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Catholic Herald Article

The Pope throws a lifebelt to a Church drowning in syrup.

Commentary by Aidan Nichols OP

    A twinge of disappointment followed the discovery that the new Pope’s first encyclical was going to be on love. Those who expected from Benedict XVI the smack of firm governance feared the worst. Certainly the topic of love is a soft option for clergymen. I dare say we have all come across the kind of preacher who, whatever the feast or the biblical text, manages to bring everything back to the theme of general benevolence. That is always safe. No one can possibly object to love, so defined, and it lifts the burden of analytic thinking. The readiness with which “love” lends itself to sentimental treatment was the first reason for anxiety about this encyclical. The second was a niggling worry: had the subject been suggested by a spin-doctor? Cardinal Ratzinger’s image in the secular media, and even ­ or especially ­ sections of the Catholic press, was almost entirely negative. Could it be redeemed by pouring over us a warm, fragrant, bubbly cascade of “luv”? That would be an understandable strategy. It would also be a mistake. At least in the Western world, the Church is drowning in syrup already.

    Perusal of the document largely sets these fears to rest. Part the First shows that the Petrine charism has not extinguished the cardinal’s forceful philosophical and theological mind. Part the Second ­ which was, it seems, in preparation under his predecessor ­ shows a willingness to leave (temporarily) the exalted heights of doctrine for more hands-on involvement with possibly malfunctioning elements in present-day ecclesial culture.

    So, what then does the Pope have to say? The introduction alerts us to the love-theme’s real urgency, as distinct from saccharine acceptability. At the present time, the life of the world is scarred by vengeful believers in a distortion of the biblical God. As readers of the Guardian will need no reminding, this is getting theism a bad name. The Pope opens, accordingly, by seeking to reconstitute the image of God around the central revealed attribute of the New Testament, which is God’s gratuitous charity, or what the Greek Fathers call God’s “philanthropy”, his loving kindness towards man. The Jews, to their everlasting credit, had already defined as key to right belief an obedient loving response to the merciful goodness of God ­ and they did so without the support of the Incarnation and Atonement to steady them. The second motivation for this letter, so its preamble makes plain, is a desire to get straight the unity of the Bible’s two love commands. Love, we are told, is to be directed both towards God and to our neighbour. But how is it possible to set our face in these two directions simultaneously?

    Part One of the encyclical notes the ubiquity of the language of love, and a more Thomistic pope might have signalled that language’s analogical character. C S Lewis, whom the Pope, when Cardinal Ratzinger, did not disdain to cite, claimed there were basically four loves. As Benedict XVI points out, there are a great many more. They have something in common ­ and something that differentiates them (here is where analogy comes in). For the Pope, the prime analogate is the love of man and woman, in comparison with which all other loves pale. With such a starting point, Benedict cannot escape entering the question of the relation between eros and agape, the love that desires fulfilment for itself, crucial to sexual attraction as this is, and the love that seeks to confer fulfilment on another, insensible of the cost to self if need be.

    For an understanding of the Pope’s argument, it is essential to grasp that eros, or love that is desirous, has its most palpable instance in sexual love but also reaches far beyond it. When the fourth-century Eastern Father St Gregory of Nyssa tells us that the soul is essentially erotic, he does not mean it is inevitably attracted to soft porn. He means it is filled with a longing which ultimately only God can satisfy. Journalists who have described the Pope¹s language in this letter as itself “erotic” are probably, therefore, missing half the point.

    Back in the 20th century, Western theology was polarised by the thesis of a Swedish Lutheran, Anders Nygren, to the effect that eros ­ the impulse to seek fulfilment ­ has nothing to do with agape ­ the self-lavishing love of the New Testament. No more, it was said, has Athens, pagan philosophy and literature, to do with Jerusalem, the biblical revelation. We cannot practise both loves, so we must choose, under grace, which ours is to be. The Pope replies that this is a false antithesis, an unnecessary choice. Or rather, speaking of choice, we must choose both, as God in his plan for us has done. Only if the sacrificial charity-love of the Scriptures, whose origin is in the Redeemer God by way of Jesus Christ, captivates and transforms the desiring eros-love implanted in us by God the Creator can people be fully in the image of God, healed, saved and transfigured.

    Naturally, the Pope is not holding a seminar on 1930s theology. He evidently thinks this is the good news contemporary Western culture, which to some extent is global culture, now needs to hear. The letter offers a Gospel of transfigured humanism. Benedict’s message is a mystical relocation of the theocentric, Christ-determined humanism of John Paul II.

    Benedict’s mystical doctrine is not, however, a “flight of the alone to the Alone”. Rather is it sacramental and ecclesial. Here is where the issue of the unity of the love commands ­ love of God and love of neighbour ­ enters the picture. If the Eucharist “draws us into Jesus’s act of self-oblation”, then the direction charity-love confers on the drive of eros will be twofold. When the Word incarnate on the Cross loves to the end, his love embraces both the Father and the brethren for whom, by the Father’s good pleasure, he lives and dies and lives again ­ this time, in the Resurrection-life, for ever. The Saviour loves human beings in the Father’s Spirit and for the Father’s sake. In this way Jesus gives us the model for a Christian love directed inseparably to God and neighbour alike.

    Part Two of Deus Caritas Est will reveal the Pope¹s concern, no doubt based on accumulating documents in Curial archives, that much of the historic charitable outreach of the Church is currently menaced by secularisation. So he stresses at the end of Part One that heartfelt love of those we either do not know or, if we know do not like, is impossible without accepting the God-informed perspective of Christ. And this is so even if there can be, as he admits, a frozen-hearted piety which only the reawakening of love for our fellow human beings is likely to melt.

    The transition from Part One to Part Two of the letter is not flawless, and what has reached the public forum about the mode of preparation of the document explains why. Two texts, one entirely the Pope’s and one not, have been spliced together ­ of course, with his consent and above his name. The mystical charity of Part One turns on participation in the Trinitarian life by holiness through grace. The social charity considered in Part Two is an outworking of that in the body of the Church.

    But the historical references provided for the (social) “practice of love” may suggest the intervention of the Pope’s hand. As some Eastern Orthodox are happy to acknowledge, this is a Pope who looks for inspiration to the age of the Fathers of the Church. The organised social charity of the Church which emerged in that epoch ­ it was something novel in the context of the Greco-Roman world ­ is for Benedict a crucial aspect of right practice of the faith. Even in an age where state agencies accept a good deal of responsibility for temporal welfare, the Church, he thinks, cannot abandon her charitable activity without undergoing a diminution of her nature. The order of justice, the proper sphere of politics, will never supplant the role of practical charity, since, in a world marked by original sin, no society is ever going to be so perfectly just that hard cases will not abound.

    Benedict sees the social role of the Church working out in two ways. The first way is by forming conscience in civil society. Benedict comes close to the Liberal dream of “a free Church in a free State”, but he never quite surrenders to its lure. Without an input from the Church’s revelation-assisted grasp of human norms and human destiny conscience will suffer ­ not its freedom of exercise but in the value of its deliverances. The State can afford to allow that to happen no more than can the Church.

    The other form social outreach takes is through the Church’s own charitable agencies, and these Benedict bids to stay faithful. Their essential foundations are faith in the God of Jesus Christ and the exercise of faith’s most tangible organ, which is prayer. Professionalism can mean competence (excellent); it can also signify secularisation (in the optic of this letter, disastrous). A rash of name-changes for erstwhile overtly Catholic organisations in the post-Conciliar period symptomises what the Pope means. Agape as the Gospel tradition conceives it is not likely to survive the entry of secularism by the back door.

    The need to re-evangelise, and re-catholicise, agencies that originated in the mystical Body but now operate with a considerable degree of detachment from its life helps to explain why the Pope ends this letter with the saintly patrons of social charity. It has been said that Benedict XVI will emphasise Scripture where John Paul II stressed the saints. But Benedict is not likely to forget the saints. He considers them the empirical verification of the Gospel. Also, I think he will continue to follow a convention established by his predecessor and, as here, end each encyclical with a reference to the Mother of God. Marianism is too deeply rooted in his religious personality for him to discontinue. And no bad thing, for a Church that seeks to be once again a holy Mother.

    The great Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac once declared that the hierarchy should be maternal. The pope and bishops exercise in their own mode the motherhood of the Church. This is a warm, nurturing love which, however, is not intended to produce mummy’s boys. Fortunately, and despite initial fears, Deus Caritas Est does not envelop us in a bosomy embrace sufficient to suffocate. It does reassure us that we are loved and meant to love. But it also has backbone. Like counsel from a good parent, it would have us get on with life, which for a Christian means in particular theosis, divinisation (compare Part One of the letter), and (compare Part Two) meeting the myriad needs of the world.

Fr Aidan Nichols OP is the author of The Thought of Pope Benedict XVI (Continuum)

This article first appeared in the 3rd February 2006 issue of The Catholic Herald.

Version 18th July 2009

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