Presentation on the Encyclical Deus Caritas Est
Archbishop Cordes
A prophetic message that needs to be heard

Since his election, Pope Benedict XVI has spoken frequently of the problems and needs of humanity today. For example, before the participants of the 33rd Conference of the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in November 2005, the Pope lamented the paradoxical contrast between new economic, scientific and technological advances on the one hand, and the constant rise in poverty on the other. He openly criticized political entities, economic institutions and the powerful of society.

In making these criticisms, the Pope placed himself within a well-known and important tradition in the Church.

From the first half of the 19th century, as a result of industrialization, poverty threatened to dominate man in the Western world. In view of this, the Church made herself the spokesperson of the poor.

The Church's Magisterium responded through powerful declarations. Both Leo XIII and Pius XI appealed to the conscience of their contemporaries through Encyclicals with the aim of helping end such a situation. This is how the Church's social doctrine arose.

In the same way, succeeding Pontiffs — John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II — did not remain silent in the face of this constant poverty. Thus, they spoke out, intervening in the social development of peoples.

Following the same line as previous meetings, the Fifth Conference of the Bishops of Latin America reflected perfectly in its decisions the mission of the universal Church. The "Synthesis of Suggestions Received", formulated in preparation for this important gathering, rightfully noted that the Church's commitment to the poor needed to transform itself "in a permanent attitude that manifests itself in concrete choices and actions" (n. 224).

The condemnation of poverty and injustice reflects the scientific self-definition of the new discipline, thus transcending the strictly personal and individual dimension. It aims to improve the structures of social coexistence.

Substantially, it is a matter of correcting inadequate, problematic or unjust laws. Social doctrine appeals less to love or the call to goodwill and mercy and more to the law as the means to obtain greater justice, freedom and respect for human dignity.

Long before the appearance of the social doctrine of the Church, Christians already practiced love of neighbour and applied it concretely. The Son of God instituted it as the first commandment for behaviour among his own, acting himself as a witness of this love.

The primitive Church saw Christ as the Good Samaritan in the parable, who assumed every kind of injury and exploitation of all times and places.

The Acts of the Apostles spoke of him thus: "He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him" (Acts 10:38).

This is the unmistakable description of Jesus.

For this reason, the young Christian community made its own the example and mission of Jesus. The New Testament recounted in various places the concrete forms of spiritual and material help.

Subsequent writings also reflected in the same way the continuation of this practice. For example, the Didaskalia exhorted the Bishop: "Think of the poor, take them by the hand and feed them". One finds examples of this practice from Justin Martyr to Tertullian.

So provocative was this love of neighbour among the early Christians that the pagans were scandalized. From the Emperor Julian the Apostate comes the saying: "Those atheist Galileans feed not only their own poor, but ours as well".

In the course of the centuries, men and women have kept and lived this heritage entrusted by the Lord. They are the ones whom we call saints. They were not born with a halo. Their fascination lies in the fact that they gave of themselves to the very end of their lives through an impressive and selfless love of neighbour.

Among those raised to the honours of the altar, one finds Founders and Foundresses of Religious Orders who allowed themselves to be enthused by the love of God and, motivated by an impressive zeal, gathered around themselves men and women with the same spirit, transmitting to them their intention to win souls for God.

Concrete witness of charity

This great wave of Christian engagement left its mark on society, even if the world frequently failed to understand that Christian love had its foundation in Christ.

At times, it seems to me that no commandment of the Lord had such a profound resonance in modernity as that of the call to help the needy.

In the Western world, acceptance of this principle, at least in theory, has been integrated into culture. In 2005 alone, Caritas lnternationalis had more than US$ 245 million at its disposal for aid in catastrophes, above all because of the Tsunami. How could we not rejoice in such a reality, even if the money could never be enough?

It is noteworthy that in the past the Church spoke very rarely in any detailed way about the obligation to help the needy. Love of neighbour did not need any special justification.

In the preaching of the Church, the obligation to love was recognized directly in one's faith. Love of God and love of neighbour formed a unity as a double-sided commandment, constituting in turn a requirement for the Christian.

The fortunate situation of philanthropy in our day has meant, on the other hand, that its Christian roots have been forgotten.

There is a second change that is deserving of our attention.

Today, in many "First World" countries, charitable action touches every sphere and strata of society. It is related to civil law, social obligations, the responsibility of the State. From kindergarten to homes for the elderly, human life is accompanied by organized assistance.

So, in some Western nations, the Caritas Confederation has grown into an impressive service industry. Hard as it is to believe, Caritas Germany employs 500,000 professional workers, making it the second largest employer in Germany after the State.

The importance and influence of Catholic charitable institutions are considerable: for assistance to projects in underdeveloped countries through Catholic Relief Services ("CRS"), Caritas in the United States works with a budget of some US$ 400 million.

Who, then, would be surprised that today the work of Caritas can only be conceived with a high degree of professionalism?

The use of public money necessitates bureaucratic precision, affecting not only the foundation but also the operation of all charitable organizations. The contracts and manner of working, including the granting of subsidies and their application, require particular administrative attention.

None of this is regrettable; rather, it increases the opportunity for more effective assistance.

Christian identity of organizations

Of course, the professional character of charitable activity also has an effect on its goals, which may in turn result in a change in motivation for some people. If what counts is the action in itself, one might as well forget that the action should also carry a deeper meaning: that is, a sign of God's goodness. The symbolic character of the assistance vanishes or becomes invisible.

But if the character of good works grows weak or disappears completely, the fundamental dimension of the Church's social works would be lost. Catholic agencies would be no different than the Red Cross or UNICEF: they would even lose their Christian identity.

Unfortunately, such fears are not born from idle speculation but reflect reality. In order that we do not become lost in the myriad of possible examples, we shall limit ourselves to two concrete instances:

One of the world's largest charitable organizations set up branches in the poorest nations with its own personnel, which in many cases created an obstacle rather than a help to the work of the local Church.

In the Balkans, for example, Cardinal Puljić, Archbishop of Sarajevo, Bosnia, informed me that 10 out of 11 collaborators of a Catholic agency were Muslim. Their activity reflected the strategy of their religion to make the Country Islam. Their actions carried a secondary intention, namely, the repression of Christians in that Land.

Included in the official list of projects sent to Caritas from a small European country was the request for a subsidy for the "Fifth Congress of Lesbian Feminists of Latin America and the Caribbean". Whether or not approval of the subsidy was given cannot be known, but the very fact that it was submitted to a Catholic agency is surprising.

The situation described above has long needed an official response in order that ecclesial organizations maintain their Christian roots. Even if charity appears to be very present in Western culture, Christians should not let down their guard.

Believers will need to be aware of the specificity of Christian charity, that is, in such a way that it maintains its Christian identity, so that in its presentation and execution one recognizes its character among the plurality of humanitarian aid agencies.

Martyría, Leiturgia and Diakonia

Which ecclesiological data need to be considered as a priority?

In the ecclesial vision, theology articulates the fundamental mission of the Church in: Martyria, Leiturgia and Diakonia. Theology asserts that even if these are different areas, in the Church's concrete life they cannot exist in isolation; rather, they must be intimately related.

Martyria, Leiturgia and Diakonia reveal the visible face of the Church's mission, its triple aspect. They are in need of an osmosis, both in regard to the mission of the Church as a whole as in the life of each believer, even if the Body of Christ has many members and services in the Church are varied. For preaching, made concrete only by service to neighbour and celebrated in the divine liturgy, will transmit to man the fullness of salvation.

Such osmosis does not mean that charity is lost in the engagement for justice in the world. Diakonia and social pastoral activity need to be differentiated since they have different ends. Whereas both are rooted in the love that comes from God, social pastoral action is inspired by the Church's social doctrine, whereas charity encompasses the entire patrimony of Scripture and the history of God's saving love.

Since our Dicastery Cor Unum deals with the praxis of love of neighbour as part of the Church's mission, John Paul II asked that I prepare for him a preliminary draft of a magisterial writing regarding this theme.

In my first draft, I thought of an inductive presentation: the reference to humanism that is accepted everywhere in Western culture, the many initiatives of State and Church, the foundation of love of neighbour in God.

In the last period of Pope Wojtyta's Pontificate, however, the elaboration of the text was delayed. So, I turned to Cardinal Ratzinger, who read and corrected the preparatory work.

Once elected Pope, he asked me in one of our first meetings: "And what will happen to the Encyclical?". Shortly thereafter, he informed me that he had decided upon the theme of "Caritas".

He did not restrict himself, however, to my first draft; rather, he changed everything radically. Anyone who knows the Holy Father's writing style discovers that the entire text is unmistakably "Ratzinger".

The Encyclical opens with an important theological formulation, using the principal affirmation: "God is Love". In this way, he shows both in the temporal order as well as in the order of values, the absolute primacy of the One "who loved us first".

'Deus caritas est' — God is love

One might well interpret the Pope's change in magisterial analysis as a purely methodological matter: in effect, Ratzinger the theologian prefers the deductive to the inductive method of explanation.

This interpretation, however, fails to recognize the basic impulse of the new Pope. His Homilies and Catecheses are proof of the urgency that he attaches to the constant search for God. His perspective is theocentric. He never tires of speaking about the Heavenly Father, his Son Jesus Christ and the creative force of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Brothers: I give thanks to God for this opportunity today, with you and in this unique moment, to offer a fresh impulse to the first Encyclical of our Pope.

As you can imagine, it was not easy to get this time for reflection. I had to fight a little. The Holy Father himself, however, confirmed my desire, for he fervently wishes that this Document, Deus Caritas Est, be known.

Recently, just a month or so ago, during his Visit to the tomb of St. Augustine in Pavia, he stated: "[H]ere, in front of St. Augustine's tomb, I would like to present anew to the Church and to the world my first Encyclical, which contains precisely this central message of the Gospel: Deus caritas est, God is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8, 16). This Encyclical, especially Part One, is deeply indebted to the thought of St. Augustine, who was in love with the Love of God and sang of it, meditated upon it, preached it in all his writings and above all witnessed to it in his pastoral ministry.... I am convinced that humanity today stands in need of this essential message, incarnate in Jesus Christ: God is love. Everything must start from here and everything must lead to here, every pastoral action, every theological treatise. As St. Paul said, 'If I... have not love I gain nothing' (cf. I Cor 13:3). All charisms lose their meaning and value without love, thanks to which instead all contribute to build the Mystical Body of Christ".

It is truly amazing that this is the message the Pope wants modern man to hear. Reaction to the Papal Document has been unexpectedly positive, being greeted nearly always with a huge welcome. Here we shall recall just two citations in the press:

In one of the most important magazines in Germany, we read: "Never before has a Pope written an extensive instruction on human love in a way that is so sensitive and poetic and at the same time theological as has Benedict XVI, in defining love as 'a sinking in the intoxication of happiness'".

Jan Ross of the weekly magazine "Die Zeit" writes: "Joseph Ratzinger is conservative, but deep down he is no moralistic preacher: he is interested in a global vision, the essential nucleus of Christianity" (26 January 2006).

The front page of the New York Times — a paper not exactly sympathetic to the Catholic Church — included an emphatically positive comment. In preparing for this conference, I was pleased to find in the preparatory "Synthesis" document various references to the Encyclical.

Whoever reflects in light of the Pope's Encyclical upon the reason for his emphasis on the faith roots of love of neighbour, discovers throughout more than a pastoral directive. The Pope, with regard to aid, touches upon a problem that until now has not been articulated. He goes beyond initiatives and programmes, since, alongside aid, he is concerned with the person who offers that aid.

Here we find a driving force that cannot be ignored, for it opens a new way of viewing the fight against poverty.

Until now, in the field of Christian engagement, the objectives of ecclesial diakonia were considered in terms of practical norms and obligations.

Now, in a way that is more calculated and detailed than we are accustomed to, Pope Benedict turns to the subjects of these activities.

Limits of the juridical obligation

The social doctrine of the Church provides a service — as we said at the beginning — for the promulgation of State laws in order that we attain a just social order. Social doctrine looks to inspire a change in opinion in those who are entrusted with making decisions.

This approach seems directed to someone other than myself, causing possible misunderstanding, insofar as it is others who must change. Some representatives of the Church anxiously seek to multiply their social power and become entangled in political responsibility in order to attain through others their own objectives.

Pope Benedict makes it clear in his Encyclical that it is not the task of the Church to impose social doctrine politically.

In a correct theology of charity, there does not exist the temptation inherent in the previous tendency to view charity in terms of someone other than myself. Instructions on Caritas are important both for the spirituality and the activity of workers. They are, in the first place, an appeal to my very person insofar as they come directly from a personal relationship with God and frequently look for union with the community or association.

This difference in no way diminishes the urgent character of social commitment.

Benedict XVI in his recent and famous book Jesus of Nazareth warns against "pious" members of the faithful who run away from defending rights by doing charitable works. He writes in that book: "The social guide is a theological guide and the theological guide has a social character. Love of God and love of neighbour cannot be separated".

On the other hand, one cannot identify the obligations demanded by the Church's social doctrine with the rich biblical patrimony lived by the witnesses of charity without distinguishing the specific characteristics of each.

Toward a diaconal spirituality

An attentive reading of the Papal Text reveals that Pope Benedict wanted to do more than simply add another Encyclical to ensure greater justice in the world. Of course, he does desire this, but he offers comments that are directed especially to the collaborators of Catholic aid agencies.

These comments call our attention to the preparatory education of both the collaborators and volunteers of ecclesial service. They also introduce benchmarks inspired by the theme of "love".

On the one hand, they are directed to one's neighbour who is in need. In the words of the Encyclical, that person needs "always something more than technically proper care." He or she needs "humanity" and "heartfelt concern" (cf. n. 31a).

In such an encounter, a proper grounding in the faith and intimacy with God on the part of the aid worker are also necessary. The person in need frequently requires more than food and drink, housing and health, for the deepest cause of suffering is "the very absence of God" (cf. n. 31c).

The Pope proceeds to offer some key concepts that are essential to a diaconal spirituality, which, regrettably through lack of time, I cannot discuss. However, these constitute the reference point for something fundamentally new in the doctrine of humanitarian aid, which I wish to qualify as a "paradigmatic shift".

In the course of the centuries, many religious orders have sensed the need to fight in some Western countries against poverty and misery. Men and women, filled with compassion, have made their own the suffering of their contemporaries in various countries of Europe.

In 1910 in Germany, 700,000 men and women were engaged in charitable works in Christ's service. They benefited from close spiritual direction in preparation for entering the religious order, which continued after they joined the order. In this way, they were given the necessary weapons not to succumb to the temptation of considering their work solely from the technical-administrative standpoint.

Christians who did not belong to a religious order, yet associated as volunteers, were inspired both by those men and women who appeared as true witnesses of the faith, as well as the powerful community life and the corresponding associations.

Today, overcoming human poverty appears more complicated than in times past. To confront it, one must engage in various fields — political, ecological, medical, anthropological. All of this requires correct management with adequate formation, which also implies the elaboration of corresponding courses and examinations.

Nevertheless, in our days, we can neither renounce nor simply suppose a priori the faith foundation or the Christian witness given by those engaged in ecclesial philanthropy. Since diakonia constitutes one of the three fundamental missions of the Church and we find ourselves immersed in a culture in which philanthropy is accepted in a general way, the obligation arises to move forward in a new way.

As he has been doing all along, Pope Benedict XVI calls upon the Church's faithful both to engage in the fight against world poverty and to formulate effective goals and work for their accomplishment.

At the same time, in terms of help, there is a paradigmatic shift: in the face of a changed world, it is necessary to add to these programmes and projects a second dimension. Those persons who, in the name of the Church, bear witness to the love of God, need to be formed and immersed in faith. Orientation in the faith for Christian volunteers provides the specificity of the fight against poverty, which only the Church can offer humanity.

The Church's social engagement includes the obligation to act. The responsibility for this falls to the Church's Pastors. For them, the Encyclical offers comments that they will find welcome.

Central task of the Bishops

In conclusion: In the Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict teaches explicitly that the Church's diaconal ministry ultimately lies with the Bishop. Of course, the Pastor of a Diocese must allow himself to be helped in this task; he cannot entrust it through delegation, however capable his collaborators might be. The obligation to meet this responsibility flows from the very nature of episcopal ordination.

In the Document, the Pope expresses it literally: "As our preceding reflections have made clear, the true subject of the various Catholic organizations that carry out a ministry of charity is the Church herself — at all levels, from the parishes, through the particular Churches, to the universal Church.... In conformity with the episcopal structure of the Church, the Bishops, as successors of the Apostles, are charged with primary responsibility for carrying out in the particular Churches the programme set forth in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. 2:42-44)" (n. 32).

Last November, when I tried to hand on this explanation of the Pope to the German Bishops in the course of their ad limina visit, I encountered some opposition. The Churches of the so-called First World have associations dedicated to fighting poverty, which manifest a certain autonomy.

The Bishops of the Dioceses that receive help are called to maintain and develop communion and dialogue with the Bishops of the countries that grant aid. This implies a task of vigilance that is not always easy to carry out.

How will we be able to combat global secularization, however, without courageous Pastors?

The emphasis on the Bishops' responsibility for diakonia does not imply a new clericalism.

On the contrary, using the new Encyclical as a basis, the point is to help promote a new theology throughout the world in regard also to the great works of charity.

It is in the Sacrament of Orders that one asks for and receives through the imposition of hands upon the Bishop the fullness of the Holy Spirit for preaching, the celebration of divine worship and governance.

It is he, therefore, who has the final responsibility for the Church's three missions. Just as he cannot delegate his responsibility in preaching and the liturgy, neither can he do so in terms of the diakonia.

Those involved in the diakonia, either individually or as institutions, are the first who must respect this theological reorientation: they cannot place themselves above the Bishop's ultimate responsibility.

Archbishop Cordes delivered this address to members of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean in Aparecida, Brazil, on 12 May.


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
4 July 2007, page 9

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