POPE Benedict XVI’s first encyclical underlined the “back to basics” approach of his papacy, taking one of Christianity’s fundamental beliefs and illuminating it with deeper analysis.
In its title, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”) and throughout its 71 pages, the encyclical presented the faith in a clear and positive perspective.
The core mission of Christianity, it said, is to help people accept God’s love and share it, recognising that true love involves a willingness to make sacrifices.
In short, love of God and love of neighbour – that’s a message the Pope believes many people can agree to, if only they are led to think about it.
While challenging the contemporary approach to love and sexuality, the Pope avoided the hot button doctrinal issues that often dominate discussion on religious affairs – abortion, birth control, gay marriage and divorce.
It’s not that Pope Benedict doesn’t care about these issues, but he knows that unless people understand the essentials of the faith these doctrinal teachings will not stick.
So instead of fine-tuning the Church’s rules and precepts, the Pope is working on the foundations.
Telling people that God loves them is step one. Asking people to consider the implications of that love in their own lives is step two.
At the beginning of his encyclical, the Pope said his message is timely today because “the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence”. The obvious allusion was to terrorism inspired by religious fanaticism.
But the Pope’s intended audience here is not really the Muslim world or the political world or even the world of humanitarian organizations – it is primarily the Catholic faithful.
Most Catholics who read “God is Love” will find the text challenging, provocative and insightful, offering reflections on topics they might not expect to find in an encyclical, the highest form of papal teaching.
In discussing eros, or sexual love, for example, the Pope confronted head-on the accusation that the Church has been “opposed to the body” and sexual pleasure. He acknowledged that “tendencies of this sort have always existed”.
But he argued that eros, and its power to impart supreme happiness, has a place in Christianity. It just needs to be balanced with “concern and care for the other”.
“Eros tends to rise in ecstasy toward the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing,” he said.
In its intellectual sweep, the encyclical reminds readers that the author is Joseph Ratzinger, long considered one of the Church’s most intelligent theologians.
He drew on a wide range of sources – ranging from Plato to Friedrich Nietzsche, from Rene Descartes to Blessed Mother Teresa – and used them creatively to show the interaction between Christianity and culture through the ages.
For example, to illustrate the impact Christian charity had on society even in its earliest days, he told the story of the emperor, Julian the Apostate, who persecuted Christians, in remarkably sympathetic terms.
Julian had witnessed the murder of his family by the emperor, Constantius, “who passed himself off as an outstanding Christian”, the Pope wrote.
Thus Christianity was discredited in Julian’s eyes, which led him to revive paganism – but in a way that preserved the one thing that impressed him about Christians, their charitable activity.
The Pope seemed willing to look critically at the Church’s record.
Reviewing the 19th century rise of the capitalist system, he said bluntly that “Church leadership was slow to realise that the issue of the just structuring of society needed to be approached in a new way”.
When “God is Love” came out, much was made of the fact that the groundwork for the second part of the text, on the Church’s charity operations, began under Pope John Paul II.
But this part of the encyclical also carries the strong mark of Pope Benedict, especially where it says that in helping the needy the Church can never be motivated by a political or ideological agenda.
In the 2002 book, God and the World, then-Cardinal Ratzinger said Jesus’ instruction to “feed the hungry” or “clothe the naked” means more than upholding fine principles or making a donation.
It means being “on the lookout to see where people need me” – something that is usually uncomfortable and inconvenient, he said.
Thinking about particular cases and not just “mankind as a whole” is what distinguishes Christian love from Marxist policy, he said in his book. That’s a point strongly underlined in the encyclical, too.
One interesting section of “God is Love” will be read by many as an endorsement of the Bush administration’s policy of increased federal funding for faith based organisations in charitable programs.
The Pope argued that the state, instead of trying to provide everything to the needy through its own programs, should support “initiatives arising from the different social forces” – including the Church.
In this way, Church agencies “are able to give a Christian quality to the civil agencies, too”.
Pope Benedict’s first encyclical was remarkable in a couple of other respects.
First, he sent it round for review by several other Vatican offices and theologians, got feedback and then made changes in the text, according to informed sources.
The Pope also broke with tradition by talking about the content of the encyclical three times before it was published, in effect scooping himself.
That didn’t diminish journalistic interest.
When the encyclical was presented at a press conference on January 25, the Vatican press room was standing room only. It was the biggest crowd of reporters assembled for a papal document in many, many years.