When Pope Benedict XVI issued his first encyclical recently, reactions from the world’s media were fairly subdued. Perhaps it was because the Palestinian elections happened the following day, and that drew their more immediate attention. Perhaps it was because the encyclical is so low-key, so mild in its manner that it took them all by surprise.
By contrast, his election last year caused a great deal of furore amongst commentators. They seemed appalled that the Church had elected a fervent and saintly Catholic as Pope. Perhaps they all needed an excuse for less demanding lifestyles. Maybe they were afraid of losing their bête noir, their target for attacking the Catholic Church as behind the times because she does not allow contraception or abortion or even divorce. They all felt that if they could have a “nicer” Pope he would allow all these things, and make a Church that would fade away into the distance, leaving them to run the world as they wanted.
Then many of them began to listen to his homilies. He has been alarmingly consistent in everything he has said since he began his Pontificate. In his inauguration homily he underlined how much God loves each one of us:
It is not power, but love that redeems us! This is God’s sign: he himself is love. How often we wish that God would show himself stronger, that he would strike decisively, defeating evil and creating a better world. All ideologies of power justify themselves in exactly this way, they justify the destruction of whatever would stand in the way of progress and the liberation of humanity. We suffer on account of God’s patience. And yet, we need his patience. God, who became a lamb, tells us that the world is saved by the Crucified One, not by those who crucified him. The world is redeemed by the patience of God. It is destroyed by the impatience of man.
So, from the very beginning Benedict was laying stress on the reality of God’s love for each person in the world, and the need we have of responding to that love. Now he offers a roadmap for people who must make the journey of love in the circumstances of today.
Human and divine love
The first part of the encyclical develops towards the culminating point of Christ’s love. He looks at the notions of eros, philia and agape, pointing out that in the Old Testament eros, designating the first outburst of love, is only used on two occasions. In the New Testament the word used is always agape. This was translated by caritas in the Latin of St. Jerome. Usually it is now given as “love”, but it is a particular kind of love, a generous love, the love of self-surrender, not the possessive love expressed by eros. This is the love that seeks only the good of the other person. It is a giving love, one that seeks to benefit the other person always. (Philia, or the love of friendship, is used in St John’s Gospel to express the relationship between Jesus and his disciples.)
When he looks at the love of man and woman, seen as the human model of love, he sees it as growing from the eros – that impact men and women have on each other – towards agape. This is where true love lies. This is where a person will put himself or herself out completely for their beloved, and forget about themselves altogether. That love becomes exclusive and perpetual then. It rules out any infidelity. It leads towards a radical unselfishness that makes for true happiness in this life, and a great preparation for the life to come. How radical that is, only God can show us:
God’s passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice. Here Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great is God’s love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love.
And it is that extreme that the Pope puts forward as the key to understanding what the true meaning of love is. The objective, the ideal, has to be Christ. After all he is God who walks amongst us. He has become one of us in order to show God to us and to raise the human race. Christ is the real extremist of love:
His death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form. By contemplating the pierced side of Christ (cf. 19:37), we can understand the starting-point of this Encyclical Letter: “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). It is there that this truth can be contemplated. It is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move.
Here is the core of the encyclical. When some of the commentators lamented that the Pope had not allowed for any love outside of marriage between men and women that lasted a lifetime, they had not managed to get as far as paragraph 12. If they got that far, perhaps they did not want to accept it. The ideal for all human beings is the ideal proposed by Christ. He is the perfection of humanity. He is the object of progress, the end of all historical evolution.
This does not mean that there are no good people in other situations, who are trying their best. People in situations of sin, couples who are unmarried, homosexual couples, people living transsexual lifestyles, they are all capable of loving within their limited circumstances. But their love will never be complete. It will never reach the zenith. It will always remain at the level of unpurified eros. There is something selfish in living within the structures of sin. It amounts to saying, "I will not do things God’s way. I will not accept God’s love in all its passionate completion. I will do it my way, not God’s way."
The church at the service of love
Our personal response to God is, Benedict reminds us, only half the story. The Pope leads into the second part of his encyclical by stressing that love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbour. The paradigm here is the parable of the Good Samaritan. If we love God we must lean over the wounded men and women of this world and help them as lovingly as the Good Samaritan did. He was a true neighbour
to the man who fell amongst robbers. With this story Jesus opened out the notion of neighbour to include everyone on the planet. Up to that point people thought of their neighbour as the people of their own tribe or clan. Christ blows that notion away and gives rise to the true Christian notion of charity, which is care for everyone in need of any kind.
The church has always had a diakonia, or mission of service, the Pope stresses. From the very beginning there were people, all full of the Holy Spirit, assigned by the Apostles to look after the needier of their brethren. This has always been the case in the Church. The encyclical gives many examples of this classical Christian feature. Even Julian the Apostate, that fourth century emperor who tried to re-establish paganism, took from the “Galileans”, as he called them, that feature of care for the needy. Right through the medieval period the monasteries cared for those in need, to such a degree that when they were suppressed in England and Ireland in the sixteenth century, there was nobody to look after the poor except fugitive bishops and monks. Right up to the present day there have been Catholic initiatives to care for the sick and the poor.
By the nineteenth century, with its rapid industrialization, the need of the working classes and the numbers of exploited people had become very great. 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 Pope says by way of introducing what his predecessors have said about the social problems of their times.
In these passages he also tackles Marxism. It really was an optical illusion, that totalitarian theory. They tried to get rid of all social difference with bloody revolutions. All that was left was an empty shell. Marxists thought that looking after the poor was no more than a sop to the rich. But this was never the case. You need to care for the needs of those you have around you, rather then waiting for a theoretical classless society that never happened, and never will.
But if Marxism was not the answer to human needs, neither is some kind of Christian equivalent. In a section of intense interest to the media Benedict underlines the separation of church and state. The church will never seek to dominate any activity the state has to carry out. But the state cannot do everything. A state that tried to take over all aspects of charity would be no more than an unwieldy bureaucracy. The church’s task is to present its faith as a purifying factor for human reason. The church looks beyond what reason can see, into the realms of eternity. The church knows where mankind is going. We are headed for Christ or we are headed nowhere. This gives an extra dimension to the church’s social initiatives.
Faith adds a deeper dimension to life, and it is needed to purify reason of that dazzling effect that power and politics can have. He goes on to say:
Here politics and faith meet. Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God—an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. But it is also a purifying force for reason itself. From God’s standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. 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.
What are the particular features of the Christian social work then? What extra element should Catholics add to their work with the needy? Well, first of all he asks that they be adequately trained, not just in the professional area, but also in their faith. They have a particular contribution to make. They are performing a task that the deacons in the early church did inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is a question of the heart being formed in the likeness of Jesus. Secondly they cannot be part of any ideology. This is a Christian dimension of looking after people as they are found.
Thirdly, they cannot make use of social works for proselytism. An example from my own country, Ireland, is the soup kitchens set up during the mid-19th century famine, which, it is widely held, were used by Protestants to win converts from amongst the starving Catholics. This is an approach we must completely rule out. If Catholics carry out their social duties with love, that will be the basic influence which will change hearts.
The basic paradigm for Christian social works is St. Paul’s stirring words that are so often read at weddings: “Charity is…” When that dimension is brought into social work of any kind then the panorama is changed utterly. There are many social initiatives around the world in which people are well treated as individual persons, and the effects are impressive. There are inner city initiatives in many countries where children from dysfunctional families are given a chance to improve their educational abilities. I know of initiatives like this in London, New York, Chicago, Madrid, Dublin, Manchester. In all of those cases when you speak to the individuals involved, there is a common denominator. Each of the children is amazed that they are treated with deference. “Why do you bother with us?” is a question often asked of the students who undertake to give them classes. Each of the children is aware of being treated as a person, perhaps for one of the first times in their lives.
After reading the encyclical a number of times, one is increasingly taken by the sweep of Benedict XVI’s mind. He works his way from the very beginning of the Bible right through to the reality of Christ on the cross. And what he says is very demanding in a quiet manner. I think this is the great advantage of this piece of papal writing. It follows on a great tradition. It needs to be read several times, slowly and easily. The best way is to set aside an hour and read it slowly. Then let a day or two go by and read it again. In this way we will absorb the ideas and the Holy Spirit will be able to do his task properly and inspire each one of us to try and put into practice what the Pope asks of us.
Father Walter Macken has served as a priest for over 40 years in London, Dublin and Galway. He also contributes columns and comment to newspapers in Ireland. He is the son of the Irish novelist and playwright Walter Macken.