Spe Salvi 38: A True Measure of Humanity

Sorry ’bout skipping a day on this topic, but let’s get back to Action and suffering as settings for learning hope. In today’s installment, numbered section 38, Pope Benedict XVI suggests that the phenomenon of suffering gives an opportunity for the “measure” of our “humanity.” He doesn’t mean only our mortal weakness, but includes how people respond in virtue to those who are afflicted.

38. The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society. A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through “com-passion” is a cruel and inhuman society. Yet society cannot accept its suffering members and support them in their trials unless individuals are capable of doing so themselves; moreover, the individual cannot accept another’s suffering unless he personally is able to find meaning in suffering, a path of purification and growth in maturity, a journey of hope. Indeed, to accept the “other” who suffers, means that I take up his (or her) suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also.

I think this must be true in the full spectrum of human experience. I note people who are bosses who foist small sufferings–mere inconveniences–on underlings. The “boss subculture” in the modern West is an active agency against what the pope emeritus terms a “shared suffering.”

Because it has now become a shared suffering, though, in which another person is present, this suffering is penetrated by the light of love. The Latin word con-solatio,“consolation”, expresses this beautifully. It suggests being with the other in his solitude, so that it ceases to be solitude.

People in power who lack compassion, be they parents, leaders, pastors, work bosses, and much of the 1% find themselves dangerously tilted to the inhuman because of that poverty in identifying with those who are in pain and need. It’s why donating material resources, even generously, isn’t really enough. A financial donation is essentially a delegation: paying someone else to do the gathering of resources and applying them to situations of need. It’s doesn’t mean that charitable donations are useless. Lacking that “being with” in some form, at some times, continues the i-solatio, the isolation.

Furthermore, the capacity to accept suffering for the sake of goodness, truth and justice is an essential criterion of humanity, because if my own well-being and safety are ultimately more important than truth and justice, then the power of the stronger prevails, then violence and untruth reign supreme.

This is the key moment for personal growth in the virtue of hope:

Truth and justice must stand above my comfort and physical well-being, or else my life itself becomes a lie. In the end, even the “yes” to love is a source of suffering, because love always requires expropriations of my “I”, in which I allow myself to be pruned and wounded. Love simply cannot exist without this painful renunciation of myself, for otherwise it becomes pure selfishness and thereby ceases to be love.

For those of us in the First World, comfort is perhaps a key marker. If or when we disallow our discomfort, we separate ourselves from the opportunity of “being with” those who are in need. Rolling back to the start of this section, can we say a person well-established in comfort is not fully human in the experience?

This document is Copyright © 2007 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana. You can find the full document online here.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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