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Philosophy Behind Papal 'Deus Caritas Est'

Interview With Catholic University's Monsignor Sokolowski

WASHINGTON, D.C., FEB. 16, 2006 (Zenit) - The theology found in Benedict XVI's encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" draws on and blends with philosophical distinctions of love, and raises questions concerning social and political philosophy and anthropology.

So says Monsignor Robert Sokolowski, a professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America and author of "Christian Faith and Human Understanding" from CUA Press.

He shared with us how the two parts of the encyclical engage philosophy in different ways, and how philosophy plays a role in theological reflection.

Q: What distinctly philosophical concepts has the Pope incorporated into his first encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est"?

Monsignor Sokolowski: Philosophy does have a role in the document; at one point in the encyclical the Holy Father speaks of his "somewhat philosophical reflections," and he also speaks about a "philosophical dimension" in the biblical vision of love.

The encyclical has two major sections. The first deals with the understanding of the place of love in creation and salvation history. The second deals with the practice of charity in the life of the Church.

In the first section, the Pope surveys a number of ways in which the word "love" is used. He examines contemporary usage, discusses the difference between "eros" and "agape" in Greek thought and in the Bible, and examines Hebrew words for love. He also discusses the difference between justice and love.

Most of this first section is theological: The Holy Father examines the Old Testament revelation of the love of God for his creation and his people, and the deepening of this revelation in the Incarnation and the New Testament.

The theology, however, draws on and blends with the philosophical distinctions one can make concerning human love as it is manifest to human reason, especially the difference between self-centered and benevolent love.

Some of our love is needful and possessive; we love what we need and want. This kind of love was called "amor concupiscentiae" in medieval thought.

But as we exercise our human rationality more deeply, we become capable of a benevolent and thoughtful kind of love, in which we go beyond our own needs and wants and love what is good for others and not just ourselves. We do so through the virtues of justice and friendship. This kind of love was called "amor benevolentiae."

These two Latin terms are used in the encyclical. The discussion of the difference between justice and love is also an important philosophical theme.

In the second section of the encyclical, which discusses the practical exercise of love in the Church, the Holy Father reminds us that active charity is essential to the Church: "The Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word." This is a strong statement.

In this section, several philosophical issues are raised: What is justice? How is justice related to charity? How are reason, the common good and natural law related to one another, and how is the Church able to clarify them?

As you know, in the 19th century both Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill, in the wake of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, wished to replace Christian faith and charity with the religion and love of humanity. Many of the charitable works of the Church were taken over by the state.

The Pope shows in the encyclical that this desire to imitate Christian religion and charity was already found in Julian the Apostate in the fourth century.

A major problem arises in the modern age when the state tries to take over all "charitable" works, because it might then try to govern the souls and minds of people as well; totalitarian regimes did not stop with bodily needs.

The Pope raises the question of how the Church is to carry out her essential work of charity in an age of technology and massive governmental activities. Will she become an agent of the government or exercise an independent role? How is this role to be defined? These questions engage social and political philosophy as well as philosophical anthropology.

Q: Why did Benedict XVI mention the philosophers Descartes and Nietzsche in an encyclical about love, both human and divine?

Monsignor Sokolowski: He also mentions Plato and Aristotle later in the encyclical.

Descartes is alluded to only in an anecdote, but Nietzsche is mentioned right at the beginning, as saying that Christianity has poisoned "eros." He is mentioned here to provide the counter-position to what the Pope wishes to show -- that Christianity does not neglect the deepest wants and needs of human beings.

The love that God reveals to us is not gnostic; it reaches into, heals ...

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