Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Thomas J. MassaroMarch 13, 2006

Pope Benedict’s first encyclical letter is superb in many ways and well deserves the nearly universal praise it has received. I found Deus Caritas Est informative, inspiring and at times extremely consoling, even sublime. The world certainly stands to benefit from this profound reflection on the nature of love. Most of Part I of the letter treats aspects of love that are well beyond my expertise as a social ethicist. The treatment here of agape and eros, as well as the role of Jesus Christ as the incarnate love of God, strikes me as insightful and constructive. I will concentrate, then, on the second half of the encyclical, particularly on those paragraphs that take up the relationship between charity and justice.

Indeed, “relationship” emerges as the key word as we join Benedict in pondering these pivotal aspects of Christian discipleship. Already in the final paragraph of Part I of this letter, Benedict introduces the theme of “the interplay between love of God and love of neighbor” (No. 18). Here the tight relationship between these two great loves is deemed “necessary” and “inseparable.” As a “community of love” (a phrase from the title of Part II), the church is called to extend the practice of love ever outward.

How is this to be done? The opening pages of Part II describe three interrelated duties of the church: “proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia)” (No. 25). The church’s mission of charity knows no bounds. Because it is based on a “commandment of universal love,” our practice of charity must “extend beyond the frontiers of the Church” (No. 25), however pressing is our specific responsibility to care for the needs of fellow Christian believers.

So far, so good. I cannot imagine any responsible or well-informed Christian ethicist demurring substantially from Benedict’s presentation on these points.

It is when the pope broaches his next topic, the relationship between charity and justice (nos. 26-30), that concerns may arise. By this I do not mean to suggest that Pope Benedict somehow gets the relationship wrong. It would be more precise to say that despite commendable underlying intentions to utter an appreciative word about both charity and justice, the words of the pope here can easily be misconstrued. This section of the encyclical proceeds in such a way that the notion of justice is so thoroughly eclipsed by the practice of charity that in the end it may fall far short of the rich heritage of justice discourse within our church.

One unfortunate aspect of this section of the encyclical involves the way it uses Marx as a foil. Two specific errors of Marxism are mentioned. In Nos. 26 and 31, which serve as bookends to this section, we are reminded of the specious Marxist claim that the poor need only justice and never charity, since the practice of charity merely bolsters unjust systems by making them appear more tolerable. Near the end of No. 27, we revisit the Marxist claim that world revolution and collectivization of the means of production constitute a panacea, indeed the only path to social progress.

It is easy to agree with Benedict’s observation in the next sentence that “this illusion has vanished.” Indeed, further erroneous Marxist tenets could easily be cited here with great relevance: that violence is justified in the name of redistribution of wealth, or that people are nothing but interest-seekers, engaged in a battle to the death against members of other (and sharply defined) classes.

One need not hold a brief for Karl Marx (does anybody still do so without a dose of irony?) in order to wonder whether this is the optimal way for an encyclical promoting both charity and justice to proceed. By invoking the ghost of Marx, who ruled out any role for charity in the pursuit of social justice, the text nudges the reader toward a pattern of thought that is characterized as “either/or,” not “both/and” in its style and nature. Yet we need all the “both/and” we can muster when considering this topic.

Perhaps the most obvious thing to say about the relationship between charity and justice is that both are desperately and permanently needed in a world of greed, exploitation and the resulting deprivation. In fact, my best summary of the history of modern Catholic social teaching is this: In the past 115 years the church has augmented its “orientation toward charity” with an “orientation toward justice.”

Of course, Pope Benedict is fully aware of this aspect of Catholic social teaching. If there were any doubt about this, he erases it by repeatedly affirming his high regard for works of justice, phrased in various ways, in subsequent paragraphs. He declares, for example, that the church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice” (No. 28). The pontiff even pauses in the middle of No. 27 to present a litany of the names of the social encyclicals of his predecessors. These papal writings, published in the century from 1891 to 1991, amply demonstrate the complementarity of charity and justice. Merely mentioning the familiar Latin names of documents such as Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno signals to those “in the know” that Benedict fully intends to walk in this fine tradition.

I am most worried, then, about potential misunderstandings due to the style of these few paragraphs in the otherwise excellent Deus Caritas Est. Those who are unfamiliar with previous papal articulations of the place of justice in the Christian life may come away from this text so impressed with the exalted place of charitable activity that they may de-emphasize those efforts that are more properly described as work for justice. The references to the errors of Marxism may stick in the mind in an inordinate way, so that they glide over the positive things Benedict rightly says about the orientation toward justice.

I have already stumbled upon one piece of evidence that this has in fact happened. The normally judicious Vatican observer John L. Allen Jr., writing from Rome in the Feb. 10 issue ofThe National Catholic Reporter, claims that the encyclical “essentially paraphrased the Beatles” in the sentiment of their great song, “All You Need Is Love.” There is no mention of the accompanying virtue of justice. That is not quite what Benedict contends, but the confusion is understandable.

Perhaps that is why the pope took the extraordinary measure of writing a timely introduction to Deus Caritas Est (“to facilitate its reading,” as he put it) in the Feb. 5 issue of the Italian weekly magazine Famiglia Cristiana. Breaking with papal tradition by commenting directly upon the content of an encyclical, Benedict took pains, just 10 days after its publication, to clarify the enduring place of the orientation toward justice in the social concern of the church. He explained: “Without engaging in politics, the church participates passionately in the battle for justice” (posted on www.zenit.org, Feb. 7, 2006).

This last quotation alludes to a certain division of labor that religiously motivated citizens concerned about social justice need to recognize and respect. As Deus Caritas Est repeats half a dozen times, the task of establishing a just social order properly belongs to the realm of politics and the state, not to the church. On one level, this is a simple truism, at least since the end of the throne-and-altar arrangements of centuries past. We now rightly recognize a prudent separation of spheres, so that the church renounces its former claims of omnicompetence. But there is a risk in sending this message so forcefully that believers lose energy for participating in political and economic life precisely as believers, and thus shrink from bringing their Gospel-based values to temporal affairs.

Here again Benedict’s words may unwittingly work against the balanced message he seeks to send. One corrective might have been to allude to the seminal insights of St. Thomas Aquinas regarding the duty of citizens and believers to practice justice in society. Previous church documents have generally followed the familiar Thomistic synthesis regarding the relationship between love and justice and related duties in the arenas of church and temporal society. While most papal encyclicals brim with Thomistic analysis of these subtle issues, none of the 36 footnotes in Deus Caritas Est cites the Angelic Doctor (although we do hear from Nietzsche, Descartes, Plato, Dante and Virgil).

I cannot speak for other Catholic social ethicists, but I suspect many of them shared the above concerns as they read the new encyclical. However welcome it is, Benedict’s words require a bit of clarification in order to be heard and received properly. Perhaps the best way to conclude is to step back from the specifics of this encyclical to review the terms charity and justice as social ethicists normally employ them.

Charity (or love) connotes direct service to those in need, as exemplified in the traditional corporal works of mercy. Such acts of kindness and compassion are voluntary in nature, springing from the heart of one moved with pity for the plight of others. An orientation toward justice is the perfect complement to charitable efforts because it provides what is often lacking in otherwise praiseworthy charity: reliable and systematic responses to deprivation, especially poverty and powerlessness caused by deep patterns of injustice in society. Rather than being in any way opposed to charity, the virtue of justice moves us to engage in efforts to make love practical and effective. Works of justice recognize and address the social institutions through which love needs to flow in order to help our struggling neighbors in the long run.

By encouraging structural change through political advocacy and methodical efforts to alter economic priorities of governments and corporations, work for justice addresses root causes of need rather than attending only to the symptoms and effects of injustice. Action on behalf of justice targets the prevention of poverty and suffering. Ideally, victims of injustice can be empowered to be agents of the social change from which they benefit. The most complete efforts offer to disadvantaged people “a hand up” in the long run, as well as the “hand out” they may require at the moment.

If we could rewrite the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, which of us would not choose to prevent the robbery and beating from occurring in the first place? No amount of the “volunteer work” Benedict praises so beautifully and fittingly in the final third of his new encyclical can substitute for faith-based efforts to restructure society so that it creates fewer victims of violence and poverty. There is no necessary conflict between insisting on the primacy of love and preserving a prominent place for social justice efforts as well.

The justice orientation of a century of Catholic social teaching has motivated church people to engage in social activism to transform the world by cooperating with God’s benevolent grace. As the World Synod of Bishops in 1971 proclaimed, justice is truly and fully a work of evangelization. While observing all the necessary caveats regarding the relationships between church and world, religion and politics, faith and society, justice and charity, a passion for justice still belongs in the life of our church. May the Catholic community continue to advance this agenda. In order to do so, we will have to read Deus Caritas Est carefully, in a way that is consistently attentive to justice as well as charity.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
17 years 4 months ago
“Don’t Forget Justice,” by Thomas Massaro, S.J., (3/13) is much needed. We Catholics do have a tendency to slight justice and think to ourselves, convince ourselves that charity will supply and make up for omissions. The recently canonized Chilean Jesuit, Alberto Hurtado, expressed it correctly: “Injustice causes far more evil than can be repaired by charity.” And Pope Paul VI reminded us forcefully with few words, “Justice is the minimum of charity.” Thanks to all involved for a thought-provoking issue!

17 years 4 months ago
It is both surprising and sobering to note that no one, in the analyses of Deus Caritas Est (3/13), even among those who are ecumenically engaged, draws attention to the absence of any reference in the text to “dialogue of charity.” How essential are efforts to restore Christian unity to our understanding of what it means to live as church?

The expression “dialogue of charity” first appeared in a statement of commitment of the third Pan-Orthodox Assembly in 1964 and was repeated by Patriarch Athenagoras during his visit to Pope Paul VI in Rome in October 1967: “We are called upon to continue and intensify the dialogue of charity.” That gesture, the visit of the Patriarch of Constantinople to Rome, more than 900 years after the schism between the Eastern and Western churches, was a clear example of the dialogue of charity, which precedes and creates the appropriate environment for theological dialogue leading toward greater unity. The letters, messages, telegrams and joint declarations between Constantinople and Rome from 1958 to 1970 were collected and officially published as the Tomos Agapis, the book of love.

By analogy, the “dialogue of charity” applies to all relationships among Christians aimed at restoring and serving the unity for which Jesus prayed on the night before he died so that the world may believe. In the text, Pope Benedict XVI refers several times to John’s Gospel and even to the last supper discourses from which this prayer is taken but does not land on the absolute importance of such love for Christian unity. He draws from Acts depictions of a unified Christian community to exemplify how charity is essential to being church. But where are any references to ecumenical actions, which Pope John Paul II warned are “not some sort of appendix which is added to the church’s traditional activity”?

For that matter, where in the encyclical is a reference to interreligious friendships, including relationships with Muslims, which Benedict XVI himself said in Cologne “cannot be reduced to an optional extra”? Have we forgotten how the Second Vatican Council emphasized that ecumenical and interreligious relations are essential to Christian love?

17 years 4 months ago
I agree entirely with Thomas Massaro, S.J., when he raises concerns about an overemphasis on charity in Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“Don’t Forget Justice,” 3/13). He might have strengthened his argument with one well-known and one lesser-known ecclesial statement on the subject.

In 1971 the World Synod of Bishops made the now-famous affirmation that “action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as constitutive of the preaching of the Gospel, or in other words, of the church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation” (Justice in the World, No. 6).

Pope Paul VI, in less-quoted remarks delivered on the occasion of the Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops in Bogotá (Aug. 23, 1968), asked the pointed question, “Is charity enough?” and answered by saying: “We have to reply yes and no. Yes, charity is necessary and sufficient as the propelling principle of the great innovating phenomenon of this imperfect world in which we live. No, charity is not enough...if it is not accompanied by other virtues such as justice, which is the minimal measure of charity.”

17 years 4 months ago
Thank you for the commentaries on Deus Caritas Est in the March 13, 2006, issue of America. Each commentator was respectful and shared observations from his or her individual perspective. Since the encyclical was addressed to more than bishops, priests, deacons and men and women religious, may I share some observations as a member of the lay faithful?

There will always be natural disasters, pandemics and epidemics that will require that people of faith respond with charity. But where the people are oppressed by injustice, the suffering is greatest. We have but to look at our experience with the Katrina devastation. It was in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward that the people suffered the most. Yes, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi lost his ancestral home; but Senator Lott was not then homeless. He had other homes in which to sleep.

World health experts tell us that tuberculosis is a good marker of where poverty is. It is even more true where tuberculosis crushes the breadwinner for want of $15 in effective medication, treatment easily available to the moderately well-to-do.

“The church’s social teaching argues on the basis of reasoning and natural law.... It recognizes that it is not the church’s responsibility to make the teaching prevail in political life.” This is troubling. If we substitute “life issues” for “social” in that statement, we see the church actively seeking to make that teaching prevail in political life. Why should the church not do so for social justice?

Perhaps emphasizing the “splendor” of the church’s charitable activity blinds us to the effect of power and special interest.

We can give a person a fish and they will eat that day; or we can insist on their dignity and rights, and they will eat every day.

17 years 4 months ago
“Don’t Forget Justice,” by Thomas Massaro, S.J., (3/13) gave me great hope and consolation. Since I have had the opportunity to offer presentations on the social justice tradition of our church for over 25 years, I have found participants within the Roman Catholic tradition to be more than eager to learn about social justice as if they were hearing it for the first time. I believe Pope Benedict’s understanding of love includes the full range of that noblest of virtues and would not want the more recent emphasis on social justice to be lost. I commend Father Massaro for his clarity and concern regarding the latest encyclical Deus Caritas Est.

17 years 4 months ago
Thanks for the articles on Deus Caritas Est (3/13). Alberto Hurtado, our newest Jesuit saint, said that “La Caridad comienza donde termina la justicia” (“Charity begins where justice ends”). Also, “Debemos ser justos antes de ser generosos”(“We should be just before being generous”).

The latest from america

The head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication has defended his department's use of expelled Jesuit priest Marko Rupnik’s artwork in its official materials.
Colleen DulleJune 21, 2024
A conversation with Rachel L. Swarns, the author of "The 272: The Families Who were Enslaved and Sold to Build The American Catholic Church"
JesuiticalJune 21, 2024
Spanish Jesuit Luis María Roma, who died in 2019, was recently discovered to have abused hundreds of Indigenous girls while serving as a missionary in rural Bolivia, and to have documented his acts in a diary.
Members of Coro y Orquesta Misional San Xavier perform the opera “San Francisco Xavier” at the Church of San Xavier in the town of San Javier, Bolivia, on April 23. 2024.
The opera ‘San Xavier’ provides a glimpse of how Jesuits evangelized with music—a key dimension of the 1986 film “The Mission.”