Strictures of Secularism

Did I read the same papal writing as The New York Times? I assume so. Yes, the Times of Jan. 25 did refer to “Benedict’s first encyclical.” But then there was the article’s headline, proclaiming that the document “Shuns Strictures of Orthodoxy.”

How to understand this curious phrase? The article stated that the Holy Father “issued an erudite meditation on love and charity … that presented Roman Catholicism’s potential for good rather than imposing firm, potentially divisive rules for orthodoxy.” It noted (with apparent surprise) that the encyclical “did not mention abortion, homosexuality, contraception or divorce, issues that often divide Catholics.”

Aha! So “orthodoxy” is apparently imposing, divisive, tough-minded and obsessed with closely monitoring the sexual activities and marital situations of Catholics. The article explained that, before becoming Pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger “was often seen as a divisive figure, lauded by conservative Catholics for his devotion to orthodoxy and criticized by liberal ones for not sharing their vision for a changing, more modern Church.”

But there is hope, Times readers were told, because “Benedict’s elaboration on love and charity was largely praised across the Church on Wednesday as a document that sought to express what is common to all Catholics.” Yes, that’s true — common to all Catholics who are orthodox. That is — to quote from Cardinal Ratzinger’s Truth and Tolerance — to those who seek “to know and to practice the right way in which God wishes to be glorified,” which is how he defines “orthodoxy” in that excellent book.

This is significant because the Pope begins Deus Caritas Est by pointing out that it has two main parts: the first one more “speculative” and concerned with “some essential facts concerning the love that God mysteriously and gratuitously offers to man, together with the intrinsic link between that Love and the reality of human love.”

The second part is “more concrete,” dealing with the Church’s work of demonstrating true love in the real world.” In other words, the first part presents an orthodox, theological reflection on the nature and meaning of love, while the second part explains how this love is to be practiced and lived. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Right thinking and right living. Godly thinking and godly living.

The problem with a secularist reading of the encyclical is that it obsessively searches for political agendas and ideological bullet points while being tone deaf to pastoral persuasion and theological nuance. It therefore misses how full of orthodoxy and doctrine the encyclical really is.

Benedict writes: “From the standpoint of creation, eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond that is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfill its deepest purpose.” If that isn’t clear enough, the Holy Father elaborates: “Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love.”

There is a loving logic to the Church’s teachings about homosexuality, contraception and divorce. Perhaps the Times would understand, if only the strictures of secularism weren’t so opposed to both logic and love.

Carl E. Olson is editor of