Benedict XVI’s first encyclical aimed, in part, to ask whether the government’s role in charity might undercut the human tendency to reach out in solidarity to the needy, says George Weigel.
Weigel, a biographer of Pope John Paul II, delivered the keynote lecture on Centesimus Annus and Deus Caritas Est during a series of lectures organized by the Michigan-based Acton Institute. Acton is celebrating the 15th anniversary of John Paul II’s social encyclical Centesimus Annus.
The sixth conference in the nine-part lecture series, entitled “Centesimus Annus and Deus Caritas Est: Christian Charity in the Free Market,” was held Dec. 12 at the Pontifical Gregorian University.
Weigel spoke about Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est in this interview.
Q: What lessons do you think Western Europe can learn from Deus Caritas Est?
Weigel: Deus Caritas Est is Pope Benedict’s attempt to introduce, or in some cases reintroduce, the world to “the God with a human face,” which is the face of crucified love.
Beyond that basic evangelical message, Deus Caritas Est asks Europe to consider whether the outsourcing of the responsibilities of charity to government agencies doesn’t make for a net human deficit.
Do womb-to-tomb social services, medical care, and pension systems, all run by governments on tax money, stifle the human and Christian instinct to reach out in solidarity to the suffering “other”? That’s one of the question the Pope is putting on the table.
Q: How has Deus Caritas Est been received in the USA?
Weigel: It was well received, I think, because so many people who had previously accepted the media “cartoon” of Joseph Ratzinger discovered a man of evangelical gentleness and zeal.
The second half of the encyclical, as I explained at the Gregorian University earlier this week, was a challenge to certain dominant currents of thought in the American philanthropy industry. Interested readers can study my text at www.eppc.org.
Q: What do you think the possible futures of Europe are?
Weigel: Europe is dying from spiritual boredom, as I tried to argue in The Cube and the Cathedral. If Europe does not rediscover its faith in reason and its faith in the God of the Bible, I fear that its below-replacement-level birthrates will continue, and much of the continent will eventually become an extension of the Arab-Islamic world.
Q: What particular challenges does the growth of Islamic communities in Europe pose for European governments and the EU?
Weigel: They pose the question, how can a Europe which is culturally awash in postmodernism and multiculturalism defend its unique civilization and that civilization’s commitments to religious freedom, other basic human rights, the rule of law, and democracy?
Q: How do you see the Church’s approach to Islam changing under Benedict XVI?
Weigel: Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have the same substantive understanding of Islam’s theological defects and the same appreciation for Muslim piety.
Pope Benedict has drawn out some of the implications of certain defective Islamic understandings of the nature of God in light of contemporary world circumstances, and has helped the world to see that we can discuss these problems through the vocabulary of rationality/irrationality.
Q: At the beginning of the 21st century, what contributions do you believe the Church in Central and Eastern Europe can make to the revival of Christianity throughout Europe?
Weigel: Much of the Church in east central Europe lived an experience of the liberating power of the Gospel during the 1980s. That experience ought to be useful in challenging the soul-withering secularism of European high culture, with its insistence that the God of the Bible is the enemy of human freedom.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.