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Deus Caritas Est

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, February 23, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), signed on Christmas Day, packs a lot of instruction into 25 readable pages. Part I of Deus Caritas Est (DCE) analyzes human and divine love in terms of eros and agape. Addressed to “a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence,” DCE tells that world of “the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others.” But DCE is loaded with cultural, political and legal implications, arising from its assertion that “[l]ove of God and love of neighbor” are “inseparable.”

Part II of DCE is a discourse on “Caritas,” the “practice” of love of neighbor. “[N]o one ought to go without the necessities of life.” That “service of charity” is “first and foremost a responsibility for each … member of the faithful” but it is also a duty of the Church at every level.

“Christian charity” is not abstract. It is “first of all the … response to immediate needs …: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for … the sick, visiting those in prison, etc.” But people “need something more than technically proper care. …They need heartfelt concern.” Charity therefore cannot be “just another form of social assistance.” Nor is charity a means of “proselytism,” using aid to induce conversions. Charity is an act of love and “[l]ove is free; it is not practised as a way of achieving other ends.”

Charity must not be at the service of “parties, ideologies” or “worldly stratagems.” Benedict responds to the Marxist claim that the poor “do not need charity but justice.” Charity, they claim, serves injustice by making an “unjust system … appear … tolerable” and thus blocking “the struggle for a better world.” Benedict rejects that approach as “an inhuman philosophy,” sacrificing people of the present to “the moloch of the future. …One does not make the world more human by refusing to act humanely here and now. We contribute to a better world only by personally doing good now.”

But what about justice? Doesn’t the Church care about it? Yes, it does. But the “just ordering” of society and the State, is the role of “politics” and not of the Church.

The “direct duty” to work for a just society belongs to the “lay faithful” rather than to the Church itself. “Fundamental to Christianity,” says DCE, “is the distinction between Church and State.” The Church should not be in politics, but it does have an educative role. To define justice is the job of practical reason. But to do its job, reason needs “purification. …Here politics and faith meet.” Faith liberates reason from its “ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests.” DCE traces Catholic social teaching from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 through John Paul II. That teaching offers guidelines that are valid for everyone. It does not, however, seek to impose on others “ways of thinking and … conduct proper to faith.” It aims “to help purify reason” by arguing “on the basis of reason and natural law” so as “to help form consciences in political life” and to “reawaken the spiritual energy” needed for justice to prevail.

So the Church has a role to play in the fight for justice. DCE urges the State to follow the principle of subsidiarity by supporting efforts of social forces, including the Church, to achieve justice. Civil justice, however, is not enough. “Love – caritas – will always prove necessary even in the most just society.” The claim that “just social structures would make works of charity superfluous,” says DCE, “masks a materialist conception … that man can live ‘by bread alone.'”

DCE encourages “cooperation” between State and Church agencies but insists that the State “must guarantee religious freedom.” Three days before he signed DCE, Benedict addressed the Curia on the teaching of Vatican II that religious freedom is required because “the human person is capable of knowing the truth about God” and because such truth “cannot be externally imposed” and “can only be claimed with God’s grace in freedom of conscience.”

A recurrent theme of Benedict’s papacy is his criticism of the “dictatorship of relativism” to which he called attention in his homily to the Cardinals before the Conclave in which they elected him. DCE continues this theme in its insistence on religious freedom and on the role of the Church as moral educator. Both rest on the reality that the truth about God and morality is objective and knowable. That Truth, with a capital T, is a person, Christ.

These are only a few of the points in this innovative and challenging encyclical. Read it. It could change your way of thinking. And your life.

Prof. Emeritus Charles E. Rice is on the Law School faculty. His column appears every other Thursday.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.