Diving Down: Vigilance and Discernment of Deus Caritas Est

[1] Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, having generated less commentary than hoped, is nonetheless a remarkable introduction to the moderate-conservative professor of Tuebingen and then Regensburg, who is the current pontiff.1 Benedict’s expected criticisms of Euro-American consumerism and socio-political ideologies are represented, but also refined, in the two parts of the text. The first part is a theological and philosophical investigation (seeking a unified understanding of the nature of love between eros and agape) that serves as a moral compass for practical direction to the second part (the praxis of love and the role of the Church). In both parts, opportunity for enrichment is offered to the attentive reader.

[2] A Pontiff’s first encyclical typically requires that the reader approach the text proper with one’s full interpretive apparatus intact, since much of what he says is likewise meant to set a specific trajectory for the future of his pontificate. To accept the encyclical on its own terms, I think it is important to first resist the tempting end-run of easy coherence, where the encyclical itself is definitively sliced up and claims of what are considered “Lutheran” or “Catholic” are contra-poised to one another. With respect to the encyclical, my current assessment would do the reader little service by seeking after a second-order albeit significant inquiry about whether or how Lutheran and Catholic conceptions of agape are similar or different. Resistance of this kind does not thrust the reader into the sometimes regrettable generics of an uncritical ecumenical methodology, where legitimate and nuanced differences collapse into the center. To the contrary, I believe that a sound methodology of ecumenism requires diving down with vigilance and discernment into the text, first asking questions such as-“What does ‘love’ or ‘justice’ mean precisely in this encyclical?” In this way, the reader is freed up for the kind of critical reflection that is a fundamental principle of any Lutheran college or university of the Liberal Arts. Through diving down into the conceptual bedrock of the text, one is likewise afforded the ground for both appreciation and critique of what the encyclical suggests to us. Finally, by asking after the text in this way, I try to spare myself from becoming either a guardian at the gate in a hermeneutic of orthodoxy pro forma, or an ad hoc ascender to the ideologies of the day – right, left, or otherwise – where interpretations of love and justice risk becoming mired in mantras that skirt sound scholarly inquiry, the historical teaching of the Church, and the perspicuity of the gospel on issues addressed within the encyclical itself.

[3] In resisting easy coherence and seeking after the text, my current assessment will turn on the fulcrum of two themes that are essential to the encyclical. I will likewise interpose reflections for paving an interpretive path toward a future, necessary second-order reading noted above. These themes are: a) the nature of love that informs part one of the encyclical, and b) the properties of fellowship or koinonia that inform part two of the encyclical.

[4] First, a) the nature of love that informs part one of the encyclical is drawn principally, although not stated explicitly, through the interpretive lenses of Augustine’s ordo amoris, and the two-volume treatise, Eros and Agape, of Swedish Lutheran theologian, Anders Nygren. Distinct from Nygren’s conclusion that the individual’s desire (eros) turns the Christian away from the only true expression of love (agape), Benedict illustrates how both eros and agape are central to divine love. Benedict’s treatment of love follows a classical Catholic interpretive trace, influenced greatly by both Plato and Augustine, a trace that I will unpack below. My point of reflection will be that although the first part of the encyclical is well developed, as a pastoral letter it is too philosophically abstract in terms of the subject’s own love toward oneself. Furthermore, part of this abstraction in the ‘love of oneself’ generates precisely from Benedict’s adaptation of Augustine, and the classical interpretive trace outlined below. Abstraction on the nature of love in our age, particularly in terms of love toward oneself, lacks in clarity at a time that requires something less of abstraction, and something more in terms of the pastoral voice from the supreme pontiff.

[5] Benedict makes the transition toward a unified love between eros and agape by first reanimating the concept of Christian eros. More is at stake here than Benedict’s desire to recover eros for the Church. Not Christianity, but the philosophical and popular projects of secularization are the culprits. The historical commodification and resultant isolation of the human subject away from divine and inter-personal love are the horns of the modern predicament. Martin Heidegger’s critique of the human ding an sich in the current technocratic age resonates in Benedict’s discussion of the “exploited” who turn to “exploit.” Benedict’s point on exploitation is borne out in the image of the human body-exploitation is the self’s “exaltation of the body” that transmogrifies “into a hatred of bodiliness.” from two centuries of what he identifies as the “widely-held perception” (concluding with Nietzsche) that Christianity is the villain that destroyed eros.

[6] As noted above, Benedict’s classical Catholic position draws upon Augustine’s thought, and the latter’s adaptation of Plato’s distinction between Lover and Beloved in his Lysis. What requires further clarification, and is lacking in the encyclical, is the role of an appropriate love of self. This lack is also evident in Augustine’s thought, a point that Augustine himself recognized. Consider the following: Augustine adapts Plato’s distinction of Lover and Beloved into the foundational theological rhetoric of tri-partite typologies-introduced in his Confessions, De Doctrina and De Trinitate-of the Lover, the Beloved, and the Loved. Augustine’s articulation of love as caritas is about the well-ordered affections within these typologies.2 In his De Doctrina, Augustine introduces the classic four ‘things’ to be loved in the ordo amoris-God, oneself, one’s neighbor, and the world “below us.”3 How one loves oneself precedes the love of neighbor insofar as this love is directed foremost to the immutable God.4 When desire is disordered, the proper ordering of these typologies becomes corrupted, as does the human subject.

[7] Following his exposition of the corruptive love of self, Augustine never clarifies an appropriate love of oneself in these typologies. I would not posit upon Augustine’s thought an anachronistic model of the modern therapeutic self. Instead, consider Augustine’s recognition of an absence in his own work on the nature of love: Augustine writes that in the “great commandment-love of God and love of neighbor . . . nothing which is to be loved is omitted from these two precepts.”5 But then Augustine pauses in his argument, glances back and queries-“it may seem that nothing has been said about the love of yourself. But when it is said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’ at the same time, it is clear that love of yourself is not omitted.”6 But what is love of oneself? This question goes unanswered.

[8] In the encyclical, Benedict’s exposition on love is reflective and at times moving. However, where he focuses on the exploitation and commodification of the self, then the issue of appropriate love toward oneself in the current age would suggest redress. In our age where the identification of the self as ‘consumer’ trumps or is fused with other identifications, such as ‘Christian,’ or ‘citizen,’ then this is precisely the place where clarity on the love of oneself would provide an alternative to the exploitation of the self, which is of such concern for Benedict.

[9] Benedict’s project in part one is to reveal how both eros and agape are inseparable. Agape is a descending oblative love and eros is an ascending love, and together both are necessary in a unified dialectic, or dialogue, that consistently gives and receives between God and human beings. The source of this unified dialectic is drawn from “the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God.” A “mature love” develops in this dialectic and engages the whole human being, awakening “within us a feeling of joy born of the experience of being loved.” Benedict speaks to the maturity of love (eros and agape) with the intellect and the will (drawing from the logos heritage). But in what ways is this maturity borne out in love toward oneself? The transition to part two of the encyclical takes up the theme once more of the self’s love of neighbor and love of God, but this maturity must likewise have a locus in the interiority of the self. What are the limits of responsible, acceptable, prudent, necessary, or encouraged well-ordered displays of mature love toward oneself? In what specific ways is love toward oneself “mature” insofar as it rises from a “Joy” in God and “engages the whole man”? Like Augustine, Benedict leaves these kinds of inquiries of love of self to conjecture which are to be drawn by analogy from the self’s love of God and neighbor. Ultimately, a method of conjecture by analogy is not sufficient for understanding the mature interiority of the love of oneself.

[10] Benedict transitions to part two of the encyclical through an exposition of the inseparable love of God and love of neighbor. Later the encyclical does synchronize a Christology of incarnation with the inter-personal love or hate of one’s neighbor. In our age, however, the love or hate of oneself in the triadic ordo amoris-God, self, other, world-merits attention in this encyclical. There are implications here for Lutherans and Catholics alike, to reconsider this lack of the pastoral voice with regard to a specific theme (i.e., love of self) in the encyclical, as well as Augustine’s disquisitions on the nature of love toward oneself. Pope John Paul II, in his text, Love and Responsibility, likewise leaves off a thorough analysis of the relation of the appropriate love of self in relation to both love of neighbor and love of God. This work is left to great philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas or Paul Ricoeur, particularly the latter’s heralded exposition of love in Oneself as Another, to ferret out the nature of love toward oneself. In light of the encyclical, a pastoral letter that includes both divine and inter-personal love has missed a crucial opportunity that is oft repeated in the classical treatment on the nature of love.

[11] Next, b) commentators on Deus Caritas Est have rapidly transitioned from the love of God to the role of the Church, and in particular the practice of justice within the public Church. Richard Ryscavage appears vindicated in pointing out an inattention to the fundamental role of charity in contemporary Catholic social teaching, in favor of justice first.7 Benedict is intentional in the encyclical to direct the reader’s eye to an intermediary step before his remarks on the proper work of the Church and the role of justice. The health of the ecclesia is evident in the micro-cosmic expression of community, or inter-personal relationships: “Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave.” The love of Christ is incarnate through inter-personal relationships. But then Benedict proffers a nuance that disallows the too easy identification of this love internal to a pre-established conceptualization of the Church: “But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be ‘devout’ and to perform my ‘religious duties,’ then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely ‘proper,’ but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and show him love makes me sensitive to God as well.” Benedict favors orthopraxy over orthodoxy in this section of the encyclical, and disfavors the ideological or dogmatic lenses of the devout as an end within itself. In dismissing the ‘other’ in favor of proper devotion, the ‘devout’ have missed the mark of their devotion altogether, where the dogmatic approach forgets the human face and the divine, who are the proper objects of love.

[12] The inquiry at play in Benedict’s nuance is not whether love is a commandment, wherein Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 22:39 “Love your neighbor as yourself” would be reduced to the least common denominator of a proper imperative for Christian moral action. Love exists in Benedict’s illustration of the early or primitive Christian community. Here we see what Benedict is reaching for: Love is evident in the Church, and the first reference to this Church is where, as Benedict writes, “Luke provides a kind of definition of the Church, whose constitutive elements include fidelity to the ‘teaching of the Apostles,’ . . . and the element of ‘communion’ (koinonia).” Love exists in the “fundamental ecclesial principle” of koinonia. Unfortunately, Benedict passes over further elucidation on the nature of koinonia, and then moves to the proper work of the Church. But I believe the reader is well served in seeking after the conceptual ground of koinonia to which Benedict draws our attention.

[13] The United States Lutheran-Catholic bi-lateral dialogue concluded its tenth round of discussions in 2005 and published a text titled, The Church as Koinonia of Salvation.8 The bi-lateral explored the conceptual and symbolic bedrock of the Greek, koinonia, which occurs multiple times in the New Testament, as Benedict noted above. Of interest is that koinonia was never a prominent concept in roiling early church antagonisms, but was instead assumed as a first principle to the Christian community, sparing it from the slings and arrows of “partisan usage that often made other concepts divisive.”9 As a unifying rather than divisive term, koinonia signifies communal sharing and activated social caritas in the vital life of fellowship, gospel, the Eucharist, and mission.10 As a unifying term, Christians are a koinonia (i.e., a Christocentric and universal fellowship of sharing) “called in Christ by and for the gospel.”11 Christians are called to fellowship with one another from the structural and semantic ground of the gospel. In terms of vocation, Christians of every stripe participate in a broad, world koinonia ecclesiology.12 Once more, koinonia language in the New Testament is not a unity that assumes a former brokenness. Rather Christians are called from the healthy sinews of a living gospel, recasting the ecumenical principle of John 17, “that they may all be one,” as a calling heard anew not from this side of centuries-old ecclesial brokenness, but on the far first side of this divide, in the original and unfractured ground of gospel hope for unity in the world.

[14] In Deus Caritas Est Benedict writes that “as the Church grew, this radical form of material communion could not in fact be preserved. But its essential core remained: within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life.” The Lutheran-Catholic Round X bilateral reveals how the history of koinonia ecclesiology is in fact significantly more than this ‘material communion,’ something Benedict himself later also suggests when he identifies koinonia as the first “fundamental ecclesial principle.” Rather than explore the manifold ways in which the call for justice is internal to koinonia ecclesiology, Benedict instead considers the nature of the Catholic Church and its public face in the protection of justice. But it is precisely in his choice of trajectory that differing perspectives of ecclesiology become too quickly divisive, and the pastoral tone from the Bishop of Rome falls under the gaze of a hermeneus of suspicion.

[15] Rather than turn to the classic and somewhat antiquated ecumenical activity of lining up contrasting Lutheran and Catholic positions in order to articulate flush agreement or disagreement on doctrinal nuance, I focused the hermeneutic optic at the historical and conceptual ground underneath the abuse of these divisions. My aims were to resist easy coherence in a first-order analysis of the encyclical, investigate some of the important influences upon the encyclical, and point to opportunities for further reflection and conversation about the content of the encyclical itself. Areas for further reflection and conversation include Benedict’s treatment of the nature of love, and in particular the lack of the pastoral voice that is obviated in a method of conjecture by analogy within the encyclical. Next, rather than the easy theological coherence of slipping from the nature of the Church to justice, I pursued the early bedrock identification of the nature of koinonia ecclesiology first noted by Benedict in the encyclical. Both of these examples are meant not to offer final analysis, but open doorways for further analysis by both Lutherans and Catholics-to inquire after the root before hacking at the tree.

End Notes

[1] Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005.

[2] Augustine, De Doctrina, I; De Trinitate, VIII, Confessions, I-IV

[3] Augustine, De Doctrina, I.20-9.

[4] Augustine, De Doctrina, I.22.

[5] Augustine, De Doctrina, I.26

[6] Augustine, De Doctrina, I.26.

[7] Richard Ryscavage, America 194, no. 9 (March 13, 2006).

[8] Randall Lee, Jeffrey Gros, FSC, eds., The Church as Koinonia of Salvation: Its Structures and Ministries – Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue X, (United States Conference of Bishops: Washington D.C., 2005).

[9] L/RC-10. 11-12.

[10] 1 Cor. 1:9, 10:16; 2 Cor. 1:7; Phil. 1:5; Mt. 28: 19-20.

[11] L/RC-10.13-14.

[12] L/RC-10.15, 16, 19. “Koinonia encompasses all Christians and the salvation of all who share in the Gospel.”

Michael Reid Trice

Michael Reid Trice, Ph.D, is Assistant Dean of Ecumenical and Religious Dialogue and Assistant Professor of Ethics and Constructive Theology at Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry.