Encyclical displays rare awareness of nature of love
Benedict XVI's encyclical demonstrates an understanding of human love that has often been absent from church teachings, writes Gina Menzies.
The first encyclical of a new pontiff is usually judged to be an indicator of the direction in which he intends to lead the papacy. John Paul II began his papacy in 1979 with the encyclical Redemptoris Hominis (Redeemer of Humankind).
Keys to his future pronouncements were evident. He pointed out that the dignity of every human and human rights are central to the church's mission: they are the basis of social and international peace. He also said that the church has the responsibility for revealed truth - theologians are the servants of the Magisterium, "functioning correctly when they seek to serve the Magisterium entrusted to the bishops in communion with Peter's successor".
Later in his pontificate hardline teaching on issues of sexual morality were given as much emphasis as the social justice and human rights themes that featured so prominently in his first document.
What does Benedict XVI's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, tell us about the future direction of his pontificate? Its tone is poetic, its message is not prohibitive, the royal "we" is missing.
It seeks to explain rather than lecture, and yet draws on the rich vein of church teaching in the social arena and rediscovers sources about human love that have been absent from the church's recent pronouncements on human love and sexuality.
It speaks of love as the heart of Christian existence and of the need to embrace the widest understanding of our neighbour to include all humankind, not only our immediate community or country. It speaks of the place of charity but also the need for justice and the relationship between faith and politics.
Speaking of the nature of love, Benedict admits that Christianity in the past often tended to oppose the body and to separate the unity of the human being into body and spirit. He says that denying either spirit or body is a distortion of our humanity.
Unusually, Benedict concedes that the church was often responsible for a negative attitude to the human body. This is a rare departure from an institution that seldom admits error. Benedict continues to emphasise the reality of human love by drawing on metaphors from The Song of Songs, the most erotic poetry in the canon of scripture.
Many women will not be pleased by Benedict's reference to their traditional role as "helper to Adam". Others will be disappointed that he sees the epitome of human love only in a marriage between a woman and man. He does not recognise the love found in other committed, lifelong relationships. This aspect of the encyclical is not unexpected from the former Cardinal Ratzinger.
In the second section, Benedict turns to love as charity as an integral part of Christian existence and not an optional extra.
He castigates as arid those whose devout faith is dedicated to the performance of religious duties but who are devoid of a care for neighbours. Benedict advocates as a core teaching of the church a love that is revealed in action on behalf of those in need. This leads him to an extended reflection on the place of charity and justice and the relationship between faith and politics, church and state.
This section of the encyclical, too, has its share of surprises. Benedict says that church and state exist in separate spheres but are in relation to each other.
He admits that church leadership was slow to realise that the just structuring of society needs to be approached in a new way. But he points out that in time it came to be formulated in an impressive series of social teachings, beginning with Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (Of New Things) in 1891 and continuing through the 20th century.
Benedict recognises that politics is the responsibility of the state. He says that a just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the church. Some may read this as a warning to the ordained to take a step back from direct political involvement and is reminiscent of Benedict's former instructions on liberation theology.
Where he sees the connection between faith and politics is in faith's ability to inform consciences in political life. But he insists the church cannot and must not replace the state. This is light years away from the time when the church required the state to formulate policies in line with church teaching or face the consequences.
One has only to reach back to the manner in which the Irish Constitution of 1937 was drafted, and more recent battles around amendments to that Constitution in relation to divorce and abortion, where certain groupings of Catholics, rather than the institutional church, fought to insert church teaching in State law.
Benedict says Christian charity, as an integral part of the Gospel, must never be used to impose faith, should never be linked to proselytism. Love is free: it is not practised as a way of achieving other ends; it must be done for its own sake. Such a strong endorsement of action against injustice and unfair distribution of resources could be taken up by every parish in the country.
How will local churches respond? Other encyclicals lie dormant on shelves in much the same way as many government reports and remain unknown to the majority of church goers. Will Deus Caritas Est have the same fate?
Is this encyclical an indicator of how Pope Benedict intends to lead the church? Only time will tell. What can be said is that Deus Caritas Est is the product of an active and penetrating intellect, aware of the church's heritage but also aware that the Christian message needs to resonate with contemporary life.
What is most surprising is that it demonstrates an understanding of human love that has so often been absent from church teachings. Can we expect a more nuanced approach in church teaching on sexual morality, a less rigid approach to the new bioethics, a greater understanding of family life, insights into the presence of love in other committed relationships?
Gina Menzies is a theologian