Proclaim the Truth through Love: A Comment on Deus Caritas Est

Article excerpt

ALMOST TWENTY YEARS AGO I was about to leave Rome where I had been working in the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in order to take up an assignment as bishop of a diocese in New Zealand. An Anglican cleric, a longtime acquaintance, who was then secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, had called at our office. He asked what episcopal motto I had chosen. In fact I had decided on the motto of Cardinal Bea, first president of the Pontifical Council--speaking the truth in love. My Anglican friend's reaction was immediately negative, even angry. He saw "truth" as canceling "love." For him truth was harsh and demanding, love accepting and compassionate. By this account, it would be impossible to speak of truth and love together. Fortunately the Holy Father himself has come to the rescue. In the General Audience held on April 5, 2006, he said: "The Church of love is also the Church of truth." (1)

It is a theme the Holy Father has developed over the years, and in what follows I draw on some of his writings. For instance in his book Truth and Tolerance he says, "Truth and love are identical." He explains that what is true and what is good cannot be separated from one another. It is only by knowing the truth about God that the truth about what is good, the truth about love, becomes accessible. The only weapon truth has is itself and the love which it begets. The truth of God does not divide; rather it binds together. It is the force that makes universal peace and communication possible. (2) A Carmelite writer has spoken of "being released by truth for love." (3) It was important, and probably courageous, that Pope Benedict should write an encyclical on love. Within the Church herself the word "love" has been much abused. In the years after the Second Vatican Council many homilies were little more than a repetition of the Beatles' song "All You Need is Love." At almost every Mass we had to sing "They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love"; serious Catholics just wanted to give up on any mention of love--which was not a good thing. Love is misunderstood and prostituted in today's world, yet love is at the heart of the message of the Gospel.

In an address to the Pontifical Council "Cor Llnum" about the time the encyclical Deus Caritas Est was published, Pope Benedict, making reference to Dante's Divine Comedy, spoke of love as "the primordial creative power that moves the universe." (4) Far from being a vapid sentiment, the love he is describing is, he says, "an expression of the primordial reality." (5) He explains this later in the encyclical: "The Logos, primal reason, is at the same time a love with all the passion of true love." (6) It is not as if it were somehow the antithesis of truth; love has its ground in the primordial reality that is truth. But it is truth that has to issue in love that he can call "the primordial cosmic power." (7) The Pope is "speaking about an order of truth and love where the former is joined to the latter and yet comes before it." (8) The Italian monk Divo Barsotti interpreting the thought of the philosopher Romano Amerigo opines that "it is a mental disorder that places 'caritas' before 'veritas,' a disorder that turns upside down the proper understanding we should have of the Most Holy Trinity; it was from the divine mouth of Christ that the breath of the Holy Spirit came, not the other way around; love proceeds from the Word." (9) One begins with the supernatural truth that Christ alone teaches in order to receive from him the gift of the Holy Spirit through whom he gives us the capstone of "caritas."

Often the confusion comes from what people think truth is. The Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart says, "Today one finds that what is called truth is usually a consensus wrested from diversity amid a war of persuasions." (10) Such contemporary truths are "the fruit of the rhetoric of power, truths that profess to subsist upon 'disinterested' dialectic alone, that advance their claims over others with aims and instruments of judicial terror. …