Friday, November 30, 2007

Spe Salvi: An Encyclical With a Difference; UK Telegraph

This is too good not to print out in full. Christopher Howse, a blogger (Yaaaaaaaaaay, we're not all jerks) on the UK Telegraph who actually read Spe Salvi before he wrote on it. This is written in readily understandable English that really encourages me to read the 26 page encyclical.

Be sure to check out the comments on Purgatory towards the end of Howse's post. And check out some of his more recent blog posts. This guy writes very interesting stuff and doesn't know how to spell "politically correct", something quite rare in England today.

A colleague, staring at the Pope's latest encyclical, remarked, "There's no news here. It's all about God."

He was right, after a fashion, for the document, the second encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI since his election two and a half years ago, is about hope and salvation. Its title, Spe Salvi, is from a phrase in St Paul's Epistle to the Romans, "In hope we were saved."

But it is a very unusual kind of encyclical, quoting Dostoyevsky and discussing the Jacobean philosopher Francis Bacon. Encyclicals usually stick to the Bible and the Fathers of the Church. After all, they are universal letters to the Catholic faithful.

Yet Spe Salvi speaks to the anguish and foreboding that are clearly marks of the modern world. As a German who experienced some of the evil of Nazism, Pope Benedict spends a proportion of his 25-page letter pondering another letter, "a letter from 'Hell', which lays bare all the horror of a concentration camp".

This was a letter written by a Vietnamese priest, Paul Le-Bao-Tinh, arrested in 1841. "The prison here is a true image of everlasting Hell," he wrote. "To cruel tortures of every kind are added hatred, vengeance, quarrels, curses, anguish and grief." He had a hard time of it, but declared: "I cast my anchor towards the throne of God, the anchor that is the lively hope in my heart." If he hoped for freedom, his hope was frustrated, for after being released he was re-arrested and at the end had his head cut off.

Pope Benedict is not proposing a facile hope in heaven undoing injustices of life on Earth. Indeed, this is where he brings in Dostoyevsky. The Pope asserts that "the last Judgment is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope". A world without God is a world without hope, and "God is justice".

With justice comes grace, yet "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. Dostoyevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened."

In considering justice and grace, the Pope just touches upon hell, for people "who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love".

But what of those who, as St Paul puts it, build their lives on the foundation of Jesus Christ? That foundation endures. "If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives," St Paul writes, "he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire."

In interpreting the words, the Pope is surprisingly hospitable to a speculation by "some recent theologians" that "the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us."

This, then, is a reformulation of the doctrine of Purgatory, which in the past has been a stumbling-block to many Protestants. Pope Benedict is familiar, from his career as an academic theologian, with currents in German Protestant thinking. But in whatever way the idea of Purgatory is to be understood, the Pope is not abandoning the concept of praying for the dead.

In defending prayers for the dead, he echoes John Donne and writes: "No man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another." No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. "So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death."

This Pope, in his 81st year, is aware that death cannot be far off. He has been busy writing, and another volume about Jesus is expected. So we are lucky to get out of him, while his days last, this encyclical with a difference.

• 'Sacred Mysteries', a collection of 90 of Christopher Howse's columns, published by Continuum, is on sale at all good bookshops or from Telegraph Books (£12.99 + £1.25 p&p), on 0870 428 4112 or at

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