By Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
What is the state? What, if any, are its limits? These are ancient and ever perennial questions, each with a long theoretical and practical history. Lest we think that the dubious principle of the "separation of church and state" means that popes cannot speak of politics, we can look to Benedict XVI's first encyclical, in which he speaks most directly, even bluntly, of the State. The notion that the only people who cannot talk accurately and philosophically about the state are clerics or believers needs to be put to rest. It is not true that only politicians know what the State is, just as it is not true that politicians know nothing about the spiritual life. Nor is it to be denied that some clerics speak of the State with much ignorance and naivete.
In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, which seems to take up a theme left by John Paul II, Benedict XVI chooses the delicate topic of love, of eros, as needing the most profound attention. He speaks beautifully on the topic. He seeks nothing less than to "purify" it by understanding what it is in all its dimensions. In reflecting on charity, one cannot help relating it to that virtue with which it is most often compared or confused, that is, justice.
At first sight, this almost overly discussed topic of love will seem to be clearly a non-political document. The Pope seeks nothing less than to claim, or reclaim, a sphere of life that has been secularized, usually as "rights," so that all human relationships are seen to be aspects of justice or power. To see it this way is a utopian temptation. That the state and justice are necessary and related is not denied. But in the course of their very definitions, we see their own limits or insufficiencies, limits based on the truth of that they are.
The second half of the encyclical is a brilliant treatise on the nature and limits of the State and what lies beyond it. "We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything," Benedict writes, "but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need" (par 28b). Valid sources of truth and action are found both in the family and in what transcends the State, even what goes on within it.
Perhaps we can turn the statement around and wonder if the "State we do not need" arose from theories that denied the principle of subsidiarity. This principle is from Pius XI's 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno. It means that all social activity should be left to function at the level of initiative closest to the free human person. We do not "need" that State that sees its function of gathering "different social forces" into its own bureaucracy and abstract functioning. We need institutions and individuals that can manifest their own inner "spontaneity," something that requires personal initiative.
The case for a consuming justice has been made, perhaps too often, in modern religious circles; we think of the sad case of "liberation theology," about which Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote so well in the document Instruction on Certain Aspects of Liberation Theology (1984). The Pope is concerned that charity is not turned into an ideology. "Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs" (par 31b). This "what man always needs" cannot directly come from the State.
What has been neglected by an over dependence on justice and the State is that many of the most important things in our lives need to be left to our own personal initiatives and responsibilities. These latter may also be supernatural in origin. But these higher aspirations, when secularized as rights and laws, become claims on the State to bring about by State means what can only be accomplished by charity. Thus, the State grows precisely from a hidden, even denied, impulse of charity dormant in our culture, But the essential personalness of charity that makes it effective is lacking. This latter personal level is what the Pope seeks to restore, or perhaps call to our attention for the first time in our contemporary experience.
Deus Caritas Est is not an "anti-state" document. "The just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics" (par 28a). There are "things" of Caesar. The "temporal sphere" has its own area or "autonomy." But other organizations also have their autonomy, especially (but not exclusively) the Church. "For her part, the Church, as the social expression of Christian faith, has a proper independence and is structured on the basis of her faith as a community which the State must recognize" (par 28a). "Recognize" here means allow to exist, encourage to flourish. The very existence of charity with in the State makes it better without the State's being in control of its sources.
Again, while charity can perhaps function in a disordered or even tyrannical polity, justice provides a place for it in any polity to do what justice cannot do, most often deal with the "here and now" of things. "Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life: its origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has to do with ethics. The State must inevitably face the question of how justice can be achieved here and now" (par 28a). But this very point brings up the experience of the State, particularly the modern State, that has a "certain ethical blindness" that sees justice in terms of "power and self interests."
The Pope understands that the problem with the State, whether ancient or modern, in claiming more for itself than is due to it, reflects the Fall -- something about which the political thought of Augustine was acutely aware. Faith is thus seen as "a purifying force for reason itself. From God's standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly" (par 28a). Clearly this comment deals with an understanding of a rationalism that would lock reason into itself and proudly proclaim its own self-sufficiency. This move turns reason into its own god, allowing no entrance of being except to that which its narrow methods authorize.
From a political philosophy point of view, I would consider the most important intellectual contribution of this encyclical of Benedict XVI to be his awareness that the Gospel revelation of charity was not intended to result in an expansion of the State to include, in a secularized way, the impulses and institutions of charity. "It is very important that the Church's charitable activity maintains all of its splendor and does not become just another form of social assistance" (par 31). Because of a failure to understand the immediacy of charity, something has been missing from our families, our schools, our dealings with the poor, weak, and dying, and with new life and old life.
In conclusion, I would recall one final temptation that has its origins in our failure to have a clearer place for active charity in our culture. "When we consider the immensity of others' needs, we can ... be driven towards an ideology that would aim at doing what God's governance of the world apparently cannot: fully resolving every problem" (par 36). Whether it be our dealings with wars, disasters, poverty, health, education, or a hundred other things, we come back to this most subtle insight: we claim the power to "resolve" every problem by ourselves. We blame God's "governance" when we do not accept the dimensions of the charity that is put into the world. Ideology is indeed behind much of our understanding of the State and its scope. We have here a spelling out of a different form of "divine governance," one that begins with understanding the State and its limits. We do not, in short, want a State that "would provide everything."