Page 8, 21st December 2007

21st December 2007
Page 8
Page 8, 21st December 2007 — Let yourself be caught up in Benedict XVI 's heavenly vision

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Organisations: Frankfurt School
Locations: Jerusalem


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Let yourself be caught up in Benedict XVI 's heavenly vision

Don't be put off by the Greek words and obscure scholarly references, says Fr Aidan Nichols. The Pope's encyclical on hope is a gift that lifts the heart 1 3ope Benedict's second encyclical has two main aims, or so it seems to me. Chiefly, it seeks to awaken evangelical hope in disheartened Catholics. Its secondary, but by no means unimportant, intention is to dispel false hope by undermining complacency among post-Christians. In the course of pursuing this twofold agenda, the Pope has a great deal of wisdom to offer, at the simple level of shared humanity. Humanists would benefit from a reading of much in this letter so long as they are not actually allergic to dogma or religion.

The Pope begins with a statement which sounds strange in the ears of Scholastically trained theologians: "Faith is hope." Retentive students of the Penny Catechism will be aware that faith is the first theological virtue, hope the second. They play different, if complementary, pans in the musical trio whose third member is charity. Does not Spe Salvi open, then, with an elementary schoolboy howler? In point of fact, the Pope is right that in the Greek Testaments the word pistis translated into English as "faith" includes the quality of trust in God, and especially confidence in the realisation of God's promises, and, on that basis, the adoption of a new life.

These qualities we, however, inconceivable (literally!) without knowledge of what they are. It is to the element of knowledge in pistis that the later theology of the act of faith, and therefore the virtue of faith, correspond. Through faith we know we have received what Benedict calls "the gift of a trustworthy hope" [2], By the theologically somewhat startling maxim "faith is hope", the Pope seeks to focus our attention on what the early 20th-century French poet and critic Charles Peguy called the "neglected sister", the hope who sometimes seems squeezed out of the family photographs by the more prominent figures of faith and charity.

In idiomatic English, hopefulness is often invoked ironically to sweep people's legs from under them: "What a hope!" "You're hopeful!" "Hope on!" The theological virtue of hope has nothing to do with such "hoping against hope" (another somewhat cynical expression). Christian hope begins from the action of Christ the Victor over sin and death. This is the Christ whose Spirit brings into our present the future the Father has unequivocally promised as the fruit of his Son's triumph. If hope were merely a subjective attitude, it would be as substantial as the smile of the Cheshire Cat. But no. It is an objective gift which elicits appropriate subjective attitudes on our part when we receive it aright, that is. One way of doing so is to read the Pope's letter carefully, prayerfully. and with consideration of our own life attitudes.

It cannot in all honesty be said that it is an easy read. Don't attempt all the gates at one go. Break up the text into sets of three or four paragraphs. If you are put off by the sprinkling of Greek words, the quoted titles of German philosophical trea tises, the references to secular thinkers like the sociologists of the Frankfurt School, and even a citation, left in the original German. from a contemporary ecumenical translation of Scripture, spare a thought for how all this was received in the Roman Curia. Stylistically, this encyclical spells the end of the "curial style" in pontifical documents. It is simply a swathe cut from the cloth of a professor who is also a preacher and always refused to separate the Siamese twins of reflective learning and credal confession. Be comforted by learning that the encyclical also makes use of the lives of the saints (notably the Sudanese Josephine Bakhita, canonised by John Paul II), and the sayings and writings of 19th-century and 20thcentury martyrs.and confessors, as well as texts from the Fathers of East and West, including the "last of the Fathers", St Bernard.

The key moment in writing this letter was probably the decision to use the opening formula of the Western rite of baptism of infants according to the "older", or "extraordinary", form. The candidate's parents (in my 1964 Small Ritual it is the godparent) are asked what they seek from the Church for their child, to which they reply "faith-, to which the next question is, "And what does faith bring you?", whereupon the answer follows, "Eternal life" [101. A great deal of this encyclical consists in excogitation of what is meant by "life", and therefore even more so eternal life. By what Benedict's predecessor would have recognised as "phenomenological analysis", the Pope invites us to ponder what the value of specifically human life is to us, granted that we both wish it to continue (unless we are pathologically inclined, excessively perturbed in mind) and yet find it toilsome (unless we are happy-clappy, insufficiently disturbed in heart). In the upshot Benedict finds that we desire a "true life" which confronts us as a "known unknown". This is what the pagan moralists of the Late Antique age. and their Christian counterparts, called the "blessed life", a life that is "eternal" not in the sense of, as Benedict writes, "an unending succession of days in the calendar" but "something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality[12]. It would take an Oscar Wilde to formulate Lady Bracknell's response to that suggestion, but Benedict is ransacking the resources of the language of mystical theology as well as cultural Romanticism. Mother attempt is: "It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time the before and after no longer exists". "Simply overwhelmed with joy": this is what he thinks the incarnate Word has in mind when he reaches his Last Discourse to his disciples in the Fourth Gospel: "I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you" (John 16: 22).

Benedict insists that such a God-implanted, baptismally forged, objective hope which sparks off in us a subjective hope for the divine Kingdom is not to be regarded as a merely individual affair, leading one to nurture in high spirits a private joy despite the world's circurnambient travails: what he calls, citing a writer of the 1930s who is no doubt blushing in heaven just now, "passing through the battlefields with a rose in [one's] hand" [13]. Rather, the Christian hope is inseparably personal and corporate. Only in escape from the "prison of the ". through participating in the openness of the universal subject", does one's gaze take in the Source of joy I141. It is not entirely clear, at least to me, whether this is owing to the way acts of faith and hope axe necessarily conditioned by charity if they are to be authen tic, or whether what we have • here is a reference to the mediating role of the Church as sacrament of the unity of the humankind. Benedict is looking back to a classic of his young adulthood, the Jesuit Henri de Lubac's Catholicisme, whose original subtitle was The Social Aspects of Dogma. In that context either interpretation would make sense. In the familiar Anglo-Catholic translation of Bernard's hymn on heaven, "Jerusalem the Golden". we sing: know not. 0 I know not, what social joys are there." But, if heaven is the aim of the disciple of Christ, must he or she not also ask what social joys are here? Pope Benedict's answer, citing the same "mellifluous doctor", seems to be: cells of good living where, as the (physical) earth is tilled, the (spiritual) earth of our humanity is cleared of its vices. Such oases can arouse and slake a wider thirst for the good for man. The social philosopher Alastair MacIntyre famously asked for a "new Benedict". But the Benedict who came (Joseph Ratzinger) seems to want, rather, a new Bernard.

How can we explain the marginalisation of the Christian hope through its reduction to individualistic "private-ism'"? The Pope places the blame squarely on the shoulders of secularists. Starting with their not so holy father, the 17thcentury thinker Francis Bacon, the prophets of rational progress through technological innovation allowed faith to remain, but only as what a man did with his solitude [16-17]. Granted the inescapable relation of hope to faith ("faith is hope"), the rest follows. Unfortunately for them, the secularists (Karl Marx is prominent here) conveniently forgot that, throughout social and economic change. human nature endures, and so consequently does the possibility of freedom to choose evil. The "kingdom of reason" (over against revealed religion) which the reign of total freedom ushers in will be, then, a chameleon beast. What we do with reason. like what we do ". with freedom, depends on the cultural baggage-train to which we yoke these oxen, and how we load that train depends again on the devices and desires of our own hearts. In 1792 Kant welcomed the Great Revolution of the West as the dawn of rational faith for the world. By 1795 he was contemplating a "perverted end of all things" [19]. For in between had come Robespierre and the Terror. Benedict thus returns to a constant refrain of his theology: reason needs faith to be fully opened to its own possibilities in the Logos, just as freedom needs God as its foundation if it is humanly to succeed [23].

"Structures" (shades of the Pope's conflict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, with Liberation Theology), can be good, in which case they are important. But they are never good enough. and so saddling them with allimportance is unfitting. Moreover, since our use of freedom remains always uncertain, "the kingdom of good will never be established in this world" [24]. There will never be, short of the Parousia, a definitively better world, though some intercessions in the Roman Liturgy of the Hours might delude one into thinking so. The sciences can help, but if they can make they can also mar. Only one gift can never be over-expended. The message of the Church to modernity is: "It is not science that redeems man; man is redeemed by love[26]. So Wagner's Hying Dutchman discovered up to a point. Benedict, however, is not speaking about sheerly human love. Even when the latter is safe from decay within, death will eventually destroy it without. What redeems is unconditional, absolute love such as the Trinity showed in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ, since the hope that grounds is indestructible, whereas no other hope can "sustain the whole of life" [27]. And this Cluistological hope is necessarily, again, since to live by a responsive gratitude to the "One who died for all" (see Second Corinthians 5: 15) is to allow oneself to be "drawn into [Christ's] being for others" [28]. This notion of Jesus's "pro-existence", by the way, is something Benedict long ago borrowed from the German Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer who meant it as a (serious) pun on the established theological term of the "pre-existence" of the Word. Jesus as "the man for others" became in the 1960s the watchword of "South Bank" liberal theology in England, but Ratzinger has always seen that in its Trinitarian matrix. It is because the divine nature is triune Love that the Pre-existent Word, in becoming human, struck us as "pro-existent", as being forus. This "Great Hope" (virtually, for Benedict, one of the divine Names) licenses lesser hopes in our prayer. our action, and our passion: that is, our suffering. Unless we connect our little hopes to the Great Hope they may exhaust us, or render us unilateral, fanatical. In these sections of the letter (32-40) the Pope gives a great deal of wise spiritual counsel, seeking to show us ways in which "the star of hope rises[39]. Ultimately, what we have made of our lives, of the human world, and indeed, come to that, the cosmic creation, owing to the way we have handled a multitude of hopes of diverse kinds will be the subject of the Last Judgment a theme of Scripture, doctrine and iconography Benedict evidently wishes to reinstate. In a typical western mediaeval church one saw Christ the Saviour in the apse on entering, Christ the Judge on the rear wall on leaving. And this is right. There is salvation but not cheap salvation (here Benedict cites Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov [44]). There must be justice not just for individuals but for history as a whole, and there can be no justice for the aggrieved dead without universal resurrection. Meanwhile, in the "intermediate state", Christ the Lord, at once Saviour and Judge, is the burning yet saving fire of Purgatory. (Hans Urs von Baltha.sar, though unnamed, is surely one of the "recent theologians" the Pope appeals to for support here.) Seeking to commend the Catholic dogma of Purgatory to the Orthodox, Benedict commends their belief that the souls of the dead can receive "solace and refreshment" from our prayers. Of course. since "love can reach into the after] i fe". in the "interconnectedness of Being" [481, if indeed, being, through its triune source, is love.

I have noticed that Pope Benedict's rhetoric for sermons on the saints is filled, like Tolkien's on the elves, with images of starlight. And this is how too Spe salvi ends. Among the "true stars", the guides of life, who more than the Mother of God can be a "star of hope for us?" [49]. This Marian peroration is one of Benedict's debts to John Paul II, who incorporated it in the encyclical genre. Weaving together the mysteries of Nazareth and Bethlehem, Golgotha, the Mount of the Ascension and the Upper Room, the Pope presents a tapestry in which the words of the angel "Do not be afraid" (Luke 1: 30) and the word of Jesus "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world(John 16: 33) make of Blessed Mary the "Mother of hope". That is how his letter can finish with a prayer addressed to her: "Show us the way to his Kingdom! Star of the Sea, shine upon us and guide us on our way!" [50].

7-W4T Clark published a new edition of The Thought of Pope Benedict XVI An Introduction to the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger by Fr Aidan Nichols OP in July

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