Looking Back: Benedict XVI's Encyclicals

Summarizing Facets of a Pontificate

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Benedict XVI left office after having given the best of himself, which included three encyclicals from the «theologian Pope.»

Here’s a look at Deus Caritas Est, Spe Salvi and Caritas in Veritate.

Deus Caritas Est: God Is Love

Breaking with tradition, Benedict XVI himself presented his encyclical Deus Caritas Est to the readers of an Italian magazine. The Pope signed the encyclical on Dec. 25, 2005. In February of the following year, he introduced it with this commentary:

Initially, in fact, the text might seem somewhat difficult and theoretical. However, when one begins to read it, it is obvious that he wished to answer a couple of very concrete questions for a Christian life. 

The first question is the following: Is it possible to love God? More than that: Can love be obligatory? Is it not a feeling that one has or does not have? The answer to the first question is: yes, we can love God, given that He has not stayed at an unreachable distance but has entered and enters our life. He comes to meet each one of us: in the sacraments through which He acts in our life; with the faith of the Church, through which He addresses us; through contact with other people, who transmit His light to us; with the dispositions through which he intervenes in our life; and also with the signs of the creation He has given us.

Not only has He given us love, He has first of all lived it and he knocks on the door of our heart in many ways to awaken our answer of love. Love is not only a feeling. The will and the intelligence also belong to it. With his Word, God addresses our intelligence, our will and our feelings, so that we can learn to love Him «with all our heart and with all our soul.» In fact, we do not find love suddenly ready, it has to mature, so to speak. We can learn to love slowly so that love will involve all our strength and open the way for an upright life. 

The second question is the following: can we really love our «neighbor,» when he seems strange and even unlikeable? Yes we can, if we are God’s friends, if we are Christ’s friends. If we are friends of Christ it becomes increasingly clear that He has loved us and loves us, even if we often turn our gaze away from Him and live according to other criteria. If, instead, friendship with God becomes something ever more important and decisive for us, then we begin to love those whom God loves and those who are in need of us. God wants us to be friends of his friends, and we can be so if we are interiorly close to them. 

Finally, this question is also posed: Does not the Church with her commandments and prohibitions embitter the joy of the eros, of feeling ourselves loved, which drives us to the other and seeks to be transformed into union? In the encyclical I attempted to demonstrate that the most profound promise of the «eros» can only mature when we do not seek a passing and sudden happiness. On the contrary, together we find the patience to discover the other increasingly in the depth of his person, in the totality of body and soul, so that finally the happiness of the other becomes more important than my own. Then, one no longer wishes to receive something, but to give oneself, and in this liberation of one’s «I» man finds himself and is filled with joy. 

In the encyclical I speak of a way of purification and maturation necessary so that the true promise of the «eros» can be fulfilled. The language of the tradition of the Church has called this process «education in chastity,» which, in short, means nothing other than to learn the totality of love in the patience of the growth and maturation.  

In the second part there is talk of charity, at the service of the love of the Church toward all those who suffer in body or soul and are in need of the gift of love. Here two questions arise above all: Can the Church leave this service to other philanthropic organizations? The answer is no. The Church cannot do it. The Church must practice love of neighbor also as community; otherwise she would proclaim the God of love incompletely and insufficiently. 

The second question: Would it not be better to promote an order of justice in which there are no needy people and charity becomes something superfluous? The answer is the following: undoubtedly the aim of politics is to create a just order in society, where what is one’s own is recognized to each and where no one suffers because of poverty. In this case, justice is the real aim of politics, just as peace cannot exist without justice. By her very nature the Church herself does not get involved in politics, instead she respects the autonomy of the State and of its institutions. 

The quest for this order of justice corresponds to common reason, just as politics is something that affects all citizens. Often, however, reason is blinded by interests and the will to power. Faith serves to purify reason, so that it can see and decide correctly. Hence, it is the task of the Church to cure reason and reinforce the will to do good. In this connection, without engaging in politics, the Church participates passionately in the battle for justice. It is for Christians involved in public service, in political action to open ever new ways for justice. 

However, I have only answered the first half of our question. The second half, which I like to stress in the encyclical, says this: Justice never makes love superfluous. Beyond justice, man will always be in need of love, as he is the only one capable of giving a soul to justice. In a world that is so profoundly wounded, as the one we know in our days, this affirmation does not need demonstrations. The world awaits the witness of Christian love that is inspired in the faith. In our world, so often dark, the light of God shines with this love. 

Spe Salvi: Saved in Hope

The text, signed on Nov. 30, 2007, has an Introduction and eight chapters and opens with the passage of the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans: Spe salvi facti sumus (we were saved in hope). 

«According to the Christian faith – the Pope explains in the Introduction –, redemption, salvation, is not simply a given. Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.» Therefore, «a distinguishing mark of Christians» is «the fact that they have a future, (…) they know (…) that their life will not end in emptiness. (…) the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.»  

«To come to know God—the true God—means to receive hope», explains the Holy Father. It is something that the Ephesians understood very well, who before their encounter with God had many gods but «were without hope, (…) without God.» The problem for those of us who always live with the Christian concept of God, stresses the Holy Father, is our being accustomed to the Gospel: «the hope that ensues from a real encounter with (…) God,» is now almost imperceptible.

The Pope recalls that Jesus did not bring «a socio-revolutionary message» such as that of Spartacus and «he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation like Barabbas or Bar- Kochba.» What Jesus had brought «was something totally different: (…) an encounter with the living God with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within,» «Even if external structures remained unaltered.» Christ makes us truly free:  we are not slaves of the universe» and «of the laws and the randomness of matter.»(…) We are free because «Heaven is not empty,» because God is the Lord of the universe,
who «in Jesus has revealed himself as Love.»

Christ is the «true philosopher.» He tells us «who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human.» He shows us the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life.» And he offers us a hope which is at the same time expectation and presence: because «the fact that this future exists changes the present.» The Pope observes that «perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. (…) the present-day crisis of faith is essentially a crisis of Christian hope.»

«The restoration of the lost ‘Paradise’ is no longer expected from faith,» but «from the newly discovered link between science and praxis from which will emerge, the kingdom of man.» Thus hope is transformed into «faith in progress» resting on two columns: reason and freedom seem to guarantee by themselves, by virtue of their intrinsic goodness, a new and perfect human community.»

«There are two essential stages in the political realization of this hope,» – continues Benedict XVI –: the French and the Marxist Revolutions. «Europe of the Enlightenment looked on with fascination at these events, but then, as they developed, had cause to reflect anew on reason and freedom.» Moreover, the proletarian revolution «left in its wake a desolating destruction.»

Marx’s fundamental error was this: «He forgot man and he forgot man’s freedom. (…) He thought that, once the economy was solved, everything would be resolved.  His real error is materialism.» «Let us put it very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope.» «Man can never be redeemed simply from outside. (…) Man is redeemed by love,» unconditional, absolute love:  Man’s great, true hope which holds firm in spite of all disappointments can only be God—God who has loved us and who continues to love us ‘to the end.'» The Pope indicates four places to learn and exercise hope. The first is prayer: «When no one listens to me anymore, God still listens to me. (…) When I can no longer call upon anyone (…) He can help me. After prayer comes action. «Hope in a Christian sense is always hope for others.» It is an active hope, with which we struggle, so that the world will become a bit more luminous and human.

And I can only hope if I know that «my own life and history in general are held firm by the indestructible power of love.» Suffering is also a place of apprenticeship of hope. «Certainly we must do whatever we can to reduce suffering,» however, «It is not by sidestepping suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love. (…) It is also fundamental to be able to suffer with others and for others. «A society unable to accept its suffering (…) is a cruel and inhuman society.» Finally, another place to learn hope is God’s Judgment. (…) There is the resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is the ‘undoing’ of past suffering, reparation that sets things aright.» 

The Pope is «convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favor of faith in eternal life.» It is impossible that «the injustice of history should be the final word. (…) And in his justice there is also grace.» «Grace does not cancel out justice. (…) Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened.»

Caritas in Veritate: Charity in Truth

The encyclical dated June 29, 2009, solemnity of Saint Peter and Saint Paul has an Introduction, six chapters and a Conclusion.

In the Introduction, the Pope recalls that «charity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine.» Moreover, given «the consequent risk of being misinterpreted, detached from ethical living» he warns that a » Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance.»

«Development (…) needs this truth,» writes Benedict XVI and he analyzes «two guiding criteria of moral action: justice and the common good. (…) Every Christian is called to this charity, according to his vocation and the influence he wields in the polis. This is the institutional way of social living.» 

The first chapter is dedicated to the «Message of Paul VI’s encyclical «Populorum Progressio,» in which «he underlined the indispensable importance of the Gospel for building a society according to freedom and justice.» «In promoting development, the Christian faith does not rely on privilege or positions of power, (…) but only on Christ.» The Pontiff says that «the causes of underdevelopment are not primarily of the material order.» They are «first of all, in the will, secondly in thinking» and «an even more important cause than lack of deep thought is the lack of brotherhood among individuals and peoples.»

The topic of the second chapter is «Human Development in Our Time.» «Once profit becomes the exclusive goal, if it is produced by improper means and without the common good as its ultimate end — the Pope reiterates — it risks destroying wealth and creating poverty.» And he enumerates distortions of development: «in largely speculative financial dealing,»  «large-scale migration of peoples, often provoked by some particular circumstance and then given insufficient attention, the unregulated exploitation of the earth’s resources.» In face of these problems, which are linked among themselves, the Pope invokes «a new humanistic synthesis,» saying afterwards that «the picture of development has many overlapping layers. (…)  The world’s wealth is growing in absolute terms, but inequalities are on the increase. In rich countries new forms of poverty are emerging.»

«On the cultural plane – he continues – the possibilities of interaction» have made possible new openings for dialogue,» (…) but there is a twofold danger.» In the first place, «a cultural eclecticism» where cultures are considered «substantially equivalent.» The opposite danger is that of «cultural leveling and indiscriminate acceptance of types of conduct and life-styles.» Benedict XVI mentions «the scandal of hunger» and advocates «equitable agrarian reform in developing countries.»

Likewise, the Pontiff says that respect for life cannot in any way be detached from questions concerning the development of peoples,» and he affirms that «when a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good.»

Another aspect linked to development is the right to religious freedom…. Violence — writes the Pope –, puts the brakes on authentic development» and this «applies especially to terrorism motivated by fundamentalism.»

«Fraternity, economic development and civil society» is the topic of the third chapter, which opens with praise for the experience of gift, often not acknowledged, «because of a purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life. (…) on the other hand, if development is to be authentically human, it needs to make room for the principle of gratuitousness,»  and as for the market, the commercial logic «needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility.» 

Taking up again the encyclical Centesimus Annus, he points out «the need for a system with three subjects: the market, the State and civil society» and hopes for «ways of civilizing the economy.» What is needed are «forms of solidaristic economy» and «both the market and politics need individuals who are open to reciprocal gift.»

The chapter closes with a new evaluation of the phenomenon of globalization, which must not be understood only as «a socio-economic process.» (…) Globalization needs «a person-based and community
-oriented cultural process of world-wide integration that is open to transcendence,» and able to «correct the malfunctions.»

In the fourth chapter, the encyclical addresses the topic of the «Development of People, Rights and Duties, the Environment.» «Government and international organizations — one reads — cannot forget «the objectivity and inanielability» of rights. In this regard, he reflects on the «problems related to population growth.»

He reaffirms that «respect for human values in the exercise of … sexuality (…) cannot be reduced merely to pleasure or entertainment.» The States – he writes — are called to enact policies promoting the centrality and the integrity of the family.»

Once again he affirms that «the economy needs ethics in order to function correctly; not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centered.» The centrality of the person, he writes, must be the guiding principle «in interventions for development» of international cooperation. «International organizations – exhorts the Pope — might question the actual effectiveness of their bureaucratic and administrative machinery, which is often excessively costly.»

Further on, the Holy Father refers to the energy problems. «The fact that some States, power groups and companies hoard non-renewable energy resources represents a grave obstacle to development in poor countries.» (…) «The technologically advanced societies — he adds – can and must lower their domestic energy consumption,» while «at the same time encouraging research into alternative forms of energy.» 

«The collaboration of the human family» is at the heart of the fifth chapter, in which Benedict XVI stresses that «the development of peoples depends, above all, on the recognition that the human race is a single family.» Hence, one reads, the Christian religion can contribute to development «only if God also finds a place in the public sphere.» 

The Pope makes reference to the principle of subsidiarity, which offers aid to a person «through the autonomy of intermediary bodies.» Subsidiarity, he explains, «is the most effective antidote against all forms of paternalistic welfare» and is more appropriate to «humanize globalization.»

Benedict XVI also exhorts the rich States to «allocate larger quotas» of the Gross National Product for development, respecting the commitments acquired. And he hopes for greater access to education and, more than that, the «complete formation of the person» affirming that by yielding to relativism, one becomes poorer. An example, he writes, is the perverse phenomenon of sexual tourism. «It is sad to note—he observes– that this activity often takes place with the support of local governments,»

The Pope then addresses the «historic» phenomenon of migration. «Every migrant is a human person who, as such, possesses fundamental, inalienable rights that must be respected by everyone and in every circumstance.» 

The Pontiff dedicates the last paragraph of the chapter «to a strongly felt need … for a reform of the United Nations Organization» and of the «economic institutions and international finance.» Necessary is «the presence of a true world political authority» (…) that enjoys «effective power.»

The sixth and last chapter is focused on the topic of the «Development of Peoples and Technology.» The Pope warns against the «Promethean presumption» according to which «humanity believes it can recreate itself making use of the ‘wonders’ of technology.» Technology, he stresses, cannot have «absolute freedom.» 

The primary field «of the cultural struggle between the absolutism of technicality and man’s moral responsibility is today that of bioethics,» explains the Pope, adding: «reason without faith is doomed to flounder in an illusion of its own omnipotence.» The social question becomes an «anthropological question.» Embryo research and cloning, laments the Pontiff, «are promoted by the present culture,» which «believes it has solved every mystery.» The Pope fears «the systematic eugenic programming of births.»

In the Encyclical’s Conclusion, the Pope stresses that development «needs Christians with their arms raised towards God in prayer,» it needs «love and forgiveness, self-denial, acceptance of others, justice and peace.» 

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