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Issue Date:  February 3, 2006

On love that lasts: Benedict's first encyclical


As ironic as it may seem for a man who once termed rock-and-roll “a vehicle of antireligion,” one could say that in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI essentially paraphrased the Beatles.

All you need, the pope suggests over 71 pages of text, is love.

There is, however, a catch -- it’s got to be the right kind of love.

Released Jan. 25, the encyclical argues that love arising from human sexual desire, or eros, is perfectly good in itself, but it must be “purified” through transformation into agape, the total giving of one’s self to another. Otherwise it risks being “degraded” into a continual, and ultimately self-defeating, quest merely to satisfy one’s own desires.

Deus Caritas Est is not quite the “programmatic” treatise some expected, in the sense of laying out a program for Benedict’s pontificate. It does, however, afford the pope a chance to put the church’s message on eros, or human sexuality, in a new context. It’s not that the church is against love, he suggests, but rather that it’s in favor of a love that lasts.

Quoting German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, the pope concedes that the church often comes across as a kind of “whistle-blower” on human pleasure. But when the church says “no,” as on matters such as homosexuality and birth control, the encyclical indirectly suggests, it’s in service to a deeper “yes,” expressed in the term agape.

“An intoxicated and undisciplined eros is not an ascent in ‘ecstasy’ toward the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man,” the pope writes.

“Eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.”

Deus Caritas Est is divided into two sections, which have separate histories. The first part, comprising the reflections on eros and agape, were written by Benedict during the summer months. The second section, concerned with the charitable activities of the church, is based on material originally prepared for a draft encyclical on charity under John Paul II, which Benedict opted to incorporate into this text.

In a Jan. 24 audience with members of Cor Unum, the Vatican office that oversees the church’s charities, Benedict adverted to the differences in the two parts of the encyclical.

“On a first reading, the encyclical could give the impression of being divided into two parts that are little connected,” he said. “To me, however, what’s interesting is the unity of the two themes, which can be understood well only if they’re seen together.”

In the second section, Benedict argues that charitable works are as essential to the church’s life as liturgy and the sacraments.

While the church must support efforts for social justice, it can never neglect direct service of individual people in need, he says. He criticizes what he terms a “Marxist” conception that charity can be an enemy of justice by allowing people to salve their consciences without changing unjust systems.

The church’s charitable organizations must never “leave Christ and God aside,” he writes, though the pope also said that charitable work should not be used as means of proselytism.

“A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God, and when it is better to say nothing and let love alone speak,” Benedict said.

Benedict warned Catholic charities to steer clear of “parties and ideologies.” He also said that Catholic charitable groups must always work in concert with the church, and especially with the bishops.

Unfortunately for Benedict, this rather lofty meditation on love appeared in a moment when the Vatican is caught up in a decidedly this-worldly fracas over copyrights and money, precisely over papal texts such as the encyclical.

After a May Vatican decree asserting control over all works by Benedict, including material from before his election, the Vatican has sent substantial bills to several publishers who have reprinted sections of his work, as well as texts from previous popes. While the move may be standard practice for commercial publishing houses, it runs contrary to recent custom, especially in Italy, where a constellation of small publishers operated by religious communities essentially subsist on editions of papal documents.

Critics have charged that if the Vatican wants the pope’s message to get out, this seems an odd way of promoting it.

Benedict, however, has ignored the episode, instead speaking repeatedly about the encyclical even before its release.

In a Vatican news conference to present the encyclical Jan. 25, Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes, head of Cor Unum, said the encyclical highlights the danger of “secularization” of the church’s charitable works, leading to an excessive emphasis on “orthopraxis” lacking explicit roots in Catholic faith.

“Without a solid theological foundation, large ecclesiastical agencies could be threatened, in practice, by disassociating themselves from the church, and weakening their ties with the bishops,” Cordes said. “In that case, their ‘philosophy’ and their projects would be indistinguishable from those of the Red Cross or the agencies of the United Nations.”

At the same news conference, Archbishop William Levada, the pope’s successor as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, admitted he was “a little bit surprised” that Benedict chose to submit his text to Vatican doctrinal consultors prior to publication, rather than simply putting it out, but he said it was “a normal practice, even for a great theologian.”

Levada also played down reports of struggles over the translations of the encyclical, saying that Benedict signed the document Dec. 25 and it’s not unreasonable that a month was needed to produce versions in the various languages.

“I don’t think there’s anything to investigate here,” he said.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

On the Web
For more on Benedict's first encyclical, see John Allen's Web column, The Word From Rome, for Jan. 27 on

National Catholic Reporter, February 3, 2006

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