Companion to the Encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI on "God Is Love"

Article excerpt

Pope Benedict XVI's much anticipated first Encyclical has been welcomed as evidence of a more congenial personality, of a less severe figure than his tenure as supervising Cardinal of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had suggested. The Encyclical consists of two parts:

    I) "the unity of love in creation and in salvation history" (nos
    2-18)
    II) "Caritas the Practice of Love by the Church as a "Community of
    Love" (nos 19-42).

It is articulate, well reasoned, reflective, erudite. Its language, personal in style, conveys a sensibility firmly rooted in the Western intellectual tradition: philosophy, Biblical studies, and the classics are amply and dexterously referenced. And its message is highly appealing: "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him."

The reception to the Encyclical has been largely positive (especially considering that the Pope refrains from pontificating here on the divisive issues of sexual morality). He displays a personal understanding of the value and meaning of love in all its multifarious, interconnected complexity, as eros, philia and agape: of love as physical and sexual expression, of love as friendship, and as other-centered in care and service of the other. He links all these to God's love for individuals and humanity, revealed and expressed in Christ. In a spirit of compromise and understanding, he has apparently endeavored to reconcile mutually opposed positions.

Part I has been applauded by those concerned with issues of inter-personal morality. Here the Pope stresses that the excesses of modern life have to be purified and ennobled by Christian and rational values. Part II is very much centered on love as social charity.

While acknowledging a variety of viewpoints, the Encyclical remains firmly grounded in a traditional Western context. Adherents among the many strains of contemporary Christian theology may thus find much to take issue with here. Feminist theologians will object to its occasionally sexist language, along with its arguments with respect to reproductive rights. Liberation theology in the Latin American grain receives no acknowledgment of its unique contribution to the development of Christian teaching over the past several decades (e.g, love as it relates to compassionate activism and efforts at constructive social change). Proponents of liberation theology in its Asian and African incarnations will have much to say about their experience of the "Christian love" imposed on them through Western colonialism. Those seeking inter-religious dialogue may wish to remind the Pope that the traditional Christian interpretation of "God is love" seems not to have applied to them throughout much of Catholicism's history. And those concerned with inter-racial justice, global ethics, and ecology may also find fault with Christian theology and spirituality as they experienced it.

Love and Sexual Ethics

Love as eros and agape are said to be part of God's plan for human relationships. In modern times the Church has confronted many issues relating to family life and sexual morality. Among the most hotly contested of these is the regulation of procreation. The pivotal moment in this debate came with the July 1968 condemnation of contraception by Pope Paul VI. The Pope arrived at his position independently, whereas his predecessor Pope John XXIII had assigned a special commission to advise him. Pope Paul's argument was that natural law dictated a necessary link between the marital act and procreation. Observance of the natural law was necessary for salvation. The Pope claimed the power of interpreting the natural law as willed by God (no.4).

    "the Churches Magisterium is competent to interpret the natural
    law."

    "This kind of question requires from the teaching authority of the
    Church a new and deeper reflection on the principles of the moral
    teaching on marriage--a teaching which is based on the natural law
    as illuminated and enriched by divine Revelation. …