Is Love Enough? Action Makes Love Real

March 4, 2008 in General, News

gerryoh_01b.jpgThe Pobal Dé conference held in Milltown Park on Saturday 1 March was a great success. More than one hundred people attended. Below is the full text of Gerry O’Hanlon’s address to the conference.

Introduction: Love lost?
‘Today, the term “love” has become one of the most frequently used and misused of words, a word to which we attach quite different meanings’ – thus Pope Benedict at the beginning of his exploration of the link between love and justice in Deus Caritas Est (2005/6, no. 2). But a certain perceived ‘wetness’ around the use of the term ‘love’ is not restricted to contemporary times. Recently retired Jesuit General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach notes the decision of the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus (1974-5), in its prophetic description of the mission of the Society in terms of the ‘service of faith and the promotion of justice’, not to use the term ‘love’. He says: ‘We should not forget that even St Ignatius was weary of using this word. Before his conversion he had read so many love stories that he was very careful in using the term ‘love’…. When Ignatius is constrained to use the word ‘love’, he explicitly states that he is not referring to some kind of feeling, a few beautiful words, but to concrete deeds (Spiritual Exercises, 230)… He also used the linguistic construction ‘loving and serving’ (‘amar y servir’) to emphasise that love, to be true, needs to be incarnated in deeds…Father Arrupe may have gone a bit too far when, at one moment, he said that justice was the sacrament of love because, thanks to its incarnated expression in an action for justice, love becomes a reality, it acquires a real presence’ (P-H. Kolvenbach, The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice, Promotio Justitiae, 96, 2007/3, 15 (9-18).

Two other contemporary witnesses add their voices to the concern expressed by the title of today’s Conference. Kahlil Gibran (he of The Prophet fame) says that ‘work is love made visible’: while on a recent visit to the Baltic Art Gallery beside the impressive Millenium Bridge in Newcastle-on-Tyne I notice in the foyer a large programmatic canvas with the title ‘Work is Love Made Solid’.

I want in what follows to explore this notion that love is not enough, and to do so mainly in relation to Catholic Social Teaching, often referred to as the ‘Church’s best-kept secret’, and to our situation in Ireland today.

Catholic Social Teaching

Of its nature – think of the astounding fact of the Incarnation, God taking flesh – Christianity has always been deeply involved with ‘the bits and pieces of everyday’ (Patrick Kavanagh). The Christian God is not Deist, ‘aloof and paring his fingernails’ (James Joyce), but, in the words of St Ignatius, is one ‘who works and labours for me in all creatures on the face of the earth, that is, He conducts Himself as one who labours’ (Sp Ex, 236). We are then to ‘find God in all things’, because ‘our world is charged with the grandeur of God…Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings’ (G.M. Hopkins).

So, even if from early times within Christianity there has been an authentic contemplative dimension (think of the story of Martha and Mary in the Scriptures), of its essence

Christianity does not imply a ‘fuga mundi’ (a flight from the world), it is not essentially the faith of ‘basket-weavers’ (cf. John Courtney Murray) who disregard the value of created things.

Instead we are to show our love of God in love of neighbour (it is the outsider Good Samaritan, not the priest or Levite who is justified), we will be judged by our behaviour towards the hungry, thirsty, prisoners (Mt 25), we are called to cooperate with the coming of God’s Kingdom which is ‘already’ as well as ‘not yet’. And so down through the ages, sometimes wisely and sometimes unwisely, Christians have been involved in the deeds of love – think of the confusion of faith and politics in the Constantinian era, the influence of the Benedictines on agriculture in early Medieval times, the major voice of Aquinas in providing guidance for the stability but also the humanization of the feudal system in the Middle Ages, the countless works of charity by individuals and groups of Christians through the centuries.

In the so-called Modern Era, in particular with the development of the Industrial Revolution, a new response was called for. Historically the Catholic Church was slower to respond than Protestantism: one thinks of Weber’s thesis of the compatibility between the Protestant work ethic and capitalism. The Catholic Church was defensive, suspicious of the turn to Reason and against Authority, fearful of the excesses and violence of the French Revolution, the 1910 Oath against Modernism a symbol of an inward-looking stance that lasted, with one exception, until Vatican II, in particular the Decrees on The Church in the Modern World and Religious Freedom.

The one exception, curiously enough, was the so-called ‘social question’. With his Encyclical Rerum Novarum (‘Of New Things’) in 1891 Pope Leo XIII inaugurated the corpus of what is now called Catholic Social Teaching, occasioned by the harshness of the conditions of workers in the factories and mills of the Industrial Revolution then in full swing in Britain and in other parts of Europe and N. America. Leo argued for a just wage, for private property rights to be subject to social and moral restraints, basing all his considerations on an understanding of the nature of the human person gained from Christian anthropology. A surprising breach had been initiated by the Church itself in its defense against Modernity, a breach which began to win the sympathy of other groups campaigning for social justice and to justify its own claims to be ‘the Church of the poor’.

There followed the papal documents with which we are somewhat familiar (Pius XI, 1931, Quadragesimo Anno, where the term social justice occurs for the first time; Pope John 23, 1961, Mater et Magistra, highlighting the social dimension of property, as well as his 1963 Pacem in Terris, addressing not just Catholics but all human beings and speaking of human rights and international peace; Vatican II is the definitive break-through, in which the Church acknowledges that she can learn from as well as teach to the world; Paul VI, 1967, Populorum Progressio speaks of integral human development and argues for the notion of economic justice as the surest way to peace; in 1971, in Octagesima Adveniens he acknowledges that it may not be possible for him as Pope to put forward a message with universal application – rather, different local regions and churches will have to propose their own responses, based on his universal vision and principles; the Synod Bishops in Rome in 1971 said, memorably, that ‘Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appears to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel’; in 1975 Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi speaks of solidarity and integral human liberation (the vocabulary of Liberation Theology finding an echo in Papal teaching); in 1981 J-P II in Laborem Exercens grounds his teaching on work, inspired by Genesis chs 1-3, in a personalist notion of Christian anthropology ; in 1987 in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis he offers solidarity as a key principle of authentic human development and explicitly aligns the church with the preferential option for the poor; in 1991 in Centessimus Annus Christian anthropology is again presented as the ground for the Church’s social mission, while the issue of the environment is mentioned. To this list may be added Deus Caritas Est in 2005/6; but also the many episcopal documents of local regions (not least of works like Work is the Key of the Irish Episcopal Conference in 1992), as well as the countless theological reflections (not least the whole movement of Liberation Theology) along the same lines.

In summary, on a vast range of issues (work, economics, politics, war and peace, how family fits into all this and so on – in other words, the stuff of daily life) a corpus of teaching, a certain vision, accompanied by a set of values, principles and guidelines are presented. The intrinsic connection between faith and social reality is postulated. Principles like solidarity, subsidiarity, the common good, the universal destination of goods, the preferential option for the poor are proposed. The value and dignity of the human person as the image and likeness of God is asserted, within an anthropological consideration that locates the individual in organic unity with society in a way that avoids the extremes of socialism and economic individualism (liberalism) and values the inputs of structural and cultural analysis. There is an acceptance of the distinction between Church and State, and no claim that what is being offered is a blueprint for the organization of society. Rather this is teaching which is prophetic but with its feet wisely on the ground – there is stress on the leading role of laity in the application of this vision to concrete situations, the role of local Churches in mediating universal teaching, as well as the acknowledgement that Catholics/Christians may differ with good conscience on the necessary discernment of concrete solutions. And, if very often the teaching is couched in terms of natural law and social ethics – thus making it amenable to all women and men of good will – still its grounding and inspiration is unashamedly Scriptural, so that we are invited to make the intrinsic connections between prayer, the sacraments and our work of justice. Arrupe’s ‘justice is the sacrament of love’ makes sense in this context: the Real Presence of the Eucharist, for example, includes the countless poor who have no place at the Table of our common banquet (J-PII, SRS, 33, 1987), often because they have no place at the common work-bench of humanity, and this rightly disturbs the peace of those of us who enjoy feasting at his Table.


There are of course tensions and unresolved issues within this corpus of CST (e.g. tension between focus on truth and on freedom; perhaps too much optimism re the possibility of a ‘thick’notion of the good in a pluralist society; the place of church teaching on sexuality within this corpus). Nonetheless it represents a powerful resource for Catholics (Christians) within Ireland to approach our contemporary situation in an intelligent and committed way.

We are aware, in broad strokes, of the issues which face us. We have high levels of relative poverty; we have poor public services in terms of access to health, housing, education, social supports and transport; there are major problems in our prisons; homicide rates have soared, partly due to addiction problems relating to drugs and alcohol; there has been a similar increase in suicide rates; we need to look to the rights of migrants, our treatment of the environment, our relations with the developing world; our culture is excessively sexualized and trivialized by a fascination with celebrity; other speakers will refer to issues like homelessness and justice/reconciliation.

What CST – and the Bible/Christianity – says to us about all this is that it is part of our baptismal identity and responsibility to act as citizens in facing up to all these issues. In other words being a Christian involves active citizenship in whatever way is best suited to our talents (joining a residents association, lobbying with an NGO, keeping informed and contributing to interpersonal and public debate, doing good deeds, direct involvement in politics and so on), as much as it involves going to Mass on Sunday. And the two are intrinsically connected. Being a Christian is not just a personal and spiritual reality: it is also social and material.

The Christian response to our situation ought to be nuanced, but firm. It will not do simply to decry materialism and consumerism as if all were simply bad and we had forgotten the misery so often apparent in pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland. Ours in an incarnational faith: we value things, possessions, what we consume. And we acknowledge and celebrate progress. We know that it is not wealth, but its abuse, which is so damaging to human beings. We know that relative equality is neither possible nor desirable, but that stark inequalities are a recipe for disaster. Part of the common good that is spoken of in CST is recognition of wealth creation, of profit, of entrepreneurship, risk-taking, the market…but so too is solidarity, a preferential option for the poor, the dignity and absolute equality of each individual to be recognized in the way that we order our society. And so while we will celebrate and encourage life, talent, opportunity, we will also acknowledge the often hidden-injustices in Ireland itself and the scandalously obvious injustices world-wide. In this context some lines from CST bear citing in our Irish context: “A more human development in solidarity will also bring benefit to the richer countries themselves. In these countries one frequently observes a sort of existential confusion, an inability to live and to experience properly the meaning of life, even though surrounded by an abundance of possessions. A sense of alienation and loss of their own humanity has made people feel reduced to the role of cogs in the machinery of production and consumption and they find no way to affirm their own dignity as persons made in the image and likeness of God. Rich countries have shown the ability to create material well-being, but often at the expense of man and the weaker social classes” (Compendium, n. 374).

I note, without being able to develop, some practical points which emerge from this analysis. First, it would be wonderful if the links between love and justice – as presented in CST – were better known: more preaching on this topic, more justice groups in parishes, more practical expressions of the teaching that it is the laity who are leaders in this field. This would require, inter alia, a more developed theological culture on the island, a less anti-intellectual approach towards faith. In this context it is worth noting that there is no simple deduction from CST principle to socio-economic-political policy – eg. altruism as the political philosophy best suited to evangelical principles (‘it is better to give than to receive’) is simply not credible. Instead there is need of careful, intelligent discernment and mediation.

Then it is helpful when Christian leaders contribute to public debate in terms which are persuasive and accessible to secular society, without relying always on appeals to revelation or authority– Cardinal Brady calling for more tax to support better services; Archbishop Martin on so many topics; Sister Stan; Alice Leahy and Peter McVerry; the sustained and valiant efforts of CORI Justice Desk; Adelaide Hospital Society and JCFJ calling for a Health Service responsive to need and not to ability to pay, for a more rational and dignified approach to crime and punishment.

I am intrigued by the notion of a public forum where Christians and Human Rights activists (often of a secular mind-set) might agree Common Ground while respecting difference (Conor Gearty). It seems to me that the credibility of institutional Church leaders in any public forum of this kind will be enhanced if the Church finds better ways of listening to the sensus fidelium, particularly in matters of sexuality and gender, and learns better ways of hearing the voices of dissent.

I note that there is certainly scope within CST not just for prophetic options for the poor, but also for a sustained and respectful (not just condemnatory) dialogue with the middle-classes and wealthy, without whom solutions to problems are not possible.

I sense a need for a more informed debate within Ireland about how to understand the presence of Muslims in our society.

I rejoice that the situation in N. Ireland is so enormously better, while aware that the work of reconciliation and justice needs to continue, and am glad that the government shows concrete signs of building on the successes of the Peace Process by attempting to use our experience in helping other societies in conflict.

Conclusion: Love Re-gained?

I want to return to the connection of all this with love: and to argue for a rehabilitation of that word. I have spoken at length about the social responsibilities and duties of Christians: we are guilty of sin in so far as we fail to live up to these duties. And guilt is appropriate at times in our life: it can galvanize us, however reluctantly, to act.

However there can be a hardness and impersonality about action driven by guilt, super-ego and responsibility alone which makes the work of justice so unattractive even to those who are its beneficiaries. The Romans had the expression summum jus, summa iniuria (the height of justice, the greatest injury). We do not want to feel we are stepping-stones on someone else’s path to righteousness and heaven. We want to be met and valued in our humanity, treated not according to rules and laws but according to our dignity as human beings.

In this context it seems to me that a much more powerful motivation to justice is the sense of unconditional love which God offers me as a creature and child of God, conscious that all other human beings are in the same relationship. And this love – the great Christian temptation, even of very good and intelligent people- is not just to be thought of in terms of noble self-sacrifice, it is eros as well as agape, it involves receiving as well as giving. And most of us learn about it from the passionate, sexual giving and receiving that married and family life involve (as Thomas Aquinas was all to aware in setting out a kind of pedagogic of divine love). We learn it too from the suffering of those whom we are close to as human beings: the often black humour of the poor, their ability to celebrate life in the midst of deep injustice, is salutary for those of us who like life to be more neatly packaged and manageable (cf John Guiney example). Love then is not only a romantic, Valentine’s Day phenomenon: in its maturity it can negotiate anger and conflict, it aims a fidelity and truth, it is just – but it is also romantic and life-giving, it is mood and life alternating. It is what galvanized St Francis Xavier –with all his faults and theologically inadequate ways of understanding mission and baptism- to become such an heroic and lovable figure in 16th India, Indonesia, Japan, and, almost, China.

And a spiritual disciple and descendant of Francis Xavier, the late Pedro Arrupe, former General of the Society of Jesus, whose 100th anniversary of birth is being celebrated this year, puts it so well:

‘Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything’. Remember, this is someone whose task involved the daily routine of painstaking administration as well as an inspirational and hard-headed commitment to justice which involved, inter alia, the founding of the Jesuit Refuge Service which today operates world-wide, mostly in refugee camps with those who are the most marginalized in our world.

Love and justice then –as well as culture and inter-religious dialogue- go together. At the heart of Christianity is good news, desire, jouissance, delight in the God who is with us, that Trinity of Father/Son and Holy Spirit who look down on our world with concern, a God defined by this relationship of love, with kenosis, self-empting at the core, and who cares so much that, literally, this love is unto death- ti amo da morire. Ours is not a grim, Pelagian, Promethean overcoming of the world!

And this touches a final concern, a major sign of the times in Ireland and elsewhere in the West. Both Habermas and Rawls have referred to Post-Modernism in terms of our post-secular world, a world which longs for re-enchantment (cf quote from Nietzsche in Studies). There is injustice too in a culture which denies us access to the transcendent, in a religion which is too feeble to challenge this culture to allow such access. I speak of the much needed conversation between religion and secularism: a faith which tries to do justice in all the ways described will be a more credible partner in this conversation, a more credible witness to the power of the gospel.

Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice: March 2008