First message to flock warns against word being reduced to a sexual commodity
Pope Benedict XVI thawed his previously chilly image yesterday by producing as his first message to his worldwide flock a notably warm rumination on the nature of love. Deus Caritas Est - God is Love - marked Benedict's first encyclical or pastoral letter to the 1.1 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church since his election last April and was greeted last night with some astonishment and relief among senior Catholics.
The 71-page document spoke of love between men and women and also of the need for unconditional love towards all mankind. But it also warned against the word becoming reduced to a sexual commodity. "I wish ... to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others ... 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. Love is free; it is not practised as a way of achieving other ends."
Its central message was far from the finger-wagging, "thou shalt not" tone that characterised some of his predecessor's pronouncements and contrasted with Benedict's own stern reputation during his 24 years as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy. Catholic observers suggested that the document, written largely by the Pope himself during the latter half of last year, represented a truer indication of his nature than his image would suggest. Monsignor Andrew Faley, assistant general secretary of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, said: "I think it is a wonderful document. It is much more reflective and conversational in tone and less prescriptive than some past encyclicals. He is calling on people to reflect on the central truth of love. We are seeing the substance of the man as a pastor and shepherd of the flock. A cuddly Benedict? Well, well."
Catherine Pepinster, editor of the Catholic weekly The Tablet, said: "I am delighted: it is very direct, idealistic and warm-hearted. We are struggling not to be too gushing in this week's editorial."
Archbishop William Levada, the Vatican's new doctrinal enforcer told a press conference in Rome: "This is a strong text that seeks to contest the improper use of God's name and the ambiguity of the notion of 'love' that is so prevalent in the modern world today." The encyclical warns: "Today the term 'love' has become one of the most frequently used and misused of words ... We speak of love of country, love of one's profession, love between friends, love of work, love between parents and children, love of neighbour and love of God. 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.
"Nowadays Christianity of the past is often criticised as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros reduced to pure sex has become a commodity, a mere thing to be bought and sold."
The second half of the encyclical deals with the need for charity as an extension of God's love for humanity. But the Pope insisted he was not looking for the church to replace the state. "Our times call for a new readiness to assist our neighbours in need ... a just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.
"Love of widows and orphans, prisoners and the sick and needy of every kind is as essential to her [the church] as ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel ... For the church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensible expression of her very being."
While the encyclical did not break new ground or revise Church policy on sexual issues - towards gays or on birth control for instance - it was certainly more emollient than many Vatican documents in the recent past and its message is likely to determine the character of Benedict XVI's papacy.
Eros v Agape
The 78-year-old pontiff devoted much of the first half of his treatise to the relationship between Eros - erotic love - and Agape, the Greek word for unconditional and selfless love.
He referred to an "intoxicated and undisciplined" Eros leading to human degradation. Eros is defined as erotic or worldly love. Eros is also the name of the god of love in Greek mythology.
Agape (pronounced ah-gah-pay) is a Greek word referring to unconditional, spiritual and selfless love, as described in the Bible.
The encyclical says both forms are interrelated: "The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realised."