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Deus Caritas Est. 

by John Hemer MHM

Part 1

It has been claimed that John Paul II was responsible for the collapse of communism in much of the world. Whether you agree or not, it’s clear that JP II ‘took on’ that eastern European problem of atheistic humanism because, as someone who had seen at first hand the effects of Nazism and Communism, he was in a unique position to understand it.

From the beginning of his pontificate it was clear that Benedict XVI would be trying to deal with the western European problems of secularism, relativism and indifference to religion. His own background also equipped him uniquely to do this. As a young man he had first hand knowledge of Nazism. He’s stated recently that the challenge of that particular evil and the huge vacuum that it left in the hearts of so many people in no small way spurred him on to become a priest. As a university professor he witnessed the turmoil of student unrest and the breakdown of traditional authority in the late 1960’s and was no doubt aware of the very powerful secularising influences at work even in the theology faculties of Catholic universities. As archbishop of Munich, a city where Catholicism is part of the air you breathe, a city shaped in so many ways by Catholicism, he dealt with then huge issues of proclaiming the Christian faith in an environment where the tide of faith was to some extent going out, an environment where people no longer take the truths of the gospel as self-evident, an environment where it is increasingly important to be credible and articulate. (That’s Western Europe as a whole.)

As head of the CDF He had the difficult task of guarding the faith, a task which earned him a lot of negative publicity. But it gave him a vantage point from which to view the Church as a whole, and an understanding of all the many challenges and problems which confront the Church, and also an awareness the many wonderful developments that are talking place in our times.

The first encyclical of any pope is in some ways his manifesto: “This is what my pontificate is going to be about.” In these two lectures I will try to present its content to you and to comment on it. I read it wearing the glasses of a biblical scholar. Clearly what the pope is doing is presenting one of the central themes of the Bible. Indeed one might say that his opening statement God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.(1 Jn. 1:16) is, in one sentence, the whole point of the Bible and indeed of the Christian faith. I have biblical eyes, but I hope I will read it with the voice of a pastor. The letter is not just high-brow theological speculation but it has bearing on the way each of us lives our Christian life and the way we run our parishes.

I suspect that Benedict has taken a leaf out of St. Paul’s book. In the first letter to the Corinthians Paul deals with a church bursting with life and riddled with problems. He waxes eloquent about the theology of the cross, the Eucharist, the resurrection. He reads the riot act about some people’s lax sexual morality and does some very straight talking about the use and abuse of spiritual gifts. There are all sorts of issues, many things demanding attention, many things to hot under the collar about. And in the middle of all of them, Paul reminds his readers what Christianity is all about.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.  Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; (1 Corinthians 13:1-4)

            There are dozens of worthy causes, issues, agendas worth pursuing, and if we are not careful they can distract us from the real meaning, centre and purpose of Christianity. We must keep our eyes fixed on what really matters which is why Paul puts ch. 13 exactly where it is.

            The pope, it seems, is doing something similar. There are at least a dozen burning issues which would be well worth speaking to the whole Church about. We devote vast amounts of energy, money, enthusiasm and time to the Church. But if we lose sight of the purpose of the Church which is to help us know the love of God and to love each other, and even our enemies, then we lose sight of everything. There are lots of important things, but it’s only love which matters in the end or in the words of Paul: So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person. Christianity isn’t first and foremost an ideal, still less an ideology but a relationship with a man, hence love not good ideas or religious enthusiasm must be at the core of it. (In the seminary in Holland in the 70’s there was lots of idealism and ideology, but very few became priests. For many, their Christianity was an ideology rather than a relationship.) In fact religious enthusiasm or zeal is no guarantee that a person will be doing the will of God. 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. So much ‘religious’ energy is merely human energy masquerading as something else. Suicide bombers are an obvious example but there are plenty of others, the Pharisees’ desire to exclude the unrighteous looks like the purest form of religion, in fact it’s just the human tendency to exclusivism masquerading as love of God. (And the masquerade fools even those who engage in it.) The Holy Spirit who reveals to us the truth about God is, if you like, a field of energy not created by mere human desire or longing, but which comes from beyond us, from God. It does not come from this world, or from crowds, nor is it generated by human group dynamics. Many times when a ‘spirit’ moves a crowd that’s precisely what’s going on and there is nothing holy or divine about it. The religious energy which motivated Paul to persecute the Church was powerful and compelling but was not holy; even though Paul was convinced it came from God. The Holy Spirit would never have anyone persecute someone else or enact vengeance in the name of God.

“Eros” and “Agape” – difference and unity.

There are three Greek word for love; eros, sexual passionate love, philia the love between friends and agap, selfless, disinterested love. The NT prefers the word agap. In the modern world Christianity has been criticized, especially by Nietzsche. Who said that the Church with all her commandments and prohibitions turns to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn't she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator's gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?

This is a common accusation, is it true? The Greeks considered eros a sort of intoxication, something which enabled people to enter into ecstasy. In many pagan religions it was celebrated by the institution of sacred prostitutes. So Eros was the great manifestation of divine power.

The Old Testament firmly opposed this form of religion, which represents a powerful temptation against monotheistic faith, combating it as a perversion of religiosity. But it in no way rejected eros as such; rather, it declared war on a warped and destructive form of it, because this counterfeit divinization of eros actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it. Indeed, the prostitutes in the temple, who had to bestow this divine intoxication, were not treated as human beings and persons, but simply used as a means of arousing “divine madness”: far from being goddesses, they were human persons being exploited. An intoxicated and undisciplined eros, then, is not an ascent in “ecstasy” towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man. Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.

If people are tempted to take the pagan view of eros we need only look at the sexual revolution since the 1960’s. This was in many cases a conscious turning away from Biblical and Church teaching and a deliberate embrace of pagan ideas about sexuality. But that revolution did not deliver what it promised, it delivered unwanted pregnancy, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases on a scale unheard of. That’s why the OT resisted those things so strongly. Its authors knew what happened to people when they wholeheartedly abandon themselves to eros. People in our own time have used recreational drugs to enable them to lose rationality and give them the freedom to do the wildest things with their bodies. Is it coincidence that one of the most popular recreational drugs is called ecstasy, precisely what was promised by the pagan fertility cults?

There is however a relationship between erotic love and the divine, something which all human beings at least suspect, but says the Pope, the way to attain this goal is not simply by submitting to instinct. Purification and growth in maturity are called for; and these also pass through the path of renunciation. Far from rejecting or “poisoning” eros, they heal it and restore its true grandeur.

We are both body and soul. Sometimes Christian spirituality has been over-concerned with the soul and the spiritual to the detriment of the body, but all healthy spirituality will pay attention to both. Extremes are living for pleasure, which is the modern problem, or living to avoid pleasure, living for self-denial which some Christians did with enthusiasm.

          Eros, reduced to pure “sex”, has become a commodity; a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. He does not see it as an arena for the exercise of his freedom, but as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless.

There is the popular idea that’s its OK for two people to have sex without commitment so long as both agree to that, they are just doing it for fun, they won’t make demands of each other, and sex that way is nice and uncomplicated. But because we are a unity of body and soul, a person can’t enjoy that sort of intimacy with another’s body without in some way impinging on the deeper parts of them, their soul.  True, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing. In other words sexuality does all those things, but it doesn’t do them instinctively, we need the help of God’s grace in this area to use these things properly, as in all others. Concretely if people talk to me about their sexual lives, I don’t tell them they have to keep the rules, I think that comes across as rather sterile and that’s why many people think of the ‘rules’ of the Church as somewhat pointless. I tell them to try to put their sexuality and their sexual lives under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He must be Lord there as everywhere else.

The pope talks about how in the Song of Songs love starts of as insecure, young, immature, but gradually develops to be a real discovery of the other. It becomes no so much the antidote to my loneliness as concern and care for the other. (Perhaps romances which blossom through the internet or through lonely hearts columns are a good illustration of this.) No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.

And perhaps the Song of Songs and its interpretation are a perfect example of what the Pope is talking about. It’s a very sensuous love poem about the love between two young people. It’s full of coyness and searching and longing, also so pretty strong erotic imagery. The bride begins: Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine. (Songs 1:2) and goes on: A bundle of myrrh is my wellbeloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts. (1:13)

The bridegroom says to his beloved: Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks.  Thy neck is like the tower of David builded for an armoury, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men.  Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies. (4:3-5)

It is, in the first instance about what it says, smitten intoxicated young love. But the Church has always seen it also as an allegory about the love of God for us, and compared him to the bridegroom, seeking us with such passion. Often the two schools of thought tried to deny the validity of each other’s position. The Song of Songs is operating on two levels. It is speaking about human love, but that love points to something else to the divine.

Perhaps the author and those who admitted the book into the Canon realised that sexuality can be an experience of the divine, just like nature or community. The mystery of love and attraction must point in some way to the mystery of God if we believe that he is revealed in all of creation. If looking at beautiful scenery can be a springboard to God, then surely contemplating a beautiful person can do the same for us. Catholicism insists that marriage is a sacrament, not just a contract. The sacrament does not just take place on the wedding day, but is continually conferred by the couple on each other throughout their married life. A sacrament is "an outward sign of inward grace" Even the most intimate parts of married life are touches of God, encounters with his grace.

The Prophets, particularly Hosea and Ezekiel, described God's passion for his people using boldly erotic images. God's relationship with Israel is described using the metaphors of betrothal and marriage; idolatry is thus adultery and prostitution.

Hosea, loves his wife, but sees her repeated infidelity and is hurt to the core of his being. He should throw her out, but despite her behaviour, he still loves her and so is torn. In his pain he realises that it must be something like this for God, who isn’t cold and passive, but deeply loves his people and is deeply upset by their infidelity to him.

Hosea has taken the Canaanite fertility myth and rewritten it, or has cleverly reinterpreted the Covenant. The covenant is absolutely central to Hosea's theology. So far it had been understood as a legal contract between two parties with precise obligations on both parts. Maybe in some ways this concept of Israel's relationship with their God was not enough for them. It appealed to their understanding that life must involve certain duties, but in many ways left their emotions out of the picture. Small wonder then that they were always tempted to practise a religion which allowed their feelings much more room to express themselves. Hosea, in what was one of the masterstrokes of the OT, borrows the Canaanite notion of Baal with its strong sexual overtones, but changes it and purifies it into a notion of God as the husband, indeed the lover.

He realised that part of the reason people's hearts were far from Yahweh was that the purest forms of Yahwism did not always speak to their hearts, so he adopts a language that does and makes it thoroughly Yahwist. Here is a very early but very good example of acculturation, where Yahwism in some ways speaks the language of a religion alien to it, but is in no way contaminated by it. This is not some hasty marriage of two religions, this is not: "we had better put a bit of Baalism into our religion to make it more attractive.” The notion of Yahweh is still every bit as exalted. The only way Hosea can safely do this is because he is absolutely clear about who Yahweh is. The whole mess of syncretism in Israel has come about because the people are not really sure who they think Yahweh is. They allow the faith of Yahweh to be influenced and changed by Baalism. Instead of being a religion of covenant - a partnership which involves both love and obedience, their religion had become one of demands. There is nothing wrong with asking God for rain and fertility. There is everything wrong with only wanting that from him, and that is what had happened. Hosea, absolutely clear about what Yahwism is, dares to express it in the language of another religion, but a language which will speak to people's hearts. One is reminded of General Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army who in Victorian Britain wanted to reach out to working class people who were estranged from the Church of England, and did not feel at home with the very beautiful but somewhat archaic language of her services. He went out onto the streets and organised hymn singing accompanied by brass bands, an unheard of innovation, and to some a rather vulgar one at the time. He used up-beat, popular tunes with which to sing his message and praise God. He said famously: "Why should the devil have all the best tunes?" Hosea says in effect: "Why should Baal have all the best tunes? Why should he have all the best images?"

It is part of love's growth towards higher levels and inward purification that it now seeks to become definitive, and it does so in a twofold sense: both in the sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in the sense of being “for ever”. Precisely because it points to God, comes from God and is the part of the nature of God, love looks to the eternal. Love is ecstasy - not a moment of incredible pleasure, but literally a ‘standing out’ of one’s self. True ecstasy is the ability to leave ourselves behind and become totally involved in another. The gaze between two lovers or the gaze between a mother and her new-born baby are examples of ecstasy, one person totally involved in another and in that becoming truly themselves. Lovers often say: “I can only really be me when I’m with you.” This insight Jesus expresses in many ways, for instance: Whoever seeks to gain his life will rose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it. (Lk 17:33) Conversely lovers will find that if the one can’t totally give himself to the other, then he doesn’t feel complete.

            Often in popular thinking, eros and agape are seen as being at odds with each other, you either love someone because you are attracted to them, or you love them selflessly. It often seems as though the Church exalts agape and devalues eros and the world does the opposite; but says the Pope the two are not at odds.

The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized. Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to “be there for” the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature. On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift.

There is a mistrust or a shyness about agape. If we see someone doing something – say visiting a prison – people often wonder what he’s getting out of it. On the one hand there is the Christian idea that if you do something good for someone you must it selflessly, and at the same time the unwillingness to believe that anyone ever does this. What the Pope seems to be saying is that we shouldn’t get too hung up about motivation. If in our doing good there is an element of enjoyment or satisfaction for ourselves, that does not make it any the less good or noble. So love is a single reality with different dimensions and to try to separate eros from agape is to do violence to love itself.

            The Greek concept of God put forward by people like Aristotle is one who is totally without emotion. For Aristotle, we can love him, but he can’t love us because that would make him in some way needy or incomplete. The pope notes how the bible presents God as a God with plenty of passion, he is jealous for his people. Even when in strict justice God should punish Israel he holds back. God’s eros for man is totally Agape and the Pope quotes Hosea to that effect.

Hosea above all shows us that this agape dimension of God's love for man goes far beyond the aspect of gratuity. Israel has committed “adultery” and has broken the covenant; God should judge and repudiate her. It is precisely at this point that God is revealed to be God and not man: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! ... My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst”

It seems that outside of Judaism and Christianity there are only two alternatives available: either the passionless totally impartial god of the philosophers, who  cannot possible love or hate, and the many pagan gods who may wel love and hate but actually just behave lioke petualant human beings. In the Biblical god there is one who loves with a passion, in fact loves so much that John calls him love. Many people have a picture of God rather like the statue of Blind Justice on the Old Bailey. This picture has nothing to do with the scriptures and is in no way a Christian understanding of God.  Jesus image of God is so far from that the God of the NT will go looking for the ‘lost sheep’. When the fatwah was issued on Salaman Rushdie in the late 80’s, commentators noted how ironic it was that it was made “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.” People asked how an injunction to kill someone can be made like this.  Within a certain understanding of God it makes perfect sense. Some people see God as merciful to the group by defending it against people who are threats, so the killing of a blasphemer or heretic is an illustration of God’s mercy. But in the parable of the lost sheep (Lk. 15: 4-7) Jesus proclaims a God who behaves in exactly the opposite way and will even put the group at risk for the sake of one wayward person. This love is far from passive or passionless. And in the cross we see a God who not only puts the sheep at risk so to speak, but puts himself at risk, who suffers himself in order to give people life. Without the Cross, John could never have come to write God is love, which is the meaning of this encyclical, and without the cross we cannot begin to understand what that means.

            Jesus also expands our understanding of love of one’s neighbour.

The parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:25-37) offers two particularly important clarifications. Until that time, the concept of “neighbour” was understood as referring essentially to one's countrymen and to foreigners who had settled in the land of Israel; in other words, to the closely-knit community of a single country or people. This limit is now abolished. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbour. The concept of “neighbour” is now universalized, yet it remains concrete. Despite being extended to all mankind, it is not reduced to a generic, abstract and undemanding expression of love, but calls for my own practical commitment here and now. The Church has the duty to interpret ever anew this relationship between near and far with regard to the actual daily life of her members. Lastly, we should especially mention the great parable of the Last Judgement (cf. Mt 25:31-46), in which love becomes the criterion for the definitive decision about a human life's worth or lack thereof. Jesus identifies himself with those in need, with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). Love of God and love of neighbour have become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God.

            While we all recognise the call to universal love, it is important to recognise that Jesus nowhere says: “Love everyone”. It is very easy to say: “I love the poor” or “I love the French” or “I love Children” without actually being involved with any poor people, French people or young people. Jesus will not allow us such platitudes. He is never in that sense theoretical. What he does say is: Love one another, love your enemies, love your neighbour as yourself. This does include everyone, but it means that the person I am required to love is the one in front of me now, not some theoretical ‘other’ Christianity in that sense is always a practical religion, and it’s to those practicalities that the Pope turns in the second part of his letter.




Here the pope for the first time mentions the Trinity quoting St. Augustine: . If you see charity, you see the Trinity. The Trinity tends to be something we accept on faith but doesn’t say too much to us. A priest once told me how he had been in a primary school and saw a little girl skipping along the corridor singing to herself: “Three person in one God, six in two Gods, nine persons in three Gods” etc.

When we say the Trinity is a mystery, we do not mean something which we just can’t understand.  Although this is not in any way an etymological definition, but perhaps one way to understand what we mean by the mysteries of the faith is to think of a good murder mystery. If it’s written well, in the first few pages typically someone is killed and the rest of the book or film is unravelling who did it, why and how. It draws us in and fascinates. We form opinions about who did it all the time, but as the plot twists and turns we realise that, plausible as they may be, they aren’t adequate. It’s impossible to put the book down, we have to know more, we want to inhabit the world the characters inhabit. The mystery of the Trinity is rather like that. It is paradoxical, God is three but one, and so we are drawn into that mystery.

Because we are made in the image of God, we have something in common with him. Love is possible, and we are able to practise it because we are created in the image of God. (39)

Every human being needs relationships and friendship We spend so much time on relationships, so much joy, so much energy, so much pain. They are in many ways what makes us tick. The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that God is in himself a relationship. He’s not a lonely old man in the sky. God is much more like a group of friends who are totally relaxed and happy in each others company and we as Christians are called to join that group.

At Mass, when the priest mixes the water and wine he says: “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” We make the amazing claim that by doing these things we actually come to share in the life opf God, we come to participate in his nature. St Irenaeus said: “God became man that we might become divine”.

St. John, as we have seen makes the amazing claim that God is love – not just “God is loving.” In the OT people already knew that, but now because of the experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit the Church realises that God himself is a relationship. A lone person can be loving, but only a relationship can be love. Just as with a really loving people or a really loving group that spills out and has an effect on others, so with God. That’s why John in his Gospel says:  God so loved the world. That love must try to draw other people. So when we talk about the Love of God, it’s essential that we are talking about the Trinity. The experience of the early Church was one of being drawn in to this wonderful love. They realised that love is what makes the universe tick, and so they came to know the Trinity.

Charity as a responsibility of the Church

As the Church grew, it quickly became clear that charity and service of others isn’t just the responsibility of individual Christians (though it will always remain that) but that the church had a duty to organize her charitable work.

21. A decisive step in the difficult search for ways of putting this fundamental ecclesial principle into practice is illustrated in the choice of the seven, which marked the origin of the diaconal office (cf. Acts 6:5-6). The Apostles, who had been entrusted primarily with “prayer” (the Eucharist and the liturgy) and the “ministry of the word”, felt over-burdened by “serving tables”, so they decided to reserve to themselves the principal duty and to designate for the other task, also necessary in the Church, a group of seven persons. Nor was this group to carry out a purely mechanical work of distribution: they were to be men “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (cf. Acts 6:1-6). In other words, the social service which they were meant to provide was absolutely concrete, yet at the same time it was also a spiritual service; theirs was a truly spiritual office which carried out an essential responsibility of the Church, namely a well-ordered love of neighbour. With the formation of this group of seven, “diaconia”—the ministry of charity exercised in a communitarian, orderly way—became part of the fundamental structure of the Church.

            This exercise of charity soon became established as one of the principle activities of the Church along with prayer and preaching. It’s important to note the spiritual element. Being charitable isn’t just a job, even for those who do it full time and get paid for it, it is a calling. In our own time that state has to a certain extent taken over many of the traditional areas where the church practiced charity – notably in the care of the sick and the provision of welfare for the poor. Yet people often complain about being dehumanized by state provision. The practice of agency nursing – economically and logistically understandable – can lead to the care of the patient being something merely mechanical. Even during a short stay in hospital a good relationship with the nursing staff is something that helps the patient. If he can’t develop that because personnel are constantly changing then something is lacking. Both religious orders of nursing women and dedicated Catholic nurses have always provided care with a spiritual, deeply human quality. It may be true that there’s no need to develop a relationship with people in order to give them medicine and take their temperature, but being sick and in hospital makes people particularly vulnerable. There is today, rightly so, a great stress on being ‘professional’ but that can lead to a situation where care-givers can tick all the boxes professionally, but still not show the slightest real human concern for the people in their care. The same can be true say for aid agencies where people are treated as a problem or a statistic. What the Pope is pointing at is that in all these things a real love is needed for those who are being served.

            Many of us have no doubt had the experience of being ‘put on’, of people taking advantage of our charity just because we are Christians. That’s certainly an occupational hazard for priests and sisters. But it does show that people expect us to be charitable. Christianity and kindness or charity are associated with one another. And when we fail in that people are very quick to taunt us about it. Even non-Christians recognize that: 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. It’s something to do with what Jesus said the disciples being the light of the world. Not ‘you should be’, but ‘you are’. Jesus is telling us that like it or not, people will look to us for light, for an example, for something more and that the standards we live by may not be the standards the world chooses, but they will always be a bench mark.

            The world also expects us to be charitable even to those beyond our boundaries. This is part of the nature of the Church. The parable of the Good Samaritan remains as a standard which imposes universal love towards the needy whom we encounter “by chance” (cf. Lk 10:31), whoever they may be.

Justice and Charity

26. Since the nineteenth century, an objection has been raised to the Church's charitable activity, subsequently developed with particular insistence by Marxism: the poor, it is claimed, do not need charity but justice. Works of charity—almsgiving—are in effect a way for the rich to shirk their obligation to work for justice and a means of soothing their consciences, while preserving their own status and robbing the poor of their rights. Instead of contributing through individual works of charity to maintaining the status quo, we need to build a just social order in which all receive their share of the world's goods and no longer have to depend on charity. There is admittedly some truth to this argument, but also much that is mistaken.

Is the pope here dismissing the quest for a just society? No, but perhaps he is thinking of the many ways in which movements for social change dehumanized people as much as liberating them – the communist experiment being the obvious example. Also charity is a human virtue, the desire to practice it is deep in the human heart and the idea that we can create social structure that eliminate the need for it has proved illusory and very damaging to the soul of a society. Benedict is spot on though when he identifies the change in power which happened at the industrial revolution. Capital and the means of production were now the new source of power which, concentrated in the hands of a few, led to the suppression of the rights of the working classes, against which they had to rebel. Whereas power in the old order lay in the hands of the aristocracy and various other elite groups, it increasingly came into the hand s of those who had money – capital. We are aware today of the enormous power wielded by multi-national corporations. In many smaller, poorer countries a multi-national may have more real power than the government of that country. And although it’s happened gradual;ly, many of us are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that profits are the guiding force behind so much political activity. In some cases it seems almost true that ‘money makes the world go round’. True an increase in the amount of capital in circulation can contribute to an increase in living standards – at least material standards, but if that is the main yardstick by which quality of life is measured then society risks loosing his soul. As Jesus said  For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?  (Luke 9:25)

It must be admitted that the Church's leadership was slow to realize that the issue of the just structuring of society needed to be approached in a new way. The Church on the whole was at first suspicious, even negative to new developments in politics economics and the organization of labour. Part of the problem was that many of the new political movements were extremely anti-Church, even anti-religion. The French Revolution is perhaps the earliest and clearest example of this. The unification of Italy in 1870 was not welcomed at al by the Church, not least because it involved the loss of the Papal States and all the Church’s temporal power. If in catholic countries at least, the Church has been associated with rather conservative politics, it is, at least in part, because the alternatives were so negative even destructive towards religion. Whereas here in England, many catholics traditionally were staunch supporters of the labour party and there was no conflict here with the faith, in Italy for instance, to be socialist was to be communist and therefore for many Italian catholics was not an option.

            In 1891 Leo XIII published his ground-breaking encyclical Rerum Novarum which was an attempt to deal wuith the vastly chaged political and social conditions in the Europe of the industrial revolution. This was followed in 1931 by Pius XI's Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. In 1961 Blessed John XXIII published the Encyclical Mater et Magistra, while Paul VI, in the Encyclical Populorum Progressio (1967) and in the Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens (1971), insistently addressed the social problem, which had meanwhile become especially acute in Latin America. My great predecessor John Paul II left us a trilogy of social Encyclicals: Laborem Exercens (1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) and finally Centesimus Annus (1991). Faced with new situations and issues, Catholic social teaching thus gradually developed, and has now found a comprehensive presentation in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church published in 2004 by the Pontifical Council Iustitia et Pax. Marxism had seen world revolution and its preliminaries as the panacea for the social problem: revolution and the subsequent collectivization of the means of production, so it was claimed, would immediately change things for the better. This illusion has vanished. In today's complex situation, not least because of the growth of a globalized economy, the Church's social doctrine has become a set of fundamental guidelines offering approaches that are valid even beyond the confines of the Church: in the face of ongoing development these guidelines need to be addressed in the context of dialogue with all those seriously concerned for humanity and for the world in which we live.

It’s often said that the Church’s social teaching is her best-kept secret. Hopefully things like the Justice and peace movement go some way to remedying that situation. The Pope struggles to lay out the distinction between the area of  concern which is proper to politicians and that which is proper to the Church. Basically since the 18th century religion and politics have been drifting away from each other, and in many countries have been forcibly separated. The problem was that after the Reformation in the 16th C., The religious unity of catholic Europe, which had obtained for a thousand years or so, was rent asunder. There were interminable wars and skirmishes about religion. The battle of the Boyne was by no means the biggest or most important of them. With the so-called Eligtenment in the 18th century philosophers started to say that the only way out of this was to make a strict separation between church and politics, church and state. Religion was consigned increasingly to the private sphere. The fully-grown fruit of that is, in a certain sense, modern secularism where religion is fine so long as it’s a purely private subjective thing and must never interfere in the public domain.

Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics. Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life: its origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has to do with ethics…… Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly. This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.

The Church's social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being. [T]he Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly.

Perhaps in the following paragraph the Pope spells out the Church’s role most clearly.

The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.

This is a delicate balance and is by no means easy to achieve. The pope is all too aware of he excesses on the side of over-involement. Typically in Catholic countries the Church has sometimes wielded too much raw political and coercive power and the result has often been fierce anti-clericalism – Spain and Mexico being two prime examples of this. However in more modern terms some sections of the Church have allied themselves too closely with left-wing politics. I once asked a missionary priest who was working in Chile under the Pinochet regime how his saw his role. He answered that his job, and the job of his group of priests was very simple – to bring down the Pinochet government. However wicked that regime may have been, and howver necessary its removal for the freedom of the Chilean people, it does seem that they had lost sight of an essential aspect of the gospel, and that political ideology had become a rather cheap sunbtitute for charity.

            Modern biblical scholarship has made progress in showing how political the message of Jesus was. In various ways we see Jesus helping people to be free of Roman power, but not by shaking a fist at the empire, nor by calling for revolution – like Barabbas, but by giving people the interior freedom not to have their lives dictated by Rome. The Apocalypse of John is a much more explicit critique of the Roman Empire, but even here the author isn’t telling the Christians of northern Turkey to revolt against the Empire, but to recognize it for what it is and not to allow it to control their lives and their thinking. How do they do that? By having Jesus as Lord and not Caesar. A generation earlier, Paul does the same thing in some of his letters.

            All this is a way of getting to the heart of this section of the pope’s teaching:

Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.[20] 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.

In the Bible, especially in the Prophets the real test of our religion is how sensitive are we to the widow, the orphan and the stranger, in other words to the most vulnerable. In many ways our society has become more caring, more sensitive to the needs of those at the margins. But there is always the danger that state care can become impersonal and bureaucratic. A series of Reith lectures on the BBC a few years ago dealt with the difference between a culture of trust and a culture of accountability. We once had the former, for various reasons it has been largely replaced with the latter. It is nlot necessarily better.There is always the tendency to think that so long as all the forms have been filled in and procedures and protocols have been gone through that we have done well, but so easily the element of love of charity, of human warmth and care can be missing from these procedures.

To put the same thing in more Biblical terms we are talking about the difference between a contract and a covenant.

 Often we cannot understand why God refrains from intervening. Yet he does not prevent us from crying out, like Jesus on the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). We should continue asking this question in prayerful dialogue before his face: “Lord, holy and true, how long will it be?” (Rev 6:10). ….our crying out is, as it was for Jesus on the Cross, the deepest and most radical way of affirming our faith in his sovereign power. Even in their bewilderment and failure to understand the world around them, Christians continue to believe in the “goodness and loving kindness of God” (Tit 3:4). Immersed like everyone else in the dramatic complexity of historical events, they remain unshakably certain that God

Copyright ©; John Hemer MHM 2006

This version: 23rd May 2006

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