Reviews of

Tätige Nächstenliebe in Werk und Wirken Gregors des Grossen

In Arnold Smeets, Gregory the Great, Mohr Siebeck, Patristics, Susanne Barth on June 9, 2022 at 9:47 pm

2022.06.07 | Susanne Barth. Tätige Nächstenliebe in Werk und Wirken Gregors des Grossen. Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum 122. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2021. ISBN 978-3-16-156303-4. pp. xiii, 449.

Review by Arnold Smeets, Tilburg School of Catholic Theology, Utrecht.

The English title of this book, as mentioned on the publisher’s website: Acts of Charity in the Works and Endeavours of Gregory the Great, is clear enough, but, I think, misses an important point. Susanne Barth’s book is not just on the acts of charity but more on active charity. Gregory the Great was focused on doing charity, making the difference, both in words and in deeds. His diaconal-caritative theology of active neighbourly love (‘eine diakonisch-karitative Theologie der tätigen Nächstenliebe’, 392), is not so much an effect of a vision after studying and contemplating Scripture, but more the foundation, inspiration and blueprint of how he saw his mission as a Christian Roman and (later) bishop of Rome.

Barth aims to investigate both the ideal and the praxis of neighbourly love as thought of and performed by Gregory the Great. This is not only helpful for our understanding of Gregory the Great but will also provide a deeper understanding (‘paradigmatischer Einblick’, 6) in the development of caritative institutions in the West in the 6th and 7th centuries: an era of turmoil in Italy, when the empire’s clout slowly faded and the ecclesiastical institutions became more and more the stable structures of civic administration.

The study is well structured in seven chapters and three leading questions. In between chapters 1 (Introduction) and 7 (Conclusion), chapters 2 to 4 sketch the historical context, respectively focusing on 6th century Italy, Gregory’s biography and on the Late Antique praxis of and theology on charity. Chapter four concludes with an excursus on Augustine, whom Gregory read very well and followed, be it not in everything. Chapter four also introduces and explores the three leading questions: (1) what were the forms of ecclesiastical caritas and how where they financed, (2) what was the theological rational and (3) what was the terminology used for Christian practices of care and support. The exploration of these questions illustrates the context and forms the décor of both Gregory’s theology and his actions as bishop of Rome in chapters 5 and 6, which form the heart of this study. Chapter 5, the longest chapter, is on Gregory’s written works, chapter 6 explores his praxis of caritas during his pontificate.

Chapter 5 Das Ideal der tätigen Nächstenliebe im literarischen Werk Gregors has seven sections, six for each of Gregory’s main literary works and one formulating the results of this chapter (Zwischenfazit). The three leading questions, mentioned above, are taken up in each section as a kind of grid. In this way the reader can follow the development of Gregory’s thoughts and theology in time and in relation to the standing theological tradition and ecclesiastical practices of charity.

The sections on the individual works each have a subtitle, which hint at what Barth considers their main focus. The Commentary on Song of Songs is characterized as a ‘path to a mystical vision of God’, the Pastoral Rule is on ‘the service to God and one’s neighbour’. In the Homilies on the Gospels, the Church is presented as a multifaceted community. The four books of Dialogues present outstanding persons to follow and give us a glimpse of sound institutions of charity (in 6th century Italy). The Homilies on Ezekiel inspire the reader to follow the examples (of the saints). In Morals on Job, the bottom line is to be a benefit to one’s neighbour in both heart and mouth. The works are presented in their chronological order of writing. Barth makes the explicit decision to read Morals in its final edition of 595 (and not the first draft based on the oral expositions in Constantinople), making the opus magnus Gregory the Great’s final word on a theology on leadership, charity and the Golden Rule.

The Commentary is perhaps Gregory’s most traditional work, although Barth observes a certain disquiet with the concept of the vita contemplativa, which is the Sitz im Leben of his first work. In Gregory’s ponderings, Barth notices an implicit sense of responsibility towards the Church and mankind (76). Gregory’s next work, the Pastoral Rule, is written in a different context. Gregory is a bishop now and his audience are those who share responsibilities like his. Pastoral Rule exemplifies the tension between the (monastic) vita contemplativa and the vita activa, which impact and claims Gregory simply cannot avoid to act upon. But a truly pastoral ethos cannot do without contemplation as a guideline and inspiration. It is precisely the deeper spiritual understanding, given by prayer and contemplation and studying Scripture, that is the crux for Gregory’s vision on leadership. Being spiritually advanced is not a privilege but a responsibility. A twofold responsibility in fact, both to preach and to practice neighbourly love according to Jesus’ command. Given the manyfold responsibilities of a bishop, it is important to share the burden and delegate tasks and duties, so that the bishop involves talented others (a certain ‘professionalisieren’, 101) in his service, and he can focus on his main task of guiding the souls of his flock (‘Seelenführung’, 101).

The forty Homilies on the Gospels are an example of the latter. Gregory teaches, corrects and inspires the faithful to caritas, be it in the form of alms or silent prayers. The tone of his sermons illustrates that Gregory is thinking in terms of changes and possibilities. His eschatological preferences do not make him a preacher of doom. In a sense, his preaching aims at community building; he addresses the whole of Rome, in a response to the crises the Urbs had to face, melting together traditional romanitas with christianitas. An important aspect in the homilies is what Barth describes as a democratisation of salvation: everyone is able to do good works. Salvation is not reserved for those who live the life of a stern ascetic. Anybody can do good in God’s eyes and it is not the act itself, however grand or small, that makes the difference but the intention with which it is done. The exampla and conversation in Dialogues not only intend to comfort the audience in their time of trouble, but also call them to follow Gregory’s advice and the examples of holy men, in order to live well and aim at a life eternal in the patria caelestis. However miraculous the deeds of holy men, the good intentions of any of the faithful and even the smallest of good works, are sufficient before God and helpful for the fate of one’s soul in the here-after, as becomes clear in book four of Dialogues on the care of the soul and the care for the dying and dead.

The troubles of the time are not just readable between the lines but in the text itself in the Homilies on Ezekiel. Written in about the same period as Dialogues, Gregory shares his worries with the community of monks for whom the homilies are held. More than before, the Homilies on Ezekiel formulate a diaconal theology. As in the Homilies on the Gospels, Gregory stresses the democratic aspect of salvation. His monastic audience is bound to understand that only a vita mixta is an option; illustrative is that Gregory adds the virtue of operatio to the Pauline trias of faith, love and hope.

And then Gregory’s opus magnum. Morals on Job began as (oral) expositions in Constantinople (ca. 587) and were edited back in Rome and when Gregory was bishop until the editing was completed in 595. The phases of editing coincided with the writing of his other works, except the Commentary on Song of Songs. In that sense, Morals on Job is a node of themes which also are presented and developed in Dialogues, the homilies and Pastoral Rule. It its finished version, Morals should to be read in relation to the early experiences of Gregory as bishop of Rome. It is not, as Barth observes, a mystical work as often assumed, but a pragmatic work, formulating both vision, mission and blueprint for a pontificate (‘…eine bislang kaum beobachtete pragmatische Kybernetik, die auf den eigenen Erfahrungshorizont des Autors schliessen lässt’, 269).

Based on a reading of the eight hundred plus letters of Gregory the Great, Chapter 6 makes clear that Gregory the Great’s pontificate was an example of ‘practice what you preach’. In line with his spiritual and theological convictions, he tirelessly helped the poor and victims of war and suppression, invested in good governance and in the administration of the patrimonium pauperum, and strove for peace, orthodoxy and mission. As bishop of Rome, he is very much in the lead and takes the initiative to act, steer, correct, admonish or decree. The utilitas proximi is a key notion in his leadership and in his instructions the rectores, suffragan bishops and others, and this in combination with the idea of reciprocal service. Important too are his political realism and a well-developed sense for what is needed given (changing) circumstances.

Gregory’s deep-felt spirituality (see Chapter 5) forms a diptych with his actions as bishop (in Chapter 6). There is (apart from in his idea of spiritual leadership) a reciprocity between convictions and actions, where the mission inspires and guides the long-term vision, and the vision is related to a well-developed sense of (political and diplomatic) realism.

Chapter 7 ‘Synthesis’, functions as a hinge between chapters 5 and 6 and concludes the book, formulating the main results in light of the Sitz im Leben of the study itself: Gregory’s historical context in 6th century Italy and especially during his pontificate.

Apparently, Gregory the Great experienced a steep learning curve during his years as monk. Barth points at the real difference between Gregory’s Commentary on Song of Songs (written soon after he founded his monastic community on the Caelius Hill, 574) and his later works a decade or two later (590-595). As a monk Gregory pondered on a contemplative life, but soon enough and in the context of his own pontificate, he developed a discourse and a praxis of vita mixta. I got the impression that Gregory’s initial ideal was caught up by the realities of his day and age and his sense of romanitas.

His diaconal-caritative theology of active neighbourly love formulates a pastoral program to engage those bearing responsibility to meet the signs of the times, and more specifically the needs of Rome in the post-Justinian political and economic context. As Rome’s pastor, he felt it his responsibility to engage all in the Urbs for the welfare and wellbeing – both physical and spiritual – of all Romans. Hence, in an activating understanding of the Golden Rule, Gregory focusses on community as a whole and the reciprocity of spiritual leadership, and he develops the concept of a democratization of salvation and, by extension, the appreciation of intent (intentio) and of ‘doing’ (operatio) as the fourth theological virtue.

During the book, Augustine functions as a kind of benchmark in the description and appreciation of Gregory’s theology and praxis by Barth (especially section 4.4 on Augustine’s views on charity, 54-63). Both are well-experienced bishops. Barth seems to favour Augustine because of the consistency of his teaching on grace, where Gregory’s theology is one of tension and ambivalence. See for instance on page 137 where Barth remarks that because Gregory was convinced that good works are able to directly influence the coming judgement, he inevitably comes into contrast with the consistent teaching on grace of his teacher Augustine (‘Mit der Überzeugung, das kommende Urteil durch gute Werke direct beeinflüssen zu können, gerät Gregor allerdings zwangsläufig in einen Gegensatz zur konsequenten Gnadelehre seines Lehrers Augustin.’). Barth then remarks that Gregory repeatedly positions himself in the tension between divine grace and human works without resolving it (137). Perhaps, this is his strong-point. Given human nature and given the urgency of the Golden Rule in pressing times, as during the 6th century certainly was the case, not resolving a theological tension kept all options open for intentio, operatio and utilitas proximi. Hence too his willingness to compromise (which Barth admires: ‘beindruckende Komprosmissbereitschaft’, 389), based on a (church)political realism and a clear vision on his mission. In this way perhaps, Gregory was able to maintain an openness for God’s intentio and operatio in God’s care for mankind. Then again, there is of course a real difference between the 4th and the 6th century and between Roman North Africa and post-Justinian Rome.

The clear structure of Barth’s book, provides for a comprehensive view on the development of Gregory’s theology and the coherence of his preaching and his policies as bishop of Rome. The clear structure provides the reader as well with a comprehensive logic for the many quotes from Gregory’s writings. The book gave at least this reader a deeper understanding of Gregory’s thoughts, position and impact as bishop of Rome and patriarch of the West. He was indeed a consul of God. To conclude this review, I share with you two of my new favorite German words. The verb ahnden (to sanction, to punish) and the adverb nichtsdestotrotz (nonetheless).

Arnold Smeets
Tilburg School of Catholic Theology, Utrecht
a.a.m.smeets [at]


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