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Uncovering the sources of creation: Pope Benedict XVI on hope.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO LIVE IN HOPE? (1) If we have a sense of this, it is probably thanks to someone we know who serves as a light of hope--someone whose life is fruitful and evolving, who has time for other people, who has the energy to deal with difficulty and even disaster. As I write this, I am thinking of a wonderful Canadian lady who lived in Rome and died of cancer last year. Even in the last phase of her life, she brought happiness and consolation to others.

Betty-Ann lived her life in a way that was far from being the product of circumstances. She saw things against a canvas bigger than herself and the years or months that remained of her life on earth. Cavafy has a poem that expresses deep dismay at the passing of time: "I don't want to turn back to see, with horror, / how quickly the dark row of candles has lengthened, / how rapidly the number of dead candles has grown." (2) Betty-Ann was never cornered by lingering regrets over life lived and now gone. She always had a level of ambition. To the end of her life, she was interested in her husband's work, in family and friends, in Rome, Florence, and Renaissance art. To live in hope is to live with continuing openness to the future.

Sometimes we see in a whole society the inner life that I have described in Betty-Ann--people who are oppressed and poor yet welcome strangers, celebrate music and festivals, raise children, support one another, dream of the future. Sometimes we experience the opposite--those who to all appearances are quite secure yet live with a low sense of self-worth and without hope. In a society where hope is lost, people's lives may be organized yet lonely. People may become fearful of having children or taking on commitments. We may become prone to fits of anger disconnected from reality, road rage, or random violence. The mass media revel in all of this with cheap indignation.

At the beginning of Spe salvi, Pope Benedict XVI quotes the first letter of Peter and its call to us to be always ready to give an answer concerning the logos--the meaning and the reason--of our hope. Our effort at understanding the workings of hope should be one in spirit with the kindness of people like Betty-Ann and with the courage of communities that have been able to persevere in the face of adversity through the strength provided by hope.

In this article, I will attempt to make four main points: first, the encyclical Spe salvi, "In hope we are saved," published at the beginning of Advent 2007, illustrates the central importance of hope in Benedict's thought; second, I will examine the important ways that Spe salvi complements the encyclical Deus caritas est, "God is love," published at the beginning of Lent 2006; third, I propose to bring into focus what I regard as the main theme in Spe salvi: that Christian hope is not individualistic but looks toward uniting the human family and a final fulfillment of justice; fourth, I will suggest seeds for future development present in Spe salvi and its relevance to the pope's third encyclical, Caritas in veritate, published in June 2009.

I. Spe salvi: A Key Document of the Pontificate of Benedict XVI

To appreciate the significance of Spe salvi (hereafter SS), we should consider first the Pope's biography and his perspective on European history. A recent book recalls that when Joseph Ratzinger began his theological studies after World War II, his main interest was in the question of the ratio spei, the reason for our hope. (3) In the Germany in which he grew to maturity, this was no mere theoretical question. The same book quotes the following passage by Konrad Adenauer, the first postwar German chancellor: "The German people ... endured in hunger, cold, need and death an existence temporarily without hope for the future ... despised by all the peoples of the earth ... each one suffering without despair, struggling not to go under but to save himself and his family from this present distress for the sake of a better future." Joseph Ratzinger, like his Polish contemporary Karol Wojtyia, came to see the terrible evils he had witnessed in the perspective of centuries of European history. Ratzinger took the name Benedict in part to honor his predecessor, Giacomo Della Chiesa, Benedict XV, who opposed World War I and foresaw the need for the Eurocentric international power system to evolve in new ways. Benedict XV was the prophet of a benign globalization. (4) Our present pope, in seeking to understand the path that opens for evil in world history, reflects on the Roman Empire, the French and Russian revolutions, and the works of German writers and philosophers (Reinhold Schneider, Theodor Adorno) who have tried to come to terms with the tragedies of the twentieth century.

Our current historical situation is characterized by accelerating change and by the formation of a global community in which different forms of power intersect. This analysis is fairly standard. However, for the Pope there is a third and more threatening feature: a dangerous imbalance between the power to create and destroy, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the legal and ethical controls on this power. (5) This imbalance has deep roots in our culture, going back centuries: neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI accepts a narrative according to which the twentieth century has brought about some kind of "end of history" through the triumph of liberal democracy. (6) Benedict's outlook is that in the encounter of cultures, under the pressure of change, ethical certainties have largely disintegrated. We can note that in the '80s and '90s, then Cardinal Ratzinger identified money and finance as one of the principal areas in which ethical controls had eroded. Benedict puts it simply: "The question of what the good is (especially in the given context of our world) and of why one must do the good even when this entails harm to one's own self--this fundamental question goes generally unanswered." (7)

The Pope has argued that in such a situation the Church must "go beyond herself "--she must not allow herself to be understood simply as an institution satisfying the personal needs of some, she must engage with Western secular rationality and the religious traditions of India and elsewhere and play an active part in helping to shape the future. Writing when he was still a cardinal, the Pope put this bluntly: "One might go so far as to say the Church will survive only if she is in a position to help mankind overcome this hour of trial." (8) The Church, as the "salt of the earth," should help the Gospel remain a force in public life and should "keep before the eyes of society those values that ought to form its conscience, values that are the basis of its political existence and of a truly human community." (9)

The Pope's vision, developing the ideas of his predecessors since the late nineteenth century, and embracing the major documents of the Second Vatican Council, is that the future of the Church and the future history of humanity are interlocking questions. As Benedict puts it in SS, "Flowing into [the] self-critique of the modern age there also has to be a self-critique of modern Christianity, which must constantly renew its self-understanding setting out from its roots" (22). In SS, Benedict argues that the present-day crisis--namely, our difficulty in understanding why we must do the good--is essentially a crisis of hope (22). On occasion, the Pope has reiterated this vision in terms that even many in the Church will find too bleak, too challenging: "The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects." (10) In these circumstances, the Pope calls for the unity of Christians and a sincere interreligious dialogue. He brings forward a Christian understanding of hope precisely as an anchor, as a means of helping the family of humanity not to be ground down by circumstances and to discern what contribution our own actions can make to setting the world right. Borrowing a phrase from Romano Guardini, the Pope describes his approach as that of "essentializing": ensuring that basic constant factors about hope and salvation and what is fundamental in ethics can be made available to a world society that is changing in ways we do not yet understand. (11)

II. Spe salvi Complements Deus caritas est

I turn now to my second theme, namely that in this task of "essentializing" the two encyclicals Deus caritas est and Spe salvi should be read together and against the background of the Pope's more personal book on the figure of Jesus of which the second volume has yet to appear. Deus caritas est (hereafter DCE), meaning "God is love," places before a modern audience the idea that "to come to believe in God's love" is the greatest of all gifts. Spe salvi picks up Paul's phrase that "in hope we are saved" (Rom 8:24) and gives us an answer concerning the logos, of our hope (SS, 1-2). But how do love and hope fit together?

I would observe, in the first place, that the shape and style of the two encyclicals suggest their inner unity. The encyclicals share a similar scale. There is a parallelism of structure. The encyclicals are methodologically similar, beginning with their extraordinary range of references--to the Bible, classical authors, the philosophy of the modern era, seemingly everything that has been thought and written around the subjects in question. To take one example, section 44 of SS, a discussion on the Last Judgment and what happens to us after death draws on Paul, St. Hilary (one of the lesser-known Fathers of the early church), The Brothers Karamazov, Plato's Gorgias, the gospel of St. Luke, and early Judaism.

This openness to sources is complemented by an openness of tone and spirit. Above all, both encyclicals are written so as to enhance the common heritage of all Christian traditions. It can be noted as well that the Pope allows to himself to speak in the first person and at times to speculate. The overall effect reflects and reveals a thinker who engages rather than instructs, and whose sympathies are so broad that there is little risk of his being taken by surprise by some argument or angle that he had failed to consider.

In terms of the stylistic comparison, the decisive point to note is that both encyclicals explore individual words. In an earlier book, Ratzinger acknowledges that "human words, at any rate the great fundamental words, always carry within them a whole history of human experiences, of human questioning, understanding, and suffering of reality. ... So in order to understand the Bible aright, one must always also turn to question the history preserved in its words." (12) By way of explaining DCE at its publication, Benedict said that the word "love" had become "worn, tired and abused" and that he wanted to recapture something of the splendor it had had in the work of Dante. His second encyclical follows the same strategy of restoring the connotations of a word--the truth, energy, connectedness, and endurance to be found in the Christian concept of "hope." By restoring the field of meaning around this word, the Pope offers a new interpretation of life as a whole: "All serious and upright human conduct is hope in action" (35).

Not only are the two encyclicals similar in structure and approach, there is a sense in which they together form a completed picture. "Faith is hope" states the first main section of Spe salvi. Later "faith-hope" crops up as a hyphenated word. DCE describes God's nature, the face that God has shown to us. But Benedict states at the outset of DCE that his objective is to "call forth in the world renewed energy and commitment in the human response to God's love" (1). SS addresses the form such energy will take: the encounter with Jesus, mysterious as it is, is the source of life-giving hope. Benedict states in SS that "the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known," not only "informative," but "per-formative": it makes things happen (2). The first thing that happens is that love leads us on to faith-hope. We do not need to await any third encyclical to complete the triad "faith, hope, and charity."

There is at least one more thing to learn from the stylistic similarities between the two encyclicals. DCE ends with a prayerful address to Mary the Mother of God. The closing section of SS is also addressed to Mary the "star of the sea," the star of hope. The cry to Mary marks in each encyclical a transition from contemplation to action.

There seems to be a change of emphasis, as compared to the past, in Benedict's treatment of love, faith, and hope. He narrows the concepts to two, love and faith-hope, and interprets them in a way that gives them a "virtue," an operative power: insight and contemplation on the one hand, and action on the other, are bound together.

Since his election in 2005, the Pope has given us the first part of what is intended to be a two-volume work on Jesus of Nazareth. The work on Jesus is signed both "Benedict XVI" and "Joseph Ratzinger." It has a personal character and invites comment and reaction. Benedict's personal understanding of Jesus converges, as one would expect, with his philosophical exploration of the words love and hope.

At least three principal ideas run through the first volume of the Pope's book: first, the "real Jesus" is the Jesus of the Gospels: historical methods do not lead to a reconstruction; second, the focal issue in the New Testament is the identity of Jesus, from which his actions flow--the Jewish people had been promised a new Moses, "who will see God's countenance in a more real and intimate way than Moses ever did";

third, the sermon on the mount is a "hidden biography" of Jesus and a key to understanding hope in action. (13)

Benedict understands the Sermon on the Mount as a summons to follow Jesus and a consolation for those who respond to this summons yet also suffer. Each of the beatitudes refers to the experience of Jesus, a different aspect of how he is hurt and suppressed but despite this suffering offers life and hope to others. If we are united with Jesus, his qualities emerge in us too. We cultivate a hope that can survive challenging and even terrible circumstances.

Underlying Benedict's main publications--the encyclicals published under the Pope's teaching authority and his personal writings on Jesus--is a vision of human action in a world of suffering. To those who say that after Auschwitz we lack the very possibility of understanding history, Benedict offers the figure of Jesus, the "sign spoken against" who sails against the current of circumstance. The action of Jesus unites the values of love and truth and validates hope for a restored world. In SS, the Pope mentions a third-century sarcophagus in Rome in which we see the figure of Christ holding in one hand the Gospel and in the other the philosopher's travelling staff (6). Jesus is the answer to the fundamental philosophical question, how should we live our lives?

This reaffirmation of hope is set against modern denunciations of hope. Nietzsche, to take a prominent example, believed that both the Western philosophical tradition that begins with Socrates and the followers of Christianity too readily assume that what is rational, what is good for us as individuals, and what is good for society will converge in a harmonious way. In Nietzsche's view, the proof that this is mistaken lies in the outcomes we see around us. For Nietzsche, religious believers are victims of false hope.

Another well-known modern criticism of Greco-Roman culture, also frequently extended to the Church, is that the "higher activities" of culture, and ultimately the gift of contemplation, belong traditionally to elites while "ordinary life" and its commitment to action receives too little recognition. These charges of false optimism and elitism are implicitly answered in SS. The "hope in action" described by Benedict does not depend on any "optimistic" overall theory of the perfectibility of society. The practice of "hope in action" is an option for everyone.

III. Spe salvi: A Meditation in Ten Stages

The central argument of SS falls into ten sections. The first six parts explain aspects of the concept of hope. Three subsequent sections explain the settings in which the disposition of hope can be learned. A final section is an address to Mary as an exemplar of those who live in hope.

In the second temptation in the desert (in the sequence followed in Matthew's Gospel), Jesus responds to the devil, "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test." As Benedict explains this in Jesus of Nazareth, we cannot impose laboratory conditions on God or expect God to submit to particular conditions that we say are necessary if we are to reach certainty. Such a procedure would mean discarding the dimension of love. (14) The distinction here between "laboratory conditions" and the "dimension of love" corresponds broadly to the distinction referred to above between "informative" and "performative" communication.

It serves the interests of performative communication and the dimension of love that the mode of reasoning in the central part of SS relies on different perspectives or platforms--explanations, explorations of the settings for learning hope, the address to Mary. The genre of the encyclical is something more than forensic argument. We are invited to consider sacred buildings in which a picture of the Lord returning as a king, the symbol of hope, is juxtaposed with a picture of the Last Judgment, a symbol of our personal responsibility. Neither symbol trumps the other. Reasoning through juxtaposed images or interacting ideas is as characteristic of SS as of DCE. We do not necessarily have to take the "panels" or ideas in strict order: to enter into one is to begin to be aware of the others, and an inner unity is supplied by the viewers as we contemplate the whole. (15) The informative is at the service of the performative.

It seems to me the main lines or nodal points of this "learning" are six in number. One: faith is hope. The first two sections of the encyclical suggest that where there is faith and hope, the present is changed, touched by the future reality. As well as believing something, we acquire a certain kind of power. The classic images of faith in the letter to the Hebrews--substance, drawn from the sphere of economics, and argument or proof, drawn from the sphere of law--convey that faith is more like an inner resource than a subjective conviction.

The Pope uses the examples of the nineteenth-century African slave, Josephine Bakhita, and Spartacus, the gladiator who led the most famous slave revolt of the ancient world, to illustrate the workings of hope. Bakhita acquired a "trustworthy hope" comparable to that of the early Christians, which enabled her gradually to rise above her circumstances. For Spartacus the only hope was political liberation. (I will return below to the question of slavery and its place in the world of the New Testament.)

Two: Christian hope is not individualistic. The fourth section of the encyclical goes to the heart of the Pope's thinking and confronts the false proposition that the Christian abandons the world to its misery and pursues a private form of eternal salvation. We know from Benedict's autobiography, covering his life up to the mid-1990s, that the theologian Henri de Lubac was an important early influence. (16) The Pope gives credit to de Lubac for the keystone argument of SS that salvation is a social reality. Sin is understood by the Fathers as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division. Redemption appears as the reestablishment of a unity that begins to take shape in the world community of believers. The tower of Babel and the heavenly Jerusalem illustrate, respectively, confusion and reconfiguration.

The section concludes with a short description of St. Bernard's vision of monastic life. For Bernard, the monastery was not a place of flight from the world but rather a place which performed a task for the whole Church and hence also for society--just as in an earlier period the monastery was almost by definition a center of culture, because the search for God required among other things education, a shared culture of the word.

Three: the true shape of Christian hope is not located in "progress." One of the most important stages in the argument concerns the "true shape of Christian hope." In what is considered the scientific worldview, the rule of reason and freedom is seen as replacing an antiquated, less than functional way of thinking and doing. Christian faith becomes a side-show in history--a private and other-worldly matter, irrelevant to progress except as a possible obstacle to reform. The fundamental problem with this picture of progress is that freedom always remains freedom for evil. Benedict describes how Kant changed his opinion of the French Revolution in response to the emerging facts; and how the thinking of Karl Marx, although accurate in terms of the picture it painted of contemporary society, did not control events post-Revolution.

To the question whether we can establish social structures for the benefit of future generations, the Pope's answer is that we risk doing either too much or too little. We aim for too much if we imagine that the well-being of the world can be guaranteed through institutions alone. On the other hand, it is also possible to aim too low: the Pope's strongest criticism is of Christians who fail to see their capacity to create and transform: "We must also acknowledge that modern Christianity, faced with the successes of science in progressively structuring the world, has to a large extent restricted its attention to the individual and his salvation. In so doing it has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognise sufficiently the greatness of its task" (25). Actions "that flow from genuine hope" depend on perspective. The Pope sees a relationship between the "greater or lesser hopes of everyday life" and the "great hope" of eternal life that arises through relationship with God. As a matter of experience none of our ordinary hopes--hopes for our relationships, for advancement in professional life, and so on--fills our whole life, even if they are worthy in themselves. Very often such hopes prove fragile. A simple example is that a relationship that gives meaning to life is not proof against the death of the loved one. Pope Benedict suggests that all these other loves can be set in an overall context and sustained by the life-giving relationship with God, a relationship that survives everything. Without an ultimate reliance on the love and power of God, it is much harder to make sense of our day-to-day striving.

Two themes--the importance of our tasks in the world and the underpinning provided by our knowledge and love of God--are drawn together in the portrait the Pope paints of St. Augustine. Following his conversion, Augustine thought first of withdrawing from society with like-minded friends to live a contemplative life. Instead, he was drawn toward the busy public role of bishop. In this role, Augustine did the work of hope, building for the future, encouraging all around him, even though his immediate milieu of Roman Africa was under threat and was in fact destroyed at the end of his life.

In his discussion of the modern concept of progress, the pope touches briefly on the nature of reason. Is reason properly reason only when it operates in a functional way, detached from God, blind to God? Or is reason completely itself only in the perspective of faith? From this, we arrive at point four: action and suffering are settings for learning hope. Benedict bases his discussion of action and suffering as settings for learning hope on the argument that someone can continue to live and act in hope even if outwardly, as measured by ordinary human calculations, his cause is not succeeding: "It is important to know that I can always continue to hope, even if in my own life, or the historical period in which I am living, there seems to be nothing left to hope for."

Why is this ability to act against the seeming current of events so fundamental for Benedict? Quoting Paul, the Pope sees us as "co-workers" of God. A key phrase of Benedict's is that "we can uncover the sources of creation and keep them unsullied" (SS, 35) Because this relationship between transformative action and the "sources of creation" has been established, we do not determine the significance of our own actions and are not, and do not need to be, fully masters of cause and effect. The Kingdom of God, creation itself, comes to us as a gift; it is not a controlled outcome even of well-judged actions; its canvas is much wider than the here and now; it can be served even in the midst of failure.

In the current economic difficulties, an example that comes to mind of a seemingly hopeless action that becomes effective in God's dispensation is the prophet Jeremiah's purchase of land just as the kingdom of Judah is being overrun by the Babylonians (32:13): "In their presence I gave Baruch these instructions: 'Take these deeds, the sealed deed of purchase and its open copy, and put them in an earthenware pot, so that they may be preserved for a long time.' For Yahweh Sabaoth, the God of Israel, says this, 'People will buy fields and vineyards in this land again.'"

I choose Jeremiah's investment for its appositeness at this time. But "uncovering the sources of creation" requires not just courageous, even "counter-cultural" action, such as Jeremiah's was, but action that in its inner nature is in accordance with reason: there is a need for an ethical dimension and for realism. As Benedict has written elsewhere, Jeremiah offers a good example of reason and realism when he opposes the euphoria and false optimism of his rival Hananiah. (17) Our actions have an objective value. They are not to be weighed up in terms of motives only--of the degree of detachment or inner conviction that we bring to our decisions. Nor does their value depend on the immediately measurable consequences.

In an address in Paris in September 2008, which in a sense is the twin of the better-known Regensburg lecture, Benedict speaks of the "inner criterion" of freedom, of how the individual and the community have an "obligation of insight and of love ... we face two poles: on the one hand, subjective arbitrariness, and on the other, fundamentalist fanaticism. It would be a disaster if today's European culture could only conceive freedom as absence of obligation, which would inevitably play into the hands of fanaticism and arbitrariness. Absence of obligation and arbitrariness do not signify freedom, but its destruction." (18)

A further dimension of uncovering the sources of creation reveals itself in connection with human suffering. There is always the moment, even in our basic human relationships, when the pursuit of truth, love, and goodness requires us to accept suffering and look for its meaning. In SS, the Pope goes so far as to state the principle that "the capacity to suffer for the sake of the truth is the measure of humanity." Or as Benedict puts this in reverse form, "If my own well-being and safety are ultimately more important than truth and justice, then the power of the stronger prevails, then violence and untruth reign supreme."

If there is indeed a criterion of truth in situations, if right action uncovers the sources of creation, if there is a realism that is not the same as measuring our self-interest, if we can grow as individuals and communities in our ability to perceive this--all this implies a broad understanding of reason, in which the capacity to differentiate good and evil is fundamental. (As mentioned above, the Pope touches briefly on the nature of reason in the section of the encyclical dealing with modern European history.)

I have the impression that throughout this discussion of action and suffering Benedict is in dialogue with the ancient Greeks on the subject of cause and effect in history. The relationship between transformative or fruitful action and the underlying truth in every situation enables Benedict to go so far as to say that "all serious and upright human conduct is hope in action" and to contradict the criteria of self-interest and expediency, necessity and glory, that had such influence in Greco-Roman culture.

Greek writers came to an understanding that consistent action in pursuit of self-interest does not, over time, deliver the predicted result. There are many cases of this in Athenian drama--the word "hubris" remains part of our vocabulary. But possibly the most acute portrait of disoriented judgment is that of the belligerents in Thucydides's investigation of the Peloponnesian War. (19) The principle of expediency did not deliver for either Sparta or Athens but on the contrary led to the broadening of conflict, social breakdown, and long-term decline.

On the other hand, having discovered the limitations of merely self-interested action, the Greeks found it difficult to articulate a converse proposition, that a situation can be transformed for the better "if we do the good even when this entails harm to one's own self." Greek writers saw nobility in Hector saying goodbye to his little son and dying before the walls of Troy, in Antigone going to her death, in Socrates's refusal to choose exile as an escape from his unjust sentence. But these heroic actions appear to have been understood as taking place in a kind of historical vacuum.

Perhaps the dutiful suffering of the individual begins to acquire a social value in Virgil. There are "tears for history," lacrimae rerum; but there is pattern as well.

Aeneas aims at making Rome great, in the contest or certamen of which Cicero wrote. In this contest, there are many innocent casualties, beginning with Dido. The person of Jesus, prefigured in the Psalms and prophets of Israel, fills the historical vacuum in a different way, by giving a meaning and a reason to action-for-truth at any and every level of society and irrespective of the rise and fall of empires.

Jesus, in his last words to Pilate, states, "You would have no power over me if it had not been given you from above." Pilate's position in the mechanisms of history is contingent: it does not give him real authority or ultimate power. What is historically transformative in this transaction is the witness given by the prisoner.

Jesus's witness to truth is obviously bound up in turn with prayer, with his intimacy with the Father. DCE and SS show a convergence between action, suffering, and prayer, which can form a single movement. Appraising, and if necessary suffering, in the right way is itself both action and prayer. In an anthropology of this kind, to act or perform a work is more than what we often mean by actions or deeds. With such a broad understanding of action, the distinction between deeds and words remains just that: a distinction and not a dichotomy.

Five: judgment is a setting for learning and practicing hope. The first three paragraphs of the section on judgment (41-43) are pivotal for the whole encyclical. The Pope argues that faith in the Last Judgment--the affirmation in the Creed that Christ "will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead"--is first and foremost hope and a hope that answers our deepest reflections on world history.

Benedict suggests that the atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is in its origins a moral statement, a protest against the injustices of history. The world we see, so the argument runs, cannot be the work of a just God, much less a good God. Benedict takes the philosophers of the Frankfurt School as representative of a humanity that can find no this-worldly substitute for God and yet feels equally obliged to reject the image of a just and good God. Theodor Adorno concluded that true justice would require a world "where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone."

In passages in which we seem to hear Joseph Ratzinger at his most personal, the Pope argues that "a world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope." The image of the suffering Christ has no part in the cynicism of power and is itself the denial of false images of God. In reality, through the second coming of Christ and the resurrection of the flesh, there is indeed an "undoing" of past suffering and a reparation that sets things right: "I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favor of faith in eternal life ... only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ's return and for new life become fully convincing." Hope becomes then the right disposition in the face of a final judgment that combines grace and justice: we go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our advocate and whose purpose is to save, to make all things new.

Six: Mary is our star of hope. The encyclical SS concludes, like DCE, with an address, a salutation, to Mary. At the center of this lyrical passage, we see the mother of Jesus at the foot of the Cross: "The sword of sorrow pierced your heart. Did hope die? Did the world remain definitively without light, and life without purpose? At that moment, deep down, you probably listened again to the word spoken by the angel in answer to your fear at the time of the Annunciation: 'Do not be afraid, Mary!' How many times had the Lord, your Son, said the same thing to his disciples: do not be afraid!"

IV. Seeds for Future Development

It is instructive to compare SS with Josef Pieper's book on hope published in the 1970s. (20) Pieper, a writer greatly admired by Ratzinger, comprehensively analyzes hope as the mean between presumption and despair and as the virtue of man as pilgrim. In SS, by contrast, concrete examples of human suffering are integrated into the narrative, in particular from the world of ancient slavery and modern prisons and concentration camps. The focus has switched from our inner equilibrium to the outer reality--to "the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word."

Benedict's argument is dynamic: love leads to faith-hope, contemplation to action, an appreciation of the basic tenets of our faith to a concern for ethical questions. Once this movement is understood, a natural further step is to move away from the philosophical and enter more deeply into the given historical context within which we are called to express hope in action. Therefore, one way of understanding DCE and SS is as a theological preface to "engagement." This kind of sequencing is already present in microcosm in each of the encyclicals individually. In DCE, in particular, a speculative introduction is followed by extensive consideration of love in action. The question then arises, what kind of engagement? What more can be said? Is there a front line in the political battle?

One of the most important contributions Benedict makes to reconnecting us to our roots (to our ressourcement, to borrow a phrase from his other writings) is his recognition in SS of the fundamental importance of chattel slavery in the world of the gospels. I conclude with some reflections on Paul's letter to Philemon. This letter figures prominently in SS and is the only document in the New Testament devoted entirely to a controversial issue of Roman law. I would suggest that Benedict has given us the key to understanding how this letter is more creative in its connotations than even the majority of the Church Fathers were able to see.

Before turning to the text of Paul's letter, I would make some preliminary comments. First, there appear to be instances in the New Testament (and in early Christian writings such as the first letter of Clement) of the deliberate use of vague and nontechnical language where there is a question of conflict with the Roman State--concerning, as well as the core question of slavery, such issues as the payment of tax, the legitimacy of the civil authorities and the law courts, the status of the Sabbath, and service or auxiliary service in the army. In other words, other than in the Book of Revelation (and perhaps the eschatological discourses of Jesus), the New Testament is discreet on the subject of Roman power. This leads me to wonder whether some of the important practical questions facing the early Christian fellowship remain to a degree hidden or understated in the texts. The failure to respect family relationships among slaves, the obligatory torture of slaves if they became involved in judicial proceedings, the use of collective punishments, the presence of professional slave-dealers on Roman military campaigns, conditions in the mines, and the killing of slaves in the arena for public entertainment are only some of the numerous ways in which the institution of slavery was expressed. Does the silence of the New Testament on these matters imply assent?

Ultimately, this becomes a question about the treatment of Jesus himself. In the first letter of Peter, the advice to slaves to be patient is immediately followed by a description of how Christ bore his sufferings. Did the slaves whom Peter encountered at Rome consider that the treatment of Jesus was just? Many of them will have been the descendants of Jews transported as slaves to Rome after the defeat by Pompey. What was the perspective of Jewish or Gallic slaves on the Roman legions? What was their opinion of the crucifixion of two thousand Jews by Quinctilius Varus in 4 7 8: (possibly in the vicinity of Nazareth)? (21)

My second point concerns the nature of the Church. Benedict understands the Church as a koinonia, a sharing or fellowship of men and women guaranteed by God's fellowship and sharing with us. Such a koinonia contradicts the Greco-Roman understanding of the master-slave relationship. The absence of reciprocity was the definition of a slave's position, even to the extent that authors as weighty as Aristotle and Philo suggest a kind of bifurcation of the human species (the "natural slave"; Esau as an example of this). In the De Officiis, Cicero is forced to conclude that the management of slaves requires displays of saevitia, or savagery--meaning that in the last analysis, the institution is incapable of being justified to the slaves themselves. Jesus said to Annas, "If there is something wrong in what I said, point it out"--exactly the demand for dialogue that was forbidden to a slave.

My third observation is that to begin his public ministry, Jesus went to the synagogue and unrolled the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to find the place where it is written: "The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives" (61:1). These captives are prisoners of war and therefore slaves. In the original passage in Isaiah on which Jesus draws, there is a promise that the Israelites themselves will have slaves: "Strangers will be there to feed your flocks, foreigners as your ploughmen and vinedressers." That Jesus does not follow Isaiah in this would seem to bring the question of slavery into play, at least indirectly, at the beginning of his public ministry. I offer this interpretation with additional confidence given Benedict's view that the family of Jesus had connections to the Essenes, who disagreed with the Pharisees on the question of slave-ownership.

Fourth, in Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict shows that the parable of the Good Samaritan falls outside conventional political thinking. The question, "Who is my neighbor?" was capable of receiving a political answer, in terms of some kind of inclusive model of society. Jesus approaches the question differently. He chooses as protagonist in his parable a Samaritan, a figure who did not, even on a generous reading, belong to Israel's community of solidarity. Priest and Levite pass the injured man by and do not violate any rule. The Samaritan acts from the heart in a fashion that no one has legislated.

My final observation is that the concept of redemption suggests the payment against which a slave was released from slavery. The word redemption could not and would not have been lightly used by Peter or Paul in a congregation partly made up of chattel slaves.

In sum, therefore, Christian scholarship has been much too hesitant to proclaim that the first Christians were necessarily deeply uneasy about the institution of slavery, as indeed were some of their Roman contemporaries, notably Juvenal; and that Jesus himself appears to flag slavery as an issue--and of course dies the death reserved for slaves.

Is it then anachronistic to ask if Paul intended in the letter to Philemon to challenge the Greco-Roman institution of slavery? The fact that Roman law was on a trajectory toward moderating some but not all of the horrors of chattel slavery does not mean that limited reform in a context of social stability was also the sum of Paul's or Peter's agenda.

It is true that some of the other New Testament letters, intended to be read out loud to entire communities, offer advice to slaves and masters on the assumption that the civil status of the slaves is a given or will be difficult to change. (22) On the other hand, while the slave Onesimus may have injured Philemon or may owe him something, it is not stated by Paul, in what is in principle a private letter to Philemon, that a slave's running away constituted in itself an injury to the master. Paul refers to an option he has not exercised of issuing an order to Philemon--a point he makes not once but three times (see verses 8, 14, and 21). What is this option that Paul purposefully advertises? Clearly it is that of keeping Onesimus at his own side instead of sending him back to Colossae (see verse 13). Paul gives Philemon no unconditional right to demand the return of Onesimus--and at the same time assures Onesimus that if he does rejoin Philemon, he will no longer be subject to the usual conditions of chattel slavery.

We have evidence of the protection offered by a second-century Roman emperor to asylum-seeking slaves and of other cases in which slaves would seek refuge at temples or the statues of the emperors. (23) This evidence can serve as an additional check on our interpretation of the letter to Philemon. Given that there may have been cases even under the Roman law of Paul's time in which an escaped slave was not automatically returned to his master, is it plausible that Paul would have simply upheld the claims of a slave-owner?

The key to understanding the letter to Philemon lies in Benedict's distinction between microrelationships--with family and friends--and macrorelationships--social, economic, and political. (24) In a discussion in 2009 of the economic crisis with clergy of the diocese of Rome, the Pope distinguished in a similar way between macroeconomics and microeconomics--on the one hand, large-scale projects for reforming the system, and on the other hand, the need for "just people" who are prepared to alter their everyday conduct in the search for justice. (25)

In the world of the New Testament, the fragile new fellowship of the Church could not offer a direct challenge to the institution of slavery at a macro level. The last great challenge at that level, by Spartacus and his followers, had led to ferocious repression. On the other hand, at a micro level, as seen in Paul's handwritten letter to Philemon, the practices of a slave society were incompatible with the Gospel. In the letter to the Colossians, Paul again refers to Onesimus without mentioning his civil status--as a result of which the Jerusalem Bible translation slips up, at least in the English version, and calls Onesimus a "citizen."

In Jesus of Nazareth, the Pope shows how the prophets--Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah--criticized aspects of the Torah, its concrete, historically conditioned legal provisions, in the light of a more fundamental norm implicit in the Covenant itself, namely faith in the one God whose option is to defend the poor and all those who cannot secure justice for themselves. (26) In the person of Jesus we have an even clearer criterion by which to judge our changeable social structures. We see in the letter to Philemon how the individual, whether slave or slave-owner, needed to listen to his conscience to mitigate, overcome, or transform an unwarranted institution: it was never enough to say "the law is the law is the law" or to limit discussion just to the micro or just to the macro level. The "Colossae case" can be seen both as a step toward the abolition of chattel slavery and as an example of how we should conduct ourselves in the interim, as we await the consequences over time of an examined life at both micro and macro levels.

The case of Philemon and Onesimus demonstrates that the Church is a meeting place of a special kind. It is inclusive in practice as well as in theory, unlike the schools of the philosophers. Philemon and Onesimus break bread together--prescinding from social structures, conscious of a criterion beyond self-interested calculations. Advised by Paul, master and slave know that pending any change at the macro level, their microrelationship must be placed on a new footing. They must outdo one another in goodwill, pushing into the background as much as they can their civil status under Roman law. Their mutual conduct must aim to become, in one word, gratuitous.

The letter to Philemon thus understood points the way toward a claim made in Benedict's third encyclical, Caritas in veritate: "The traditionally valid distinction between profit-based companies and non-profit organizations can no longer do full justice to reality, or offer practical direction for the future." (27)

There is an analogy between this rejection of an antithesis--that between profit-based companies and nonprofit organizations--and Paul's response to the antithesis between master and slave. Neither the master-slave relationship in the Roman Empire nor our present conception of markets "do full justice to reality."

The interim solution offered by Paul corresponds to what seems to me the core message of Caritas in veritate: "The earthly city is promoted not merely by relationships of rights and duties, but to an even greater and more fundamental extent by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy, and communion." (28)


The figure of Mary at the foot of the cross, the last image in SS, links Pope Benedict's reflections to a prophetic twentieth-century demand for justice, namely Anna Akhmatova's poem "Requiem," concerning the fate of innocent Russia under Stalin, as seen through the suffering of the wives and mothers of Stalin's victims.

The last section of the main body of the poem, the touchstone of good in the midst of rampant evil, is titled "Crucifixion":
Mary Magdalene beat her breast and sobbed,
The beloved disciple turned to stone,
But where the silent Mother stood, there
No one glanced and no one would have dared. (29)

As readers we attend the crucifixion. We share the delicacy of feeling, the shame, as the gaze of passersby turn to Mary and then away again. Almost without noticing, we have acknowledged the evil of what is being done. A well-spring of conscience remains untouched. By Akhmatova in the darkness of Soviet Russia, as by Pope Benedict, Mary is honored as speculum iustitiae and regina pacis--the mirror of justice and the queen of peace. (30)


(1.) This article is based on a talk delivered at the Studium Catholicum, Helsinki, on March 28, 2009.

(2.) C.P. Cavafy, "Candles," translated by Stratis Haviaris,, accessed July 1, 2010.

(3.) D. Vincent Twomey, SVD, "Pope Benedict XVI / The Conscience of Our Age" (Ignatius Press 2007).

(4.) John F. Pollard, Benedict XV/The Pope of Peace (Continuum, 1999).

(5.) "What Keeps the World Together/The Prepolitical Moral Foundations of a Free State," a lecture delivered in the Catholic Academy in Bavaria, January 19, 2004, and published as chapter 2 in Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Values in a Time of Upheaval (Ignatius Press, 2006).

(6.) Philip McDonagh, "The Political Thought of Pope Benedict XVI," Studies/An Irish Quarterly Review (Summer 2006).

(7.) Jurgen Habermas, Joseph Ratzinger, The Dialectics of Secularisation (Ignatius Press, 2006), 56.

(8.) On Conscience/Two Essays by Joseph Ratzinger (Ignatius Press 2007), 45.

(9.) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, God and the World/A Conversation with Peter Seewald (Ignatius Press, 2002).

(10.) Letter regarding the Lefebvre bishops, made public March 12, 2009.

(11.) Ratzinger, God and the World, 446.

(12.) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith / The Church as Communion (Ignatius Press, 2005).

(13.) Eero Huovinen, "The Pope and Jesus," Pro Ecclesia, no. 2 (Bishop Huovinen is Lutheran Bishop of Helsinki).

(14.) Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (Doubleday Religion, 2007).

(15.) See Philip McDonagh, "The Unity of Love: Reflections on the First Encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI," Logos, A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture (Winter 2007).

(16.) Joseph Ratzinger, Milestones (Ignatius Press, 1998).

(17.) Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict, TheYes of Jesus Christ (Crossroad Publishing Company 1991), 50-53.

(18.) Address to Representatives from the World of Culture, College des Bernardins, Paris, September 12, 2008.

(19.) Philip McDonagh, A Greek Tragedy Reviewed, Transnational Perspectives (Geneva, 1986).

(20.) Josef Pieper, On Hope (Ignatius Press, 1986).

(21.) Sepphoris, 4 miles from Nazareth, was at the center of the Roman campaign.

(22.) Cf. 1 Corinthians and the advice to slaves to obtain freedom if they can.

(23.) See rescript of Antoninus Pius quoted by Ulpian. Just as Paul must have been aware of the debate regarding asylum-seeking slaves, the author of the first letter of Peter, using the relatively mild word kolafizomenos to describe the beating of slaves by their masters, must have been aware of the legal debate regarding possible limits to the physical abuse of slaves by their masters (as opposed to magistrates).

(24.) Caritas in veritate, 2.

(25.) February 26, 2009.

(26.) Jesus of Nazareth, 122-26.

(27.) Caritas in veritate, 46.

(28.) Ibid., 6.

(29.) Anna Akhmatova,. The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, ed. Roberta Reeder, trans. Judith Hemschemeyer (Boston: Zephyr Press, 2000), 384-94.

(30.) Cf. ibid., 79.
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Author:McDonagh, Philip
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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