01-03-2006 - Traces, n.3

Encyclical Deus Caritas Est

The Splendor of Charity
In the second part of the encyclical, dedicated to the practice of charity, Benedict XVI means to take this theological virtue back to its true origin and to its true aim.
The Pope sees in it the indispensable expression of Christian life and clarifies some ideological ambiguities that see charity merely as social assistance

by Massimo Camisasca

Part One of the encyclical was dedicated to showing the various kinds of love in human life. Through these, the Pope described in extraordinary depth and simplicity the reality of God as the origin and end of every love, because He Himself is Love, as St. John so strikingly defined Him.
Benedict XVI thus reviewed the whole course of human history, from Adam to Christ and to the Church. It is the history of Him who did not want to keep for Himself His own glory, communion, love, but wanted to give it, first and foremost through the creation of man and then, when man had wandered from Him, through His ongoing journey towards man to forgive him, re-embrace him and save him. This is the key for understanding the Incarnation of the Son of God, His Passion, Death and Resurrection.

Essential aspect
The love given by Jesus as the source of new life created the Church. So we can understand why the second part of the encyclical is dedicated to the practice of charity by the Church. The Pope wants to show that first of all that charity is not an optional expression of a Christian’s life, but the essential aspect of the person and of the community born from Jesus.
Here come to mind the pages dedicated by Fr. Giussani to education in charity, in charitable work as the fundamental road of our education as true men. Through charitable work, Fr. Giussani led us to understand God’s own life, which is gratuitousness, the true mode of relationships between men and, in the end, the secret mechanism of every existence. In these pages of Part Two of the encyclical, themes very dear and well known to us come up again and again.
The Pope writes, “The exercise of charity became established as one of [the Church’s] essential activities along with the administration of the sacraments and the preaching of the Gospel.” By means of a long historical scrutiny, the encyclical describes how the practice of charity shows itself to be the expression of the Church’s essence. We find quoted the early Christian writers, the Fathers, and some curious facts; for example, the Pope speaks of the Emperor Julian the Apostate, who was born a Christian but became a pagan after seeing his relatives murdered by a Christian emperor, his predecessor. Once he had left the faith he wrote in a letter, “The only aspect of Christianity that strikes me is the Church’s charitable action.”

Indispensable expression
One could say that the Pope’s basic intention is that of bringing back Christian charity, both personal and communitarian, to its true origin, to its true identity and to its true aim. “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) In modern times, the charity lived by Christians has met up with radical objections. It has been said that instead of individual works of charity, we need to build a just social order in which all will receive their share of the world’s goods and no longer have to depend on charity. The Pope concedes, “There is admittedly some truth to this argument, but also much that is mistaken.” What is true, and what is mistaken? One must never distinguish between charity and justice but, at the same time, one must never think that justice makes charity superfluous, useless, or even damaging.

Ideological temptations
Benedict XVI traces here, over many pages, an analysis of the relationships between faith and politics. Those interested could read paragraphs 28-29. What do these say, in brief? I believe these words sum it up: “The essential task of bringing about justice is entrusted to the State.” We know that, in Christianity, Jesus made a distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, between the State and the Church. If the two spheres, that of justice and that of faith and charity, are distinct, then they cannot be divided because–and here is the central affirmation of the encyclical–“in order truly to know justice and bring it about, our reason needs to be continually purified from the temptations of ideology and power. Though it is not the Church’s task to impose justice through politics, it is the task of Christians to work so that politics bring about a society that is as just as possible.” The Pope says, “Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew.” (28) So the Church is not to take up the political battle herself, she is not to take the place of the State, but neither must she stay on the sidelines in the fight for justice and, above all, “There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. … There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. … 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.” (28) So what has the State to do? It has to acknowledge and support, according to the principle of subsidiarity, initiatives arising from the different social forces and “combine spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces.” (28)
The letter then turns to the multiple structures of charitable service that have been born within the Church. The Pope is concerned lest these become just another form of social assistance. “Those who work for the Church’s charitable organizations must be distinguished by the fact that they do not merely meet the needs of the moment, but they dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern.” (31) These need to be led to a personal encounter with Christ. “As a result, love of neighbor will no longer be for them a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith which becomes active through love.” (31)

The importance of prayer
The Pope then recommends that Christian charitable activity be independent of all ideologies, gratuitous, not practiced as a way of achieving other ends. Benedict XVI uses a surprising expression: “A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak.” (31) Lastly, the final pages of the encyclical are dedicated to prayer. These are not simply pages added on, or the expression of a purely spiritual need. If we have understood, at this point, what charity is, what paths it follows in the heart of man and in world history, we will also have understood that we have continually to rediscover the true root of our charity. “It is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of the activism and the growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work.” (37) To reaffirm the importance of prayer means to affirm the root of charity, which is the work of God in man and in the world. To live charity, to live love, the encyclical concludes, means to “cause the light of God to enter into the world.”