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Associated Press – November 30, 2007
VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI strongly criticized modern-day atheism in a major document released Friday, saying it had led to some of the “greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice” ever known to mankind.
But Benedict also critically questioned modern Christianity in his second encyclical, saying its focus on individual salvation had ignored Jesus’ message that true Christian hope involves salvation for all.
“Saved by Hope” is a deeply theological exploration of Christian hope: that in the suffering and misery of daily life, Christianity provides the faithful with a “journey of hope” to the Kingdom of God.
“We must do all we can to overcome suffering, but to banish it from the world is not in our power,” Benedict wrote. “Only God is able to do this.”
In the 76-page document, Benedict elaborates how the Christian understanding of hope had changed in the modern age, when man sought to relieve the suffering and injustice around him. Benedict points to two historical upheavals: the French Revolution and the proletarian revolution instigated by Karl Marx.
While almost praising Marx’s intellect, Benedict sharply criticizes his errors and the atheism spawned by his revolution – although he acknowledges that both were responding to the deep injustices of the time.
“A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God,” he wrote. But he said the idea that man can do what God cannot by creating a new salvation on Earth was “both presumptuous and intrinsically false.”
“It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice,” he wrote. “A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope.”
He specifically cited Lenin and the “intermediate phase” of dictatorship that Marx saw as necessary in the revolution.
“This ‘intermediate phase’ we know all too well, and we also know how it then developed, not ushering in a perfect world, but leaving behind a trail of appalling destruction,” Benedict wrote.
At the same time, Benedict also looks critically at the way modern Christianity had responded to the times, saying such a “self-critique” was also necessary.
“We must 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,” he wrote. “In doing so, it has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task.”
The Christian concept of hope and salvation, he says, was not always so individual-centric.
Quoting scripture and theologians, Benedict says salvation had in the earlier Church been considered “communal” – illustrating his point by using the case of monks in the Middle Ages who cloistered themselves in prayer not just for their own salvation but for that of others.
“How could the idea have developed that Jesus’ 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?” he asked.
While seeking to provide answers, he says there are ways for the faithful to learn and practice true Christian hope: in prayer, in suffering, in taking action and in looking at the Last Judgment as a symbol of hope.
Despite the encyclical’s tendency to criticize both the political and religious developments of past centuries, Cardinal George Coittier, the retired theologian of the papal household, told a news conference the encyclical was not “anti-millennial.”
“It’s an invitation to meditate on the roots of hope,” he said.
“Saved by Hope,” which Benedict largely penned this past summer while on vacation, follows his first encyclical “God is Love,” which was released last year. With these two encyclicals, which are the most authoritative documents a pope can issue, Benedict has explored two of the three Christian theological virtues: faith, hope and love.
“We all ask ourselves if there will be a third encyclical on faith,” Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said. “It cannot be excluded, but it’s not planned.”

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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