Pastoral Implications of Deus Caritas Est

[1] The first encyclical letter of Pope Benedict XVI is a reflection on I John 4:16b, the first words of which comprise its title: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. It is dated December 25, 2005 (although it was released a month later, apparently because of translation issues).

[2] A pope’s first encyclical letter is sometimes taken to be a programmatic essay, or an indication of how he envisions his papacy. If the last pope identified his spirit-given identity as primarily an evangelist, then this pope clearly hopes to be the church’s teacher.

[3] Although it is addressed to the hierarchy and faithful of those in communion with Rome, I am personally open to auditing the class. It came as no surprise to me — having read and appreciated a number of Joseph Ratzinger’s books — that the letter was helpful and uplifting to me as a Lutheran pastor serving an ELCA congregation. Although many media had contributed to a perception of his persona as God’s Rottweiler when he was prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II, his writings revealed a depth of scholarship, thought and caring that are also evident in this letter.

[4] Lutherans readily gain a comfort level with this pope’s theology. He is deeply rooted in Augustinian theology, so his discussions lean toward the same categories of discourse used by Luther. He can speak comfortably, as we do, about bondage to sin and release by grace. He can remind us of our citizenship in dual kingdoms or cities. He roots all his arguments first in the Scriptures and uses them extensively to develop his thought. He is steeped in the historic tradition of the church, but draws from it illustrative examples rather than supposedly authoritative pronouncements. He is, as Richard John Neuhaus has described him, relentlessly Christocentric.

[5] A Lutheran learner may have an easier time of receiving sustenance from this pope’s writing than some wings of his own constituency, who begin with different suppositions and methods.

[6] After its introduction, Deus Caritas Est is in two parts: a review of the biblical understandings of love, and a discussion of Christian charity from a theological, spiritual and practical standpoint. In this article, I am taking the liberty of underscoring some of his points (more or less seriatim) and recounting some of my marginal notes — the questions I’d like to raise or observations I’d like to make after class.

[7] In the introduction, the pope notes that in our world the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence. He therefore offers a political shading and currency to the topic of God’s love (a topic which may seem to the world to be something of a cliché).

[8] Since love is the topic, I John is the ideal textual source. Unfortunately, the letter uses only a couple of verses from the fourth chapter, thus omitting the incarnational foundation of the first two chapters, the sanctification emphasis of the third, and the sacramental and eschatological promise of the fifth. Those theological themes are present in his writing, but drawn from different Scriptural contexts. But what caught my attention most in the introduction was the translation used in the introduction for I John 4:16a: We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us, which is identical to The New American Standard Bible.

[9] The pope characterizes the paraphrased sentence We have come to believe in God’s love as words with which the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. The NRSV has the more bland reading, We have known and believe the love that God has for us. The German (in which the pope is said to have written his original manuscript) reads Wir haben der Liebe geglaubt. I only note that I appreciate the process implicit in the English phrasing as rendered.

[10] Pastorally, I value the letter’s foundation: Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. The people whom we serve do not simply believe. They come to believe. Whether it is the infant in the water of Baptism or the adult stranger who inquires, our congregation’s task is to provide the means through which they can come to believe. Their faith will not be of themselves, St. Paul reminds us (Ephesians 2:8).

[11] Thus I read this letter within the framework of growth in discipleship. I approach it thinking of the lack of belief — or the misbelief — which most of us have learned to presume. I am therefore reminded that in preaching and teaching, the first proclamation, the basic tenet to be imparted is that the essential nature of the power greater than ourselves is love. The pope’s letter helps us develop this foundation.

[12] As the letter begins to survey the notion of love in salvation history, the pope takes the rather daring step of abandoning the familiar division of Greek words to describe different kinds of love. He acknowledges that New Testament writers prefer agape, a word he says is used rather infrequently in other Greek literature, as a signal for a new vision of the nature of love. But he makes the case for recovering the sense of eros to denote love that is neither planned nor willed, but which enables one in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness.

[13] He argues that while there is strong biblical reaction to the dehumanizing use of such love, it is a mistake to renounce either spirit or flesh. He acknowledges that nowadays Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body, but counters that exalting the body is deceptive. He sees the problem that this kind of love is no longer integrated into our overall existential freedom; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. The path of rising in ecstasy toward the Divine, in Christian thought as the pope presents it, is a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.

[14] Regarding this concept of a path, Benedict uses the Song of Songs to illustrate the experience of a love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.”

[15] He then connects the idea of love as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self toward its liberation through self-giving with the numerous citations of the Gospels in which Jesus calls his followers to lose their own life. In these words, Jesus portrays his own path, which leads through the Cross to the Resurrection: the path of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, and in this way bears much fruit. Starting from the depths of his own sacrifice and of the love that reaches fulfilment therein, he also portrays in these words the essence of love and indeed of human life itself.

[16] There is much for a Lutheran pastor to appreciate in the letter’s survey of the theme of love in Old and New Testament. It calls us to be neither detached from the vital relations fundamental to human existence nor bound to the rootlessness of a fascination for the great promise of happiness.

[17] I found myself reflecting on the cycle of life issues that emerge in my ministry. Our staff, for example, has been reviewing how we deal with sexuality and human relationships in our confirmation program. I’ve had the occasion recently to counsel more than one older adolescent about issues that have arisen for them in the complex world of high school relationships and dating. We’ve had discussions with parents about how adolescents present themselves on their Web pages. I have regular occasions to meet with young adults intending to get married, and have the opportunity (through the use of a premarital inventory) to open a conversation with them about the interaction of faith and love. In all these situations — and others — I see a helpful and pastoral perspective coming from the Biblical understanding of human nature presented in the letter.

[18] The pope also reminds me, as he integrates patristic tradition into his Biblical interpretation, of key elements of ministry. For example, he uses the account of Jacob’s ladder as an illustration of how anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. He interprets ‘the ladder as the inseparable connection …between eros which seeks God and agape which passes on the gift received. He cites Pope Gregory the Great who tells us that the good pastor must be rooted in contemplation. Only in this way will he be able to take upon himself the needs of others and make them his own. It is certainly true in my experience that if I neglect my contemplation, my prayer, my quiet time, then my ministry becomes less loving and more of a burden.

[19] It is unmistakable that this pope is a theologian of the cross, and is therefore immediately and graciously accessible to those of us immersed in the Lutheran tradition. He speaks of the profound compentration of the two Testaments as the one Scripture of the Christian faith. He uses Hosea to describe God’s passionate love for his people — for humanity — as at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice. He writes, In the Old Testament, the novelty [is] God’s unpredictable and in some sense unprecedented activity. The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ himself. …In Jesus Christ, it is God himself who goes in search of the ‘stray sheep,’ a suffering and lost humanity. 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.

[20] For Benedict, there is only one master story. In the love-story recounted by the Bible, [God] comes toward us, he seeks to win our hearts, all the way to the Last Supper, to the piercing of his heart on the Cross. …Nor has the Lord been absent from subsequent Church history: he encounters us ever anew, in the men and women who reflect his presence, in his word, in the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist.

[21] This leads directly to what I construe to be an ethical theme statement. He reiterates the concept of love not as sentiment, but as a process of purification and maturation. He speaks of lifelong change and learning, and the open-endedness of love. The love-story between God and man consists in the very fact that …our will and God’s will increasingly coincide: God’s will is no longer for me an alien will, something imposed on me from without by the commandments, but it is now my own will, based on the realization that God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself.

[22] The implication of this for daily life is that I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. …Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbor can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me.

[23] It has been widely reported in the Roman Catholic press that the second part of the letter, on the practice of love by the church, is built on a document John Paul II was working on and left unfinished at his death. Textual critics may be able to discern different authorship strands, but the fact that the section opens with a quote from Augustine (who is quoted three more times, while Thomas Aquinas is never quoted) seems to me to mark it as Benedict’s own.

[24] If you see charity, you see the Trinity, he quotes Augustine to begin. Acknowledging his previous focus on the Pierced one, he notes that the Spirit is …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. From this Trinitarian perspective, he therefore defines the service of charity as the enactment of love as it flows through the church.

[25] To Lutheran ears, accustomed to hearing Article VII of the Augsburg Confession concerning what is sufficient for the church’s unity, it is a bit surprising (but not unwelcome) to receive this counsel concerning the constitutive work of the church: 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.

[26] The letter offers sufficient examples of long-standing practice to easily dispel the theological risk that such ministry of charity might be mistaken for works righteousness. It begins with a discussion of Acts 2, 4, and 6 — which, from a pastoral perspective, are always important to consider together — to arrive at dual conclusions that I agree should be part of the life of every congregation, judicatory, and national church body:

[27] Within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life. The ministry of charity exercised in a communitarian, orderly way [is] part of the fundamental structure of the church.

[28] The letter alludes to the description of Christian worship by Justin Martyr of the second century, which included offerings given according to everyone’s means distributed to those in need. It cites Tertullian in the third century remarking on the public image of Christians as caring for the needy. It alludes to the service activities of the monasteries. It is winsome in the recounting of saintly anecdotes. According to Ambrose, a deacon Lawrence in the third century was ordered to collect all the church’s treasures and turn them over to the civil authorities. Instead, he gave the funds to the poor and presented the poor to the authorities as the church’s real treasures. In another possibly apocryphal anecdote, the pope cites the emperor Julian the Apostate, who renounced Christianity after Constantine, but in re-establishing paganism as the religion of the empire wrote that the sole aspect of Christianity that had impressed him was its charitable activity.

[29] I don’t remember ever meeting a pastor who would disagree that a spirit of love expressed through giving to those in need is of the essence of congregational life, or whose ecclesiology would allow it to be reduced to bene esse or mere usefulness. This is, of course, not to argue for particular forms of caritas or diaconia. It is not to re-open the argument in the ELCA about the three-fold office of ministry. It is simply to affirm that without our corporate acts of love our congregations would be so impoverished that they would be unrecognizable as Christian communities.

[30] The discussion that we might be likely to have could revolve around the letter’s section on Justice and Charity. The pope, like his predecessor, is concerned about the argument that the building of a just social order is of primary importance in the church’s charitable activity. This question is as much a subject of controversy within our global Lutheran communion as it is between us and other denominations.

[31] The letter traces the stress on just social ordering to the industrialization of the West in the nineteenth Century, causing the collapse of former social structures and the concentration of the power of capital.

[32] The pope makes reference to the 2004 publication of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church by the Pontifical Council Iustitia et Pax. He comments that the Church’s social doctrine has become a set of fundamental guidelines offering approaches that are valid even beyond the confines of the Church. I admit my unfamiliarity with this project of John Paul II. I am unlikely to spend the $25 to get it from What I would find fascinating is a similar treatment of Lutheran social teachings, whether or not presented in direct comparison to Rome’s. For my personal taste, it would not be sufficient to simply collect and summarize the statements of the ELCA and its predecessors. I would welcome a truly global compendium. If the Lutheran World Federation (probably through its Department of Studies, but preferably through the Office for International Affairs and Human Rights in the General Secretariat) has not undertaken such an encyclopedic work, I would hope that the ELCA could consider underwriting such a project.

[33] Lutherans are on comfortable ground with this letter as it goes on to describe the distinction between Church and State, structured so that the two spheres are distinct, yet always interrelated. Although he begins with the quote from Augustine that a State which is not governed according to justice would be just a bunch of thieves, I missed the more subtle point I believe to belong to Luther’s two kingdoms construction. Rather than affirming the autonomy of the political sphere, I believe we are theologically positioned to argue the sovereignty of God in the political sphere without the oversight or intervention of visible church structures.

[34] It is a relief to hear that Catholic social doctrine…has no intention of giving the Church power over the State, which would have resolved a good many of the Reformation era problems. Lutherans today, however, are not necessarily in agreement with the letter in its statement of what once was probably a Lutheran consensus position: The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society …is proper to the lay faithful.

[35] From the perspective of a pastor serving a congregation, it must be noted (without too much specificity) that there have been times in the life of the ELCA when individuals have, in the putative name of the church, seemed to make pronouncements about social policy that have been represented as the Christian position. Most often, for pastors, such public pronouncements tend to be risible among colleagues and embarrassing among congregants.

[36] Far more helpful would be support for a theme often found in Catholic pastoral theology but rarely in Lutheran. It seems to some of us that many of the voices in the church’s various debates have become antinomian in tone and content. It is past time for us to re-open widespread theological discussion of the appropriate relationship between Law and Gospel. To this end, I take very much to heart the letter’s prescription for a pastoral task:

[37] The church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest.

[38] It is the formation of conscience that feels alien to my Lutheran experience. Yet I am convinced that we have a relatively impoverished view of sanctification, born out of the legitimate Lutheran concern about self-justification. But the people with whom I live and work from day to day continue to struggle with the question, How shall we then live?

[39] The letter includes other discussion most appropriate to the specialized agencies and institutions that administer the church’s caritas. I view with interest and appreciation the struggles of the institutions we support to be in but not of the complex world of healing, relief and peace-making. Every way they can help me communicate to the members of my congregation that they are not merely meeting the needs of the moment, but [that] they dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern, enabling them to experience the richness of their humanity is deeply appreciated.

[40] For me, the most appropriate conclusion to Deus Caritas Est is not the paean to Martin of Tours and the Virgin Mary with which it ends. It is, rather, paragraphs 35 through 37, on humility, perseverance and prayer. These are sections I can carry with me and apply to all of my pastoral work. They are the specific exemplars of the loving spirit to which this entire letter calls us.

[41] Christ took the lowest place in the world — the Cross — and by this radical humility he redeemed us and constantly comes to our aid. Those who are in a position to help others will realize that in doing so they themselves receive help; being able to help others is no merit or achievement of our own. This duty is a grace. …In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord.

[42] A living relationship with Christ is decisive if we are to keep on the right path, without falling into an arrogant contempt for man or surrendering to a resignation which would prevent us from being guided by love in the service of others.

[43] The Christian who prays does not claim to be able to change God’s plans or correct what he has foreseen. Rather, he seeks an encounter with the Father of Jesus Christ, asking God to be present with the consolation of the Spirit.