Monsignor Giampietro Dal Toso
Secretary of the Pontifical Council
Social doctrine and / or theology of charity?
An attempt at synthesis
(Colloquium on the Theology of Charity and/or Social Doctrine of the Church, Vatican City - March 4, 2013)
The following article is a sort of synthesis of the various contributions presented at a theological meeting promoted by the Pontifical Council Cor Unum. The topic of the meeting was the relationship between two theological disciplines; the theology of charity and the Social Doctrine of the Church, close but not identical. This is demonstrated by the fact that Benedict XVI, among his sapient teachings, issued two encyclicals on these two different disciplines, Deus Caritas Est and Caritas in Veritate. The very title shows the peculiarly theological character of the first encyclical (which relates to the question of God), while the second one focuses on other issues, with the contribution of disciplines such as Economics, Sociology and Law. The meeting was attended by German scholars. Various professorships or chairs on the theology of charity have been created in Germany since the 1920's onwards and precisely in the Faculty of Theology of the University of Freiburg, a city where the Deutscher Caritasverband, the oldest National Caritas, has its offices since 1897.
The initial question about the relationship between the two disciplines is by no means an irrelevant one, because it refers to the ultimate inspiration of the charitable works of the Church and, on an even deeper level, it is part of the broader issue of the relationship between the Church and the world. In this sense, the meeting promoted by the Council is a step towards further reflection on the issue, and to this end we have agreed to meet again next year.
Every theological journey revolves around Christ, who was the first to describe His mission as diakonia: "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45). Service in the complete gift of self for love is a feature of Christ's pro-existence. In Him Trinitarian life is revealed in all its splendour, charity in all its fullness. The Trinitarian origin of Christian charity has also been amply demonstrated by the encyclical Deus Caritas Est as well as by the Fathers of the Church. Saint Augustine wrote "If you see charity, you see the Trinity" (see DCE 19).
With regards to charity, before focusing our attention on the organisations we must refer to the person, namely the Christian, called by Baptism to take the form of Christ the Servant. The mission of service concerns every Christian. The greatest commandment of Christianity is thus the Love of God and neighbour (cf. Mk 12:30-31). Essentially, this is also the path to holiness; the baptised person, conformed to Christ the Servant, in God's name serves his neighbour, whoever he may be, giving his own life. Of course, this applies to every man to whom God's call is addressed. On the other hand - as seen from the perspective not of the person, but of the institutions, man is the measure of all organizations. Every human system must be measured or evaluated in relation to man and man must be measured in relation to every system. Gaudium et Spes refers to the centrality of man who is the summit of creation. "For the beginning, the subject and the goal of all social institutions is and must be the human person that for its part and by its very nature stands completely in need of social life ". (N. 25, cf. also N. 12).
With this premise on the centrality of the person, both as subject and as object of ecclesial and social life, we can try to find an answer to our initial question, focusing on the nature of the Church and on its relationship with the world. The Church is, in fact - at least in its essence, formed by all those who have begun to walk, through Baptism, along the path to conformity to Christ. On the other hand, the mission of the Church, in the footsteps of his Lord, is to offer divine salvation to all men. The work of the Church must be understood in this light. Obviously this also applies in relation to the three fundamental dimensions, namely the proclamation of the Word, the celebration of the Sacraments and the service of charity. The life of the Church in all these expressions responds to a single mission, which is the salvation of man, who is, at the same time, the glorification of God; God's love is revealed to man and in accepting this message man is saved. This single mission of the Church is then realised in a variety of ways. One of them is precisely the ecclesial diakonia. This model can already be seen in the experience of the first Christian community as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, both in its fundamental realization (Acts 2) and in the institution of the seven deacons (Acts 6), where the service of charity is presented as sacramentally linked to the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is interesting to note that even the earliest forms of institutionalised charity were linked to the Holy Spirit, to whom the first hospitals were dedicated. Borgo Santo Spirito in Rome is just one of many examples. The profound relationship between charity and the other ecclesial dimensions helps us to realise that the Church is present in an incomplete manner if it lacks the service of charity. The Church gives itself fully through word, sacrament and charity occurring simultaneously and cannot bear any impairment, cannot bear the lack of any of these elements. This profoundly ecclesiastical feature of charity was strongly emphasised by Benedict XVI (cf. DCE 25).
Thus we can identify the first answer to our initial question: the diakonia of the Church is the proper place of the theology of charity. Basically theology reflects on the mystery of salvation in the light of the God of Jesus Christ. Yet this mystery is the Christ Event. And such event takes place today in the Church: it is kerygmatically pronounced, sacramentally sealed and made present from the point of view of diakonia. The theology of charity considers the theological implications of the representation of Christ in the service of charity that is in the space characterised by both the proclamation and the sacrament. This leads to the reflection on the relationship between charity and Episcopal ministry, between charity and parish structures, charity and pastoral, charity and evangelisation, charity and spirituality. This also raises the question of whether and how the Church actualises itself through the charitable organizations. On the other hand here lies the question for every ecclesial community as to whether they consider and live the service of charity as their constitutive dimension.
With regards to the person, the theology of charity considers the issue of the quality of the service offered to those who turn to the Church as well as the issue of the motivation and spirituality -to be constantly renewed, of those who collaborate with us and of our management staff. Therein lies the increasingly relevant matter regarding our charity workers, about their being witnesses of Christ and of the Church through their service. Regarding this issue, the reflection and contribution of a well-founded Christian anthropology seems quite appropriate with its specific vision of the person, a vision that motivates our actions bearing in mind that it is not just a mere theoretical question concerning anthropology. In fact, even from an existential point of view, human beings are all connected, everyone is beholden to others, to their love and, specifically, to the love of God his Creator.
If on the one hand, therefore, the Church is connected to human beings, because it serves the person, on the other hand it is in a reciprocal relationship with the world, more specifically with the society in which it lives that, in turn, is neither identical to politics nor to the structures of politics. How does this reciprocal relationship, a relationship which is also collaboration in view of the common good develop? The answer is given on different levels. Given the topic of the conference, the first level concerns the social dimension.
Indeed, the Church, on the basis of its heritage of faith and thanks to the exchange with other disciplines, has formulated fundamental principles and reflections on important aspects of social life (work, the economy, macrorelationships, development, ecology). It is precisely in this context of reciprocity with society that the social doctrine of the Church has a role, unlike the theology of charity which refers more specifically to the ecclesial aspect of the Church. Basically we have to examine the hermeneutical key to the analogy: Church (a sacramentally defined space) and society are not identical, there is both continuity and discontinuity between them, the conceptual instruments (justice and charity), that count and are valued in the Church, can only be applied under certain conditions to society and vice versa (solidarity).
Alongside this theoretical dimension, the Church offers the world concrete examples, specific models of successful life, of good institutions, of genuine service. On a practical level, the Church must always ensure that its charitable institutions meet those criteria of professional competence and good management which are necessary so that they may become models for public life. Competitiveness in the service sector makes this a topical challenge.
More broadly, the Church offers a cultural model to society. Every culture is influenced by sacred elements that are a part of it. Thus religion has an influence on culture and it helps to shape it. It seems important to emphasise this cultural contribution precisely in times of crisis, a crisis which at first glance seems to be financial, but that in reality is a cultural one. Thanks to this contribution the world can be renewed.
Evangelization is another aspect of this relationship. The presentation of the Gospel through words and deeds (verbis et gestis) according to the incarnate structure of the dialogue between God and man - and again the role of charity should not be underestimated here. Jesus described this relationship using the concept of the yeast. The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast (cf. Mt 13:33), or, in the words of Diognetus, the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body.
In this reciprocal relationship, the Church also receives from the world. Christians are men in the world, children of their time, marked by the spiritual environment that surrounds them. Besides, they take on the different requests from the world, which they cannot ignore: the demand for greater justice, for greater brotherhood, for the defence of life. We are in this sense in the world, though not of the world, and we are therefore responsible for the world. Regarding this tension - in the world but not of the world - we can, once again, articulate the theological component of the social doctrine.
All these elements show that the mission of the Church in the world is not only a social mission. Therefore, together with the social doctrine of the Church, we must engage other theological disciplines. This in turn implies a mutual intrinsic reference, a connection among these disciplines which leads us to consider the resulting interdisciplinarity as a growing need for theological reflection. The meeting that took place in the Vatican City is seen as a relevant event to promote such interdisciplinarity.