Benedict's First Encyclical The Pope's Labor of Love

Some had expected a treatise on the dangers of moral relativism. Others thought the new pontiff's first encyclical would focus on the pitfalls of the modern world. But love? Pope Benedict XVI tells all.

Pope Benedict XVI has love on his mind.

Pope Benedict XVI has love on his mind.

It's dozens of pages long, reminiscent of a university thesis and complete with references to Nietzsche and Marx. But the document, clear, easy to understand and powerful, is Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical. It is entitled "Deus Caritas Est" -- God Is Love. "In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant," the pope writes. It's the document's only reference to Islamism and terrorism. The rest is about love, love, and more love.

A new pope's first encyclical -- the most important form of papal writing -- is seen as a pontiff's manifesto and indicates the main topics and points he will focus on during his time at the head of the Catholic Church. In 1979, Pope John Paul II's first encyclical -- called "Redemptor Hominis" -- was a plea for universal human rights and was clearly a message intended for the Soviet Union. From the current pope, however, many had expected a polemic against the "dictatorship of relativism" in the vein of many of his previous speeches.

Instead, Benedict XVI has decided to follow directly in the steps of his predecessor. Until just before his death, John Paul II had been working on an encyclical about Christian love. Benedict XVI's treatise, addressed to "men and women religious and all the lay faithful," completes that project and begins with a reference to love as "one of the most frequently used and misused of words."

The body as a commodity

The pope dedicates much effort to distinguishing "eros," or erotic love, from "agape," which is spiritutual love. "Eros, that love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings" -- is a gift of God. Love, he writes, is the promise of infinity and eternity and cannot be attained "simply by submitting to instinct." The body, of course, cannot be rejected "as pertaining to ... animal nature alone," but for true Eros "purification and growth in maturity are called for; and these also pass through the path of renunciation." Eros, Benedict continues, "reduced to pure 'sex,' has become a commodity, a mere 'thing' to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity." More 1950s, in other words, and less 1960s.

The German-born pope formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger is as radical as he is thorough. He could have written about the dangers of globalization, about genetic engineering, Darwinism or of course about his "dictatorship of relativism." But this pope cares more about detail than about publicity. He is more concerned with establishing truth than he is about creating spectacles. Benedict XVI would rather write about love.

"Deus Caritas Est." It doesn't get any simpler or more radical than that. In his text, the pope confronts head on Protestant adversity to the body. Eros, the covetous love, and agape, the altruistic love, cannot be separated, he writes. Love does not merely serve reproduction, but rather is "concern and care for the other." At this point in his encyclical, the pope refers to the Old Testament "Song of Songs," perhaps the most sensual sentence in the entire Bible.

But before getting his readers too atwitter, the pope quickly turns it down a notch to make it clear he's only talking about one type of erotic love -- that between a man and his wife in the marriage bed. "From the standpoint of creation," the pope writes, "eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfil its deepest purpose." A God, a husband and his wife. It may not quite represent the most up-to-date ideas of gender research -- much less the scenes in some seminaries -- but it does have the advantage of dogmatic precision.

On charity and the Church

A meditation on the Gospel of Luke -- the function of charity as a "practical commitment here and now" -- leads to part two of the encyclical: "Love is 'divine' because it comes from God and unites us to God; through this unifying process it makes us a 'we' which transcends our divisions and makes us one."

The function of the Church is charitable activity. Caritas. And Benedict XVI isn't just talking about charitableness in a worldly sense, but rather the institutional expression of God's love for his creation: "Within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life." In other words, ministry is the Catholic Church's core competency. "In today's complex situation," the pope writes, "not least because of the growth of a globalized economy, the Church's social doctrine has become a set of fundamental guidelines."

The pope also took on globalization.

The pope also took on globalization.

Ratzinger also takes a look at one theme that he developed in his debate with the philosopher Jürgen Habermas: the role of faith in reason. "Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly." The Church, he continues, "cannot and must not take upon itself  the political battle." Rather, it must constantly be a reminder to the state of justice -- "both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics."

And in a seeming nod to the neoconservatives, he adds: "We do not need a state which regulates and controls everything, but a state which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need." Even within the Church, the pope assures us, rules are never an end in themselves, rather they must be borne by the spirit of selfless love.


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