A More Excellent Way

As a cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger made clear his desire for the church to find a way to convey to the world the joy at the heart of the Gospel. Now as Pope Benedict XVI, he has, with his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), taken a decisive step in that direction. What is fresh about the letter is his topiclove. Most important is his vision of charity as belonging to the substance of the church’s life. It is a rebuff to those who would associate the name of God with vengeance or duty of hatred and to critics who regard all religion as a public threat. For those who have doubted Pope Benedict’s commitment to the Second Vatican Council, Deus Caritas Est should help assuage their concern, but it may disappoint others who have yearned for a programmatic statement at the beginning of the new pontificate.

Refreshing, too, is the fact that by and large the letter’s content is not the pope’s personal theological view. It is rather a synthesis of the contemporary church’s theology of love. This is a practice in keeping with an older use of magisterial authority. One finds echoes of John Burnaby on Augustine’s theology of charity, of the Catholic respondents to the critique of the erotic element in Catholic views by the Lutheran Anders Nygren, of Gerard Gilleman on the primacy of charity in moral theology, of Karl Rahner on the unity of the love of God and neighbor and of Paul VI on universal charity, as well as of Cardinal Ratzinger’s own criticisms of liberation theology. Furthermore, the effort to reform moral theology by the light of Scripture, to which Vatican II aspired, appears to have been resumed.

The encyclical does not lack for prophetic sting: on drugs and the culture of death, loveless sex, materialism and religious hatred. But on the whole, Benedict’s accent is on the positive Christian vision: Love of neighbor is a path that leads to encounter with God, and closing our eyes to the neighbor also blinds us to God. Some early interpretations have stressed the discontinuities between natural human loves (eros and philia) and self-giving Christian love (agape); but Pope Benedict, like St. Augustine before him, sees them all as part of one divine plan, and he regards erotic love and the love of friendship as sinful only when they are not acted upon in light of the larger, divinely ordered dynamic. The pope’s allusion to The Divine Comedy in his own preview of the letter is key here. For it was Dante’s romantic love for Beatrice that led him to the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

As they face other legitimate claims, charitable workers must make their first concern the neighbor in need. While affirming the need for professional skill on the part of charitable workers, for example, the letter steers a path between secularized philanthropy and the misuse of charity to proselytize beneficiaries. In Catholic charities the very act of service is regarded as a work of evangelization. The letter also makes a familiar and necessary distinction between the charitable work of the church and that of partisan, ideological movements. It affirms that justice is primarily the work of the state.

With respect to justice, the church’s role is that of teacher and critic. It hands on its social doctrine, guides consciences and helps identify the goals of authentic justice in society. The church is duty-bound to offer, through the purification of reason and through ethical formation, her own specific contributions towards understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically, Pope Benedict writes. While not replacing the state, she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.

God Is Love does not connect love and justice as closely as Vatican II, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II all did; but the distinctions it makes between love and justice and church and state come as helpful cautions for all sides about meddling in politics in the name of the church. It would be a disservice to the poor and oppressed, however, if some were to employ those warnings to weaken the church’s public advocacy on their behalf. Catechists have been killed for sharing the church’s teaching on human dignity, and aid workers harassed and deported for befriending the poor. In a sinful and unjust world, advocacy for justice, based on the church’s firsthand knowledge of the sufferings of the oppressedby the Holy See, by bishops’ conferences, Caritas Internationalis, religious orders and Catholic human rights organizationsis essential to the ministry of charity. Such witness also belongs to the more excellent way (1 Cor 12:31) that is Christian love.

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