Review of “Porta Fidei” by Fr. Kevin B. Dyer, S.J.

from New Jesuit Review
April 2013

Ask what the legacy of Pope Benedict might be, and the answers will often turn to matters liturgical. For Benedict XVI is the pope who published numerous books on the liturgy; who “brought back” the Tridentine Mass; who expanded the use of Gregorian Chant in papal liturgies; who combed the Vatican storehouses in search of long-forgotten regalia; who celebrated a yearly ad orientem Mass in the Sistine Chapel. Surely the unifying concept of his papacy is liturgical. For all the attention given to these concerns, however, one may be more justified in returning to the Pope’s beginnings, to the book which introduced him to a wider audience, his Introduction to Christianity. Here we find the theme of faith holding pride of place, as it does in his other books, Principles of Catholic Theology and The Nature and Mission of Theology. Together, these works witness to a life-long meditation upon the nature and possibility of faith in the modern world. In many ways, we see the culmination of this process in the Year of Faith which the pontiff proclaimed in his Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei. In this short document, the Pope points to the major themes that have animated his understanding of faith. We can approach this work by discussing faith as experiential, personal, rational, and communal.

In his 2000 preface to the new edition of Introduction to Christianity, Pope Benedict notes that—contrary to popular expectations at the time of the book’s first printing—religion has not disappeared from consciousness. Rather, it has been transformed in the context of a dis-enchanted world. In the face of the meaninglessness of modern existence, there has arisen a new urge for religious experience broadly defined. Whether in Western or Eastern form, he argues, we moderns feel an urge for some contact with the “entirely Other.” In Porta Fidei, the Pope uses the image of the Samaritan woman at the well to symbolize this desire for the spiritual. Our thirst can lead us up to the door of faith, where we are invited to hear the message directed to us, and thus rediscover a taste for being fed by the Word of God (3). This image of the spiritual senses reappears in the document which also points out that Christian faith does answer the modern thirst for experience, and does so in a more satisfying way. Unlike popularized forms of spirituality, Christianity fulfills the human need for experience by giving a convincing account of the personal aspect of faith.

“Faith grows when it is lived as an experience of love received and when it is communicated as an experience of grace and joy.” As is well known, a central concern of Pope Benedict’s theological generation has been to articulate the personal nature of the act of faith. If both the object of faith and the subject of faith are personal realities, then the reality of faith must bear similarly personal aspects. In the past, a one-sided focus upon the contents of faith (fides quae) risked portraying faith as a strictly intellectual endeavor, devoid of the trusting relationship which lies at the heart of faith as a life-long journey (see paragraphs 1, 2, 6, and 14). In contrast, Pope Benedict thinks Christianity has a more compelling message than other contemporary spiritualities, since only in a personal faith does one experience a true answer to one’s questions. The Incarnation shows forth the person of Jesus, who, more than just representing the perfectly spiritual man, initiates us into the further mystery of the Trinitarian relations. It is here that the believer recognizes the love which animates the world, and incorporates that love into his own life.

The stress given to the personal nature of faith should not distract attention from the vital importance of the concrete content of faith for Benedict. When Benedict stirred controversy with his Regensberg Address by emphasizing the rational nature of Christianity over and above other religious conceptions, he was only reiterating a point made throughout his academic career, that since Christ is the logos of God, Christianity has a rational order and form which can be understood and passed on. It follows that the act of faith will necessarily contain within it the fides quae of traditional theology. Far from conflicting with faith as trusting relationship, the rational content of faith serves as protector of this relationship. In Principles of Catholic Theology, he undertook an explanation regarding the dogmatic formulations of the creed, whose Trinitarian structure, far from obscuring the salvation-historical aspect of Christianity, shows rather the compatibility of dogmatic content and relationship. This dynamic is seen within Porta Fidei, first in the Holy Father’s encouragement to study the content of faith contained within the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but furthermore in his brief exposition on the structure of the catechism which facilitates an actual encounter with “a Person who lives within the Church” (11). Knowledge—rightly understood—does not hinder belief, but “opens a door into the fullness of the saving mystery revealed by God” (10).

A rational faith, containing, as it does, a clear public content, will therefore also be a communal faith that endures through generations. “It is the Church that is the primary subject of faith” (10). Therefore, a study of the Church in its nature and history is vital to re-vivifying personal faith. In addition to the study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the history of the Church (13), Pope Benedict also recommends a return to the documents of the Second Vatican Council which “have lost nothing of their value or brilliance” (5). In his call for a proper hermeneutic of the Council, he cites his own 2005 address to the Roman Curia, in which he argued that the only interpretation of the Council which is currently bearing fruit is the one which views the Church as a single subject existing within history, a subject which is reformed within continuity.

Porta fidei offers a vision of faith that is experiential, personal, concrete, and communal. But another important aspect is the word “witness,” which appears thirteen times in the document. Pope Benedict is at pains to emphasize that the distinguishing mark of the renewal of faith is the production of witnesses whose very lives represent an apologia for Catholicism. “What the world is in particular need of today is the credible witness of people enlightened in mind and heart by the word of the Lord, and capable of opening the hearts and minds of many to the desire for God and for true life, life without end” (15). Thus, we see the connection between Porta fidei and the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization. For the faith to prosper in a secular world, what is needed is not more enlightened pastoral plans, but rather witnesses whose very existence speaks eloquently of Him upon whom their faith is based.

Throughout his public ministry, but especially during his later years, Pope Benedict writes as one who is aware that he lives at the end of the era of Christian Europe. He has already warned that the end of Christian Europe may be the harbinger of the further end of Humanist Europe. One could argue that these are sentiments voiced also by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Nevertheless, this comparison should not blind us to the fact that Pope Benedict himself sees great hope for the future of evangelization. Otherwise, why would he bother championing John Paul II’s New Evangelization? As the accumulated cultural sediment of Christianity is washed away in the flow of history; as popular criticism erodes incentives for attachment; as the technical and consumerist anti-culture chokes the fruitful growth of two millennia of Western Civilization, men and women of the future may recognize the vital, life-changing choice which is faith in Jesus Christ, and from the fertile soil of the open human heart, new life will spring.


About thereserita

Happy Catholic seeking to share that happiness with others.
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