Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est ("God is love"), is a doctrinal and pastoral commentary on the First Letter of John, 4:16. As such it focuses on the love which God gratuitously bestows on us and which we in turn are called to share with others. Thoroughly steeped in Catholic theology, it uses words and phrases embedded from Apostolic times in the Catholic idiom, which is largely unknown or simply ignored by the secular world today. I would guess that many a journalist, in an effort to report or editorialize on the document, had to consult a large dictionary or an encyclopedia of religious terms.
One clear example is use of the Greek derivative, agape, which is "descending" love – "love grounded in and shaped by faith," in Pope Benedict’s own words. (Sec. 7) While agape differs from eros ("worldly" love) and from philia, ("the love of friendship"), all three kinds can be viewed as dimensions of a single unity. In other words, there is "an intrinsic link between that love and the reality of human love." (Sec. 1)
"Love," the Holy Father explains, "is a single reality, but with different dimensions; at different times, one or other dimension may emerge more clearly. Yet when the two dimensions are totally cut off from one another, the result is a caricature or at least an impoverished form of love." (Sec. 8)
Biblical faith, it must be stressed, does not establish "a parallel universe" or one contradistinguished from the human phenomenon called love, but rather acknowledges the whole human being, a person of body and soul. We are disciples neither of Descartes nor of epicures, the Pope argues. It is not merely the soul nor the body that loves; on the contrary, it is the whole person. (Pope John Paul II insisted on the same, of course.) Here Benedict recalls the greetings which were exchanged by Descartes and the epicure Gassendi; the latter would salute the French philosopher with the phrase, "O Soul!" (a reference to Descartes’ basic error of separating mind from body), while Descartes would hail Gassendi with "O Flesh!"
Today, Benedict goes on, eros has been reduced to mere "sex," which itself has deteriorated into "a commodity." (John Paul called it "dehumanization.") No longer "a vital expression of our whole being," it is reduced to a biological dimension, readily open to "a hatred of bodiliness." (Sec. 5)
To put this another way, one is reminded that agape and eros can never be totally separated, any more than soul and body can be viewed as clearly separable entities. This is where Descartes went wrong, of course, in his postulate Cogito, ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am." In an almost poetic summary by Pope Benedict:
"…man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift…" (Sec. 7)
Through Christ – the Word of God Incarnate – eros is "supremely ennobled, yet at the same time it is so purified as to become one with agape." (Sec. 10)
Here, in the encyclical, Benedict summons Biblical witnesses, such as the Old Testament prophets Hosea and Ezekiel, as well as the deeply mysterious Song of Songs and the creation accounts in Genesis. All come together as the summit of a rising crescendo with Jesus’ instituting the Eucharist. Hence Benedict, like his predecessor, Karol Wojtyla, rests his argumentation both on the Scriptures as read within the Church and on reason illumined by Revelation – philosophy.
The danger of divorcing body from spirit has been omnipresent throughout history. Pope Benedict is as alert to this threat as John Paul II was. Indeed, this is an area in which Catholicism essentially differs from Buddhism, which also offers a "doctrine of salvation" and as such seems attractive to Westerners as an "alternative" to Christianity, as John Paul II observed in his best-selling Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994). Buddhism rests on a premiss that "the world is bad, that it is the source of evil and of suffering for man." (ibid.) Hence achieving salvation requires breaking free from the world in order to achieve "nirvana," a condition of total indifference to the world. Yet when the Doctor of the Spiritual Life, St. John of the Cross, discusses "the need for purification, …he does not conceive of that detachment as an end in itself." On the contrary, St. John of the Cross does not envision nirvana, but rather union with a personal God, through love as well as purification, precisely by a pilgrimage of soul and body. (ibid.) An ancient Christian adage, attributed to Tertullian (d. 230) reads, caro cardo salutis ("the flesh is the doorway to salvation").
Again, to cite John Paul II, "the world is God’s creation, redeemed by Christ. It is in the world that man meets God. Therefore he does not need to attain such an absolute detachment in order to find himself in the mystery of his deepest self." (ibid.)
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.
Pope Benedict is so close to Karol Wojtyla in his deepest thinking. Without any question, our present Pope can be related to our former one in terms of the already well known metaphor, that of a Joshua following a Moses.
The Catholic Transcript