Self-styled progressive Catholics have, for over a generation, downplayed the role of charity in social action. They might revere Mother Teresa of Calcutta as a saint, but they dismissed her charitable approach as a superficial, Band-Aid response to poverty. Some even considered her approach dangerous, because she seemed to make more tolerable the oppression of an unjust social structure. In the minds of various Catholic social activists, justice should always trump charity. Pope Benedict XVI disagrees. He uses the strongest teaching instrument of the papacy to affirm the intrinsic salience of the Catholic Church’s charitable work.
The pope understands that the secularization of charity in the West has been going on since the 16th century. Charitable acts, like helping widows, orphans, strangers and the sick, became more and more detached from belief in God. Stripped of a transcendent quality, service to others became a secular mantra for good citizenship and humanitarianism. Then, in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, both secular and Christian charity became overshadowed by calls for social justice and human rights. During this period, Catholic social thought blossomed. An intellectually rich series of encyclicals, starting with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891, addressed a vast range of social problems. More recently, John Paul II wrote a trilogy of dense and sophisticated social encyclicals whose full implications will take years to unravel. But this body of modern Catholic social doctrine says little about charity.
Reportedly, Benedict built the second part of his encyclical on an outline prepared under John Paul II. He avoids, however, quoting his predecessor at length. Although he does refer to modern Catholic social teaching—including the fundamental concepts of solidarity, subsidiarity and the common good—he refrains from any extensive citations from papal social encyclicals or from the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The pope prefers to draw upon a much older period, when charity was at the center of Catholic social teaching. Citing Scripture and the practice of the early church, Benedict places charitable service on the same theological plane as celebrating the liturgy and preaching the word of God. In the early church there was no single treatise on the virtue of charity, but charity embodied the Christian way of social action. Of the three core activities of the church, charitable service was the responsibility of the entire early Christian community. Benedict begins Part II of the new encyclical with a lofty quote from Doctor Caritas himself, St. Augustine: “If you see charity, you see the Trinity.” This suggests that charity is a gateway to God in a way that justice can never be.
Even as late as St. Thomas Aquinas, the classic tradition was insisting that while justice signals healthy governance, justice alone can never fully bind a society. Only love can fill that role. Justice can overcome conflict, but it cannot bring about the union of hearts and minds in a social group.
Benedict seizes on the relationship between church and state to elucidate his understanding of the relationship between justice and charity. The church, he says, should not take on the political battle for a just society. Justice is the work of the state, not the church. The proper work of the church is charity.
What does the pope mean here by church? Nowhere in the encyclical does he define the word. As Cardinal Avery Dulles recently pointed out, Joseph Ratzinger the theologian saw the church as the people of God but he did not use that phrase in a sociological sense. Christians constitute a people only insofar as they are united sacramentally by Christ at all levels, from the local parish through to the universal church. The community of Christ is primarily a spiritual construct. Christ makes the church a sacrament and the sacrament makes the church a people. Benedict’s use of the word church in the encyclical should probably be viewed in that light.
The pope seeks to right the balance between justice and charity in the mind of that spiritual community. He says that the duty to work for justice is the proper role of lay Catholics, who should take part in public life in their personal capacity as citizens. But building a just world is not the sacramental church’s prime responsibility. It would seem, by implication, that justice should also not be the central mission of a religious order, like the Jesuits. Faced with entrenched structural poverty in the world, the church’s first imperative is not to propose legislation or to change the political or economic system. The pope seems to be guiding it away from a role sometimes played by national conferences of bishops and by bishops themselves: the role of a special-interest lobby within the political system on key social issues. That does not mean that organizations of lay Catholics should cease political activity on issues of justice. But the encyclical does appear to take the sacramental church out of that direct political role.
The church works for justice mainly, he says, by forming the consciences of lay people. The role of the church is to help those in civic life see the goals of justice more clearly, unclouded by personal ambition or special interests. He says that faith can purify reason of its blind spots. Instead of promoting Catholic social thought as a political agenda, the church takes on the role of teacher. It presents Catholic social thought as providing useful guidelines. It educates people to respect human dignity and work for the common good. In that way the church can have an indirect but powerful impact on the state.
Does this mean that the sacramental church must withdraw from any direct engagement with political authorities? How will it continue to stand in concrete witness for human dignity and human rights?
Benedict reminds the state that justice is the “aim of politics” and justice will be the criterion by which the work of the state will be judged. Presumably the church may take an active role in such a judgment, and that may be what he means when he says that the church must “not stand on the sidelines.” Benedict builds upon the complex teaching of John Paul II, who sometimes openly criticized governments for their failures to uphold human rights. Yet John Paul always gave the priority to spiritual, not political, renewal. He preferred to change structures by changing hearts. In his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (Nos. 41 and 42) he notes that “the Church does not propose economic or political programs, nor does she show preference for one or another, provided human dignity is respected and the Church can carry out her ministry.” For Benedict an essential component of that ministry is charity. In his Lenten message for 2006, which appeared after publication of the encyclical, he explicitly states that the freedom to preach Christ and the freedom to offer charitable services are the criteria by which Christians should judge what is a just social order. No matter how good a society has become, if it lacks full freedom of religion, then in the Christian view that society lacks justice. The pope’s perspective might raise government eyebrows in such countries as China, Saudia Arabia, Vietnam and North Korea.
Pope Benedict echoes the thought of Augustine, in which the two powers, each in its own sphere, are autonomous, distinct and independent. The pope does not confuse the virtuous practice of Christian charity with the secular political responsibility for justice. The church is not interested in becoming a theocracy. The autonomy of the state is not absolute, but the pope does not go as far as Augustine in saying that ultimately the secular power is subject to the spiritual power; nor does he reflect Augustinian pessimism that the secular state can ever realize true justice. Church and state appear linked in a complementary relationship. If charity lies at the root of a just society, then allowing the church its charitable activities becomes an essential component in the politics of building justice. This ancient Christian notion of spiritual autonomy and religious freedom laid the basis for modern notions of personal privacy, liberty and protection from the state. So Benedict may be trying to reconnect contemporary secular political culture with its religious roots.
At one point in the document, Benedict takes charity outside of the confines of the nation state. Perhaps thinking of the vast charitable outpouring of help that followed the tsunami in Asia and the hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, the pope highlights a positive side of globalization: It facilitates charitable action that goes beyond the domestic self-interest of national societies.
He then turns his attention to the global array of social service organizations that try to alleviate suffering. He praises church collaboration with nonchurch organizations. But the pope insists that church charity should not be just another form of social assistance. He says that the work must be grounded in prayer and a living relationship with God. This necessity for prayer has an intriguing pragmatic function in the pope’s eyes. He says that this personal relationship with God will prevent church workers from sinking into proselytism or from falling under the sway of fanatical ideas.
While he affirms the need for the church’s charity workers to be professionally competent, he also insists on their spiritual training. Prayer should be fully integrated into their service. This is a tall order for many Catholic social agencies. Employees of the larger Catholic organizations seem indistinguishable from employees of secular organizations. They are evaluated on the basis of their effectiveness and professionalism—not the quality of their faith life. But the pope would seem once again to agree with Mother Teresa, who said, “God does not demand that I be successful. God demands that I be faithful.” He is uncomfortable with Christian social activity that is not rooted in faith.
In discussing Catholic social work, the pope highlights a virtue rarely woven into the discourse around social justice—humility. In the face of the world’s enormous problems, Christians must accept their human limitations. They should do what they can and leave the rest to God. This modesty reflects an Augustinian sensitivity. Human attempts to build the kingdom of God on earth are destined for frustration, because this earth will never become our true home.
The only organization explicitly named in the encyclical is Cor Unum. Founded by Pope Paul VI in 1971, it is that part of the Holy See charged with charitable relief. Its head, the German Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes, has been concerned about the relationship between Catholic social service organizations and the church. It is no secret that bishops around the world have complained about Catholic organizations initiating projects and contracting with governments without consulting the local bishop. Last year Caritas Internationalis—the coordinating federation of national Catholic charities that includes Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Service—was given a formal juridical status in canon law. Pope Benedict put Caritas Internationalis under the supervision of Cor Unum and Archbishop Cordes. The pope must now approve the president and secretary general of Caritas. So when the encyclical says that Catholic charitable organizations should work closely with bishops, the pope can be seen as reinforcing the role of Cor Unum and pulling the Catholic social agencies closer into the fold of the church.
It is too soon to say whether this emphasis on social charity also marks a shift of bureaucratic emphasis in the Roman Curia away from the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace, with its focus on socioeconomic development and human rights. The encyclical does seem to emphasize active Christian service over the rhetoric of social justice. The pope insists that even if the state effectively tackles the problems of entrenched poverty and social injustice, there will still be a need for the charitable work of the church. Again he appears to follow Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s perspective that the worst poverty is not to know Christ, and that the way to bring Christ to the poor is through charity. On the other hand, Pope Benedict has a special concern for peace in the world; and the Pontifical Council, under the direction of Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, could become the center for that concern.
It was the pope’s namesake, Benedict XV, who during World War I brought discussions of peace into modern Catholic social teaching. In the name of peace the new pope brings charity back into the framework of that same teaching. As Cardinal Francis George of Chicago wisely observed, it may be the pope’s desire for peace that drives this elegantly written encyclical. For Benedict, peace begins with charity; and charity—the call to love—brings us back to the essence of Christianity. The encyclical is subtle and exquisitely balanced. But far from being a gentle papal valentine, Deus Caritas Est poses tough challenges to both state and church.