How did “God’s Rottweiler” become the Valentine Pope?

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI after his April 19 election, National Public Radio described him as “rigid” and “doctrinaire.” Reuters called him “strict” and “divisive.”

Less than a year later, after the promulgation of his first encyclical, God Is Love (Deus Caritas Est), headlines are coming to a different conclusion. “Persuasion Rather Than Stern Reminders in Papal Reflections on Love,” said the Sydney Morning Herald. “An Unexpected Letter of Love From the Pope to His Church,” said Canada’s Globe and Mail.

But those who have actually read the Pope’s words all along shouldn’t have been surprised by the encyclical at all.

In his homily before being elected Pope, the most talked-about phrase was Cardinal Ratzinger’s denunciation of “the dictatorship of relativism.” Many expected his papacy to focus on intellectual battles in the Church.

But even his “dictatorship of relativism” homily wasn’t mainly about the dictatorship of relativism. Its main theme was friendship with Jesus. Cardinal Ratzinger defined friendship with the old Roman phrase about friends, idem velle — idem nolle (same desires, same dislikes), and applied it to our love for Christ.

Far from being a new direction, his new encyclical quotes the same Latin phrase to make the same point about what our relationship with God should look like (only he adds a word: Idem velle atque idem nolle [to want the same thing and to reject the same thing]).

That phrase targets the fundamental mistake many people make about Christianity. They think of it as a system of doctrines and rules instead of a love relationship with a real person.

Pope Benedict sums up this misunderstanding at the beginning of his encyclical: “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.”

He says later, “The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ himself, who gives flesh and blood to those concepts — an unprecedented realism.”

It’s in fleshing out that idea that Pope Benedict gives us one of the encyclical’s most radical passages. He uses the word eros — which is associated with human romantic love — to describe God’s love for mankind.

God loves his people “with a personal love,” he says. “His love, moreover, is an elective love: Among all the nations he chooses Israel and loves her — but he does so precisely with a view to healing the whole human race. God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape,” that is, the self-giving love we normally associate with God.

This divine eros is why the Old Testament writers “described God’s passion for his people using boldly erotic images,” writes the Pope.

God is so taken by this love he has for us that he arranges for his relationship with us to be like our own romantic relationships, writes the Pope. He does this by sending his Son, Christ, to live among us, remain with us in the Eucharist and enter into us in Communion.

“The imagery of marriage between God and Israel is now realized in a way previously inconceivable,” writes Benedict, “it becomes union with God through sharing in Jesus’ self-gift, sharing in his body and blood.”

This love relationship is so real, writes the Holy Father, that we are deceiving ourselves if we think we are joining in this love relationship with God but aren’t going to church.  But we’re also kidding ourselves, he adds, if we think that by being “devout” and performing our “religious duties” we can love God. The Pope calls such a relationship “loveless.”

 “Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well,” he says at the beginning of the encyclical’s second part, about the Church’s charitable works. “Only if I serve my neighbor can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me.”

It sounds commonplace until you zero in on the “only.” If we Catholics get this, we can turn Benedict’s love letter to us into a love letter from Catholics to secular society.

Maybe that’s why Benedict addressed this encyclical only to Catholics. He wants us to be the ones to address it to the rest of the world.