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Issue Date:  December 21, 2007

-- CNS/Paul Haring

Pope Benedict XVI holds his crosier during the recent consistory in St. Peter's Basilica.
Benedict waxes lyrical on hope

A spiritual meditation, encyclical touches on vintage papal themes


Both philosophers and poets have always recognized that hope is as essential to human life as a heartbeat. Dante made the absence of hope the precise definition of hell, by emblazoning its entrance with the warning, “Abandon hope all ye who enter!”

Sages have long understood that hope can be cruel as well as kind, bleeding into rage or despair when it turns out to be false. The quest for lasting hope is thus among the most primordial philosophical and spiritual exercises. On Nov. 30 Pope Benedict XVI provided the latest entry in the genre with his new encyclical Spe Salvi, or “Saved by Hope.”

An encyclical is considered the highest form of papal teaching, though in Spe Salvi Benedict does not declare any new dogmas or settle doctrinal disputes. Instead, in the style of his earlier encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, “God Is Love,” the text is more an extended spiritual meditation.

In essence, Benedict’s message is that the ultimate foundation for hope lies not in earthly structures or ideas, but in the person of Jesus Christ. Only the transcendent hope that comes from God, the pope argues, can save the world from the destructive power of ideology, and from impossibly messianic expectations of either science or politics.

Deus Caritas Est won praise for its warm treatment of the theme of Christian love, and Spe Salvi shows the pope again determined to strike a largely positive tone.

For example, Benedict offers a novel reinterpretation of what has long been considered among the most ominous doctrines of the church, inspiring countless pieces of portentous art and music -- the Last Judgment. Rather than styling God’s judgment as a threat of eternal damnation, Benedict argues that it is actually about hope for the triumph of justice, in a world where too often cruelty and evil seem to have the upper hand.

“I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or, in any case, the strongest argument in favor of faith in eternal life,” the pope writes. “The purely individual need for a fulfillment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive ... but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ’s return and for new life become fully convincing.”

“A world without God,” Benedict writes, “is a world without hope.”

In the Christian sense, the pope argues, hope is not merely “informational,” meaning the message that there is another world in which death and mourning will be wiped away. Christian hope must also be “performative,” the pope insists, changing lives in the here and now.

Benedict offers the example of St. Josephine Bakhita, an African born in Darfur, Sudan, around 1869 and canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000. A slave while in Sudan, Bakhita bore 144 scars from beatings administered by her masters. When she was brought to Italy, however, she was freed. She converted to Christianity, joined the Canossian sisters in Venice, and developed a reputation as a spiritual guide and missionary.

“She had hope,” Benedict writes, “no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope,” the pope suggests, meaning hope for redemption and eternal life.

Benedict also rejects an individualistic interpretation of hope in Spe Salvi, arguing that Christian hope points toward a “communitarian salvation” leading the believer “out of the prison of the ego.”

At turns Benedict becomes lyrical, such as his discussion of what it means to experience eternal life.

“To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us, and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality -- this we can only attempt,” he writes. “It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time -- the before and after -- no longer exists.”

Early indications suggest that Spe Salvi may succeed in appealing to a wide cross section of readers; even the German reform group Wir Sind Kirche (We Are Church), for example, one of the pope’s harshest critics over the years, issued a statement calling the encyclical “impressive and engaging.”

Benedict’s positive and poetic touch, however, does not mean that Spe Salvi lacks a critical edge. At the same time the pope lauds the hope that flows from Christ, he also rejects any attempt to treat rival sources of hope, such as politics and science, as sufficient without reference to God.

For example, Benedict draws a sharp distinction between Jesus and contemporary social revolutionaries such as Spartacus and Bar-Kochba, making the point that Christianity is not a political movement, and warns once more that Karl Marx’s “fundamental error” of materialism led to “a trail of appalling destruction.” Quoting 20th-century German intellectual Theodor Adorno, the pope also warns that scientific progress by itself too often means “progress from the sling to the atom bomb.”

Freedom, Benedict argues, remains “freedom for evil” unless it’s subordinated to what he describes as the truth revealed in Jesus Christ. Moral well-being, the pope argues, cannot be guaranteed through human structures, and “the kingdom of God will never be definitively established in this world.”

In keeping with his reputation as a European cultural critic, Benedict offers an extended excursus on what he considers the fundamental error of the modern age: an attempt to replace the idea of redemption through faith in Christ with liberation through science and material progress. Benedict traces this trajectory all the way back to Francis Bacon in the 16th century, and brings it forward through the French Revolution, Immanuel Kant, and finally Marx, Engels, and 20th-century communism.

Throughout the 19,000-word encyclical, there are other vintage papal touches.

For example, Benedict has long pressed the need to re-present basic concepts of the faith to a modern world he regards as jaded by a sort of weary familiarity with Christianity. Thus in Spe Salvi, he writes: “We who have always lived with the Christian concept of God, and have grown accustomed to it, have almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God.”

The wide appeal of Spe Salvi does not mean that early reaction has been uniformly positive. The Wir Sind Kirche statement, for example, posed three critical questions about the encyclical:

  • Why doesn’t it cite Gaudium et Spes, or “Joy and Hope,” the Pastoral Constitution on the Church and the Modern World from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), long seen as a sort of charter document for the reform wing of Catholicism?
  • Why doesn’t the pope ask whether the current structures and disciplinary systems of the church actually promote an atmosphere of hope?
  • Will this encyclical generate real hope for progress toward ecumenical reunion?

Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesperson, said in a Nov. 30 news conference in Rome that the encyclical is “absolutely and personally” a work of Benedict XVI. As a matter of fact, Lombardi said, papal advisers had been working on another encyclical on social themes, and were “surprised” when Benedict chose to bring this project to completion first. Lombardi said Benedict wrote Spe Salvi during the Easter season as well as his summer period at Castel Gandolfo.

Lombardi said work on the social encyclical will continue. Many observers expect it to be published prior to Benedict’s expected April 15-20 trip to the United States, which will include a major address to the United Nations.

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2007

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