Today at noon in Rome, the Holy See released Pope Benedict XVI’s second encyclical, “Spe Salvi”, which proclaims the need for hope in modern society and the necessity for Christians to recover its true meaning.
The Pope begins his 75 page encyclical by explaining that “the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.”
“Spe Salvi” draws upon the rich treasure of Benedict XVI’s learning, with references from the lives of the saints and the Church Fathers. Armed with this wisdom and the virtue of hope, the Holy Father says, “The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.”
Naturally, this leads to the question, what is hope? The pontiff relates that “to come to know God—the true God—means to receive hope.”
Yet Christian hope is different. Referring to the New Testament’s times, he writes, “Christianity did not bring a message of social revolution like that of the ill-fated Spartacus, whose struggle led to so much bloodshed. Jesus was not Spartacus, he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation.”
“Jesus… 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 which therefore transformed life and the world from within,” the encyclical explains.
“It is not the elemental spirits of the universe—relates the Holy Father—which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love—a Person.”
This changes man’s world because “the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free.” Christians have hope because Jesus “tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human,” explains the Pope.
Turning to Hebrews 11:1, the Holy Father points to the impact of faith. “Faith is not merely a personal reaching out towards things to come that are still totally absent: it gives us something. It gives us even now something of the reality we are waiting for, and this present reality constitutes for us a ‘proof’ of the things that are still unseen.”
“Faith,” writes the Pope, “gives life a new basis, a new foundation on which we can stand, one which relativizes the habitual foundation, the reliability of material income.”
Does Modern Society Want Eternal Life?
Not content to remain at the level of the abstract, Benedict XVI turns his focus to modern Christian life. The pontiff asks several crucial questions: How do we experience the Christian faith in our lives? Is it a “life-changing and life-sustaining hope?” Even more importantly, “do we really want this—to live eternally?”
“Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive,” he speculates. “What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living for ever—endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift.”
Consequently, “there is a contradiction in our attitude, which points to an inner contradiction in our very existence,” the Pope notes. “On the one hand, we do not want to die; above all, those who love us do not want us to die. Yet on the other hand, neither do we want to continue living indefinitely, nor was the earth created with that in view. So what do we really want?”
To answer to this deep question, “Spe Salvi” turns to St. Augustine, who says that “ultimately we want only one thing—‘the blessed life’, the life which is simply life, simply ‘happiness’.”
The transformation of Christian faith-hope in the modern age
The Holy Father begins his look at the modern Christian understanding of hope by asking, is Christian hope individualistic? In other words, does a person’s salvation depend only on their personal life, or does it hinge upon our service of others too.
Lamenting the “personalization” of salvation, the Pope asks, “How did we arrive at this interpretation of the “salvation of the soul” as a flight from responsibility for the whole, and how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others?”
Moreover, “this programmatic vision has determined the trajectory of modern times and it also shapes the present-day crisis of faith which is essentially a crisis of Christian hope,” says the Pope.
Over the ensuing years, “the ideology of progress developed further, joy at visible advances in human potential remained a continuing confirmation of faith in progress as such,” the encyclical states.
At the same time, two categories become increasingly central to the idea of progress: reason and freedom. The result of this thinking is that “[p]rogress is primarily associated with the growing dominion of reason, and this reason is obviously considered to be a force of good and a force for good. Progress is the overcoming of all forms of dependency—it is progress towards perfect freedom.” In all of this, “the two key concepts of ‘reason’ and ‘freedom’…were tacitly interpreted as being in conflict with the shackles of faith and of the Church,” the pontiff explains.
This new idea of progress resulted in historic changes. “Spe Salvi” briefly addresses “the two essential stages in the political realization of this hope, because they are of great importance for the development of Christian hope, for a proper understanding of it and of the reasons for its persistence.”
The first development is “the French Revolution —an attempt to establish the rule of reason and freedom as a political reality.” During the eighteenth century, society “held fast to its faith in progress as the new form of human hope.”
“Nevertheless,” he recounts, “the increasingly rapid advance of technical development and the industrialization connected with it soon gave rise to an entirely new social situation: there emerged a class of industrial workers and the so-called “industrial proletariat.”
“After the bourgeois revolution of 1789, the time had come for a new, proletarian revolution”… “Karl Marx took up the rallying call, and applied his incisive language and intellect to the task of launching this major new and, as he thought, definitive step in history towards salvation,” the Holy Father articulates.
“His promise, owing to the acuteness of his analysis and his clear indication of the means for radical change, was and still remains an endless source of fascination,” he opined.
However, the Pope points out, “with the victory of the revolution…Marx's fundamental error also became evident.” “He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man's freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil. He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.”
For Part Two of CNA's in-depth coverage of "Spe Salvi" click here.
To read the entire encyclical go to: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/document.php?n=165