Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical,
God Is Love, pleasantly surprised many
people. Rather than come out against
one thing or another, he walked Catholics
and others worldwide through
one of the most basic and earliest
insights of Christianity.
But a closer look at his text can
tell us much about this 266th Vicar of
Christ. In God Is Love, he sets the stage
for a papacy of solid theological reflection,
undergirding whatever future
teachings he might issue—whether
on social justice, abortion, stem-cell
research, euthanasia, Church ministry,
ecclesial structures, sacraments and so
on—with a back-to-the-basics look at
In that foundational look, he also
tells us a lot about himself.
What's the Message?
First of all, the encyclical is a reflection
on the premise of Christianity: “the
love God lavishes upon us and which
we in turn must share with others” (#1).
The pope then sets out to clarify
what we mean by love, an apparently
obvious question that he shows is anything
but obvious. The stakes are high,
he tells us: “God’s love for us is fundamental
for our lives, and it raises important
questions about who God is and
who we are.” Those familiar with the
life of St. Francis of Assisi will remember
the questions that Francis prayed
over during his conversion: “Who am
I?” “Who is God?” Those are questions
that chart the course of all people,
today or 2,000 years ago.
Since love is fundamental in our
lives, Pope Benedict spends a good bit
of his encyclical showing two major
ways that our Western culture has
talked of love over the centuries. We
know them from the Greek words agape and eros. “Love,” he says, “has become
one of the most frequently used and
misused of words.”
Eros is the Greek word that refers to
love “between a man and a woman that
is neither planned nor willed,” explains
Benedict. Christianity certainly affirms
this natural love between the sexes, he
says, but with discipline.
“Eros, reduced to pure sex, has become
a commodity, a mere thing to be
bought and sold, or rather, man himself
becomes a commodity,” writes the
pope. Christians are called to affirm the
beauty of bodily love, but are cautioned
against the rampant, destructive excesses
of our culture.
Eros, as developed in the biblical
stories, becomes the love of seekers
who commit to monogamous marriage
between a man and a woman.
One can predict more on this theme
The New Testament focuses on a different
type of love, explains Benedict,
which the Greeks called agape. This is
love of neighbor, a response to the radically
free love of God.
This love is marked by service, and is
renewed in communion with God,
especially at Eucharist. “Love of God
and love of neighbor are thus inseparable....
Love grows through love,” he
The pope illustrates his argument
with ample scriptural evidence, citing
Gospel episodes and parables. In the
middle of all this, he, in the great Christian
tradition, points again to a foundation,
the cross: “This is love in its
most radical form. By contemplating
the pierced side of Christ (see John
19:37), we can understand the starting
point of this encyclical letter: ‘God is
love’ (1 John 4:8). It is there that this
truth can be contemplated. It is from
there that our definition of love must
After laying out the groundwork of
our “love language,” the pope spends
almost half of the encyclical on the
charity that our love demands. “As a
community, the Church must practice
love,” implores the pope. He devotes a
good bit of space to reflection on how
central charity and prayer are to the
mission of the Church.
These paragraphs just touch some
of the encyclical’s themes. You can read
its entirety in pamphlet form from
Catholic bookstores, in full text on the
Vatican Web site, or, condensed, in our
April 2006 Catholic Update.
What does this tell us about the pope?
First of all, when the encyclical was
issued last Christmas, many were surprised
to see that the pope was not
going to merely “rubber stamp” John
Paul II’s style of papacy, or worse, become
a “super-watchdog.” Those fears
were from his reputation in recent decades
as the uncompromising head of
the Congregation for the Doctrine of
Here is teaching from an accomplished
theologian (a key player at Vatican
II, though he grew cautious about
changes as time went on). He now has
a theologically conservative perspective,
showing a desire to return to classical
and medieval sources (ressourcement)
rather than go for something bolder
and newer (aggiornamento). For better
or worse—probably both—he represents
a “reining in” of Vatican II’s energy.
Soon after his April 2005 election, an
editor from the Protestant Evangelical
journal Christianity Today offered five
hallmarks of the new pope, characteristics
that bode well for all Christians.
The encyclical proves that editor right:
Benedict takes the truth seriously; his
theology is Bible-focused; his message
is centered on Christ; his Augustinian
roots will tie him to pastoral, rather
than purely theoretical, issues; he will
be strongly pro-life.
When Pope Benedict XVI starts with
God Is Love, we can all wait hopefully
for what comes next.—C.A.M.