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February 2006: Cathy Molloy sees the encyclical Deus Caritas Est as a fine instance of the Church “getting real” about matters which concern ordinary people, both in their personal lives and in their response to the call for justice and charity in society.

Getting real: ‘Deus Caritas Est’

Cathy Molloy sees the new encyclical as a fine instance of the Church “getting real” about matters which concern ordinary people, both in their personal lives and in their response to the call for justice and charity in society.

The Catholic Church is often accused of not ‘getting real’ on issues of deep concern to people today and there can be a lack of clarity about what it is that Christian, and specifically Catholic, faith stands for. Pope Benedict gets real with great clarity on both counts in Deus Caritas Est. Primarily about the understanding and practice of love in Scripture and in the Church’s Tradition, the letter presents an enlightening and challenging vision of human love and its intrinsic connection to God’s love. People may be surprised, as much by the discussion of true eros and its capacity to ‘rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves’ in Part One, as by the forthright treatment of charity and justice, and the role of the Church vis a vis the State in bringing about just societies in Part Two.

With the reminder that ‘biblical faith does not set up a parallel universe’ but ‘intervenes in our search for love in order to purify it and to reveal new dimensions of it’, Pope Benedict here takes a step back from rules and laws, from categories and labels. Instead the amazing fact of God’s love for all humankind, that God has loved us first, is emphasised. From this starting point, and intrinsically connected to it, our capacity to love is ignited and love of God is shared through love of neighbour. It is this love that is the basis and the heart of Catholic faith.

Many people will have reason to be grateful for the clear presentation of the Pope’s understanding of the relationship between faith and justice, and charity and the authentic solidarity, which is a hallmark of Catholic Social Teaching. Catholic social doctrine ‘has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith.’ But the Church ‘cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice’ and every generation must take up anew the task of building a just social and civil order, the achievement of which must be the responsibility of politics and not of the Church.

Recalling that in addition to justice people will always need love, and emphasising the necessity for prayer, if the work for justice and charity is to be guided by love, this encyclical will have special significance for people working in Jesuit institutions, since Ignatius of Loyola is among the men and women singled out as ‘lasting models of social charity’ and ‘true bearers of light within history.’