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The beginning of faith

· Pope emeritus Benedict XVI gives an interview ·


Benedict XVI gave an interview to Jacques Servais which was then published in the Book Per mezzo della fede, edited by Jesuit Daniele Libanori (Cinisello Balsamo, Edizioni San Paolo, 2016). In it the Pope emeritus speaks about the centrality of mercy in the Christian faith. The volume brings together contributions from a conference held last October in Rome. As Filippo Rizzi wrote on 16 March in Avvenire, Jacques Servais (whose name does not appear in the book) is an expert in the works of Hans Urs von Balthasaar.

Published here is a translation of the Benedict’s interview in its entirety.

Your Holiness, the question posed this year as part of the symposium promoted by the rectorate of the Gesù (the residence for Jesuit seminarians in Rome) is that of justification by faith. The last volume of your collected works (gs iv) highlights your resolute affirmation: “The Christian faith is not an idea, but a life”. Commenting on the famous Pauline affirmation in Romans 3:28, you mentioned, in this regard, a twofold transcendence: “Faith is a gift to believers communicated through the community, which for its part is the result of God’s gift” (‘Glaube ist Gabe durch die Gemeinschaft; die sich selbst gegeben wird’, gs iv, 512). Could you explain what you meant by that statement, taking into account of course the fact that the aim of these days of study is to clarify pastoral theology and vivify the spiritual experience of the faithful?

The question concerns what faith is and how one comes to believe. On the one hand, faith is a profoundly personal contact with God, which touches me in my innermost being and places me in front of the living God in absolute immediacy in such a way that I can speak with Him, love Him and enter into communion with Him. But at the same time this reality which is so fundamentally personal also inseparably pertains to the community. It is an essential part of faith that I be introduced into the “we” of the children of God, into the pilgrim community of brothers and sisters. The encounter with God means also, at the same time, that I myself become open, torn from my closed solitude and received into the living community of the Church. That living community is also a mediator of my encounter with God, although that encounter touches my heart in an entirely personal way.

Faith comes from hearing (fides ex auditu), as St Paul teaches us. Listening, in turn, always implies a partner. Faith is not a product of reflection and it is not an attempt to penetrate the depths of my own being. Both of these things may be present, but they remain insufficient without the “listening” through which God, from without, from a story He Himself created, challenges me. In order for me to believe, I need witnesses who have met God and make Him accessible to me.

In my article on baptism I spoke of the double transcendence of the community, in this way once again bringing out an important element: the faith community does not create itself. It is not an assembly of men who have some ideas in common and who decide to work for the spread of such ideas. Then everything would be based on one’s own decision and, in the final analysis, on the principle that the majority rules, which ultimately would be based on human opinion. A Church built in this way cannot be for me the guarantor of eternal life nor require me to make decisions that cause me to suffer and are contrary to my desires. No, the Church is not self-made, she was created by God and she is continuously formed by Him. This finds expression in the sacraments, above all in that of Baptism: I do not come into the Church through a bureaucratic act but through a sacrament. And this is to say that I am welcomed into a community that did not originate in itself and is projected beyond itself.

The ministry that aims to form the spiritual experience of the faithful must proceed from these fundamental givens. It needs to abandon the idea of a self-made Church and to make it clear that the Church becomes a community through the communion of the Body of Christ. It must bring people to an encounter with Jesus Christ and into His presence in the sacrament.

When you were Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, commenting on the Joint Declaration of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation on the Doctrine of Justification of 31 October 1999, you pointed out a difference of mentality in relation to Luther and the question of salvation and blessedness as he had posed it. Luther’s religious experience was dominated by terror before the wrath of God, a feeling quite alien to modern men, who instead sense the absence of God (see your article in ‘Communio’ 2000, 430). For them, the problem is not so much how to obtain eternal life, but rather how to ensure, in the precarious conditions of our world, a certain balance of fully human life. Can the teaching of St Paul of justification by faith, in this new context, reach the “religious” experience or at least the “elementary” experience of our contemporaries?

First of all, I want to emphasize once again what I wrote in Communio 2000 on the issue of justification. Today, compared to the time of Luther and to the classical perspective of the Christian faith, things are in a certain sense inverted, or rather, man no longer believes he needs justification before God, but rather he is of the opinion that it is God who must justify himself because of all the horrible things in the world and the misery of human beings, all of which ultimately depends on Him. In this regard, I find it significant that a Catholic theologian could profess even in a direct and formal way this inverted position: that Christ did not suffer for the sins of men, but rather, as it were, to “cancel out the faults of God”. Even if most Christians today would not share such a drastic reversal of our faith, we could say that all of this reveals an underlying trend of our times. When Johann Baptist Metz argues that theology today must be “sensitive to theodicy” (German: theodizee empfindlich), this highlights the same problem in a positive way. Even rescinding such a radical contestation of the Church’s understanding of the relationship between God and man, mankind today, in a very general way, has the sense that God cannot allow the majority of humanity to be damned. In this sense, the concern for the personal salvation of souls typical of past times has for the most part disappeared.

However, in my opinion, there continues to exist, in another way, the perception that we are in need of grace and forgiveness. For me, a “sign of the times” is the fact that the notion that God’s mercy should be more and more central and dominant — starting with Sr Faustina, whose visions in various ways deeply reflect the image of God held by people today and their desire for divine goodness. Pope John Paul II was deeply imbued with this impulse, even if it did not always emerge explicitly. But it is certainly not by chance that his last book, published just before his death, speaks of God’s mercy. Starting from the experiences which, from the earliest years of life, exposed him to all of man’s cruelty, he affirms that mercy is the only true and ultimate effective reaction against the power of evil. Only where there is mercy does cruelty end, do evil and violence end. Pope Francis is totally in agreement with this line. His pastoral practice is expressed in the very fact that he continually speaks to us of God’s mercy. It is mercy that moves us toward God, while justice only frightens us before Him. In my view, this makes it clear that, under a veneer of self-assuredness and self-righteousness, mankind today hides a deep awareness of its wounds and unworthiness before God. Mankind is waiting for mercy.

It is certainly no coincidence that the parable of the Good Samaritan is particularly attractive to contemporary man. And not just because that parable strongly emphasizes the social dimension of Christian existence, nor only because in it the Samaritan, the non-religious man, in comparison with the representatives of religion seems, so to speak, as one who acts in true conformity with God, while the official representatives of religion seem, as it were, immune to God. This clearly pleases modern man. But it seems just as important to me, however, that men deep in their hearts expect that the Samaritan will come to their aid; that he will bend down to them, anoint their wounds, care for them and carry them to safety. In the final analysis, they know that they need God’s mercy and his tenderness. In the hardness of a technological world where feelings no longer count for anything, nevertheless, there is a growing expectation of a saving love, that is freely-given. It seems to me that in the theme of divine mercy the meaning of justification by faith is expressed in a new way. Starting from the mercy of God, which everyone is looking for, it is possible even today to interpret anew the fundamental nucleus of the doctrine of justification and have it appear again in all its relevance.

When Anselm says that Christ had to die on the cross in order to remedy the infinite offense that had been committed against God, and in this way to restore the shattered order, he uses a language that is difficult for modern man to accept (cf. gs iv 215.ss). Expressing oneself in this way, one risks projecting onto God an image of a God of wrath, relentless toward the sin of man, with feelings of violence and aggression comparable to what we can experience ourselves. How is it possible to speak of God’s justice without potentially undermining the certainty, firmly established among the faithful, that the Christian God is a God “rich in mercy” (Eph 2:4)?

The conceptuality of St Anselm has now become for us incomprehensible. It is our task to try to understand anew the truth that lies behind this mode of expression. For my part I offer three points of view on this perspective:

a) the contrast between the Father, who insists in an absolute way on justice, and the Son who obeys the Father and, in obeying, accepts the cruel demands of justice, is not only incomprehensible today, but, from the standpoint of Trinitarian theology, is in itself all wrong. The Father and the Son are one and therefore their will is ab intrinseco one. When in the Garden of Olives, the Son struggles with the will of the Father, it is not a matter of accepting for himself some cruel disposition of God, but rather of attracting humanity into the will of God itself. We will have to come back again, later, to the relationship of the two wills of the Father and of the Son.

b) So why the cross and the atonement? Somehow today, in the contortions of modern thought mentioned above, the answer to these questions can be formulated in a new way. Let’s place ourselves before the obscene amount of evil, violence, falsehood, hatred, cruelty and arrogance that infect and destroy the whole world. This mass of evil cannot simply be declared non-existent, not even by God. It must be cleansed, reworked and overcome. Ancient Israel was convinced that daily sacrifice for sins and above all the great liturgy of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) were necessary as a counterweight to the mass of evil in the world and that only through such rebalancing could the world, as it were, remain bearable. Once the sacrifices in the temple disappeared, one had to wonder what could be set against the higher powers of evil, how a counterweight could be found. The Christians knew that the destroyed temple was replaced by the resurrected body of the crucified Lord and in His radical and immeasurable love was created a counterweight to the immeasurable presence of evil. Indeed, they knew that the offerings presented up until then could only be conceived of as a gesture of longing for a genuine counterweight. They also knew that before the excessive power of evil only an infinite love could suffice, only an infinite atonement. They knew that the crucified and risen Christ is a power that can counter the power of evil and save the world.

And on this basis they could even understand the meaning of their own suffering as integrated into the suffering love of Christ and as part of the redemptive power of such love. Above I quoted the theologian for whom God had to suffer for his sins in regard to the world. Now, due to this reversal of perspective, the following truths emerge: God simply cannot leave “as is” the mass of evil that comes from the freedom that He Himself has granted. He alone, by coming to share in the world’s suffering, can redeem the world.

c) Based on these premises, the relationship between the Father and the Son becomes more comprehensible. I would use a passage from a book by Henri de Lubac on Origen which I find very clear on the subject: “The Redeemer came into the world out of compassion for mankind. He took upon Himself our passions even before being crucified, indeed even before descending to assume our flesh: had He not experienced them beforehand, He would not have come to partake of our human life. But what was this suffering that he endured in advance for us? It was the passion of love. But the Father himself, the God of the universe, He who is overflowing with forbearance, patience, mercy and compassion, does He too not suffer in a certain sense? ‘The Lord your God, in fact, has taken upon Himself your ways as the one who takes upon himself his son’ (cf. Deut 1:31). God thus takes upon Himself our customs as the Son of God took upon Himself our sufferings. The Father Himself is not without passion! If He is invoked, then He knows mercy and compassion. He perceives a suffering of love” (Homilies on Ezekiel 6:6).

In some parts of Germany there was a very moving devotion that contemplated the Not Gottes (“poverty of God”). For my part, that leads me to see an impressive image of the suffering Father, who, as Father, inwardly shares the sufferings of the Son. And the image of the “throne of grace” is also part of this devotion: the Father supports the cross and the crucified one, bends lovingly down to him and the two are, as it were, one on the cross. So in a grand and pure way, one perceives there what God’s mercy means, what God’s participation in human suffering means. It is not a matter of a cruel justice, nor of the Father’s fanaticism, but rather of the truth and the reality of creation: the true intimate overcoming of evil that ultimately can be realized only in the suffering of love.

In the ‘Spiritual Exercises’, Ignatius of Loyola does not use the Old Testament images of vengeance, as opposed to Paul (cf. 2 Thess 1:5-9); nevertheless he invites us to contemplate how men, until the Incarnation, “descended into hell” (cf. Spiritual Exercises n. 102; ds iv, 376) and to consider the example of the “countless others who ended up there for far fewer sins than I have committed” (cf. Spiritual Exercises, n. 52). It is in this spirit that St Francis Xavier lived his pastoral work, convinced he had to try to save as many “infidels” as possible from the terrible fate of eternal damnation. The teaching, formalized in the Council of Trent, in the passage regarding the judgment of good and evil, later radicalized by the Jansenists, was taken up in a much more restrained way in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (cf. § 5 633, 1037). Can it be said on this point that, in recent decades, there has been a kind of “development of dogma” that the Catechism absolutely must take into account?

There is no doubt that on this point we are faced with a profound evolution of dogma. While the fathers and theologians of the Middle Ages could still have been of the opinion that, essentially, the whole human race had become Catholic and that by that time paganism existed only on the margins, the discovery of the New World at the beginning of the modern era radically changed perspectives. In the second half of the last century it was fully affirmed: the realization that God cannot abandon all the unbaptized to damnation and that mere natural happiness cannot represent a real answer to the question of human existence. If it is true that the great missionaries of the 16th century were still convinced that those who are not baptized are forever lost — and this explains their missionary commitment — in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council that conviction was definitively abandoned.

From this came a profound crisis that was twofold. On the one hand this seems to remove all motivation for a future missionary commitment. Why should one try to convince people to accept the Christian faith when they can save themselves without it? But among Christians too an issue emerged: the obligatory nature of the faith and its way of life began to seem uncertain and problematic. If people can save themselves in other ways, it is not clear, in the final analysis, why Christians should be bound by the requirements of Christian faith and morals. If faith and salvation are no longer interdependent, faith has no motive.

Lately several attempts have been formulated with the purpose of reconciling the universal necessity of the Christian faith with the possibility of salvation without it. Here I will mention two: first, Karl Rahner’s well-known thesis of anonymous Christians. He maintains that the basic and essential act at the root of Christian existence, which is decisive for salvation, in the transcendental structure of our consciousness, consists in the opening to the Other, to unity with God. In this vision, the Christian faith would raise to consciousness what is structural in man as such. Thus, when a man accepts himself in his essential being, he fulfills the essence of being a Christian without knowing what it is in a conceptual way. The Christian, therefore, coincides with the human and, in this sense, every man who accepts himself is a Christian even if he does not know it. It is true that this theory is fascinating, but it reduces Christianity itself to a purely conscious presentation of what a human being is in himself and therefore overlooks the drama of change and renewal that is central to Christianity.

Even less acceptable is the solution proposed by the pluralistic theories of religion, according to which all religions, each in their own way, would be means to salvation and in this sense, in their effects must be considered equivalent. The kind of critique of religion used in the Old Testament is, in the New Testament and in the early Church, essentially more realistic, more concrete and truer in its examination of the various religions. Such a simplistic reception is not proportionate to the magnitude of the issue.

Let us recall, lastly and above all, Henri de Lubac and with him several other theologians who laboured over the concept of vicarious substitution. For them the “pro-existence” (“being-for”) of Christ would be an expression of the fundamental figure of Christian life and of the Church as such. It’s true that this doesn’t completely resolve the problem, but it seems to me that in reality this essential insight touches the life of every single Christian. Christ, insofar as he is unique, was and is for all people and Christians, whom St Paul magnificently describes as His body in the world. They participate in this being-for. Christians, so to speak, do not exist for themselves, but, along with Christ, they exist for others. That does not mean some kind of special ticket to eternal beatitude, but rather it is a vocation to build together, as a whole. What a person needs in the order of salvation is an interior openness to God, an interior expectation for and adherence to Him. And this in turn means that we together with the Lord whom we have encountered go forth to others and seek to render visible the coming of God in Christ. It is possible to explain this being-for in a more abstract way. It is important to mankind that there be truth in it, that it be believed and practiced. That one suffers for it. That one loves. These realities penetrate with their light into the world as such and support it. I think that in this present situation what the Lord said to Abraham becomes for us ever more clear and understandable, that is, that ten righteous men would have sufficed to save a city, but that it would self-destruct if that small number were not reached. It is clear that we need further reflection on the matter as a whole.

In the eyes of many secular humanists, marked by the atheism of the 19th and 20th centuries, as you have noted, it is God — if He exists — not man who should be held accountable for injustice, for the suffering of the innocent, for the cynicism of power we are witnessing, powerless, in the world and in world history (cf. ‘Spe Salvi’, n. 42).... In your book ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, you echo what for them — and for us — is a scandal: “The reality of injustice, of evil, cannot be simply ignored, simply set aside. It absolutely must be overcome and conquered. Only in this way is there really mercy” (‘Jesus of Nazareth’, vol. ii, page 153, quoting 2 Tim 2:13). Is the sacrament of confession one of the places where the evil done can be “remedied”? If so, how?

I have already tried to expose as a whole the main points related to this issue in my answer to your third question. The counterweight to the dominion of evil can consist in the first place only in the divine-human love of Jesus Christ that is always greater than any possible power of evil. But it is necessary that we include ourselves within this answer that God gives us through Jesus Christ. Even if the individual is responsible for a fragment of evil, and therefore is an accomplice of its power, together with Christ he can nevertheless “complete what is lacking in his sufferings” (cf. Col 1:24).

The sacrament of penance certainly has an important role in this field. It means that we always allow ourselves to be molded and transformed by Christ and that we pass continuously from the side of him who destroys to the side of Him who saves.

Jacques Servais

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