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Pope’s first encyclical expounds on love, charity

Katie Perry | Friday, February 3, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI last week issued the first encyclical of his papacy, a highly anticipated two-part meditation underscoring the fundamental Catholic values of love and charity that has since prompted a range of interpretations from Notre Dame experts.

Titled “Deus Caritas Est” – or “God is Love” – the encyclical of the supreme pontiff was released Jan. 25 and addressed bishops, priests, deacons, men and women religious and “all the lay faithful.”

“In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant,” the pope said. “I wish in my first [e]ncyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others.”

Encyclicals were first issued by the ancient Church as letters to be sent to all churches in a given area. Today, encyclicals represent one of the highest forms of papal teaching and usually address a significant issue or topic concerning Catholic faith.

Theology professor Lawrence Cunningham praised the “brief and straightforward” document, one he said contrasted greatly from the “long, tortured and complicated” encyclicals of the late Pope John Paul II.

“This is an excellent encyclical,” Cunningham said. “It’s very well-crafted by a pope who is probably one of the best theologians in the past 1,000 years of popes … It is a very affirmative, pastoral and deeply spiritual document.”

The 71-page document stressed love and charity as crucial aspects of the Catholic faith and outlined the Church’s role concerning social justice. Benedict XVI emphasized the Church’s ability to assuage suffering through love and charity, but warned acts of charity should not be used as a means for proselytization.

The pope divided the encyclical into two distinct parts. In the first, “more speculative” section, he analyzed the meaning of love and how it is expressed by humankind.

History professor R. Scott Appleby, who also serves as director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, called the first part of the encyclical an “elegant and refined … wonderful and profound exposition of the Christian theology of love.”

“Today, the term ‘love’ has become one of the most frequently used and misused of words, a word to which we attach quite different meanings,” the pope said.

Cunningham said Benedict XVI described both the dual nature and universal importance of love.

“The pope said that in English, we don’t have different ways of expressing love, but in Greek there are the terms ‘eros’ and ‘agape’ – both of these are good forms of love,” Cunningham said. “Eros holds up the idea of love between a husband and wife, but love also has to spill over to … Christian charity. If you allow only eros, it’s easy for love to become [a commodity].”

Cunningham illustrated the Holy Father’s message by employing the example of a young couple who wed and are affectionate towards each other – that is, they “hold hands, kiss and have sexual relations.”

“If one of the spouses becomes ill or incapacitated, the true mark of love is if [they stay together],” Cunningham said. “That’s the point the pope is trying to get at.”

The second, “more concrete” section addresses the ecclesiastical exercise of the commandment of love of neighbor.

“[Jesus’] death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him,” the pope said. “By contemplating the pierced side of Christ, we can understand the starting-point of this [encyclical letter] … In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move.”

Appleby said everything the Christian does unfolds in the context of what God has done and is doing, “in Jesus Christ and in us.”

“The pope is reminding us of priorities and foundations – what ‘comes first’ is God’s self-gift in love and our response in love,” he said. “That loving relationship, and nothing else, is the foundation for our just relationships to others in the world, to politics, to society, to economy and the like.”

Benedict XVI said love is the service the Church carries out in order to alleviate suffering in the world. Likening the Church to “God’s family in the world,” the pope said no member of the family should go without the basic necessities of life.

The encyclical said the Church must cooperate with government in order to ameliorate social discrepancies instead of acting alone in such endeavors.

“The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible,” the pope said. “She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.”

Cunningham said in this statement, the pope asks if the state should “take over all the works of justice.”

“The pope says the Church ought to cooperate with the state,” Cunningham said. “He argues that there ought to be some unity between charitable works of the state and charitable works of the Church.”

Appleby said the “more controversial” second part outlines the Church’s mission of charity in the world.

“[The second part] declares that the Church must be concerned with social justice, through forming consciences, but is not directly responsible for building just social structures – that is the task of the laity,” Appleby said.

Appleby said this part provides little comfort for people who believe bishops should intervene directly in politics by denouncing – or praising -Catholic politicians. In addition, he said the language of the encyclical “seems to place the laity in the world establishing justice, with the Church somewhat apart from the world, forming consciences.”

“The Church-world dualism is troubling to Catholics who understood Vatican II to be calling for an end to that kind of dualistic thinking,” Appleby said.

Cunningham said he disagreed with press reports calling the encyclical “uncontroversial” because of its failure to address abortion, divorce and other hot-button issues on the minds of today’s Catholic populace.

“It is true that the press reports are saying that [Benedict XVI] isn’t being controversial,” he said. “I think the press comments came from people who didn’t read the encyclical.”

The pope also described the Church’s “deepest nature” as a three-part obligation to proclaim the word of God, celebrate the sacraments and exercise the ministry of charity – duties which “presuppose each other and are inseparable.”