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The Future of Love: The erotic politics of Benedict XVI

13th February 2013

ResPublica's Chair of Trustees, Professor John Milbank, on the legacy of Benedict XVI

The papacy of Benedict XVI, though sadly short, has been one of immense significance.

More than any other Pope in recent memory, he understood the deepest theological currents that lay behind Vatican II, and stood doggedly against a threatened revival of neo-scholastic conservatism by insisting on the co-belonging of faith and reason. Faith, for Benedict, requires reason to reach to the metaphysical heights, but reason must look to its fulfilment in the incarnation of the Logos itself. Likewise, natural law should once again govern our approaches to personal and public human existence, but our ethical lives are only complete in the light of the theological virtues.

By insisting with a new boldness on the role of these virtues even in the social and economic fields, he was able to produce the most radical and far-reaching social encyclical of the post-war period, Caritas in Veritate, in which he proposed a non-capitalist market founded on reciprocal exchange, while distancing himself from previous excessive enthusiasm for liberal democracy.

In his weekly doctrinal teachings, Benedict went yet further in the reinstatement of Origen as the instigator of the integral unity of Christian doctrine, Christian philosophy, Christian exegesis and Christian mysticism. He was brave enough to point to the dangers, at once authoritarian and anarchic, that lurk in the more voluntaristic theological currents of Islam – as a result, future Europeans will likely feel themselves very much in his debt. In his trilogy of books on Jesus of Nazareth, he soberly demolished some of the bizarre historical procedures of New Testament criticism, while in the field of liturgy he started to modify elements in the liturgical thinking of Vatican II which were actually out of step with the ressourcement that most inspired the Council in general.

At the same time, Benedict sponsored new initiatives of debate with Islam and fresh overtures to the Eastern churches. In a novel way, he recognised the dignity of the Anglican spiritual and liturgical tradition and the rootedness of British constitutionalism in the deep Catholic past. It is possible that these moves also will bear significant fruit in the future. Contrary to his reputation with some, he tended gently to prise doors open rather than slamming them shut.

Perhaps above all, he had the wisdom, given our contemporary circumstances, to focus in his main encyclicals – those three issued and his projected final one – on the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. In each case, he expounded something specific to Christian revelation which yet has the greatest manifest relevance to all human beings. In each case, he also focussed on the essential, rather than the immediately controversial and ephemeral. This was especially true of his first encyclical on love: Deus Caritas est.

The politics of charity

Benedict quite strikingly placed a new stress upon the exercise of diakonia (service) as constituting a third of the Church’s mission, alongside the sacramental and teaching vocations. Clearly, this diaconate is today increasingly exercised by the Catholic laity within a huge range of voluntary charitable and teaching vocations. Quite rightly the Pope expressed concerned that these functions, as much as clerical ones, be exercised as part of the Church’s specific ethos, rule and pedagogy, and do not occupy some sort of uneasy limbo between theological justification and secular ideology. It would thus seem to have been the Pope’s desire that a married Catholic laity carrying out ecclesial vocations should be able to stand outside the world, while being immersed wholly within the world. Obviously, this is the sort of challenge that organisations like Opus Dei have tried to meet – whatever one’s opinions about their success, their concern is unavoidable.

But it is this part of the Deus Caritas est encyclical that invited most controversy. The Pope strongly declared that the offering of welfare is a proper aspect of the Church’s own life and cannot be altogether handed over to the state. He also affirmed that this offering must not be directed by worldly ideologies and continued to excoriate Marxism for suggesting that the giving of charity might inhibit the demand for justice.

One can easily see how certain neo-conservatives might read this as sanctioning the privatisation of all welfare functions. Moreover, one might even say that the temptation offered by the Grand Inquisitor to the Church in our time – a temptation to which all too many Catholics have already succumbed – is to accept extreme free-market liberalism in return for increased Church power in the spheres of welfare, education and medicine.

But throughout his papacy, Benedict wholly refused such a temptation, in accordance with his general political orientation which includes an opposition to the Iraq war, nuclear weapons and the armaments trade, as well as a commitment to address environmental degradation, a determination to end global economic injustice and an insistence that the market must be regulated – though not wholly controlled – in terms of a hierarchy of truly human ends (a stance that condemns most modern “economics”).

Clearly, Pope Benedict was no ideological dogmatist of the Right about welfare. He consistently advocated collaboration with state and international agencies pursuing the genuine human good in every respect. Hence, his insistence on the diaconate is not to be read as lining up with a privatisation of welfare, but rather as a new and typically nouvelle theologie stress on the Church itself as the fulfilment of human society: with and yet beyond justice, the Church is the place of the exercise of charity.

State agencies can never displace ecclesial ones because what the human person needs is direct attention and appreciation of his uniqueness beyond the mere just granting of him his due – indeed, the Catechism of the Church, which Benedict oversaw prior to becoming Pope, teaches that charity cannot displace the demands of the poor for justice. Moreover, Benedict argued that even secular projects of justice will only reach fruition if they are infused by a grace-given sense of charity – that sense that through the Eucharist and in Christ we are becoming at one with an infinite and all-powerful love.

Linking the personal to the political

The ecclesial society of love exceeds the secular society of justice in part because it involves infinite concern for others beyond what is merely due to them – or rather, this is what is due to them, for perfect justice is charity. But it also exceeds just society in terms of a kind of extended eros: the true giver of charity, says Benedict, also receives love from the one he cares for. The personal bond that then emerges cannot be planned for, nor commanded: it rather arises by divine gift, by grace.

It is for this theological reason – and not for politically conservative ones – that Benedict has stridently opposed all secular “plans” for the improvement of the world. Of course, he has said, we should be trying to improve the world. However, this should never involve the sacrifice of present people to the future, not only because this would be wrong, but also because of the perfected harmonisation of people in truth and love – to which he devoted his last encyclical, Caritas in Veritate – cannot be planned. A truly radical politics would therefore involve longing for such a future, as well as the determination to work towards such a future through many particularities. But to suppose one already possesses the blueprint for such a future would be, as Benedict says, to suppress the most specifically personal dimension of human life.

In this way, more successfully than secular ideologies, the Pope has proved himself capable of linking the personal with the political. What humans yearn for is inter-personal love. But the extension of this through tempered measures of organisation committed to social justice and fraternity is the key to the arrival of a global loving community.

This is an extract of an article published by ABC Religion and Ethics.


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