March 2, 2006
As Prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger spent many hours pouring over Liberation Theology. The liberationists had become very involved in political movements to insure a just society. They had confused the role of the Church and the role of the State. And, at times, they were openly Marxists. In 1966 when the German journalist Peter Seewald asked the Cardinal what was his greatest success in his work, he pointed to the corrections offered to Liberation Theology. The Pope’s first encyclical shows the fruit of this long struggle with liberationists. The Holy Father carefully outlines the place of charity and justice and the respective and proper roles of Church and State.
Each Christian has an obligation to care for those in need. Love of neighbor is a foremost responsibility for the believer. But attending to those in need is, at the same time, an ecclesial act. The Church is not just individuals. It is a community united in the one faith, nourished by the same Word and the Sacraments. Through evangelization, the entire activity of the Church seeks the good of man and is an act of love. “As a community, the Church must practice love. Love thus needs to be organized if it is to be an ordered service to the community” (20).
The Church does not leave the care of those who suffer in body and soul solely to organizations formed to care for the needy or even to the State. Because the Church is called to proclaim the love of God completely, she practices love as a community. Such care for the poor has been part of the Church’s mission from the beginning. It will always be an essential element of her work. Not even a just society will be able to eliminate all suffering. But as a Church, we must do all that we can in helping those who suffer.
The Church is a family. And no member of that family is to be in need. Such an attitude to the poor within the Church changes the face of our charitable works from an obligation to a true work of love. The Church’s concern for those in need extends far behind the walls of her buildings. Every individual bears the image of the Creator. Every individual is loved by Christ who has poured out his blood for the ransom of all. As Paul says to the Galatians, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10).
Reflecting on the essential work of the Church living in the image of the Good Samaritan who reaches out to all, the Holy Father offers some profound insights on the relationship of justice and charity. The principles he sets down in the context of the Church at the service of charity go beyond the immediate issue. These principles speak to some of the burning issues we are facing in today’s secular society that delights in banishing faith from the public sector. The Pope clarifies the respective roles of the Church and State in their work for the common good of all.
Some politicians may be tempted to view their role as responding to issues on the basis of popular opinion. They may even claim to be opposed to certain laws, e.g. laws permitting the murder of innocent children in the womb. Yet they support these laws because of the pressure of interest groups. Benedict XVI enunciates a principle that goes beneath the surface of such an attitude to the real duty of the politicians and the ultimate work of the State. He says, “Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics. 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 (
Deus Caritas Est, 28).
Today public discussion hotly debates the role of the Church and the role of politicians. Many fear that a close bond between religion and human activity in the public forum will work against the independence of society. Pope Benedict XVI clearly distinguishes the competency of each. The Church does not replace the State. As the Second Vatican taught, there is an autonomy of the temporal sphere (
Gaudium et Spes, 36). This means two things.
First, it is the role of the State to create a just social order. The State has the obligation to make justice a fundamental norm of its policies. The State should work in a way that guarantees that each individual has a proper share in the community’s goods. This is why politicians cannot be indifferent to the common good.
The Church does not take on political battles to change society into the most just society possible. This is the role of the State. Civil leaders have the task of evaluating the present moment and seeking to implement the norms of justice here and now. At times, small groups who do not represent the mainstream and who do not espouse solid ethical principles exert pressure on politicians. And so politicians are called to work out a just society in the unselfish service of the common good of all without giving in to special interests. This guarantees that the rights of the weakest and most vulnerable are respected.
Second, the Church has a positive contribution to make in achieving a just society. Catholic social teaching is a gift to society. The Church never seeks to impose these teachings on those outside the Church. The Church offers her social teachings on the basis of the natural law and reason. Through rational argument, she helps form the conscience of individuals. She provides insights into the authentic requirements of justice and motivates those properly formed to make the necessary sacrifices to insure the demands of the common good.
The Pope clearly distinguishes faith and reason. Faith is an encounter with God. Faith is beyond reason. Nonetheless, faith liberates reason from blind spots and enables reason to see more clearly the ethical principles that work for the common good of all. It is not “the Church’s responsibility to make [her social teaching] prevail in political life” (
Deus Caritas Est, 28). No. Each individual, as a citizen of the State, has the task of configuring the social order to the norms of justice. The faithful cannot stand apart from public life. It is their responsibility to participate in forming legal, economic and social structures that promote the common good.
In an interview given to the Italian magazine (
Famiglia Cristiana, February 5, 2006), the Holy Father said, “Without engaging in politics, the Church participates passionately in the battle for justice. It corresponds to Christians involved in public service to always open, in their political action, new ways for justice…[And] beyond justice, man will always need love, which alone is able to give a soul to justice.”
This is the second of a two-part series on the Pope’s encyclical.