Pope Francis issued his first encyclical on Friday with a message on the importance of Christian faith that showed he plans no radical departure from the doctrinal stance of his predecessor Benedict.
“Lumen Fidei” (Light of Faith) was originally intended to form part of a series by Benedict on the theological virtues, following earlier encyclicals on love and hope, but was not completed by the time of his surprise resignation in February.
An encyclical is a letter to bishops and the faithful laying out a pope’s views on doctrinal or other matters.
In the 82-page document, Francis stressed the role of the Christian faith as a defense against the “massive amnesia in our contemporary world” caused by excessive trust in technology and the “subjective truths of the individual”.
“When faith is weakened, the foundations of humanity also risk being weakened,” he said, in a text issued three days before he visits Lampedusa, a tiny island south of Sicily which thousands of desperate migrants from North Africa have died trying to reach.
Francis, the first Latin American pope, has struck a more friendly, down-to-earth tone than his cerebral German predecessor, refusing to occupy the sumptuous papal apartments and shunning many of the ceremonial trappings in which Benedict appeared to revel.
The encyclical comes as the Church faces fresh turmoil over the scandal-ridden Vatican bank following the arrest of a senior cleric and the resignation of two of the top managers of the bank, known formally as the Institute for Religious Works (IOR).
The new pope has already appointed a commission of inquiry to get to grips with the problems at the IOR. Cleaning up an institution notorious for its lack of transparency will be one of his thorniest challenges.
The encyclical outlines many positions familiar from Benedict’s reign, stressing the Church’s role in guiding and shaping belief and addressing the “crisis of truth in our age”.
“I have taken up his (Benedict’s) fine work and added a few contributions of my own,” Francis wrote.
“In contemporary culture, we often tend to consider the only real truth to be that of technology: truth is what we succeed in building and measuring,” he said, adding that “at the other end of the scale we are willing to allow for subjective truths of the individual”.
“In the end, what we are left with is relativism.”
Francis restated the Church’s position on marriage as “the stable union of man and woman” but made no direct comment on the issue of homosexual unions, which has caused deep divisions in countries including France and the United States.
He said faith should encourage greater respect for nature, “a grammar written by the hand of God and a dwelling place entrusted to our protection and care,” and said it should also not make people forget the sufferings of the world.
Francis has repeatedly emphasised the importance of helping the poor and dispossessed, underlined by the choice of Lampedusa for his first visit outside Rome.
During the visit he will drop a wreath in the sea in memory of the thousands of migrants who have died on the perilous crossing from North Africa in flimsy and overloaded craft.
He will also visit the reception centre, which is the first stopping place for many when they arrive.
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