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Issue Date:  February 10, 2006

Encyclical finds favor in unexpected quarters


Perhaps the most intriguing reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, is the generally positive response of liberal Catholics who were the most apprehensive about the election to the papacy of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, long known as the church’s doctrinal watchdog.

Several expressed relief that in dealing with human and divine love, the pope steered clear of areas where the church’s message has stirred controversy -- such as homosexuality, birth control and abortion. Many praised the document’s lofty, positive tone.

Paul Collins, for example, called the 71-page document “a welcome change from the often dense and sometimes almost incomprehensible missives of many of his papal predecessors.”

Collins, a former Missionary of the Sacred Heart, left the priesthood in 2001 amid a Vatican investigation of his writings on papal infallibility and other matters that had been initiated by Ratzinger.

The encyclical, Collins wrote, “tells us that Benedict XVI is going to be a low-key pope concerned with the essence of Catholicism rather than an actor on the world stage like his predecessor. This will be a modest and more traditional papacy. Just what Catholicism needs, really.”

Andrew Sullivan, who was strongly critical of the Vatican’s recent document on gay priests, called the encyclical “a beautifully written document.”

“It is not as extreme or as repressive as Benedict’s well-earned reputation. It is a sign, one hopes, of a papacy that can change and grow and concentrate on the central truths, not peripheral obsessions. For that, a great sigh of relief.”

Deus Caritas Est was released at the Vatican Jan. 25. The first section offers a spiritual meditation on love, arguing that eros, or human sexual love, must be “purified” into agape, or the total giving of one’s self to another. The second is composed of reflections on Catholic charitable work, stating that political and economic justice is primarily the responsibility of laity and the state, while the church’s primary competence is direct charitable outreach to people in need.

Swiss theologian Fr. Hans Küng praised the encyclical’s “solid theological substance on the subjects of eros and agape, love and charity, and not drawing false contradictions between them.”

Küng, whose license to teach Catholic theology was withdrawn by Pope John Paul II in 1979, was frequently critical of Ratzinger while he led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Catholics should be happy, Küng said, that it is “not a manifesto of cultural pessimism or restrictive sexual morality.”

Writing in The New York Times, Peter Steinfels said, “Anyone looking for a substantial and challenging message about the nature of existence and humanity can find it in Part I. It is controversial not as one more sortie in the culture wars but as what it is, a statement of metaphysics and religious faith.”

Christian Weisner, spokesman for the liberal Catholic group “We Are Church,” told The New York Times that the encyclical is “a sign of hope” that Benedict would prove to be a “human face for Christianity and for the Catholic church.”

Those reactions have largely been paralleled in the global press.

Der Standard of Austria, where the We Are Church movement began, wrote, “Many of those who regarded Joseph Ratzinger as an instrument of the Holy Inquisition, and perhaps continue to do so, are now probably disappointed.”

France’s Le Monde editorialized that the encyclical “does not resemble the normative documents published by his predecessors, Paul VI and John Paul II, on sexuality and the morality of couples,” arguing that, although there has been no revolution, the language used has changed.

“Resolutely philosophical and spiritual, the pope situates himself at a high level of principles and depth,” it said.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung, the newspaper of Munich, Germany, where Ratzinger was once archbishop, wrote that the encyclical is “remarkable and in many passages outstanding.”

The newspaper described it as a document that “largely does without a warning finger.”

The chorus of praise was not, however, universal.

Speaking to Newsday, Scott Appleby of Notre Dame said he found the distinction in Deus Caritas Est between justice and charity troubling.

“This seems to be a return to a theology of church in which the church is primarily given the responsibility to form consciences and to provide charity -- something no Catholic would disagree with -- but which is not further responsible for prophecy or for actual social reform toward justice,” Appleby said.

“That’s not how my generation of Catholics understood Vatican II.”

David Gibson, author of The Coming Catholic Church, said he is “agnostic” on whether the encyclical will draw people to the church.

“I think on both sides, people will be asking, ‘Is this all?’ ” he said.

Frequently, liberals who praised the encyclical did so with reservations.

Küng, for example, said that the pope had failed to mention the charity the church should show toward loving couples who use contraception, those who divorce and remarry, and Protestant and Anglican clerics.

Weisner said he hoped that the pope’s emphasis on love would make him more open to opposing views.

“Loving your neighbors also means loving critical theologians,” he said. “He also has to apply these ideas within the church itself.”

Nor was the secular press universally smitten. A front-page commentary in Germany’s Der Tagesspiegel, for example, asserted that the pope wants to show he is an authority on love, although he “knows little of what it is and how you live it.”

“This may be part of his duties as Catholic chief executive, but it is not helpful,” the paper said.

Spain’s El Pais said Pope Benedict wants “to dedicate his work to reaffirming the fundamentals of the Catholic faith,” because he’s worried about a “profound crisis” in Europe.

But it asked why, considering all the “serious problems afflicting the world,” the head of the Catholic Church has focused his energies on arguing the difference between pornography, sex and “pure love.”

The paper also questioned his statement that “the church cannot and should not get involved in the political battle for a fairer society.” El Pais asserted this is something that both liberation theologians and conservatives who oppose liberal laws “are not going to like.”

In the end, for some commentators, it was what Pope Benedict left unsaid that seemed troubling.

On that score, longtime Ratzinger friend Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio told The New York Times that the encyclical’s positive focus does not mask a retreat from the pope’s doctrinal stances.

“He is saying no divorce,” Fessio said. “He is saying no promiscuity. He is saying no multiple wives. No homosexuality. He’s completely positive, but if you accept the teaching, consequences follow.”

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

National Catholic Reporter, February 10, 2006

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