Suffering, pain, and loss are a part of every human life. We experience minor setbacks and major ones. Some of us experience catastrophic events in which all hope appears extinguished. Consider for example, those who suffered in concentration camps: physically abused, daily threatened by murderous death, enduring the loss of all property and privacy, and mourning the extinction of so many friends and relatives. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl pointed out that people in these horrible circumstances nevertheless reacted in radically different ways. Some killed themselves; others praised God even as they walked into certain death. As Frankl remarked, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how” (Man’s Search for Meaning, 121). Man needs hope to live.
In his second encyclical letter, Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope), Pope Benedict XVI emphasizes the indispensability of hope for those who encounter suffering of whatever depth: “[T]he present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey” (Spe Salvi 1).
In addition to enduring present hardships, we also fear the suffering that has not yet come. In dark times, it is easy to imagine a future filled with even greater affliction, debilitating loss, and destroyed dreams. Indeed, the foreboding future can darken the present.
But despite all difficulties, Christians need never fear the future. Pope Benedict writes: “We see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future: It is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness. Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well” (SS 2). Man needs hope, not only for the future, but also for the present.
But what exactly is “hope”? In Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict focuses on a number of important.aspects of hope: the relationship of hope and faith; the way in which Christian hope has been replaced by secular ideas of progress achieved through technology; and how Christian hope has been misunderstood as merely an individual matter of personal salvation without a social dimension.
A Hope that Goes Further
“Hope” is a word often on our lips. I hope this happens in the future. I hope this or that situation turns out well. I hope my friend feels better soon. We have many hopes of greater or lesser importance. In the words of the Pope:
Day by day, man experiences many greater or lesser hopes, different in kind according to the different periods of his life. Sometimes one of these hopes may appear to be totally satisfying without any need for other hopes. Young people can have the hope of a great and fully satisfying love; the hope of a certain position in their profession, or of some success that will prove decisive for the rest of their lives. When these hopes are fulfilled, however, it becomes clear that they were not, in reality, the whole. It becomes evident that man has need of a hope that goes further. It becomes clear that only something infinite will suffice for him, something that will always be more than he can ever attain. (SS 30)
Pope Benedict is concerned with hopes of all different kinds, but he focuses particular attention on the greatest hope that we can have, the hope of eternal happiness forever. All of our small hopes are geared to a bigger hope, the hope of happiness, and most of all the hope of perfect happiness.
Between Presumption and Despair
Faith, hope, and love are theological virtues, gifts given by God to help us in our journey to heaven where alone we can find perfect happiness. They are called “theological” because they are received as gifts through God’s power (as opposed to acquired virtues attained through human effort) and because they focus in distinct ways on God himself. The virtue of faith believes in God and in what God has revealed. The virtue of charity is a friendly union with God which begins now but reaches its culmination in the life to come.
The virtue of hope grows out of faith and is a manifestation of love, since by hope we move towards perfect union with God in heaven. TheCatechism of the Catholic Church defines hope as “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (CCC 1817).
Hope, as a virtue, lies in a mean between the extremes of two vices, presumption and despair. With presumption, a person assumes that he will be saved. “Either man presumes upon his own capacities (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God’s almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit)” (CCC 2092). The dictum, “once saved, always saved” expresses a kind of presumption, for it holds that even if mortal sin (deadly destruction of our friendship with God) is knowingly and willing done, a person can maintain a good relationship with God both now and into eternity.
“By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice—for the Lord is faithful to his promises—and to his mercy” (CCC 2091). We may despair at the loss of many sought goods, but there is no despair like the loss of the greatest of all goods, perfect happiness.
In presumption, salvation is considered automatic; in despair, salvation is thought to be impossible. Both presumption and despair contradict authentic hope. Salvation is always possible with God’s help, for God’s love and mercy extends even to the most hardened, vicious sinner. However, salvation is not automatic, for God cannot contradict himself— giving people the liberty to freely believe in him and love him both now and forever and also not giving people that freedom.
No Faith without Hope
Pope Benedict highlights the key links between faith and hope:
"Hope," in fact, is a key word in biblical faith—so much so that in several passages the words "faith" and "hope" seem interchangeable. Thus the Letter to the Hebrews closely links the "fullness of faith" (10:22) to "the confession of our hope without wavering" (10:23). Likewise, when the First Letter of Peter exhorts Christians to be always ready to give an answer concerning the logos—the meaning and the reason—of their hope (cf. 3:15), "hope" is equivalent to "faith." (SS 2)
Hope is indeed always linked to faith, since one cannot have the faith (at least a living faith) without also having both love and hope. Infused with hope, human beings can endure even the worst of circumstances. Even though hope primarily focuses on the perfect happiness of heaven attained through the help of God, we also have earthly hopes that are related to our great hope of salvation.
“Progress” Is No Basis for Hope
Benedict points out that a Christian hope based on faith has increasingly become replaced by a faith in “progress,” which is understood to mean mastering nature through use of our reason. Reason is seen as self-sufficient—particularly as manifest in technology—for solving all the problems of mankind, including suffering and lack of hope. Although it is clear that we have not yet reached that utopian state, nevertheless many people still have faith that technological progress will eliminate the essential tensions in human life.
But reason and freedom defined in opposition to God do not lead to real progress and happiness but rather to death. Even Immanuel Kant (who was enthralled by the power of the Enlightenment understanding of reason), saw, after the Reign of Terror, that reason so construed is not sufficient to guide human beings to happiness. The gulags of communism provide further evidence.
Secular ideologies such as communism or consumerism are mirrored on religious faith in that both promise happiness for man, both can be motivated by an evangelical fervor, and both provide a philosophical orientation to life’s challenges and rewards. But the ideologies, unlinked to the transcendent, lead not to paradise but to the violent domination of some people (the “enlightened” ones) over others:
Yes indeed, reason is God’s great gift to man, and the victory of reason over unreason is also a goal of the Christian life. But when does reason truly triumph? When it is detached from God? When it has become blind to God? Is the reason behind action and capacity for action the whole of reason? If progress, in order to be progress, needs moral growth on the part of humanity, then the reason behind action and capacity for action is likewise urgently in need of integration through reason’s openness to the saving forces of faith, to the differentiation between good and evil. Only thus does reason become truly human. It becomes human only if it is capable of directing the will along the right path, and it is capable of this only if it looks beyond itself. Otherwise, man’s situation, in view of the imbalance between his material capacity and the lack of judgement in his heart, becomes a threat for him and for creation. (SS 23)
There can be no real progress for humanity without a moral development also. And unlike technological development, moral development cannot just be handed on to each generation. We do not each need to discover electricity anew, but we each need to acquire good habits. As Pope Benedict writes:
We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth (cf. Eph. 3:16; 2 Cor. 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world. (SS 22)
By technological progress, man moves from using the slingshot to nuclear power, but without moral excellence, nuclear power doesn’t make the world better but rather much more frightening. Tools, of whatever kind, can be used or abused depending upon the person making use of them. “Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it,” writes the pope.
On the other hand, we must also acknowledge that modern Christianity, faced with the successes of science in progressively structuring the world, has to a large extent restricted its attention to the individual and his salvation. In so doing it has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task—even if it has continued to achieve great things in the formation of man and in care for the weak and the suffering. (SS 25)
Every Action Has a Social Dimension
Benedict sees the trend to limit Christian concern to otherworldly salvation as a misunderstanding of the social nature of both sin and salvation:
[S]in is understood by the Fathers as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division. Babel, the place where languages were confused, the place of separation, is seen to be an expression of what sin fundamentally is. Hence "redemption" appears as the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers. (SS 14)
Every sin—even sins of thought which are known to no other human person—involves a social dimension. Every loving act—again including those apparently unknown—moves humanity forward. This movement for better and for worse remains fluid in human affairs. Improvements in the social order are therefore always partial and fragile. We cannot through human efforts and structures create a utopia on earth. Pope Benedict writes:
Since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world. Anyone who promises the better world that is guaranteed to last for ever is making a false promise; he is overlooking human freedom. Freedom must constantly be won over for the cause of good. Free assent to the good never exists simply by itself. If there were structures which could irrevocably guarantee a determined—good—state of the world, man’s freedom would be denied, and hence they would not be good structures at all. (SS 24)
Although our hope is primarily for heaven, our hope also extends to earth, towards spreading the kingdom of God here and now. Even though our efforts to do this will never achieve full and permanent success, our efforts can make this world, imperfect as it is, better than it was.
Technological progress certainly can improve human lives but more than that is needed to make life truly worth living. In the words of Pope Benedict:
It is not science that redeems man: Man is redeemed by love. This applies even in terms of this present world. . . . The human being needs unconditional love. He needs the certainty which makes him say: "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38-39). If this absolute love exists, with its absolute certainty, then—only then—is man "redeemed," whatever should happen to him in his particular circumstances. This is what it means to say: Jesus Christ has "redeemed" us. Through him we have become certain of God, a God who is not a remote "first cause" of the world, because his only-begotten Son has become man and of him everyone can say: "I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). (SS 26)
In Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict focuses on the infused theological virtue of hope. He underscores its essential connection with the virtue of faith. He also notes how ideologies such as Marxism and “faith in progress” fueled by scientific advancement have in effect replaced Christian hope in the hearts of many people. Even among Christians, hope has been misunderstood as merely a matter of personal salvation without a social dimension. The complexities of Benedict’s message can be summarized fairly simply: To live a hopeless life is to live a miserable life. We need the various little hopes that we nurture, for good fortune, family, and friends, and most of all we need the fundamental hope of attaining heaven with the help of God.
The Slave Who Said “My Life is Good”
In Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI recalls the story of Josephine Bakhita, who endured more than her share of unjust calamities:
At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life. . . . [A]fter the terrifying "masters" who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of "master"—the living God, the God of Jesus Christ. Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her "at the Father’s right hand." Now she had "hope"—no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: "I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good." (SS 3)
After being freed from slavery, she reached out to serve out of love rather than fear. “The liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ,” writes the pope, “she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people. The hope born in her which had ‘redeemed’ her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.”