The Encyclical: Gods Eros Is Agape
| Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. |
"We have seen that Gods eros for man is also totally agape. This is not only because it is bestowed in a completely gratuitous manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is love which forgives" Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, #10
Walking along the corridor of our department just hours after Deus Caritas Est was issued, I ran into a young man I did not know. He asked me if I had seen the new document. I was impressed that he ever heard of it. I had not seen it, though I knew about it. He told me its title. He added that he had hoped for something more "relevant," like bio-ethics.
I replied that I thought charity was a pretty good topic since it is central to the Churchs teaching about who God is and what our lives are about. And it has not a little to do even with such a perplexing topic as bio-ethics, such as addressing the foundations of bio-ethics. One of the reason some bio-ethicists get things wrong when they do is, I suspect, because they do not understand the primacyeven the physical primacyof charity, in its full theological and philosophical meaning, even as applies to the fact that we, as individual persons have both minds and bodies to be what we are.
The printed encyclical is twenty-five single-spaced pages in length, or about 16,000 words. It is not nearly so long as Fides et Ratio, John Paul IIs encyclical on faith and reason. I do not know what I expected to find here, what topic that the Benedict XVI would first write upon, though the news channels had indicated this topic for a long time. Evidently, John Paul II had wanted to write on this subject also. So the question was really, how would Pope Ratzinger develop the argument? No topic in the world needs more straightening out than this one of love. It does not take a private revelation to predict that a pope might address the issue.
Early on, I assumed that the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith would write first on pressing doctrinal topics, of which there are not a few. I thought the author of The Spirit of the Liturgy might say something about the (often dire) condition of liturgy in the Church. The ongoing clerical scandals and the related question of ordination of homosexuals suggested that totally unpleasant topic. The increasing expansion and militancy of Islam hinted that perhaps the Church would finally say something directly meaningful and theological about "What is Islam?" (The Pope did place these words in the encyclicals third paragraph: "in a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence...")
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.
The Pope is anxious to get away from the notion that a "commandment" is something from outside of us, something imposed on us by an arbitrary Divinity. "No longer is it a question, then, of a commandment imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of freely-bestowed experience from within, a love which by its very nature must than be shared with others. Love grows through love." One cannot love unless he is first loved. This is the connection of love and service, of the first and second commandments: love of God and of neighbor.
"For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being (#25). I suspect that this passage addresses the exasperation that modern feminists often had with someone like Mother Teresa, and indeed with every mother who devotes her life to children and her children, all of whom turn out to be in fact much more womanly and more unique precisely because in their very being they are closer to charity.
In conclusion, there is a richness here that takes time to digest we find teaching on the Eucharist, on the state, on the most central desire of our being, on the fact that we are first loveda fact that both explains our being and ultimately our activity on the basis of this being given to us, this divine eros that is agape. With this encyclical, we can be sure that Benedict, like his predecessor, will be a teaching pope. Popes are to teach, to sanctify, and to rule. The three belong together and cannot exist long without one another.
Benedict, in another context, cites the famous passage from his favorites, Augustine: "Si comprehendis, non est Deus" (#38) roughly, "if your idea of God claims to totally comprehend God, then your idea is not God at all." In other words, if we would love God and one another, as we should, we must be open to what God reveals to us about Himself. It is in this very opening that we will begin to find the explanation of all else, including ourselves. The Pope exists to remind the world that its understanding of God is not God, and that the deepest cause of its suffering is "the absence of God." No one else tells us these things quite so clearly. Even if we do not want to hear such things, they are spoken.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:
Author page for Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
On Reading the Pope | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Archives of IgnatiusInsight.com articles by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.
Read more of his essays on his website.
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