Monday, December 24, 2007

Catholicism, Suffering, and Algonomy

Pope Benedict XVI gave on November 30 2007 an encyclical letter entitled Spe Salvi (Saved by hope), a document which has less than sixty paragraphs, but in which the words suffer or suffering occur more than sixty times.

Suffering has a tremendous importance in Catholicism: its suffering founder taught that to suffer for good and to help those who suffer are necessary for being saved from eternal suffering.

The best that Catholicism has to offer on the subject can be found in Benedict XVI's piece, but an author like Walter Kaufmann should be read also in order to have a glimpse of the worst that the doctrine may show. Kaufmann writes for instance: "According to Augustine and many of his successors, all men deserve eternal torture, but God in his infinite mercy saves a very few. Nobody is treated worse than he deserves, but a few are treated better than they deserve, salvation being due not to merit but solely to grace. In the face of these beliefs, Augustine and legions after him assert God’s perfect justice, mercy, and goodness. And to save men from eternal torment, it came to be considered just and merciful to torture heretics, or those suspected of some heresy." (See The Faith of a Heretic)

Until now, suffering has been used as an argument for or against this or that ideology, religion, worldview, policy, etc. Algonomy, the work domain concerned with suffering, is now offered as a neutral framework for looking at the phenomenon itself from diverse perspectives. Obviously, religions like Catholicism or Buddhism might bring a lot to algonomy, and hopefully, algonomy might also be useful to Catholicism or other faiths. Of course, interfaith dialogue cannot be a logical discussion, because words do not have the same meanings in different universes of discourse. However, within an algonomic framework, we could probably share our views more usefully and reach collectively better results concerning that topic about which many of us feel so strongly.

The encyclical itself, section 22, says: "A self-critique of modernity is needed in dialogue with Christianity and its concept of hope. In this dialogue Christians too, in the context of their knowledge and experience, must learn anew in what their hope truly consists, what they have to offer to the world and what they cannot offer. Flowing into this self-critique of the modern age there also has to be a self-critique of modern Christianity, which must constantly renew its self-understanding setting out from its roots."