By the editors of OSV newspaper

from Our Sunday Visitor, 2/12/2006

At first glance, Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical is almost trite in its topic: Deus Caritas Est, "God is Love." Yet behind this deceptively simple catechism is a provocative examination of human and divine love, Christ's nature and the meaning of the Cross, the roles of Church and state and the distinctions between justice and charity.

 Both topical and catechetical, this encyclical issues no overt condemnations beyond obvious criticisms of materialistic ideologies. Yet its critique of love challenges some core assumptions of our modern consumer culture.

 Pope Benedict's critique is very much on target. In today's confused world, eros is too often reduced to a sexual impulse, a warm feeling for whomever or whatever one might desire. Agape becomes a matter of simply being nice to others, particularly as long as they are nice or at least grateful in return. These, however, are only narrower, shallower pieces of what eros and agape are supposed to be: Eros, the faithful, self-giving and reciprocal love between God and man and between man and woman, demands expression in agape, the love, compassion and service for one's neighbor. Each of these two loves is greatly diminished without the other.

 Christians are thus called to actively care for others, to whatever extent their opportunities allow, because by loving Christ they see him in every other human being. Love calls and binds them to God and impels them to model Jesus, who is the personification of real love.

 Love is complete when it is incarnational, the human manifestation of the divine. The most profound examples of self-giving love are the Father's giving of his son at the Incarnation and Jesus' sacrificial death for our sins at Calvary.

 We may not be called to crucifixion or even martyrdom, but we are called to give of ourselves in love to God and neighbor. Our faith in God must animate our actions and give them meaning; Deus Caritas Est is, in fact, an apt meditation on the necessity and codependence of faith and works: Faith demands service to others, and that service is hollowed if it is not done with genuine love in the name of Christ.

  That means not proselytization through our charitable efforts, but rather allowing our actions preach the Gospel rather than our words. This is evangelization in the style of Blessed Mother Teresa, St. Vincent de Paul, Dorothy Day and St. Francis of Assisi.

 This grand encyclical calls us to examine our consciences on several levels:

  • Do modern pagans recognize Christians by our love for each other as easily as they did in the early Church? More specifically, is this how our neighbors, co-workers and friends view us, based on how we interact with others and live our lives?

  • Do we view charitable outreach as merely providing material goods to the needy, or as a "spiritual service" of love for neighbor?

  • In works of charity, do we recognize, in the pope's words, "when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak"?

  • Does our service lead us to greater humility, or do we find ourselves thinking we are somehow superior to those we serve?

  • Do we commit ourselves regularly to prayer, that "inexhaustible source" of our service to others?