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The Crisis Of Hope In The Modern World

February 9, 2019 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


Two opposing vices were identified last week as contrary to the theological virtue of hope: despair and presumption. Despair, on the one hand, goes against Divine Mercy; presumption, on the other hand, goes against Divine Justice.

To explain, the renowned Thomist philosopher Dr. Josef Pieper describes hope as “preeminently the virtue of the status viatoris [condition or state of being on the way]” (Faith, Hope, Love [FHL], p. 98), the virtue by which “man reaches ‘with restless heart,’ with confidence and patient expectation,…toward the arduous ‘not yet’ of fulfillment” (FHL, p. 100). However, Dr. Pieper goes on to say, “Both despair and presumption…destroy the pilgrim character of human existence in the status viatoris” (FHL, p. 113).

The sin of despair is giving up hope or the desire of attaining everlasting beatitude, giving up hope of achieving the only happiness that can truly satisfy. When entered into deliberately and voluntarily, it is a sin by which, in a sense, a person makes himself out to be greater than God. It is the blasphemous conviction that one’s case is so special, that one’s sin is so odious, that even God’s mercy is insufficient to forgive it.

Its gravity is especially great “in that it ‘closes the door,’ [and] is by its very nature a denial of the way that leads to the forgiveness of sin” (FHT, p. 117). For the Christian, despair is a decision against Christ and a denial of the redemption.

We also saw last week that presumption reveals itself in two basic forms, both of which are prevalent in today’s society. Similar to the Pelagian heresy, the first type presumes that a person can attain salvation through moral effort without the necessity of grace. “It is characterized by the more or less explicit thesis that man is able by his own human nature to win eternal life and the forgiveness of sin” (FHT, p. 126).

The other type, which manifested itself during the Protestant Reformation, is characterized by the idea that a person can be certain of salvation without true contrition or performing works of charity. In a sense, God’s justice is belittled and an inordinate confidence is placed on His mercy. In this form of presumption, “man comes to believe that he has actually attained the ‘arduous’ goal that, in reality lies still in the future” (FHT, p. 124).

“Despair and presumption,” asserts Dr. Pieper, “block the approach to true prayer….One who despairs does not petition, because he assumes that his prayer will not be granted. One who is presumptuous petitions, indeed, but his petition is not genuine because he fully anticipates its fulfillment” (FHT, p. 127). It is evident, then, that “one who looks only at the justice of God is as little able to hope as is one who sees only the mercy of God. Both fall prey to hopelessness — one to the hopelessness of despair, the other to the hopelessness of presumption” (FHT, p. 128).

Last week’s installment closed with an observation by Dr. Lawrence Feingold, STD: “The modern world is oscillating unstably between presumption and despair, two contrary blasphemies against the Holy Spirit” (Course Notes for Fundamental Moral Theology [FMT], December 2009, p. 160).

He went on to state that “the crisis of hope in the Western world is leading inexorably to the very extinction of that society which, in turn, is aiding the spread of Islam. The challenge of our time is to reignite Christian hope” (FMT, p. 163), a topic examined by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi (“Saved in Hope”).

In Spe Salvi (SS), Pope Benedict emphasizes that the virtue of hope is absolutely essential for life, that it has immense existential importance. The former Vicar of Christ begins by affirming that “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” (SS, n. 1).

Citing St. Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians — that they should not “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13) — the Holy Father underscores that a distinguishing mark of Christians is that “they have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness….The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life” (SS, n. 2).

What is the object of Christian hope? As has been stated repeatedly in recent installments of this series on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the theological virtue of hope has God as its object in two ways: He is the one in whom we trust, and perhaps even more important, hope is directed toward union with Him. Hope is directed to God as the ultimate realization of our internal desire for happiness, through His aid.

From this flows the decisive reason for the existential importance of hope: It is essential in that it gives life meaning — it provides the impetus for the journey in that there is a final end, a glorious future that awaits us, which consists in face-to-face union with the Beloved. As P. Marie-Eugene, OCD, states beautifully in I Am a Daughter of the Church, “…among the theological virtues hope is par excellence the dynamic virtue, the virtue that advances toward God” (p. 395).

Why is Pope Benedict able to speak of a crisis of hope in the modern world, especially in Western society? It is precisely because of the prevalence of the sin of disbelief in contemporary times. The Holy Father’s critique of contemporary culture depicts it as one characterized by the loss of hope, and therefore of despair and presumption.

However, he does so in a style that takes care not to condemn modern society, but to encourage a solution.

The Roman Pontiff compares today’s social situation to the state of the Roman world when the Apostle to the Gentiles first arrived in Europe; he cites St. Paul’s reminder to the Ephesians that before encountering Christ they were “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).

Pope Benedict is trying to awaken modern society to the reality that the secularism, atheism, and agnosticism that pervade today’s world, which attempt to impose a temporal hope in place of true hope (i.e., replace the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of man), will inevitably lead to despair because it can’t fulfill its utopian promise. In other words, the attempted secularization of hope can be seen as a form of presumption, which ends up falling into despair because it cannot deliver.

A telling manifestation of the lack of hope in Western society, of the lack of social hope, is the steady decline in birthrates. In an essay he contributed to a work entitled Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam (published in 2006 after he was elected Pope), then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:

“Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future. Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present, as if they were taking something away from our lives. Children are seen as a liability rather than as a source of hope” (p. 66).

Pope Benedict, in Spe Salvi, is trying to spur society on toward the hope held by the martyrs, a hope that enables one to live the present so well that he can overcome any kind of trial. It is precisely the hope of future beatitude that gives the human person the capacity to suffer for something greater than himself.

In a masterful way, Pope Benedict points out that emptiness and hopelessness can be the only outcome in a world without God at its center. He is affirming that “life is worth living,” that society can indeed be transformed by hope-filled anticipation of beatitude — the fullness of happiness — if God is at the center of not only individual human hearts, but society in general. He points to prayer as the school of hope.

As an example of the power of Christian hope, Pope Benedict points to the written testimony of Vietnamese martyr Paul Le-Bao-Tinh (+1857), who courageously endured in the face of human hopelessness. In the midst of his torments, this heroic witness of supernatural hope wrote: “I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone — Christ is with me….In the midst of this storm I cast my anchor towards the throne of God, the anchor that is the lively hope in my heart” (SS, n. 37).


Stronger Than Death


Toward the end of Spe Salvi (nn. 41-48), Pope Benedict points to the Last Judgment as a key to Christian hope. Usually, people think of the Last Judgment and everything associated with it as opposing hope. However, part of the yearning of the human heart is the natural desire to see that justice is done in all of history. A great objection to God’s existence is the presence of injustice and evil in the world and indeed, if there were no Last Judgment, injustice would seem to have the last word.

It is precisely at the time of the Last Judgment, however, when mankind’s hope that all innocent suffering will be redeemed and rewarded will be realized, when all victimizing will be publicly condemned. Our hope that justice will be done, that perfect communion will be realized, and that evil and injustice will be excluded presupposes judgment — the Last Judgment will satisfy that natural aspiration in man.

“The Last Judgment will reveal that God’s justice triumphs over all the injustices committed by his creatures and that God’s love is stronger than death (cf. Song 8:6)” (CCC, n. 1040).


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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)


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