Fr. Servais: 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 October 31, 1999, you pointed out a difference of mentality in relation to Luther and the question of salvation and blessedness as he had posed it. The religious experience of Luther was dominated by terror before the wrath of God, a feeling quite alien to modern men, who sense rather the absence of God (see your article in Communio, 2000, 430). For these, 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?
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI: First of all, I want to emphasize once again what I wrote in Communio (2000) on the issue of justification.
For the man of today, compared to those of the time of Luther and to those holding the classical perspective of the Christian faith, things are in a certain sense inverted, or rather, is no longer man who believes he needs justification before God, but rather he is of the opinion that God is obliged to justify himself because of all the horrible things in the world and in the face of the misery of being human, all of which ultimately depend on Him.
In this regard, I find it significant that a Catholic theologian may 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, had “canceled the guilt 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” (theodizeeempfindlich), this highlights the same problem in a positive way.
Even prescinding from such a radical contestation of the Church’s vision of the relationship between God and man, the man of today has in a very general way the sense that God cannot let most of humanity 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 it is a “sign of the times” the fact that the idea of the mercy of God should become more and more central and dominant — starting from Sister Faustina, whose visions in various ways reflect deeply the image of God held by the men of today and their desire for the divine goodness.
Pope John Paul II was deeply impregnated by this impulse, even if this 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 the cruel acts men can perform, 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, only with mercy do evil and violence end.
Pope Francis is totally in agreement with this line. His pastoral practice is expressed in the fact that he continually speaks to us of God’s mercy.
It is mercy that moves us towards God, while justice frightens us before Him.
In my view, this makes clear that, under a veneer of self-assuredness and self-righteousness, the man of today hides a deep knowledge of his wounds and his unworthiness before God. He 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 man not religious, in comparison with the representatives of religion seems, so to speak, as one who acts really so in 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, nevertheless, that men in their intimate consciences expect the Samaritan will come to their aid, that he will bend down over them, pour oil on their wounds, care for them and take them to safety. In the final analysis, they know that they need God’s mercy and his tenderness.
In the hardness of the technologized world in which feelings no longer count for anything, the expectation however increases of a saving love that is freely given.
It seems to me that in the theme of divine mercy is expressed in a new way what is means by justification by faith. 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 to repair the infinite offense that had been made to God, and in this way to restore the shattered order, he uses a language which is difficult for modern man to accept (cfr. Gs 215.ss iv).
Expressing oneself in this way, one risks likely to project onto God an image of a God of wrath, relentless toward the sin of man, with feelings of violence and aggression comparable with what we we can experience ourselves.
How is it possible to speak of God’s justice without potentially undermining the certainty, deeply established among the faithful, that the God of the Christians is a God “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4)?
The conceptuality of St. Anselm has now become for us incomprehensible. It is our job to try again to understand the truth that lies behind this mode of expression.
For my part I offer three points of view on this point: