Love, Vatican Style

  • Share
  • Read Later
The title of Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical, "God Is Love," might suggest a religious twist on a late Beatles song, but to those who know the life's work of Professor Joseph Ratzinger, the 72-page document "Deus Caritas Est" carries the imprint of an exceptionally clear-minded and utterly convinced Catholic theologian.

As the title of the first comprehensive theological teaching of Benedict's papacy suggests, there is little grist for those looking for controversy or doctrinal bombshells. Yes, the Pope confronts modern sexuality, declaring that "'sex' has become a commodity," and even takes a parting slap at Marxism in his defense of a Christian vision of good works. But the message is ultimately a clear and simple call for Christian love and charity. Popes typically use their first encyclicals, the most authoritative form of Church writing, to set the tone for their reign rather than to spark debate or overhaul Catholic teachings. With this work, released Wednesday by top Vatican officials, the pontiff may have once and for all moved beyond the caricature painted by his opponents of a cold and rigid doctrinal enforcer from his quarter-century as John Paul II's chief of orthodoxy.

Citing the First Letter of John as the source for the work's title, Benedict lays out his simple vision of Christian faith. "'We have come to believe in God's love': in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction."

The pontiff-theologian then dissects the two categories of Christian love: "eros" (erotic love) and "agape" (spiritual love). Modern society, he argues, has debased eros, put sex up for sale, and defied the singularity of monogamous man-woman love. "Eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence," he writes. He concludes that eros and agape ultimately share a single destiny. "Love is indeed 'ecstasy,' not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God."

Benedict thus connects his initial reflections on love to the second part of the document, which focuses on charity. Here he has a message not just for individual believers, but for the Church as a whole. "As a community, the Church must practice love," he concludes. In practical terms, Benedict uses the document to reaffirm that the Church must not "replace the State," which must be responsible for caring for the needy and creating a just society. "The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible," he writes. "But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside." He said Catholics doing good works need not proselytize in the process, but added that "a Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love speak alone."

Despite Benedict's references to modern sexual mores, the encyclical does not single out the issues of birth control, homosexuality, divorce or married priests. At Wednesday's presentation of the encyclical, veteran Vatican correspondent Marco Tosatti asked Archbishop William Levada whether a reference to the Eucharist was a sign that Benedict was reconsidering Church policy that denies communion to divorced and remarried Catholics. Levada, who has Ratzinger's old job as the Vatican's top doctrinal official, politely told Tosatti he was reaching. "I hadn't even considered it before your question," he said. Though he has already said that he plans to issue far fewer documents than his predecessor, one might expect a future Benedict encyclical to address emerging questions in the field of bioethics, a topic he's raised several times in public remarks since his election last April. The old caricature of the "panzer cardinal" may indeed be fading, but the Pope's opponents will no doubt have their chances to rejoin the doctrinal battles anew.

Still, Ratzinger's writings—dating back to his seminal 1968 work "Introduction to Christianity," in which he confronts many of the same themes addressed in "Deus Caritas Est"—stand out for their depth of thought and clarity of prose. He never shies away from confronting the modern challenges to faith head-on, rendering his work relevant for believer and non-believer alike. An avid Mozart fan, the new Pope might even be open to the message from the old Beatles' song "All You Need is Love." He would insist, of course, on ergo to the title: "All You Need Is God."