Reflections on the Holy Father's Encyclical Letter

Reflections on the Holy Father's Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est - 8

Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi
Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace

Charity is not an added extra but pervades Christian living

In the very heart of Pope Benedict XVI's Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est — especially in paragraphs 26-29 —, reference is made to the Church's social teaching. Its past structures are also expressly mentioned in paragraph 27, from Rerum Novarum to Centesimus Annus.

Moreover, the Pope recalls in the same paragraph the publication of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church in 2004 by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which "presents organically" the Church's entire social teaching.

It can therefore be said that the Encyclical not only contains — if indirectly — several aspects of social doctrine, but the entire modern social Magisterium of the Church. It would be useful for this very reason to examine the connection between the Church's social doctrine and the overall message of Benedict XVI's Encyclical.

I would like to recall that the first three Encyclicals of John Paul II also treated important elements of social doctrine in the reflections on Christ, The Redeemer of Man; on God the Father, rich in mercy; and on the life-giving Spirit. Thus, in accordance with the programme outlined in Gaudium et Spes, the social doctrine was incorporated in the proclamation of the Christian message and was not left aside.

Likewise, the social teaching today is placed within the Christian proclamation that "God is love", and is not relegated to its margins.

The social doctrine, therefore, is organically linked to charity, which as a theological virtue is nourished by divine life. It impels us towards that social friendship without which community ties between people are weakened and tenuous.

The Encyclical proclaims charity as the essence of God himself, and for this very reason does not fail to consider the human and social aspects of love, which in this light are illuminated and purified.

The Church's social doctrine fits into this dialogue between the Divine and the human; it must continually invoke the charity of divine life and, at the same time, stoop lovingly to meet humanity's needs.

Social doctrine flows from charity

Hence, a very close connection exists between the Church's social doctrine and charity. This doctrine is aimed at serving "the individual person who is acknowledged and loved in the fullness of his or her vocation" (Centesimus Annus, n. 59), and its purpose is care and responsibility for the human being who has been entrusted to the Church by Christ himself (cf. ibid., n. 53).

Moreover, the original connection of the Church's social doctrine with God's charity — or with God who is charity — lies in the crucial and essential fact that this doctrine "proclaims the truth about Christ, about herself and about man" (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n. 41), and the truth of this proclamation is that God is love. It is not by chance that the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church begins precisely with "God's plan of love for humanity" [Ch. 1] and ends with an invitation to promote the civilization of love [n. 582].

It is very significant, in this regard, that Rerum Novarum, the first social Document of the modern era, should end with a hymn to charity, "queen of virtues" (n. 45): "Indeed, it is from a great outpouring of charity that the desired results are principally to be looked for. It is of Christian charity that we speak, the virtue which sums up the whole Gospel law. It is this which makes a man ever and entirely ready to sacrifice himself for the good of others. It is this which is man's most effective antidote against worldly pride and immoderate love of self" (cf. ibid.).

The entire social doctrine of the Church can and must be seen as an expression of Christian charity. Mater et Magistra clearly points out that "this is particularly true of the Church's social doctrine, the light of which is Truth, Justice its objective, and Love its driving force" (n. 226).

From another point of view, it is possible to deepen knowledge of the essential relationship with charity of the Church's social doctrine. I am referring to its formal discipline as "moral theology", as clearly explained in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n. 41.

Now what, if not love, lies at the heart of Christian morality?

Consequently, if the Church's social doctrine pertains to the disciplinary context of moral theology, this means that it is with a view to action, enlivened by charity. The theology of charity, therefore, should not be seen as separate from the Church's social doctrine.

This is "theology" and as such is related to all the contexts of this branch of knowledge, including the theology of charity.

Moreover, it is "moral theology" and in this more specific context fits even better into a theology of charity, from which it is distinct but not separate.

Benedict XVI's Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, invites us to examine the close relationship between the theology of charity and the Church's social doctrine.

Not a postscript to Christian life

Charity pervades Christian living and is not added a posteriori to human life. Deus Caritas Est states that even creation is charity. Likewise, charity is not an addition to justice but motivates it by "purifying" it: by helping it to be itself, to be properly followed.

Although there is no separation between the two domains, one cannot speak of continuity or contiguity between them. Charity is not juxtaposed to justice, but by allowing it to breathe more freely permits it to evolve without the risk of replacing it.

Justice, the Pope says, is part of politics, but politics themselves stand in need of the "purification" of charity.

Moreover, it is in the interest of politics to admit in subsidiarity to the existence of "living forces" in society, including the Church, which are likely to awaken spiritual energies capable of purifying social ethics, the commitment to justice and the political quest for the common good.

In a truly secular relationship, this is precisely what politics asks of the Church, and the Church avoids becoming a mere ethical agency since Christian charity is not confined to practical reason.

Thus, Deus Caritas Est does not separate a context of charity that would involve a "theology of charity" from a political sphere that would concern the Church's social doctrine.

It certainly makes a distinction between charity practiced directly by the Church on her own, and that practiced in the secular milieu where, in the light of the Church's social doctrine, responsibility is taken for building the human city.

The Church's social doctrine itself, however, is charity. It is not only concerned with structural mechanisms but with the human person; it does not only enliven social projects but also forms of "witness to Christ the Saviour" (Centesimus Annus, n. 5), in other words, forms of incarnate love.

Politics, moreover, as Paul VI said, do not only concern the functioning of structures, but are "a demanding way of living the Christian commitment at the service of others", (Octogesima Adveniens, n. 46); in other words, they are charity. Charity directly enlivens, in a different way, both ecclesial works of charity as well as action in the world in the light of the Church's social teaching.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
4 October 2006, page 4

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