In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), Pope Benedict XVI draws the faithful, and all people of good will, back to the divine wellspring of Love that nourishes every human heart, quoting 1 John 4: “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us.”

As the Church in the United States reels from the events of the past month and ponders their potential implications for the free exercise of our religious institutions, it’s time to pause and examine the thinking that has led to the inclusion of contraception as a necessary “preventive service” for women. Further, a deeper reflection — set apart from the media headlines and Internet action alerts — necessitates a look at what it means to truly believe that “God is love.”

In the wake of the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the birth-control pill in 1960, Church leaders have struggled to uphold Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth) and the unbreakable bond between the unitive and procreative dimensions of the “one flesh” union of a man and a woman blessed by God.

The Church has held firm to her teaching, despite having been criticized for intruding into the intimate decisions made by individuals in the privacy of their bedrooms.

Now, church-affiliated institutions have been asked to fund and facilitate the use of contraception. The HHS mandate deems contraception and sterilization to be necessary “preventive services for women.” Contraception paves the way for “healthy women and healthy babies,” we have been told. Contraception keeps medical costs down, the president said, when he outlined his “accommodation” on Feb. 10.

At its root, this aggressive promotion of contraception and sterilization is anti-life and deeply hostile to the procreation and education of children.

In contrast, by example and teaching, Catholics and their leaders must affirm that a responsible openness to new life is an integral, reciprocal response to the God who is love.

At its core, the contraception mindset arises from a sterile assertion of radical individualism that views the other as a danger to self-actualization. The HHS mandate requires the active promotion of contraception as a social good, and this president has sought to tempt insurance companies to embrace what he termed an “accommodation” by asserting that contraception will save them the future expense of prenatal care and delivery services in hospitals.

Perhaps, one day, those who choose to ignore state-facilitated contraception will be forced to cover the full costs of childbirth without the benefit of state-subsidized health insurance. Whether these “cost savings” will secure the future of Social Security is another matter for another budget.

In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Blessed John Paul II describes the “emergence of a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable ‘culture of death.’ This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency.”

The Holy Father notes that the use of contraception fosters this culture of death. True, he acknowledges the moral distinction between contraception and abortion, and he notes the difficult social circumstances that gave rise to the use of artificial birth control. But he also marks the close connection between contraception and abortion and observes that these practices are rooted in a “hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality, and they imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfillment. The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to failed contraception.” The true antidote to the culture of death is the God of love, who draws forth our reciprocal love.

In Deus Caritas Est, Benedict writes that “the love which God mysteriously and gratuitously offers to man” is the wellspring for all authentic human love. This love is unconditional, superabundant and available to all who thirst for it. Our God asks us not to retreat from the demands and fruits of love — in whatever form they may take — but to embrace them and thus foster a “civilization of love.”

We face a long Lent ahead of us. So let us ponder the Holy Father’s 2012 Lenten reflection. He asks us to transcend selfishness and individualism and to follow the path of the first disciples of the God of love.

Benedict warns the faithful to resist a materialist ethos that reduces human “life exclusively to its earthly dimension [and] accepts any moral choice in the name of personal freedom.”

This thinking generates a culture that “can become blind to physical sufferings and to the spiritual and moral demands of life. This must not be the case in the Christian community.” In citing a verse from St. Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews, 10:24 — “Let us be concerned for each other, to stir a response in love and good works” — he asks Catholics to reject a pattern of behavior characterized by “an indifference and disinterest born of selfishness and masked as a respect for ‘privacy.’”

Instead, he proposes that we “recognize in others a true ‘alter ego,’ infinitely loved by the Lord” — not a threat to our individual autonomy.

With Lent in mind, let us follow his guidance: “This is a favorable time to renew our journey of faith, both as individuals and as a community, with the help of the word of God and the sacraments. This journey is one marked by prayer and sharing, silence and fasting, in anticipation of the joy of Easter.”