VATICAN CITY, FEB. 11, 2006 (Zenit.org).- The Catholic Church and all Christians have a valuable role to play in bringing about a more just world, Benedict XVI insists in his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est.” A significant section of the encyclical’s second part is dedicated to a look at where the divide between Caesar and God should lie in today’s secular environment.
The Pope starts by citing the words of the Second Vatican Council, which recognize the legitimate autonomy of the temporal sphere. But, he notes at once, “Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life: its origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has to do with ethics” (No. 28).
In deciding what justice means for the state and how it can be achieved, a legitimate role opens up for faith. Applying faith to questions of justice, argues the Holy Father, does not mean there is an attempt to impose religion on nonbelievers. Rather, it can purify human reason, enabling it to appreciate better the demands of justice. As well, the Church’s social teaching is also based on reason and natural law, and is therefore in accord with the nature of every human being.
Far from promoting a specific political program, the Church seeks to stimulate and form consciences so that each person will be better prepared to take up his responsibility in ensuring a more just society. It is this subsequent political involvement which “cannot be the Church’s immediate responsibility,” the encyclical adds.
So the Church does not seek to replace the state. Yet, “she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice,” writes Benedict XVI. Indeed, he notes, promoting justice and the common good “concerns the Church deeply.”
Returning to the encyclical’s main theme, the Pontiff explains that even in a just society, love — charity — will always be necessary. Moreover, personal initiative, motivated by love, is important in order to avoid a situation where everything is left up to the state, which regulates and controls all.
Not by bread alone
Moreover, this love, in addition to material aid, offers refreshment and care for people’s souls. “Something which often is even more necessary than material support,” the encyclical argues. No matter how just the social structures, man does not live by bread alone.
The Pope also distinguishes between the institution of the Church and the role of its lay members. It is up to the latter to work for a just society and to take part directly in public life. This activity should be animated by charity, so that it becomes a sort of “social charity” (No. 29).
The encyclical also addresses briefly the subject of globalization, in No. 30. This process means that concern for our neighbor now transcends national barriers and extends to the whole world. And the growth of international links has also brought with it increasing cooperation between state agencies and Church organizations that has led to fruitful results. The Pope also had words of praise for the many people who are involved in volunteer work.
In all of this activity the encyclical did, however, note the importance of maintaining the Christian identity. The Church’s charitable activity must not “become just another form of social assistance” (No. 31).
Christian charity must obviously include the material aspects of helping others, including ensuring sufficient professional competence. But those working in charitable organizations also need to use their heart, so that the commitment to helping their neighbors derives from their faith, made active through love.
This charitable activity must also remain independent of parties and ideologies and steer clear of “proselytism,” insists the Pontiff. Regarding this last point the encyclical points out that love is gratuitous and is not practiced in order to achieve other ends.
This does not mean that we must leave God to one side, the text immediately adds. Charity is always concerned for the whole person, including his faith. Moreover, “Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God.” So while we should never impose our faith on others, we also need to know when it is the right moment to speak of God.
The Church’s mission
Benedict XVI has touched on the matter of church-state relations and the involvement of Christians in politics on many occasions. In a letter dated Oct. 18 he wrote to the president of Italy’s lower house of Parliament, Pier Ferdinando Casini, to commemorate the anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the legislative body three years earlier.
Benedict XVI assured Casini that the Church “does not intend to claim any privilege for herself, but only the possibility of carrying out her own particular mission, with respect for the legitimate secularity of the state.”
This legitimate secularity, he noted, “is not in opposition to the Christian message but rather indebted to it, as experts in the history of civilization know well.” Therefore, the Pope expressed the hope that the Parliament would honor the memory of John Paul II by promoting the human person, the family, schools and attention to the needs of the poor.
This political activity is justly carried out by the lay members of the Church. Nevertheless, the Church has an important role in forming them so they can carry out this task adequately, the Pope has noted on a number of occasions.
In a letter dated Nov. 19, to the archbishop of Mexico City, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, the Holy Father spoke of the need for lay people “to put their professional skills and witness of an exemplary life at the service of the evangelization of social life, making it at the same time more just and better suited to the human person.”
The letter was written on the occasion of a meeting held to present the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. In it, the Pope observed that the laity “need a solid formation that will enable them to discern in every practical situation, over and above private interests or opportunist proposals, what truly improves human beings in their entirety and the specific characteristics the various social institutions should have if they are truly to promote the common good.”
On Dec. 3, in a speech to a group of Polish bishops visiting Rome, the Pontiff returned to this theme. In the work of proclaiming God to contemporary culture, “the role of lay people is irreplaceable,” the Pope insisted. “Their witness of faith is particularly eloquent and effective because it is borne in daily reality and in areas which are difficult for a priest to gain access.”
Benedict XVI exhorted lay people active in politics to “give a clear and courageous witness of Christian values, which they must reassert and defend should they be threatened.” And, he added: “They should do so publicly, in political debates and in the mass media.”
The Pontiff continued with the theme of Christian politicians in his speech to another group of bishops, on Dec. 17. Such politicians must be helped to become aware of their Christian identity and also of the universal moral values founded in human nature, he explained. This is so that in their activity they are “guided by the dictates of a Christian conscience.” And thus, presumably, give to Caesar, and to God, their due.