omnibus omnia

On the papal encyclical “Saved by hope” (revised)

In Benedict XVI, Bible, Catholicism, Christendom, Christianity, Church, Critique, Faith, God, Grace, Love, Opinion, Religion, Salvation, Spirituality, Theology on November 30, 2007 at 21:17

The Holy See has just published Spe salvi, the new encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI. Dealing with the Christian doctrine of hope, it can be found on the Vatican website, or through the link on Papal Encyclicals.net. The following, of course, presupposes that one has read or will thereafter read the new document.

Spe salvi, the second encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI, cannot be easily categorized along the conventional lines of papal or other Church documents. It is an expository treatise, summarizing nearly every aspect of the Christian doctrine of hope–moral, eschatological, soteriological–in only 50 paragraphs; but it is also a meditation, which, in Christian terminology, means a reflection on a truth or event and its implications in one’s life of faith, as well as an exhortation to Christians to revisit the hope that is in them. The meditative-exhortative aspect of the encyclical accounts for its frankly rambling structure, but it coheres well with the deeply personal and existential nature of the theology of hope, which demands less of knowledge than of commitment. To use the language of the encyclical, hope must be “performative” as well as “informative”, and that is something achieved not through syllogisms but through an immersion in faith.

A Thematic Summary

The encyclical goes from the theoretical to the practical: It begins with a discussion of the nature of Christian hope, and, before concluding on the role of the Blessed Mother, ends its substantive discussion with a review of the situations in which hope is realized and expressed. Along the way it contrasts Christian hope with the bankrupt polytheism of antiquity and the modern dogma of progress, and it raises as examples of hope two Saints from the Third World, a fact highlighted by Vatican analyst Sandro Magister in his early discussion of the encyclical. The last, besides being an unmistakable recognition of the new heartlands of the Church, also pays implicit homage to the catholicizing heritage of Pope John Paul the Great, who canonized both Saints in his great bid to geographically and socially extend the recognized scope of Christian sanctity.

Thematically (rather than in seriatim, since the document rather flits from point to point), the points of the encyclical may be summarized thus:

(a) Hope is founded on the knowledge of God in Christ. Pope Benedict, affirming the ancient teaching of the Church, declares that hope is received through knowing God. This knowledge, he says, is based on the acknowledgement that it is not an abstraction or a mere set of forces that controls human destiny but “reason, will, love–a Person”, and it is made possible by a living relation with God through Christ. No more, therefore, is the universe to be viewed as empty, and human life as unknowable and insecure, for God provides our idea of past, present, and future with an unchanging locus; and, as expressed in early iconography, Christ gives us a definition of present humanity as well a bedrock of our future hopes.

(b) Hope pertains to our future destiny of eternal life. The encyclical stresses the eschatological character of hope, that is, the fact that it refers to, and will be fulfilled in, some future life in which we will be enjoy happiness without end after the Judgment. Pope Benedict hence rejects the this-worldly vision proposed by Marxism and the Western cult of progress from which it sprang; and he categorically affirms the rather unpleasant truth that, while Christians must ensure the right ordering of present society, the permanent and complete good of Paradise is something unattainable in this life.

Note that this “precarity” of humanity’s earthly hopes –particularly, the hope for a New Eden of freedom and reason, which the Pope singles out for criticism– is primarily attributed by Pope Benedict not to an “infra-natural” cause (the human weakness caused by Original Sin”) but to the very “natural” fact of human freedom; for this means that every human individual and generation faces every choice on tabula rasa, with the power to build on or unmake the choices of the past, whether for good or ill. Human hope, therefore, ultimately centers not on our precarious achievements here but on eternal beatitude, which is found in and given by God.

(c) Hope is an objective reality in the present. Through a careful exegesis of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Pope Benedict explains that, while hope looks to the future life, it also exists as an objective reality in the present life. Through hope, Christians come to have a new substantiality and basis for life, a still-unseen seed for the new life that will reach full growth in eternity. More precisely, this seed is the new relationship with God through Christ that is received with baptism, and it is the fact of already belonging to a new society that is also sought in common pilgrimage. Note that, in stating this theme, the Pope is re-affirming the ancient Christian belief (in the identity of justification and mystical communion) that was also upheld against Luther by the Council of Trent.

(d) Hope is personal and communal. In affirmation of Scripture and Tradition, the Pope reiterates the teaching that Christian hope is truly personal, implicating the life and destiny of the individual, and truly communal, identical with a lived union with God and neighbor. These two aspects of hope are not considered to be divergent expressions, but as inseparable facets of the same reality; for they are both founded on a personal relation of love with Christ, which love becomes actualized in communion with neighbor, and therefore neither is possible without the other. In making this dual emphasis, Pope Benedict seems to be correcting the Western secular dichotomy between individualist and collectivist eschatologies, in line with the Church’s original organic-functionalist conception (i.e., the Johannine image of the Vine and branches, the Pauline conception of the Body of Christ united through the Eucharist).

(e) Hope is received from God. Throughout his encyclical, the Pope stresses the fact that Christian hope is not something acquired by human effort but is something given by God as a free gift to humanity, through Christ Whose self-emptying makes redemption possible. The document affirms that human action is necessary in furtherance of hope, but also that it is something that is made possible by the love of God, and cannot find fruition apart from His grace. Pope Benedict affirms that this need for Divine grace extends even to such “natural” faculties as reason and its exercise, his thought thus being in clear contradistinction to the Pelagianism of modern Western humanism.

(f) Hope is not only known but lived. As earlier mentioned, Pope Benedict says that beyond its fact-giving informative aspect, the response to hope entails recognition of its life-changing, performative dimension. This change must be made in one’s own life, such as in the purification of the intentions of prayer, as well as in social life; and for the last, the encyclical cites St. Bernard of Clairvaux and the contemplatives of Latin or “Medieval” Europe, whose sojourn in the monasteries, often thought a flight from the world, involved an improvement through labor of the present world. It would mean courageous and persevering conduct in accord with faith, and, most of all, a life of giving and sacrifice in God and for neighbor, for this is demanded by both justice and grace, and “man is redeemed by love.”

A Brief Assessment

In his second encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI successfully combined theological sophistication with clarity of expression to make a very good and very readable summary of the Christian doctrine of hope. This feat is especially remarkable given the almost limitless scope of the document’s topic–for one must remember that hope implicates nearly every doctrine on Scripture–, and the sophistication of the issues involved. For instance, the discussion of the present reality of hope quite deftly sails through the turbulent debates between the incarnational and eschatological visions of spirituality, simultaneously yet unforcedly affirming the ancient other-worldliness of the Christian eschaton and its “worldly” mission to “redeem the time”.

The encyclical’s logical force is remarkably demonstrated by its smooth glide from a discussion of justice and grace to that on the doctrine of purgatory, which transition contains possibly the best proof of purgatory yet written. The same characteristic can be seen in the discussion on the present substantiality of hope, in which the Protestant doctrine of hope as primarily a subjective orientation of the individual–though mentioned only in an almost-aside–is handily refuted, which refutation then becomes the basis for the Pope’s “reconciliation” of the incarnational and eschatological views on Christian hope.

Surprisingly, these quite strong syllogisms fail to detract from the major trait of the document, which is the exhortatory fervor that informs it, especially in the invocation of the intercession of the Blessed Mother with which it closes. As Church documents go, and surprisingly given the cerebral reputation of the present Pope, Spe salvi belongs more to the “heart” than the “head” in tone, notwithstanding its erudition and intellectualism; or, in other words, it is more Augustinian than Thomist in style and content, even to the Pope’s frequent use of the first-person singular in portions that almost seem to personal testimonies of faith. In this sense (as anyone who has slept through the Summa would understand), this may lead Spe salvi to stand out as one of the more accessible encyclicals of the past ten years.

Of course, one should not read the  encyclical as though it were only a theological treatise or only an exhortation, for it is both of these and more besides: a meditation on a much-neglected doctrinal theme, a summary of a disputed question in the Scholastic sense, and even a devotional work in the style of St. John of the Cross, flitting from giving a full exposition of hope to discussing individual elements of the doctrine.

Admittedly, the encyclical suffers from some substantive and structural indeterminacies. For instance, the encyclical does not delineate the “objective” and “subjective” dimensions of hope; and while it stresses the objective reality of hope, it fails to fully clarify the logical relation between hope as knowledge and as a habitus, or as a fruit of love and as a source of justice. Similarly, in discussing hope as a communal reality, the encyclical limits its proof to the unitive character of the act, and it fails to do more than mention the classical Christian belief in the community as the instrumental cause of hope, and not merely as the proving-ground for love.

Structurally, the encyclical rambles from topic to topic, quickly going into a connected question before answering the one that came before, and repeating subtopics to clarify points not fully threshed out earlier. To be fair, these could be consequences of the document’s meditative and exhortatory intent, but the lack of a clear logical progression is jarring for someone (like myself) who grew up in the Thomist and empiricist traditions, and who is therefore used to arguments marching in step to the music of ergos and respondeos. In other words, it may simply be that I am not an Augustinian. (I have a feeling, though, that Spe salvi was originally written as a Q & A document in the style of some CDF documents, hence its “episodic” structure.)

All that being said, I strongly recommend that people download or buy as well as print and read the encyclical. It makes a fine continuation after reading his Introduction to Christianity and, most especially, his Spirit of the Liturgy); and, aside from the fact that Pope Benedict’s average is better than most others’ best, it is beyond cavil that the document’s discussion is an excellent summary of, and response on, the relevant issues on hope from a Christian perspective. In particular, his criticism of Western ideas of progress is a must-read for those interested in finding out more on the so-called decline of faith. More anon perhaps, when time allows, but for now, God bless you.

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