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God Is Love: From Philosophy to Action

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 21, 2006

By now you’re either well into Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est or you’re very likely to let it slip entirely. For those who might not get to it—or who may wonder if they should—let me summarize the encyclical. In the process, I’ll explain why there are parts of this encyclical that every Catholic should read.

Thinking About Love

Deus Caritas Est is divided into two major parts. In Part 1, the Pope addresses the concept of love, especially as developed in the rich terminology of classical thought, and asks whether eros, the love of passion and ecstasy, is essentially different from the Christian agape, or charity. Benedict concludes that Christianity has not rejected or poisoned eros, as many anti-Christian writers would have it, but has disciplined and purified it so that all love is unified to provide “not just fleeting pleasure but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns” (#4).

To accomplish this purification, the Biblical concept of agape turns love away from self and toward the other. This disciplined, charitable love seeks both passionate exclusivity and permanence; it is liberated in the human heart through self-giving. Precisely by moving out of the “closed inward-looking self”, this love moves constantly toward “authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God. As Christ Himself put it: ‘Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it' (Lk. 17:33)” (#6).

The Contribution of Faith

The Judaeo-Christian tradition contributes two new and remarkable concepts to this discussion of love. First, Scripture presents a new image of God. Unlike pagan gods, the Judaeo-Christian God is the one supreme creator of heaven and earth. And this God loves man. In other words, Biblical faith makes clear that God enters fully into the definition of love: “this universal principle of creation—the Logos, primordial reason—is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love. Eros is thus supremely ennobled, yet at the same time it is so purified as to become one with agape” (#10).

Second, Scripture presents a new image of man. Adam is incomplete without Eve. The human person is driven by nature toward communion with the opposite sex to achieve wholeness. Thus, the powerful image of the monotheistic God is mirrored by monogamous marriage, in which husband and wife become two in one flesh. Moreover, Christ himself enters our history as the incarnate love of God, elevating marriage to the level of sacrament, and making marriage a very model of God’s love for the soul and Christ’s love for the Church.

But this incompleteness is also oriented to God, and through God to all others. Each Christian is drawn into union with Christ through the sacramental sharing of Christ’s own perfect self-giving, his body and blood in the Eucharist. But “union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself toward him and thus also toward unity with all Christians.” Here Benedict concludes that love of God and love of neighbor are now fully united as Christ draws all to himself; it is therefore unsurprising that agape was an early term for Eucharist. In this, the false contraposition between worship and ethics falls apart: “A eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented” (#14).

The Practice of Love

Having established this vital connection between love of God and love of neighbor, Benedict proceeds in Part 2 of Deus Caritas Est to a consideration of love as an essential element in the nature of the Church, which gives Christian service its unique and special character. The Pope begins by explaining that the Church’s charitable activity manifests God’s Trinitarian love. The Holy Spirit serves 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, who wishes to make humanity a single family in his Son” (#19).

As evidence of this defining activity of the Holy Spirit, the Pope notes that love has been, from the very first, institutionalized in the Church through the ordered ministry of charity known as diaconia. The first example of this diaconia is encountered in the Acts of the Apostles when seven men are formally set aside for charitable service to the community through ordination to the diaconate. Benedict cites a number of other early historical instances of this formal charitable activity, also noting that Julian the Apostate deliberately set up pagan institutions of charity in an attempt to replace what his people regarded as a chief point of attraction to Christian life.

Benedict teaches that the Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her threefold responsibility of proclaiming the word of God, celebrating the sacraments and exercising the ministry of charity. “For the church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being” (#25). He also emphasizes that this charitable activity extends beyond the Church herself, as evidenced by the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Justice and Christian Charity

There follows a treatment of the relationship between justice and charity, including Benedict’s very effective answer to ideologues who depict Christian charity as an excuse to avoid the serious responsibility of rooting out injustice through the rapid transformation of social, political and economic systems. He points out the Church’s role in purifying and strengthening reason so that we might more effectively identify and resolve political and social difficulties, and her role of reflecting on the natural law and the dignity of man through her social teachings, as well as the role of the laity as a leaven for good in socio-political life. But he makes clear that the Church herself is not, and must not become, a political institution.

No, the Church’s first priority is to communicate throughout the social order her defining charism of selfless love. Thus the encyclical goes on to explain the distinctiveness of Christian charity and of the Church’s charitable activity. First, charity is “the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations.” While professional competence is required, it is not sufficient. “We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern” (#31a).

Second, Christian charity “must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs.” The Pope notes that we contribute to a better world only by personally doing good now, responding from the heart to the sufferings of others whenever and wherever we have the opportunity, without taking into account how our activities fit into partisan strategies. “The Christian’s program—the program of the good Samaritan, the program of Jesus—is ‘a heart which sees’” (#31b).

Third, charity cannot be an excuse for proselytism. “Love is free; it is not practiced as a way of achieving other ends.” Christians realize that a “pure and generous love is the best witness to the God in whom we believe and by whom we are driven to love.” Moreover, the Christian “knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak” (#31c).

The Hearts of Those Responsible for Charity

This brings us to the final portion of the second part of Deus Caritas Est, which provides a powerful reason for every Christian to read this profound encyclical. In what for me is the most moving section of the text, Benedict describes the interior disposition which must characterize all those who engage in charitable work, not only those in official ecclesial positions of charitable service, but each one of us: interior openness to the Catholic dimension of the Church, a disposition to humility, a commitment to prayer.

In the midst of tremendous suffering throughout the world, those who are humbly attuned to God and devoted to the well-being of their neighbors will not lose heart, but will instead grasp the central feature of Christian charity, which is precisely the passionate, purified love which enables the giver to receive and the recipient to give. “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” (#38).

Conclusion

Pope Benedict XVI concludes this first encyclical by citing the witness of the saints to this clear burning love of charity. Invoking Mary in the last paragraph, he prays: “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). Thus does every line of this encyclical both derive from and illustrate the central reality of human existence. Deus caritas est. God is love.

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