The reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s long-awaited first encyclical, Deus caritas est (God Is Love), has been appreciative, even enthusiastic. If some assumed that a seventy-eight-year-old celibate, best known for policing the errors of his fellow theologians, would have little of import to say about the nature and reality of love, they have been proved wrong. Much to her own surprise, Ruth Gledhill, the religion correspondent for The Times of London, was moved and impressed. “I started reading Deus caritas est expecting to be disappointed, chastised, and generally laid low,” she wrote. Instead, Gledhill discovered a voice comparable to George Herbert’s or C. S. Lewis’s. “This encyclical is not the work of an inquisitor,” she concludes. “It is the work of a lover-a true lover of God.” In his New York Times “Beliefs” column, Peter Steinfels made the case that those who found the encyclical uncontroversial, even bland, because it didn’t provide ammunition for the culture war over sexual morality, were being obtuse. One can argue, Steinfels wrote, that the eloquent, carefully reasoned case Benedict makes “for love, personal, self-giving love, as the bottom-line character of reality is the wildest, most astonishing of claims” that can be made in an era when scientific materialism and modern skepticism are commonly thought to foreclose such a possibility. There is little reason to disagree with these assessments. A very appealing and persuasive voice, one that speaks in almost personal tones, animates the encyclical. This is especially evident in the first section, “The Unity of Love in Creation and in Salvation History.” Perhaps more than anything else, the voice is that of a teacher, of someone accustomed to laying out arguments clearly and carefully. There is, of course, extraordinary erudition also on display. Scriptural exegesis is effortlessly combined with the explication of Christian doctrine and philosophical argument. To those who think Christianity despises the body and denigrates sexual love, Benedict says think again. While conceding that some Christians have wrongly despised the body, the pope shows why Christianity “in no way rejected eros as such; rather, it declared war on a warped and destructive form of it, because this counterfeit divinization of eros actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it.” Benedict shrewdly avoids any simple condemnation of the sexual disorder evident in much of contemporary culture. Instead, he strives to show how love connects us to one another and to the world, and how we move naturally from eros, or erotic love, toward agape, the spiritual, other-directed love that draws us toward God. A pope’s first encyclical often signals the direction of his papacy. Since it appears that the second part of Deus caritas est, dealing with the relations between church and state, the pursuit of justice, and the requirements of charity, was initially conceived by John Paul, it is not clear how much this encyclical is a harbinger of things to come. Still, the style and emphasis of the letter, even the second part, strongly correspond to what may distinguish Benedict’s papacy from that of his predecessor. It has been widely bruited about that despite then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s enormous respect for John Paul, he was suspicious of the cult of personality that came to dominate (and, some argue, distort) aspects of the previous papacy. No one questions Benedict’s theological conservatism. That very conservatism, however, may in fact lead Benedict to conclusions about the scope and exercise of papal authority that will not sit well with the last pope’s more fervent fans (see “Wanted: Manly Men,” page 6). An article by long-time Commonweal contributor Paul Elie in the January/February Atlantic (“The Year of Two Popes”) seems prescient in this regard. In describing Benedict’s earlier writing, Elie could have been talking about this first encyclical: “In long, learned chapters he marries the searching orthodoxy of the great preconciliar theologians to the modern existentialist’s concern for what can be called the situation of the unbeliever. Belief in our time, he proposes, is formed in the crucible of unbelief, and unbelief is formed in defiance of the yearning to believe.” Elie’s analysis also anticipates the encyclical’s personal, almost intimate tone, and its corresponding emphasis on the Christian’s individual duty to perform acts of charity. Elie wrote that Benedict’s “influence will most likely be felt more through his character than through his power to bring about change,” that “his program as pope is a good deal narrower than John Paul’s,” and that, as a consequence, Catholics “ought to turn away from the question of what the pope believes and consider just what it is that we believe.” That seems to be the first challenge Benedict has in fact issued to his flock. January 31, 2006

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Published in the 2006-02-10 issue: View Contents
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