New Papal Encyclical puts theological flesh to Church’s charitable work, hits at nucleus of Christian faith, say prelates

Today at the Vatican, Pope Benedict’s long-awaited first Encyclical, entitled ‘Deus Caritas Est” was officially presented at a press conference in which a group of prelates reflected on the potentially monumental effects the document could have on the cultural and social order.

Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Archbishop William Joseph Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes, president of the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum", were all on hand for the noontime press conference.

Pope Benedict has said that the new, 71-page document, which is translated, ’God is Love’ seeks to “reclaim” the idea of love, which has fallen prey to confusion and misunderstanding in the current culture.

During his brief remarks, Cardinal Martino, the first of the three to speak, discussed the relationship--laid out by the Pope--between justice and charity, and the jurisdictions of Church and State in achieving a just social order.

The Holy Father, he said, notes that although the building of social and State order is not immediately incumbent upon the Church but rather upon the political sphere, that "the Church 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."

The Holy Father, Cardinal Martino went on, "affirms that, in building a just social order, the duty of the Church with her social doctrine is that of reawakening spiritual and moral forces."

He explained that in this context, lay people must participate in public life and express their presence through service and charity, “made manifest in family, cultural, working, economic and political life.”

Nucleus of the Christian faith

Archbishop Levada, told those gathered that he thought the Encyclical to be "a powerful text on the 'nucleus of Christian faith,' understood as the Christian image of God and the image of man that derives from it.”

He called it “A powerful text that seeks to counter the erroneous use of the name of God, and the ambiguity concerning the word 'love' that is so evident in the world today."

"In order to explain the novelty of Christian love,” the prefect went on, “the Holy Father seeks first to illustrate the difference and unity between two concepts inherent to the phenomenon of love from the times of the ancient Greeks: 'eros' and 'agape'."

These two concepts, he said, "do not oppose one another, but come harmoniously together to offer a realistic concept of human love, a love that involves the entirety - body and soul - of the human being. 'Agape' prevents 'eros' from abandoning itself to instinct, while 'eros' offers 'agape' the fundamental and vital relationships of human existence."

Archbishop Levada added that "in the indissoluble marriage between man and woman this human love takes a form that is rooted in creation itself."

Making note of the Pope‘s structure for the document, he highlighted Benedict‘s point that "Love for others, rooted in the love of God, is the duty, not only of each individual faithful, but also - and here we come to the second part of the Encyclical - of the entire community of believers, in other words the Church.”

Two conclusions emanate from this he said. First, “that the service of charity is part of the essence of the Church, secondly that no one must lack what they need, either within or outside the Church."

Charitable and Ecclesial

Cor Unum’s president, Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes, added his own thoughts on the document, pointing out that "today's text is the first ever Encyclical on the subject of charity."

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Reflecting on the Church‘s own work of charity, made up of what he called, “concrete initiatives,” Archbishop Cordes said that they are often focused on political initiatives, such as those for the elimination of debt of the poorest countries.”

“We wish”, he said, “to promote an awareness of justice in society,“ but “Pope Benedict XVI [also] wished to illuminate charitable commitment with a theological foundation. ... He is convinced that faith has consequences on the individual who acts, and therefore on the manner and intensity of his acts of charity."

"The social doctrine of the Church and the theology of charity are, without doubt, inter-linked," he said, "but they are not exactly the same. Indeed, the former expresses ethical principles associated with the search for the common good and moves, therefore, more at a political and community level.”

“On the other hand,” he said however, “caring - both individually and together - for the suffering of others does not call for a systematic doctrine. Rather, it arises from the word of faith."

Noting that there exists, fortunately, “in our society…a widespread feeling of philanthropy,” Archbishop Cordes lamented that “this can give the faithful the idea that charity is not an essential part of the ecclesial mission.”

“Without a solid theological foundation,” he said, “the great ecclesial agencies could become ... disassociated from the Church, [and] ... prefer to identify themselves as non-governmental organizations.”

“This, however, contrasts with the two-thousand-year history of the Church, and does not take into account the intimate rapport between ecclesial action on behalf of man and credibility in the announcement of the Gospel."

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Archbishop Cordes concluded by stressing that "We must go further…the present sensibility of so many people, especially the young, also contains a 'kairos apostolico.' This opens notable pastoral prospects. There are innumerable volunteers, and many of them discover the love of God in the giving of themselves to others with disinterested love."

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