Saved by Hope
Insights from Pope Benedict's new encyclical.
By Gerald O'Collins | JANUARY 21, 2008
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Pope attacks the cruelty of Atheism" and “Pope Replies to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins” were two of the headlines that greeted Benedict XVI’s second encyclical, Saved by Hope (Spe Salvi). An Anglican bishop was more on target when he told me: “I welcome this encyclical on Christian hope. Hope is essential, but too often it’s been neglected. I’m very glad to find a papal encyclical for the first time taking hope as its theme.”
What are the surprises in this encyclical? Do parts of it take us beyond the pope’s first encyclical, God Is Love? Does this second pastoral letter show any links to Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, a book on hope that Joseph Ratzinger published in 1977? Are there any significant omissions?
The Letter’s Content
The pope’s message combines a pastor’s concern for his people with a scholarly use of Scripture and an effective appeal to some great voices in the Catholic tradition from Augustine of Hippo to Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, a prisoner for 13 years, nine of them spent in solitary confinement. The encyclical is peppered with references and insights of every kind: biblical, doctrinal, spiritual, philosophical, historical and artistic.
“Young people,” the pope writes, “can have the hope of a great and satisfying love; the hope of a certain position in their profession, or of some success that will prove decisive for the rest of their lives.” But even when such hopes are fulfilled, it becomes evident that “only something infinite” will satisfy, a “great hope” that is something more than we can “ever attain” or achieve for ourselves (Nos. 30, 31). One hears an echo of Augustine’s words at the beginning of the Confessions, “Our heart is restless until it finds rest in you, O Lord.” Pope Benedict draws on Augustine to underline our primordial hunger for true and lasting happiness, for that eternal life in which we will experience a totally satisfying fullness and be “plunged into the ocean of infinite love” (Nos. 11, 12).
The pope appreciates “the experience of a great love” that can give “a new meaning” to our existence. Yet by themselves such experiences remain “fragile” and will, in any case, be “destroyed by death.” We need the “unconditional love” (No. 26), which Paul described luminously in cosmic language: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).
Almost half of the encyclical (Nos. 32-48) is dedicated to what the pope calls “settings for learning and practicing hope.” He names prayer as the “school of hope.” An “exercise of desire,” prayer also entails “a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings.” There is an “intimate relationship between prayer and hope.”
Pope Benedict recalls a “precious” book by Cardinal Van Thuan, Prayers of Hope, writing:
During thirteen years in jail, in a situation of seemingly utter hopelessness, the fact that he could listen and speak to God became for him an increasing power of hope, which enabled him, after his release, to become for people all over the world a witness to hope—to that great hope which does not wane even in the nights of solitude
“All serious and upright human conduct,” he insists, “is hope in action.” But as well as practicing hope through working “towards a brighter and more humane world” (No. 35), we can grow in hope through the things we suffer. We must “limit” and “fight against suffering,” but “we cannot eliminate it.” The pope adds: “It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it, and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.” Benedict then quotes a vivid passage from a letter by the Vietnamese martyr Paul Le-Bao-Tinh (d. 1857) that illustrates the “transformation of suffering through the power of hope.” It was a “letter from Hell” that described the hideous conditions of the prison where tyrants abused and brutalized their victims. Yet the martyr wrote, “In the midst of these torments, which usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone—Christ is with me” (No. 37).
The pope looks beyond the suffering embodied in Christian martyrdom to broader issues: “The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society.” A society that “is unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through ‘compassion’ is a cruel and inhuman society.” Yet society at large will not support suffering members in their trials, unless “individuals are capable of doing so themselves” and personally “able to find meaning in suffering” (No. 38). In effect, the pope challenges both the public and every individual with the questions: Do you find any meaning in suffering? How do you relate to those who suffer? What do you do for them? Real Christian hope is always hope for others—and, especially, an active, compassionate hope for those who suffer.
Along with the role that prayer and suffering should play here and now as settings for learning and practicing hope, the pope turns to the future and recalls the expectation that the risen Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” On the east end of ancient churches it became customary to depict the Lord returning as king, while the west wall “normally portrayed the Last Judgment as a symbol of our responsibility for our lives.” This was the “scene, which followed and accompanied the faithful as they went out to resume their daily routine.” Unfortunately, as the iconography of the Last Judgment developed, “more and more prominence was given to its ominous and frightening aspects, which obviously held more fascination for artists than the splendor of hope, often all too well concealed beneath the horrors” (No. 41). Benedict XVI emphasizes that “the image of the Last Judgment is not primarily an image of terror but an image of hope.” Even though it is also “an image that evokes responsibility,” it remains an image of hope, even “the decisive image of hope” (No. 44).
In making his case for recognizing the splendor of hope to be found in “the image of the Last Judgment,” the pope engages in a fascinating dialogue with two great Jewish philosophers and sociologists of the Frankfurt School: Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) and Theodor Adorno (1903-69). They insisted that the horrible injustices of history should not have the final word. There must finally be justice. But that, in the words the pope quotes from Adorno, would require a world “where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone.” Yet this would mean, the pope points out, something foreign to the thought of Adorno: the resurrection of the dead (No. 42).
There will be, the pope declares, “an undoing of past suffering, a reparation that sets things right.” “For this reason,” he adds, “faith in the Last Judgment is first and foremost hope.” Personally he is convinced that “the question of justice constitutes...the strongest argument in favor of faith in eternal life.” It is only because “the injustice of history” cannot be “the final word” that “the necessity for Christ’s return and for new life become fully convincing” (No. 43). Hence he can state firmly: “God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope” (No. 44).
The encyclical ends with a touching address to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the “Star of Hope” (No. 50). Here Pope Benedict follows a practice of his predecessor, who often closed his official texts with a prayer to the Virgin Mary. I found Benedict’s prayer even more effective than those of John Paul II. In an affectionate and touching way, it follows the journey of hope that was the life of Mary.
This encyclical remains in steady dialogue with the modern world in all its technological progress, dreadful upheavals and material hopes. The pope recognizes, for instance, how at one level “the laws of matter and of evolution” govern the world. But they do not “have the final say.” That belongs to the personal, loving God who governs the universe (No. 5).
The pope recalls the progress signaled by “the discovery of America and the new technical achievements” encouraged by the thought of Francis Bacon (1561-1626). “He even put forward a vision of foreseeable inventions—including the airplane and the submarine” (No. 17). Reason and freedom fueled faith in progress and hope for a new Jerusalem that progress might bring in this world. After the French Revolution, “the 19th century held to its faith in progress as the new form of human hope” (No. 20). Marx and Engels envisaged the proletarian revolution, which came “in the most radical way in Russia.” The supposedly “interim phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat” did not usher in “a perfect world” but left behind “a trail of appalling destruction” (No. 21).
As Adorno warned dramatically, “progress, seen accurately, is progress from sling to the atom bomb.” The pope cites these words to illustrate “the ambiguity of progress.” Unquestionably “it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist.” In words that echo Albert Einstein, he warns: “If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress” in the “ethical formation” of human beings, “then it is not progress at all, but a threat” for humanity and the world (No. 22).
We cannot simply “be redeemed through science. Such an expectation asks too much of science.” To be sure, “science can contribute greatly to making the world” more human. Yet “it can also destroy” the human race and the world, “unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it” (No. 25). Without opening themselves to truth, love and what is good and making “a right use of creation which comes to us as a gift,” human beings can destroy “the present and the future” (No. 35).
Pope Benedict sums up the dramatic state of the human race. While there is “incremental progress” in the material sphere, a “continuous progress towards an ever greater mastery of nature,” on the other hand human freedom “is always new,” and “decisions can never simply be made for us in advance by others.” In “fundamental decisions, every person and every generation is a new beginning.” New generations “can build on the knowledge and experience of those who went before, and they can draw on the moral treasury of the whole of humanity. But they can also reject it.”
In developing his encyclical, the pope draws on a rich variety of sources and examples. After an opening section on the teaching of the New Testament, he moves to the heroic life of the Sudanese saint Josephine Bakhita. Born in Darfur, she was kidnapped at the age of 9, sold five times in slave-markets and flogged repeatedly. Bought by an Italian merchant, she was taken to Italy, set free and received into the Catholic Church by the Patriarch of Venice. As a Canossian sister, she set herself to extend to others the “liberation” and hope she “had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ” (No. 3).
The pope cites from the tradition such major voices as Ambrose of Milan, Maximus the Confessor, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas and Henri de Lubac (but not his friend, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who combined a Christ-centered hope with a profound sense of evolutionary progress toward the final future). He repeatedly uses texts from Augustine of Hippo to illuminate the theory and practice of Christian hope. Augustine and other church fathers understood 1 Cor 3:12-15 to express a fiery judgment facing every individual and became a classic passage supporting the function of Purgatory (No. 46). This interpretation, however, went beyond what Paul himself had in mind: the judgment that missionary preachers would experience.
Pope Benedict draws from two essays of Immanuel Kant to exemplify this great philosopher’s disillusionment as the progress promised by the French Revolution lapsed into violence and terror (No. 19), and from Plato’s Gorgias and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to illustrate the meaning of final justice (No. 44). In highlighting “the innumerable interactions” that link the lives of all people, the pope echoes John Donne: “No man is an island” (No. 48).
Even more than in God Is Love, this second encyclical cites a rich range of witnesses from beyond the Catholic tradition. The pope’s respect for Adorno, Bacon, Dostoevsky, Horkheimer, Kant and Plato sets the encyclical in a broad context of human thought and culture. Saved by Hope reads seamlessly, unlike God Is Love, of which the first part came from Pope Benedict himself while the second part is reworked themes on charity and justice inherited from his papal predecessor. John Paul II broke new ground in papal teaching by considering repeatedly and at length the question of human and Christian suffering. Saved by Hope also takes up the theme of suffering and its possible meaning.
Like Ratzinger’s 1977 book, this encyclical draws on Adorno’s thought in maintaining justice through the resurrection of the dead and reflects on an “intermediate state” of purification after death. But unlike that book, it neither develops a theology of death nor attends to the precise theme of the immortality of the soul.
For all its richness, Pope Benedict’s second encyclical does not include everything one might expect. It does not invoke the Second Vatican Council, which concluded by issuing as its longest document, Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”) and declaring, “The future of humanity lies in the hands of those who are strong enough to provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping.” Nor does the encyclical mention the Holy Spirit, whose powerful presence works to bring all things to final salvation (Rom 8:23).
Nevertheless, Pope Benedict has published a timely and welcome appeal to us to renew our life of hope. May his new encyclical give much light and encouragement to the church and the world.
The encyclical is peppered with references and insights of every kind: biblical, doctrinal, spiritual, philosophical, historical and artistic.
Gerald O'Collins, S.J., after 33 years teaching at the Gregorian University in Rome, is now a research professor in theology at St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham (U.K.). His most recent books include Jesus Our Redeemer (Oxford University Press) and, as co-editor, Pope John Paul II: A Reader (Paulist Press).
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