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Who is my neighbour? Deus caritas est: An encyclical for our times?

30 November, 1999

This is a book of papers delivered at a conference on the encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI Deus caritas est. And like Jesus’ reply, it pushes beyond the defences implied in asking the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Eoin G. Cassidy, Head of the Philosophy Department at Mater Dei is the editor. He provides the Introduction and has some important questions to ask in an article of his own.

215 pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online go to www.veritas.ie.


Introduction: Who is my Neighbour? The Wrong Question? Eoin G. Cassidy
Opening Address – Cardinal Sean Brady


  • The Interior Logic of Deus caritas est Archbishop Diarmuid Martin
  • Deus caritas est and the Daughters of Charity: Looking Anew at the Vincentian Charism – Catherine Prendergast, DC
  • Towards a Real Discovery of the Other – Bishop Donal Murray
  • We Live in Recessionary Times – Deus caritas est: An Encyclical for Today – Eoin G. Cassidy
  • Human Rights: Faith for a Secular Age? Professor Conor Gearty


  • Deus caritas est and Active Citizenship – Dr Fergus O’Ferrall
  • The Work for Justice and Deus caritas est – Gerry OHanlon, SJ
  • Justice Overshadowed by Charity? Deus caritas est and the Work of Catholic ‘Charitable Organisations’ – Ethna Regan, CHF
  • Reflections on the Encyclical Deus caritas est from the Coalface of Parish Life – Fr Paul Taylor, KCHS
  • Helping to Purify Reason: Catholic Leadership and Education in Northern Ireland 1998-2008 – Bishop Donal McKeown
  • ‘A Host is a Guest and a Guest is a Host’ – Joan Roddy, DMJ





In an insightful reflection on the question ‘Who is my Neighbour?’ in the dialogue of Jesus with the lawyer in the Gospel of Luke, Bishop Donal Murray in his article, ‘Towards a Real Discovery of the Other’, suggests that the response of Jesus reveals it to be the wrong question, because there is no category of neighbour as distinct from other human beings. As he says:

Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which utterly upends the implication that some people are not our neighbours. It tells of a victim and three passers by. Nobody would have dreamed of denying that fellow Jews were neighbours who should be loved as they love themselves. The priest, the Levite and the victim are clearly neighbours.

With this brief reflection, Murray highlights a core theme that is reflected in the very title Deus caritas est ( God is love’), namely that God is love and it is a love that does not discriminate. However, more than this, as Murray perceptively observes, Jesus’ response in the parable of the Good Samaritan suggests that the real question is not ‘Who is my neighbour?’ but rather, ‘What does it take to be a neighbour?’:

It is not a question of looking at a person in need and asking, ‘Is he or she a neighbour?’ but of looking at a person in need and asking, ‘Am I a neighbour?’ or ‘Am I looking at this suffering person with the eye and heart and courage of a neighbour?’

If the thesis of Deus caritas est is correct, the importance of this issue is not in doubt: if God is love it follows that the only pathway to God is that which is laid with the paving stones of love. In one of the most inspiring sections of the Encyclical, Deus caritas est explores the intimate character of the relationship between the love of God and the love of neighbour. As Pope Benedict XVI puts it: Closing our eyes to our neighbour also blinds us to God.’ (DCE, n. 17) And again:

Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well. Only if I serve my neighbour can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me. (DCE, n. 18)

In another valuable comment on what it is to be a neighbour and the link between the love of God and neighbour, Murray invites us to consider that the true meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan is about ‘being present to people who need my help’ In a further reflection on what it takes to be present to another, he acknowledges the importance of being present to oneself. Ultimately, this ability to be present to oneself is not something one achieves, but something one receives – it is nothing less than the gift of love from God, who is love. In reflecting on the truth of this insight, I am reminded of an extraordinary story which the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber tells of himself. As he recounts it, one day he received a visit from an unknown young man, ‘without being there in spirit’ He continues:

I conversed attentively and openly with him – only I omitted to guess the questions that he didn’t put. Later, not long afterwards, I learnt from one of his friends – he was no longer alive – the essential content of these questions. He had come to me not casually but borne by destiny, not for a chat but for a decision. He had come to me and come to me in this hour. What do we expect when we are in despair and yet go to a man? Surely a presence by means of which we are told that nevertheless there is meaning (1).

What Deus caritas est reminds us is that God in his love for us is present to us or, in the words of St Augustine, ‘is closer to me than I am to myself.’ It is a presence that enables me to love ‘even the person whom I do not like or do not know’ (DCE, n. 18). In this sense, love of God and love of neighbour have become one – in the least of the brethren God finds us and we find God.

Overview of papers
This publication is derived from a conference, ‘Who is my Neighbour’, held in Dublin in February 2008 on Pope Benedict XVI’s Encyclical, Deus caritas est (‘God is love’). In his opening address to the conference, His Eminence Cardinal Brady reminded us of the celebrated vision of the neighbour as all mankind that is provided by the parable of the Good Samaritan. As he says: ‘What a difference it would make if, in fact, we were to love all mankind, of every description, without distinction, even those who injure us or differ from our religion.’

In section one of the book, ‘Theological and Philosophical Rcflections’, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, in his article, ‘The Interior Logic of Deus caritas est, introduces us to the key themes of the Encyclical, one of which is the importance of prayer – a most challenging and little commented upon theme in the Encyclical. He says:

In Deus caritas est, [Pope Benedict XVI] notes that: `It is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of the activism and the growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work’ (DCE, n. 37).

In her article, ‘Deus caritas est and the Daughters of Charity: Looking anew at the Vincentian Charism, Catherine Prendergast, DC, reflects at some length on the manner in which the insights of Deus caritas est can inspire the ongoing work of renewal that is an integral part of the religious life of a community such as the Daughters of Charity. In this context, one of the themes studied is the manner in which Deus caritas est reflects on the unity of the love of God and the love of neighbour. Given the charism of love – love of Christ reflected in service of the poor that gives expression to the spirituality of the Daughters of Charity – it is hardly surprising that the Constitutions would seek to stress the unity of these two loves. For both St Vincent and St Louise the path to an encounter with God was one that was framed by the love of the neighbour or it was no path at all. In point of fact, St Vincent had a dread of a love of God which neglected the neighbour. The unity of the two great commandments of love is a core tenet of the Constitutions. However, as Prendergast stresses:

[I] t is the manner in which they answer the question as to, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ that marks out the special charism of the Congregation. Taking inspiration from the parable of the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-19), who is God himself, who goes in search of the ‘stray sheep’ – a suffering and lost humanity – St Vincent urged the Daughters of Charity to ‘seek out the poorest and most abandoned’; … As the Constitutions put it, the reason that God called the Daughters of Charity together was to honour our Lord Jesus Christ as the source and model of all charity, and where do they find Him but in the person of the poor (4).

In the article referred to above, ‘Towards a Real Discovery of the Other’, Bishop Donal Murray offers the reader pointers to explore the parameters of what it takes to become a neighbour and to name the barriers which make it difficult to be present to another. The importance of this quest is reflected in the insight that it is only in and through the discovery of the other as neighbour that one has the possibility of discovering God or indeed oneself.

In the article, ‘We live in Recessionary Times: Deus caritas est, an Encyclical for Today’, I argue that the root cause of the current global economic and cultural malaise is the cultural dominance in ‘western’ society of instrumental reasoning, which is shorn of any link to the common good. It is a milieu in which consumerism flourishes – where everything and everybody comes packaged with a sell-by date. I suggest that the 2006 Encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, is extremely timely. In its proclamation of the mystery of God who is love and of the inseparability of the love of God and neighbour, it provides a vision of solidarity that alone is capable of engendering the type of societal transformation demanded by the present crisis. Furthermore, in its celebration of the transcendent character of love, ‘God loved us first’, it provides the wherewithal to critique the inner logic of the secularist ideology, which underpins the self-sufficient humanism that is enshrined in consumerism.

In the final article in section one, ‘Human Rights: Faith for a Secular Age, Conor Gearty reflects on the shared vision that links much of human rights discourse with the ideals put forward in Deus caritas est. In this context, he suggests that the power of the language of human rights is identical to the power that is sought to be harnessed in Deus caritas est, because it tries to get us to see the neighbour as beyond boundaries set by family and/or self-interest. Furthermore, human rights discourse also raises a critical question which is a core issue in Deus caritas est, namely how you translate notions of neighbour into notions of justice.

In section two, Towards a Civilisation of Love’, the first article, ‘Deus caritas est and Active Citizenship’ by Fergus O’Ferrall, raises issues which reflect the concerns of many today, namely how to engender and sustain ‘social capital’ in an increasingly individualist culture. He says:

In secular pluralist societies such as we now inhabit, where do we get the right ‘norms, values and understandings’ for flourishing human living in the twenty-first century? In short, how do we know anymore in our changing and confused times ‘Who is my neighbour?, and how we ought to respond to these ‘neighbours’?

His article reflects on the contribution made by Pope Benedict XVI in his Encyclical letter to addressing these questions.

The following article by Gerry O’Hanlon, SJ, ‘The Work for Justice and Deus caritas est,’ acknowledges that campaigners for justice are often wary of the term ‘love’, especially when used in a religious context:

[I]t sounds too soft. It conjures up notions of emotional attachment and altruism, rather than human rights and entitlements. It threatens to disturb the conventional wisdom that what is required in our world is not charity, but justice.

O’Hanlon envisages his article as in the form of a conversation with Deus caritas est from the perspective of justice. It is his contention that the Encyclical:

[I]n at least one important way, is novel, inspiring and challenging; that it confirms the work of justice, even if it needs to be complemented by other aspects of Catholic social teaching; and that it raises extremely interesting questions for our contemporary situation, questions which require careful consideration for the future.

In the article, ‘Justice Overshadowed by Charity? Deus caritas est and the Work of Catholic “Charitable Organisations”, Ethna Regan, CHF, offers a critique on the challenges posed by Deus caritas est to Cooperation Internationale pour le Developpement et la Solidarité (CIDSE), a network of sixteen European and North American Catholic Aid and Development agencies. She argues convincingly that Deus caritas est has much to offer to these ‘charitable organisations’ in terms of guidance and challenge, but perhaps an opportunity was missed to do more. She says:

Benedict began his reflections on ‘the practice of love by the Church as a community of love’ with Augustine’s beautiful words from De Trinitate, words that say as much about the nature of the human person as about the nature of God: ‘If you see charity, you see the Trinity.’ (DCE, n. 19) However, the Encyclical might have offered even more to these complex ‘charitable organisations’ if it had not established a potential overshadowing of justice with charity, but had pointed also to the traces of the Trinity, vestigia Trinitatis, in the work of justice.

In his article, ‘Reflections on the Encyclical Deus caritas est from the Coalface of Parish Life’, Paul Taylor highlights the challenging cultural backdrop for the preaching of the Gospel today. Nevertheless, he is by no means blind to the opportunities for evangelisation that flow from the same cultural milieu. He says:

The emptiness of the above situation is also an opportunity for a new evangelisation. Pope Benedict puts is succinctly: the challenge is to give to others ‘the look of love which they crave’ (DCE, n. 18).

In the course of the article, Taylor examines some of the elements in this first Encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, which he says ‘can encourage us and challenge us at the level of the local church community, to pray, worship and celebrate the Sacraments in a manner that will equip us to be God’s good servants in the world.’ It is a very reflective piece of writing, which states some ‘home truths’ with regard to current pastoral practice. Moving on to reflect on ‘parish outreach’, Taylor acknowledges the value of the Encyclical and in particular the importance that it places on the need to reawaken what it describes as a spiritual energy: ‘[T]he spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper’ (DCE, n. 28b).

Bishop Donal McKeown’s article, ‘Helping to Purify Reason: Catholic Leadership and Education in Northern Ireland 1998/2008; examines the role played by leadership in Northern Ireland’s Catholic education sector, and does so in the light of some principles enunciated in Deus caritas est. He says:

This Encyclical appeared well into the ten-year period I will discuss in this paper. However, its principles regarding the role of Church and State in promoting justice provide a useful paradigm against which to examine the statements and lobbying of Catholic leaders, specifically regarding education in Northern Ireland.

In the final article, ‘A Host is a Guest and a Guest is a Host’, Joan Roddy, DMJ, refers to a story in John Mc Gahern’s novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun, of an encounter between two neighbouring rural families, which reminds us of an oft forgotten truth that in the human family there are no clear categories of givers and receivers, of hosts and guests, of insiders and outsiders. Likewise, in Deus caritas est, one can without difficulty discern this important truth that all of us, as individuals and societies are at one and the same time bearers of gifts and bearers of needs. In the light of this insight, she argues persuasively that we ought to accept the challenge in Ireland and beyond:

[T]o recognise in the migration phenomenon the unfolding story of salvation, to open our eyes to this sign of the times and to the presence of God in history – in creation and in all of God’s people. To keep alive and strive to realise God’s vision of the future, we need to reach out and link hands with our sisters and brothers, north and south, east and west. Like those neighbours in the McGahern story, all of us, from whatever point on the compass we come, are bearers of both burdens and gifts.




  1. Buber, Martin, Between Man and Man, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith, London: Routledge, 2002, pp. 16-17.
  2. See DCE, n. 17.
  3. Ibid., p. 32. See also St Vincent de Paul’s comments on this theme that are to be found in 71, On the End of the Company, 18 October 1653, p. 743. These passages show the influence of St Paul on the writings of St Vincent.
  4. Constitutions, p. 28.


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