Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Catholic Meme I'm Not Thrilled About. Don't Forget, Benedict Emphasized "Charity"

Okay, so maybe I'm being a bit cantankerous but I have problems with the meme on the right. Catholics are floating this picture, produced by CatholicVote, around Facebook.

Now I have to confess that I think it is a bit silly to try to encapsulate any pontificate with a single word.

But, having said that, I have to admit that what is really irritating me is this: if any recent papacy should be linked with "charity" it is Pope Benedict's! Why?

From the start of his pontificate and all throughout it, "charity" was really the theme of Benedict's teaching!

At the beginning of his very first address he cited Vatican II in describing the Church as "a great family of all the peoples by means of the unifying power of Truth and Love" (cf. Lumen Gentium 1).

His very first encyclical was Deus Caritas est--"God is Love (Charity)". 

The importance of the theological virtue of Charity was emphasized throughout his Petrine ministry.

Whatever his topic, Benedict seemed to always treat it in relation to Charity.

How did he approach the Eucharist? His letter on it was entitled, Sacramentum caritatis, that is, "The Sacrament of Charity". 

What about his approach to Catholic Social Teaching? He laid out his teaching here in Caritas in veritate, that is, "Charity in Truth". 

I love Pope Francis but let's not have such a short memory! If there ever was a pontificate devoted to proclaiming "charity" it was Benedict XVI's!

Of course, the final act of his papacy, his resignation, is probably best viewed as an exceptional act of "charity" on behalf of the Church.

But--and this is really important--I think it is really absurd to try to figure out which pope has more "faith" or "love". Did Benedict have more "Faith" than John Paul II? Did John Paul II have more hope than Francis? This is dangerous!

The question here should be which pope emphasized which theological virtue the most in his teaching, not trying to assign who was the most loving or faith-filled!

And there can be no doubt, as Francis has emphasized "poverty", Benedict emphasized "charity".

Again, this is not to suggest that John Paul II or Francis was or are unconcerned about love/charity. But let's not forget that "Charity" really and truly was the major motif of Benedict's ministry.

How would I then assign the theological virtues? Again, this is facile. But if someone were to put a gun to my head and insist that I find a way of linking each pope to one of them, I'd say the following.

John Paul II as "Faith": It was John Paul II who wrote the great encyclical, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason).

Moreover, he was the one who also gave us the Catechism of the Catholic Church (though it was Cardinal Ratzinger who oversaw the project, it was published as the magisterium of John Paul II). In fact, in his Apostolic Constitution, Fidei Depositum (Deposit of Faith), a work which also emphasizes the role of faith, he tells us why he gave us the Catechism: to provide the Church with "a sure norm for teaching the faith".

Francis  as "Hope": Given what I've said above, "hope" would seem best attributed to Francis. Indeed, in his address to the Cardinals he highlighted as a chief danger the temptation to "bitterness".

Still, I have to say, linking each pontificate with one theological virtue is probably too difficult. But if there is one thing I'm sure of it is this: Benedict put greater emphasis on "Charity" than any other recent pope. Let's not forget that--and certainly not so soon!


Karen Hybner said...

Thank you for posting this!

bbmoe said...

Needless to say, I agree with you, but one of the things I detect in this silly meme is the vernacular understanding of "charity." When we give to the poor, it's "charity." B16 used the word in its classical theological sense, a sense that all well-catechized Catholics should be familiar with. But there's the catch, right? In this "140 characters" world, most people, including Catholics, would not be able to write a sensible essay on the phrase "God is Love" linking it to the word "charity."

I think I've just given myself a meditation.

justin said...

I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what charity is - hence the meme.

Too many people confuse charity with good works, i.e. the corporal works of mercy. In particular charity is viewed through a particular prism, of prioritising the material needs of the poor and most vulnerable in society.

Christians however knows that charity is a theological virtue that is more than the sum total of the corporal works of mercy. In particular, as Pope Benedict XVI said in his 2013 Lenten message, “Sometimes we tend, in fact, to reduce the term “charity” to solidarity or simply humanitarian aid. It is important, however, to remember that the greatest work of charity is evangelization, which is the “ministry of the word”. Cardinal Sodano elaborated on this in his homily at the Missa Pro Eligendo Pontifice, "There is no action more beneficial – and therefore more charitable – towards one’s neighbour than to break the bread of the word of God, to share with him the Good News of the Gospel, to introduce him to a relationship with God: evangelization is the highest and the most integral promotion of the human person." Cardinal Sodano goes on to quote Populorum Progressio, "the proclamation of Christ is the first and principal contributor to development."

Seen through this hermeneutic, it seems clear that the distinction between faith and charity is not as clear cut as the meme suggests. Charity underpins all things. As St Paul notes "if I should have all the faith..and not have charity I am nothing." At the same time St Paul also teaches, "All that is not of faith is sin." Hence, Aquinas states that "when an unbeliever (no-faith) does something good from the dictate or reason...he does not sin. However his deed is not meritorious, because it was not enlivened by faith."

In many respects I would agree with your assessment that the most recent Pontiff to have emphasised in his teachings the theological virtue of charity is Pope Benedict. His Christology is very profoundly impacted by the truth that God is love, and he clearly understands our religion, that is our relationship with Christ, as a personal response to that love which overflows. Both Deo Caritas Est and Jesus of Nazareth eloquently testify to that.

Michael Barber said...

Justin and Barbara:

I agree whole-heartedly: a facile understanding of charity is probably at work. I decided against going into a long tirade about that and simply referred the "three theological virtues" to remind readers what we are speaking about here goes beyond charitable acts or warm and fuzzy emotions.

Thanks for the support and God bless!

CathDisciple said...

This is a great post and thought experiment. I too agree that it becomes dangerous to say one pope had faith and another charity. I see them all having everything.

Interesting post however considering that I posted something on this topic on my blog (catholicdisciple.com). But I did not view this question in terms of what encyclicals they wrote but rather what they each embodied to me in my own faith journey. I think in this way, we would each come up with something different because Spe Salvi may speak to a person more than Deus Caritas Est.

If I were to choose a virtue for each, I saw JPII in terms of hope. "Be not afraid" is a great pointer to hope in a just future. I see BXVI as faith. For me, his eloquent depth in Scripture deepened my understanding and faith.

I do see Francis as charity mainly because love is that final virtue that without, the others fall apart. For me, his message is a challenging one in my walk towards personal holiness. Humility, love, mercy. I understand that others may not see it this way, but as I said, my take coincides with my own journey and how each pope has led me to where I am today. Blessed be to God!

Michael B said...

Not so much cantankerous as pedantic. (And misguided.)

It's a facebook meme, not an academic article. Even granting the premise that an entire pontificate can be artificially reduced to a single descriptor is self-defeating. It IS a bit silly, as you aptly assess. So why not critique the pervasive tendency to reduce individuals to a neat little label, rather than refute the neat little label that popped up as a meme?

damien said...

strength, mind, heart

Anonymous said...

Meh. You're right on the merits, but the meme still "works" on an emotional level. And I say this as a huge fan of Benedict XVI.

The reality is - the current and two former popes are marked by big differences in personal style and emphasis. What this meme captures (even if it isn't an instance of rigorous analysis) is that these three men reflect different aspects of the Church's mission, charism and personality.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, it is natural for a man who does the work you do, to consider these men and their pontificates in terms of what they wrote and taught. You are thinking of their messages. What I believe the little meme reflects is a perception of their being. Pope John Paul II with his many acts of reaching out and connecting with the people and breathing new life into the Church (in addition to writing and teaching powerfully) personifies a new hope for many. Pope Benedict XVI by his lofty words and intellectual fortitude, personifies solid faith to many. Faith isn't glitsy or charismatic, it's solid and foundational. Now Pope Francis, with his love of poverty and strong connection with the common person, is charity. In those places, he brings a deep love of God.

I certainly agree with you that a person and his or her work cannot be adequately summed up on one word. However, I think there is a validity to this meme, with its focus on the being rather than the teaching of these three popes.

For my part, I rejoice in the fact that we are having a series of excellent popes, full of virtue. As you well know,it has not always been so.

justin said...

"Now Pope Francis, with his love of poverty and strong connection with the common person, is charity."

But Charity is so much more than solidarity or humanitarian aid.

Charity is the ministry of the Word. Charity is first and foremost and invitation to a relationship with Christ which is found in the Church. The Church is the great Sacrament of Love, and she concretely express charity when she celebrates the Divine Mysteries of the Liturgy, administers the sacraments especially Confession for the remission of sins, presents the Sacred Scriptures authoritatively, explains correct doctrine, and clarifies error.

Drawing strength from the sacraments and the teachings of the Church, incorporated in the mystical body of Christ, this communion of love spills over into a deep and profound concern for both the spiritual renewal, redemption and the material wellbeing of all God's children.

The temptation to reduce 'charity' which is our loftiest calling to a merely material understanding is one that is warned about in the Gospels. Christ himself, was tempted very dramatically by this - fasting for 40 days and nights he was tempted to turn those stones into bread. Now what we are we to make of this? Surely nutritional sustenance cannot be wrong? Christ's response is clear though, "man cannot live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." What does this mean?

Our Lord is not suggesting that wanting to eat is itself sinful, but that a higher calling, a loftier calling, a greater act of charity is feasting on the Word of God.

After all, Christ himself fed the people with the miracle of the loaves and fish - but only after they had listened to him did they have the right disposition. This reinforces this priority - the Word first, food later. Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth notes that this miracle has three aspects: (1) it is preceded by the search for God by the people, (2) God, not man, or a political ideology is asked to supply the bread, and (3) readiness to share with each other is an important part of this miracle. Christ is not different towards men's material needs, but he places these things in the proper context and proper order.

A Jesuit writer during the Holocaust wrote this: "bread is important, freedom more important, but most important is unbroken fidelity and faithful adoration."

This is the correct ordering of goods and how we are to understand charity. The real charity is the encouragement of others to acknowledge the primacy of God. This why Christ says, "seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well".