Benedict XVI's first encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) was released at the Vatican on 25 January. Broad in its scope, it gets to the very heart of the Christian message and the Church's role in fostering a just social order. It examines the meaning of love in its various dimensions, outlining both the distinctions and the connections between physical attraction (eros) and self-giving love (agape).
The Pope reminds us that the practical expression of love through the Church's charitable works is not an optional extra, but integral to her threefold God-given role alongside preaching the Word and providing the Sacraments. He rejects any direct involvement in politics by the Church or allowing her charitable activities to be harnessed to ideologies. The focus should be spiritual.
In earlier comments about his forthcoming encyclical, Benedict said that the word love "is so overused today that one is almost afraid to pronounce it." But since it is the "expression of a primordial reality", it is essential to "retrieve it" so "that it may illuminate our lives."
Benedict explains that in his encyclical, "the themes of God, Christ and Love are fused together as a central guide to the Christian faith." The encyclical's first part discusses the essence of love, while the second covers the Church's charitable mission.
The two themes are connected: "On the basis of the Christian image of God, man was created to love, and this love, which initially appears above all as 'eros' between man and woman, must then be internally transformed into 'agape,' or the giving of self to others."
The Church's organisation of charity, he says, "is part of the nature of the Church" and a means of making "the living God visible", since "the greater the awareness and clarity with which we bear Him as a gift, the more effectively will our love change the world."
In the encyclical itself, Benedict writes that while the Church does not seek to govern in the secular sphere, she is "duty-bound to offer, through the purification of reason and through ethical formation, her own specific contribution towards understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically."
In building a just social order, the duty of the Church with her social doctrine is that of reawakening spiritual and moral forces: "Lay people, as citizens of the State, are called to participate directly in public life, helping to mould social life appropriately, respecting its legitimate autonomy and cooperating with other citizens, according to their respective areas of jurisdiction, each under their own responsibility."
The service of charity, he emphasises, "is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of the Church's nature, an indispensable expression of her very being."
While the practicalities of the just ordering of society are in the hands of the State, the State "must guarantee religious freedom and harmony between the followers of different religions." The Church, on the other hand, as the social expression of Christian faith, has a proper independence, serving as "a purifying force for reason", liberating it "from its blind spots" and enabling it "to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly."
In the case of her own charitable works, the Church has direct responsibility. The essential elements of this, says Benedict, are first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc.
Those involved should be not only professionally competent but possess a "formation of the heart", which means they need to be led to that encounter with God in Christ which awakens their love and opens their spirits to others.
Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies: "It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs."
Marxist theory dismisses such an approach as preserving the status quo of unjust structures. Benedict describes this as "really an inhuman philosophy", with present-day people "sacrificed to the tyranny of the future - a future whose effective realisation is at best doubtful."
The Pope then warns against the use of charity as an arm of proselytism: "Love is free; it is not practised as a way of achieving other ends. Those who practise charity in the Church's name will never seek to impose the Church's faith upon others. They realise that a pure and generous love is the best witness to the God in whom we believe and by whom we are driven to love. A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak."
Summing up, Benedict says that Christian charity - in the face of the enormity of unmet human needs - has to avoid the extremes of "an ideology that would aim at doing what God's governance of the world apparently cannot: fully resolving every problem", or giving way to resignation or inertia "since it would seem that in any event nothing can be accomplished."
The encyclical concludes: "It is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of the activism and the growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work. A personal relationship with God and an abandonment to his will can prevent man from being demeaned and save him from falling prey to the teaching of fanaticism and terrorism.
"An authentically religious attitude prevents man from presuming to judge God, accusing him of allowing poverty and failing to have compassion for his creatures."