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Pope Francis indicates early in his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), that the letter supplements and brings to completion a draft that had been written by his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, to accompany Benedict’s encyclicals on charity and hope. But we are indirectly cautioned against exercising too much curiosity in an attempt to focus on the contributions of separate hands by a reminder in the encyclical of the gift of apostolic succession that serves the unity of the faith and through which we can be assured of continuity in the living faith transmitted by the Church (no. 49). This section at the end of chapter 3 of the encyclical seems (again indirectly) to address any unease that might have arisen in the months following Benedict’s act of renouncing the ministry of the Bishop of Rome and the subsequent election of Francis with the assurance that “the magisterium always speaks in obedience to the prior word on which faith is based; it is reliable because of its trust in the word which it hears, preserves and expounds” (no. 49). Moreover, this seemingly incidental reminder of unity is in accord with a richly developed theme of unity in multiple dimensions that runs throughout most of the document. One of the most important [End Page 5] powers exercised by faith, according to the encyclical, is its unifying power on personal, social, political, and historical levels.

The importance of unity, and the resistance to unity in the contemporary world that must be overcome, is framed by observations concerning what we might call the conditions of late postmodernity. By this phrase I mean to capture a particular stage of development through which cultural views that at one time had the character of daring and difficult breaks with the past have by now become widespread and more or less readily recognizable. These observations are dispersed throughout the encyclical through an examination of Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity (nos. 2 and 3), a comment concerning the loss that results from the individualistic and narrow conception of knowledge prevalent today (no. 14), a remark concerning the contemporary loss of the “sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world” (no. 17), and references to “the crisis of truth in our age” and to the condition of “massive amnesia in our contemporary world” (no. 25). The great liberating power of postmodern thought has been its ability to break down false senses of hierarchy especially with respect to assumptions concerning race, gender, and class and its ability to elevate difference and diversity to appropriate levels of recognition and respect. But the inevitable challenge that follows such a cultural development is to regain a just appraisal of legitimate unity and continuity. This is one of the primary points of emphasis in the encyclical.

The most extended account of the ways in which faith strengthens unity is offered in chapter 1 through an insightful rendering of the relationship between faith and idolatry and of the power exerted by idolatry to destroy unity. Beginning with the history of Israel, the letter observes that the struggles embedded in this history demonstrate that “the opposite of faith is . . . idolatry” (no. 13). The argument develops along the lines of a general principle according to which establishing idols is a way in which we surreptitiously place ourselves at the center of existence and honor above all else the products of our own making, and then concludes by addressing [End Page 6] the contemporary difficulty of living in accord with a fundamental sense of unity: “Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants.” This loss of identity of the human person corresponds to some postmodern claims that the self is nothing other than a collection of desires and a human life a series of distinct phases, subject to unification only through fictions either constructed by the self or imposed by culture, with the further suggestion that any achievement of unity should be experienced...