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Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”), has been released, available online . The encyclical itself is relatively short, but those who wish to read a thorough summary before approaching the encyclical itself may do so courtesy of the Vatican Information Service . This encyclical is singular in that Pope Emeritus Benedict authored most of it, while Pope Francis made some contributions and issued the final product under his own name and authority. The Vatican Information Service relates that Archbishop Rino Fisichella had the following to say at the press conference releasing the encyclical today:

Archbishop Fisichella commented that “Lumen Fidei” is published in the middle of the Year of Faith, and that it was signed on 29 June, the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul, first witnesses to the faith of the Church of Rome, where Peter’s Successor is called to confirm all brothers in the unity of faith. He stated that Benedict XVI was frequently asked to write an encyclical on faith, so as to conclude the triad he had begun with “Deus caritas est” on love, and “Spe salvi” on hope. The Pope was not convinced that he was able to take on this further task”, explained the archbishop. “Nonetheless, this insistence eventually prevailed, and Benedict XVI decided that he would write the encyclical to offer it at the end of the Year of Faith. However, history took a different turn and this encyclical is now offered to us today by Pope Francis . . . as a ‘programme’ for how to continue to live this Year of Faith which has seen the Church involved in many highly formative experiences”.

A few hermeneutical thoughts and observations on receiving and reading this peculiar document:

While papal resignations are not entirely without precedent, I think that the phenomenon we have here of a pope finishing and issuing a predecessor’s encyclical in this manner is without precedent. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) It is true that popes generally have assistance with encyclicals, speeches, homilies, proclamations, motu proprios, and the like, but in this instance the bulk of the work is Benedict’s as has been made clear and as even a cursory reading of the document confirms.

Because the encyclical is written largely by Benedict with contributions by Francis, I fear many will attempt to read it piecemeal, as some like George Weigel tried to do with Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate , seeing parts therein as authentic Benedict while dismissing other parts which supposedly came from supposedly nefarious sources like the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Another example would be Cardinal Walter Kasper’s claim in L’Osservatore Romano (12 April 2013) that as regards the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the Council Fathers “had to find compromise formulas, in which, often, the positions of the majority are located immediately next to those of the minority, designed to delimit them. Thus, the conciliar texts themselves have a huge potential for conflict, open the door to a selective reception in either direction.”

I think we ought to approach official documents in the final form in which they are promulgated, for that is how they are promulgated. Reading behind the text in search of sources and origins is a particular legacy of Enlightenment modernity, an approach found in all disciplines and genres such as Gospel scholarship and literary criticism, an approach that is thankfully waning. That which we hold most certain—the text itself—suffers eclipse. Whatever hands lie behind the Pentateuch, the Gospels, Dei Verbum , Caritatis in Veritate , or Lumen Fidei , they are given and received as coherent wholes.

This is not to evade history or the messiness of a text’s production in history or to do an end-run around hard critical questions, but rather to raise real questions about an adequate theory of interpretation for such documents. To read a text for sources when the text itself does not advert to those sources by quotation or allusion is to read a text against their grain. Rather, a more fruitful approach, particularly with reference to Lumen Fidei and other documents authoritative for Catholics—such as the documents of the Second Vatican Council, or the Catechism but which has proven fruitful with Scripture as well —involves the concept of authorized discourse, in which an authority takes up the words of another and makes it his or her own. In this way, texts can be read critically in a disciplined fashion as coherent, authoritative wholes in accord with their particular nature. Reading piecemeal is a recipe for dissent and endless deferment, for that “selective reception in either direction” of which Cardinal Kasper spoke.

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