25th Mar 2013

Love, Hope, and Truth: Benedict XVI’s Three Encyclicals

by Carl E. Olson 

Putting the pontificate of Benedict XVI into context and making judgments about the nebulous creature named “legacy” is a difficult task, especially just weeks after his pontificate concluded. Although I tend to be a “glass half empty” type of person and generally try to avoid hyperbole, I do believe we are living in a golden age of the papacy, at least in terms of popes who are holy and brilliant, a combination not to be taken for granted.

If Blessed John Paul II is, as many (including myself) think he is, the greatest philosopher-pope in the history of the Church, then Benedict is, I think, the greatest theologian-pope, whose theological corpus was already quite impressive in both scope and depth prior to his election. Equally remarkable is the body of work produced during his relatively short, eight-year-long pontificate, notably (but not limited to) the three Jesus of Nazareth volumes; the audiences on the apostles, saints, fathers, mystics, and doctors of the Church; the audiences on prayer; apostolic exhortations on the Eucharist and Scripture; and, of course, the three encyclicals: Deus Caritas Est (on Christian love), Spe Salvi (on Christian hope), and Caritas in Veritate (on integral human development).

Entire books could be written about each encyclical and, in fact, some have already been written. My modest goal here is to consider how these three significant texts provide a cohesive, integrated understanding of the person of Jesus Christ (Christology), the nature and mission of the Church (ecclesiology), and salvation and the last things (soteriology and eschatology).

Benedict apparently drafted an encyclical on faith (for the Year of Faith) that may some day be published in one form or another. It is worth noting that Benedict is, to the best of my knowledge, the first pope in modern times (or at least since the mid-19th century) to pursue writing encyclicals focused solely upon the three theological virtues. John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio (on faith and reason), certainly discussed faith, but did so from a strongly, though not exclusively, philosophical perspective.

The topic of Benedict’s first encyclical surprised many, both Catholic and otherwise, who thought he might write on the liturgy, or Islam, or perhaps even bioethics. However, the opening paragraph of Deus Caritas Est made it clear that Benedict was going to focus on foundational beliefs and fundamental truths:

“God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16). These words from the First Letter of John express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny. In the same verse, Saint John also offers a kind of summary of the Christian life: “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us”.

Contrary to widespread, media-encouraged mythology, Joseph Ratzinger is not some sort of detached, impersonal intellectual dwelling in an ivory tower with little or no contact with the “real world”. Both his academic and pastoral works demonstrate many times over an interest in the varied intellectual and practical challenges faced by Christians living in predominately modern, secular societies. And that deep and insightful interest is readily evident throughout these three texts. 


God is love, but what is love? And, for that matter, who is God and who is man? “In considering this,” Benedict points out, “we immediately find ourselves hampered by a problem of language” (DCE, 2). He discusses some specific language—focusing especially on the words, agape and eros (DCE, 2-11)—and then arrives at the Incarnate Word, the personification of God’s love. “The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ himself, who gives flesh and blood to those concepts—an unprecedented realism” (DCE, 12). The focal point of love is Christ’s self-gift, his willing death on the Cross: “This is love in its most radical form.” We must “contemplate the pierced side of Christ”—a reality much discussed in Ratzinger’s works of Christology—in order to really understand St. John’s statement, “God is love”, for it is “from there that our definition of love must begin.”

The encyclical on hope touches directly on the same truth:

Jesus, who himself died on the Cross, brought something totally different: an encounter with the Lord of all lords, an encounter with the living God and thus an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within. (SS, 4)

The word “encounter” was employed often throughout Benedict’s pontificate. Later in the second encyclical, he reiterates the uniqueness of Christ (something he addressed at length, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in the 2000 document, Dominus Iesus), pointing out that our relationship with God is “established through communion with Jesus—we cannot achieve it alone or from our own resources alone.” Our relationship with Jesus Christ is rooted in his gift of himself on our behalf, which “draws us into” his “being for all.” The close connection between the first two encyclicals is readily evident here, for God, who is love, is also the God of hope—a hope that will be fulfilled by entering eternally into communion with that divine exchange of perfect love, the Trinity. In addition, Christ “tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human,” an apparent articulation of one of the most discussed sentences in Gaudium et spes: “Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (GS 22).

What of the third encyclical, often (and rightly) presented as Benedict’s social-doctrine encyclical? The opening sentence puts Christ front and center, and points back to the first encyclical: “Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity” (CiV, 1). In Christ, Benedict further insists, “charity in truth becomes the Face of his Person, a vocation for us to love our brothers and sisters in the truth of his plan. Indeed, he himself is the Truth (cf. Jn 14:6).”


The second part of Deus Caritas Est is titled, “The Practice of Love By the Church As a ‘Community of Love’”. The Church as “communion” is a theme permeating the writings of Ratzinger/Benedict on ecclesiology. The Son, in dying on the Cross, gave up his Spirit, thus pointing to that moment when the Holy Spirit would be gifted to the Church. And the Spirit is “also the energy which transforms the heart of the ecclesial community, so that it becomes a witness before the world to the love of the Father, who wishes to make humanity a single family in his Son” (DCE, 19). This expression of the Trinitarian mission echoes the opening paragraph of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which Cardinal Ratzinger co-edited. The “entire activity of the Church is an expression of a love that seeks the integral good of man”; in other words, the Body of Christ carries out the work begun by Christ through his death and resurrection, by evangelizing, preaching, administrating of the sacraments, and working to help the suffering, the poor, the needy, and the weak. Charity is the “responsibility of the Church,” and the Church, “as a community … must practise love” (30). In sum, that is the focus of the second half the encyclical.

In Spe Salvi, Benedict focuses at length on the example of hope demonstrated by the early Church (SS, 4-9), explaining how the first Christians transformed society “from within”. That transformation was possible because those Christians shared in the life, flesh, and blood of the Risen Lord: “By virtue of their Baptism they had been reborn, they had been given to drink of the same Spirit and they received the Body of the Lord together, alongside one another” (SS, 4). This points back to a detailed examination in the first encyclical about the proper relationship of the Church to the State. On one hand, the Church “cannot and must not replace the State” (DCE, 28). Yet the Church is essential in the life of a just society because human justice is not enough: man also needs real, lasting love. This leads to one of the most quoted passages in Deus Caritas Est

The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. (28)

The Church, Benedict states in his social encyclical, has developed social teaching that “is caritas in veritate in re sociali: the proclamation of the truth of Christ's love in society” (CiV, 5). On one hand, the Church “does not have technical solutions to offer” to questions relating to, say, economics and forms of government, but she does “have a mission of truth to accomplish, in every time and circumstance, for a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation” (CiV, 9). The Church’s mission of truth is essential, for whenever truth is ignored or forgotten, dangerous and threatening falsehoods fill the vacuum. The Church’s social doctrine is “a particular dimension of this proclamation” of the truth that sets us free.

Among the many teachings of the Church is the proclamation that the human creature is both distinct person and spiritual creature meant for, and defined by, interpersonal relations. Man cannot thrive or mature in isolation, “but by placing himself in relation with others and with God” (CiV, 54). The Church rejects totalitarianism, which ends in “annihilating [the individual’s] autonomy,” but instead promotes an authentic unity and a “legitimate diversity” among peoples and cultures. This belief is illustrated and illuminated “in a striking way by the relationship between the Persons of the Trinity within the one divine Substance.” Each of us is called to enter into this divine communion, which is perfect love, and the “Church is a sign and instrument of this unity” (CiV, 54). Here, again, we can see the closely intertwined nature of the three encyclicals.

Soteriology and Eschatology

The first part of Deus Caritas Est is about love in the scope of salvation history. As we’ve seen, this is rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Eucharist is of course especially central, for it “draws us into Jesus' act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving” (DCE, 13). Benedict then foreshadows his social encyclical by pointing to the social character of the Eucharist, “for in sacramental communion I become one with the Lord, like all the other communicants. … Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself.” True Christianity is not individualistic, but moves always toward unity, both in this life and the life to come: “Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians” (DCE, 14).

Spe Salvi delves deeply into eschatology and belief in the life to come. In doing so, Benedict emphasizes that love found only this world will not alone suffice: “It is a love that remains fragile. It can be destroyed by death.” This points to the existence of a love transcending this world, a love without end:

The human being needs unconditional love. He needs the certainty which makes him say: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38- 39). If this absolute love exists, with its absolute certainty, then—only then—is man “redeemed”, whatever should happen to him in his particular circumstances. This is what it means to say: Jesus Christ has “redeemed” us. Through him we have become certain of God, a God who is not a remote “first cause” of the world, because his only-begotten Son has become man and of him everyone can say: “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). (SS, 26)

In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict warns against forms of salvation fixated on the horizontal, worldly dimension. “Without the perspective of eternal life,” he notes, “human progress in this world is denied breathing-space.” Man must not fall into “the trap of thinking he can bring about his own salvation,” which leads to forms of dehumanization; he must recognize that all persons are created in the image of God and are meant for authentic love (par 11). Likewise, man must not think he is self-sufficient and able to eliminate evil by his own power, a belief that can cause him to “confuse happiness and salvation with immanent forms of material prosperity and social action” (par 34). Also, the false belief that nature is “something more important than the human person” leads to “attitudes of neo-paganism or a new pantheism”; on the other hand, the pursuit of a technical dominion over nature results in “reckless exploitation” (par 48).

Benedict concludes his final encyclical by exhorting readers to “above all else return to God’s love.” This is a call to conversion, to trust, to reliance on God’s mercy, love, and forgiveness. It is an injunction to recognize that God is the source of life and the goal of life,

because God is at the beginning and end of all that is good, all that leads to salvation: “the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ's; and Christ is God's” (1 Cor 3:22-23). Christians long for the entire human family to call upon God as “Our Father!” (par 79)

This, then, brings us back full circle to a declaration in the opening paragraph of Benedict’s first encyclical: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” The three encyclicals are a melodious trio that harmonize a variety of topics—the Triune God, man, faith, salvation, life in this world, hope, eternal life—by placing them in proper relationship with one another and thus showing, with clarity and care, the mystery of divine love and life for which we were made and to which we are called.

Carl E. Olson is the Editor of Catholic World Report ( and Ignatius Insight ( He is the author/co-author of two best-selling books and has written hundreds of articles, reviews, and columns for a variety of periodicals and newspapers. In addition to undergraduate studies in art and theology, Carl has a Masters in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas.

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)