June 16, 2006

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Church must not remain on the sidelines
in the fight for justice

The second half of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “God is Love” makes two main points: As a community, the Church must practice love through works of charity and attend to people’s sufferings and needs, including material needs. Secondly, the Church’s action stems from its spiritual mission and must never be undertaken as part of a political or ideological agenda.

In developing these points, the pope described the connection and important distinctions between justice and charity.

“Since the nineteenth century, an objection has been raised to the Church’s charitable activity, subsequently developed with particular insistency by Marxism; the poor it is claimed do not need charity but justice.

“Works of charity—almsgiving—are in effect a way for the rich to shirk their obligation to work for justice and a means of soothing consciences, while preserving their own status and robbing the poor of their rights. Instead of contributing through individual works of charity to maintaining the status quo, we need to build a just social order in which all receive their share of the world’s goods and no longer have to depend on charity. There is admittedly some truth in this argument, but also much that is mistaken.”

After the rise of modern industry, the Holy Father said it must be admitted that the Church’s leadership was slow to realize that the issue of the just structuring of society needed to be approached in a new way. But beginning with the encyclical Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII in 1891, Catholic social teaching gradually developed.

Pope Benedict noted that it has now found a comprehensive presentation in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church published in 2004. “… The Church’s social doctrine has become a set of fundamental guidelines offering approaches that are valid even beyond the confines of the Church; in the face of ongoing development these guidelines need to be addressed in the context of dialogue with all those seriously concerned for humanity and the world in which we live.”

The pope asserted that two fundamental situations need to be considered in order to define accurately the relationship between the necessary commitment to justice and the ministry of charity.

First of all, the just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics. The Holy Father highlighted the distinction between Church and State. “The State may not impose religion, yet it must guarantee religious freedom and harmony between the followers of different religions. For her part the Church, as the social expression of Christian faith, has a proper independence and is structured on the basis of her faith as a community which the State must recognize. The two spheres are distinct yet always interrelated.

“Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics… . This presupposes an even more radical question,” wrote the pope. “What is justice? The problem is one of practical reason, which if it is going to be exercised properly, must undergo constant purification. This is true because it can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests. Here politics and faith meet.”

By its very nature, faith is an encounter with the living God—which opens up beyond the sphere of reason. It is a purifying force for reason itself. “This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Nor does it intend to impose ways of thinking on those who do not share the faith. It is the Church’s wish to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly.”

In clear language, Pope Benedict stated: “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.”

In equally clear language, the Holy Father said the direct duty to work for a just ordering in society is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity.
And while the Church can never be exempted from practicing charity as an organized activity of believers, there will never be a situation where the charity of each individual Christian is unnecessary because, in addition to the human need for justice, there will always be a need for love. †


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