Sacred Scriptures/Liturgy- Lenten
Love must be Active: the social relevance of the gospel
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, Pontifical Household Preacher
Fourth Lenten Sermon, 2011
1. The exercise of charity
In the last meditation we learned from Paul that Christian love must be sincere; in this final meditation, John teaches us that it must also be active: "If anyone is well off in worldly possessions and sees his brother in need but closes his heart to him, how can the love of God be remaining in him? Children, our love must not be just words, or mere talk, but something active and genuine" (1 John 3:17-18). We find the same teaching, in a more graphic form, in the Letter of James: "If one of the brothers or sisters is in need of clothes and has not enough food to live on, and one of you says to them, 'I wish you well, keep yourself warm and eat plenty,' without giving them these bare necessities of life, then what good is that?" (James 2:16).
In the primitive community at Jerusalem this requirement was translated into sharing. It was said of the first Christians that “they sold their goods and possessions and distributed the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed” (Acts 2:45), but what urged them to do this was not an ideal of poverty, but of charity; the aim was not to make everyone poor, but that “none of their members should ever be in want” (cf. Ac 4, 34). The need to translate love into concrete gestures was quite familiar also to the Apostle Paul, who as we have seen, insists so much on love that comes from the heart. This is shown by the importance he gives to the collections taken up on behalf of the poor (cf. 2 Corinthians 8-9).
The apostolic Church, on this point, simply gathered the teaching and example of the Lord, whose compassion for the poor, the sick and the hungry was never simply an empty sentiment but was always translated into concrete help. Indeed, Christ made these concrete gestures of charity the basis for the Last Judgment (cf. Matthew 25).
Church historians see in this spirit of fraternal solidarity one of the main factors behind "the mission and expansion of Christianity in the first three centuries". That spirit was converted into specially created initiatives -- and later, institutions -- for the care of the sick, the support of widows and orphans, providing aid to prisoners, soup-kitchens for the poor, assistance to foreigners, etc. This aspect of Christian charity, historically and in the present day, is dealt with in the second half of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical "Deus Caritas Est," and in a permanent manner by the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum."
2. The emergence of the social problem
The modern era, especially the 19th century, marked a turning point, bringing the social problem to the forefront of attention. It is not enough to provide for the needs of the poor and oppressed on a case-by-case basis; action needs to be taken on the structures that create the poor and the oppressed. That this was new territory can be deduced from the title and the opening words of Leo XIII’s encyclical "Rerum Novarum" of May 15, 1891, which saw the Church entering the debate as a leading exponent.
It is worth rereading the opening paragraph: "That the spirit of revolutionary change, which has long been disturbing the nations of the world, should have passed beyond the sphere of politics and made its influence felt in the cognate sphere of practical economics is not surprising. The elements of the conflict now raging are unmistakable, in the vast expansion of industrial pursuits and the marvelous discoveries of science; in the changed relations between masters and workmen; in the enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses; the increased self reliance and closer mutual combination of the working classes; as also, finally, in the prevailing moral degeneracy."
The same category of problems provides the setting for the second encyclical of the Holy Father Benedict XVI on charity: "Caritas in Veritate." I have no competence in this subject, and so it is only right that I refrain from going into the merits of the content of this and other social encyclicals. What I would like to do is illustrate the historical and theological background, the "Sitz im Leben" as it is called, of this new form of ecclesiastical magisterium: In other words, to see how and why social encyclicals began to be written and why new ones are written periodically. In fact, this can help us to discover something new about the Gospel and about Christian love. St. Gregory the Great says that "Scripture grows with those who read it" (cum legentibus crescit) , meaning that it is constantly yielding new meanings in response to the questions that are put to it. This turns out to be particularly true in our present context.
My reconstruction here will be no more than a "bird’s eye view" in the form of a few headings, which is all one can do in a few minutes, but a synthesis or a summary can be of some use, especially when, because we have different tasks, we cannot personally study a particular question in any depth.
At the time when Leo XIII wrote his social encyclical, there were three dominant trends of thought regarding the social significance of the Gospel. First of all there was the socialist and Marxist interpretation. Marx had paid no attention to Christianity from this point of view, but some of his immediate followers (Engels from a still ideological standpoint, and Karl Kautsky from a historical viewpoint) did deal with the question in the context of research on the "precursors of modern socialism."
The conclusions they reached were as follows: that the Gospel was in the main a great social message to the poor, and that everything else in it was of secondary importance -- a mere "superstructure." Jesus was a great social reformer who wanted to rescue the lower classes from their wretched condition. His program provides equality for all and freedom from economic need. The system of the primitive Christian community was a type of communism "ante litteram," as yet unsophisticated and non-scientific: a kind of consumer communism, rather than the communism of the production line.
Subsequently, Soviet-era historiographers rejected this interpretation because, in their view, it conceded too much to Christianity. In the 1960's the revolutionary interpretation reappeared, this time in political guise, with its thesis of Jesus as the head of a "zealot" liberation movement, but it was short-lived and is outside our present field. (The Holy Father recalls this interpretation in his latest book on Jesus, when speaking about the purification of the temple.)
Nietzche had arrived at a conclusion similar to the Marxist one, but his intention was entirely different. For him, too, Christianity was born as a liberation movement of the lower classes, but this fact had to be judged as totally negative. The Gospel embodies the "resentment" of the weak against the strong forms in nature; it is the "inversion of all values," clipping the wings of mankind's aspiration to greatness. The whole aim of Jesus was to counter earthly misery by spreading a "Kingdom of heaven."
To these two schools -- which agreed on the reality they saw, but differed on how it should be judged -- a third can be added which we may call conservative. According to this view, Jesus took no interest at all in social and economic problems; to attribute such concerns to him would be to diminish him and turn him into a worldly figure. He used images drawn from the world of work and took to heart the miseries of the poor, but he never envisioned the improvement of people’s living conditions in their earthly life.
3. Theological reflection: liberal and dialectical theology
These were the dominant ideas in the culture of the time, when the Christian churches began to engage in theological reflection on the problem. It too developed in three stages and reflected three approaches: that of liberal theology, of dialectical theology, and that of the Catholic magisterium.
The first response was that of the liberal theology current at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, represented in this field especially by Ernst Troeltsch and Adolph von Harnack. It is worth pausing a while to look at the ideas of this school, because many of its conclusions, at least in this particular field, were also arrived at from a different direction by the social magisterium of the Church and are still current and sustainable.
Troeltsch challenges the starting point of the Marxist interpretation, which holds that the religious factor is always secondary in relation to the economic. By studying the Protestant ethic and the rise of capitalism he shows that, while the economic factor influences the religious, it is also true that religion influences economics. They are distinct fields, not subordinate.
Harnack, for his part, notes that the Gospel provides no direct social program to combat and abolish poverty; that it makes no judgments about the organization of labor and other aspects of life which are so important for us today, such as art and science. But, he adds, it is fortunate that this is the case! We would have been sorry if it had tried to make rules about the relations between classes, working conditions and so on. To be concrete, those rules would have been fatally linked to the conditions of the day, (just as many Old Testament institutions and social precepts are), and so would eventually have become anachronisms, in fact a "useless encumbrance" to the Gospel. History, even the history of Christianity, shows how dangerous it is to bind oneself to social structures and political institutions of a particular era, and how difficult it is to get rid of them later.
"And yet," continues Harnack, "no religion ever went to work with such an energetic social message, and so strongly identified itself with that message, as we see to be the case in the Gospel. How so? Because the words 'Love thy neighbor as thyself' were spoken in deep earnest, because with these words Jesus shone a light upon all the concrete relations of life, upon the world of hunger, poverty and misery. […] Its object is to transform the socialism which rests on the basis of conflicting interests into the socialism which rests on the consciousness of a spiritual unity. [...] The fallacious principle of the free play of forces, of the 'live and let live' principle -- a better name for it would be 'live and let die' -- is entirely opposed to the Gospel."
The position enshrined in the Gospel message is, as we can see, opposed both to the reduction of the Gospel to a social proclamation or to the class struggle, and to the position of economic liberalism and the free play of forces. The evangelical theologian at times gives way to a certain enthusiasm: "A new spectacle," he writes, "was being introduced to the world; until then, religion had either accepted the things of the world, easily adapting to the status quo, or it had taken refuge in the clouds, and standing in direct opposition to everything. Now, however, it found itself with a new duty to fulfill, to despise earthly want and destitution, and likewise earthly prosperity, while relieving every kind of hardship and need; to look up to heaven with the courage that comes from the faith, while working with heart, hand and voice for the brethren in this world."
What was it that the dialectical theology of Barth, Bultmann, Dibelius and others, which succeeded liberal theology after World War I, had against this liberal view? Principally, it was the point of departure, its idea of the kingdom of heaven. For liberals, the kingdom was essentially ethical in nature, a sublime moral ideal based on the fatherhood of God and the infinite value of each soul; for dialectical theologians it was eschatological in nature -- a sovereign, gratuitous intervention by God, intended not to change the world but to denounce its present structures ("a radical critique"), to announce its imminent end ("consequent eschatology"), with a call to conversion ("the radical imperative").
The topicality of the Gospel consists in the fact that “its demands are not made in a general way, to everyone and for all time, but to this person, and perhaps only to this person, at this moment and perhaps only at this moment; and the demand is not based on an ethical principle, but on the situation in which God has placed him, and perhaps only him, requiring from him a decision here and now." The influence of the Gospel on society comes about through the individual, not through the community or ecclesial institution.
The challenge for the Christian believer today comes from the situation created by the industrial revolution, from the changes it has brought to the pace of life and work and the consequent devaluing of the human person. There are no "Christian" solutions to this problem: Every believer is called to respond to it under his or her own responsibility, in obedience to the call God addresses to him or her in the actual situation in which he or she lives, although the basic principle is found in the commandment to love one's neighbor. The believer should not be pessimistically resigned to the situation, but neither should he have any illusions about changing the world.
From this perspective, can one still speak of the Gospel having social relevance? Yes, but only as method, not as content. Let me explain. This view reduces the social significance of the Gospel to a "formal" one, excluding any "real" significance, i.e., in terms of content. In other words, the Gospel provides the method, or the impulse, for a correct Christian attitude and action in the social sphere, and nothing else.
And here lies the weakness of this position, because it attributes only formal significance to the Gospel accounts and parables ("How am I to welcome the call to decision which comes to me here and now?") and not also a real and exemplary significance. Is it legitimate, for example, in the case of the parable of the rich man who feasted sumptuously, to ignore the clear, concrete indications it contains about the use and abuse of wealth, luxury, and disdain for the poor, and look only at the “imperative of the moment” that resounds through the parable? Would it not be strange, at least, if Jesus had simply meant that, standing there before him, a person is called to make a decision for God, and that in order to say this, he had constructed such a complex and detailed story, which, far from concentrating attention on the center of interest, would distract from it?
Such a solution strips the flesh from Christ’s message and acts on the mistaken premise that the word of God contains no general demands that apply to the rich of today, as they did to the rich -- and to the poor -- in Jesus' day. As though the decision God required were something empty and abstract -- simply making a decision -- and not a decision about something. All the parables with a social background are called "parables of the Kingdom" and in this way their content is flattened out to a single meaning, the eschatological one.
5. The social teaching of the Church
The social teaching of the Catholic Church, as ever, looks for synthesis rather than opposition; its method is "et-et" (both-and) rather than "aut-aut" (either-or). It maintains the Gospel's "two-fold illumination": eschatological and moral. In other words, it agrees with dialectical theology on the fact that the Kingdom of God preached by Christ is not essentially ethical in nature, i.e., not an ideal that draws its force from the universal validity and perfection of its principles, but is a new and gratuitous initiative of God which, in Christ, breaks in from above.
Where it parts company with the dialectical vision is in its way of conceiving the relationship between this kingdom of God and the world. The two are not simply opposed and irreconcilable, just as there is no opposition between the work of creation and that of redemption, and also -- as we saw in the first meditation -- no opposition between agape and eros. Jesus compared the kingdom of God to the yeast added to the dough to make it rise, to a seed cast into the earth, or to salt that gives food its flavor; he said he had come not to judge the world, but to save it. This enables us to see the influence of the Gospel on social matters in a different, much more positive light.
However, despite all the differences of approach, some general conclusions do emerge from the whole theological reflection on the relationship between the Gospel and the social sphere. We can summarize them as follows. The Gospel does not provide direct solutions to social problems. (As we have seen, it is just as well that it did not try to do so!) It does, however, contain useful principles by which concrete responses to different historical situations can be framed. Since social situations and problems change from one age to another, the Christian on each occasion is called to embody Gospel principles in the situation of the moment.
This is precisely the contribution made by the social encyclicals of the popes. This is why there is a succession of such encyclicals, with each one taking up the subject at the point where the previous ones left off (in the case of Pope Benedict's encyclical, from "Populorum Progressio" of Paul VI), and they update the subject on the basis of new needs emerging in society (in this case, the phenomenon of globalization) and also of the new questions constantly being asked in the light of the word of God.
The title of Benedict XVI's social encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate," indicates the biblical foundations on which, in this case, he intends to base his discourse on the social significance of the Gospel: charity and truth. "Truth preserves and expresses charity's power to liberate in the ever-changing events of history […].Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power, resulting in social fragmentation, especially in a globalized society at difficult times like the present."
The difference lies not only in what is said and in the solutions that are proposed, but also in the genre adopted and in the authority of the proposal. It consists, in other words, in moving from free theological discussion to magisterial teaching, and from an exclusively "personal" intervention in social affairs (as proposed by dialectical theology) to a communal intervention as Church, and not simply as individuals.
4. To serve, not to be served
We finish with a practical point that challenges everyone, even those of us who are not called to work directly in the social field. We saw Nietzsche's ideas about the social relevance of the Gospel. For him, it was certainly the fruit of a revolution, but a negative one, a regression compared to Greek culture; it was the revenge of the weak against the strong. One of the points he had in his sights was the preference given to service over dominion, to making oneself small over putting oneself forward and aspiring to great things.
He blames Christianity for one of the finest gifts it has given to the world. In fact, one of the principles by which the Gospel has influenced the social sphere most decisively and beneficially is precisely that of service. Not for nothing does it occupy an important place in the Church's social teaching. Jesus made service one of the pivotal points of his teaching (Luke 22:25); he himself said he had come to serve, not to be served (Mark 10:45).
Service is a universal principle; it applies to every aspect of life: the state ought to be at the service of its citizens, politics at the service of the state, the doctor at the service of his patients, the teacher at the service of his pupils…But it applies in an altogether special way to the servants of the Church. Service is not, in itself, a virtue (in no catalogue of the virtues, or of the fruits of the Spirit, is diakonia mentioned in the New Testament), but it flows from various virtues, especially humility and charity. It is one way in which that love which "does not pursue selfish interests, but those of others" (Philippians 2:4), manifests itself, and gives of itself without seeking any return.
Service in the Gospel, unlike service in the world, is not the proper characteristic of the inferior, of the one in need, but rather of the superior, of the one who is raised high. Jesus says that, in His Church, it is first of all "the leader" who must be "like the one who serves" (Luke 22:26), the first must be "slave to all" (Mark 10:44). We are preparing for the beatification of John Paul II. In his book "Gift and Mystery," he expresses this meaning of authority in the Church with a strong image, in the form of a few verses he composed while in Rome at the time of the Council: "It is you, Peter. Here you wish to be the Ground / On which the others walk ... so they can reach the place / Whither you guide their steps / As the rock bears the hoof-marks of the flock."
We finish by listening to the words spoken by Jesus to his disciples immediately after he had washed their feet, as though he were speaking to us, here and now: "Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly, so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each other's feet. I have given you an example, so that you may copy what I have done to you" (John 13 12-15).
 A. von Harnack, "Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten," Leipzig, 1902.
 St. Gregory the Great, Commentary on Job, XX,1 (CCL 143, p. 1003).
 A. von Harnack, "Das Wesen des Christentums," Leipzig, 1900. Italian translation. "L'essenza del cristianesimo," Torino, 1903, pp. 93 ss.
 A. von Harnack, "Il cristianesimo e la società," Mendrisio, 1911, pp. 12-15.
 M. Dibelius, "Das soziale Motiv im Neuen Testament," in "Botschaft und Geschichte," Tubingen, 1953, pp. 178-203.
 Benedict XVI, "Caritas in Veritate," No. 5.
[Translation by Father Charles Serignat, OFMCap]
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