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Love’s rhetoric bedevilled by wordplays

John Collins sets a German Pope’s first encyclical in the context of northern Europe...

Julian Stefani called Adelaide’s Archbishop and Vicar General “harlots and goons” for accepting government sponsorship for the international Roman Catholic convention in the city marking World Day of the Sick 2006.  This little bit of political savagery – the language subsequently apologised for – has its provenance in the repetitive narking of the haves by the have-nots in Australian politics, Stefani being a Liberal state parliamentarian during Rann’s rampaging Labor governance of South Australia.

Serendipitously, the report of this marginal incident appeared in The Australian on the day Professor Neil Ormerod published his comments in Online Catholics (1/2/06) about Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical “Deus caritas est – God is love”.  While editorial writers and columnists across Europe and from London to New York have been lauding this papal encomium of divine and human love in Part I of the document, Paul Ormerod takes that as read and moved the focus to Part II of the pope’s essay.  Hence the professor’s edgy title, “The Devil is in the Detail” – borrowed for the occasion, it would seem, from the heading of an editorial in that day’s The Australian but intended, I am sure, in the same light-hearted tone others have been noting about Pope Benedict’s theological style.

The devil in question is the potentially corrupting or defiling relationship between churches and government when it comes to collaboration in works of “charity”.  Ormerod instances governments in Australia “regularly ‘out-sourcing’ [their] welfare and health activities” with church agencies “actively tendering for contracts with governments to supply the required services”.  Should Julian Stefani get to read the professor’s probings into the propriety of such relationships he might feel that in his ocker critique of Arhcbishop Wilson and Monsignor Cappo he had been right on the money.  For his part Professor Ormerod is not jumping to conclusions but forecasts that the pope’s reflections on church, government and politics “will be exercising theological and ecclesiastical minds in the longer term”.

In the context of church and state on the European continent, however, Benedict XVI’s reflections are not the novelty Ormerod suggests but engage a debate that has long been “exercising theological and ecclesiastical minds”.  This has been the case especially in Germany, Austria and Scandinavia since the arrival after WWII of the welfare state. That governmental response to social need initiated what can crudely be called competition between state and church in the provision of social services that Roman Catholic and pre-eminently Lutheran institutions had been providing to increasingly professional standards from before the middle of the 19th century.

An extensive specialist literature has been identifying problems, registering concerns about maintaining the integrity of the Christian initiatives, assessing the possibly destabilising effects of self-scrutiny on the part of institutions, reporting exploratory attempts at collaboration between church and state, and bemoaning the increasing bureaucratisation of the delivery of “charity”.

In German and other northern European discussions this “charity” has been known as “diakonia”, a Greek New Testament word that featured here and there in documents of Vatican II with reference to the church’s responsibility for its engagement with the needs of the world and to the charitable work of the new diaconate.  The usage originated in German Lutheran practice of 19th century deaconesses, and became the main factor contributing to a comprehensive theology of diakonia as one essential mark of Christian life and community.  In this the term kept company with two other Greek terms, “martyria” and “leitourgia” to form the classic trilogy “witness, liturgy, service” that Benedict XVI invokes in the encyclical and that has had a broad influence over  more than 50 years within the self-understanding of the World Council of Churches.

Many German volumes and journal essays on “the diakonic office of the church” or “the diakonic nature of the church” – to translate just two titles - from the 1960s through to 2005 provide evidence of this theological preoccupation.  In English one can view the standard non-catholic take in Jaap van Klinken’s Diakonia: Mutual Helping with Justice and Compassion (1989) and some sympathetic Roman Catholic reflections in the Concilium  volume Diakonia: Church for others (1988).  My own book Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources (1990) attempted to deconstruct the lot, a process that is only now beginning to show its effects in German circles.

Part II of Pope Benedict’s encyclical on “The Practice of Love by the Church” is accordingly to be read within this context.  While the German Catholic Bishops Conference long ago adopted the Latin term “caritas” as the official designation of its charitable operations, this was largely to ensure a polite differentiation from the enormous Lutheran operations that had pre-empted the term “diakonia” and operated under the title of “The Diakonic Work”.  Some half a million professional social workers (including some thousands of deacons and deaconesses) are on the payroll under the German logo “Diakonie”.

Not surprisingly, then, in the first encyclical of the German pope, telltale signs of this germanic experience of “charity” as “Diakonie” are observable.  In fact, reports indicate that the original language of the document was German, and that Part II was drafted by a German prelate, Archbishop Paul Cordes.  In such circumstances it would be impossible for the document not to reflect conventional German thinking of recent decades on pervasive northern European ideas about “diakonia”.

Of itself there is of course no impropriety in having such influences at play in papal teachings.  (They are to be seen expressly in paragraphs 20-25.)  That they are mainly German in character simply reflects historical developments in that country of significant collaboration between church and state in social services. In France, for example, the concept of the state’s “laicité” would preclude the possibility of collaboration of this kind.  The point here is that the potential problem Professor Ormerod signals in Australian governments’ out-sourcing of welfare and health activities to church agencies is not at all a new problem, and there could be much to learn from the northern European experience.

At the same time, however, we ought also bear in mind that German Lutherans themselves, at levels both of academic theology and of church governance, are beginning to review how appropriate their appeal to the New Testament might be in the face of a re-interpretation of “the Ancient Sources” of diakonia in such passages as Acts 6:1-6 (the institution of the Seven).  The encyclical, on the contrary, invokes this passage to establish that “diakonia” is “the ministry of charity [that] became part of the fundamental structure of the Church”.  Investing so heavily in that time-worn and debateable reading of this passage will mark this section of the encyclical as a rehearsing of German thinking of the mid-20th century.  The encyclical’s response to the problems projected by the institutionalisation of charity is nicely framed, nonetheless, in the insistence on the essentially personal character of the “caritas” of God.

Dr John N. Collins has published widely on issues of ministry in the church.  In 2003 and 2005 he consulted extensively on the modern diaconate in Germany, Holland, Sweden, UK, Ireland and USA in Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran circles.   He teaches Texts and Traditions (Biblical Studies) at Loreto Mandeville Hall  and a course in theology of ministry at Yarra Theological Union, Melbourne.



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