Pope Benedict’s first encyclical letter is superb in many ways and well deserves the nearly universal praise it has received. I found Deus Caritas Est informative, inspiring and at times extremely consoling, even sublime. The world certainly stands to benefit from this profound reflection on the nature of love. Most of Part I of the letter treats aspects of love that are well beyond my expertise as a social ethicist. The treatment here of agape and eros, as well as the role of Jesus Christ as the incarnate love of God, strikes me as insightful and constructive. I will concentrate, then, on the second half of the encyclical, particularly on those paragraphs that take up the relationship between charity and justice.
Indeed, “relationship” emerges as the key word as we join Benedict in pondering these pivotal aspects of Christian discipleship. Already in the final paragraph of Part I of this letter, Benedict introduces the theme of “the interplay between love of God and love of neighbor” (No. 18). Here the tight relationship between these two great loves is deemed “necessary” and “inseparable.” As a “community of love” (a phrase from the title of Part II), the church is called to extend the practice of love ever outward.
How is this to be done? The opening pages of Part II describe three interrelated duties of the church: “proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia)” (No. 25). The church’s mission of charity knows no bounds. Because it is based on a “commandment of universal love,” our practice of charity must “extend beyond the frontiers of the Church” (No. 25), however pressing is our specific responsibility to care for the needs of fellow Christian believers.
So far, so good. I cannot imagine any responsible or well-informed Christian ethicist demurring substantially from Benedict’s presentation on these points.
It is when the pope broaches his next topic, the relationship between charity and justice (nos. 26-30), that concerns may arise. By this I do not mean to suggest that Pope Benedict somehow gets the relationship wrong. It would be more precise to say that despite commendable underlying intentions to utter an appreciative word about both charity and justice, the words of the pope here can easily be misconstrued. This section of the encyclical proceeds in such a way that the notion of justice is so thoroughly eclipsed by the practice of charity that in the end it may fall far short of the rich heritage of justice discourse within our church.
One unfortunate aspect of this section of the encyclical involves the way it uses Marx as a foil. Two specific errors of Marxism are mentioned. In Nos. 26 and 31, which serve as bookends to this section, we are reminded of the specious Marxist claim that the poor need only justice and never charity, since the practice of charity merely bolsters unjust systems by making them appear more tolerable. Near the end of No. 27, we revisit the Marxist claim that world revolution and collectivization of the means of production constitute a panacea, indeed the only path to social progress.
It is easy to agree with Benedict’s observation in the next sentence that “this illusion has vanished.” Indeed, further erroneous Marxist tenets could easily be cited here with great relevance: that violence is justified in the name of redistribution of wealth, or that people are nothing but interest-seekers, engaged in a battle to the death against members of other (and sharply defined) classes.
One need not hold a brief for Karl Marx (does anybody still do so without a dose of irony?) in order to wonder whether this is the optimal way for an encyclical promoting both charity and justice to proceed. By invoking the ghost of Marx, who ruled out any role for charity in the pursuit of social justice, the text nudges the reader toward a pattern of thought that is characterized as “either/or,” not “both/and” in its style and nature. Yet we need all the “both/and” we can muster when considering this topic.
Perhaps the most obvious thing to say about the relationship between charity and justice is that both are desperately and permanently needed in a world of greed, exploitation and the resulting deprivation. In fact, my best summary of the history of modern Catholic social teaching is this: In the past 115 years the church has augmented its “orientation toward charity” with an “orientation toward justice.”
Of course, Pope Benedict is fully aware of this aspect of Catholic social teaching. If there were any doubt about this, he erases it by repeatedly affirming his high regard for works of justice, phrased in various ways, in subsequent paragraphs. He declares, for example, that the church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice” (No. 28). The pontiff even pauses in the middle of No. 27 to present a litany of the names of the social encyclicals of his predecessors. These papal writings, published in the century from 1891 to 1991, amply demonstrate the complementarity of charity and justice. Merely mentioning the familiar Latin names of documents such as Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno signals to those “in the know” that Benedict fully intends to walk in this fine tradition.
I am most worried, then, about potential misunderstandings due to the style of these few paragraphs in the otherwise excellent Deus Caritas Est. Those who are unfamiliar with previous papal articulations of the place of justice in the Christian life may come away from this text so impressed with the exalted place of charitable activity that they may de-emphasize those efforts that are more properly described as work for justice. The references to the errors of Marxism may stick in the mind in an inordinate way, so that they glide over the positive things Benedict rightly says about the orientation toward justice.
I have already stumbled upon one piece of evidence that this has in fact happened. The normally judicious Vatican observer John L. Allen Jr., writing from Rome in the Feb. 10 issue of The National Catholic Reporter, claims that the encyclical “essentially paraphrased the Beatles” in the sentiment of their great song, “All You Need Is Love.” There is no mention of the accompanying virtue of justice. That is not quite what Benedict contends, but the confusion is understandable.
Perhaps that is why the pope took the extraordinary measure of writing a timely introduction to Deus Caritas Est (“to facilitate its reading,” as he put it) in the Feb. 5 issue of the Italian weekly magazine Famiglia Cristiana. Breaking with papal tradition by commenting directly upon the content of an encyclical, Benedict took pains, just 10 days after its publication, to clarify the enduring place of the orientation toward justice in the social concern of the church. He explained: “Without engaging in politics, the church participates passionately in the battle for justice” (posted on www.zenit.org, Feb. 7, 2006).
This last quotation alludes to a certain division of labor that religiously motivated citizens concerned about social justice need to recognize and respect. As Deus Caritas Est repeats half a dozen times, the task of establishing a just social order properly belongs to the realm of politics and the state, not to the church. On one level, this is a simple truism, at least since the end of the throne-and-altar arrangements of centuries past. We now rightly recognize a prudent separation of spheres, so that the church renounces its former claims of omnicompetence. But there is a risk in sending this message so forcefully that believers lose energy for participating in political and economic life precisely as believers, and thus shrink from bringing their Gospel-based values to temporal affairs.
Here again Benedict’s words may unwittingly work against the balanced message he seeks to send. One corrective might have been to allude to the seminal insights of St. Thomas Aquinas regarding the duty of citizens and believers to practice justice in society. Previous church documents have generally followed the familiar Thomistic synthesis regarding the relationship between love and justice and related duties in the arenas of church and temporal society. While most papal encyclicals brim with Thomistic analysis of these subtle issues, none of the 36 footnotes in Deus Caritas Est cites the Angelic Doctor (although we do hear from Nietzsche, Descartes, Plato, Dante and Virgil).
I cannot speak for other Catholic social ethicists, but I suspect many of them shared the above concerns as they read the new encyclical. However welcome it is, Benedict’s words require a bit of clarification in order to be heard and received properly. Perhaps the best way to conclude is to step back from the specifics of this encyclical to review the terms charity and justice as social ethicists normally employ them.
Charity (or love) connotes direct service to those in need, as exemplified in the traditional corporal works of mercy. Such acts of kindness and compassion are voluntary in nature, springing from the heart of one moved with pity for the plight of others. An orientation toward justice is the perfect complement to charitable efforts because it provides what is often lacking in otherwise praiseworthy charity: reliable and systematic responses to deprivation, especially poverty and powerlessness caused by deep patterns of injustice in society. Rather than being in any way opposed to charity, the virtue of justice moves us to engage in efforts to make love practical and effective. Works of justice recognize and address the social institutions through which love needs to flow in order to help our struggling neighbors in the long run.
By encouraging structural change through political advocacy and methodical efforts to alter economic priorities of governments and corporations, work for justice addresses root causes of need rather than attending only to the symptoms and effects of injustice. Action on behalf of justice targets the prevention of poverty and suffering. Ideally, victims of injustice can be empowered to be agents of the social change from which they benefit. The most complete efforts offer to disadvantaged people “a hand up” in the long run, as well as the “hand out” they may require at the moment.
If we could rewrite the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, which of us would not choose to prevent the robbery and beating from occurring in the first place? No amount of the “volunteer work” Benedict praises so beautifully and fittingly in the final third of his new encyclical can substitute for faith-based efforts to restructure society so that it creates fewer victims of violence and poverty. There is no necessary conflict between insisting on the primacy of love and preserving a prominent place for social justice efforts as well.
The justice orientation of a century of Catholic social teaching has motivated church people to engage in social activism to transform the world by cooperating with God’s benevolent grace. As the World Synod of Bishops in 1971 proclaimed, justice is truly and fully a work of evangelization. While observing all the necessary caveats regarding the relationships between church and world, religion and politics, faith and society, justice and charity, a passion for justice still belongs in the life of our church. May the Catholic community continue to advance this agenda. In order to do so, we will have to read Deus Caritas Est carefully, in a way that is consistently attentive to justice as well as charity.