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The Three Encyclicals of Pope Benedict XVI

by Dr. Robert Fastiggi

Pope Benedict XVI occupied the Chair of St. Peter from April 19, 2005, until his resignation on Feb. 28, 2013. During his time as Pope, he provided much wisdom in his general audiences, discourses, apostolic exhortations, letters, and homilies. His most significant papal writings, however, were his three encyclicals: Deus Caritas Est (Dec. 25, 2005), Spe Salvi (Nov. 30, 2007), and Caritas in Veritate (June 29, 2009).

First Encyclical: Deus Caritas Est

Benedict XVI’s first two encyclicals deal with the theological virtues of charity and hope. He was planning to write an encyclical on the theological virtue of faith, but he was not able to finish it because health issues led him to resign the papacy. He did, however, share his partial draft with his successor, Pope Francis, who published his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (June 29, 2013), on faith. This encyclical incorporates many of the ideas that Benedict had drafted.

The title of Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love) comes from John’s first Epistle: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him.” (1 Jn 4:16) The emphasis on love reflects the influences of St. Augustine and St. Bonaventure, but it also provides a response to the use of violence in the name of religion.

Part one of Deus Caritas Est (nos. 1-18) focuses on the nature of love, both divine and human. Part two deals with “the practice of love by the Church as a “community of love.” Benedict XVI examines the three main types of love recognized by the ancient Greeks: eros (desire), philia (love of friendship), and agape (charity or benevolence, which takes on a special importance in the New Testament). The Christian faith seeks to purify eros rather than eliminate it (no. 5). Eros must be purified  from its ancient Greek association with frenzy, intoxication, and the divine madness manifested in various fertility cults (no. 4). Eros must also be purified of its contemporary reduction to pure “sex,” which ultimately leads to the “debasement of the body” (no. 5).

Pope Benedict XVI points to Jesus Christ as the incarnate love of God, the Good Shepherd, who seeks his lost sheep with compassion (no. 12). As the incarnation of God’s love, Jesus makes the invisible Father visible (no. 17; cf. Jn 14:9). Moreover, he offers himself as an oblation on the Cross and, in the Eucharist, he gives “his very self, his body and blood as the new manna” (no. 13; cf. Jn 6:31-33). The Eucharist provides a basis for a “sacramental mysticism” (no. 13) realized in a special way by the Church as Christ’s body joined in the communion of the Eucharistic agape.

Pope Benedict emphasizes the Church’s responsibility to proclaim the word of God (kerygma-martyria); to celebrate the sacraments (leitourgia); and practice charity (diakonia) (no. 25).  In this regard, he notes that “the specific expressions of ecclesial charity can never be confused with the activity of the State” (no. 29). Christian charity must be rooted in the faith and marked by humility (no. 35), prayer (nos. 36-37), hope and patience (nos. 36-39). Authentic Christian charity will recognize hope “even in the face of apparent failure,” and it “accepts God’s mystery and trusts him even in times of darkness” (no. 39).

Pope Benedict points to saintly figures—Martin of Tours, Francis of Assisi, Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, and Teresa of Calcutta—as the “true bearers of light within history” (no. 40). Finally, he turns to Mary, the Mother of the Lord, as the “mirror of all holiness” (no. 41). He ends his encyclical with a prayer to Mary asking her “to show us Jesus” and to “teach us to know and love him, so that we too can become capable of true love” (no. 42).

Second Encyclical: Spe Salvi

Pope Benedict XVI’s second encyclical, Spe Salvi, takes its title from the Latin of the book of Romans, “Spe salvi facti sumus” (in hope we are saved). (Rom 8:24) In the opening sections, the Holy Father shows the close connection between faith and hope. Citing Peter, —“always be ready to give an answer concerning the logos—the meaning and reason—of your hope” (1 Pet 3:15)—he notes that hope, in many respects, is equivalent to faith (no. 2). Christian hope overcomes the despair of those who grieve because they have no hope (cf. 1 Thes 4:13). Hope “shapes our life in a new way” (no. 10).

Spe Salvi not only discusses hope in a theological sense, it also provides some historical examples. One example is St. Josephine Bakhita (c. 1869-1947), who lived as a slave in Sudan and suffered multiple beatings. After her conversion to Christ and liberation from slavery, she learned that the supreme Lord of the universe, unlike her previous “masters,” loved and cared for her (cf. no. 3). Thus, the Christian faith gave her hope and meaning in life.        

For Pope Benedict, hope must be nourished by prayer, which is a school of hope (nos. 32-34).  Hope provides solace to those who suffer injustice in this life because only God can establish justice beyond this life (43). Indeed, “a world without God is a world without hope” (cf. Eph 2:12; no. 44).      

Benedict discusses judgment after death with a particular focus on purgatory. For him, the fire of purgatory is a “blessed pain.” It is “the holy power of [God’s] love” that “sears through us like a flame,” and “the pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy” (47).

The encyclical ends by pointing to Mary as the star of hope (49-50). She is like a star of hope in the dark and stormy voyage of life (49), just as she was a source of faith and hope, “even in the darkness of Holy Saturday” (50).


Third Encyclical: Caritas in Veritate

Pope Benedict XVI’s final encyclical, Caritas in Veritate [CIV] is a major contribution to the social doctrine of the Church. It highlights four key points with regard to economics: (1) the influence of original sin; (2) the universal destination of the goods of the earth; (3) the need for justice in economics; and (4) the spirit of gift.

Original sin can incline man to believe that “he is the sole author of himself, his life and society” (CIV 34). The “pernicious effects” of original sin can move man “to confuse happiness and salvation with immanent forms of material prosperity and social action” and to believe “that the economy must be autonomous” and “shielded from the ‘influences’ of a moral character” (CIV, 34).

The unity of the human race (cf. Acts 17:26) provides the basis for “the universal destination of the goods of the earth,” a principle found in Aquinas (Summa theologica II-II, q. 66, a. 2, ad 1); and affirmed by Leo XIII (Rerum novarum, 19), Pius XI, (Quadragesimo anno, 58), Vatican II (Gaudium et spes, 69); Paul VI (Populorum progressio, 22) and John Paul II (Centesimus annus, 31). Because of the universal destination of the goods of the earth, we must transcend economic projects “that are self-centered, protectionist or at the service of private interests” (CIV, 42). The pursuit of justice in economics requires that the market economy should be subject not only to commutative justice—“which regulates the relations of giving and receiving between parties to a transaction” (CIV, 35; cf. CCC, 2411)—but also to “distributive justice and social justice” (CIV, 35).

The Christian approach to economics must go beyond contracts, regulations, and laws. It must involve “works redolent of the spirit of gift” (CIV, 37).  The spirit of gift enables economic life to be authentically human and rooted in solidarity and justice. Charity is the hidden power behind solidarity, “which is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone” (CIV, 38). Charity also moves us beyond “the binary model of market-plus-State” and reminds us that, “business activity has a human significance” (CIV, 41). The spirit of gift motivates “types of economic initiative which, without rejecting profit, aim at a higher goal than the mere logic of the exchange of equivalents, of profit as an end in itself” (CIV, 38).

The three encyclicals of Benedict XVI are grounded in the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. They provide inspiration and hope in the midst of violence and sin; and they direct us towards Christ, the Incarnate Love of God, who is the true hope of the world.  

Dr. Robert Fastiggi is the Bishop Kevin M. Britt Chair of Dogmatic Theology and Christology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

by Dr. Robert Fastiggi

Dr. Robert Fastiggi

Dr. Robert Fastiggi is professor of systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.