A Lutheran Encyclical: Benedict’s Deus Caritas Est

[1] The first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, offers a “timely and significant” statement of the “heart of the Christian faith” in “a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence.” Encyclical statements of Catholic teaching have these dogmatic and ethical functions: “to clarify essential facts concerning the love which God mysteriously and gratuitously offers, together with the intricate link between that Love and the reality of human love… call[ing] forth in the world renewed energy and commitment.” The encyclical thus divides into two parts, a dogmatic essay on the “unity of love in creation and salvation history” and an ethical probing of “the practice of love by the church as a ‘community of love’.”

[2] The first part argues against taking the modern (think, for example, of Immanuel Kant or Anders Nygren) antithesis between “ascending” eros and “descending” agape to such an “extreme” that “the essence of Christianity would be detached from the vital relations fundamental to human existence… the complex fabric of human life.” Instead of this one must uncover the ambiguity inherent in eros. Eros as creation bears the promise of “infinity, eternity – a reality far greater and totally other than our everyday existence;” this promise of creation is not negated but redeemed and fulfilled in agape. Eros as sinful covetousness, on the other hand, reduces “to pure ‘sex;’ [it] has become a commodity, a mere ‘thing’ to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity… the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will.” Thus lost and fallen “eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is 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.”

[3] This discipline comes from the “personal” encounter with God in the agape of Jesus Christ: “His death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form.” For us, this divine self-giving love is “not simply a matter of morality -something that could exist apart from and alongside faith in Christ and its sacramental actualization.” Jesus’ agape act of oblation reaches and reforms eros through the Eucharist, which is its “enduring presence” in the world. Consequently, “love can [only] be ‘commanded’ because it has first been given;” more strongly, “love cannot be commanded; it is ultimately a feeling that is either there or not, nor can it be produced by the will.” The gratuitousness of eros as creation and of agape as the divine gift of creation’s renewal by the self-offering of God in the cross of Christ mean that “God does not demand of us a feeling which we ourselves are incapable of producing. He loves us, he makes us see and experience his love, and since he has ‘loved us first,’ love can also blossom as a response within us.” By the same token, however, this “feeling” is not “merely a sentiment” that may “come and go.” Grounded in the Eucharistic reception of agape, the renewed human being learns “to look on th[e] other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend.” Agape does not destroy eros but heals and fulfills it.

[4] The second half of the encyclical explores diaconal ministry -“the ministry of charity exercised in a communitarian, orderly way”-as “part of the fundamental structure of the Church.” As in the preceding section where Benedict engages in “ad hoc apologetics” (Lindbeck) by meeting objections along the way from the side of metaphysics (Aristotle) and ethics (Nietzsche), likewise in this section the pope disputes with Marxist critiques of charity i.e., that “anyone who engages in charitable initiatives is actually serving th[e] unjust system”– and counterthrusts with his own incisive critique of utopianism: an “inhuman philosophy. People of the present are sacrificed to the moloch of the future – a future whose objective realization is at best doubtful.” Certainly “when we consider the immensity of others’ needs,” we are tempted to pride or despair. The “presumption of thinking that we alone are personally responsible for building a better world…” may arise, when in fact “it is God who governs the world, not we.” Or we may give in to “inertia, since it would seem that in any event nothing can be accomplished.” A “living relationship with Christ is decisive” for staying on the faithful path of humble service between these opposing errors. The pastoral burden of this section is so to sustain the rooted-ness of Christian social service in the gospel.

[5] To this end, first, a version of the two-kingdoms doctrine is articulated: “Fundamental to Christianity is the distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God (cf. Mt 22:21), in other words, the distinction between Church and State… The two spheres are distinct, yet always interrelated.” In this distinction, the divine mandate laid upon the political vocation is “justice.” Since justice is more than a “mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life,” “politics and faith meet” in the debate about justice in society. Here faith may purify political reason from the “danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests” by seeing the other from the perspective of Jesus Christ. Yet politics remain politics, even when salted by faith purifying reason: the achievement of social justice “on the basis of reason and natural law” cannot “be the Church’s immediate responsibility… 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.” Benedict is here speaking of the church as a public institution, comparable to the state; on this level the institutional separation of church and state must be sustained and grounded in the distinct tasks of seeking earthly justice and manifesting heavenly mercy respectively. Yet Benedict also acknowledges a mediated responsibility of the Church in the political work for justice: “The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society… is proper to the lay faithful.” Comment: A more realistic assessment of “the dazzling effect of power” endemic to the state, which is always an order of coercion itself exercised by self-interested parties, would have strengthened the argument for the two-kingdoms doctrine here.

[6] Having assigned the task of justice to the state, Benedict now reclaims charity as an essential Christian ministry, manifesting the divine compassion. Citing the parable of the Good Samaritan, the pope describes the diaconal ministry of the church as “first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked…” But he is quick to remind that “man does not live by bread alone;” that “we are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern.” So charity workers themselves “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 spirit to others.” So grounded in Christ, the diaconal ministry of the Church “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.” Indeed, it is not even at the service of “what is nowadays considered proselytism…” since the act of charity has no other end but to aid and befriend the neighbor in need. Yet “this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside.” A free witness to the source of charity may be made as the opportunity is given.

[7] Benedict’s repeated emphasis on the freedom of the Christian -also “from ideologies aimed at improving the world” is grounded in Galatians 5:6: charity should be “guided by the faith which works through love.” The faith which knows the agape love of Christ reforms the person and informs charitable work in “persons moved by Christ’s love, persons whose hearts Christ has conquered with his love…” Prayer and contemplation are thus commended “in the face of the activism and the growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work.” This concluding argument of the second section leads Benedict into a notable discussion of the problem of theodicy, which, as he discerns, is the spiritual basis of this “growing secularism.” “An authentically religious attitude” -the aforementioned faith in Christ forming our love in turn— “prevents man from presuming to judge God, accusing him of allowing poverty and failing to have compassion for his creatures.” Benedict recalls here Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross. In contemplation of this act of divine solidarity with us in the depth experience of godlessness, we learn with Augustine (whose spirit breathes through this encyclical): “faith’s answer to our sufferings:… if you understand him [God], he is not God.” With Jesus in this time of darkness, “our crying out is… the deepest and most radical way of affirming our faith in [God’s] sovereign power… Faith tells us that God has given his Son for our sakes and gives us the victorious certainty that it is really true: God is love!”

[8] Assured faith, certain faith in the love of God in spite of contrary experience. The theology of the cross in the face of incomprehensible suffering. The freedom of the Christian – also from political correctness. The simple, direct ministry of charity to the neighbor in need. The two-kingdoms theology requiring the patient, political, non-utopian work for justice in society. The redemption and sanctification of eros rather than its suppression or renunciation. The primacy of grace over human choice. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist as the source of Christian discipleship. The firm rejection of terrorism and fanaticism in religion. Faith forming love in the image of the Crucified. All this “taught with authority, unlike the scribes and the Pharisees.” Shall I go on? Is it any wonder that Lutherans who have any substantial memory of their own tradition slip away to the bosom of the erstwhile foe where that theological tradition, though not (yet) honored by name is nevertheless honored in fact? It is no wonder. What is a wonder is the Lord of the church, who works stunning reversals.

[9] To put an edge on the point: Benedict, like Luther, makes the life-long, exclusive marriage of a man and a woman the immanent telos of eros, a telos in history that can be missed, obscured, abused and even lost under the sway of sinful covetousness. Yet marriage nevertheless emerges in human social evolution as that erotic striving from below for an “infinity of happiness.” As such, redeemed and sanctified in Christ, the life-long, sexually exclusive marriage of a man and a woman becomes the fitting image of the Lord’s love for Israel and the Church. Benedict, like Luther, will say that the famous text of Genesis simply means what is says when it denies that it is good for the male to be alone, that his humanity and bearing of the image of God consist in his partnership with the female, that together and only together do they form the image God in the fashion God as Creator intends.

[10] Of course this is very hard to hear for the lonely who cannot find a fitting partner. But a sufficiently Lutheran social theology would take that (as Benedict does in his pointed critique of the consumerist materialism of Euro-American society) to be an indictment of the social system, which commodifies all relations, not the fault of its manifold individual victims. It would indeed test social systems by their ability to flourish the most basic and intimate human relations. It would never, ever sanctify the status quo in which human sexuality increasingly reduces to a commodity – no matter how “liberating” that would sound in the ears of a population already drugged into political stupor by bread and circuses.

[11] Benedict is our pope, too, even though we remain “separated” sisters and brothers belonging to an “ecclesiastical community.” I hope many of us “separated” will read this encyclical and ones to come. There are perhaps sticking points that others will find more important than the deep commonalities with our forgotten tradition that I have uncovered in this review. No doubt they exist. But it ought deeply to perplex us that our tradition is better preserved today in the Roman Catholic Church than in our own nominally Lutheran Church in America.

Paul R. Hinlicky

Paul R. Hinlicky is the Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.