Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Caritas, Benedict-Style

Everyone knows American #1 at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but for all the spotlight on California's own Cardinal William Levada, what's sometimes forgotten is that the former Holy Office's second-ranking Statiunitense isn't much further down the totem pole.

In 2002, then-Cardinal Ratzinger recruited Dominican Fr J. Augustine DiNoia -- then an official at Washington's John Paul II Center and the former head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' secretariat for doctrine -- to serve as the CDF's undersecretary, the dicastery's #3 post. When the newly-elected Pope Benedict appointed Levada to take the place held by his pre-papal incarnation three years later, it was something of a reunion: reportedly, Ratzinger first met "Fr Gus" in Levada's salon in San Francisco.

After Benedict's election, the native New Yorker took a lead role in offering the world a glimpse into the life and mind of the new pontiff, whose admiration and confidence the Dominican enjoys. The various theories passed about of the continuing reshuffle of the Roman Curia often have little in common, but one consistent thread is that, when it all shakes out, DiNoia is likely to end up at one congregation or another as an archbishop-secretary.

Last week, the trusted aide continued his run as papal interpreter, speaking on Benedict's first encyclical Deus caritas est at the annual plenary of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences.

Suffice it to say, it's well worth snipping:
As everyone who has read the encyclical will know, in his discussion of eros and agape, Pope Benedict insists on the unity of these two forms of love, as well as the continuity between them. He is particularly concerned to refute the widespread notion that the Christian faith separates these two loves, and even suppresses the one -- eros -- in favor of the other -- agape. On the contrary, asserts the encyclical, eros is ever reaching out towards its fulfillment in agape. The powerful dynamism of desire is itself a sign that human persons are made for and directed toward a love that never ends.

In order to clarify this immensely significant first point, allow me to turn for help to one of Pope Benedict's favorite authors, St. Augustine.

In his writings, and especially in his "Confessions," St. Augustine frequently invites his readers to consider the things that they have desired and the things that they desire now -- to consider, in effect, the experience of desire. When we have thought about things that we have desired very badly, and have worked very hard to possess, St. Augustine asks us to acknowledge that, in the end, we have often lost interest and become bored with these very things, and that we then move on to seeking other things.

For St. Augustine, this is most definitely not a cause for lament. On the contrary. In pondering the experience of desire, we learn something very important about ourselves: No good thing that we have wanted and even possessed can finally quench desire itself, because we are made for the uncreated Good which is God himself.

This means that the good things of this world -- and all the more so, the good of other persons -- far from being obstacles in our quest for ultimate happiness, point us to the Good itself which is their source and in which they share. If we do not love the good things of this world, how shall we be able to love their Maker?

The triune God, who made us for himself and who wants to share the communion of trinitarian love with us, uses the good things of this world to lead us to him who is, we could say, Goodness itself. The challenge -- and, sometimes, the tragedy -- of human existence is to desire and love the created good as if it were divine, to invest an absolute value in what cannot finally satisfy the human heart. That is what sin is. But rightly ordered desire and love of the good things of this world and the good of other persons is already a participation in the Good which is God himself.

These lessons from St. Augustine help us to grasp the point the Holy Father is making in the first part of "Deus Caritas Est" -- that eros is meant to lead us to agape, to the love of God and to the love of one another in God. Pope Benedict resists absolutely the misreading, sometimes perverse, that claims to see in Christian faith the suppression of the ordinary fulfillments of human earthly life, particularly human intimacy and love, in favor of a good beyond life.

On the contrary, for Christian faith the whole range of human desire -- or, to use more technical language, the inclination to the good embedded in the very structure of human existence -- finds it complete fulfillment in the love of the triune God, and nothing less. Although Pope Benedict does not use this expression in the encyclical, we might call this unity of and continuity between eros and agape "the sanctification of desire."...

The second principal point argued in "Deus Caritas Est," according to the reading I am suggesting today, is actually implicit in the first and is advanced in the second part of the encyclical.

This second point is captured brilliantly in a passage from paragraph 19 of the encyclical: "The entire activity of the Church is an expression of a love that seeks the integral good of man: it seeks his evangelization through Word and Sacrament …; and it seeks to promote man in the various arenas of life and human activity. Love is therefore the service that the Church carries out in order to attend constantly to man's sufferings and his needs, including material needs. " This "the service of charity" is directed to the integral human good, a description of which is the substance, as we have seen, of the encyclical's first major point.

For, while it is true that no created good can satisfy the desires of the human heart, God nonetheless intends us to enjoy these created goods precisely as his gift to us, affording a participation in his own Goodness. These created goods are not rendered irrelevant or dispensable by the fact that they are not themselves ultimate or absolute. The ultimate good does not cancel out or exclude limited or subordinate goods: They retain their integrity and finality in their very ordering to the ultimate good.

Man does not live on bread alone, indeed, but he needs bread in order to live. Integral human fulfillment encompasses a range of created goods even as it necessarily entails a directedness, an inner tendency, toward the enjoyment of the uncreated Good who is God himself, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who enjoy a communion of life into which we, created persons who are not God, are invited to share as their friends -- and nothing less.

This integral human good is the object of the Church's service of charity: the ultimate good and the intermediate or subordinate goods, the spiritual well-being and the material well-being, the goods of this earthly life and the good beyond life.

Again, Pope Benedict is concerned to refute the pernicious suggestion that, by affirming the priority and ultimacy of a good beyond earthly life, the Church overlooks the poverty and suffering of this world, or, worse, conspires with the "prinicipalities and powers" to maintain the unjust structures that are responsible for this human suffering.

On the contrary. The service of charity encompasses the whole range of the integral good of human beings. The encyclical explains at length how this service of charity has been exercised in Christian history and how it can be exercised in the present day. In the midst of this service, the Church keeps to the forefront that vision of the human good and human dignity that God himself has revealed and inscribed in the human heart from the very moment of the creation of the universe. "The entire activity of the Church is an expression of a love that seeks the integral good of man" (19)....

[T]he Church faces a huge challenge in the present day in her interaction with international agencies and national governments whose social policies have been influenced by reductionist social science. It can be demonstrated that an entirely secular anthropology -- in the sense of an alternative account of the meaning of human existence -- has, especially since the '90s, come to shape the programs and policies of many international organizations, including the United Nations.

In place of an earlier paradigm in which universal human rights and a common human nature played a normative role, the alternative anthropology espouses the socially constructed character of truth and reality, the priority of cultural diversity, the deconstruction of all moral norms, and priority of personal choice. Although the roots of this secular anthropology are philosophical, the social sciences have been the principal vehicle for its diffusion in modern western societies.

When the Church, in this environment, advances her vision of the integral human good, her interventions are frequently caricatured as retrogressive and intrusive. The alternative anthropology has so powerful a hold on the media, the international aid agencies, many NGOs, and other influential bodies that it is difficult to advance the Christian vision of the integral human good through dialogue, argument and counter-argument. The new anthropology is viewed, in effect, as self-evident and not in need of argument. This situation has created many practical problems that sometimes make it difficult for Catholic aid agencies even to function at the local, national, and even international levels....

The encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" bears the date of Christmas 2005, the first Christmas of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. This is significant. The only-begotten Son of God took on human nature in order that human persons might share in the divine life. It is this communion of life with creaturely persons that the triune God desires. "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" ("Deus Caritas Est," No. 1).

St. Augustine somewhere remarks that it is very difficult for human beings to believe in this love. But we can see that no account of the human condition can be complete that neglects, excludes or denies that the integral human good is found only in the love of God revealed to us on the first Christmas in the Incarnate Word made flesh.