This is one of a series of posts on the Encyclical Spe Salvi. My posts on this encyclical are not intended as summaries of the entire encyclical. For that, I would suggest other sources. Instead, my few posts on this encyclical are each directed at a specific issue. This post considers the implications of Spe Salvi ("Saved by Hope") for Liberation Theology's "Theology of Hope."
About 25 years ago, a friend who was a seminary student introduced me to a book called The Theology of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann. At the time, I found it thought-provoking, although not enough so to prompt me to read Moltmann’s other books or any of the liberation theologians who thought as he did.
Among some Christians in Berkeley at that time (but not all, and not me), helping refugees in the poverty-stricken and war-torn country of El Salvador was a popular mission, and Moltmann’s view of hope and liberation was popular among those who sought a political and economic solution for people living in poverty and violence. Moltmann, who first published The Theology of Hope in 1967, had started with the thinking of Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch about hope. He had developed a view of history and eschatology that looked toward radically transforming the present world. His view of Christian hope as a source of motivation for help to the oppressed in our time was considered important by those who sought a liberation theology rooted in a temporal solution to poverty, seeing Christ as the Liberator of the oppressed poor of Latin American society.
Although Moltmann was Protestant, liberation theology entered the thinking of some people within the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI was known for rejecting aspects of liberation theology in his work as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Liberation theology has lost popularity in the U.S. and Europe, but it remains popular among some people in Latin America. In his journey to Brazil last year, it was thus among Pope Benedict XVI’s concerns, as mentioned in this blog's post on the journey, which also includes links to the Holy Father's addresses and homilies there.
In his address to Brazilian bishops, he touched on what lies at the heart of this issue, saying:
"The mission entrusted to us as teachers of the faith consists in recalling, in the words of the Apostle of the Gentiles, that our Saviour "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). This, and nothing else, is the purpose of the Church: the salvation of individual souls. . . . In this work of evangelization the ecclesial community should be clearly marked by pastoral initiatives, especially by sending missionaries, lay or religious, to homes on the outskirts of the cities and in the interior, to enter into dialogue with everyone in a spirit of understanding, sensitivity and charity. On the other hand, if the persons they encounter are living in poverty, it is necessary to help them, as the first Christian communities did, by practising solidarity and making them feel truly loved."
In that address, the Holy Father referenced his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, sections 1 and 22. No. 22 reads: "The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the sacraments and the word."
Another relevant section of Deus Caritas Est is 25(a), which reads: "The Church's deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being."
Accordingly, while rejecting some forms of liberation theology, Pope Benedict XVI nonetheless holds strongly to the position that the Church is necessarily committed to the service of the poor and the oppressed. Moreover, the commitment to the oppressed, in his thinking, flows from the Church’s commitment to God’s love and can never substitute for the Church’s foremost mission, which is the eternal salvation of souls.
In words even more clearly addressed to liberation theology and to priests who may leave the Church, he also said this in his address to the Brazilian bishops:
"Society is experiencing moments of worrying disorientation. The sanctity of marriage and the family are attacked with impunity, as concessions are made to forms of pressure which have a harmful effect on legislative processes; crimes against life are justified in the name of individual freedom and rights; attacks are made on the dignity of the human person; the plague of divorce and extra-marital unions is increasingly widespread. Even more: when, within the Church herself, people start to question the value of the priestly commitment as a total entrustment to God through apostolic celibacy and as a total openness to the service of souls, and preference is given to ideological, political and even party issues, the structure of total consecration to God begins to lose its deepest meaning. How can we not be deeply saddened by this?"
Liberation theology resulted in too much attention paid to politics and inattention to the true mission of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI sought to draw legitimate concerns about poverty into a proper relationship with the mission of the Church and the centrality of acceptance of God's will. His comments on the risk of the Church becoming too given to ideological, political, and even party issues, could also be applied in the U.S. to some of the "religious right" issues of recent years, but the Holy Father in Brazil was speaking specifically to Brazilian bishops in their own political and ecclesial context. Thus, the reference to politics would be more specifically applicable to the liberation theology supported by some of the Brazilian bishops.
The resurgence of liberation theology in Latin America, and a proper theology of hope, were clearly among the concerns of Pope Benedict XVI in writing Spe Salvi, beginning with the words of Romans 8:24, "In hope are we saved."
The saints chosen for mention in Spe Salvi are consistently saints from developing nations. Although Western European saints could have been mentioned in support of the same points, the encyclical had something to say specifically to theologians concerned with the plight of the poor in developing nations, and it is thus appropriate that other poor people from developing nations be held up as examples of holiness. It perhaps would have been unfair to have offered saints from economically advanced nations as examples for how the poor should live in developing nations, to the extent that liberation of the oppressed is the subject matter of the encyclical.
In section 4 of Spe Salvi, the Holy Father addresses the “concept of faith-based hope in the New Testament and the early Church.” The experience of St. Josephine Bakhita, an African slave girl, is described as the experience of “many in the period of nascent Christianity who were beaten and condemned to slavery.” Here, the Holy Father clearly distinguishes his theology of a faith-based hope from that of liberation theologians with revolutionary leanings:
“Christianity did not bring a message of social revolution like that of the ill-fated Spartacus, whose struggle led to so much bloodshed. Jesus was not Spartacus, he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation like Barabbas or Bar-Kochba. Jesus, who himself died on the Cross, brought something totally different: an encounter with the Lord of all lords, an encounter with the living God and thus an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within.”
In section 5, he mentions that it was precisely because some early Christians belonged to the lower social strata that they were drawn to the “experience of a new hope.” Yet, he also mentions, from the beginning, there were also those converted from the aristocratic and cultured circles, who were also living without hope and without God. The poor were drawn to the Church, but the Church was not the Church only of the poor.
Beginning in section 16, Pope Benedict more specifically considers the origins of the political concept of hope that he distinguishes from the Catholic faith. In the previous sections, he had explained that the theology of salvation “has always been considered a ‘social’ reality,” a “lived union with a ‘people’, and for each individual it can only be attained within this ‘we’ . . . [O]nly in the openness of this universal subject does our gaze open out to the source of joy, to love itself – to God.”
Then, in section 16, he points to the thinking of Francis Bacon, who saw a “new correlation between science and praxis” at the beginning of the modern era. The concept of redemption came to be a concept of faith in progress toward perfect freedom, with values placed on reason and freedom, with both reason and freedom having a political aspect. Both reason and freedom were then seen as somehow in conflict with the faith and the Church, and in conflict with the existing political systems.
Pope Benedict then considers two stages in that new political concept of hope. The first is seen in the French Revolution, “an attempt to establish reason and freedom as a political reality.” The second step was Karl Marx’s effort at a “definitive step in history toward salvation – towards what Kant had described as the ‘Kingdom of God’.”
Following the Russian Revolution, Marx’s fundamental error became apparent: “He showed precisely how to overthrow the existing order, but he did not say how matters should proceed thereafter.” He thought it would fall into place. It did not:
“He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man’s freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains freedom for evil. He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.”
Thus, the Holy Father addresses the roots of Marxism, and shows its error.
He then raises the question again: What may we hope? Reason, he affirms, “is God’s great gift to man, and the victory of reason over unreason is also a goal of the Christian life.” However, reason does not triumph when it is separated from faith; rather, faith and reason need each other. “Let us put it very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope.” Francis Bacon was wrong to think that man would be redeemed through science, as that “asks too much of science.” In section 26, Pope Benedict thus states, “It is not science that redeems man: man is redeemed by love.”
What, then, becomes of the Catholic view of the oppressed and our duty to them? Beginning in Section 35, Pope Benedict writes on the topic of “action and suffering as settings for learning hope.” Political hope is insufficient; only hope in God's love will suffice:
“It is important to know that I can always continue to hope, even if in my own life, or in the historical period in which I am living, there seems to be nothing left to hope for. Only the great certitude of hope that my own life and history in general, despite all failures, are held firm by the indestructible power of Love, and that this gives them their meaning and importance, only this kind of hope can then give the courage to act and to persevere.”
We can open ourselves to what is good, letting God direct our actions, he explains. We must do what is necessary to reduce suffering, placing ourselves “on the side of good even in seemingly hopeless situations.” We find meaning in suffering and thereby become able to accept others who are suffering, sharing their suffering as a suffering “penetrated by the light of love.” God’s justice and God’s grace also form a part of our hope in the face of injustice, seen in Spe Salvi from an eternal perspective.
In place of those versions of liberation theology that would seek a political solution to oppression and suffering, therefore, Spe Salvi proposes a theology of hope in Christ that is not a purely individualistic salvation, but rather a salvation that requires us to allow God to direct our actions toward others in love. Yet, our hope does not depend on a political solution or a political hope. Rather, it allows us to hope in God’s eternal justice, grace and love even in politically hopeless situations. This hope gives us courage to act on behalf of the suffering, and gives hope to the suffering in God's love now and in eternity.