A Church devoted to love and charityREV. RAYMOND DE SOUZA
Pope Benedict XVI released his first encyclical yesterday, the title of which is taken from the First Letter of John, "God is Love" — or in the Latin text by which it will be known, Deus Caritas Est.
Those who greeted April's election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as inaugurating an era of lifeless ecclesiastical discipline must be rather surprised that the first encyclical is about God's love for us and our love for each other, particularly as it is expressed in charitable works. Indeed, some wags have noted "God is love" might be more apt for a 1960s peace poster than the supposedly fearful Benedict's first major document.
Those who know the Pope know better. His principal proclamation is that unless we come to know God as the one who loves us, we fail to grasp what is at the heart of the Christian faith.
The "decisive direction" of a Christian life, he writes, is the practice of charity, which he says is as fundamental to the Church as proclaiming the word of God or celebrating the sacraments.
"For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but it is a part of her nature, an indispensible expression of her very being."
Criticizing the "ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests," he says the Church must act as a kind of moral watchdog, supplying the "spiritual energy" needed if justice is to prevail.
However, the Church cannot and must not take it upon itself to bring about a just society.
"A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church," he writes. "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."
Benedict notes that in a world afflicted by violence committed in the name of God, and in a culture that sees the Gospel as something that snuffs the excitement out of life, it is necessary to return to the foundational truths: The human person has a natural and insuppressible desire to love and be loved. Which is to say that he has a natural need for God.
Deus caritas est opens with a sustained, lyrical, but dense exposition of what love is. It will require reading at least several times to plumb the full depth of a Ratzingerian tour de force of classical, philosophical and biblical sources on the nature of love.
The answer is not to eliminate eros, which is good in itself, but to complement and complete it with another type of love, for which the Greek New Testament uses the word agape. Agape is self-sacrificing love, in which the lover offers himself for the good of the beloved. The deepest revelation of God's love is precisely this agape, in which Jesus on the cross lays down his life for those he loves.
This is the nature of God's love for us. He wishes to possess us (eros), but at the same time is willing to sacrifice all for us (agape). Human love whether between friends, neighbours, or in the closest image of God's love, marriage is called to be this kind of self-giving, sacrificial love.
"Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa," writes Benedict. "God's way of loving becomes the measure of human love."
The Cross of Christ reveals that the measure of love is sacrifice, a truth that any good parent already knows. But that love is not only for the family, the community or the nation.
"The parable of the Good Samaritan offers two particularly important clarifications," writes Benedict.
"Until that time, the concept of 'neighbour' was understood as referring essentially to one's countrymen and to foreigners who had settled in the land of Israel; in other words, to the closely knit community of a single country or people.
"This limit is now abolished. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbour. The concept of 'neighbour' is now universalized, yet it remains concrete. Despite being extended to all mankind, it is not reduced to a generic, abstract and undemanding expression of love, but calls for my own practical commitment here and now."
With those observations, Benedict devotes the second part of Deus caritas est to the Church's obligation to do charitable work. Surveying the vast international array of Christian charitable projects, he holds up Mother Teresa of Calcutta as a model to follow because she insisted all her charitable work was an overflow of her love for Jesus. She loved the unlovely because she loved Jesus, and he loved them.
That motivation must remain always primary Christian love must animate all charitable work. In short, Benedict does not think Christians should be mere humanitarians. Their service to their fellow human beings is a Christian obligation, especially when offered to non-Christians with no desire for proselytism.
And because the world can never outgrow its need for love, Benedict writes that charity will always have a place. It will not be superseded by reforming economic systems or by pursuing social justice. Those things have their place, but they cannot replace love, which, Benedict insists, man needs more than anything else.
Deus Caritas Est may be read here
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "A Church devoted to love and charity." National Post, (Canada) January 26, 2006.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
© 2006 National Post
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