Pope Benedict’s long-awaited first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, was published this morning in Rome. The English translation of it can be found on the Vatican website by clicking here.

There’s obviously much to reflect on in this fairly short letter on Christian love, but a few aspects may be of particular interest to readers of this blog.

The pope cites a number of political philosophers, such as Nietzsche, Descartes, Aristotle, Plato, St. Augustine (several times), and Marx. Besides revealing what we already know about the former Cardinal Ratzinger’s formidable education, the encyclical reminds us that human and divine love is a theme the greatest minds have grappled with throughout the ages, and often through the lens of politics and religion.

The passage cited from Plato’s Symposium in n. 11 happens to be one of the most beautiful allegories of love ever penned; Pope Benedict compares it to the language of the Book of Genesis. Like any great teacher, he makes the reader return to the originals for their poetry and insights.

From the more prosaic perspective of social doctrine, the section on justice and charity (nos.26-29) contains an illuminating discussion of the distinct yet complementary functions of Church and State. The pope begins his treatment by taking on the Marxist critique of the Church’s charitable activity, i.e. what the poor need is justice, not charity, and even admits some truth to it:

It is true that the pursuit of justice must be a fundamental norm of the State and that the aim of a just social order is to guarantee to each person, according to the principle of subsidiarity, his share of the community’s goods.

But then comes this:

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.

After tracing the history of Catholic social doctrine from Bishop Kettler of Mainz to Popes Leo XIII and John Paul II, Benedict distinguishes “the necessary commitment to justice and the ministry of charity.”

The entire section deserves to be read with care and attention, but the general point is that the realms of justice and charity are interrelated yet distinct. Justice is the proper aim of the State, not the Church, but justice, and hence the State, is not enough.

Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable. The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. 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.

This is the Catholic case for limited government par excellence. Justice and politics are necessary and good objectives to pursue, but they are not what human life is ultimately about. Divine love transcends politics. This is the language of a political philosophy that points beyond itself to theology, and it’s perfectly fitting as Benedict’s first encyclical.

I don’t need to tell you to read the whole thing.

  • http://www.ratzingerfanclub.com/blog/2006/01/pope-benedict-xvi-deus-caritas-est.html Against The Grain

    There is simply no excuse for not reading the encyclical in full. I quickly realized (reading it over a Saturday afternoon) that it’s one of those texts where, if I went after it with a highlighter, I’d quickly run out of ink. =) So if you haven’t re…