Signs of the Times

Pope’s New Encyclical, ‘Spe Salvi,’ Addresses Modern Crisis of Hope

In an encyclical on Christian hope, Pope Benedict XVI said that without faith in God, humanity lies at the mercy of ideologies that can lead to “the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice.” The pope warned that the modern age has replaced belief in eternal salvation with faith in progress and technology, which offer opportunities for good but also open up “appalling possibilities for evil.” “Let us put it very simply: Man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope,” he said in the encyclical, Spe Salvi (“On Christian Hope”), released Nov. 30.


The 76-page text explores the essential connection between faith and hope in early Christianity and addresses what it calls a “crisis of Christian hope” in modern times. It critiques philosophical rationalism and Marxism and offers brief but powerful profiles of Christian saints—ancient and modern—who embodied hope, even in the face of suffering.

Pope Invites Muslim Scholars to Dialogue

Pope Benedict XVI has responded to a letter from 138 Muslim scholars by inviting a group of them to meet with him and with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The papal response, released Nov. 29, came in a letter to Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal, president of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Amman and architect of the Muslim scholars’ project. The letter, signed Nov. 19 by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, said the pope wanted “to express his deep appreciation” for the statement of the Muslim scholars, “for the positive spirit which inspired the text and for the call for a common commitment to promoting peace in the world.”

The statement, originally signed by 138 Muslim scholars but later endorsed by dozens of others, was addressed to Pope Benedict and the heads of other Christian churches. Titled “A Common Word Between Us and You,” the text was released in early October and called for new efforts at Christian-Muslim dialogue based on the shared belief in the existence of one God, in God’s love for humanity and in people’s obligation to love one another. By inviting a varied group of Muslim scholars to meet with him, Pope Benedict XVI has opened the possibility for a higher-level dialogue between Catholic and Muslim leaders, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said.

The newspaper commented Nov. 30 on the letter and the pope’s response. The newspaper quoted Christian Troll, a Jesuit scholar of Islam at Kolleg Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt, Germany, who said that the 138 scholars represent a wide and diverse portion of the world’s Muslim community, and the fact that they were able to write to the pope together is important. The letter, Father Troll said, is an initiative “which the church can only look favorably upon because it needs a skilled dialogue with the non-Christian world.” L’Osservatore said, “The pope’s response opens concrete horizons for this hope.”

The pope’s invitation included a suggestion that the scholars hold a working meeting with the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and with experts from Rome’s Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies and from the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Peace Requires Respect for Ethical Norms

Promoting lasting peace, justice and human dignity requires solidarity and respect for unchanging moral values, Pope Benedict XVI said.

Meeting Dec. 1 with representatives of 85 Catholic agencies recognized as nongovernmental organizations by the United Nations and other international bodies, Pope Benedict said the problems of humanity cannot be solved without a clear acceptance of ethical norms.

“International discussions often seem marked by a relativistic logic,” which is convinced that the only way to find agreement and promote peaceful coexistence is to ignore the fact that each human life was created by God and to pretend that there are no moral absolutes, the pope said.

“This has led, in effect, to the imposition of a notion of law and politics which ultimately makes consensus between states—a consensus conditioned at times by short-term interests or manipulated by ideological pressure—the only real basis of international norms,” he said.

Christmas Market Helps Buoy Spirits in Bethlehem

Just like the local traffic winding its way slowly up toward Nativity Square, Bethlehem is filled with a feeling of stagnation and uncertainty. Even the rain pelting down on the Christmas market shoppers in Nativity Square Dec. 2 is not steady as it comes in fits and starts, leaving people unsure whether to run for shelter or to continue their shopping. “Things are more calm here politically than in other Palestinian cities, but economically the situation is worse. People here depend on tourism, and that is not good now,” said Shireen, a 26-year-old Catholic who used only her first name. Her 29-year-old Catholic friend, Rula Sammour, noted that the late-November Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md., has given people a bit of hope things will begin to move again after a long time of feeling stuck. But as the Christmas season begins, the annual one-day Christmas market buoys people’s spirits. Vendors from Norway offer free tastes of Norwegian cheese, salami and salmon wraps; young Danes wearing Santa hats man a booth selling Danish toys. Greek baked goods, Italian pottery, Egyptian Christmas decorations and South African wooden carvings are also on sale.

Bishops Call for Action on Immigration

Three Los Angeles auxiliary bishops announced Nov. 27 that the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s annual procession in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 2 would be part of a statewide call for action on comprehensive immigration reform issued by the California Catholic Conference of Bishops. The conference issued a statement the same day saying the U.S. government has a right to control its borders and enforce laws but also that human rights of undocumented people must be respected and that they need an opportunity to legalize their status.

Elsewhere, the Catholic bishops of Maryland urged the one million Catholics in their state to engage in a faith-filled dialogue on immigration; and in Tulsa, Okla., Bishop Edward J. Slattery issued a pastoral outlining the diocese’s four-point action plan to respond to a new state statute on illegal immigration described as one of the harshest in the nation. The plan calls, in part, for people to have equal access to all Catholic programs regardless of their immigration status and pledges to provide legal help to those who want to establish or maintain their legal residence in the United States.

Henry J. Hyde, Former Congressman, Dies at 83

Henry J. Hyde, the former Republican congressman from Illinois whose name became synonymous with efforts to limit federal funding of abortion, died Nov. 29 at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Hyde’s death was announced in Washington by the House minority leader, John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, who gave no cause of death for the 83-year-old Catholic political figure. Hyde retired from politics in 2006 after 32 years in Congress and eight years in the Illinois Legislature. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President George W. Bush Nov. 5, but was unable to attend the White House ceremony because he was recovering from quadruple heart bypass surgery.

At the ceremony, Bush described Hyde as a “commanding presence” and “a man of consequence,” who impressed colleagues with his “extraordinary intellect, his deep convictions and eloquent voice.” His son Robert accepted the medal, saying it “affirms the importance and value of his stance on many things, like right to life.” Henry Hyde was named a Knight of St. Gregory by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 in recognition of his longtime defense of life.

Advent Speakers Reflect on Muslim Letter

During Advent, Catholics are called to “put on the armor of light, to be peacemakers beating swords of war and anger into plowshares, and to poke holes of light into the darkness which often seems to permeate our lives,” according to Anne Tahaney, O.P. “The common themes of Advent, expectation and waiting in joyful hope call us to reflection and peace, yet tension and stress surround us in our own personal lives, and war and death and destruction loom daily before us in newscasts,” she said. Sister Tahaney spoke Dec. 2 at an Advent vespers service at Gray-moor, headquarters of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement. Others were scheduled to speak Dec. 9, 16 and 23.

This year’s speakers were asked to reflect on “A Common Word Between Us and You,” an October 2007 letter to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders signed by 138 senior Muslim leaders and later endorsed by dozens of others. Sister Tahaney is a 20-year member of the Catholic-Muslim dialogue of the Archdiocese of New York. She taught in Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim country, for 29 years as part of the first group of Dominican sisters to be invited there.

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