Since his election to the papacy in 2005, Benedict XVI has written three encyclicals: one on love (Deus Caritas Est), one on hope (Spe Salvi), and one on human development (Caritas in Veritate). Though primarily intended as instruments of official magisterial teaching rather than as forums for one’s personal opinions, these encyclicals nonetheless incorporate elements of Joseph Ratzinger’s thought that had been developing before he was elected pope and adopted the name “Benedict,” a name that reflects his interest in promoting both the cultural heritage of Europe (symbolized by Benedict of Nursia’s monastic legacy) and world peace (symbolized by the conciliatory efforts advanced by his predecessor Benedict XV during the First World War). One finds in these encyclicals strands of a philosophy and theology that, while subservient to Catholic doctrine, also have a distinctively “Ratzingerian” feel. The goal of this essay is to tease out the unified philosophical and theological vision that underlies Benedict’s thinking on love, hope, and human development. Rather than deducing concrete solutions to the economic crisis from these encyclicals, I wish to show how they offer a theoretical framework that can help guide practical thinking during a time of globalized economic distress.

Sharing Paul’s conviction that Christian “hope will never be disappointed” (Romans 5:5), Benedict strives to examine the virtue of hope from several angles. Hope is often overshadowed by the two other theological virtues of faith and love, yet our understanding of the object of all three—namely, God—is weakened if we fail to pay sufficient attention to each. Specifically, a clearer conception of the virtue of hope helps us “to understand what it is that our faith, our being with Christ, leads us to expect.”1 The scriptures closely tie hope to faith (Heb. 11:1; 1 Peter 1:21; Col. 1:23; Gal. 5:5) and to love (Rom. 5:5; 1 Cor. 13:13; 1 Thess. 1:3; 5:8). All three are traditionally understood as a habitual and firm disposition to do the good and thus contribute to the overall goal of a virtuous life: namely, to become like God (theosis).2 As sources of sanctifying grace, the theological virtues bestow on us the capacity to live in communion with the Trinity (cf. 2 Peter 1:4). They are the foundation and energizing force of moral action, animating the natural virtues and serving as a pledge of the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. Thomas Aquinas calls them a habitus that enables human beings to participate in eternal life even now and allows the intellect to assent to things hidden.3 In particular, faith, inasmuch as it is the “assurance of things hoped for and the substance of things unseen” (Heb 11:1), “draws the future into the present, so that it is no longer simply a ‘not yet.’”4

Although the first two encyclicals are generally more speculative in scope, they lay the groundwork for the more practical considerations described toward the end of the third encyclical.

Pope Paul VI had already elaborated specific points that subsequently became key components of Catholic teaching on human development. In material terms, he understood development as a rescuing of people from “hunger, deprivation, endemic diseases and illiteracy,” and he accordingly addressed the topic from three angles: the economic, social, and political.5 Building on this articulation, Benedict insists that a “holistic understanding” and a “new humanistic synthesis” are required to grasp the different aspects of the present crisis, to envision effective ways of solving it, and to give a new direction to development in the future.


It is precisely this “holistic understanding” and “new humanistic synthesis” that necessitates a robust notion of love.6 This is all the more urgent at a time of disillusionment about love’s apparent failures. Within less than a generation, the world changed its tune from “All You Need Is Love” (The Beatles, 1967) to “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” (Tina Turner, 1984). Meanwhile, we copiously quote the scripture passage “God is love” (1 John 4:8) as if everybody understood what it meant. “‘Love’ is so overused today,” observes Benedict, “that one is almost afraid to pronounce it. Yet [. . .] it is the expression of a primordial reality.” We must therefore “retrieve it [. . .] so that it may illuminate our lives.”7

The first step in this retrieval is to acknowledge that there are several different kinds of love. C. S. Lewis eloquently recapitulates the classic “loves” of storge (“affection”), philia (“friendship”), eros (“passionate love”), and agape (“charity”).8 Storge arises in contexts not freely chosen, such as families. Philia consists in a strong bond of friendship that ensues upon common interests and activities. Eros is perhaps best exemplified by a feeling of “being in love,” though its exclusive association with sex has unfortunately distorted its richer texture. And agape is a love toward one’s neighbor that does not depend on qualities lovable in and of themselves. Lewis considered agape a uniquely Christian virtue calling for a subordination of the natural loves.

Of the four, the two that most interest Benedict are eros and agape. In response to a widely diffused theology propagated by the Swedish theologian Anders Nygren, Benedict argues that eros, rather than turning us away from God, has the potential to point us toward God.9 Both eros and agape are compatible with the Christian understanding of love. The distinction between eros and agape provides an initial criterion for evaluating the quotidian conception of love. The first experience of adolescent love is an overpowering gravitational force that can cause confusion and doubt (think of Mozart’s Voi che sapete [Cherubino], Shakespeare’s “Did my heart love till now?” [from Romeo and Juliet], or Whitesnake’s “Is This Love?”). Yet far from being evil in itself or oppositional to Christian love, the passion of erotic love is a natural component of the human psyche; it ensures a connection between the life of the senses and the life of the mind. The “other” is perceived as good and desirable, opening an arena of interpersonal communication, moral choice, and action. Indeed, love is the most fundamental passion; it makes us yearn for an absent good and imparts the hope of obtaining it. It is an outward movement that finds completion in the pleasure and joy of the good possessed. Erotic love is thus ordered to and perfected by agapic love. “To love,” writes Aquinas, “is to will the good of another.”10 Hans Urs von Balthasar calls eros “the general push to break open one’s narrow, egoistic sphere and to fly out so as to give oneself to something greater than oneself, to forget oneself and one’s poverty in donating oneself to some exalted, attractive, and captivating being or aim.”11 According to Christian anthropology, men and women were created to love, and by loving, they participate in the love of God in whom there is a perfect union of the erotic and agapic dimensions.12

A key characteristic of Benedict’s notion of love is that it is firmly anchored in reason and ordered to action. Love, even at the level of mere feeling or emotion, is a movement of the sensitive appetite inclining us to act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good. Furthermore, in both the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical strains of the Middle Ages, love is a movement that calls for a response involving the entire person. It engages all of the human faculties. “It is characteristic of mature love,” Benedict writes, “that it calls into play all man’s potentialities; it engages the whole man.”13 Of particular interest is the role of the intellect, seeing as it is the differentiating quality that distinguishes the human person from other living beings. Building on this classic distinction, Benedict simultaneously cautions against taking the intellect as responsible for only inferential or calculative activities, much less as merely a physical organ. It is, rather, the faculty of understanding, deliberation, and action that makes me an “I,” and it is therefore involved in love from the very outset. We often say that the lover’s goal is to “possess” the other, but a more rudimentary motivation of love is to know the other, even if he or she remains shrouded in mystery till the end. A mantra of Benedict’s teaching has been to broaden the view of reason’s role in human living and the variety of overlapping ways in which we understand. In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict calls for an “interaction of the different levels of human knowledge” for the promotion of authentic development, meaning that development cannot be reduced to a single science, be it economy, sociology, or politics.14

This conception of love is all the more important in an age when the supremacy of the empirical sciences often goes unquestioned because of their presumed certainty and pretended autonomy. Yet science is not the only means of acquiring “knowledge” in this wider sense. “Charity,” writes Benedict, “does not exclude knowledge, but rather requires, promotes, and animates it from within.”15 This stands in sharp contrast to the modern temptation to relegate love to the irrational, the instinctual, and the ephemeral. Lovers meet by “fate.” Love “happens.” All of this belittles the deeply personal and intentional character of love. Even heroic acts requiring enormous self-sacrifice are eviscerated of their volitional force by mistaking duty for inevitability—“I love you: I had no choice but to give you one of my kidneys.” While it is true that love obliges us to do many things, the acts proper to it are done precisely insofar as we desire, will, and choose to act for the good of the other. Benedict writes that “the demands of love do not contradict those of reason,” for “love is rich in intelligence and intelligence is full of love.”16 Insofar as love requires an intelligent response, it must be free. Where there is no freedom, there is no love; one either loves freely or does not love at all.


Just as Deus Caritas Est draws freely upon conceptions of love taken from theological, philosophical, Christian, and secular sources—carefully making distinctions while showing that all of them point toward the same goal—so Spe Salvi expounds the theological virtue of hope without fear of showing how it elevates and perfects the strands of hope that already exist within the secular order and place humankind on the path to a common notion of truth.

A central concern of this encyclical is to elucidate true human progress and development. One way of understanding the pope’s thinking is by utilizing his oft-employed distinction between anamnesis (a knowledge through remembrance) and synderesis (a connatural knowledge).17 If the secular strands of hope are faint traces of Christianity’s hope of redemption now translated into a “faith in progress,” then anamnesis—understood as a kind of remembrance affected through lived experience, historical consciousness, and John Henry Newman’s “reasons of the heart”18—is perhaps the more helpful category for connecting hope to development. If, on the other hand, these strands are primarily natural aspirations appealing to some transcendent, natural law or cosmic order, then perhaps the notion of synderesis is of greater assistance. Benedict clearly has a penchant for the former category, though both are operative in Spe Salvi.

The important point to recognize is that Benedict’s partiality for anamnesis heavily influences the encyclical’s moral, ethical, and social reasoning.19 The strands of hope that already exist in the secular order do not refer merely to ways of thinking about the world, but arise from ways of relating and acting in the world. Our ideas bear consequences upon our actions, but the ideas themselves are also generated by ways of acting, which often are neither articulated nor explicitly elaborated within the culture. Just as there are “reasons of the heart,” so there are cultural, non-articulated patterns of behavior that nonetheless express some truth about the human condition. At the same time, appealing to “reasons of the heart” and highlighting an approach to Christian hope that rests firmly on the idea of anamnesis does not mean that Benedict eschews either the role of reason or the exercise of rationality. In the same way that he had striven to rescue eros from the throes of irrationality in Deus Caritas Est,20 so he strives to rescue hope from the abyss of irrationality in Spe Salvi. Not only is hope not opposed to rationality, hope itself needs reason, and, like love, it finds its ultimate fulfillment only in Christian faith. Benedict writes:

Yes indeed, reason is God’s great gift to man, and the victory of reason over unreason is also a goal of the Christian life [. . .] If progress, in order to be progress, needs moral growth on the part of humanity, then the reason behind action and capacity for action is likewise urgently in need of integration through reason’s openness to the saving forces of faith, to the differentiation between good and evil. Only thus does reason become truly human. It becomes human only if it is capable of directing the will along the right path, and it is capable of this only if it looks beyond itself [. . .] Let us put it very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope.21

For this reason, hope must be placed within the same ultimate horizon as love, for it is not only a purification of reason, but also a radical reorientation of reason’s concerns. In short, the hope that the early Christians received through faith and which became embedded in the ecclesial community was neither a hope against philosophy (understood in the ancient sense) nor against the world, but the gift of a new substance (hypostasis in Heb. 11:1) that confirmed the community’s belief in things unseen and the fullness of life already anticipated and participated in here and now. The radical consequences of this hope, Benedict explains, can be seen in the early Christians’ indifference to worldly goods—the hyparchonta—insofar as their attitude toward private property was a clear indication of their hopeful expectation of the world to come.

This bears clear consequences on how a Christian is to live as a citizen in the polis and commit herself to human development. Pope Benedict openly admits that Christian hope in eternal life has been criticized, sometimes rightly, for presumably urging a retreat from the world or a disinterest in worldly affairs. He counters this mistaken view of Christian hope, a view held by Christians as well as non-Christians, by pointing out that the “substance” of hope discussed in Hebrews 11:1 is presented in terms of a contrast between hypomone (“perseverance,” Heb. 10:36) and hypostole (“shirking back,” Heb. 10:39). Hope, Benedict concludes, is thus a performative reality and not an informative reality: it does not merely inform us about what is to come; it makes us aware of how the substance of what is to come necessarily effects how we act today. Only when the performative dimension of hope is recognized can we overcome the inherent tension between what we can know about the object of hope in this life and what we cannot know. This drama plays itself out in our ambivalence toward death—but again, it is an ambivalence within the context of Christian faith rather than external to Christian faith. On the one hand, we do not want to die, nor do we want our loved ones to die. On the other hand, we find the prospect of living interminably irksome at least, if not downright unbearable. Internal to this dynamic is, once again, a harmonious tension between faith and reason. Following Augustine, Benedict uses the phrase docta ignorantia (“learned ignorance”) to describe this condition.22 We know that we want eternal life, but we do not really know what we are asking for. “And yet,” argues Benedict, “we know that there must be something we do not know towards which we feel driven.”23

Only at this point does Benedict step back, so to speak, from the realm of Christian faith to consider the “strands of hope” as they exist within the secular order more generally, or according to conscience in the sense of synderesis. Commenting on Augustine’s letter to Proba, Benedict writes, “I think that in this very precise and permanently valid way, Augustine is describing man’s essential situation, the situation that gives rise to all his contradictions and hopes.” What begs to be teased out are the ways in which we do not know explicitly the reality that we await as Christians. If there are any limits to human reason, any constraints upon its grandeur, they are, according to Benedict, to be found here. The phrase “eternal life” is only an approximation. “Eternal” refers to time, which is not at all what eternal life is, and “life” refers primarily to a biological condition that we experience in this world, a condition that will not characterize the type of existence we hope to enjoy in the world to come (notwithstanding, or course, the doctrine of bodily resurrection). Benedict suggests that “we can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.”24

Consequences for Development

All of this suggests that we must somehow reconcile the limitless aspirations of love and hope with the inherent limitations of material progress and economic development. For effective and sustained development, “moral evaluation and scientific research must go hand in hand.” Above all, development must be animated by “charity [. . .] in a harmonious interdisciplinary whole, marked by unity and distinction.”25 Just as love engages every human faculty, so development must be directed to the actualization of the human person as a whole: “Authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension.” And again, “the truth of development consists in its completeness: if it does not involve the whole man and every man, it is not true development.”26 Although there are limits to what can be achieved by sheer human effort, human beings aspire to limitless progress. Benedict argues that the goals of development must accordingly allow for a “breathing-space” between what we should expect to achieve by human effort and the ultimate vocation of the human person to eternal life. If development remains “enclosed within history,” it “runs the risk of being reduced to the mere accumulation of wealth.” Consequently, it “loses the courage to be at the service of higher goods, at the service of the great and disinterested initiatives called forth by universal charity.”27 The truth of the human person, though ascertainable to the light of reason, must be connected to the truth of God if it is to be fully understood. This is the key insight that led the Second Vatican Council to declare that in Christ, “man reveals man to himself.”28

Because our aspirations for the good constantly exceed our capacity to find satisfaction in any particular finite good, Benedict maintains that our search for love must be liberated by Jesus Christ, who “reveals to us in all its fullness the initiative of love and the plan for true life that God has prepared for us.”29 Love itself is revealed in the face of the Son of God, opening a horizon of truth that is anything but abstract and non-personal. Furthermore, the yearning for infinite love neither displaces nor dismantles the truth that pertains to natural reason, for natural reason is absolutely essential to the formulation and implementation of plans for human development. The truth of development is “at the same time the truth of faith and of reason, both in the distinction and also in the convergence of those two cognitive fields.”30 The same quality of gratuitousness that characterizes the truth corresponding to natural reason also qualifies the truth of charity revealed in Jesus Christ. Without this anchoring in truth, love risks becoming “an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way.”31

This leads Benedict to make the bold claim that in a social and cultural context that tends to relativize truth, “practicing charity in truth helps people to understand that adhering to the values of Christianity is not merely useful but essential for building a good society and for true integral human development.”32 It is crucial to note that the claim here is not that the building up of a good society is only possible if everyone becomes Christian, but only that the values of Christianity, which stem from one truth but can be reflected in several different contexts, are indispensible in this endeavor. In any case, the encyclical clearly asserts that human development without reference to God is stunted development, an affirmation based as much on anthropology as on theology.

As for hope, Benedict is convinced that it is not a pre-political or “pre-societal” concept: our hopes are intrinsically bound up with our hope for the fates of others and the destiny of humankind as a whole. To flesh out the content of this hope, Benedict makes a key distinction between progress in the material realm and progress in the spiritual realm. The former, referring to advances in science and technology, must necessarily occur in an incremental fashion through the discovery of physical laws and their various applications. Progress in the realm of the human spirit does not take place in the same incremental way, precisely because of human freedom. No matter how far our understanding of the natural world advances, no matter how ingeniously we apply those laws through technology, we shall always remain radically free in the face of them.

This radical freedom characterizes not only individual human beings, but their institutions as well. Benedicts defines the “common good” as charity’s “institutional” or “political path,” pointing out that the common good is sought not for its own sake but for the sake of persons. Yet in a bold assertion, Benedict states that institutions are “no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly.”33 In both cases, the sharing of goods and resources that advances authentic development cannot be guaranteed merely by technical progress and relationships of utility; it must be animated by love’s potential to overcome evil with good and by hope’s capacity to envision the reciprocity that makes this love possible.

Encyclicals are referred to by paragraph numbers; full texts are available at Click the image below to purchase these books from and help support The Other Journal.

1. Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, Encyclical Letter, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 12,

2. Saint Gregory of Nyssa, De beatitudini bus, 1.

3. “Fides est habitus mentis, quo inchoatur vita aeterna in nobis, faciens intellectum assentire non apparentibus.” Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 4, a. 1.

4. Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 7.

5. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, Encyclical Letter, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 21, “From the economic point of view, this meant their active participation, on equal terms, in the international economic process; from the social point of view, it meant their evolution into educated societies marked by solidarity; from the political point of view, it meant the consolidation of democratic regimes capable of ensuring freedom and peace.” Ibid., 22.

6. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 21.

7. Benedict XVI, “Address to Members of the Pontifical Council,” Cor Unum.

8. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (London, UK: Geoffrey Bles, 1960).

9. Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans. Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1953). “Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to ‘be there for’ the other.” Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, Encyclical Letter, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 7,

10. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, 26, 4, corp. art.

11. Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Eros und Caritas,” Seele 21 (1939): 154.

12. Cf. Bendedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 10.

13. Ibid., 17.

14. Ibid., 30.

15. Ibid.

16. Benedict writes that “deeds without knowledge are blind, and knowledge without love is sterile.” Ibid.

17. For more on this topic, see Joseph Ratzinger, Wahrheit, Werte, Macht: Prüfsteine der pluralistischen Gesellschaft (Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Herder, 1995); D. Vincent Twomey, Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of our Age (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2007), 121-134; The Heart of Newman, ed. Erich Przywara (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1997), 25-30.

18. See Benedict XVI and Cardinal Newman, ed. Peter Jennings (Oxford, UK: Family Publications, 2005).

19. See also Twomey, Pope Benedict XVI, 105-120.

20. Cf. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 3-8.

21. Ibid., Spe Salvi, 23.

22. Ibid., 11.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid., 12.

25. Ibid., Caritas in Veritate, 31.

26. Ibid.,18.

27. Ibid, 11.

28. Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution, 22,

29. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 1.

30. Ibid., 5.

31. Ibid., 3.

32. Ibid., 4.

33. Ibid., 7.