In an unsigned review printed in the New English Weekly in 1932, George Orwell remarked: “Very few people, apart from Catholics themselves, seem to have grasped that the Church is to be taken seriously.”
This is probably more true today than it was seventy-five years ago. And it is probably true too, unfortunately, with regards to Pope Benedict XVI.
Nearly three years into his papacy, Benedict has emerged as the wisest leader on the world stage today, one who has thought deeply about what ails us in these troubled times and has offered compelling answers for what we should do about it. But very few people, even among Catholics, seem to have grasped this or taken him seriously.
It may be that people aren’t paying much attention because of his age—he’s almost 81 now—and because he arrived on the scene only after a long apprenticeship in the Vatican and the long twilight of his beloved predecessor, John Paul II. But this is no caretaker Pope biding time until a more youthful helmsman can be found for St. Peter’s barque.
Commentary and media coverage, even to a large extent that found in the Catholic press, tends to focus on Benedict’s “positions” on whatever is the hot-button issue of the day—abortion, gay “marriage,” the war on terror, the Latin Mass, ex-communicating Catholic politicians, and the like.
But looking through this kind of reductionist lens, we’re bound to miss that aspect of Benedict that might have struck Orwell, though he himself was no fan at all of the Church or any organized religion.
What Orwell was honest enough to recognize about Catholicism is true about Benedict as well. Like the Church he leads, Benedict has a comprehensive, integrated vision of life and society that ranges from human psychology and spirituality to justice and peace within and among nations.
What he has offered the world in his few hundred speeches, homilies, and other statements over the last couple years represents the late work of a remarkable 60-year career as a theologian, pastor, and public intellectual.
You don’t find in Benedict any of the defensive, self-justifying chest-thumping and controversy-mongering that passes for so much of contemporary apologetics in this country.
Benedict gives account for the hope that is in him with the serene self-possession of one of the early martyrs. Jesus Christ is real, he tells us, and the Church’s claims are true. It is not only reasonable for us to believe these things; even more, these are truths worth dying for—and changing our lives to live for.
In Benedict we always catch an echo of the confidence of the early Church, of people like St. Ignatius of Antioch, who once wrote: “Christianity is not the result of persuading people. Rather it is something truly great.” (Ignatius wrote those words, incidentally, while behind bars waiting to be fed to the Roman lions.)
Saved by Hope
A good introduction to what Benedict has been up to is Spe Salvi(“Saved in Hope”), the encyclical letter he published last month.
The need for a new papal statement on Christian hope may not be immediately self-evident. But Benedict has believed, at least since his days as a professor at Tübingen in the 1960s, that underlying the many problems in the world today is a crisis of hope.
And on one important level, Spe Salvi is about how to find happiness, the true meaning of life, in a world of tears and injustice, suffering and disappointments. The questions are: What makes life truly worth living? What can we truly hope for? Or, in Benedict’s words: What “goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey” of our lives?
For all his scholarly credentials and book-smarts, Benedict remains a pastor of souls. He knows the existential drama that roils just below the surface of modern life. It is striking how personal and direct this encyclical reads:
“Ultimately we want only one thing—the ‘blessed life,’ the life which is simply . . . ‘happiness.’ . . . .We want life itself, true life, untouched even by death. Yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for. This unknown ‘thing’ is the true ‘hope’ which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity.”
Compressed in those words is the wisdom of a priest who has been hearing confessions for more than half a century. We hope for happiness, but we don’t know what it is; it remains an “unknown thing.” Because we don’t know what true happiness is, we don’t know how or where to look for it. Yet the thirst for this “unknown” grail drives us, impelling all our efforts—some of which turn out for our good while others prove painful and even ruinous.
Benedict says that what we’re all looking for, whether we know it or not, is assurance that this life isn’t all there is, that death is not the end. We’re looking for what Jesus and his apostles called “eternal life.”
Yet he acknowledges that such language is hardly attractive to modern ears, conjuring up as it does images of a kind of endless succession of calendar days, each as boring and repetitious as the last, world without end. Understood in this linear way—heaven as a continuation on another level of our days on earth—the prospect of living forever understandably seems “more like a curse than a gift,” Benedict remarks.
But his response is sublime and beautiful. We must instead think of eternal life as “plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.”
The Protest Against God
As in Jesus of Nazareth (Doubleday, $25), the book he issued last Spring, Benedict’s theological ruminations and biblical interpretations in Spe Salvi often lead us to the thresholds of contemplation and prayer. The new encyclical’s passages on suffering, heaven, hell, and purgatory include some of the most eloquent and moving words ever written about these subjects in the Church’s tradition.
Benedict knows that at the root of the modern revolt against God are the problems of evil and the suffering of the innocent. A world in which so much bad happens can’t possibly be the work of a good God—or any God, for that matter. So the atheist argument goes.
Yet Benedict responds: “To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful. A world without God is a world without hope. Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so.”
For Benedict, Christ’s promise of his second coming and the final judgment of all souls is a pledge that evil and injustice will not have the last word in human history. “I am convinced,” he writes, “that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument . . . in favor of eternal life.”
In an extraordinarily rich passage, in which he draws from St. Hilary of Poitiers, Plato, Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamozov, and Christ’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), Benedict makes this confession of faith in reply to the strongest of atheist objections:
“God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. . . . Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. . . . Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened.”
At the heart of Spe Salvi is a critical reading of the intellectual history of the modern age.
Here we see a startling, unprecedented feature of this encyclical.
Popes have been writing letters to the faithful since the days of St. Peter. In the modern period, papal encyclicals have taken up such big-ticket issues as Nazism, fascism, Marxism, evolution, industrial capitalism, and more.
But never in these letters do the popes “name names,” or critique or comment on specific politicians, policies or authors. Never do they quote persons other than saints, earlier popes, or other figures and documents from the Church’s orthodox tradition.
Benedict here bends all the rules past breaking. The middle section of Spe Salvi amounts to a critical survey of some of the chief architects of the modern mind. Bacon, Kant, Engels, Marx, Lenin, Horkheimer, Adorno, the “great thinkers of the Frankfurt School”—all enter into the conversation.
These are not straw men or polemical foils for Benedict. Though he vigorously disagrees with many of them, he treats their ideas and motivations with the seriousness and respect they deserve—Marx, for instance, is praised for his “incisive language and intellect” and the “acuteness of his analysis.” Here again we have another lesson that all our scorched-earth culture-warriors and neo-traditionalists might take to heart.
The Age of Reason and Revolution
The Pope locates the foundations of the modern age in the rise of the scientific method and new technologies beginning in the late-16th century. These developments led the elites to believe that man no longer had any need for God, that men and women need only rely on their own devices—their ingenuity, know-how, and technological inventions.
In this new era, reason and freedom were exalted as the be-all and end-all of human existence. Humanity exchanged belief in God for “faith in progress.”
Hope in God and in the life of the world to come was eclipsed by hope in humanity—the belief that through reason and science mankind could achieve redemption, righting all wrongs and creating a heaven here on earth. Thinkers like Immanuel Kant even used the biblical language of “the kingdom of God” to describe the world that would be ushered in when “ecclesiastical faith” was replaced by a religion shorn of dogma and reestablished on the basis of reason alone.
Traditional religion and piety was sequestered as something “private and other-worldly,” while the churches, along with Europe’s monarchies and political systems, were cast as the enemies of reason and freedom, destined for the dustbin of history.
Thus, the new ideas of the modern age had revolutionary consequences. The first shots were fired in the French Revolution of 1789, with its infamous Reign of Terror against the Church and aristocracy, and its erection of the Cult of the Supreme Being, the ultimate idol to human reason. There followed in short order the revolts of 1848 and the Marxist revolutions of the 20th century.
For Benedict, the lessons of this history are clear and the evidence incontrovertible.
Man’s material progress has not been matched by his moral and ethical progress. He quotes approvingly Theodor Adorno’s quip that progress is progress from the sling to the atom bomb. Human efforts to build a better world without reference to God and without recognition of the human capacity to choose evil are doomed to descend into cruelty, injustice, terror, and totalitarianism. “We have seen it, and we see it over and over again,” he writes with the authority of one who has, beginning as a youth in Hitler’s Germany.
Star of Hope Rising
Despite the collapse of the communist empire and the intellectuals’ declarations that we now live in “post-modern” times, we remain children of the modern age of reason and revolution, according to Benedict.
We inhabit an almost militantly secular world, in which God is excluded from public life and people are encouraged in ways more or less coercive to live as if God doesn’t exist. Without God we are prisoners of materialism, ruled by the iron-fisted laws of biology and physics. Without God, we have no standards for knowing what is true and good, for preferring any one thing to anything else. Everything is relativized, made a function of what “works” or what any given individual might feel at any given time.
Underneath it all is a crisis of hope. The horizon of human hope has receded to its vanishing point. What we hope for now is all self-centered, small-scale, and this-worldly. We hope for ourselves alone or for those near and dear to us. We hope to find a good job, to find love that will last, to be comfortable, to provide good things for our children.
These little hopes are vital and they keep most of us going day to day. But they are not enough, Benedict says. We need what he calls “the great hope.” We need God.
“God is the foundation of hope. Not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end—each one of us and humanity in its entirety. His kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive. His kingdom is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us. His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day . . . in a world which by its very nature is imperfect. His love is at the same time our guarantee of the existence of what we can only vaguely sense and which nevertheless, in our deepest self, we await: a life that is ‘truly’ life.”
Here Benedict faults the Church for its halting response to modernity. “[W]e must also acknowledge that modern Christianity . . . 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 recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task . . .”
Benedict worries that our faith has become insular and in-grown, that we have taken a selfish, every-man-for-himself approach to salvation. For ordinary American Catholics there is much room for self-examination in light of Benedict’s frank critique—the churlish fear and hatred we express in the debates over immigration; our comfortable indifference and me-firstism in the face of injustice, suffering, and need; our farcical rigidities and joyless obsessions with ritual and “tradition.”
It’s not enough to want to save our own souls or those of our loved ones. True Christian hope opens us to the world, says Benedict. Hope in Christ is a call to holiness, to live like saints. It requires a radical love for our neighbors, a willingness to suffer with them and for them so that they might know the hope that is in us—so that they too might know Jesus Christ.
“As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise?”
Benedict’s call to hope is a call worth taking seriously. How many will grasp that, and how many will have ears to hear, remains an open question.
Orwell himself never held out much hope for the dialogue of faith and unbelief. In that same 1932 review he wrote: “There can be little real contact of mind between believer and unbeliever.”
Benedict doesn’t believe that. And he would not have us be deterred. As he writes in Spe Salvi: “It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain.”
Originally published in Godspy.com (February 2008)
© David Scott, 2008. All rights reserved.