Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical

Monday, January 30, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, “God is Love,” may be more provocative than first appears

This column by the always-thoughtful Peter Steinfels asks whether Joseph Ratzinger’s long-awaited first encyclical, at first glance so soothing and noncontroversial, might not actually be quite challenging after all.

Excerpts from “Beliefs” column by Peter Steinfels
New York Times, January 28, 2006

….Historically, one function of papal encyclicals has been to give certain groups within the Roman Catholic Church a green light while slowing down or braking others. “God Is Love” offers little encouragement to any bishops and movements itching to inject the church more directly into politics.

In the end, however, the fact that the pope wrote about marriage without mentioning contraception reveals nothing new about his stance on birth control. The fact that he described erotic love in terms of male and female is not a statement about homosexuality. Moby Dick is not a story about a whale or even life aboard a whaling ship; “God Is Love” is not a treatise on sexual ethics or a discourse about church and state…

….this initial encyclical is clearly not an uncontroversial early Valentine or a papal version of the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” It is a theological affirmation of the closing image of Dante’s Divine Comedy: l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle— “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

Dante meant that literally. So does Benedict. Two days before releasing the encyclical, he spoke of the debt he owed to Dante. For both of them, he said, love is “the primordial creative power that moves the universe.”

“Primordial” was a key word in those remarks. He called love “a primordial word, an expression of the primordial reality.” In the encyclical, too, besides referring to humankind’s “primordial aspiration” for union with God, Benedict sketched a movement from Aristotle’s understanding of the divine power energizing the world as “eros” to the biblical vision of personal, self-giving love:

“God is the absolute and ultimate source of all being,” the pope wrote, “but this universal principle of creation—the Logos, primordial reason—is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love.”

Or as he said in his earlier remarks on Dante: “God’s ‘eros’ is not only a primordial cosmic force, it is love that has created man and that bends before him, as the Good Samaritan bent before the wounded man, victim of thieves, who was lying on the side of the road.”

When Benedict speaks of love as the “primordial cosmic force,” he knows of course that science traces the movement of the sun and stars to the Big Bang, gravity and other forces of nature. He is, nonetheless, claiming that the truest, most fundamental insight into the nature of the cosmos and humanity is found in our experience of love, beginning with the paradigm of erotic love and crowning it in religious faith.

Is this claim really uncontroversial? Humans, after all, have offered any number of ultimate characterizations of reality, from a swirl of atoms to a struggle for survival, from a war between matter and spirit to the search for pleasure and release, from the slow march of rationality to a cloud of illusion.

There is plenty of evidence for each of these views. One can easily argue that the case for love, personal, self-giving love, as the bottom-line character of reality is the wildest, most astonishing of claims in the face of that evidence.

At the deepest of levels, is the parent caring for the ill or troubled child or the couple pledging mutual affection and support till death do them part going with the grain of the universe or acting in defiance of it? Is such love a flame that somehow begins and ends in a larger fire? Or is it a brief, bold flare that will ultimately be snuffed out in the darkness?

For a century and more, much of Western art and thought has insisted on the latter—to the point, it should be added, that those fierce claims about the ultimate absurdity of existence, no less than the counterclaim of believers like Benedict, are now also passed over as uncontroversial.

Those who have been holding their breath in anticipation of an encyclical that would be a programmatic map of Benedict XVI’s papacy are, alas, still unable to exhale. But anyone looking for a substantial and challenging message about the nature of existence and humanity can find it in Part I of “God Is Love.” It is controversial not as one more sortie in the culture wars but as what it is, a statement of metaphysics and religious faith.

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