Benedict’s insightful new encyclical, Spe salvi, is half lecture, half retreat conference.
Pope Benedict XVI’s new encyclical, Spe salvi (In Hope We Are Saved), is a thirteen-thousand-word meditation that offers new insight and inspiration on every reading. It is a work imbued with the virtue it examines.
Half lecture, half retreat conference, the encyclical is pitched at a very high level of philosophical sophistication and spiritual insight. At the same time, it is an intricate sermon that examines and explicates the heart of the Christian message, putting aside secondary considerations such as intra-ecclesial controversies to concentrate on the revelation of God in Jesus and the hope and prayer this inspires.
While Benedict’s arguments may not convince those who aren’t already persuaded of the truth of the Christian revelation, his intelligence, generosity, and clarity of spirit will impress believers and nonbelievers alike. One senses the author himself is animated by a hope he wishes to share. As a consequence, readers are likely to feel personally engaged despite the daunting erudition on display.
Benedict was-in what must now seem to him a lifetime ago-an esteemed professor of theology, and his skills as a teacher, author, and lecturer are in ample evidence in this encyclical. His treatise is built on a series of questions that might have been posed by a friendly interlocutor. When he doesn’t answer a question outright, he invariably loops back or reformulates it, teasing out a fuller meaning. He uses stories of ordained and consecrated Christian heroes from recent history-we wish he had included at least one layperson (the witness of the newly beatified Franz Jägerstätter comes to mind)-whose lives exemplify the points he wishes to make.
Spe salvi is surprisingly free of the wooden style associated with most papal encyclicals, and it is not heavily footnoted. Apparently, this pope does not feel the need to recapitulate every papal pronouncement since the Syllabus of Errors. Instead, Benedict relies on Scripture and on quotes from the church fathers, primarily Augustine in his most appealing pastoral mode, and on the catechism. The whole encyclical reads like a brief compendium of traditional Catholic belief sharpened by Benedict’s particular theological emphases. This is both its limitation and its strength. While Benedict deals at length with purgatory and the Last Judgment, subjects not likely to attract some readers, he does so in a revealing and inviting way. He turns to both Scripture and modern understandings of the self to discover how our failures (sin) weigh us down and limit our genuine freedom. Intriguingly, he suggests that we revive the pious practice of “offering up” our personal trials by uniting them with the suffering of Christ. At the same time, he challenges contemporary Christians who put too much emphasis on personal salvation, and he criticizes those who forget the communal nature of redemption and our responsibility for the good of others here and now. The pope writes beautifully of Mary; but in an almost pre-Vatican II mode, the space he gives to this discussion far outstrips any explicit reflection on the Holy Spirit.
Spe salvi recapitulates Benedict’s largely critical appraisal of postmedieval philosophical, historical, technological, and political developments. In concentrating on the catastrophic consequences of certain materialist philosophies and ideologies, especially Marxism, he pays little attention to the positive achievements of the humanistic Enlightenment traditions that have deepened our understanding of the natural world and contributed to efforts to alleviate inequality and suffering. Some of these intellectual and moral developments have expanded the church’s own understanding about the dignity, freedom, and nature of the human person.
Benedict begins the encyclical by quoting Romans 8:24 (“For in hope we are saved”). But the daily lives of most people are perhaps better expressed two verses before: “We know that all creation is groaning.” In a recent, moving reflection on the Iraq war (To Be in a Time of War, City Lights), for example, Lebanese-born poet Etel Adnan describes her anguish at seeing “pictures of Iraqi corpses lying on their land.” Her inability to stop such daily horrors from happening-lives mangled, villages razed, hatred congealed-momentarily inflames her desire to end “everything, oneself and others.” Yet, amid her despair, Adnan recognizes another urge, “to return to those images and transform them into icons. To pray.”
Spe salvi reinforces this response to suffering and injustice. For Benedict, the reason to hope is the person of Christ, and it is our relationship with the risen Jesus that enables us to live expansive, generous lives-even in ominous times.