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Benedict XVI's First Encyclical: Christianity Elevates Love
"Deus Caritas Est" Published
VATICAN CITY, JAN. 25, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI has published his first encyclical to show how Christianity does not repress love, but elevates it.
"Deus Caritas Est" (God Is Love), published today, responds to one of the most common objections: "Doesn't the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life?" asks the Pope.
The encyclical answers the question in two parts. The first reflects on love in its origin and different manifestations; the second, addresses the way in which the Church, as institution, must live the commandment of love.
The Holy Father begins by clarifying a generalized confusion, according to which the Church condemns "eros" -- love of attraction -- to accept only "agape" -- unconditional love.
A mere "thing"
"Nowadays Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive," Benedict XVI points out in section No. 5 of the 15,000-word encyclical.
"Eros, reduced to pure 'sex,' has become a commodity, a mere 'thing' to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity," he explains.
According to the Pope, this conception of love implies "a debasement of the human body: no longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere."
"Christian faith, on the other hand, has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility," the Holy Father writes. "True, eros tends to rise 'in ecstasy' towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing."
"It is part of love's growth towards higher levels and inward purification that it now seeks to become definitive, and it does so in a twofold sense: both in the sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in the sense of being 'for ever.'"
Thus, the Holy Father explains, "eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfill its deepest purpose."
The text acknowledges: "Love is indeed 'ecstasy,' not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God."
Christ as model
According to the Pope, the example of "love in its most radical form" is Christ on the cross, "the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him."
"It is there that this truth can be contemplated. It is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move," he stresses.
The second part of the encyclical is entitled "The Practice of Love by the Church as a 'Community of Love.'"
The text acknowledges that love "will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love."
"There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help," Benedict XVI writes. "There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbor is indispensable.
"The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person -- every person -- needs: namely, loving personal concern."
"Marxism had seen world revolution and its preliminaries as the panacea for the social problem: revolution and the subsequent collectivization of the means of production, so it was claimed, would immediately change things for the better," the Holy Father observes. "This illusion has vanished.
"We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need."
The Pope adds: "The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support."
In this context, the Holy Father describes the "distinctiveness of the Church's charitable activity."
First, he points out that "Christian charitable activity, apart from its professional competence, must be based on the experience of a personal encounter with Christ, whose love touched believers' hearts, generating within them love for others."
Second, he points out that "Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies. It is not a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems, but it is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs.
"The Christian's program -- the program of the Good Samaritan, the program of Jesus -- is 'a heart which sees.' This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly. Obviously when charitable activity is carried out by the Church as a communitarian initiative, the spontaneity of individuals must be combined with planning, foresight and cooperation with other similar institutions.
"Charity, furthermore, cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism. Love is free."
"A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak," notes the Pope, as a third and final point.
Benedict XVI concludes by giving examples of charity left by the saints.
He mentions Blessed Teresa of Calcutta on three occasions, and ends with a dialogue with the Virgin Mary, who "shows us what love is and whence it draws its origin and its constantly renewed power."
A Document to Renew Charitable Commitment of Church
Prefect of Doctrinal Congregation Comments on "Deus Caritas Est"
VATICAN CITY, JAN. 25, 2006 (Zenit.org).- The head of the Vatican's doctrinal congregation says Benedict XVI's new encyclical has two objectives: to remind that God is love and to relaunch the Church's "charity service."
Archbishop William Levada, who succeeded Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said: "The Holy Father has chosen love as the topic of his first encyclical, as today the word 'love' is very tarnished, spoiled and abused" and, yet, it "is a primordial word."
In this connection, the papal document clarifies that "eros" -- the love of attraction -- and "agape" -- the love of selfless surrender -- "are not opposed, but in harmony," the archbishop said.
Archbishop Levada, 69, former head of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, illustrated to the press today some of the more decisive passages of this pontificate's first encyclical, "Deus Caritas Est" (God Is Love).
The prelate synthesized the Bishop of Rome's thought, indicating that "love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable and only one commandment."
Confirming that the witness of Christians takes place in environments which include individuals of other spiritualities and religions, as well as nonbelievers, Archbishop Levada said that social action "can become any work in which the connection with the charitable love of God disappears."
In that case, lamented the prelate, "the action is no longer imitation of Christ."
The Vatican prefect told journalists that he was "somewhat surprised" when the Pope asked him and other theologians for advice in reviewing a draft of the encyclical.
"Evidently, it seems to be a normal praxis, even for a theologian, after having written a text, to ask for opinions, observations and also criticisms," he said. "But yes, I was a bit surprised, as I am also new in this task."
U.S. Prelate Hails Pope's First Encyclical
"A Profound Meditation," Says Conference President
WASHINGTON, D.C., JAN. 25, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Bishop William Skylstad, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, says that Benedict XVI's first encyclical is "evidence of both his great scholarship and his profound spiritual insight."
Bishop Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, called the encyclical, released today and titled "Deus Caritas Est" (God Is Love), "a profound meditation on the meaning of Christian love and the place of charity in the life of the Church."
He singled out the encyclical's affirmation that "the Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word," noting that this affirmation follows "a reflection in depth on the meaning of love as it appears in Sacred Scripture."
Bishop Skylstad also drew attention to the Holy Father's discussion of the relationship between justice and charity and between faith and politics.
The U.S. prelate points out that the Pope cautions that the Church should not take on the political task of building a just society, leaving this to the state and its institutions.
But Bishop Skylstad notes that the Holy Father adds that "the Church is duty-bound to offer, through the purification of reason and through ethical formation, her own specific contribution towards understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically."
He also notes that Benedict XVI says that the Church's charitable activity "must be independent of parties and ideologies" and that it "cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism."
Benedict XVI's Surprising Encyclical
Interview With Father Thomas Williams, Theology Dean
ROME, JAN. 25, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI's choice of "love" as the focus of his first encyclical will likely surprise both his supporters and critics, says a dean of theology.
Legionary of Christ Father Thomas D. Williams, a dean at Rome's Regina Apostolorum university, talked with ZENIT about the importance, content and uniqueness of the Pope's document, published today.
Q: In a word, why is this encyclical so important?
Father Williams: Vatican watchers emphasize the importance of a Pope's first encyclical -- a teaching letter of highest papal authority -- as a reliable indicator of the tone and direction a given pontificate will take.
Benedict's choice of "love" as the topic for this important statement flies in the face of critics' characterization of Benedict as a hard-liner.
Q: But with so many practical concerns facing the Church, such as bioethical issues, ecumenical questions and terrorism, why would the Pope choose such an ethereal theme?
Father Williams: Obviously, the Holy Father considers the topic of love to be paramount. Remember that love of God and love of neighbor stand at the very heart of the Gospel message.
Love is the illuminating principle for evaluating other important issues, like the ones you mention. If we get love right, the whole orientation of our existence squares with God's plan for our lives and the true good of humanity.
Q: What do you mean by "getting love right"?
Father Williams: Love has many different meanings and is easily cheapened and spoiled.
As Benedict acknowledges early on in his letter, we speak of love of country, love of one's profession, love between friends, love of work, love between parents and children, love between family members, love of neighbor and love of God.
Moreover, people often associate love with mere feelings that come and go, or with selfishness and desire.
In this letter Benedict insists that love means more than that, and eventually leads to the self-giving exemplified in Christ's redemptive sacrifice.
Q: So love, in a Christian sense, has nothing to do with love as the world understands it?
Father Williams: Not at all. The Christian understanding of love embraces and uplifts more worldly or merely "human" notions of love.
In his encyclical, in fact, Benedict rejects a polarization of "eros" -- desiring love -- and "agape" -- self-giving love -- as if eros were pagan and agape Christian, and argues instead that these two types of love are intermingled.
"Eros," he says, "is rooted in man's very nature." At the same time, to become fully human, "eros" must mature into "agape" -- the Christian notion of charity or self-giving to others, modeled on Christ.
It isn't enough for us to "feel" love, we must "choose" love as a free decision.
Q: Would you characterize this as a "theological" encyclical?
Father Williams: Benedict clearly takes a deeply theological and biblical approach to the topic of Christian love.
The rehabilitation of love, Benedict notes, requires a return to its divine origins. To understand the nature of love, we must look to God who is love itself.
At the same time, the letter is thoroughly "human." Christian theology sees the human person as created in the image and likeness of God. Loving and being loved is the very meaning of human existence. Therefore, the rediscovery of love means the rediscovery of humanity.
Moreover, Benedict devotes the entire second half of the encyclical to the practical question of the Church's charitable commitment to the poor and the vulnerable, as an essential part of the Church's identity.
Q: Is there any significance with the timing of the encyclical?
Father Williams: Poetically, this encyclical coincides with Benedict's nine-month anniversary as Pope, eliciting unavoidable comparisons with childbirth.
Benedict's firstborn takes the form of a 71-page reflection, notably shorter than John Paul's encyclicals, which regularly were double that length.
Though a small baby by modern standards, the encyclical tackles tough questions and makes up in depth what it lacks in breadth.
Q: Are there any major surprises in the document?
Father Williams: Since his election, Pope Benedict has proved a surprise for supporters and critics alike.
When Joseph Ratzinger was elected to succeed John Paul II as Pope last April, many expected a firebrand and ecclesiastical house-cleaner. This hasn't been the case.
Today's release of the Pope's first encyclical letter will only further befuddle those seeking to pigeonhole Benedict as a doctrinal hard-liner and disciplinarian.
Benedict has used his first big teaching moment to convey a message of hope. Rather than an "everybody get in line" message, "Deus Caritas Est" focuses on the love of God that all of us are called both to accept and to imitate.
If, as many suspect, this first encyclical sets forth Benedict's papal "mission statement," we can expect more surprises as this pontificate continues.
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