Wednesday, January 25, 2006
This is Benedict XVI's first encyclical, issued on the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, but delayed in publication for a month. It consists of two parts, the first entitled “The Unity of Love in Creation and in Salvation History,” and the second, entitled “The Practice of Love by the Church as a `Community of Love,'” which gives some apparently uncontroversial comments on the way the Church practices charity. I confess that I was much more interested in the first part, but, as I read, I started to feel guilty that I was a little bored with the concrete details of charity. In fact, I take this to be the point of the encyclical: that charity is, along with the preaching of the Gospel and the sacramental life of the Church, essential. One cannot be a Christian who does not love.
Benedict starts with an exploration of the concept of love. “Love” is a word with many meanings and uses, all of which have at best a tenuous connection. I love my wife, my new fountain pen, my baseball team, pizza, my children, Notre Dame football, and God. Is there some unity to these concepts? Benedict suggests that there is: “Amid this multiplicity of meanings, however, one in particular stands out: love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness.” (2) This is a striking way of describing love in its erotic dimension: why do we seek the other, often at great expense and difficulty? Because we have glimpsed in her face, in her being, a promise of happiness. “With her, I will be happy,” we may think. Love promises joy.
But isn't it the case, Benedict argues, that the Church restricts this joy? That it encumbers it with rules and “thou shalt not's?” No. Not so. In fact, this desirous, ascending love (called eros in Greek) is a very dangerous thing. When left to itself, it is self-destructive. If one gives in to the passions, one will lose the joy. Benedict speaks of the ancient custom of temple prostitutes, in the days when Eros was a god: “Indeed, the prostitutes in the temple, who had to bestow this divine intoxication, were not treated as human beings and persons, but simply used as a means of arousing `divine madness'; far from being goddesses, they were human beings being exploited.” (4) This exploitation is the constant danger inherent in eros. If desire for the other is not purified, it becomes degraded, or, to put it crudely, it ceases to be desire for the other and becomes desire for the other's posterior. The insistence on a higher love is the only way to preserve eros as desire for the other.
The Church presents a different love, called agape, that moves beyond the joy that the other person gives to the self. Rather, it is a complete self-giving to the other, exemplified by Christ on the Cross.
Can these two different loves, eros and agape, be unified? There is a tendency in modern philosophy deriving from Kant to sunder the two. If I help others because it makes me happy, then my actions are not genuinely moral. True love of neighbor should be thoroughly disinterested, in order to be a true example of a good will. Benedict does not mention Kant by name, but It seems to be in the background of his thinking. Can eros and agape be separated? It's another way of asking the question whether being good is the same as being happy.
Benedict answers that they can be united, and, in fact, must be united. He calls eros “ascending love” and agape “descending love”, in that it descends to the other and bestows love. Eros or desire for the other that never matured into concern for the other would be incomplete, and agape without joy would die. “Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34).” Thus the two loves must go together.
Christianity is unique in that it presents us with the person of Christ, with God made man who incarnates love, and guarantees its possibility. One reaction to the concept of agape is “What's in it for me?” Another is “That's nice, but impossible; people aren't really like that.” But Jesus shows us that it is, and then motivates our love and gives it efficacy. First, we experience the love of Christ. We are not the first movers, but are moved by Him who loves us, that the Byzantine liturgy repeatedly calls philanthropos, the lover of mankind. “In the Church's Liturgy, in her prayer in the living community of believers, we experience the love of God, we perceive his presence and we thus learn to recognize that presence in our daily lives.” (17) God loves us, and in our experience of that love we desire to respond with love of God.
This love of God then becomes the basis of all agape, of all love of neighbor. If I love God, “Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ. His friend is my friend.” (18) The other person is not just a human, just a person, but is loved by God who loves me. Since true love involves a communion of wills, I should love him whom God loves. “If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God.” (18) All reductionism in morality has its root in a failure to acknowledge the other as loved by God.
From this point Benedict talks about the practice of love in the Church, noting that charitable service is present from the beginning, in the establishment of the order of the diaconate (“deacon” means “servant” in Greek) to serve the needs of the poor, through the charitable work of bishops and laity throughout the ages. One thing of note is his continual presentation of three main activities of the Church: Word, sacrament, and charity. Generally I think of Christian life more in terms of the first two than the latter, but it is true that to be a Christian is love.
Does this mean that the gospel and the liturgy can be neglected? No. In fact, to try to love correctly without praying or believing correctly, without nourishing oneself with the Eucharist, will lead to disaster. Our faith in Christ will give us sure hope that all are in God's hands. There is a temptation, when confronted with poverty, to despair of helping, or to embrace revolutionary tactics to do in our time what God does in His time, doing unspeakable things to humans out of love for humanity. “At such times, a living relationship with Christ is decisive if we are to keep on the right path without falling into an arrogant contempt for man, something not only unconstructive but actually destructive, or surrendering to a resignation which would prevent us from being guided by love in the service of others.” (36) The guarantee against these temptations is prayer. Those who would love well must pray well. I am reminded of the saint who said “If you don't have time to pray, you don't have time for anything else.”
The pope ends with a wonderful reflection on Mary's charity, the love she shows by visiting Elizabeth in the final days of her pregnancy, by her tactful intervention at Cana, and by her humble withdrawal from the stage during Jesus' ministry. She is able to do this because her thoughts are imbued with the Word of God; Benedict uses the Magnificat as proof this, since the entire prayer is drawn from the Scriptures. It shows Mary wills as God wills, and it is this co-willing, this union with God, that ultimately makes genuine human love possible.
So much for my summary. I may have more reflections on it later, but I think it is a solid explanation of the Church's teaching on love, and is perhaps motivated by a desire to reach those in Western Europe and the Americas for whom the Church and religion are seen as something joyless, always saying “no” to love. It is the case, as Benedict teaches, that the situation is exactly the opposite. It is only the Christian who can genuinely love. Christians make better lovers, someone could put on a T-shirt. As it is, the encyclical proposes no new norms or disciplinary directives, as many expected would be forthcoming from Benedict. But it does set the stage nicely for all sorts of actions, since it emphasizes that love (eros) is not enough. Augustine says “Love and do what you will,” but that statement is only true if love is complete, a union of eros and agape, and that only comes about by a purification or ascesis of eros. You have to love in the right way, in order to love well.
Posted by Karl at 2:14 PM