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Pope Benedict XVI’s Matthew 25 Encyclical, God is Love: Charity and Justice Must Meet

In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est God is Love , Pope Benedict XVI puts service to the poor and love of neighbor at the same level as the essential activity of the Church of the administration of the Sacraments and proclamation of the Word. When one reads in his text that love for widows, orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind is as essential to the Church’s ministry as the Sacraments and the Gospel, it is almost like reading one of the writers of the early Church.

Benedict describes the love of God in the nuptial, spousal language from the tradition of the Prophets of Israel and the way it is expressed so fully in the Incarnation of that Love in the person of Jesus Christ—love in its most radical form in which Jesus, the pierced one, lays down his life for us. He speaks in a positive way of the kind of love called eros , but shows how it can and must be purified and transformed into the self-giving love of agape . We must love God passionately in return for his great love for us.

The Pope quickly moves to the theme that the love that God has lavished on us must be shared with others. He refers several times to the Scripture of Matthew 25:31-46, so central to the Catholic Worker movement, “in which love becomes the criterion for the definitive decision about a human life’s worth or lack thereof” (No. 15). (When people ask us for our mission statement at Casa Juan Diego, we give them Matthew 25).

The Holy Father reminds us how “Jesus identifies himself with those in need, with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison. ‘as you did it to one of these my brethren, you did it to me’” (Mt 25:40). This Gospel passage demonstrates how “Love of God and love of neighbour have become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God” (No. 15)

This flows, says Benedict, from the encounter with the living person of Jesus Christ.

“The beginning of Christian existence is not an ethical decision or a sublime idea, but rather the encounter with an event, with a person, who gives life a new goal and at the same time, a sure growth” (No. 1).

In the encyclical the Holy Father speaks of a sacramental mysticism which is social in character: “I cannot belong to Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians. We become ‘one body,’ completely joined in a single existence. Love of God and love of neighbour are now truly united” (Nos. 13 and 14.)

Benedict immediately follows this reflection with one on the parable of the Good Samaritan, which demonstrates that with Jesus love of neighbor includes anyone who needs me, and whom I can help. Love of neighbor “is now universalized, yet it remains concrete.”

The Holy Father writes that it is only through serving our neighbors that our eyes can be opened to what God does for us and how much he loves us: “The saints—consider the example of blessed Teresa of Calcutta—constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbour from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its realism and depth in their service to others” (No. 18).

Justice and Charity

Commentaries on the encyclical have raised the question of whether the Pope’s tremendous emphasis in the second section on the tradition of charity from the earliest centuries of the Church (e.g., Augustine: “If you see charity, you see the Trinity”) does not weaken the Church’s social teaching and commitment to justice. Some worry that his words may be misunderstood.

Writing in The Tablet , Peter Henriot, S. J., who has worked in Africa for many years, took the opposite view, finding rather that the pope is radical on Catholic Social Teaching:

“I would say that the whole encyclical, not simply the second part which speaks of the ‘practice of love’ in its social dimension, pushes toward the more radical aspects of the Church’s social teaching. If the first part of the letter speaks of a ‘mysticism’ that is social in character, it lays a foundation for charitable activity of the Church that is necessarily orientated towards justice.”

Henriot speaks to those who might try to interpret the encyclical as a step backwards in work toward just structures in our world, reflecting on the way the pope expresses the role of the Christian in working for a just ordering of society:

“Benedict is very careful in distinguishing action in the political sphere as a ‘direct duty’ of working for a just ordering of society—something proper to church leaders. The Church has the responsibility to promote rational argument (the Pope calls it the ‘purification of reason’) and moral sensitasation.

“Indeed the Pope argues that without such reawakening of moral forces ‘just structures are neither established nor prove effective in the long run.’”

The Holy Father knows that what should be dedication to the common good is often clouded by the desire for power and one’s own advancement or enrichment: “The State must inevitably face the question of how justice can be achieved here and now. But this presupposes an even more radical question: what is justice? The problem is one of practical reason; but if reason is to be exercised properly, it must undergo constant purification, since it can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests ….

“From God’s standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly. This is Catholic social doctrine has its place…

“The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper” (No. 28a).

The Monastic Way and the Way of the Saints

The emphasis on living out the Gospel in the washing of the feet, in receiving and caring for the poor as our Lord himself, was a reality in the life and teachings of the early Church. Benedict provides rich examples from the saints of how Christians can have a major impact in the world as they have brought the love of God to the world:

“… the case of the deacon Lawrence (†258). The dramatic description of Lawrence’s martyrdom was known to Saint Ambrose (†397) and it provides a fundamentally authentic picture of the saint. As the one responsible for the care of the poor in Rome, Lawrence had been given a period of time, after the capture of the Pope and of Lawrence’s fellow deacons, to collect the treasures of the Church and hand them over to the civil authorities. He distributed to the poor whatever funds were available and then presented to the authorities the poor themselves as the real treasure of the Church.” No. 23).

Benedict also features other saints who exercised charity in an exemplary way, such as Martin of Tours, the soldier who became a monk and a bishop, and who gave half of his cloak to a poor man. “Jesus himself, that night, appeared to him in a dream wearing that cloak, confirming the permanent validity of the Gospel saying, ‘I was naked and you clothed me … as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’” (Mt 25:3366, 40).

“The entire monastic movement, from its origins with Saint Anthony the Abbot (†356), expresses an immense service of charity towards neighbour. In his encounter ‘face to face’ with the God who is Love, the monk senses the impelling need to transform his whole life into service of neighbour, in addition to service of God. This explains the great emphasis on hospi-tality, refuge and care of the infirm in the vicinity of the monasteries. It also explains the immense initiatives of human welfare and Christian formation, aimed above all at the very poor, who became the object of care firstly for the monastic and mendicant orders, and later for the various male and female religious institutes all through the history of the Church. The figures of saints such as Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, John of God, Camillus of Lellis, Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, Giuseppe B. Cottolengo, John Bosco, Luigi Orione, Teresa of Calcutta to name but a few—stand out as lasting models of social charity for all people of good will. The saints are the true bearers of light within history, for they are men and women of faith, hope and love” (40).

Catholic Worker and Monasticism

In reflecting on the encyclical, we remembered that like Mother Teresa, and other saints, Catholic Workers have been accused of band-aid work or of neglecting justice in favor of charity.

From its early days some criticized the Catholic Worker program for only patching up wounds in a society filled with injustice, and maintaining the status quo. In the May 1940Catholic Worker Dorothy responded by saying that hospitality was deeply rooted in Christian tradition and that the monasteries that practiced it had had a major impact on social conditions and the way people thought about and acted upon them: “We consider the spiritual and corporal Works of Mercy and the following of Christ to be the best revolutionary technique and a means for changing the social order rather than per-petuating it. Did not the thous-ands of monasteries, with their hospitality, change the entire social pattern of their day?”

At the Houston Catholic Worker, Casa Juan Diego, we have been accused of the same. For the past 25 years, some people have asked, “Why don’t you change the system instead of simply helping refugees and immigrants one by one?” We have noted that those same people have had little success in changing what Dorothy Day called the “dirty rotten system” that hurts poor workers around the world so much.

Secularization of Charity

As Benedict describes charity, in the profound terms of being transformed in Christ and sharing his love, he shows that it is really different from philan-thropy. He also raises some issues about the way charity is carried out by Christians. In an article in America magazine on March 13 Richard Ryscavage outlines the concern as expressed in the encyclical:

“The pope understands that the secularization of charity in the West has been going on since the 16 th century. Charitable acts, like helping widows, orphans, strangers and the sick, became more and more detached from belief in God. Stripped of a transcendent quality, service to others became a secular mantra for good citizenship and humanitarianism. Then, in the course of the 19 th and 20 th centuries, both secular and Christian charity became over-shadowed by calls for social justice and human rights. During this period Catholic social thought blossomed …. but this body of modern Catholic social doctrine says little about charity.”

“The pope prefers to draw upon a much older period, when charity was at the center of Catholic social teaching. Citing Scripture and the practice of the early church, Benedict places charitable service on the same theological plane as celebrating the liturgy and preaching the word of God. “

“He praises church colla-boration with nonchurch organizations. But the pope insists that church charity should not be just another form of social assistance. He says that the work must be grounded in prayer and a living relationship with God.”

Benedict insists that prayer should be fully integrated into service. “This is a tall order for many Catholic social agencies. Employees of the larger Catholic organizations seem indistinguishable from employ-ees of secular organizations. They are evaluated on the basis of their effectiveness and pro-fessionalism—not the quality of their faith life. “

Communitarian Personalism vs. Professionalism

Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, along with communitarian personalists like Emmanuel Mounier taught us that professionalism is not as good as personalism in carrying out the charity of Christ.

Dorothy and Peter resisted the social work of their day as they saw it as a system to impose the values of the social worker on the poor person. Instead of professionalism, they embraced personalism.

Christians are better equipped against falling into the trap of thinking that somehow or other you need a special agency or highly trained social service people with master’s degrees to know how to work with the poor. They should be especially able to avoid thinking that enormous grants from the government are necessary to begin to serve the poor.

Could you imagine the saints that Benedict features applying for federal funds or having fancy offices or participating in grantsmanship?

If Casa Juan Diego operated on government grants, it would need millions of dollars. Without government funding we are able to manage on less than one million each year.

Agency structure and bureau-cracy and rules and regulations tend to inhibit creativity and innovative responses to the problems of poverty.

Having well-educated social workers and social service professionals can be an asset in serving the vulnerable and in avoiding traps in serving the poor, but it is not really necessary for salvation.

It is professional to serve the poor in the best possible way with respect for their dignity as human beings. Responding directly to their needs without a lot of fanfare, questions, interviews and words not only saves time, but also eliminates the danger of developing a messiah complex on the part of the worker.

Deserving vs. Undeserving

Spending a lot of time listening to long stories of why people are poor is dangerous. The poor who are good storytellers get everything. The poor storytellers often suffer.

It really is impossible to distinguish between the deserving and what are called the undeserving poor—and in any case, the Lord does not require us to make that distinction.

Some observers of the movement criticized Catholic Workers for helping the “undeserving” poor and demanded that CW’s discriminate more scrupulously between those who merited help and those who might be lazy parasites and cheats. Dorothy answered the in the March 1947 CW that Christ loved all the poor, and that the social order should be changed so that not so many suffered: “It is indeed hard to see Christ in the undeserving poor. We admit that there will always be the poor, the wastrel, the drunk, the sinner. But Christ came to save them. He loved them. We just insist that there do not need to be so many of them, the degraded, the twisted, the warped, the miserable ones, employed and unemployed.”

A Confession

We must confess that we succumbed some years ago (before the HCW) to the temptation to get graduate degrees to better serve the poor–or was it to get a better job with a much higher salary? Or was it for the sake of our children? Of course!

We benefited from our university experience (Louise, University of California at Berkeley; Mark, University of Chicago). We learned a lot about the secular world and secularism, being at two of the best secularist universities in the country. We have been there and done that! The primary focus among students was how much money and status they could amass upon graduation. There was no sense of vocation of service to the world, but only to pro-fessionalism.

Our Disappointment

With our sheepskins under our arms we went to the job market and were fortunate enough to find good programs.

We were going to change the world–or so we thought.

Our expectations were probably too high in the area of thinking that all these highly educated people with advanced degrees in social work, psychology and psychiatry would provide an ambience of profound cultural depth and stimulating intellectual activity.

Disappointment came soon as what we found was not an intellectual and cultural oasis, but a desert.

Like the Jews in Babylon, we longed for our religious ghetto, where the most profound questions were in our minds and hearts and discussions and actions, and for church people who had such great intellectual and cultural depth, not only in the Spirit, but in the practical wisdom of how to do things, and who didn’t count the cost.

These experiences helped our Catholic inferiority complex that some of us had, thinking that somehow secular education is better or that the real truth is with these prominent universities or that graduate training is absolutely necessary to serve the poor.

Neoliberals Taking Over the Language

It would seem that others in the Church have also been affected by this sense of inferiority and are looking to the secular and even the world of enormous corporations for ways to implement Church teaching instead of what Peter Maurin called the methods of the saints. In his article, “Look for Future of Church in the Gospels – not the CBI” in the London: Independent Catholic News, Paul Donovan points out a major problem in the planning and organization of social services, of the charity of Christians:

“There seems to be a growing tendency in the Catholic Church to take on corporate manage-ment styles. The need for a business plan, a mission state-ment and strategic planning, are all terms that seem to crop up more and more in Church cir-cles. An increasing value seems to be being placed upon the professional classes as in some way superior to everyone else.

“A message that comes through increasingly loud and clear is that it will be the professional people who lead the Church into the promised land.

“This growing obsession with the corporate management style has its roots in the advance of the neoliberal agenda [known in the United States as neocon-servative].

“The problem over the years has been that the neoliberal philosophy has embedded itself as the only doctrine in town—there is no alternative.”

Donovan points out the problem of the closeness of CAFOD in Great Britain [and Catholic Charities in the U. S. and Caritas elsewhere] and large corporations and government funding.

“The neoliberal, market-rules-all approach is not the Church’s agenda. Neoliberalism is about individualism and the atomisa-tion of people–remember Mrs. Thatcher’s famous words that there is no such thing as society. As Christians we believe the opposite, Church is based on community and the coming together of communities.

“Our values are Gospel values and it is from these that Church organisations should draw their own ethos for management. “

Neoliberal Commentaries Not Accurate

Neoliberal commentators on Benedict’s encyclical have already attempted to use it to support their positions on economics and even on war. For example the opening lines of the encyclical read as follows:

“In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant. For this reason I wish in my first encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others.”

One writer interprets this as particularly being aimed at jihadist Islam, never admitting that his own pro-war position in opposition to the Vatican regarding the invasion of Iraq and his support of the Gulf War in the teeth of Vatican opposition might also be called into question by these lines.

Another neoliberal Catholic Calvinist interprets the whole section on the way the Church should bring the light and wisdom of God to reason involved with public policy as an affirmation of his own agenda of the justification of wealth for the few.

Neoliberal Language Even Infects Church Documents

Benedict states in the encyclical that the Church should state the principles and lay people should apply them in the world to structures following the purification of conscience provided by the Church. The tragedy is that neoliberal language has even crept into Church documents. It does not overwhelm them, but does soften the impact of the Gospel.

Benedict recommends outstanding encyclicals of previous popes and their summarization in the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching. Unfortunately, the Compendium itself, while filled with wonderful statements from Catholic social teaching, is also touched by the neoliberal language that has crept in everywhere in recent times. It includes a few statements that have come from neoliberal global capitalism instead of papal teaching or the Gospel. We hope that there will be a second edition which will eliminate those.

Examples: include No. 334: “The economy has as its object the development of wealth and its progressive increase…” (This is not from the Gospel or Catholic Social Teaching!) and No. 347: “A truly competitive market is an effective instrument for attaining important objec-tives of justice…” (Not true!)

While statements follow these which are from papal teaching and which may qualify them, the business man or woman who reads them may find a Calvinist interpretation which would make them feel justified in pursuing their “enlightened self-interest” instead of the charity and justice of Jesus Caritas.

With all the work and writing that John Paul II did regarding the foreign debt which is choking the poor all over the world, it is surprising that there is just one small paragraph on this subject in the Compendium in #195, in which it states that countries should pay their debts.

We are especially sensitive to the impact of the Compendium on the socio-economic reality of America because over the past 25 years we have received many thousands of immigrants and refugees from exactly that reality—refugees from the current global economic system. Those who work for a pittance in factories of multinational corporations are unable to provide for their families and forced to migrate, while CEO’s and stockholders receive enormous remuneration.

How to Live It?

Deus Caritas Est is very great and very beautiful. What is missing in most of the commentaries on it is the tremendous challenge of how to live this out. It is easy to talk or sing about love, sweet love, but to put flesh and blood on the profound concepts Benedict gathers in this encyclical, to live them, is another thing.

Dorothy Day reminded us, “The greatest challenge of the day is: How to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us. When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers and sisters with that burning love, that passion, which led to the Cross, then we can truly say, ‘Now, I have begun.'” ( Loaves and Fishes )

To Whom Shall we go, Lord?

In the light of current political and economic realities, how can Catholics respond to Benedict’s encyclical? The challenge is to go beyond mediocrity, beyond living like everyone else in our secular society, a bourgeois, middle-class lifestyle, or the desire for such a lifestyle, to the call of Jesus in the Gospels and thus to a Christian response to those most in need.

Georges Bernanos, the author of The Diary of a Country Priest, tells of the pitfalls facing Christians: “The world expects so much from Christians and receives so little… Christians should be the salt, not the syrup of the earth… They don’t allow the holiness of saints to beam out over the world.” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bernanos: an Ecclesial Existence,Ignatius Press, 1996)

Bernanos cautions us in our world so dominated in the Christian West and North by consumerism and individualism and mediocrity: “The worst sort of imprudence is to underes-timate the mediocre. Mediocrity is a colorless and odorless gas that we peacefully allow to accumulate, and then it suddenly explodes with incredible violence.”

Who is called to the revolution of the heart so far beyond mediocrity? Who is called to a whole new way of life–even to heroism? Vatican II proclaimed the universal call to holiness–every Christian, every Catholic. And Benedict places this newness at the heart of Christianity following the encounter with the Lord.

The world has too many theologians imitating Pilate, who asks of Jesus, “What is truth?” when they know darn good and well what is the truth–give up all and follow Jesus, sharing the love that has been given to us. Some have even deteriorated into trying to transform the Gospel into an encomium for wealth creation—an astounding idea.

Some appear to be bourgeois theologians, always seeking new ways and new theories to avoid guilt and responsibility for the bourgeoisie instead of focusing on the responsibilities of Catholics.

If we follow the lead of so many theologians, no Catholics would be required to serve the poor–a theology of excuse could always be found. We know all about the theology of excuse. We were specialists in it at one time.

Fortunately for all of us and for the Church, Benedict has clarified this matter, placing charity on the level of the sacraments and the Word.

Before the Poor

The advantage of living out the Gospel to give up all and follow Jesus is the ability one receives to be concerned about the poor and human persons rather than focus on one’s own needs. The paradox of the Gospel is that one grows and grows by giving rather than by asking or receiving.

Catholics cannot ignore concern for the poor and their poverty. The condition of poverty becomes, as Bernanos says, a worthy and honorable thing by reference to Christ, who “being rich, became poor for our sake” (2 Cor 8:9). The great hope Christianity brought into the world of the poor “”was certainly not that of a dictatorship of the proletariat but that of a society in which the poor would be honored because God himself had made himself poor and had thus hallowed–not only the moral disposition of poverty of spirit, as certain simoniac theologians sometimes let it be known–but the very social condition of the poor. The question is not how we can make the poor rich, since all the gold of your mines would probably not suffice for this. In any event, you’d only succeed in multiplying the pseudorich. No, the question is not how we can enrich the poor but how we can honor the poor, or, rather, how we can give them the honor that is their due.”

When questioned about the posture of the saints and where to find them, Bernanos responded: “On their knees before the poor, the infirm, the leprous–that’s how, at the feet of their royal guest.”

He told us that “the worst thing is that the rich have dishonored the poor in a new way. They have absorbed the poor into their own ideology, persuading them that poverty is a disgrace and wealth an honor. By so doing they have inflicted the most thorough, even if perhaps most unnoticed, attack upon the honor of Jesus Christ, and the cleverest of all attacks, too, on his Church, who is the trustee of the poor and who is alone, absolutely alone, in safeguarding the honor of poverty.!”

How can today’s Catholics recapture the vision of the great Christian saints who gave up all to follow Jesus, who made their life decisions based on their hope for eternal life and their discipleship? How can we find their joy and hope and commitment?

God is Love reminds us that somehow for all of us this is related to those most in need. As each of the saints knew, once having encountered the Lord and heard the Beatitudes, there is a mysterious connection that binds the poor with the Kingdom of God.

Purification of Reason Includes Second Half of Matthew 25

The theme of Matthew 25 and the charity of Christians who attempt to bring the love of God to our world includes the second part of the Judgment scene, not so frequently mentioned. In the January 1957 issue of The Catholic Worker Dorothy Day applied the second part of Matthew 25 to those who create structures of sin: “We are the rich man of the world, and the poor man is at the gate, and we are afraid the day is coming when God will say, “Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you polluted the earth with your mines and your bombs and wars which starved the poor; I was thirsty, and you contaminated even the ocean and the waters of the earth with your hydrogen bombs; I was a stranger, and you made agreements with former allies who now are enemies, to keep me in displaced persons’ camps to this day, and daily you make more homeless; naked, and you make weapons and profits for the rich and the poor have not the clothes to cover them; I was sick and in prison, and my numbers ever increased.”

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, May-June 2006.