"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, January 27, 2006

Deus Caritas Est

Fresh from reading the Pope's first encyclical, officially released a few days ago, I must say that it strikes me as more an extended homily than the lecture I had expected. Too long for a Mass, it is nonetheless very much the sort of homily I used to love hearing at Masses celebrated by intellectual priests, such as Raymond Brown and George Maloney, when I was a college student. As such it contains some of what might be considered arguments, especially in the first part, and is obviously the product of an academic mind. Yet the main thoughts do not develop in linear fashion but radiate outward from the central theme as in a meditation. In that way and others, it illustrates its author's very personal way of answering his own invitation (§36) to prayer. In that lies both its strength and its weakness as the sounding of what Benedict apparently wants his pontificate's theme to be.

Given by the title, the theme is worked out first conceptually and then more concretely. Erotic love is an "ascending" intimation of the divine; but it must be leavened and matured by the sort of love that "descends" to us from God lest it spoil its promise. Benedict is especially good on how divine revelation, as evidenced in both Old and New Testaments, challenges us with a radical, liberating vision of love that transcends the dualisms and distortions of the ancient world, which are still very much with us under other forms and names. The Christian understanding of God as love, and of how we are to live accordingly, is the only understanding that does full justice to the human person as an intimate unity of body and soul corresponding to eros and agape: "ascending" and "descending" love. Passionately in love with us, God empties himself to fill us and thus draw us into his life. His eros is his agape. And the former is pure because it does not arise from need but overflows gratuitously from fullness. It is according to the same pattern that our love for one another must grow if we are not to become fractured, exploitive, and despairing.

That insight is applied, albeit not in detail and without naming any names, to the two most obvious spheres of human life in which Christian love must manifest itself: marriage and the social order generally. The former illustrates, in the clearest and most primordial form, that true love is unity-in-difference and difference-in-unity, integrating eros and agape and thus facilitating the relationship God wants to have with us. As Bride of Christ the Bridegroom, the Church exists to make such love concrete and thus bring it into the world. That arises from her faith and hope, nourished by her liturgy and prayer and manifest most clearly and directly in her charitable work, which struck even the unfortunate emperor Julian the Apostate (perhaps the "patron saint" of "recovering" Catholics) as a model to be emulated in his own religious project.

Here again, however, Benedict observes a finely tuned balance. Thus:

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.

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. 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 alone” (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.
That will probably be the most controversial aspect of the encyclical among those who care what popes think. It has something to please everybody and something to offend everybody. The Church must not control or replace the State, but neither can she "remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice." Her social teaching plays a valid political role with its "rational arguments" yet, at the same time, she "purifies reason" with insights made possible only by faith. And whatever the political situation, her vast charitable works will always witness to Christ in civil society. They can never be replaced by just "structures" of the kind that government can create and regulate.

The encyclical ends with an paean to saints of outstanding charity and to Mary, Mother of God, in particular. Her intimate union with God is presented as the paradigm of all that the Christian is called to do and be. Formulaic, but fitting and needful.

I'm somewhat disappointed that the encyclical is not more specific and therefore more offensive. There's much talk of eros but no direct talk of sexual morality. There's much talk of the social embodiment of charity, but no efforts are actually named and singled out for either praise or criticism. It's all true, but all too general. To be sure, the generality is explicable by the Pope's evident desire to use this occasion to establish a theme for his pontificate. But I would have preferred a mission statement. At 79, he seems unlikely to have much time to proceed to specifics at his current leisurely pace.

Even so, this may be the disarming appearance of the velvet glove before the iron fist. If Benedict does get specific about controversial matters, he will be able to present that as simply the working out through his Petrine ministry of what he's been talking about in Deus Caritas Est: love, but tough love. I sure hope so. Much of the Catholic Church in the developed countries lives in a state of de facto internal schism with Rome. The constant, irreformable moral teaching of the Church is accepted only selectively; in the case of contraception, it is mostly ignored. I'm not talking about mere sinners; we are all sinners. I'm talking about people who don't even listen anymore to the voice of Christ spoken through Peter and who therefore don't even consider themselves sinners in the relevant respects. If Catholicism is to remain a distinctive voice in the world, such people must be forced to choose between the real thing and the comfortably ersatz Catholicism they now profess. When Ratzinger was elected pope, I hoped he would be the one to impose that choice. I'm still waiting.
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