Benedict XVI
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“Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of the state.”


Pope Benedict XVI

"God Is Love"



National Catholic Reporter
March 10, 2006

 Separating Charity and Justice

Commentators miss the point with Benedict's encyclical on love

'Benedict wants to define the charitable work of the church in a way that does not neglect the work of justice and simply maintain the status quo.'


I have read or heard on the radio a number of reviews of Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical on love. These seem to take two forms. One is the effort to find some hidden code language that indicates the pope’s continued repressiveness toward sexuality. The other is to exclaim with delight at the discovery of a “kinder, gentler” pope who seeks to reconcile young people to his tender embrace. I suggest that both of these takes on the encyclical are mostly irrelevant and miss some important messages.

Although the pope undoubtedly hasn’t changed his mind on questions of homosexuality, sex outside marriage, abortion, birth control and the like, he has chosen not to discuss these in this letter. More important, he wrote this letter because he has a theologian’s vision of a message of divine gratuitous love and our response to it that he wants to reaffirm as the heart of his own faith and vision. The second part of the encyclical is a discussion of the works of love or caritas as the specific work of the church, with particular attention to the relation of church and state. This part of the letter has generally been passed over by reviewers as uninteresting. I personally found it the more important part of the message.

Benedict wants to define the charitable work of the church in a way that does not neglect the work of justice and simply maintain the social status quo, in contrast to traditional Marxist charges. Here one senses the agenda of a Professor Ratzinger still sparring with radical Marxist students at the University of Tübingen who so offended him in the ’60s and are credited with driving the once-liberal scholar to the right. Perhaps there is still a fight with liberation theologians lurking here. For Professor Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, the Marxist challenge is now largely over, and it is time to clarify the difference between the roles of church and state, love and justice.

The pope’s view of church and state reflects what in Latin America is called a “new Christendom” view. The roles of church and state are interconnected but should be carefully separated. The church (that is, clergy) should keep clear of direct involvement in the state. The clergy’s sphere is salvation, but the clergy should prepare the conscience of the laity to be the extension of the teaching of the church in society. The state and secular society is the realm of the laity, which the church influences indirectly. The church points upward to heaven. The state’s role is maintenance of order with the help of the social teachings of the church.

Benedict still operates with this dual framework of church and state, but he has transformed the terms in an important way. The role of the state is defined as that of justice. In a striking phrase, he declared, “Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of the state.” In a world where the role of the state is war abroad and police repression of dissent at home to make the world safe for American corporations, this phrase has prophetic potential.

It is not the job of the church to take over the state’s work of justice. But this does not mean that the church cannot have a vision of justice and peace that it proclaims, by which it critiques the injustice of the state and inspires its people (the laity) to actively participate in creating more just societies. Indeed, this is an important role of the church.

At the same time, Benedict says that there will always remain areas of human vulnerability and hurt that go beyond what even a “perfectly just” (if such a thing were possible) state could achieve. It is the work of the church to be the sphere where these works of love take place. But the church should work with other religious and nonreligious communities in the work of charity. The encyclical says that charity should not be a tool of proselytism. We have come a long way from the old Catholic Christendom of the 19th century and before.

We need to know more about what relationship and what limits the pope actually envisions when he seeks to separate the works of love and the works of justice in this way. What are churchmen allowed to do in the works of justice and what is declared off-limits? One longs for a good open debate between Benedict and Leonardo Boff on this point. Here is where the conversation between Rome and Latin American liberation theologians, so cruelly shut off by repressive measures in the ’90s, needs to be opened up in the context of a 21st-century world more impoverished and violence-ridden than ever.


Rosemary Radford Ruether is the Carpenter Professor of Feminist Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2006