“We have seen that God’s eros for man is also totally agape. This is not only because it is bestowed in a completely gratuitous manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is love which forgives” – Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, #10
Walking along the corridor of our department just hours after Deus Caritas Est was issued, I ran into a young man I did not know. He asked me if I had seen the new document. I was impressed that he ever heard of it. I had not seen it, though I knew about it. He told me its title. He added that he had hoped for something more “relevant,” like bio-ethics.
I replied that I thought charity was a pretty good topic since it is central to the Church’s teaching about who God is and what our lives are about. And it has not a little to do even with such a perplexing topic as bio-ethics, such as addressing the foundations of bio-ethics. One of the reason some bio-ethicists get things wrong when they do is, I suspect, because they do not understand the primacy–even the physical primacy–of charity, in its full theological and philosophical meaning, even as applies to the fact that we, as individual persons have both minds and bodies to be what we are.
The printed encyclical is twenty-five single-spaced pages in length, or about 16,000 words. It is not nearly so long as Fides et Ratio, John Paul II’s encyclical on faith and reason. I do not know what I expected to find here, what topic that the Benedict XVI would first write upon, though the news channels had indicated this topic for a long time. Evidently, John Paul II had wanted to write on this subject also. So the question was really, how would Pope Ratzinger develop the argument? No topic in the world needs more straightening out than this one of love. It does not take a private revelation to predict that a pope might address the issue.
Early on, I assumed that the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith would write first on pressing doctrinal topics, of which there are not a few. I thought the author of The Spirit of the Liturgy might say something about the (often dire) condition of liturgy in the Church. The ongoing clerical scandals and the related question of ordination of homosexuals suggested that totally unpleasant topic. The increasing expansion and militancy of Islam hinted that perhaps the Church would finally say something directly meaningful and theological about “What is Islam?” (The Pope did place these words in the encyclical’s third paragraph: “in a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence…”)
Or perhaps the Bavarian pope would speak of the decline of Europe, something he has reflected upon often. Or Benedict would tell us of the actual meaning of Vatican II–not its aberrant “spirit”–something he has touched on in other recent documents. And, as a German, Lutheranism and the relation to the Protestant churches might be a prime topic of interest. But nothing on war is found, nor on China, Hinduism, or liberalism. Of course, I am fully aware that a list of things “not talked about” is almost by definition infinite!
John Paul II’s first encyclical was Redemptor Hominis, about Christ, the redeemer of man. Benedict XVI’s first encyclical is on charity as the definition of God. In some sense both topics are the same, once we see the relationship between the Trinity and the Incarnation, the two doctrines that most separate Christianity from Judaism, Islam, other faiths, and most philosophies. But the encyclical turns out to be really closer to the great social encyclicals of the Church, beginning with those of Leo XIII. In fact, Benedict mentions the major encyclicals of his predecessors (#27). What Deus Caritas Est does is carve out a clearer picture of the importance of practical charity. Benedict more clearly relates faith to justice, a relationship that is often confused. In fact, if there has been any major defect in recent social movements in the Catholic Church since Vatican II, it has been the downplaying of charity over against the almost exclusive elevation of justice and, with it, politics. This encyclical insists on separating both in order to see precisely what each is and how one is related to the other.
Benedict has nothing bad to say about politics, but he wants to identify just what it can and ought to do:
One cannot help but be amused that Benedict cites the Emperor Julian the Apostate, the infamous persecutor of Christians, with some approval. Julian, it seems, had a rather difficult childhood. “As a child of six years old, Julian witnessed the assassination of is father, brother and other family members by guards of the imperial palace” (#24). Julian in retrospect blamed this heinous act on the Emperor Constantius’ Christian faith. The only thing Julian liked about Christianity was its stress on active charity. So he went off and formed his own religion taking charity from Christianity but nothing else. The Pope concludes, “in this way, then, the Emperor confirmed that charity was a decisive feature of the Christian community, the Church.” This may be the first time in ages that a Pope has cited an Apostate in confirmation of a basic Christian teaching!
Benedict also recalls an amusing exchange between Gassendi and Descartes, in which the former called the latter “Soul” and the latter called the former “Flesh,” an explicit reference to Descartes’ famous philosophical separation of soul and body (#5) The point was, of course, that both were wrong and that the central theme of the encyclical is precisely the one-being-ness of the human person, body and soul. “It is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only thus is love — eros — able to mature and attain its authentic grandeur.” In this encyclical, in a rather off-handed manner, the Pope thus corrects many “small errors” in the beginning that have become “big errors” in the end, to recall Aristotle’s famous phrase.
A good deal of this document is devoted to the Old Testament and to the philosophical understanding of love. Benedict points to the unity of the Old and New Testaments. Augustine is cited, as are Nietzsche, Plato, Aristotle, and Sallust. I did not see Aquinas, but I did see Gregory the Great, Ignatius of Antioch, and Ambrose. Teresa of Calcutta is mentioned twice. Those saints in particular known for charitable works come up: Martin of Tours, Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, Ignatius of Loyola, John of God, Camillus de Lellis, Giuseppe Conolengo, John Bosco, Luigi Orione. This document is adamant in carving out a place for specifically Catholic institutions of charitable works that are clearly not a kind of sub-branch of the welfare state–a danger not a few Catholic institutions are subject to when too readily accepting state aid.
One might speculate on why Benedict thought this emphasis on actual charity–not impersonal or state aid, not simple benevolence–was so important? This is especially curious since he insists that charity is not to be used for “proselytism”: “Charity, furthermore, cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism. Love is free; it is not practiced as a way of achieving other ends. But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside. For it is always concerned with the whole men. Often the deepest cause of suffering is the absence of God” (#31). That is a fertile thought, that the deepest cause of human suffering is precisely the “absence” of God. I think the reason for this emphasis on active charity is a reminder that we live in an actual fallen world that retains its goodness of being but is not our lasting city (#31).
One need not write his own encyclical to explain the new encyclical of Benedict XVI, though it is tempting. One could reflect on the relation of Josef Pieper’s discussion of the Platonic enthusiasm or madness (Enthusiasm and the Divine Madness) and what Benedict has to say about the same topic. “The Greeks — not unlike other cultures — considered eros principally as a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a ‘divine madness’ which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process or being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience superior happiness” (#4).
Another way of looking at this same experience would be the awareness that at any time, something, some love, even divine love, can come to us from outside our narrow concept of the world. It need not be a justification of doing what we want, but rather a sign of our incompleteness yet also our goodness. The intoxication or madness does not point to itself, but to the good that comes to us. That such an experience can easily get out of hand explains why the Pope, in the modern context, insists that eros be itself disciplined and ordered so that its true completion in a full and complete experience can be realized, in both friendship and agape.
The Pope also deals with some of this topic when he talks of the difference between eros and agape–the love that ascends and the love that descends (#3). “Love looks to the eternal. Love is indeed ‘ecstasy,’ not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery, and indeed the discovery of God” (#6). Love “at first sight” must also become love “at hind-sight,” something that lasts over the years, something that includes, as Aristotle put it, a complete life. The essence of biblical faith is “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 one” (#10).
The contrast between Aristotle and Israel on God’s nature is also of interest to the Pope. The Biblical God “loves man,” itself a revolutionary innovation of revelation:
The Pope is anxious to get away from the notion that a “commandment” is something from outside of us, something imposed on us by an arbitrary Divinity. “No longer is it a question, then, of a ‘commandment’ imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of freely-bestowed experience from within, a love which by its very nature must than be shared with others. Love grows through love.” One cannot love unless he is first loved. This is the connection of love and service, of the first and second commandments: love of God and of neighbor.
“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). I suspect that this passage addresses the exasperation that modern feminists often had with someone like Mother Teresa, and indeed with every mother who devotes her life to children and her children, all of whom turn out to be in fact much more womanly and more unique precisely because in their very being they are closer to charity.
In conclusion, there is a richness here that takes time to digest — we find teaching on the Eucharist, on the state, on the most central desire of our being, on the fact that we are first loved–a fact that both explains our being and ultimately our activity on the basis of this being given to us, this divine eros that is agape. With this encyclical, we can be sure that Benedict, like his predecessor, will be a teaching pope. Popes are to teach, to sanctify, and to rule. The three belong together and cannot exist long without one another.
Benedict, in another context, cites the famous passage from his favorites, Augustine: “Si comprehendis, non est Deus” (#38) — roughly, “if your idea of God claims to totally comprehend God, then your idea is not God at all.” In other words, if we would love God and one another, as we should, we must be open to what God reveals to us about Himself. It is in this very opening that we will begin to find the explanation of all else, including ourselves. The Pope exists to remind the world that its understanding of God is not God, and that the deepest cause of its suffering is “the absence of God.” No one else tells us these things quite so clearly. Even if we do not want to hear such things, they are spoken.