“The Church’s Deepest Nature” and the Catholic Identity Triangle

A motu propio is a document the Holy Father issues “on his own initiative.”  Examples of such documents include John Paul II’s reorganization of the Roman curia and Pope Benedict’s recent proclamation of the Year of Faith.  The Holy Father surprised the Church on Saturday, the last day of the liturgical year, with a document that offers a legal framework for how Bishops organize and promote the Church’s works of charity.

Pope Benedict begins his motu proprio by quoting a key section from his first encyclical. The document’s name, “The Church’s deepest nature,” is from that quote:

“The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia) and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable” (Deus Caritas Est, 25).

The essence of a triangle is to be a three sided closed figure. You need three sides, which are necessary connected by three angles. If any side is missing, or if any side is disconnected, it isn’t a triangle. The Pope’s purpose in this document is for the Church to live out the essential nature of her activity. The Church must do charitable works, and they can’t be disconnected from proclaiming God’s word or from the sacraments.

The motu proprio has two parts: an introduction, explaining why there was a need for the document, and the “dispositive part,” the legal norms (written in the codified language of articles and subsections) that are to govern the Church’s charitable works.

The rationale is straightforward. In Deus Caritas Est, The Holy Father pointed out that the service of charity (diakonia) is an essential element of the Church, and the Church at the smallest local and biggest world-wide level has to promote works of charity. If not, it fails to live out the fullness of what the Church is. It does not express the fullness of the Church’s essence. It is a triangle missing a side.

But as interested as the Pope is in covering all sides, he is equally interested in covering all the angles. The three sides of the triangle, the three-fold responsibilities of the Church, “presuppose each other and are inseparable.”   If the Church’s charitable works are disconnected from the other sides, proclaiming God’s word and the sacraments, it becomes disconnected. That “side” is no longer a side of the triangle, but may as well be a side of something else. (The secular square, perhaps?)

“In carrying out their charitable activity, therefore, the various Catholic organizations should not limit themselves merely to collecting and distributing funds, but should show special concern for individuals in need and exercise a valuable educational function within the Christian community, helping people to appreciate the importance of sharing, respect and love in the spirit of the Gospel of Christ. The Church’s charitable activity at all levels must avoid the risk of becoming just another form of organized social assistance (cf. DCE, 31).”

In Deus Caritas Est, the Holy Father pointed out too that it is the Bishops who are to direct (must oversee and are ultimately responsible for) this charitable work, but that “the Code of Canon Law, in the canons on the ministry of the Bishop, does not expressly mention charity as a specific sector of episcopal activity.” (DCE, 32) So the motu proprio comes to fill a gap in Canon Law and in some other norms, so that the Church can more fully live out her true essence, her three-fold responsibilities, in their inseparable connection.

The Church in her activity is three-fold, but in her identity is one holy, catholic and apostolic. The Bishops, successors of the apostles, are in charge of all the sides and angles.

Now, exactly what are they in charge of and how they are to direct the Church’s charitable works? That’s what the rest of the document lays down, in legal terms.

I will leave it to Canon lawyers to point out the nuances and important changes in the document’s legal norms. I will focus on one important aspect, which is The Gregorian Blog’s soap box: Catholic identity.

The motu proprio encourages and empowers bishops to safeguard the Catholic identity of her charitable works. Catholic charity has to be both charity, and fully Catholic.

Here are some highlights:

  • Art 1, § 3 “[C]ollective charitable initiatives to which this Motu Proprio refers are required to follow Catholic principles in their activity and they may not accept commitments which could in any way affect the observance of those principles.”
  • Art 2,  § 2 “A charitable agency may use the name ‘Catholic’ only with the written consent of the competent authority, as laid down by canon 300 CIC.”

This is further strengthened in Art 11, “The diocesan Bishop is obliged, if necessary, to make known to the faithful the fact that the activity of a particular charitable agency is no longer being carried out in conformity with the Church’s teaching, and then to prohibit that agency from using the name ‘Catholic’ and to take the necessary measures should personal responsibilities emerge.”

  • Art 7, § 1 Catholic charitable agencies “are required to select their personnel from among persons who share, or at least respect, the Catholic identity of these works.”
  • Art 7, § 2 “To ensure an evangelical witness in the service of charity, the diocesan Bishop is to take care that those who work in the Church’s charitable apostolate, along with due professional competence, give an example of Christian life and witness to a formation of heart which testifies to a faith working through charity. To this end, he is also to provide for their theological and pastoral formation, through specific curricula agreed upon by the officers of various agencies and through suitable aids to the spiritual life.”

Catholic works of charity should be done by people who live the Catholic faith (or at least respect it) and they are to be trained to better know and live the faith.

  • Art 9 § 3 “It is the duty of the diocesan Bishop and the respective parish priests to see that in this area the faithful are not led into error or misunderstanding; hence they are to prevent publicity being given through parish or diocesan structures to initiatives which, while presenting themselves as charitable, propose choices or methods at odds with the Church’s teaching.”

It seems clear that we shouldn’t promote things that go against our Faith. But, we shouldn’t take money from them either:

  • Art 10 § 3 “In particular, the diocesan Bishop is to ensure that charitable agencies dependent upon him do not receive financial support from groups or institutions that pursue ends contrary to Church’s teaching. Similarly, lest scandal be given to the faithful, the diocesan Bishop is to ensure that these charitable agencies do not accept contributions for initiatives whose ends, or the means used to pursue them, are not in conformity with the Church’s teaching.”

“The Church’s deepest nature” has given a framework to guide bishops as they guide us in the Church’s charitable works. As we begin a new Church year in this Year of Faith, may we all be guided by the Holy Spirit in living out our mission, in all its sides and angles!

Edward Mulholland

Dr. Edward Mulholland is the Sheridan Chair of Classics at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where he co-directs the program: Great Books: The True, the Good and the Beautiful. Born in the Bronx, New York, he earned his master’s degree in classics from the University of London, England, and received both a licentiate and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. From 1996-1998 he served as the head of the Humanities Department and the dean of the Journalism School at the Centro Universitario Francisco de Vitoria in Madrid, Spain. From 1998-2005, he was Professor of Philosophy at Our Lady of Thornwood Education and Training Center in Thornwood, New York and Professor of Classical Languages at the Center of Humanities in Cheshire, Connecticut. From 2005-2011 he headed the Departments of Catholic Formation and Classical Languages at Pinecrest Academy in Atlanta, Georgia.