Or perhaps the Bavarian pope would speak of the
decline of Europe, something he has reflected upon often. Or Benedict
would tell us of the actual meaning of Vatican IInot its aberrant
"spirit"something he has touched on in other recent documents.
And, as a German, Lutheranism and the relation to the Protestant churches
might be a prime topic of interest. But nothing on war is found, nor on
China, Hinduism, or liberalism. Of course, I am fully aware that a list
of things "not talked about" is almost by definition infinite!
John Paul IIs first encyclical was Redemptor Hominis, about Christ, the redeemer of man. Benedict XVIs first encyclical is on charity as the definition of God. In some sense both topics are the same, once we see the relationship between the Trinity and the Incarnation, the two doctrines that most separate Christianity from Judaism, Islam, other faiths, and most philosophies. But the encyclical turns out to be really closer to the great social encyclicals of the Church, beginning with those of Leo XIII. In fact, Benedict mentions the major encyclicals of his predecessors (#27). What Deus Caritas Est does is carve out a clearer picture of the importance of practical charity. Benedict more clearly relates faith to justice, a relationship that is often confused. In fact, if there has been any major defect in recent social movements in the Catholic Church since Vatican II, it has been the downplaying of charity over against the almost exclusive elevation of justice and, with it, politics. This encyclical insists on separating both in order to see precisely what each is and how one is related to the other.
Benedict has nothing bad to say about politics, but he wants to identify just what it can and ought to do:
While Benedict may not think the state is the cause
of all evils, he certainly sees its limits and the principles on which
those limits depend. Benedict, with the Gospel, assures us that the poor
and the needy will always be with us, but this is not a principle of inactivity,
but precisely a locus of charity. He is aware that much modern ideology
claims to solve all social problems with institutional or genetic or psychic
reforms, with no need of charity or internal reform. He is also aware
that such movements usually end up enslaving man.
One cannot help but be amused that Benedict cites the Emperor Julian the Apostate, the infamous persecutor of Christians, with some approval. Julian, it seems, had a rather difficult childhood. "As a child of six years old, Julian witnessed the assassination of is father, brother and other family members by guards of the imperial palace" (#24). Julian in retrospect blamed this heinous act on the Emperor Constantius Christian faith. The only thing Julian liked about Christianity was its stress on active charity. So he went off and formed his own religion taking charity from Christianity but nothing else. The Pope concludes, "in this way, then, the Emperor confirmed that charity was a decisive feature of the Christian community, the Church." This may be the first time in ages that a Pope has cited an Apostate in confirmation of a basic Christian teaching!
Benedict also recalls an amusing exchange between Gassendi and Descartes, in which the former called the latter "Soul" and the latter called the former "Flesh," an explicit reference to Descartes famous philosophical separation of soul and body (#5) The point was, of course, that both were wrong and that the central theme of the encyclical is precisely the one-being-ness of the human person, body and soul. "It is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only thus is love eros able to mature and attain its authentic grandeur." In this encyclical, in a rather off-handed manner, the Pope thus corrects many "small errors" in the beginning that have become "big errors" in the end, to recall Aristotles famous phrase.
A good deal of this document is devoted to the Old Testament and to the philosophical understanding of love. Benedict points to the unity of the Old and New Testaments. Augustine is cited, as are Nietzsche, Plato, Aristotle, and Sallust. I did not see Aquinas, but I did see Gregory the Great, Ignatius of Antioch, and Ambrose. Teresa of Calcutta is mentioned twice. Those saints in particular known for charitable works come up: Martin of Tours, Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, Ignatius of Loyola, John of God, Camillus de Lellis, Giuseppe Conolengo, John Bosco, Luigi Orione. This document is adamant in carving out a place for specifically Catholic institutions of charitable works that are clearly not a kind of sub-branch of the welfare statea danger not a few Catholic institutions are subject to when too readily accepting state aid.
One might speculate on why Benedict thought this emphasis on actual charitynot impersonal or state aid, not simple benevolencewas so important? This is especially curious since he insists that charity is not to be used for "proselytism": "Charity, furthermore, cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism. Love is free; it is not practiced as a way of achieving other ends. But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside. For it is always concerned with the whole men. Often the deepest cause of suffering is the absence of God" (#31). That is a fertile thought, that the deepest cause of human suffering is precisely the "absence" of God. I think the reason for this emphasis on active charity is a reminder that we live in an actual fallen world that retains its goodness of being but is not our lasting city (#31).
One need not write his own encyclical to explain the new encyclical of Benedict XVI, though it is tempting. One could reflect on the relation of Josef Piepers discussion of the Platonic enthusiasm or madness (Enthusiasm and the Divine Madness) and what Benedict has to say about the same topic. "The Greeks not unlike other cultures considered eros principally as a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a divine madness which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process or being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience superior happiness" (#4).
Another way of looking at this same experience would be the awareness that at any time, something, some love, even divine love, can come to us from outside our narrow concept of the world. It need not be a justification of doing what we want, but rather a sign of our incompleteness yet also our goodness. The intoxication or madness does not point to itself, but to the good that comes to us. That such an experience can easily get out of hand explains why the Pope, in the modern context, insists that eros be itself disciplined and ordered so that its true completion in a full and complete experience can be realized, in both friendship and agape.
The Pope also deals with some of this topic when he talks of the difference between eros and agapethe love that ascends and the love that descends (#3). "Love looks to the eternal. Love is indeed ecstasy, not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery, and indeed the discovery of God" (#6). Love "at first sight" must also become love "at hind-sight," something that lasts over the years, something that includes, as Aristotle put it, a complete life. The essence of biblical faith is "that man can indeed enter into union with God his primordial aspiration. But this union is no mere fusion, a sinking in the nameless ocean of the Divine; it is a unity which creates love, a unity in which both God and man remain themselves and yet become one" (#10).
The contrast between Aristotle and Israel on Gods nature is also of interest to the Pope. The Biblical God "loves man," itself a revolutionary innovation of revelation: