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Pope's First Encyclical Sets the Stage

Q U I C K S C A N

What's the Message?
Agape
Something New

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 Christian theology.

In that foundational look, he also tells us a lot about himself.

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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 from Benedict.

Agape

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 writes.

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 begin.”

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.

Something New

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 the Faith.

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.


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