Deus Caritas Est

I’ve been mak­ing my way through Pope Benedict XVI’s first en­cycli­cal Deus Caritas Est again. Essentially it of­fers clar­i­fi­ca­tion and di­rec­tion on the us­es of αγαπη, or spir­i­tu­al love, or char­i­ty, in Christian prac­tice. There is much of worth in this en­cycli­cal, but al­so some de­lib­er­ate­ly missed op­por­tu­ni­ties and some im­pli­ca­tions that make me un­easy. Encyclicals may or may not be sub­ject to the rule of pa­pal in­fal­la­bil­i­ty, it ba­si­cal­ly de­pends on both the con­tent of the let­ter and whether or not the pon­tiff de­cides to in­voke his pow­er. Often they are mere­ly re­it­er­a­tions of present Church doc­trine and of­fer fo­cus an en­cour­age­ment for lead­ers or lay per­sons re­gard­ing a present mat­ter of im­por­tance.

Deus Caritas Est is ad­dressed to all Christians [the word Catholic does not ap­pear un­til over halfway through the en­cycli­cal] and takes the form of an ex­hor­ta­tion to char­i­ta­ble acts and al­so nav­i­gates its way through sep­a­ra­tion of church and state, Marxism, and mis­use of char­i­ty for oth­er ends. Based on the tone of the piece, I do not think that Pope Benedict is in­vok­ing his in­fal­li­bil­i­ty, nor does the con­tent stray from doc­trine enough to war­rant its use. Now on to the ex­cerpts of the con­tent that I found most in­ter­est­ing.

In a world where the name of God is some­times as­so­ci­at­ed with vengeance or even a du­ty of ha­tred and vi­o­lence, this mes­sage is both time­ly and sig­nif­i­cant. For this rea­son, I wish in my first Encyclical to speak of the love which God lav­ish­es up­on us and which we in turn must share with oth­ers. That, in essence, is what the two main parts of this Letter are about, and they are pro­found­ly in­ter­con­nect­ed.

Let us note straight away that the Greek Old Testament us­es the word eros on­ly twice, while the New Testament does not use it at all: of the three Greek words for love, eros, phil­ia (the love of friend­ship) and agape, New Testament writ­ers pre­fer the last, which oc­curs rather in­fre­quent­ly in Greek us­age.

The fo­cus of this en­cycli­cal is on agape, be­cause the writ­ings in the bible fo­cus on agape. Benedict is ad­dress­ing the con­fu­sion that mod­ern trans­la­tions have, us­ing the word “love” which is of­ten too broad for the nec­es­sary con­text. He then goes off on a rather long tan­gent about erot­ic love and its prop­er man­i­fes­ta­tions, and how it dif­fers from char­i­ta­ble love. I was there­fore ex­pect­ing an im­por­tant state­ment of pur­pose on the Church’s stance re­gard­ing eros. Instead, through the rep­e­ti­tions of “love be­tween a man and woman in mar­riage” we find the Church’s stance es­sen­tial­ly un­changed. However, I found all of that dis­cus­sion to be ir­rel­e­vant once I re­al­ized that the sec­ond half of the en­cycli­cal was fo­cus­ing sole­ly on agape. Why not just say “I’m here to talk about agape not eros” and be done with it? Instead there is this con­vult­ed rea­son­ing that claims agape is nec­es­sary for eros to reach its ul­ti­mate ex­pres­sion. No of­fense to the Supreme Pontiff, but he sounds like a celi­bate cur­mud­geon who is treat­ing erot­ic fire-blood love as a pure­ly philo­soph­i­cal and se­man­tic ob­ject while claim­ing

Christianity of the past is of­ten crit­i­cized as hav­ing been op­posed to the body; and it is quite true that ten­den­cies of this sort have al­ways ex­ist­ed. Yet the con­tem­po­rary way of ex­alt­ing the body is de­cep­tive.


Should he as­pire to be pure spir­it and to re­ject the flesh as per­tain­ing to his an­i­mal na­ture alone, then spir­it and body would both lose their dig­ni­ty. On the oth­er hand, should he de­ny the spir­it and con­sid­er mat­ter, the body, as the on­ly re­al­i­ty, he would like­wise lose his great­ness.

seems a bit out of place con­sid­er­ing that Catholic vo­ca­tions re­quire re­jec­tion of flesh and an­i­mal na­ture in the pur­suit of spir­i­tu­al mat­ters.

The mech­a­nism of the equa­tion of eros and agape is ap­plic­a­ble to the sec­ond por­tion of the en­cycli­cal, and is es­sen­tial­ly what I wrote about a few weeks ago: Our per­spec­tive should be that our bod­ies are a loan from God and should not be used in a way that he would dis­ap­prove of. But enough of this.

The sec­ond por­tion of the en­cycli­cal of­fers prac­ti­ca­ble di­rec­tion for ex­er­cis­ing char­i­ta­ble love, some meat to go with the meta­physics. By high­light­ing the Church’s his­tor­i­cal prece­dents of char­i­ta­ble ac­tion [dat­ing from the es­tab­lish­ment of di­a­conal of­fice [Acts 6: 1 – 6]]. There is much good ad­vice here, but al­so a state­ment that gov­ern­ments should sub­si­dize the Church’s char­i­ta­ble ac­tiv­i­ties and at the same time not in­ter­fere with aims of the ac­tiv­i­ties.

The State which would pro­vide every­thing, ab­sorb­ing every­thing in­to it­self, would ul­ti­mate­ly be­come a mere bu­reau­cra­cy in­ca­pable of guar­an­tee­ing the very thing which the suf­fer­ing person—every person—needs: name­ly, lov­ing per­son­al con­cern. We do not need a State which reg­u­lates and con­trols every­thing, but a State which, in ac­cor­dance with the prin­ci­ple of sub­sidiar­i­ty, gen­er­ous­ly ac­knowl­edges and sup­ports ini­tia­tives aris­ing from the dif­fer­ent so­cial forces and com­bines spon­tane­ity with close­ness to those in need. The Church is one of those liv­ing forces: she is alive with the love enkin­dled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not sim­ply of­fer peo­ple ma­te­r­i­al help, but re­fresh­ment and care for their souls, some­thing which of­ten is even more nec­es­sary than ma­te­r­i­al sup­port. In the end, the claim that just so­cial struc­tures would make works of char­i­ty su­per­flu­ous masks a ma­te­ri­al­ist con­cep­tion of man: the mis­tak­en no­tion that man can live “by bread aloneâ€? (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a con­vic­tion that de­means man and ul­ti­mate­ly dis­re­gards all that is specif­i­cal­ly hu­man.

While I agree that the State can­not sup­ply “lov­ing per­son­al con­cern”, I think that any “State which, in ac­cor­dance with the prin­ci­ple of sub­sidiar­i­ty, gen­er­ous­ly ac­knowl­edges and sup­ports ini­tia­tives aris­ing from the dif­fer­ent so­cial forces” is tac­it­ly re­vok­ing its own sov­er­eign­ty in fa­vor of theo­crat­ic con­trol. DANGER! DANGER!

But ul­ti­mate­ly, the mes­sage of char­i­ty and its prac­tice on an in­di­vid­ual lev­el, is some­thing that any per­son with the slight­est bit of agape can agree with.

Part of Marxist strat­e­gy is the the­o­ry of im­pov­er­ish­ment: in a sit­u­a­tion of un­just pow­er, it is claimed, any­one who en­gages in char­i­ta­ble ini­tia­tives is ac­tu­al­ly serv­ing that un­just sys­tem, mak­ing it ap­pear at least to some ex­tent tol­er­a­ble. This in turn slows down a po­ten­tial rev­o­lu­tion and thus blocks the strug­gle for a bet­ter world. Seen in this way, char­i­ty is re­ject­ed and at­tacked as a means of pre­serv­ing the sta­tus quo. What we have here, though, is re­al­ly an in­hu­man phi­los­o­phy. People of the present are sac­ri­ficed to the moloch of the future—a fu­ture whose ef­fec­tive re­al­iza­tion is at best doubt­ful. One does not make the world more hu­man by re­fus­ing to act hu­mane­ly here and now.

“One does not make the world more hu­man by re­fus­ing to act hu­mane­ly here and now.”

This is the fun­da­men­tal point of the whole en­cycli­cal. And a bit lat­er Benedict us­es this same point to cas­ti­gate those who would mis­use char­i­ty.

Charity, fur­ther­more, can­not be used as a means of en­gag­ing in what is nowa­days con­sid­ered pros­e­lytism. Love is free; it is not prac­tised as a way of achiev­ing oth­er ends.[30] But this does not mean that char­i­ta­ble ac­tiv­i­ty must some­how leave God and Christ aside. For it is al­ways con­cerned with the whole man. Often the deep­est cause of suf­fer­ing is the very ab­sence of God. Those who prac­tise char­i­ty in the Church’s name will nev­er seek to im­pose the Church’s faith up­on oth­ers. They re­al­ize that a pure and gen­er­ous love is the best wit­ness to the God in whom we be­lieve and by whom we are dri­ven to love. A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is bet­ter to say noth­ing and to let love alone speak. He knows that God is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8) and that God’s pres­ence is felt at the very time when the on­ly thing we do is to love. He knows—to re­turn to the ques­tions raised earlier—that dis­dain for love is dis­dain for God and man alike; it is an at­tempt to do with­out God. Consequently, the best de­fence of God and man con­sists pre­cise­ly in love. It is the re­spon­si­bil­i­ty of the Church’s char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tions to re­in­force this aware­ness in their mem­bers, so that by their activity—as well as their words, their si­lence, their example—they may be cred­i­ble wit­ness­es to Christ.

“Love is free; it is not prac­tised as a way of achiev­ing oth­er ends.”

This is the fun­da­men­tal point of the whole en­cycli­cal, and again a very strong ar­gu­ment against those who be­lieve that sal­va­tion can be found through be­lief alone. Faith with­out works is ul­ti­mate­ly no faith at all, be­cause if “ó θεòς αγάπη εστίν” [God is love/​charity] [1 John 4:16] and one does not prac­tice char­i­ty, God is not present.

While Pope Benedict’s pa­pa­cy is ex­pect­ed to be quite po­lit­i­cal­ly and moral­ly con­ser­v­a­tive, and there are in­di­ca­tions of that con­ser­vatism in this en­cycli­cal, the ex­pres­sion of agape re­mains a rad­i­cal, prac­ti­ca­ble, tan­gi­ble and pow­er­ful way of ex­press­ing that

Love is the light—and in the end, the on­ly light—that can al­ways il­lu­mi­nate a world grown dim and give us the courage need­ed to keep liv­ing and work­ing. Love is pos­si­ble, and we are able to prac­tise it be­cause we are cre­at­ed in the im­age of God. To ex­pe­ri­ence love and in this way to cause the light of God to en­ter in­to the world—this is the in­vi­ta­tion I would like to ex­tend with the present Encyclical.

5 thoughts on “Deus Caritas Est

  1. Argh. Now I have to read this en­cyli­cal. Thanks Adam. It’s not like thir­teen years of Catholic ed­u­ca­tion wasn’t enough.

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