Month: December 2007

Thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI’s Spe Salvi ("Saved in Hope")

According to John Allen Jr., Benedict XVI’s second encyclical Spe Salvi might be considered a ‘Greatest Hits’ collection of core Ratzinger ideas — “a compilation of core concerns, his idees fixes over almost sixty years now of theological reflection”:

  • Truth is not a limit upon freedom, but the condition of freedom reaching its true potential;
  • Reason and faith need one another – faith without reason becomes extremism, while reason without faith leads to despair;
  • The dangers of the modern myth of progress, born in the new science of the 16th century and applied to politics through the French Revolution and Marxism;
  • The impossibility of constructing a just social order without reference to God;
  • The urgency of separating eschatology, the longing for a “new Heaven and a new earth,” from this-worldly politics;
  • Objective truth as the only real limit to ideology and the blind will to power.

Having just finished Benedict’s second encyclical today — in between naps, as is the tendency these days with a new youngster in the household — I’m really at a loss as to what to offer in the way of blogging or commentary. I read it online, but suffice to say it’s one of those texts where if I had a highlighter, I’d easily run out of ink. Then again, that’s often the case when reading Ratzinger / Benedict XVI.

So what follows are some notes, impressions and passages which particularly struck me, perhaps as impetus for discussion by our readers.

* * *

Benedict begins by exploring the relationship between hope and faith in the Christian scriptures and the early Church. Benedict poses the question each of us must ask ourselves:

The 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. Now the question immediately arises: what sort of hope could ever justify the statement that, on the basis of that hope and simply because it exists, we are redeemed? And what sort of certainty is involved here?

In sections 10-12 Benedict addresses the human condition without hope, the dual fascination and repulsion at the prospect of our soul’s immortality; he addresses to some understandable misconceptions one might have concerning the meaning of “eternal life”:

The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown”. Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal”, in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it. To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. This is how Jesus expresses it in Saint John’s Gospel: “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:22). We must think along these lines if we want to understand the object of Christian hope, to understand what it is that our faith, our being with Christ, leads us to expect.

Modernity and “the ideology of human progress”

Benedict asks: “How could the idea have developed that Jesus’s message is narrowly individualistic and aimed only at each person singly? How did we arrive at this interpretation of the “salvation of the soul” as a flight from responsibility for the whole, and how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others?” — this is a familiar charge that is, with respect to some articulations of Christianity, legitimate.

Benedict looks to “the modern age”, when spiritual concerns were supplanted by scientific knowledge and man embraced “the ideology of human progress“; where reason and freedom were heralded “to guarantee by themselves, by virtue of their intrinsic goodness, a new and perfect human community.” (This seduction of humanity by positivism and the reduction of reality to techne is another familiar theme in Ratzinger, discussed for instance in the forward to Introduction to Christianity).

Benedict looks at the French Revolution (“an attempt to establish the rule of reason and freedom as a political reality”) and Marxism (“with the fall of political power and the socialization of means of production, the new Jerusalem would be realized”) — as representative of modern man’s futile attempts to establish the ‘Kingdom of God’ on earth:

Once the truth of the hereafter had been rejected, it would then be a question of establishing the truth of the here and now. The critique of Heaven is transformed into the critique of earth, the critique of theology into the critique of politics. Progress towards the better, towards the definitively good world, no longer comes simply from science but from politics—from a scientifically conceived politics that recognizes the structure of history and society and thus points out the road towards revolution, towards all-encompassing change.

In section 21, Benedict gives the perfect paragraph-length summary of the ambitions of Marxism and where it failed:

Marx not only omitted to work out how this new world would be organized—which should, of course, have been unnecessary. His silence on this matter follows logically from his chosen approach. His error lay deeper. He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man’s freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also 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.

Regensburg Revisited

In section 23, Benedict again returns to the core message of his Regensburg address — not a commentary on Islam (as emphasized by the press) but rather the restoration of reason to its proper place, in relation to faith:

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.

… human freedom always requires a convergence of various freedoms. Yet this convergence cannot succeed unless it is determined by a common intrinsic criterion of measurement, which is the foundation and goal of our freedom. Let us put it very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope. …

Reason therefore needs faith if it is to be completely itself: reason and faith need one another in order to fulfil their true nature and their mission.

The Social Dimensions of Spe Salvi

Benedict calls for “a self-critique of modernity in dialogue with Christianity”; Christians too must “learn anew in what their hope truly consists, what they have to offer to the world and what they cannot offer. Flowing into this self-critique of the modern age there also has to be a self-critique of modern Christianity, which must constantly renew its self-understanding setting out from its roots.”

I’m struck by Benedict’s addition of the phrase “what Christianity cannot offer” — it is opportune, given the myriad presentations of Christianity in our age, from televangelists preaching a “gospel of wealth” and material success to those for whom Christian praxis is reduced to a politicized, revolutionary program for class warfare. Benedict is reputedly working on a third encyclical devoted to social issues, but I found this section on “the true shape of Christian Hope” very relevant:

Material progress is incremental. Man slowly gains a mastery of technique and power over his natural surroundings. But we cannot speak similarly of humanity’s moral evolution:

. . . in the field of ethical awareness and moral decision-making, there is no similar possibility of accumulation for the simple reason that man’s freedom is always new and he must always make his decisions anew. These decisions can never simply be made for us in advance by others—if that were the case, we would no longer be free. Freedom presupposes that in fundamental decisions, every person and every generation is a new beginning.

We can learn from the “lessons of history,” the knowledge and “moral treasury” of previous generations — or we can choose to reject it. This responsibility falls upon each generation.

What are the implications? — First, according to Benedict:

The right state of human affairs, the moral well-being of the world can never be guaranteed simply through structures alone, however good they are. Such structures are not only important, but necessary; yet they cannot and must not marginalize human freedom. Even the best structures function only when the community is animated by convictions capable of motivating people to assent freely to the social order.”


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.”


every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs; this task is never simply completed. Yet every generation must also make its own contribution to establishing convincing structures of freedom and of good, which can help the following generation as a guideline for the proper use of human freedom; hence, always within human limits, they provide a certain guarantee also for the future. In other words: good structures help, but of themselves they are not enough. Man can never be redeemed simply from outside.

I could not help but see in this section shades of Benedict’s critique of certain aspects of liberation theology and it’s call for the overthrow of “structures of injustice” and a reduction of the gospel to “politico-messianic hope and praxis” (see Preliminary Notes on Liberation Theology by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, circa. 1984).

There is present in this encyclical an “Augustianian realism” (characteristically Ratzinger) — a lucid awareness of man’s capacity for good and evil, and the inherent limitations placed upon man’s striving by his nature.

Thus we are reminded that our scientific and technological achievements “opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. . . . 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.”

Self-Centered Salvation?

Benedict counters the criticism that Christianity’s promise of eternal life is “falling back once again into an individualistic understanding of salvation”:

Our relationship with God is established through communion with Jesus—we cannot achieve it alone or from our own resources alone. The relationship with Jesus, however, is a relationship with the one who gave himself as a ransom for all (cf. 1 Tim 2:6). Being in communion with Jesus Christ draws us into his “being for all”; it makes it our own way of being. He commits us to live for others, but only through communion with him does it become possible truly to be there for others, for the whole.

Referring to Maximus the Confessor – this love of God and communion in Christ manifests itself in charity to others, is essentially other-oriented: “Love of God leads to participation in the justice and generosity of God towards others. Loving God requires an interior freedom from all possessions and all material goods: the love of God is revealed in responsibility for others. . . . Christ died for all. To live for him means allowing oneself to be drawn into his being for others.”

In what does our redemption consist?

“It is not science that redeems man,” says Benedict. Rather, “man is redeemed by love.” Not a merely human love subject to fickleness and dissolution, but an everlasting and 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). . . .

Whoever is moved by love begins to perceive what “life” really is. He begins to perceive the meaning of the word of hope that we encountered in the Baptismal Rite: from faith I await “eternal life”—the true life which, whole and unthreatened, in all its fullness, is simply life. Jesus, who said that he had come so that we might have life and have it in its fullness, in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10), has also explained to us what “life” means: “this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves: it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life. Then we “live”.”

Prayer as Response of Christian Hope

“How can Christians learn, articulate and exercise this hope in Christ? — Benedict responds: “A first essential setting for learning hope is prayer.” When no one listens to me any more, God still listens to me. When I can no longer talk to anyone or call upon anyone, I can always talk to God.” He refers to Augustine’s example of stretching, expanding, purifying our hearts of vinegar to make room for God’s honey.

To pray is not to step outside history and withdraw to our own private corner of happiness. When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well. In prayer we must learn what we can truly ask of God—what is worthy of God. We must learn that we cannot pray against others. We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment—that meagre, misplaced hope that leads us away from God. We must learn to purify our desires and our hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves. God sees through them, and when we come before God, we too are forced to recognize them. . . .

Prayer can never be merely individual or self-preoccupied; genuine prayer is that which turns us toward others, in solidarity with our neighbor and communion in the Church:

“For prayer to develop this power of purification, it must on the one hand be something very personal, an encounter between my intimate self and God, the living God. On the other hand it must be constantly guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the Church and of the saints, by liturgical prayer, in which the Lord teaches us again and again how to pray properly. We become capable of the great hope, and thus we become ministers of hope for others. Hope in a Christian sense is always hope for others as well. It is an active hope, in which we struggle to prevent things moving towards the “perverse end”. It is an active hope also in the sense that we keep the world open to God. Only in this way does it continue to be a truly human hope.”

Benedict on human suffering

In sections 35-40, he embarks on a profound meditation on human suffering (“The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer”) as a context for Christian hope:

“It is not by fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love . . . A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through “com-passion” is a cruel and inhuman society. . . . the capacity to accept suffering for the sake of goodness, truth and justice is an essential criterion of humanity.”

Needless to say, it is only through the transformative hope that God brings that we as Christians can embrace suffering in this manner. Here Benedict recommends a revival of the practice of offering up our daily inconveniences and sufferings in Christ, an expression of our hope:

What does it mean to offer something up? Those who did so were convinced that they could insert these little annoyances into Christ’s great “com-passion” so that they somehow became part of the treasury of compassion so greatly needed by the human race. In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love. Maybe we should consider whether it might be judicious to revive this practice ourselves.

Benedict devotes the latter section of his encyclical (sections 40-48) on the Last Judgement as a manifestation of Christian hope (together with a rich, theological exploration of Purgatory and man’s purification from sin in Chrisitan thought). “I am convinced,” says Benedict, “that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life.”

The following passage offers much food for thought (and some questions as well):

47. Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning-it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice-the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together-judgement and grace-that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).

Benedict closes his encyclical with a beautiful homage to our Holy Mother Mary, the exemplification of Christian hope:

“With her ‘yes’ she opened the door of our world to God himself; she became the living Ark of the Covenant, in whom God took flesh, became one of us, and pitched his tent among us (cf. Jn 1:14).”

Additional Commentary on Spe Salvi

  • Some more “traditionalist” commentators are reading Spe Salvi as a rebuttal to what they perceive as the foolish optimism of Vatican II. Rorate Caeli provides an English translation of just such an article by Antonio Socci in Spe Salvi: the Anti-Gaudium et Spes:

    Benedict XVI does not quote, from the Council, even “Gaudium et spes”, which nonetheless had in its title the word “hope”, but wipes out the very mistake disastrously introduced in the Catholic world by that which was the main Conciliar constitution, “On the Church in the Modern World”. The Pope invites, in fact, at n. 22, to a “a self-critique of modern Christianity”. Particularly on the concept of “progress”.

    Socci’s reading is challenged by Dr. Philip Blosser and others in a rollicking combox debate.

    Pastor John Wright also disagrees:

    It is not hard to discern that Benedict is focusing his papacy on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, in inverse order. In this project Benedict continues the work of the Second Vatican Council. . . .

    Does the lack of a citation of Vatican II show Benedict’s repudiation of the renewal efforts of Vatican II? A reading of Gaudium et Spes shows that this is not the case at all. Though “hope” occurs in the conciliar document’s title, the use of “hope” is incidental to its purpose. When it is used as a theological virtue, Benedict remains in the center of the “spirit” of Vatican II. . . .

    Gaudium et spes should have included the Son to complete the complete witness to the Triune God involved in true hope, the theological virtue. But its concept of hope remains profoundly eschatological and in God. Benedict XVI completes this Trinitarian formula for the theological virtue of hope as he concludes his discussion of “the true shape of Christian hope” that also recognizes how a natural sense of hope is raised and perfected by the eschatological hope in God.

  • The Encyclical on Hope: On the “De-immanentizing” of the Christian Eschaton, by Fr. James V. Schall. Ignatius Insight December 2007:

    What Benedict does in this encyclical is, to coin a phrase, “de-immanentize” the eschaton. That is, he restores the four last things and the three theological virtues to their original understanding as precisely what we most need to understand ourselves. These things have been subsumed into a philosophy that denies a creator God. It replaces Him with human intelligence and inner-worldly purpose as the proper destiny of the human race in the cosmos. This effort has simply failed, as Benedict shows in numerous ways. Thus, it is proper to re-present the central understanding primarily of hope. […]

  • Commentary on Spe Salvi by Abbot Joseph of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery (aka Mt Tabor Monastery), Byzantine-rite Ukranian Catholic. Word Incarnate December 21, 2007:

    . . . Hope for eternal life that is founded on faith in Christ is not merely something projected into the distant or obscure future, and hence something that we can persuade ourselves to postpone until we are old and have nothing else to do. It is a present and dynamic reality in our daily lives—and must be so if we are to live in such a way as to ultimately realize our hope for everlasting happiness.

  • Teresa Polk (Blog by the Sea) has a series of posts commenting on the new encyclical. The first is 10 Points on Prayer and Contemplation in Spe Salvi, followed by Spe Salvi and Liberation Theology.
  • A Different Kind of Hope, by Michael Liccione. Sacramentum Vitae December 19, 2007.
  • Pope Benedict and the Defense of Reason Claremont Review of Books December 13, 2007. Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, in part on Spe Salvi:

    One of the most interesting things about Spe Salvi was the reintroduction of the idea that we will be personally judged for our deeds not by political standards but by the standards of our being that are often known as “natural law.” As Plato said, that the worst thing that can happen to a man who does or causes evil is success and praise for it. This success will usually prevent him from ever facing his own soul and the ultimate criterion by which it will be judged beyond politics. . . .

    It is significant that Benedict brings up both Hell and Purgatory in Spe Salvi. He does so precisely in the context of modern politics. We tend to forget that the topic of Hell is rooted in the last book of the Republic. It is a teaching necessary to confront if we are going to have any notion that the universe is established in justice and not in absurdity or meaninglessness. Rewards and punishments, as Socrates taught us, must finally be confronted, but only after things for their own sakes are known. The pope mentions the various “hells” that have appeared in modern times, beginning with the account of a slave girl from, of all places, Darfur, the Sudan. He is a German and knows about the twentieth century.

  • The Pope’s Anti-Political Politics, by Dr. Samuel Gregg. The Acton Institute. December 12, 2007:

    Today hundreds of theologians insist upon talking about everything except the essences of Christian faith, regarding such matters as “not relevant” to contemporary concerns.

    In Spe Salvi, Benedict demonstrates — perhaps without intending to — how wrong such assumptions are. A powerful theme of this encyclical is that a world without hope, or which reduces hope to creating earthly utopias, facilitates a view of politics that not only enslaves, but kills.

  • More on Spe Salvi – discussion at Cahiers Peguy (Communion & Liberation collective blog). December 9, 2007.
  • Hope: An Encounter with Love a commentary on Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Spe Salvi” by Legionary of Christ Father Juan Pablo Ledesma, dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university. Zenit News Service. December 7, 2007.
  • On Christian Hope, by Charles J. Chaput, archbishop of Denver. December 5, 2007.
  • Spe Salvi 2.2 Discussion of the encyclical @ Amy Welborn’s. December 5, 2007.
  • “Spe Salvi, says Pope Benedict”, by Christopher Howse. December 1, 2007: “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…”
  • Encyclical Seen As Tackling “Urgent Need” Zenit interview with Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi of the Vatican Press Office. December 2, 2007.
  • The second in a possible triptych of encyclicals, by John Allen Jr. National Catholic Reporter November 30, 2007:

    With Spe Salvi,, Benedict solidifies his profile as a “pope of the basics” – determined to accent the core principles of the Christian faith.

    Early indications suggest that Spe Salvi may succeed in appealing to a wide cross-section of Catholics; even the German reform group “Wir Sind Kirche,” for example, one of Joseph Ratzinger’s harshest critics over the years, issued a statement today calling the encyclical “impressive and engaging.”

    Moreover, the focus on love and hope for his first two encyclicals also serves the pope’s ecumenical purposes, since Christians have not been divided historically on these two virtues. Competing understandings of the faith, on the other hand, have been far more explosive.

* * *

The Catholic News Agency reports that over one million copies the new encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, have been sold since it was released on November 30.


"And they’ll know we are Christians by our love…"

When my brothers and I were little, our parents would cram all four of us into the station wagon and go on cross-country car-trips. We used to divide up the back seat into respective territories, and a relative peace between siblings would be maintained until one of us violated the border (“Mom! — Jon is crossing over the line!!!”).

Needless to say we grew up . . .

Seven hurt in punch-up at Church of the Nativity Times Online UK. December 29, 2007:

The cradle of Christianity was rocked by an unholy punch-up when Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests came to blows in a dispute over how to clean Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.

The ancient place of worship, built over the site where Jesus Christ is said to have been born in a stable more than 2,000 years ago, is shared by various branches of Christianity, each of which controls and jealously guards a part of the holy site.

The brawl apparently began when Greek Orthodox priests set up ladders to clean the walls and ceilings of their part of the church after the Christmas Day celebrations.

Armenian priests claimed that the ladders encroached on their portion of the church, which led the two sects to exchange angry words which quickly turned to blows.

Witnesses said that the robed and bearded priests scuffled for more than an hour using fists, brooms and iron rods as weapons.

Photographers who came to document the annual cleaning ceremony instead recorded the entire event.

Five priests were lightly injured in the melee, which was eventually broken up by a dozen unarmed Palestinian policemen. Two of the policemen were hurt in ending the brawl.

From earlier this year, Benjamin Balint wrote on ‘The Mother of All Churches’ [Church of the Holy Sepulchre] in Jerusalem (Wall Street Journal July 27, 2007):

Back in 1869, Mark Twain visited and noticed the denominations chanting, sometimes simultaneously, in their own languages: “It has been proven conclusively that they can not worship together around the grave of the Saviour of the World in peace.” And the cease-fire’s fragility persists to this day.

Five years ago, Ethiopians, exiled since 1658 to quarters on the roof, resented the placement of a Coptic priest’s chair there, and the ensuing brawl sent 11 monks–seven Ethiopians and four Copts–to the hospital. A couple of years later, Greek clerics tussled with Franciscans.

The turf wars also paralyze maintenance. A wooden ladder has rested on a ledge over the church’s entrance for at least 150 years. The edicule, braced with scaffolding, is falling apart. The Chapel of St. Nicodemus, over which both the Armenians and the Syrians claim ownership, has for that reason never been restored. To prevent denominational disputes, the very keys to the church have since the days of Saladin been entrusted to Muslims from the Nuseibeh and Joudeh families.

Recently, Father Athanasius Macora, negotiator on Holy Sepulcher issues for the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land (which represents Roman Catholics in Israel), showed me several large color-coded maps, signed and sealed by the heads of the three patriarchates, which detailed even which sewage lines belong to which rite. Even the repair of a pipe requires ecumenical negotiation.

Here and There . . .

An irregular roundup of blogs, articles and commentary.

  • John Paul II and the Jews, by Rabbi David Dalin. First Things “On The Square” December 2, 2007. “More than any other pope, John Paul II was the twentieth century’s greatest papal friend and supporter of the Jewish people. Indeed, John Paul II’s extraordinary relationship with the Jews was an important chapter in the historic legacy of his pontificate, which has had profound implications for Catholic–Jewish relations in our time. . . .”
  • Ratzinger, Scripture and the Development of Doctrine, by Michael Liccione. Sacramentum Vitae November 9, 2007.
  • A military-pacifist’s manifestoVivificat!: “I’m seriously considering some sort of pacificism – albeit not one which will include an absolute refusal to bear arms or defend the country. I am a military man, after all, and always will be, even after I retire. . . .”
  • The Lost Art of Catholic Drinking, by Sean P. Daily. October 10, 2007:

    There is Protestant drinking and there is Catholic drinking, and the difference is more than mere quantity. I have no scientific data to back up my claims, nor have I completed any formal studies. But I have done a good bit of, shall we say, informal study, which for a hypothesis like this is probably the best kind. . . .

  • Pre-Primary Election Anxiety Disorder – William Luse (Apologia) gives his assessment of the candidates – Ron Paul (“Picture him trying to stare down Vladimir Putin across a table. Better yet, Ahmadinejad”); Fred Thompson (“I liked him better on Law and Order. At least they made him stay awake on set”); Rudy Giuliani (“He’s also a Roman Catholic who believes in serial marriage. Weak on tor…enhanced interrogation techniques”); Alan Keyes (“The most skilled rhetorician in recent American history. If I had to vote for someone who didn’t stand a chance, he’d be it”) et al.
  • Faithful Catholic Book Publishers from Good Jesuit, Bad jesuit (taken in turn from Aquinas and More‘s survey of religious publishers in general, see his “The Matthew Fox Circle of Energy Reading Room” for those to generally avoid as well).
  • “Lord Have Mercy” – Ross Douhat reviews Christopher Hitchen’s God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything: “I have been writing this book all my life,” Hitchens declares in the conclusion, “and intend to keep on writing it.” One hopes that someone near and dear to him will have the courage to firmly suggest that he stop. (Via Catholic Analysis).

  • Raniero Cantalamessa – Franciscan Capuchin and Preacher to the Papal Household, has a website — updated with his Advent homilies for December 2007.

Christmas 2007

The message of Christmas makes us recognize the darkness of a closed world, and thereby no doubt illustrates a reality that we see daily. Yet it also tells us that God does not allow himself to be shut out. He finds a space, even if it means entering through the stable; there are people who see his light and pass it on. Through the word of the Gospel, the angel also speaks to us, and in the sacred liturgy the light of the Redeemer enters our lives. Whether we are shepherds or “wise men” – the light and its message call us to set out, to leave the narrow circle of our desires and interests, to go out to meet the Lord and worship him. We worship him by opening the world to truth, to good, to Christ, to the service of those who are marginalized and in whom he awaits us.


What Christ rebuilds is no ordinary palace. He came to restore beauty and dignity to creation, to the universe: this is what began at Christmas and makes the angels rejoice. The Earth is restored to good order by virtue of the fact that it is opened up to God, it obtains its true light anew, and in the harmony between human will and divine will, in the unification of height and depth, it regains its beauty and dignity. Thus Christmas is a feast of restored creation. It is in this context that the Fathers interpret the song of the angels on that holy night: it is an expression of joy over the fact that the height and the depth, Heaven and Earth, are once more united; that man is again united to God.

Pope Benedict XVI: Christmas Homily 2007.

* * *

Midnight Christmas Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, in images
Courtesy of Thomas Peters

Currently Reading: Weigel, "Faith, Reason and the War Against Jihadism"

I am presently reading an advance copy of George Weigel’s — as also, it appears, Jay Anderson and Gerald Augustinus (no doubt this will confirm Vox Nova‘s worst fears about an organized Catholic neocon conspiracy). 😉

As it is nearing Christmas, I intend to blog my thoughts on Weigel’s proposals in the New Year and look forward to what I’m sure will be an engaging discussion with my readers.

In the meantime, here’s the publisher’s info:

More than half a decade after 9/11, safe passage through a moment of history fraught with both peril and possibility requires Americans across the political spectrum to see things as they are.

In this incisive, engaging study of the present danger and what we must do to prevail against it, George Weigel, one of America’s foremost public intellectuals, does precisely that: he sees, and describes, things as they are—and as they might be. Drawing on a quarter century of experience at the intersection of moral argument and public policy, he describes rigorously and clearly the threat posed by global jihadism: the religiously inspired ideology which teaches that it is the moral obligation of all Muslims to employ whatever means are necessary to compel the world’s submission to Islam. Exploring that ideology’s theological, social, cultural, and political roots, Weigel points a new direction for both public policy and interreligious dialogue, one that meets the challenge of jihadism forthrightly while creating the conditions for a less threatening, more mutually enriching encounter between Islam and the West.

Essential reading in a time of momentous political decisions, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism is a clarion call for a new seriousness of debate and a new clarity of purpose in American public life.

The book has garnered high praise from Norman Podhoretz (Commentary), William Kristol (Weekly Standard), R. James Woolsey (former director of the CIA), Fouad Ajami (Middle East Studies author), and Senator Joseph Leiberman.

* * *

Lest you’re wondering, I’m also reading Pope Benedict XVI’s Spe Salvi (in between naps, as is the tendency these days), and will blog my (meager) thoughts in January.

Reunion of Iraqi Christians and Muslims

Cardinal Emmanuel III DellyThis past Sunday, Christian worshippers in Baghdad celebrated Mass and welcomed Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, leader of the ancient Chaldean Church, recently elevated by Pope Benedict XVI in a symbolic expression of his sympathy for, and solidarity with, the Christian community of Iraq. Sameer Yacoub (Associated Press) reports:

Under heavy guard and broadcast live on Iraqi state television, the service was capped by a handshake from a visiting Shiite imam—a symbolic show of unity between Iraq’s majority Muslim sect and its tiny Christian community. . . .

Delly presided over other services this week in Baghdad and the northern Kurdish city of Irbil, spreading his message of unity and forgiveness among Iraq’s Christians.

“We are of one family, everyone should work for the progress of this country,” he said during his sermon.

The frequent target of Islamic extremists, Iraq’s Christians have been forced to flee by the tens of thousands or to isolate themselves in barricaded neighborhoods if they choose to remain.

“We pray today for the sake of each other and to forgive each other, as well to be directed to do good deeds,” Delly said. “That is my demand for the Iraqis, moreover I urge the return home for displaced people and immigrants to their ancestral land.”

Many people who filled the pews at the elegant brick Church of the Virgin Mary said they were taking advantage of a lull in violence to attend services and to congratulate Delly. The imam of a nearby Shiite mosque shook hands with him in the church’s courtyard after the service.

“I came here to show the unity of the Iraqi people,” said the black- turbaned imam, Jassim al-Jazairi. “We are happy with the cardinal. We are very proud of any person, whether Christian or Muslim, who raises the name of Iraq in the international arena.”

This past November combat journalist Michael Yon released a truly epic photograph of Christians and Muslims, placing a cross atop the St. John’s Church in Baghdad (“Thanks and Praise” Against The Grain Nov. 8, 2007). In “Come Home”, Michael Yon provides the background to the story and the momentous events that occurred after the taking of the photo.

On November 19, 2007, Most Reverend Shlemon Warduni, Auxiliary Bishop of the St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Diocese for Chaldeans and Assyrians in Iraq officiated at a mass in St. John’s Church in Baghdad. He was welcomed home by a crowd of locals and American soldiers, who had fought hard to cleanse the streets of Al Qaeda. According to Michael Yon, “speaking in both Arabic and English, Bishop Warduni thanked those American soldiers sitting in the pews for their sacrifices”:

. . . when al Qaeda came to Dora, they began harassing Christians first, charging them “rent.” It was the local Muslims, according to LTC Michael, who first came to him for help to protect the Christians in his area. . . . the Muslims reached out to him to protect the Christians from al Qaeda. Real Muslims here are quick to say that al Qaeda members are not true Muslims. From charging “rent,” al Qaeda’s harassment escalated to killing Christians, and also Muslims. Untold thousands of Christians and Muslims fled Baghdad in the wake of the darkness of civil war.

According to Michael Yon, the front pews of the Mass were filled with Muslims, to express their solidarity with their Christian neighbors and invite them back to Iraq. He concludes his post:

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any fighting. I can’t remember my last shootout: it’s been months. The nightmare is ending. Al Qaeda is being crushed. The Sunni tribes are awakening all across Iraq and forswearing violence for negotiation. Many of the Shia are ready to stop the fighting that undermines their ability to forge and manage a new government. This is a complex and still delicate denouement, and the war may not be over yet. But the Muslims are saying it’s time to come home. And the Christians are saying it’s time to come home. They are weary, and there is much work to be done.

Let us pray that it’s only the beginning — and give thanks to the U.S. and Iraqi military efforts to make this possible.

USCCB Doctrinal Commitee Educates Peter C. Phan on the Gospel

A welcome update to the investigation of Fr. Peter C. Phan, which we reported on in September (Against The Grain ). This week, the The U.S. Bishops’ Doctrine Committee issued clarifications concerning several aspects of Father Peter C. Phan’s book, Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue:

Father Phan’s book uses “certain terms in an equivocal manner” that “opens the text up to significant ambiguity,” the Committee said. It added that “a fair reading of the book could leave readers in considerable confusion as to the proper understanding of the uniqueness of Christ.”

The Committee, which represents the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on doctrinal matters, outlined its concerns in a statement, “Clarifications Required by the Book Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue.” [.pdf format] The Committee made the statement public December 10.

The Doctrinal Committee points out that Father Phan actually did not respond to their invitation to provide needed clarifications to his book, thus necessitating the committee to act on their own, “since, at the very least, the use in the book of certain terms in an equivocal manner opens the text up to significant ambiguity and since a fair reading of the book could leave readers in considerable confusion as to the proper understanding of the uniqueness of Christ, it is necessary to recall some essential elements of Church teaching. The crux of the issue is that Being Religious Interreligiously does not express adequately and accurately the Church’s teaching.”

In addition to a deficient presentation of the salvific role of Jesus Christ, the committee expresses their concern over Phan’s view of the salvific role of non-Christian religions:

The book defends the view that “the non-Christian religions possess an autonomous function in the history of salvation, different from that of Christianity,” and that “they cannot be reduced to Christianity in terms of preparation and fulfillment.” The book asserts:

Religious pluralism . . . is not just a matter of fact but also a matter of principle. That is, non-Christian religions may be seen as part of the plan of divine providence and endowed with a particular role in the history of salvation. They are not merely a “preparation” for, “stepping stones” toward, or “seeds” of Christianity and destined to be “fulfilled” by it Rather, they have their own autonomy and their proper roles as ways of salvation, at least for their adherents.

The book contrasts what it sees as the Second Vatican Council’s deliberate decision to refrain “from affirming that these religions as such function as ways of salvation in a manner analogous, let alone parallel, to Christianity,” with the position of certain contemporary theologians, among whom the author includes himself. These theologians believe that it is necessary to go beyond the Council’s position and to assert “that these religions may be said to be ways of salvation and that religious pluralism is part of God’s providential plan.”

The committee’s response to this tripe bears quoting at length:

Since the book as a whole is based on the idea that religious pluralism is indeed a positively-willed part of the divine plan, the reader is led to conclude that there is some kind of moral obligation for the Church to refrain from calling people to conversion to Christ and to membership in his Church. According to the book, religious pluralism “may not and must not be abolished” by conversion to Christianity. The implication is that to continue the Christian mission to members of non-Christian religions would be contrary to God’s purpose in history. Such a conclusion, instead of being a “theologically more adequate equivalent” of Church teaching, is in fact an alteration that blurs Church teaching. At this point the autonomy of non- Christian religions has eclipsed their relatedness to Jesus Christ.

21. This call for an end to Christian mission is in conflict with the Church’s commission, given to her by Christ himself:”Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Moreover, if one accepts that Jesus Christ is in fact the one affirmed by Christian faith as the eternal Son of God made man, through whom the universe was created and by whose death and resurrection the human race has the possibility of attaining eternal life, then it is incoherent to argue that it would somehow be better if certain people were not told this truth.

22. The Church’s evangelizing mission is not an imposition of power but an expression of love for the whole world. The very fact that other religions do not possess the fullness of the Father’s truth revealed in Jesus Christ and the fullness of the Father’s love that is poured out in the Holy Spirit ought to compel Christians, in their love for all men and women, to share their faith with others. To offer others the gift of Jesus Christ is to offer them the greatest and most valuable of all gifts, for he is the Father’s merciful gift to all. Thus there is no necessary conflict between showing respect for other religions and fulfilling Christ’s command to proclaim the Gospel to all the nations.

The USCCB’s Doctrine Committee consists of

  • Most Rev. William E. Lori (Chairman), Bishop of Bridgeport;
  • Most Rev. Leonard P. Blair, Bishop of Toledo
  • Most Rev. José H. Gomez, Archbishop of San Antonio
  • Most Rev. Robert J. McManus, Bishop of Worcester
  • Most Rev. Arthur J. Serratelli, Bishop of Paterson
  • Most Rev. Allen H. Vigneron, Bishop of Oakland
  • Most Rev. Donald W. Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington

John Allen Jr. provides the background to the Bishop’s investigation of Fr. Phan, which came as as pecific consequence of Phan’s neglect to honor requests from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to provide clarification of his positions:

A Vatican investigation of Phan’s work was opened in 2004, under protocol number 537/2004-21114. On July 20, 2005, Archbishop Angelo Amato, the number two official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote to Bishop Charles Grahmann of Dallas, informing him that the congregation has found “serious ambiguities and doctrinal problems” in Being Religious Interreligiously. Phan, a former Salesian, is now a priest of the Dallas diocese; Grahmann has since retired, and has been replaced by Bishop Kevin Farrell.

Phan replied on April 4 to Cardinal William Levada, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He did not enter into the merits of the observations, though he said several were “preposterous.” To date, the CDF has not responded.

In the meantime, however, the U.S. bishops began their own inquiry. On May 15, 2007, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut wrote to Phan as chair of the Committee on Doctrine for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Lori wrote that because the requests of the CDF had “proven unacceptable to you,” his committee had been asked by the CDF to examine the book. Lori asked Phan to respond to a four-page set of observations enclosed with his letter.

Phan protested that in view of his academic commitments he did not have enough time to respond prior to the spring of 2008. Given that, the Doctrine Committee decided to proceed with publication of its statement. […]

A USCCB spokesperson said on Monday that the Doctrine Committee does not know if the Vatican now considers the Phan case closed, or if the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith might take it up again on its own.

Peter C. Phan, the first Asian-American to serve as President of the Catholic Theological Society of America, holds the Ellacuria Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University.

* * *

On a related note, on December 14th, 2007 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released “Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization”, “devoted principally to an exposition of the Catholic Church’s understanding of the Christian mission of evangelization, which is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ” and reasserting the Church’s ‘Missionary Mandate’. Zenit News provides a summary; the complete text is available here [.pdf format, thanks to Rorate Caeli].