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

Friday, March 23, 2007

Benedict's theology of charity

Less than 24 hours before Pope John Paul II died, then-Cardinal Ratzinger gave an address to the Benedictine nuns at Subiaco that would, in effect, lay out an essential element of his papacy: the Church's answer to secularism. Thus, e.g.:

...at this point, in my capacity as believer, I would like to make a proposal to the secularists. At the time of the Enlightenment there was an attempt to understand and define the essential moral norms, saying that they would be valid "etsi Deus non daretur," even in the case that God did not exist. In the opposition of the confessions and in the pending crisis of the image of God, an attempt was made to keep the essential values of morality outside the contradictions and to seek for them an evidence that would render them independent of the many divisions and uncertainties of the different philosophies and confessions. In this way, they wanted to ensure the basis of coexistence and, in general, the foundations of humanity. At that time, it was thought to be possible, as the great deep convictions created by Christianity to a large extent remained. But this is no longer the case.

The search for such a reassuring certainty, which could remain uncontested beyond all differences, failed. Not even the truly grandiose effort of Kant was able to create the necessary shared certainty. Kant had denied that God could be known in the realm of pure reason, but at the same time he had represented God, freedom and immortality as postulates of practical reason, without which, coherently, for him no moral behavior was possible.

Does not today's situation of the world make us think perhaps that he might have been right? I would like to express it in a different way: The attempt, carried to the extreme, to manage human affairs disdaining God completely leads us increasingly to the edge of the abyss, to man's ever greater isolation from reality. We must reverse the axiom of the Enlightenment and say: Even one who does not succeed in finding the way of accepting God, should, nevertheless, seek to live and to direct his life "veluti si Deus daretur," as if God existed. This is the advice Pascal gave to his friends who did not believe. In this way, no one is limited in his freedom, but all our affairs find the support and criterion of which they are in urgent need.

Above all, that of which we are in need at this moment in history are men who, through an enlightened and lived faith, render God credible in this world.

A few months after the Pope's election, I posted a short essay on The Program of Benedict XVI, which was focused on that address. My conclusion was that, for him, the way to restore the Church's credibility today among believers and unbelievers alike is for Catholics to become genuine Catholics again: to form a more intentional community by anchoring life and history in "solid spiritual references." That is one reason why I joined Communion and Liberation, whose members Benedict will be addressing on March 24 both in audience at St. Peter's Square and by live satellite television. Beyond such particulars, however, the most basic among such references is caritas, i.e. divine love.

Hence the Pope's first encyclical proclaimed, with his usual sophistication, that God is love: Deus Est Caritas ('DCE' for short); and now we have the Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist, Sacramentum Caritatis ('SC' for short). In this post I want to bring out the key connection between them.

In DCE, after discussing various ways of conceiving the difference and relationship between eros and agape, the Pope explained what was new in the revelation of God that began in the Old-Testament era:

God is the absolute and ultimate source of all being; but this universal principle of creation—the Logos, primordial reason—is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love. Eros is thus supremely ennobled, yet at the same time it is so purified as to become one with agape. We can thus see how the reception of the Song of Songs in the canon of sacred Scripture was soon explained by the idea that these love songs ultimately describe God's relation to man and man's relation to God. Thus the Song of Songs became, both in Christian and Jewish literature, a source of mystical knowledge and experience, an expression of the essence of biblical faith: 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 fully one. As Saint Paul says: “He who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (1 Cor 6:17).

That becomes fully manifest in the New Testament:

The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ himself, who gives flesh and blood to those concepts—an unprecedented realism. In the Old Testament, the novelty of the Bible did not consist merely in abstract notions but in God's unpredictable and in some sense unprecedented activity. This divine activity now takes on dramatic form when, in Jesus Christ, it is God himself who goes in search of the “stray sheep”, a suffering and lost humanity. When Jesus speaks in his parables of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, of the woman who looks for the lost coin, of the father who goes to meet and embrace his prodigal son, these are no mere words: they constitute an explanation of his very being and activity. 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.

And that is immediately applied to the Eucharist:

13. Jesus gave this act of oblation an enduring presence through his institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. He anticipated his death and resurrection by giving his disciples, in the bread and wine, his very self, his body and blood as the new manna (cf. Jn 6:31-33). The ancient world had dimly perceived that man's real food—what truly nourishes him as man—is ultimately the Logos, eternal wisdom: this same Logos now truly becomes food for us—as love. The Eucharist draws us into Jesus' act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving. The imagery of marriage between God and Israel is now realized in a way previously inconceivable: it had meant standing in God's presence, but now it becomes union with God through sharing in Jesus' self-gift, sharing in his body and blood. The sacramental “mysticism”, grounded in God's condescension towards us, operates at a radically different level and lifts us to far greater heights than anything that any human mystical elevation could ever accomplish.

Quoting DCE in SC, the Pope now says:

"The Eucharist draws us into Jesus' act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving." (21) Jesus "draws us into himself." (22) The substantial conversion of bread and wine into his body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of "nuclear fission," to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15:28).

This is a very high Eucharistic theology indeed, though it is no novelty. It is simply ignored in a great many Catholic liturgies today, in which the idea of self-oblative love is obscured as people celebrate themselves, if anything at all. The purpose of all the Pope's specifics in SC is to heighten Catholics' awareness of the unfathomable and transformative majesty of the sacrament of divine love. That is the most pertinent sense in which "the Eucharist makes the Church." Only when rooted in that vital center shall we become what would be credible to the world today.

Such is that aspect of the Pope's program which I missed in my first post on the subject. The program begins with liturgy. Thus, SC is not only a summary of and theological reflection on last year's Synod on the Eucharist; it is a prelude to more specific liturgical directives, the first of which will apparently be a "universal indult" for Mass celebrated according to the last iteration of the old Missal, the 1962 edition. Benedict wants the broader program to be based firmly on a liturgical reform of the reform.

He seems to be taking his time about it. But he's almost 80. I pray for many more years.
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