Better than Cherry Pie!

[1] When I was in Seminary my wife and I lived in an apartment in downtown Gettysburg. Our landlady lived upstairs. Each month I would walk up a flight of stairs and deliver the rent check. One month, as I began that trek, I began to smell the aroma of fresh baking. As I entered the hallway to my landlady’s apartment, the aroma was unmistakable: freshly baked pies! Expectantly, I knocked on her door. When she opened the door the aroma was delightfully overwhelming. I saw on her kitchen counter a dozen fruit pies: cherry, apple, peach. I said, “Missus, what are you doing?” “Well, can’t you see? I’m baking pies?” “Yes, of course. But so many pies. Why are you baking so many pies?” “I’m baking these pies for the shut-ins in my congregation.” “That’s terrific. But, tell me why you’re doing that.” “Young man, you’re in Seminary, aren’t you? You should know.” “Well, yes ma’am, I am. I must have missed that lesson though. Tell me why you’re baking all these pies for the shut-ins in your congregation.” “It’s quite simple, really. I’m baking these pies so that I can get into heaven. You don’t think for a minute I’d go to all this trouble if there weren’t that kind of payoff, do you?”

[2] My landlady could have used a big piece of Pope Benedict XVI’s first Encyclical. In this fine piece of writing, the pontiff articulates the centrality of love for the neighbor, grounded in a fundamental understanding of God’s primal, enduring, and self-giving love for each of us.

[3] My landlady’s cherry pie isn’t on the Pope’s table.

[4] While much could be written about the several subjects within this encyclical, this article will focus on how love of neighbor informs the very identity of the Roman Catholic Church, distinctions between charity and justice, the strength of what the Pope elects not to say, and some beginning elements describing a civil society. Charity and the Church

[5] Although the encyclical correctly notes that love of neighbor is certainly a responsibility of each Christian, the overwhelming argument for giving expression to love of neighbor is framed in the context of the Church itself.

[6] Here are some of the ways the encyclical puts it: “As a community, the Church must practice love. Love thus needs to be organized” (Section 20). “Love of neighbor…is also a responsibility for the entire ecclesial community at every level…”(S. 20). In referring to Stephen and the other deacons appointed in Acts 6, the Pope writes: “With the formation of this group of seven, ‘diaconia’-the ministry of charity exercised in a communitarian, orderly way-became part of the fundamental structure of the church”(S.21). “The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word” (S.22). The strongest claim of charity on the Church, however, is found in Section 25, part a. Here, the pope declares: “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. 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” (bold print added).

[7] Indeed, the encyclical argues that if the Church qua Church is not engaged in what is referred to as charity, the very authenticity of the Church is badly compromised. It’s difficult to imagine other Christian communions making that case! This is a remarkable formulation that fundamentally commits the Roman Catholic Church itself to ministries of charity for the sake of its own identity.

[8] By way of comparison, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declares in its Constitution that “this church shall … serve in response to God’s love to meet human needs…” and that it will create organizations designed specifically for that purpose. For the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, then, one can presume that its identity is inextricably tied to ministries of charity, but there is no indication of the centrality of service to be found in the ELCA’s governing document to which Pope Benedict gives voice.

[9] In practice, in the real world, it’s not apparent at all that any Christian communion recognizes the centrality of love of neighbor in their corporate life. Let the money speak as a rough indicator of priorities. For most congregations, a little more than ten per cent of the budget is set aside for benevolence. Today, the notion of a congregation “tithing” ten per cent of its fund drives for benevolence is common. This is hardly an expression of the centrality of neighbor love at a congregational level.

[10] That aside, the Lutheran community should resonate with the encyclical’s identification of the essential elements of charity expressed through the Church: It is first a simple response to immediate need. It must be independent of parties and ideologies. It cannot be used as a means of engaging in proselytism (S. 31).

[11] For some of us, though, this three-fold identification of the essential elements of charity falls short in two important ways: First, neighbor love should help people change and build their lives, not just respond to immediate need. It’s inadequate, for example, simply to assure that persons in need have access to emergency housing– it’s also “essential” that persons be helped to secure housing that is safe, affordable, and responsive to individual and family needs over time. It’s vital, too, to help assure that persons have opportunity to earn wages that accommodate their needs. Second, and more dramatically, it seems self-evident that changing the social and environmental conditions which create need should be changed. Simply reacting to individual need without a parallel focus on justice seems woefully inadequate. The quest for justice is integral to charity, even though it is the state that must implement justice. Charity and Justice

[12] The encyclical points out that there is a recurring objection to works of service because what the poor need is not charity, but justice. Moreover, the counter-argument goes, providing acts of charity inhibits the realization of a just society. The pope rejects these points of view. He argues that the path to social justice is long and difficult and that the real needs of persons merit response now and cannot wait for the day of justice. He does, however, recognize the danger of justice being denied because charitable service may mask the need for justice. He also declares that although the Church has witness to bring to the quest for justice, achieving justice belongs to the state, not the Church. The role of the Church is to identify the requirements of justice and to “reawaken the spiritual energy” (Section 28) necessary to create the conditions for justice.

[13] In this encyclical Pope Benedict XVI writes with passion with respect to the fundamental expression of charity by the Church. His references to the quest for justice in society are more distant. The centrality of diaconia for the Church is clear. Since achieving justice is so clearly a responsibility of the state, there is much less analysis and energy devoted to this subject. Perhaps in another venue Pope Benedict XVI will write with greater urgency concerning justice; he should. Here, the pope fails to establish the naturally strong bond between service (charity) and justice. Indeed, it’s vital that the affinities that charity and service have for one another be affirmed and made stronger. The Strength of Silence

[14] One of the most important ways in which this encyclical is important and inviting for all Christians is what is not said. Although there is ample opportunity for strong references to the Roman Catholic view of sexuality, abortion, divorce and other particular and important issues, the only specific social issue referenced is that of poverty. Moreover, where the pontiff had opportunity to divide, he joined. Where the pontiff had opportunity to diminish the role of the Church in service, he amplified. Where the pontiff had opportunity to claim a unique role for the Roman Catholic Church, he invited cooperation.

[15] Consequently, this allows the vital central points of his point of view to remain highlighted and not hijacked by the fury of opposing points of view of particular issues. There’s time and place enough for that. In that regard, the frequent references to cooperation with others who also seek charity and justice appear to be genuine, rising above those matters that divide. Civil Society

[16] Underlying the encyclical is a heartfelt passion for a world community which welcomes expression of charity and justice, too. It wasn’t the function of this body of work to articulate the vision of what such a world might look like. Pope Benedict’s first encyclical does, however, identify some of the building blocks for our communities to create civil society. For example, the encyclical declares that in a society we have an obligation to love the neighbor we don’t know or whom we don’t like. That is one of the clear requirements of a civil society.

[17] Much is being written these days about civil society; more is discussed. What the requirements are for such a state of affairs remains the subject of agreements yet to be reached.

[18] The encyclical identifies some of the fundamentals: The common good is grounded in love for neighbor (from a non-religious point of view it’s not clear that love, especially as developed in the encyclical, is a pre-condition of the common good), especially for the neighbor we don’t like or know. The common good requires us to be generous even when it is costly, and to trust when there is risk. The elimination of poverty is a requisite for living in a civil society.

[19] There are additional fundamentals, of course. These aren’t identified in the encyclical. Here are some more of them that seem to be basic to this writer: All people should have the opportunity to live and work in community with dignity, safety, and hope. Society needs to invest in creating those opportunities. Society needs to hold government and its partners accountable for results Each person needs to assume responsibility for his or her actions. Respect for others is the base line-not the apex of the common good. We need to believe we can make things right.

[20] This encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI squarely affirms the Church’s role in love of neighbor. The affirmation of the centrality of love for neighbor and its unity with love of God is especially striking-and refreshing. This work, both in its detail and in its sweeping proclamation is inviting for all humankind, and is one more vital sign of hope for our time. We have but to give it the life of persistent, continuous application.

[21] The pope has served up a dish far better than cherry pie!