SURPRISED BY LOVE: Pope Benedict’s First Encyclical Letter

Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical addressed itself to the foundations of the Christian faith, and took as its title St. John’s brief summary of the nature of the divine: “God is Love,” or in the Latin, Deus caritas est.

The inaugural encyclical broke with recent tradition in that it did not lay out a particular theme or program for Benedict’s pontificate. Indeed, Vatican reports confirmed that it was something of a hybrid — a first part written personally by Benedict on the nature of love, and a second part constructed from drafts prepared for the late Pope John Paul II on concrete acts of charity in the life of the Church.

Much of the reaction to the encyclical focused on the surprising choice of topic.

“Since his election, Pope Benedict has proved a surprise for supporters and critics alike,” said Legionary Father Thomas Williams, dean of theology at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University. “When Joseph Ratzinger was elected to succeed John Paul II as Pope last April, many expected a firebrand and ecclesiastical house-cleaner. This hasn’t been the case. Today’s release of the Pope’s first encyclical letter will only further befuddle those seeking to pigeonhole Benedict as a doctrinal hard-liner and disciplinarian. Benedict has used his first big teaching moment to convey a message of hope. Rather than an ‘everybody get in line’ message, Deus Caritas Est focuses on the love of God that all of us are called both to accept and to imitate.”

Benedict’s key message is that unless we come to know God as the one who loves us, we fail to grasp what is at the heart of the Christian faith.

Benedict notes that in a world afflicted by violence committed in the name of God, and in a culture that sees the Gospel as something that snuffs the excitement out of life, it is necessary to return to the foundational truths: The human person has a natural and insuppressible desire to love and be loved.

Here is found an echo of the famous phrase from Pope John Paul II’s first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Man, 1979): “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being incomprehensible for himself; his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him.”

Deus Caritas Est opens with a sustained, lyrical, but dense exposition of what love is. It will require reading at least several times to plumb the full depth of a Ratzingerian tour de force of classical, philosophical and biblical sources on the nature of love.

The central point is that one kind of love — which the Greeks called eros — has a possessive nature that requires the possession of the beloved by the lover. This erotic love, if not purified, can seek to dominate the other and ends up reducing the other as a mere object of desire.

Eros, reduced to pure ‘sex,’ has become a commodity, a mere ‘thing’ to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity.”

The answer is not to eliminate eros, which is good in itself, but to complement and complete it with another type of love, for which the Greek New Testament uses the word agape. Agape is self-sacrificing love, in which the lover offers himself for the good of the beloved. The deepest revelation of God’s love is precisely this agape, in which Jesus on the cross lays down his life for those he loves.

This is the nature of God’s love for us. He wishes to possess us (eros), but at the same time is willing to sacrifice all for us (agape). Human love — whether between friends, neighbors, or in the closest image of God’s love, marriage — is called to be this kind of self-giving, sacrificial love.

“Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa,” writes Benedict. “God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love.”

The cross of Christ reveals that the measure of love is sacrifice, a truth that any good parent already knows. But that love is not only for the family, the community or the nation.

“The parable of the Good Samaritan offers two particularly important clarifications,” writes Benedict. “Until that time, the concept of ‘neighbor’ was understood as referring essentially to one’s countrymen and to foreigners who had settled in the land of Israel; in other words, to the closely knit community of a single country or people.

“This limit is now abolished. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbor,” he continues. “The concept of ‘neighbor’ is now universalized, yet it remains concrete. Despite being extended to all mankind, it is not reduced to a generic, abstract and undemanding expression of love, but calls for my own practical commitment here and now.”

With those observations, Benedict devotes the second part of Deus Caritas Est to the Church’s obligation to do charitable work. Surveying the vast international array of Christian charitable projects, he holds up Blessed Teresa of Calcutta as a model to follow because she insisted all her charitable work was an overflow of her love for Jesus. She loved the unlovely because she loved Jesus, and he loved them.

The “decisive direction” of a Christian life, he writes, is the practice of charity, which he says is as fundamental to the Church as proclaiming the word of God or celebrating the sacraments.

“For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity that could equally well be left to others, but it is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.”

However, the Church cannot and must not take it upon itself to bring about a just society.

“A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church,” the Holy Father writes. “She cannot and must not replace the state. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.”

That motivation must remain always primary — Christian love must animate all charitable work. In short, Benedict does not think Christians should be mere humanitarians. Their service to their fellow human beings is a Christian obligation, especially when offered to non-Christians with no desire for proselytism.

And because the world can never outgrow its need for love, Benedict writes that charity will always have a place. It will not be superseded by reforming economic systems or by pursuing social justice. Those things have their place, but they cannot replace love, which, Benedict insists, man needs more than anything else.

Former Rome Correspondent Father Raymond De Souza

writes from Kingston, Ontario.

In Advent, we await the coming of Jesus at Christmastime.

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EXPLAINER: Advent is a season in the Church’s life intended to renew the experience of waiting and longing for the Messiah.