Pope Benedict XVI has proved a surprise for supporters and critics alike. Who, after all, would have predicted that the supposedly timid Bavarian would sport a fluffy fur cap at Christmas time?
When Joseph Ratzinger was elected to succeed John Paul II as pope last April, many expected a firebrand. In keeping with his reputation as the severe watchdog of Catholic doctrine, Ratzinger was anticipated to be an ecclesiastical house-cleaner, drawing lines in the sand and summarily cutting out dead wood.
Contrary to expectations, however, Benedict has left the Roman curia — the central administration of the Catholic Church — virtually untouched, has taken no disciplinary action against wayward theologians, and even appointed a relatively liberal San Francisco archbishop to be his successor as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Wednesday's release of the pope’s first encyclical letter will only further befuddle those seeking to pigeonhole Benedict as a doctrinal hardliner and disciplinarian. Vatican watchers emphasize the importance of a pope’s first encyclical — a teaching letter of highest papal authority — as a reliable indicator of the tone and direction a given pontificate will take.
Benedict’s choice of “love” as the topic for this important statement hardly squares with his moniker as “God’s Rottweiler.”
Hoping to rehabilitate the word ‘love’
Poetically, this encyclical coincides with Benedict’s nine-month anniversary as pope, eliciting unavoidable comparisons with childbirth. Benedict’s firstborn takes the form of a 71-page reflection, notably shorter than John Paul’s encyclicals, which regularly were double that length. Though a small baby by modern standards, the encyclical tackles tough questions and makes up in depth what it lacks in breadth.
“God Is Love” (“Deus Caritas Est)” takes its title from a New Testament verse attributed to Saint John (1 John 4:16), one of Jesus’ twelve apostles and author of the fourth gospel account. Benedict uses the citation as a point of departure for his affirmation of the centrality of love in the Christian life as a sum of the commandments and heart of the gospel message.
The word “love,” Benedict recently stated when previewing the encyclical in Rome, “is so tarnished, so spoiled and so abused, that one is almost afraid to pronounce it.” At the same time, he said, “it is a primordial word, an expression of the primordial reality, and we cannot simply abandon it. We must take it up again, purify it and give back to it its original splendor.” Such was the purpose of this first teaching letter.
The rehabilitation of love, Benedict notes, requires a return to its divine origins. To understand the nature of love, we must look to God who is love itself. Christian theology sees the human person as created in the image and likeness of God. Loving and being loved is the very meaning of human existence. Therefore, the rediscovery of love means the rediscovery of humanity.
Human nature of ‘eros’
In this encyclical, Benedict expressly “wished to show the humanity of faith, of which ‘eros’ forms part,” and encouraged men and women to say “yes” to their bodily nature created by God. In his encyclical, in fact, Benedict rejects a polarization of “eros” (desiring love) and “agape” (self-giving love), as if eros were pagan and agape Christian, and argues instead that these two types of love are intermingled. “Eros,” he says, “is rooted in man’s very nature.”
At the same time, Benedict seeks to rescue love from cheap counterfeits. Love can simply be another name for selfishness and desire, or a fleeting sentiment of attraction. Benedict endeavors to get beyond shallow notions of love to reach its deeper meaning. To this end, Benedict draws from distinctions made by the Anglican apologist and literary scholar C. S. Lewis in his 1960 classic “The Four Loves.” To become fully human, Benedict declares, “eros” must mature into “agape” — the Christian notion of charity or self-giving to others, modeled on Christ’s redeeming sacrifice. It isn’t enough for us to “feel” love, we must “choose” love as a free decision.
Charitable nature of love
The new encyclical is divided into two parts. The first deals with the nature of love — what it means and what it doesn’t. The second part of the letter, however, deals with the charitable nature of the Church as a community of believers. Love “cannot remain as something merely individual, but, on the contrary, must also become an essential act of the Church as community.”
Reaching out to the vulnerable and needy — Benedict declares — is not optional. Christian charitable outreach stems from the very nature of the Church. Belief is not belief unless expressed in love for God and for others. Christ’s prediction that his followers would be known for their love must bear fruit in real, practical action.
Active aid in the form of hospitals, lazarettos, soup kitchens and care for the homeless makes up an integral part of the Christian tradition. Yet such aid, Benedict argues, goes well beyond mere philanthropy.
Charitable commitment not only alleviates human misery, but also makes God visible in the world. God himself pushes us in our interior to compassion, and in this way we take God himself to the suffering world.
There will be critics, but a message of hope
Critics may find Benedict’s first encyclical overly lofty. Others may wish that he had touched on more media-friendly hot button issues, such as sexual ethics, contraception, abortion or bioethical questions.
Still, all will undoubtedly concede that in this letter Benedict has gone to the heart of the Christian message, both in its essential grounding and in its more practical consequences and challenges.
Benedict has used his first big teaching moment to convey a message of hope. Rather than an “everybody get in line” message, the encyclical focuses on the love of God that all of us are called both to accept and to imitate.
If, as many suspect, this first encyclical sets forth Benedict’s papal “mission statement,” we can expect more surprises as this pontificate continues.
NBC Vatican analyst Father Thomas D. Williams, L.C., is dean of theology at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University.