Good Distinctions
Good Distinctions
"God is Love" (Deus Caritas Est), Part 2 of 2

"God is Love" (Deus Caritas Est), Part 2 of 2

Commentary on Part 2 of Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical on the love of God


If you missed Part 1, please check that out first HERE!


Part II: The Practice of Love by the Church as a “Community of Love” (19 - 39)

Now that the exploration of the concept of love is finished, Pope Benedict turns his attention to the concrete. We have answered what love is, now we see how love is lived. 

The Church’s charitable activity as a manifestation of Trinitarian love (19)

Part II begins by speaking on the Church’s charitable activity as a manifestation of Trinitarian love. Concretely there is nothing more *real* than the Blessed Trinity. The Godhead is a unity of three Divine Persons who are in a community of life and love: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father eternally begets and loves the Son, the perfect self-image of the Father, who eternally reflects that perfect love back to the Father. The love outpoured eternally between Father and Son is the Person of the Holy Spirit, proceeding from each eternally. If nothing I said makes any sense, that is okay! Trinitarian theology is remarkably complicated and nuanced because it is the mystery of God, as He is. 

Mystery though it is, God is the source of all, as Trinity. And so, how can we recognize the Trinity? The Pope quotes St. Augustine in saying: “If you see charity, you see the Trinity (19).”

God created all things, seen and unseen, in a plan of sheer loving goodness. When God sent His Son to assume our humanity, He invited us, in love, to share in His divinity. We can say that the mystery of the Church is the drawing of men into the mystery of God. The Father “wishes to make humanity a single family in his Son (19).” He does this through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit who the Pope speaks of as “the energy which transforms the heart of the ecclesial community, so that it becomes a witness before the world to the love of the Father (19).” 

Gathering all men to Himself as the Church, the Father “seeks the integral good of man (19).” This seeking of our good, the Pope says, is an expression of love in the entire activity of the Church. By His Word and the Sacraments, the Church shares the reality of the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world. What greater love can we share with our fellow man than the work of evangelization?

Charity as a responsibility of the Church (20 - 25)

This outward act of love of evangelization does not end with the spiritual but also includes the corporal. Charity is a responsibility of the whole Church, clergy, religious, and laity.

From the beginning, Jesus Christ established the Church upon four pillars, outlined by Acts 2:42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” These four pillars give structure to the Church in every age and are reflected in the Catechism of the Council of Trent and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The apostolic teaching is doctrine. Fellowship, also translated as communal life, is the moral life in Christ. The breaking of the bread is the early term for the Eucharist and for the Sacraments generally. And prayer is Christian prayer, perfectly expressed in the Our Father which our Lord gave us.

Pope Benedict gives attention in paragraph 20 of Deus Caritas Est to this idea of fellowship, communion, or communal life. The Greek word in Acts is koinonia. Koinonia “consists in the fact that believers hold all things in common and that among them, there is no longer any distinction between rich and poor (20).” This sort of radical communal life is part and parcel of early Christianity. But as the Pope remarks:

“As the Church grew, this radical form of material communion could not in fact be preserved. But its essential core remained: within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life (20).”

When it became necessary, the Church instituted the clerical office of the Diaconate, the first level of participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ and the lowest level of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. A diakonos was historically a servant of the king. And so, the Deacon, is a servant of Christ the King and his vicar in a particular diocese, the bishop. They were to provide for the spiritual and corporal needs of the people. As Pope Benedict puts it:

“... the social which they were meant to provide was absolutely concrete, yet at the same time it was also a spiritual service; theirs was a truly spiritual office which carried out an essential responsibility of the Church, namely a well-ordered love of neighbour (21).”

This system of charity must have been a formidable force in the ancient world because the Roman leader Julian the Apostate, who rejected Christianity and tried to instantiate Neoplatonic Hellenism, told his pagan priests that they needed to imitate and outdo the Church’s charity. Of course, they failed because imitation can never capture what is authentically of God.

Beyond the diaconate, the proclamation of the Good News, and the liturgy were indispensable to the Church. As the Pope puts it:

“The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable (25).”

Though the Church is now worldwide and the radical form of community of the early Church is less possible, the Church is nonetheless responsible for Her Members. The needs of the People of God are not only spiritual. Like any family, the Church is obliged to care for the necessities of those in the Church, in a particular way. As Benedict says:

“The Church is God’s family in the world. In this family no one ought to go without the necessities of life… Without in any way detracting from this commandment of universal love, the Church also has a specific responsibility: within the ecclesial family no member should suffer through being in need (25).”

Justice and Charity (26 - 29)

After concluding the section on the responsibility of charity in the Church, the Pope moves on to a fairly expansive conversation of justice and charity. Rooted deeply in Catholic social teaching, expounded since Pope Leo XIII especially, Pope Benedict begins by addressing the elephant in the room: Karl Marx. Since the nineteenth century, Marxists have critiqued the Church saying that “the poor… do not need charity but justice (26).” Benedict offers a steel-man explanation of the Marxist critique, saying:

“Works of charity—almsgiving—are in effect a way for the rich to shirk their obligation to work for justice and a means of soothing their consciences, while preserving their own status and robbing the poor of their rights. Instead of contributing through individual works of charity to maintaining the status quo, we need to build a just social order in which all receive their share of the world's goods and no longer have to depend on charity (26).”

He admits that there is some merit to the argument, but there is much that is mistaken. Historically, capital became concentrated in the hands of a powerful few and there has been conflict between employer and laborer. But rather than succumbing the Hegelian notion which Marx put forward of class warfare and revolution, the Pope offers that Catholic social teaching is applicable beyond the confines of the Church, saying:

“Marxism had seen world revolution and its preliminaries as the panacea for the social problem: revolution and the subsequent collectivization of the means of production, so it was claimed, would immediately change things for the better. This illusion has vanished. In today's complex situation, not least because of the growth of a globalized economy, the Church's social doctrine has become a set of fundamental guidelines offering approaches that are valid even beyond the confines of the Church: in the face of ongoing development these guidelines need to be addressed in the context of dialogue with all those seriously concerned for humanity and for the world in which we live (27).”

Commitment to Justice and Ministry of Charity

The Church, and the world, has a necessary commitment to justice and the ministry of charity. There is no dichotomy between justice and charity. Both are necessary. First, “the just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics (28),” says the Pope. Quoting St. Augustine, he says: “a State which is not governed according to justice would be just a bunch of thieves… (28).”

Venturing into the subject of freedom of religion in a State, Pope Benedict says that,

“The State may not impose religion, yet it must guarantee religious freedom and harmony between the followers of different religions. For her part, the Church, as the social expression of Christian faith, has a proper independence and is structured on the basis of her faith as a community which the State must recognize. The two spheres are distinct, yet always interrelated (28).”

In other words: the State cannot coerce the Church. Rather the Church is independent of the State but interrelated with the State. What faithful Catholic can switch off their Catholicism when they engage in matters of politics and the State? They cannot. Only unfaithful Catholics attempt this, which results in deadly scandal and sin. Why is this? It is because God is the Lawgiver; He alone created all that is and He alone is the arbiter of morality.

Justice is the aim of politics, properly understood and it is the criteria for good politics. Politics is not merely about rules governing public life: “its origin and its goal,” say the Pope, “are found in justice, which by its very nature has to do with ethics (28).”

If justice is the aim and internal criterion of politics, as Benedict says, then why do Catholics need anything beyond reason? Why is faith necessary for true justice? Benedict explains:

“Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God—an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. But it is also a purifying force for reason itself. From God's standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly… Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just (28).”

If Faith is necessary, then is the Pope calling on the Church to engage directly in matters of State? Not quite. A just social and civil order is ordered towards each person receiving his or her due, which is an essential task in every generation. But it is a political task and therefore is a human responsibility rather than an ecclesial responsibility. The Church can help to purify our powers of reason and provide ethical formation. Benedict also says clearly, 

“The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. 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 (28).”

The clergy are called to sanctify the laity and the laity are sent out into the world to sanctify the temporal order. 

Love is Necessary

Even in the best, most just societies, love will always be necessary. Care and concern for the other will always happen best on the local level. This is the principle of subsidiarity which holds that the best decisions are made on the lowest possible level and the highest level necessary. In fact, injustices stem from a higher level claiming authority over something which in fact belongs naturally to someone personally closer to the situation. Against totalitarianism of this kind, Pope Benedict writes beautifully of the bigger, complicated picture:

“We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support. In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live “by bread alone” (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human (28).”

As I mentioned earlier, the clergy are called to sanctify the laity and the laity are sent out into the world to sanctify the temporal order. In this way, the Pope says:

“The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society, on the other hand, is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity… The mission of the lay faithful is therefore to configure social life correctly, respecting its legitimate autonomy and cooperating with other citizens according to their respective competences and fulfilling their own responsibility (29).” 

The Church, of course, still sponsors organizations which practice charity. But this is not merely an activity of justice because it is focused on the admixture of the love of God, which is a universal human need. As Benedict says,

“The Church's charitable organizations, on the other hand, constitute an opus proprium, a task agreeable to her, in which she does not cooperate collaterally, but acts as a subject with direct responsibility, doing what corresponds to her nature. The Church can never be exempted from practicing charity as an organized activity of believers, and on the other hand, there will never be a situation where the charity of each individual Christian is unnecessary, because in addition to justice man needs, and will always need, love (29).”

The multiple structures of charitable service in the social context of the present day (30)

Because there is never going to be a situation where individual Christians are unneeded in charitable service, Pope Benedict recognizes the social context of the present day. Long since gone is the time of Christendom when Christian kingdoms ruled. Now, there are many different types of governments, organizations, nonprofits, and social structures. Even our way of communicating is different now. As the Pope says, “Mass communication has narrowed the distance between peoples and cultures (30).” 

Despite the narrowing of the distance, there is still work to be done in making sure that no one is forgotten. These groups are diverse, but they all are marked with the love of God. The Pope remarks that, “Numerous organizations have arisen that are a cooperation of State and Church, but these agencies still have a Christian quality (30).” This Christian quality is not a vague echo of the love of Jesus Christ. Rather, it is a direct result of Church agencies cooperating with State agencies. 

Also, due to the growing amount of leisure time afforded to modern man, especially among the youth, the Pope says, “our time has also seen a growth and spread of different kinds of volunteer work, which assume responsibility for providing a variety of services (30).” What is clear is that there are a myriad of ways to get involved; however, love compels us to leave the sidelines and get in the game.

In non-Catholic Churches and Ecclesial Communities, there has also been a new rising of charitable activity, with new life and energy. The Catholic Church must have a readiness, Pope Benedict says, to:

“cooperate with the charitable agencies of these Churches and Communities, since we all have the same fundamental motivation and look towards the same goal: a true humanism, which acknowledges that man is made in the image of God and wants to help him to live in a way consonant with that dignity (30).”

Ideally, all Christians and all people of good will would work with a united voice to inculcate, as Pope Benedict says, quoting St. John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint, “respect for the rights and needs of everyone, especially the poor, the lowly and the defenseless (30).”

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The distinctiveness of the Church’s charitable activity (31)

After speaking on the interplay of Church and State cooperation, Pope Benedict then turns his attention to the distinctiveness of the Church’s charitable activity. The Pontiff explains that there are a few essential elements of Christian and ecclesial charity.

First, there must be a simple response to immediate needs and specific situations. Second, and related to the first, resources and personnel needed for the work must be provided. Though Pope Benedict does not mention subsidiarity here by name, I think it is worth mentioning. Subsidiarity is the principle of Catholic social teaching which says that the best decision is made at the highest level necessary and the lowest level possible. Why leave a decision best left to the local Parish to the Vatican, for example? The local communities all need to strive to care for those in their immediate vicinity.

The third essential element of Christian and ecclesial charity is that individuals who care for those in need must be professionally competent and properly trained. As the Pope explains:

“We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern. Those who work for the Church's charitable organizations must be distinguished by the fact that they do not merely meet the needs of the moment, but they dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern, enabling them to experience the richness of their humanity… Consequently, in addition to their necessary professional training, these charity workers need a “formation of the heart”: they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others. As a result, love of neighbor will no longer be for them a commandment imposed, so to speak, from without, but a consequence deriving from their faith, a faith which becomes active through love (cf. Gal 5:6) (31).”

The fourth essential element is that Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. Charitable activity is not a useful means to a longer end goal. It is not done to change the world ideologically, nor is at “at the service of worldly strategems,” says Pope Benedict, “but is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs (31).” As a Church of Christ rather than a ‘church of causes,’ we must follow the “program of Jesus” which is a “a heart which sees (31).” The Pope continues:

“This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly. Obviously when charitable activity is carried out by the Church as a communitarian initiative, the spontaneity of individuals must be combined with planning, foresight and cooperation with other similar institutions (31).”

Fifth and finally, charity cannot be used as a means of engaging in proselytism. Pope Benedict clearly states:

“Love is free; it is not practiced as a way of achieving other ends. But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside. For it is always concerned with the whole man. Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God… A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak (31).”

Having given these five essential elements of Christian charity, who is responsible for the Church’s charitable activity?

Those responsible for the Church’s charitable activity (32 - 39)

Charity is such a deep action of the Church that it is part of Her identity. So, those responsible for charitable activity are the whole Church: bishops, priests, deacons, lay, and religious. In regard to bishops, Pope Benedict says the following:

“In the rite of episcopal ordination, prior to the act of consecration itself, the candidate must respond to several questions which express the essential elements of his office and recall the duties of his future ministry. He promises expressly to be, in the Lord's name, welcoming and merciful to the poor and to all those in need of consolation and assistance. The Code of Canon Law, in the canons on the ministry of the Bishop, does not expressly mention charity as a specific sector of episcopal activity, but speaks in general terms of the Bishop's responsibility for coordinating the different works of the apostolate with due regard for their proper character (32).”

He goes on to say once again that no one is off the hook from doing charitable work. Okay, he does not put it quite that way. He says this:

“With regard to the personnel who carry out the Church's charitable activity on the practical level, the essential has already been said: they must not be inspired by ideologies aimed at improving the world, but should rather be guided by the faith which works through love… Consequently, more than anything, they must be persons moved by Christ's love, persons whose hearts Christ has conquered with his love, awakening within them a love of neighbor (33).”

Of course it is always the love of Christ which marks our meritorious work. Charity inflames us to do good, in and through Christ, apart from Whom we can do nothing of true merit. Christ came to redeem the whole world and God loves each man and woman. Interior openness to Christ and His love is what makes the service of Christ’s disciples so distinctive. St. Paul’s hymn to charity in 1 Cor. 13 teaches us that service is more than activity alone: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing (1 Cor. 13:3).” Pope Benedict refers to this hymn as the “Magna Carta of all ecclesial service (34)” and the summary of all the reflections on love which he offers in Deus Caritas Est.

He goes on to say:

“Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for man, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ. My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift (34).”

When we serve in this self-giving way, we learn humility and grow in humility. As Pope Benedict beautifully reminds us:

“We recognize that we are not acting on the basis of any superiority or greater personal efficiency, but because the Lord has graciously enabled us to do so… We offer him our service only to the extent that we can, and for as long as he grants us the strength. To do all we can with what strength we have, however, is the task which keeps the good servant of Jesus Christ always at work: ‘The love of Christ urges us on’ (2 Cor 5:14) (35).”

Finding the Balance

Urged on by the love of Christ, it is easy to lose balance. “When we consider the immensity of others' needs, we can, on the one hand,” Pope Benedict says, “be driven towards an ideology that would aim at doing what God's governance of the world apparently cannot: fully resolving every problem. Or we can be tempted to give in to inertia, since it would seem that in any event nothing can be accomplished (36).”

So, how can we overcome these temptations? How can we find balance and keep the seesaw from tipping completely one way or the other? Pope Benedict continues:

“At such times, a living relationship with Christ is decisive if we are to keep on the right path, without falling into an arrogant contempt for man, something not only unconstructive but actually destructive, or surrendering to a resignation which would prevent us from being guided by love in the service of others. Prayer, as a means of drawing ever new strength from Christ, is concretely and urgently needed. People who pray are not wasting their time, even though the situation appears desperate and seems to call for action alone (36).”

Personal Relationship with God

Prayer is vital if we are to live in and with God. Prayer is our life blood. Our entire life can become a prayer if continually drawn deeply from the well of Christ. With the scourge of secularism prowling and the misguided extreme arm of activism, Christians are engaged in charitable work. Prayer is the antidote to this worldly spirit. A personal relationship with our loving Father, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit is utterly necessary. Pope Benedict puts it this way:

“Clearly, the Christian who prays does not claim to be able to change God's plans or correct what he has foreseen. Rather, he seeks an encounter with the Father of Jesus Christ, asking God to be present with the consolation of the Spirit to him and his work (37).”

The Problem of Evil

This personal relationship with God is all the more necessary for us in the midst of the problem of evil. We can often experience bewilderment and fail to understand the world around us. In these moments, the Pope says:

“Christians continue to believe in the ‘goodness and loving kindness of God’ (Tit 3:4). Immersed like everyone else in the dramatic complexity of historical events, they remain unshakably certain that God is our Father and loves us, even when his silence remains incomprehensible (38).”

Faith, Hope, and Charity

In the midst of darkness, we trust in the love of God which surpasses all understanding. The theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, God’s own life, have been instilled in our soul through the gift of Baptism. These theological virtues go together. Pope Benedict teaches us:

“Hope is practiced through the virtue of patience, which continues to do good even in the face of apparent failure, and through the virtue of humility, which accepts God's mystery and trusts him even at times of darkness. Faith tells us that God has given his Son for our sake and gives us the victorious certainty that it is really true: God is love! It thus transforms our impatience and our doubts into the sure hope that God holds the world in his hands and that, as the dramatic imagery of the end of the Book of Revelation points out, in spite of all darkness he ultimately triumphs in glory (39).”

We cannot see the full picture; only God does. And He has revealed so much to us. More than revelation, He has given us Himself. He shares in our humanity that we might share in His divinity. In Baptism, we are given the light and made to be the light to the world, in and through Christ. Pope Benedict sums up his first encyclical this way:

“Faith, which sees the love of God revealed in the pierced heart of Jesus on the Cross, gives rise to love. Love is the light—and in the end, the only light—that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working. Love is possible, and we are able to practice it because we are created in the image of God. To experience love and in this way to cause the light of God to enter into the world—this is the invitation I would like to extend with the present Encyclical (39).”

Conclusion (40 - 42)

As was the practice with his predecessor, Pope Benedict dedicates the conclusion of his document to the Mother of God, Mary most holy. Truly, each of the saints are a beautiful witness to the charity of God in every way imaginable. However, there is a preeminence to the holy charity of our Blessed Mother, the first disciple of her Holy Son, Jesus Christ.

I highly recommend reading the entire Conclusion (and the whole document, really) in full. But I would like to draw what resonated most with me. I simply love the way Pope Benedict speaks about our Blessed Mother. He says:

“Mary’s greatness consists in the fact that she wants to magnify God, not herself. She is lowly: her only desire is to be the handmaid of the Lord (cf. Lk 1:38, 48) She knows that she will only contribute to the salvation of the world if, rather than carrying out her own projects, she places herself completely at the disposal of God’s initiatives (41).” 

How often do you and I carry out our own projects, without putting ourselves at the disposal of God’s initiatives. Mary, form us, teach us! The Pope goes on:

“Mary is a woman who loves. How could it be otherwise? As a believer who in faith thinks with God's thoughts and wills with God's will, she cannot fail to be a woman who loves. We sense this in her quiet gestures, as recounted by the infancy narratives in the Gospel. We see it in the delicacy with which she recognizes the need of the spouses at Cana and makes it known to Jesus. We see it in the humility with which she recedes into the background during Jesus' public life, knowing that the Son must establish a new family and that the Mother's hour will come only with the Cross, which will be Jesus' true hour (cf. Jn 2:4; 13:1). When the disciples flee, Mary will remain beneath the Cross (cf. Jn 19:25-27); later, at the hour of Pentecost, it will be they who gather around her as they wait for the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 1:14) (41).”

Mary was there through it all. By her “yes” the Word of God took flesh, provided by her own body. Even despite her prominence and grandeur, the humility of the Theotokos is led by love. She loves with the love of God flowing through her as a perfect vessel and she loves with a human, motherly love. The Pope goes on:

“Mary, Virgin and Mother, shows us what love is and whence it draws its origin and its constantly renewed power. To her we entrust the Church and her mission in the service of love (42).”

Here Pope Benedict ends with a prayer to the Theotokos, which I would like to end today’s article with as well. Please join me in praying:

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, 

you have given the world its true light, 

Jesus, your Son – the Son of God. 

You abandoned yourself completely 

to God's call 

and thus became a wellspring 

of the goodness which flows forth from him. 

Show us Jesus. Lead us to him. 

Teach us to know and love him, 

so that we too can become 

capable of true love 

and be fountains of living water 

in the midst of a thirsting world (42).”


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