November 11, 2006

An agnostic gives five stars to the Pope's "God Is Love"

Carl Olson over at "Insight Scoop" calls attention to an agnostic's enthusiastic, five-star review of the encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" by Pope Benedict XVI.
I am shocked, absolutely shocked, that no one has reviewed Pope Benedict XVI's first papal encyclical, "God Is Love". At the very least you would expect a Catholic or two to show up and say a few words about the supreme pontiff's elegant treatise on the transformative power of God's love. It's been nearly eight months since the Vatican released it! Where are the reviews? Sad, sad, sad. Well, I'll write a review for Benedict's epistle even though I'm not a Catholic. Nor am I a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, or a Protestant. I'm just an agnostic, albeit one who holds sympathies for the Catholic Church, with a bachelor's degree in religious studies (degrees in history too, but that doesn't count here). I decided to read "Deus Caritas Est" (the Latin title) when I realized I have never read a papal encyclical. They serve several important purposes within the Catholic Church. One, encyclicals tend to lay the groundwork for a pope's legacy. Two, they attempt to offer answers to serious temporal problems facing Catholics around the world. Three, they explain certain policy decisions taken by the leadership. Four, and lastly, encyclicals often clarify hazy doctrinal issues that arise from time to time.

Benedict divides "God Is Love" into two parts. The first, and most difficult, section involves a theoretical discussion on the various aspects of love. According to the pontiff, there is two of major importance. The first, eros, is a grand, soaring love that has little to do with giving of oneself. Agape, the second form of love, is more contemplative and grounded, a love that is more concerned with giving than receiving. Both forms of love are healthy and good in and of themselves, but Benedict admonishes the modern tendency to embrace eros as it pertains to bodily pleasures. Love without the spiritual component found in Christianity, the pope argues, is an empty love that causes more harm than good. Only when we realize that eros and agape go together, that they are two sides of the same coin, do we understand the depth and greatness of God's love. He also contends that it is through God that both loves become united for the benefit of mankind. Benedict cites a number of sources-- Virgil's Eclogues, Nietzsche, the Old Testament, and the Gospels among them-- in his examination of the various aspects and definitions of love. It's pretty obvious the new pope is quite the theologian.

After the tough slog through the first part of the encyclical (Benedict himself admits it is a difficult trek), the second part feels like a piece of cake. This section discusses how Catholic charities must channel God's love to help ease humanity's sufferings. There's some standard stuff in here one would expect from the head of the Catholic Church-- love thy neighbor, don't puff up with pride or feel superior because you help the needy, and admonitions to stay the course in an increasingly dark and dangerous world. Good and true, such advice. Benedict goes further, however, by urging Catholic charities to retain their religious character, to avoid Marxist cant about foregoing charity in favor of a nebulous social justice down the road. He also points out that Catholic organizations should watch out lest they become part of the state and the political process (read: shun secularization). "Deus Caritas Est" concludes with a very short examination of saints and charity. He cites Martin of Tours, Francis of Assisi, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Mary, and others as examples of how love and charity should work in the earthly realm. Also included in an appendix is an introduction Benedict wrote for the edition of the encyclical published in Famiglia Cristiana.

I remember back when Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. The media went nuts over his selection. They blasted him for being a conservative, and there were many dark insinuations that this pope would attempt to take the Catholic Church back to the Middle Ages. His association with a certain youth association in Germany at the end of World War II hinted at something far bleaker, although anyone with half a brain understood that membership in this group was mandatory and meant nothing about this man's character. It was just another smear tactic employed by liberals angry over the Church's refusal to ordain female priests and its failure to get with the program and endorse abortion. After reading this encyclical, though, I'm starting to wonder about this pope's conservative credentials. I was hoping for a vigorous attack on the alienation inherent in modernity, or at least the very least secular liberalism and its manifold evils. No such luck. He touches on a few of the destructive behaviors in the present day, such as drugs and loose morals, but not in any substantive detail. Perhaps his next encyclical will deal with these issues in greater depth.

I usually reserve a final paragraph in my reviews for criticism of the product. How the heck can I do that here? I'm reading something written by THE POPE! Not only that, he's a pope who is a noted theologian. Who am I to criticize his use of source material or pick apart his arguments? I leave it to better men than I, ones with a Ph.D. in theology, to critique the whole agape versus eros theory proposed by the pontiff. I will offer up one slight suggestion that might have made the first part of the encyclical easier to read. It seems to me that I might understand his arguments better had he defined the terms eros and agape much earlier in the text. The epistle just launches into the theory without defining the concepts until several pages later. Who knows how this happened? Maybe translation problems are to blame. It's a small point, I know, but that's all I'm going to say in the negative. In the positive, "God Is Love" is an inspirational read even for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.


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