By Russell Shaw
Opinions will differ on whether the two sections of Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est ("God Is Love"), have been successfully integrated into a single, coherent document, but each section, taken on its own terms and in its own frame of reference, is a considerable piece of work.
Ordinarily, a pope's first encyclical lays out a vision for how he plans to conduct his papacy. In his 1978 debut encyclical Redemptor Hominis, for example, Pope John Paul II was already talking about the coming Christian jubilee year 2000, and in retrospect many of the accomplishments of his papacy were hinted at therein.
"God is Love" might not appear at first blush to be an agenda-setting document, but it may be one. Time and events will tell.
The first section displays Pope Benedict in his professorial manner, lecturing on the meaning of human and, especially, divine love. The text combines history, exegesis and theology to explain God's love in ways that are in some respects strikingly novel, even daring.
The second section, although very different, also is a tour-de-force. Here the document's most important contribution is to situate the Church's charitable work in the context of Catholic social doctrine.
In the process of doing that, Pope Benedict XVI offers refutations of both classical Marxism and contemporary secularism, both of which would deny religion a role in political and social life.
The long-awaited 16,000-word encyclical was published Jan. 25 in the 10th month of Pope Benedict's pontificate. Its scholarly depth and serious tone make it difficult reading at times, but it contains a message -- or, more accurately, a series of messages -- that both the Church and the world need to hear.
The message to religious believers is a call to work for the alleviation of human suffering through a combination of charity and politics, while avoiding the errors of activism and secular utopianism. The message to the world is that even well-intentioned social programs cut off from faith are likely to end in bureaucracy and the depersonalization of charity.
On one level, Deus Caritas Est is an effort to rehabilitate the meaning of love by joining "eros" -- the love of man and woman -- and "agape" -- disinterested, self-sacrificing love -- rather than separating them. Today, the encyclical's first section points out, "eros, reduced to pure 'sex', has become a commodity, a mere 'thing' to be bought or sold."
The heart of the text's theological analysis is the novel argument that eros and agape -- understood, presumably, in a sense analogous to their meaning in human beings -- come together in the love of God. "God's eros for man is also totally agape," Pope Benedict writes at the end of a lengthy reflection on Old Testament texts.
But the fullest expression of divine love, he says, is the Incarnation, and the life and death of Jesus Christ show "love in its most radical form." Jesus' act of self-oblation in accepting death on the cross, he says, is continued in the Eucharist, where it is made present for participation by the members of the Church.
This sacramental reality is social in character, Pope Benedict writes. "Union with Christ is also union with those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own."
The eucharistic principle supplies the basis for and transition to the encyclical's second section, on the practice of charity by the Church.
Pope Benedict insists that "love of neighbor, grounded in the love of God" is a responsibility both for individual Christians and for the Church community. Summing up the Church's mission as preaching the Gospel, celebrating the sacraments and practicing charity, he says the Church "cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the sacraments and the word."
quot;For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity, which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being," he writes.
The pope concedes the element of truth in the Marxist objection that the poor need justice, not charity. Church leadership in the 19th century was slow to realize the need for a restructuring of society to achieve justice, he admits. But starting with Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, there has been an explosion of social doctrine set out in encyclicals by Popes Pius XI, Blessed John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II -- and now, one might add, Benedict XVI.
The Marxist belief that revolution was the key to solving social problems has vanished from the scene by now, the encyclical says.
Meanwhile "the Church's social doctrine has become a set of fundamental guide-lines…valid even beyond the confines of the Church."
Declaring the just organization of society to be a "central responsibility of politics," Pope Benedict says Catholic social doctrine makes an indispensable contribution to the political enterprise by bringing reason to bear on issues of justice. Without attempting to "replace the state," he says, the Church "cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice."
But justice by itself is not enough. In a passage that recalls President Bush's embrace of faith-based initiatives for the delivery of social services, the encyclical says that a state which would "provide everything, absorbing everything into itself," eventually would become "a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person -- every person -- needs: namely, loving personal concern."
In specifying the division of labor in this area, the Pope makes a key distinction. On the one hand, "direct duty" to seek social justice is "proper to the lay faithful," who participate in public life in their personal capacity and in collaboration with others. On the other hand, the Church has the right and duty to carry on organized charitable programs of its own.
Here, however, Pope Benedict adds a cautionary note: Church charitable programs should not become "just another form of social assistance." He insists that charity workers acting in the name of the Church be spiritually formed so that, without engaging in proselytism, they nevertheless will be "credible witnesses to Christ."
So what is Pope Benedict telling us about his pontificate here in his first encyclical?
God's love for us -- and ours for God -- is the heart of the Christian life; and true human love, which is too often understood, is not without restriction or obligation. It must be modeled in our relationships and in our extension of care to our neighbors; it must model the love of God himself.
This rich meditation has broad implications for moral issues, social action and political life. One hesitates to predict what this Pope of surprises will do, but his thoughtful revisiting of the foundational principle of Christianity may hold the key to what comes next.
--Russell Shaw is Our Sunday Visitor's Washington correspondent.
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