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“Deus Caritas Est,” Social Encyclical

Interview With Director of Cardinal Van Thuân Observatory

ROME, JAN. 30, 2006 ( Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Deus Caritas Est” is a social encyclical, says the director of the Cardinal Van Thuân International Observatory on the Social Doctrine of the Church.

Stefano Fontana, in this interview with ZENIT, discusses the main social tenets of the Pope’s text.

Q: What does charity have to do with social teaching?

Fontana: In 1891 Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum” ended with a hymn to charity: “mistress and queen of all virtues.” The Pope, with some degree of courage at the time, stated that “the happy results we all hope for must be chiefly brought about by the plenteous outpouring of charity.”

In 2006, Benedict XVI reiterates the same belief, points toward the same duty, expresses the same wish. His first encyclical — “Deus Caritas Est” — should also be considered a social encyclical, since it addresses contemporary social problems from the standpoint of the perennial Church: charity that, as a theological virtue, emanates directly from the life of the Trinity itself, and as a human virtue, is the first condition by which men keep staying together.

At the end of the 19th century, when Leo XIII stated as much, the key words used to be “reform” and “revolution”; and institutions — not individuals — were entrusted with the implementation of justice. In order to have decent lives, people relied on the masses rather than personal virtues.

Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, after the demise of messianisms by which justice was supposed to be ensured by impersonal mechanisms, but without having overcome other forms of trust in blind mechanisms — such as, first and foremost, technology — Leo XIII’s appeal is echoed by Benedict XVI’s admonishment: Justice also requires charity.

Q: The Pope denies the Church’s political participation in society and advocates, instead, the rediscovery of the relationship between justice and charity. What is this relationship?

Fontana: The new encyclical does not elude the issue of justice which cannot be replaced by charity, since grace does not eliminate nature and faith does not eliminate reason. Justice, according to the Pope, is the result of “practical reason,” requiring the needs of human nature to be respected, as well as the rights and duties of man.

Just political systems, which are entrusted with the establishment of justice, are based on it: Without justice, the state is but a “gang of thieves,” as St. Augustine put it.

But reason, despite its independence, easily falls prey to the ideologies and distortions of justice which stem from human selfishness. Therefore both justice, which is founded and illuminated by reason, and politics, which is concretely fulfilled by justice, intrinsically need to be “cleansed” by faith.

Usually people think of charity as something which is “subsequent” and “residual” to justice. First comes justice and then comes charity. If justice worked as it should, there would be no need for charity. If the government and the market — the institutions! — worked well, we would not need social amity. In this way, we go back to the notion that justice is essentially a matter of organization and planning.

We go back to the messianisms that the Pope considers materialistic, since they exclude man from the economy of his social and political salvation.

Instead, in actuality, according to Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, charity makes justice itself possible. Not only because the poor are always going to be with us, as the Gospel says — and therefore “there is no just state system which might make love’s service superfluous” — but especially because charity “cleanses” justice, just like faith cleanses reason.

This is a pivotal concept in those paragraphs of “Deus Caritas Est” that are more strictly focused on the relationship between justice and charity. The social doctrine of the Church is actually based on this task of “purification,” therefore the social doctrine is central to the Church’s global mission of “diakonia.”

[The encyclical] “Fides et Ratio” already stated that faith opens new doors to reason, prompting reason to never stand still. It emancipates and purifies reason. It opens reason to a transcendent vocation and, in so doing, frees reason from half-truths which deceitfully present themselves as being whole, i.e. ideologies.

Faith allows reason to breathe and reason, thus emancipated, is better able to look at justice without any false pretense and to find the heart to fight for justice, defeating the resistances of selfishness.

Charity does not step in only when justice has run its course, but helps justice to fulfill itself, at the same time as it exceeds justice. Faith too is not juxtaposed to reason when the latter has run its course, but helps reason to better fulfill itself.

Q: The accusation is common that the Church meddles in politics. What do you think?

Fontana: First of all, there is an initial level: There are works of charity and care — Benedict XVI tells us — which belong specifically to the Church. They are the testimony of its loyalty to God who is love.

The Church is not engaged in politics, in the sense that it does not contribute directly to the organization of justice. First and foremost, the Church bears witness to charity also through the care it provides to the needy.

Then there is a second level: Lay Christians take part in and take responsibility for the political construction of justice which they see as a lay form of testimony to the Church’s charity.

Lastly, there is a third level: The whole Church, with its own life-action, with the announcement, celebration and testimony, carrying out its religious mission because it is indeed religious, is also a beneficial force for society, because it brings the spirit of charity to it, which makes human beings more human and opens their eyes and hearts so that they can see more clearly and fulfill justice itself.

Q: What, then, does the Church ask of the state?

Fontana: The Church does not need to become a political party or trade union to provide its contribution to the liberation of society, it only needs to follow its own religious mission.

The state, in the words of the Holy Father, must grant the Church and other spiritual forces in society this kind of freedom. Respect for religious freedom becomes a political duty and interest, and the reclamation of religious freedom becomes a responsibility that must be taken for the common good.

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