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.

And

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.

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