Pontificate of Hope

The author's first encounter with Bl. Pope John Paul II

My confrere Pater Johannes Paul and I went to Rome with a group of pilgrims for the beatification of Pope John Paul II. It was tremendously moving and all that sort of thing, but the trip was also kind of exhausting and so I actually fell asleep during the sermon at the Beatification Mass. Reading the sermon when I got back, I was struck by the following passage, in which Pope Benedict gives a remarkably pithy summary of the center of his predecessor’s teaching:

When Karol Wojtyła ascended to the throne of Peter, he brought with him a deep understanding of the difference between Marxism and Christianity, based on their respective visions of man. This was his message: man is the way of the Church, and Christ is the way of man. With this message, which is the great legacy of the Second Vatican Council and of its “helmsman”, the Servant of God Pope Paul VI, John Paul II led the People of God across the threshold of the Third Millennium, which thanks to Christ he was able to call “the threshold of hope”. Throughout the long journey of preparation for the great Jubilee he directed Christianity once again to the future, the future of God, which transcends history while nonetheless directly affecting it. He rightly reclaimed for Christianity that impulse of hope which had in some sense faltered before Marxism and the ideology of progress. He restored to Christianity its true face as a religion of hope, to be lived in history in an “Advent” spirit, in a personal and communitarian existence directed to Christ, the fullness of humanity and the fulfillment of all our longings for justice and peace. (Source)

One has to hear what Pope Benedict says here in the light of what he writes in Spe Salvi 17: the foundation of the modern age is the rejection hope in the eschatological fulfillment of Redemption in Christ, in favor of a hope in the instauration of all things through the Baconian program of the domination of nature through technological progress. The modern world is thus founded on a kind of secular theology of history; modern man sees himself as the master of history and destined through progress to become the lord of the universe. From very first line of his very first encyclical Bl. Pope John Paul II proclaims the Christian answer to all secular attempts at unsealing the scroll of history: “The Redeemer of Man, Jesus Christ, is the center of the universe and of history.” (Redemptor Hominis)

Ironically the most consistent and intellectually satisfying version of the modern philosophy of history is Marxism. The irony is that Marxism owed much of its power to righteous anger against the spectacular injustice and oppression brought about by the realization of the Baconian program in the Industrial Revolution. No one understood Marxism better than Bl. Pope John Paul II and his role in bringing down “really existing socialism” in Europe and correcting “liberation theology” in Latin America are well known. But the lifting of the iron curtain left the other main strand of modernity dominant: Western liberalism. Despite all the bitter experience of history “the ideology of progress” is alive and well in Western secular liberalism, the direct heir of Baconian ambition. And it is against Western liberalism that much of Bl. Pope John Paul’s theological work was directed.

Let me take a single example: The Theology of the Body. I take this example largely because my father, to whom this whole post is much indebted, has done a lot of research on it, but also because I think it is in some ways central to the whole of Bl. John Paul’s project. For, a central element of the modern pseudo-theology of progress is the denial of nature. For post-Baconian man nature can no longer be an innate principle of order toward a given end, a participation in the Divine Logos and a sign of coming fulfillment in that Logos; rather in must be seen as pure exteriority, as Cartesian res extensa, as the inert object of man’s technological power. That is to say for the modern mind there is no such thing as nature. Thus the question of Humanae Vitae becomes such a sticking point between the Church and the modern world: is man’s reproductive power merely a random biological fact, which he must learn to control through art, or is it a first movement of his nature carrying in it the mark of man’s origin and pointing toward his goal? The Theology of the Body is a fundamentally eschatological work; it reads “the language of the body” to discover its original virginal and spousal meaning, a meaning which will find is final fulfillment in the eschaton:

The reciprocal gift of oneself to God—a gift in which man will concentrate and express all the energies of his own personal and at the same time psychosomatic subjectivity—will be the response to God’s gift of himself to man. In this reciprocal gift of self by man, a gift that will become completely and definitively beatifying as the response worthy of a personal subject to God’s gift of himself, the “virginity” or rather the virginal state of the body will manifest itself completely as the eschatological fulfillment of the “spousal” meaning of the body, as the specific sign and authentic expression of personal subjectivity as a whole. (TOB 68:3)

In the light of this eschatological destiny Bl. John Paul develops his deep understanding of both marriage and consecrated virginity as eschatological signs. Marriage as the image of the eschatological union between Christ and his bride, but consecrated virginity as the anticipation of life in that union. Earthly marriage is the sign of the heavenly wedding feast, but it bears in it the mark of this passing world: the generation of new life recalls that they will one day take the place of those who generated—that is, that their parents will die. (Cf. TOB 22; Hilda Steinhauer recently offered a brilliant interpretation of this). Consecrated virginity on the other hand reaches out and, as it were, already realizes what is to come. Thus celibacy for the sake of the kingdom is above all a sign of hope it is substantia sperandarum rerum and argumentum non apparentium. The virgin gives up the “happy ending” in this life, because of the certain hope of a time when death will be no more and thus there will be no need for generation.

I think that it is highly significant that so-called “progressive” Catholics, especially here in Austria, are so obsessed with abolishing celibacy (almost as much as they are obsessed with allowing contraception). It shows how wholly they have sold out to the ideology of progress. One would think that in Austria of all places one would have learned something from 20th century history, but no, the following appeal from Redemptor Hominis falls on deaf ears:

In Jesus Christ the visible world which God created for man the world that, when sin entered, “was subjected to futility”-recover again its original link with the divine source of Wisdom and Love.[…] As this link was broken in the man Adam, so in the Man Christ it was reforged. Are we of the twentieth century not convinced of the overpoweringly eloquent words of the Apostle of the Gentiles concerning the “creation (that) has been groaning in travail together until now” and “waits with eager longing for the revelation of the sons of God,” the creation that “was subjected to futility”? Does not the previously unknown- immense progress–which has taken place especially in the course of this century–in the field of man’s dominion over the world itself reveal –to a previously unknown degree– that manifold subjection “to futility”? It is enough to recall certain phenomena, such as the threat of pollution of the natural environment in areas of rapid industrialization, or the armed conflicts continually breaking out over and over again, or the prospectives of self-destruction through the use of atomic, hydrogen, neutron and similar weapons, or the lack of respect for the life of the unborn. The world of the new age, the world of space flights, the world of the previously unattained conquests of science and technology–is it not also the world “groaning in travail” that “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God”? (21)


5 thoughts on “Pontificate of Hope

  1. Reblogged this on Ave Maria Living and commented:
    This reflection, penned by Cistercian Father Edmund Waldstein after St. John Paul was beatified in 2011, highlights what many Catholics of my generation found in his Petrine ministry: hope. That hope in the nature of who we are as creatures of a Creator will continue to fuel the flame that is the Gospel. That hope is precisely why the Ave Maria projects were founded.

    We can look forward with hope to the writing and teaching of theologian Pater Edmund, and of his theologian parents Michael and Susan here in Ave Maria, who have done much already to spread this good news that is St. John Paul’s theology – especially his Theology of the Body.


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