theologians often display an enviable ability to bury key questions under a mountain of literary, philosophical, and scriptural references. (Alternative occupation for a theologian: press secretary to a politician.) In this regard, Lumen Fidei is an impressive piece of work, elevating obfuscation to an art form.
Once analyzed, however, it is apparent that the arguments advanced in this encyclical on behalf of faith are wholly unpersuasive. They combine specious reasoning and unsound analogies. For example, consider these remarkable assertions: “The light of faith is unique since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. A light this powerful cannot come from ourselves but from a primordial source: in a word, it must come from God.” Here, Francis assumes what is to be proven: namely, that faith is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence. What’s the evidence for this? And then, of course, he bootstraps the extraordinary power of faith into “evidence” for faith being a gift from God. This is a non sequitur that doesn’t even rise to the level of circular reasoning.
Later in the encyclical, Francis trots out the well-worn claim that the nonreligious rely on faith just as much as the religious; they just don’t acknowledge it. Francis argues that: “In many areas in our lives we trust others who know more than we do. We trust the architect who builds our home, the pharmacist who gives us medicine for healing, the lawyer who defends us in court. We also need someone trustworthy and knowledgeable where God is concerned. Jesus, the Son of God, is the one who makes God known to us.” Yes, it is true we often rely on experts, but in principle we can assess the expert’s claim to knowledge because it is a claim that can be refuted by evidence that’s accessible. We may have to spend time brushing up on our chemistry (or at least consulting WebMD) to come to the conclusion that our pharmacist is dispensing the wrong dosage, but it can be done. How are we supposed to know that Jesus is trustworthy regarding God’s existence and attributes? “We can trust Jesus because he’s the Son of God.” That’s obviously not an adequate answer. We have no evidence that Jesus is the Son of God. “But scripture tells us Jesus is the Son of God.” But why should we regard the writings collected in the New Testament (selected from among dozens of competing writings) as reliable authority about Jesus and/or God? “Because scripture is the word of God.” So we know there’s a God because of scripture, and we know we can rely on scripture because it’s the word of God. Got it?
Centuries ago, Rene Descartes, with wonderfully understated sarcasm, identified the shell game theologians play when they appeal to faith. In the dedication to his Meditations on First Philosophy (where he argues for the importance of philosophy in arguing for the existence of God), Descartes observes, “although it is absolutely true that we must believe there is a God, because we are so taught in the Holy Scriptures, and, on the other hand, that we must believe the Holy Scriptures because they come from God . . . we nevertheless could not place this argument before infidels, who might accuse us of reasoning in a circle” (Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross translation). Indeed.
Aquinas, Descartes, and many other theists have tried to argue for the existence of God using reason as applied to our knowledge of the natural world. Although their arguments are flawed, at least they can be evaluated by everyone, believer or nonbeliever, and, therefore, they are entitled to some measure of respect. Not so with claims based on faith. Faith doesn’t provide a basis for believing; it provides an excuse for the lack of a
ny basis for believing.
Of course, once the door is open to accepting beliefs that cannot be justified by reference to facts or reason, anything goes. Consider a central doctrine of the Christian faith, namely, the Incarnation. That Jesus was both divine and human seems on the face of it impossible—it’s a transparent contradiction to claim Jesus was simultaneously a person with limited powers and a deity with unlimited powers—but that does not prevent Christians from adamantly adhering to this belief, because at the end of the day they can always invoke faith. Faith means not having to supply reasons.
Lumen Fidei waxes poetic—and manipulative—as Francis struggles to defend faith. “Faith knows because it is tied to love, because love itself brings enlightenment. Faith’s understanding is born when we receive the immense love of God which transforms us inwardly and enables us to see reality with new eyes.”
Yes, isn’t love wonderful and transforming? Love can make one so accepting—and submissive. Orwell’s novel 1984, which vividly illustrates how a person can be stripped of autonomy and intellectual independence, ends with the chilling words: “He loved Big Brother.” The faithful are asked to love Big Brother, whether they are Christians, Jews, Mormons, or Muslims, so the illumination provided by faith can light the way.
Francis may turn out to be a progressive on some issues. He might even change some Church doctrines, perhaps by removing the ban on contraception, which, after all, has no basis in the Bible. To the extent he allows Catholics more freedom in their personal lives, we secular humanists can applaud his actions. But make no mistake. There will always remain a chasm between the faithful—of any religion—and secular humanists. Secular humanists insist on the application of reason, science, and freedom of inquiry and reject the notion that any set of revealed truths can be immune from critical examination. Consequently, they also reject authority figures who position themselves as the privileged interpreters of these revealed truths. In his encyclical, Francis dares to say that because of faith, “we have come to understand the unique dignity of each person.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Faith denies the ability of each person to use reason and empirical evidence to arrive at a correct understanding of our universe. Instead, the faithful believe that knowledge of the mysteries of the universe must be a gift from some supernatural power. It’s a strange notion of dignity that denigrates human abilities and insists on human subservience to unseen forces.
Humanity will leave its childhood behind only when we realize that faith obscures instead of illuminates.