Pope attacks atheism, questions modern Christianity in encyclical
By Victor L. Simpson - ASSOCIATED PRESS
VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI strongly criticized 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.
In his second encyclical, Benedict also critically questioned modern Christianity, saying its focus on individual salvation had ignored Jesus’ message that true Christian hope involves salvation for all.
The document, titled “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.”
An encyclical is the most important papal document, addressed to all members of the 1 billion-member Catholic Church.
In the 76-page document, Benedict elaborated on how the Christian understanding of hope had changed in the modern age, when man sought to relieve the suffering and injustice in the world. Benedict points to two historical upheavals: the French Revolution and the proletarian revolution instigated by Karl Marx.
Benedict sharply criticizes Marx and the 19th and 20th century 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 mankind 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.
He specifically cited Vladimir I. Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, 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.
“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