by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
This week, I continue with reflections on Pope Benedict’s second encyclical letter, “Spe Salve — On Christian Hope.” The Holy Father seeks to make clear the nature of Christian hope by contrasting it with some of the false notions of hope prevalent in the modern world.
One of the most powerful of these misunderstandings of hope is linked in a unique way to the circumstances in which our nation was formed. Pope Benedict notes: “That a new era emerged — through the discovery of America and the new technical achievements that had made this development possible — is undeniable” (no. 16).
Americans have a reputation as optimists. Those who immigrated to this country from Europe experienced a freedom from many of the prejudices and biases that plagued the “Old World.” Also contributing to this optimistic spirit were the scientific and technological advances that coincided with the development of our nation.
Among the erroneous notions of hope afflicting the modern world, and to which Americans are particularly susceptible, is faith in progress. The remarkable successes of the scientific method, resulting in amazing technological advancements, fostered a false hope that a new paradise could be realized by the ability of human reason to direct the natural world.
The Holy Father describes the radical change in religious faith this new faith in progress caused: “Up to that time, the recovery of what man had lost through the expulsion from Paradise was expected from faith in Jesus Christ: herein lay redemption. Now, this redemption, the restoration of the lost Paradise, is no longer expected from faith, but from the newly discovered link between science and praxis. It is not that faith is simply denied; rather it is displaced onto another level — that of purely private and other worldly affairs — and at the same time it becomes somehow irrelevant for the world” (no. 17).
Praxis can be defined as the practical application of learning.
This faith in progress also draws upon another ideal very dear to Americans: freedom. The Holy Father describes how the belief in the intrinsic goodness of both reason and freedom are the foundation for the faith in progress: “Progress is primarily associated with the growing dominion of reason, and this reason is obviously considered to be a force of good and a force for good. Progress is overcoming of all forms of dependency — it is progress towards perfect freedom. Likewise freedom is seen purely as a promise, in which man becomes more and more fully himself” (no. 18).
However, the industrialization that was one of the fruits of scientific and technological progress did not lead to a new utopia, but rather to dehumanizing working and living conditions experienced by many. This led to the realization that faith in progress needed to be expanded from beyond the scientific to include political advancement as well.
It was in this environment that the economic ideology of Karl Marx took hold with its call for social revolution.
Marx naively presumed that with the overthrow of the ruling class accompanied by the socialization of the means of production, the New Jerusalem would automatically ensue. Pope Benedict describes the fundamental error of Marx in this way: “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 favorable economic environment” (no. 21).
From the perspective of the 21st century, we can see that the advancement of science does not inevitably lead to a better world. The scientific advancements that can be used to do so much good for humanity also have the potential, as in the case of nuclear weapons, to destroy the world. Pope Benedict refers to one 20th-century thinker who summarized grimly the reality of modern “advancements” as “progress from the sling shot to the atom bomb” (no. 21).
We can see clearly from the tragic experiences of the 20th century that political and social revolutions do not lead necessarily to utopia but often only to a different and even harsher set of oppressors.
Pope Benedict concludes that the experience of recent centuries has brought us to the realization of the ambiguity of progress: “To put it another way: the ambiguity of progress becomes evident. Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil — possibilities that formerly did not exist. 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” (no. 22).
Science and technology, not tethered to moral and ethical principles that uphold the dignity of the human person, can increase suffering and misery in the world. Freedom, not anchored in truth, can lead to anarchy and the violation of the most fundamental rights of the weak and vulnerable by the stronger, as is evidenced in our own country by the legalization of abortion.
Science and technology, when guided by good moral values, can contribute significantly to the well-being of humanity. Yet, humanity’s redemption and therefore our hope can never be found in those things that can only change or alter the exterior world. True hope can be found only in that which has the power to transform the human heart. This is why Jesus and the truth of the Gospel remain as relevant and as important today as they were 2,000 years ago.