A conference on the encyclical letter of Pope Benedict XVI —
Deus Caritas Est
Speaking Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland
Croke Park Conference Centre, 18th February 2008
Deus Caritas Est is without doubt a remarkable document, yet it has not been well received in some quarters. It appears to some to challenge elements which had become the “accepted wisdom” for the style of the presence of the Church in the contemporary world. The reaction of some has been not just reserve but even rejection. Yet Deus Caritas Est has within it a coherent and convincing interior logic. Let us look briefly at it.
1. Deus Caritas Est is about God
Firstly, Deus Caritas Est is about God. It is about the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. It presents us with a vision of who God is and how God acts in human history. If it is about God it is also about humankind. Each of us is created in the image and likeness of God. Human fulfilment means then that we attempt to identify God’s action in our world and shape our lives in accordance with that action.
The God revealed in Jesus Christ is very different to the God’s of the pagans often identified with powerful or terrifying or mysterious manifestations of power in the cosmos, a God distant from humankind. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is also very different to the God’s of history, including our own, where power and possession and wealth and celebrity and success are prized as ultimate sources of human recognition and value.
The God revealed in Jesus Christ is a God of love. The truth about God is that he is love. God’s truth is not the emptiness of the sentimental or at times narcissistic love of popular culture. God’s love is by its nature outpouring and self-giving. Deus Caritas Est (#12) notes that in the New Testament, “[God’s] divine activity now takes on dramatic form when, in Jesus Christ, it is God himself who goes in search of the “stray sheep”, a suffering and lost humanity. When Jesus speaks in his parables of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, of the woman who looks for the lost coin, of the father who goes to meet and embrace his prodigal son, these are no mere words: they constitute an explanation of his very being and activity. His death on the Cross is… love in its most radical form”
The truth about God’s love is to be discovered in Jesus’ giving of himself until death. It is also from there that the Christian believer discovers the path that he or she must lead.
2. God’s love is encountered in the Church
Deus Caritas Est then is about God. Secondly, God’s love is encountered in the Church, which should be a community of love. Deus Caritas Est notes that: “The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation”. Whereas in the Old Testament God’s people could stand in God’s presence, Christian believers enter into union with God through sharing in Jesus’ self-gift, his body and blood.
Pope Benedict however stresses something that Christian often overlook: “this sacramental “mysticism” is social in character. ‘Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17)’… Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented”
The service of love is thus an essential and integral dimension of being a Christian. Pope Benedict notes: “The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word”.
3. God shows no discrimination in his love
God’s love is a love for all. God shows no discrimination in his love and thus the Christian must love in the same way. Pope Benedict presents the Good Samaritan as the new standard for love: “a standard which imposes universal love towards the needy that we encounter ‘by chance'”. We know nothing in fact about the man who fell among thieves, except that he was a man, a fellow human person in need. It is of no significance whether he was black, yellow or white, respectable or outcast, rich or poor. Christian love cannot choose whom to love or when to love.
Christian love, reflecting God’s love, reaches out to all without distinction. It must also address the person in his or her completeness. The Encyclical speaks clearly to those involved in Christian charitable activity. They “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”.
4. A Kingdom of God accomplished without God
That “richness of their humanity” also includes their relationship with God. Many Catholic aid organizations were founded on the principle of a distinction between responding to the physical needs of persons and questions about the need for God. Is such a distinction possible today? Not, I believe, in the way it was in the past. World culture has changed. In a world where religious culture is less present and where there are strong secularist currents which would prefer to push religion more and more into the private sphere, there is a much greater danger today that even Christian organizations can become trapped in the search simply of a better world. Religious values become marginalized from the “real world”, or, to use computer language, they “pop-up” occasionally only to be relegated again by a click of the “close window” box.
Our western culture is easily dominated by a vision where the Kingdom of God easily becomes displaced a kingdom of man. Pope Benedict presents the challenge in striking terms: “There is no doubt, therefore, that a “Kingdom of God” accomplished without God-a kingdom therefore of man alone-inevitably ends up as the “perverse end” of all things as described by Kant: we have seen it, and we see it over and over again”.
Pope Benedict spoke about this notion last week commenting on his Encyclical at a meeting with the clergy of his diocese of Rome. He reminded them of how ideologies of a better world end up destroying the world, since they do not know God. He mentioned how bishops from the former communist countries constantly remind him that the legacy left behind by the atheistic communist ideology was not only the legacy of the destruction of the economy, or the destruction of the planet and its and its ecology, but above all destruction of person’s souls. He concluded again that re-discovering human conscience inspired by the presence of God is the first task to be achieved in reconstructing the world.
A consequence of this is that change in the world can never fully be achieved simply by structural change. I quote from Spe Salvi: “The right state of human affairs, the moral well-being of the world can never be guaranteed simply through structures alone, however good they are. Such structures are not only important, but necessary; yet they cannot and must not marginalize human freedom. Even the best structures function only when the community is animated by convictions capable of motivating people to assent freely to the social order. Freedom requires conviction; conviction does not exist on its own, but must always be gained anew by the community”.
5. The role of prayer.
A final comment on a theme not often taken up in Conferences like ours! Both Deus Caritas Est and in Spe Salvi Pope Benedict has challenging remarks about the role of prayer. In Deus Caritas Est he notes that: “It is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of the activism and the growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work”.
In Spe Salvi he notes that “To pray is not to step outside history and withdraw to our own private corner of happiness. When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well. In prayer we must learn what we can truly ask of God-what is worthy of God. We must learn that we cannot pray against others. We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment-that meagre, misplaced hope that leads us away from God. We must learn to purify our desires and our hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves”.
These are just some reflections that I have to offer as we begin our reflections.