What a Fearful World Needs

Pope Extols a Key Virtue for an Angst-Filled Society

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JAN. 13, 2008 (Zenit.org).- In a timely message for the New Year, Benedict XVI urged the world to rediscover the Christian virtue of hope. In his homily during the Dec. 31 vespers to mark the end of 2007 the Pontiff referred to the lack of hope and trust in life prevalent in modern Western society, calling it an "obscure" evil.

Since the publication of his encyclical on hope, "Spe Salvi," the Pope has returned on a number of occasions to this theme. On Dec. 2, during his Angelus address for the First Sunday of Advent, the Pontiff commented that modern science has tended to confine faith and hope to the private sphere.

He said that this unfortunately tends to deprive the world of hope. "Science contributes much to the good of humanity, but it is not able to redeem it," Benedict XVI affirmed.

Then, in his opening words of the address preceding the Christmas Day blessing "urbi et orbi" (to the city of Rome and the world), the Pope said the feast is "a day of great hope: Today the Savior of mankind is born." With the birth of the child Jesus, "a great hope entered the hearts of those who awaited him," he added.

The Holy Father isn't the only one to perceive how contemporary society needs to rediscover hope. On Jan. 1 the New York Times published an article titled "In 2008, a 100% Chance of Alarm."

The article referred to the constant warnings of climate change, and how often the media tend to concentrate on the most pessimistic warnings. Too many journalists and scientists, the article contended, are constantly on the lookout for the new sin -- producing excessive carbon.

This often results in misleading articles. The New York Times noted how British forecasters predicted 2007 would be the hottest on record. It turned out not to be so, but in any case at the end of the year, the BBC exclaimed that 2007 data had confirmed the warming trend.

The Times article also observed that the media ignored recent evidence of cooling in Antarctica, along with higher ice levels, in contrast to the widespread publicity given to lower ice levels in the Arctic.

Be afraid

Fear tactics are also common in politics. In its Dec. 24 issue the magazine Newsweek dedicated a four-page article to examining how fear is used by many of the candidates in the U.S. presidential campaign under way. "A candidate who neglects the fear factor should have a concession speech ready to go," concluded the article.

In a book published in November, Christopher Richard and Booker North looked at the high costs of excessive fears. We run the risk of falling into a new age of superstition, warns "Scared to Death: From BSE to Global Warming: Why Scares Are Costing Us the Earth" (Continuum).

Genuine threats do exist, the authors admit. But too often preliminary scientific evidence is exaggerated, the media inflate the dangers, and then politicians impose new laws, with high economic costs, Richard and North contend.

For example, when in 1996 the BSE, or mad cow disease, broke out, media reports predicted hundreds of thousands of deaths. One newspaper went so far as to forecast a half-million deaths a year. The final death toll was calculated at around a couple of hundred.

In their conclusion to the almost 500-page analysis of food and environmental scares during the last years, the authors observe that in part the fear is due to the secularization of society. Once people no longer draw the meaning of their lives from religion, society's highest value is now related to bodily existence. Moreover, the need to find a substitute for notions of sin and evil encourages the presentation of dangers in an apocalyptic manner.

Negative focus

Other authors have also commented on the increasingly fearful nature of modern society. In 2005 British sociologist Frank Furedi published the third edition of his book "Culture of Fear" (Continuum).

We run the risk of being dominated by the belief humanity is confronted by destructive forces that threaten our existence, Furedi warned. Scares range from killer asteroids to lethal viruses and global warming. A corollary to the culture of fear is that we now celebrate victimhood more than heroes, and people are urged to prove they are the most deserving of counseling and compensation, instead of encouraging initiative.

Furedi followed up his analysis with a further book, published in 2005, "Politics of Fear" (Continuum). The terms of left and right, he noted, are no longer an adequate way to describe politics. Instead, today the cultural environment is one of skepticism, relativism and cynicism, which leads in the political arena to what Furedi terms "the conservatism of fear."

Unlike the conservatism of the past, which believed in the unique character of a human being, the current conservatism is driven by a "profound misanthropic impulse," he argued. "The ethos of sustainability, the dogma of the precautionary principle, the idealization of nature, of the ‘organic,' all express a misanthropic mistrust of human ambition and experimentation.


The theological counterpart to this sociological and political analysis came in the Pope's recent encyclical. He started by observing the novelty of the Christian message of hope. St. Paul, the Pontiff noted, told the Ephesians that before coming into contact with Christ, they were "without hope and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12).

The pagan gods were questionable and the myths contradictory, the encyclical added. Therefore, without Christ they were, "in a dark world, facing a dark future" (No. 2).

Christians, by contrast, know that their lives will not end in emptiness, even if the details of their future life are not all clear. This certainty changes our lives, and so the Christian message, the Pope continued, is not just informative but it is life-changing. "The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life," he said.

The current crisis of faith in modern society is "essentially a crisis of Christian hope," the Pope explained (No. 17). The encyclical went on to urge a dialogue between modernity and Christianity, and its concept of hope.

In this dialogue Christians "must learn anew in what their hope truly consists, what they have to offer to the world and what they cannot offer" (No. 22). For its part contemporary society needs to re-examine its uncritical faith in material and scientific progress. Benedict XVI does not reject progress, but notes that it is ambiguous.


"Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil -- possibilities that formerly did not exist," he observed. True progress, the Pope went on to say, also needs to be moral, and if reason opens itself to faith, then it becomes possible to distinguish between good and evil.

The encyclical does not disparage material and scientific progress, and in fact, Benedict XVI acknowledged the need for "the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day" (No. 31). Nevertheless, the text continued, these hopes are not enough without the "great hope" that is God.

"God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety," the Pope concluded.

A world without God is a world without hope, the Pontiff observed further on in the encyclical. Perhaps, then, we should not be surprised at the fear-ridden state of modern society. Along with science, humanity needs to rediscover its faith in God if it is to heal the deeper sources of its fears.