Sunday, December 02, 2007

Spe Salvi, Part 1

I have spent the entire weekend attempting to digest Benedict XVI's new encyclical Spe Salvi on the theological virtue of hope. I am going to spend a few posts dissecting this very interesting letter, but here will only say a few general comments. The first thing I want to point out (and that I have said before but it bears repeating) is that Benedict's encyclicals are a welcome repose from the more weighty tomes churned out by John Paul II. John Paul's encyclicals were always worded in the terms of personalist philosophy and were very dense; whether or not they were actually longer I'm not sure, but the philosophical jargon in them often made them difficult to read and at least gave the impression that they were longer. By contrast, Benedict clearly writes as a theologian and not so much as a philosopher.

One more note on philosophy. I have noticed that many post-conciliar papal documents take on a more philosophical rather than theological tone (especially those of JPII). Perhaps this is one factor in the present confusion in the Church, for philosophical language, unlike traditional ecclesiastical theological language, is nebulous and ambiguous by its very nature; it tends to take on whatever meaning the philosopher intends for it. Theological language on the other hand is precise and employed for the sake of clarifying terms and distinguishing with razor precision exactly what a thing is and what it isn't. A papal document becomes more nebulous and up for interpretation to the degree that it is full of philosophical language. Likewise, a document is clear and concise to the degree that it employs traditional theological terms. Traditional language safeguards the dogmas of the faith against misinterpretation. Whatever else one may have to say about him, I am glad that Paul VI made this point in his encyclical Mysterium Fidei (in that case, with reference to the word transubstantiation).

Now, on to Spe Salvi. Spe Salvi quite rightly points out the salvific power of the virtue of hope, its connection with the virtue of faith, and then goes on to point out different reasons the Christian ought to have hope over and against the secular world. In the beginning of the encyclical, in paragraph 2, Benedict talks about the place of hope in the early Church and how Catholic hope is contrasted with the hopelessness of the world without God:

We see how decisively the self-understanding of the early Christians was shaped by their having received the gift of a trustworthy hope, when we compare the Christian life with life prior to faith, or with the situation of the followers of other religions. Paul reminds the Ephesians that before their encounter with Christ they were “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Of course he knew they had had gods, he knew they had had a religion, but their gods had proved questionable, and no hope emerged from their contradictory myths. Notwithstanding their gods, they were “without God” and consequently found themselves in a dark world, facing a dark future.

From the Traditionalist point of view, this paragraph is quite excellent in that it points out that depsite the fact that the pagans had their own gods, nevertheless their religions were not adequate and not able to give them any reason to hope. This is a welcome change from too many documents that tended to overemphasize the "elements of truth" found in the other religions; this statement serves as a counterbalance to the errant belief that all religions are somehow ways to the true God. Benedict brings us back to sanity here by reminding us that these other religions and their gods are "questionable" and that no hope can come from them. Benedict here says this with reference to pre-Christian paganism, but it is just as applicable to post-Catholic heathenism.

There is so much more to be said about this document, and I will be doing more segments on it, but I unfortunately am very busy now (my wife is about to give birth to our third child any time now); I will try to get to it soon. In the meantime, check out Spe Salvi here.

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