By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Pope Benedict XVI released today what could eventually be the second part of a triptych of encyclicals on the “theological virtues” of faith, hope and love, in the form of Spe Salvi, or “Saved in Hope.” The reference is to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:24, “For in hope we were saved.”
Only the true Christian understanding of hope, Benedict argues, can save the world from the destructive power of ideology and impossible messianic expectations of politics.
Benedict’s first encyclical, released in December 2005, was Deus Caritas Est, or “God is love.” The theological virtues are listed, again by Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13:13: “So faith, hope and love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
“We need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day," Benedict writes in Spe Salvi, released today by the Vatican. "But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God."
That point leads Benedict to accent what has emerged as the core concern of his papacy: a determination to focus on the heart of Catholic identity, and on the distinctive spiritual message the church has to offer the world.
"Self-criticism of the modern age in dialogue with Christianity and its awareness of hope is necessary," Benedict writes. "In such a dialogue, Christians too, in the context of their awareness and their experiences, must learn anew what their hope truly consists of, what they have to offer the world and what, instead, they cannot offer. The self-criticism of the modern age must also lead to a self-criticism of modern Christianity, which must forever learn anew to understand itself based on its own roots."
Speaking this morning at a Vatican news conference, Cardinal Georges Cottier, a Dominican and the former theologian of the papal household under Pope John Paul II, said that the encyclical argues that the virtue of hope is "decisive for culture and for an authentic humanism."
Cottier said the encyclical also illustrates how Christian hope is not a "flight from the world," but rather a force that impels Christians into active service to others and to the world.
During the news conference, television screens played images of the pope signing the new encyclical this morning.
Throughout the encyclical, Benedict weaves familiar themes for those who know his mind. Repeatedly, for example, he insists that the claims of the Christian faith do not place limits on human freedom or on the free exercise of reason, but rather point freedom and reason to their ultimate fulfillment. He also returns once more to what he describes as the "fundamental error" of Marxism, placing its hope exclusively in materialism.
Benedict wanted this encyclical to appear in the Christmas season, since Christmas is the great feast of the Incarnation, traditionally understood as the principal symbol of Christian hope. On Saturday, the church enters the period of Advent, pointing towards Christmas.
With Spe Salvi,, Benedict solidifies his profile as a “pope of the basics” – determined to accent the core principles of the Christian faith.
Early indications suggest that Spe Salvi may succeed in appealing to a wide cross-section of Catholics; even the German reform group “Wir Sind Kirche,” for example, one of Joseph Ratzinger’s harshest critics over the years, issued a statement today calling the encyclical “impressive and engaging.”
Moreover, the focus on love and hope for his first two encyclicals also serves the pope’s ecumenical purposes, since Christians have not been divided historically on these two virtues. Competing understandings of the faith, on the other hand, have been far more explosive.
The Feast of St. Andrew is also the patronal feast of the Patriarch of Constantinople, offering another ecumenical dimension. Cottier said this morning that the text could be a "document of unity" for the different Christian confessions. Cottier also noted that Benedict quotes the Protestant Biblical scholar Helmut Koester approvingly in the encyclical.
Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, said this morning in a Rome news conference that the encyclical is “absolutely and personally” a work of Benedict XVI. As a matter of fact, Lombardi said, papal advisors had been working on another encyclical on social themes, and were “surprised” when Benedict chose to bring this project to completion first, virtually exclusively the work of his own hand during the Easter season and his summer period at Castel Gandolfo.
Lombardi said that work on the social encyclical will continue.
In the text of Spe Salvi, Benedict cites a series of recent saints and Catholic heroes, from Mother Josephine Bakhita to “the unforgettable Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan,” the late Vietnamese prelate who spent 13 years in a Communist prison, and who wrote a book on the experience titled Prayers of Hope.
Benedict also reflects at length on various Biblical passages related to hope. Among other things, he tackles the much-disputed question of how to understand the Greek term hypostasis in Hebrews 11, which reads that “faith is the substance of things hoped for.” Benedict argues that this “substance” is not, as Martin Luther suggested, merely a subjective sensation within the individual believer, but rather an objective reality based on the truth of the Christian faith.
Benedict also rejects an individualistic interpretation of hope, arguing that Christian hope points toward a “communitarian salvation” leading the believer “out of the prison of the ego.”
In later passages, the encyclical deals with such classic theological themes as the problem of evil, the final judgment, Hell and purgatory.
While “Saved by Hope” is primarily a spiritual reflection, that doesn’t mean it lacks doctrinal and political implications. At the peak of the battles inside Catholicism over liberation theology in the 1980s, for example, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger argued that modern tendencies to reject supernatural forms of hope result in seeking messianic solutions through secular politics, which opens the door to extremism.
In his 1985 book-length interview The Ratzinger Report, for example, the then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith warned against “a leveling of hope to earthly history alone, where only ‘body’ and ‘bread,’ no longer ‘soul’ and the ‘Word of God,’ are reckoned in the first rank.”
Ratzinger has also linked hope to what he sees as the importance of continuity with the past and a strong sense of Catholic identity.
“To poison the past does not give hope: it destroys its emotional foundations,” he wrote in 1986’s Seek That Which is Above. “It is only the person who has memories who can hope.”
The deliberately 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:
•tWhy doesn’t it rely more on Gaudium et Spes, or “Joy and Hope,” the Pastoral Constitution on the Church and the Modern World from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which has long been a sort of charter document for the reform wing of Catholicism?
•tWhy doesn’t the pope ask whether the current structures and disciplinary systems of the church actually promote an atmosphere of hope?
•tWill this encyclical generate real hope for progress towards ecumenical reunion?
More analysis from John Allen is here: Spe Salvi a 'Greatest Hits' collection of core Ratzinger ideas
The full text of the encyclical may be found here: Spe Salvi.