Deus Caritas Est – the pope’s first encyclical explained

Last month the new pope’s first encyclical – the highest order of papal letter – burst upon the world with an unexpected freshness. Benedict XVI had chosen as his topic, love. The critics have, in the main, greeted it with enthusiasm, both for the eruditi

Pope Benedict’s first encyclical has attracted much attention because recent popes have used their first encyclical letter as a way of outlining the immediate work and tone of their papacy. Paul VI saw Vatican II to its conclusion and in his first encyclical took up its theme of presenting the teaching of Christ in the modern world in his first encyclical on the Church (Ecclesiam Suam, 1964). John Paul II’s Redemptor Hominis (1979) gave an outline of his interest in the connection of Christianity and human rights. Deus Caritas Est falls into two parts: a meditation on the nature and importance of God’s love and then reflections on the role of the Church’s official social agencies and the relationship between charity and justice.

The encyclical has surprised those who saw Benedict primarily as a harsh theological inquisitor from his previous role with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this encyclical he presents the Christian message not first as a system of rules and regulations but as a response to God’s love. He indeed expounds a doctrine: the primacy of love. To that end he begins by defining the kind of love he is talking about (part I). In part II he gathers up material prepared under the previous pontificate on the role of the Church’s official social service agencies and the relationship between charity and justice.

The new pope’s personal stamp is most evident in Part I where he particularly examines the relationship between human love eros and divine love agape. This section seems to have a greater consistency than the second and repays study of its philosophical, biblical and theological bases. While not the last word on the nature and importance of love it is noteworthy for its encouraging tone and its attempt to face the objection that the Church is an obstacle when it comes to the question of human love. Important in Part 1 is Benedict’s insistence that the Church’s activity in seeking the good of others, ethos, is as essential as its evangelising work and practice of prayer or worship. Faith, worship and service are tied together in our encounter with God’s agape/love. Such activity therefore is not an optional extra or an activity for the few. Benedict adds: ‘A Eucharist that does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented’ (n 14).

Part II addresses more specifically the question of how the Church exercises its call to love through organised service diaconia and specific institutes (eg, Catholic Social Services, Caritas, Cor Unum). The reflection again starts from the example of the early Church, moves on to a reflection on the relationship of justice and charity, the nature of the Church’s involvement in politics and how Church agencies and personnel are called to exercise their service of others.

Benedict is attempting to rescue the word ‘charity’ caritas in Latin. In English these days the word, charity, has a certain element of patronising activity about it (‘I don’t need your charity!’) or of being a sop when more radical measures are needed (‘What we need is not charity, but justice!’) He traces the root of the word charity back to the Greek agape meaning generous, unselfish love. In Greek it is distinguished from the loves called eros and philia and is used in the New Testament to refer to God’s love. Benedict’s argument is that if everything begins from an act of love by God (and God is pure love itself) then the Church’s activity to build up the dignity of people (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, solidarity with the oppressed, etc) is also primarily a way of expressing God’s love. All these aspects of diaconia Benedict names as part of the Church’s charitable activity, its organised practice of love. Work for the good of others (including work for justice) flows out of God’s agape and needs to be shaped and exercised by that agape. This is the backdrop for his discussion of charity and justice (nn 26-28): agape will never be superfluous even in the most just society.

This theological logic may bring some confusion for Catholics working in the fields of social service, aid and development. This is because the term ‘charitable activity’ is a phrase associated with short-term, ad hoc responses that do not recognise or address structured injustice. That Benedict is not advocating this approach is shown by his endorsement of modern Catholic social teaching (n 27) which has taken on board the need to work for structural change and against social sin (cf Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1987). He does emphasise that the primary and direct responsibility for establishing a just society lies with the State. The role of the official Church is an indirect one of advocacy, formation of consciences and stimulation to effective action. Benedict says the Church is ‘duty-bound’ to offer its specific contribution to the political achievement of the requirements of justice (n 26). While Church bodies are not to replace the State (unlikely in NZ) dedicated seeking of justice in love is obligatory.