In his third year as Pope, Benedict XVI set forth his second encyclical “Spe Salvi.”, published 30th of November, 2007 ( Traditionally, the first two Latin words of an encyclical provide the topic of the encyclical, and in this case it means “in this hope we are saved,” which is a quote from Paul’s Letter to the Romans (8:24). In 50 numbered sections the Pope unfolds a Biblical teaching on hope.

From numerous New Testament texts the Pope demonstrates that hope is a central component of faith and that people without God are people without a sustainable hope. He expends considerable time on New Testament texts which say that hope does not rest upon an internal subjective attitude, but rather on objective facts. He just as soundly highlights that hope and salvation in the New Testament are not to be understood purely individualistically. It is rather the case that Christians in community with Christ and as God’s people have hope.

Subsequently, the Pope delineated between the Christian understanding of hope and the subjective conception of hope of the French Revolution, of industrial optimism, of Marxism, and of Humanism and calls for a long overdue ‘self-criticism of modern times.’ “It is not science that saves mankind. Mankind will be saved by love.” (12) Prayer and undergoing suffering belong to the practice of a belief in hope, to which the moralism of atheism and of progress ideologies has no answers.

The encyclical will supposedly not be counted as one of the great encyclicals that will still be quoted one hundred years from now. This is due to the fact that the encyclical neither announces a surprising change within the Catholic Church, nor does it take a stance with respect to a highly controversial topic. Calmly and matter-of-factly it refers to the large difference between Christian hope and the missing or illusory and worldly hope of Western ideas of progress. It highlights that Christian hope is only thinkable because there is salvation in Christ and because there are transcendent linchpins beyond earthly time, such as the final judgment, salvation, and eternal life.

However, in another aspect the encyclical contrasts to earlier encyclicals, namely through its strong concentration on the interpretation of New Testament texts and the practical absence of typical Catholic points of view. The encyclical has this in common with the book the Pope wrote about Jesus, although the book was published expressly as private remarks. This time, however, the encyclical is a doctrinal document.

In the first 47 paragraphs of the encyclical there is no statement that would be conspicuous were it to be heard coming from an Evangelical pulpit. In Pope Johannes Paul II’s encyclicals it was exactly the opposite. One could find almost no sentence where Mary, the salvific role of the church, or another Catholic feature was not mentioned. In paragraph 48 prayers for the dead are briefly mentioned. Maria is not appealed to until the final paragraphs 49-50. And whoever reads this long address to Maria will astonishingly determine that it consists practically of a compilation of New Testament statements about Maria and Jesus. A teaching about Maria that is particularly Catholic is not mentioned. The final paragraphs also seem to indicate that the curia required their inclusion so that the encyclical would not sound completely un-Catholic.

(The systematic theologian and religious sociologist Prof. Thomas Schirrmacher has authored numerous books regarding Catholic teaching as well as the book Hope for Europe.)


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