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Viewing Love via Benedict XVI

Series of Reflections on “Deus Caritas Est”

ROME, JUNE 17, 2006 ( The many facets of Christian charity are being explored in a series of articles in the Vatican’s semiofficial newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. The ongoing series consist in reflections on Benedict XVI’s encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est.”

Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, opened the series May 10. “Truth draws people together because it frees them from individual opinions,” he wrote. “Love draws men together because it makes them overcome individual egoisms.” Christianity, in turn, announces that “Truth is Love,” the cardinal added.

This leads to the conclusion that Christianity is the religion of the community, and unity of humankind. This, Cardinal Martino contended, is a central message of the encyclical.

By accepting the message that God is love, people have a common foundation on which to build in order to overcome differences and break out of their own selves. The love of God not only reveals to us our own dignity, the cardinal wrote, but it also helps us understand that others possess the same dignity.

“Human society,” the Vatican official stated, “is not born out of the ‘mutual struggle for recognition,’ but from the experience of being loved, which enables us to love others.”

Charity, in fact, is the principal contribution that the Church makes to the human community, the cardinal contended. Marriage and the family, relations between nations, and the fight against poverty, are just some of the areas illuminated by charity.

Core value

On May 13 Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, explored the relationship between the Church’s social teaching and charity. It is extremely relevant, he noted, that the first social encyclical, “Rerum Novarum,” ended with a hymn to charity.

The entire social teaching of the Church “may and should be seen as the expression of Christian love,” according to Bishop Crepaldi. This is true even of the whole of Christian morality, which has at its center charity. In this sense, he explained, charity should be conceived, not as an afterthought, but rather as something that permeates the whole of Christian life.

Charity also has an important role to play in relation to justice. Charity does not supplant justice, but rather cleanses it. “Love,” commented the council secretary, “is not juxtaposed to justice, but it makes it breathe better and, by doing so, it fully allows justice to be itself without incurring the risk of replacing it.”

On May 24 it was the turn of one of Rome’s auxiliary bishops, Rino Fisichella, to comment on the encyclical. The truth of Christian love, he argued, is a challenge to the current move toward relativism.

Benedict XVI in his encyclical notes that God’s love for us presents us with fundamental questions about who he is and who we are, Bishop Fisichella wrote. Modern society, however, risks erring about the nature of love, with serious consequences for the way we lead our lives. One risk is to reduce love merely to its emotive level. But love, the encyclical points out, does not consist only in feelings, which can come and go.

Another mistake is to consider love just as a passion — eros. With this approach, love becomes an escape from exercising responsibility and sinks to the level of instincts. Love contains elements of sentiments and passion, Bishop Fisichella explained, but these form only part an initial stage.

Mistake of relativism

Beneath these two mistaken concepts of love lies an even more insidious error: relativism. This attitude often hides under the guise of expressing respect for others, with terms such as “tolerance,” “dialogue” and “freedom.” Relativism, in fact, can undermine the very concept of truth. Instead of helping a proponent reach a coherent understanding of himself and the world, it leaves him in a continual state of doubt.

While not dealing explicitly with the theme of relativism, “Deus Caritas Est” does argue against the errors contained in such an ideology, commented Bishop Fisichella. The encyclical affirms the unity of the human person, for instance, a unity of body and spirit that does not reduce love to a merely physical expression.

Christianity also reveals another dimension of love, in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. In this act love becomes the expression of freedom in the gift of one’s life for others. Freedom, therefore, is not the result of some right that seeks to impose itself on others and on society. On the contrary, freedom only reaches its full realization when it renounces its own rights, and gives expression to the offering of love in the face of others’ needs.

But this donation made in love is only possible if we avoid falling into the error of egoism, noted Bishop Fisichella. And we can avoid egoism to the extent that we understand the truth about ourselves and others.

The public square

Turning to the question of the Church’s relations with the political order, Cardinal Angelo Scola reflected on the role of charity in the construction of a just social order. In his commentary published June 7, the patriarch of Venice stated that developed countries might be tempted to think they can construct organizations and systems of government so perfect that people no longer need to worry about their own personal morality.

The Pope warns in his encyclical, however, that “there is no ordering of the state so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love” (No. 28). Politics, being a human activity, needs to be purified by means of an encounter with Christ. Therefore, the Church has a role to play in sustaining political activity, but without trying to take the place of the state.

This role unfolds in a variety of ways: through teaching; through the work and example of Christians in their daily lives; and through the Church’s charitable organizations.

Charity also has a part in the task of evangelization, explained Archbishop Paul Cordes, president of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum,” in an article published Wednesday.

Contemplation of the implications of the fact that “God is love” takes us to the heart of our faith, and reveals to us the truth and beauty of the Almighty, commented Archbishop Cordes. At that point we cannot escape from the need to communicate this divine message to others. And the content of this message converts the messenger into an apostle.

All Christians, noted Archbishop Cordes, have the obligation to help others and to spread the Gospel message. And while it is vital to offer material help, the most important need mankind has is spiritual. The deepest roots of misery and suffering lie in our separation from God and the need we have to be forgiven and to be loved.

Each of us, then, is called upon to give testimony of the love that Jesus has for everyone, the archbishop commented. In this way every work of charity carries a message of faith. Indeed, faith cannot persist without being transmitted in good works. Faith, in fact, is the foundation stone of acts of charity.

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