Benedict Sticks to Basics

The Pope’s New Encyclical Explores Christian Hope
by Father Raymond F. de Souza | Source:
VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI has released his second encyclical, Spe Salvi Facti Sumus (On Christian Hope), continuing his emphasis on the basic truths of the Christian life, and immediately raising expectations that it was the second installment of a trilogy on the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.

Deus Caritas Est, the Holy Father’s first encyclical, signed on Christmas Day 2005, was on love.

Papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi indicated that there was no plan for a third installment, but did not exclude the possibility.

Indeed, Father Lombardi said that Spe Salvi itself was something of a surprise.

Papal advisers had been working on drafts for an encyclical on social themes when Benedict himself decided to bring the document on hope forward first — a work written distinctively in Benedict’s own style, and almost entirely the work of his own hand. Deus Caritas Est, in contrast, was a combination of Benedict’s own work and drafts that had been prepared for Pope John Paul II.

Spe Salvi has been met with wide approval, even from some of Benedict’s vocal critics, upon its Nov. 30 release. The encyclical puts a basic question: What is the hope that can give meaning to life?

Without some form of hope, the Holy Father argues that life becomes tedious and potentially burdensome, even if it is marked by material affluence and technical progress. The person without hope finds himself in an existential difficulty: For what enduring purpose am I clinging to this life that I love and do not want to lose?

“Here we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future: It is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness,” Benedict writes. “Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well.”

Not Only For Christians
Hope is not then something for the future alone, a sort of wishful thinking about what might be; it offers meaning for life today. Christian hope is founded on certain faith that life is not a meaningless riddle, but a mystery progressively revealed and finding its fulfillment in the redemption won by Jesus Christ and offered to all peoples.

In restating this basic Christian doctrine, Benedict argues that it is not only for Christians alone. Others may not share the Christian faith in God, but the Christian proclamation that hope comes from within the person — in the realm of faith and conscience — is for them too. It offers an important protection against stifling and occasionally brutal social systems built on false hopes that come from outside the person, founded on political ideologies, economic models and social theories.

“Christianity did not bring a message of social revolution like that of the ill-fated Spartacus, whose struggle led to so much bloodshed,” Benedict writes, noting also the savagery of 20th-century totalitarianisms. “Jesus was not Spartacus; he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation like Barabbas. Jesus, who himself died on the cross, brought something totally different: an encounter with the Lord of all lords, an encounter with the living God and thus an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope that therefore transformed life and the world from within.”

Benedict highlights that point with a re-telling of the moving story of St. Josephine Bakhita, a former slave who found liberation, both physical and spiritual, in an Italian convent. That Mother Bakhita was a black slave born in Darfur — a point Benedict mentions — draws attention to Sudan, where slavery still exists, and sources of hope are desperately needed. Born in 1869, she found her way to the Canossian sisters in Venice, where she was baptized in 1890. She would later take her religious vows after passing an examination conducted by the patriarch of Venice, Giuseppe Sarto, the future Pope Pius X.

Love, Not Science
While slavery binds the body, Benedict also argues against a philosophical materialism that binds the human spirit to the horizon of this world alone.

“Man can never be redeemed simply from outside,” Benedict writes, taking direct issue with certain tendencies in modern philosophy. “Francis Bacon and those who followed in the intellectual current of modernity that he inspired were wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science. Such an expectation asks too much of science; this kind of hope is deceptive. Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it. ... It is not science that redeems man: Man is redeemed by love. This applies even in terms of this present world. When someone has the experience of a great love in his life, this is a moment of ‘redemption’ that gives a new meaning to his life.”

Spe Salvi also returns to favored themes in Joseph Ratzinger’s long scholarly life. There are passages dedicated to biblical exegesis, especially the relationship of faith to hope in the Letter to the Hebrews. The Holy Father also insists that truth is not a constraint on human liberty; rather it is what gives meaning to authentic freedom — a theme he sounded in his inaugural homily as Pope.
American readers might be amused to see the words “known unknown” appear in the papal text — a phrase recently made famous in another context by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Benedict though is quoting his favorite author, St. Augustine, on what we hope for. We know that God offers us salvation, but we do not know exactly what life in heaven shall be like. It is a “known unknown.”

Benedict turns to Augustine to underscore a “community-oriented vision of the blessed life” against visions of Christian hope that might be too individualistic. Quoting the late French theologian Henri de Lubac, Benedict warns against conceiving Christian hope as a personal refuge from a world that is abandoned to its misery.

On the contrary, Christian hope has a “communal dimension” that seeks to repair the divisions and discord between peoples.

At some 20,000 words, Spe Salvi follows Benedict’s apparent preference for shorter papal documents, in contrast to John Paul’s much longer texts. Work continues on the social encyclical, which will likely be published next year.

Father Raymond J. de Souza served as the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1999-2003.
He writes from Kingston, Ontario.

Source: National Catholic Register - December 9-15, 2007 Issue


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