Thursday, February 23, 2006

The "God Is Love" Encyclical

Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) is the first encyclical written by Pope Benedict XVI. Comprising almost 16,000 words, it was promulgated on January 25, 2006 in Latin and in several translations, including English. Reportedly, Benedict wrote the first half in German, his native tongue. The second half stems from an unfinished text left by his predecessor, John Paul II. The encyclical is thus a collaboration, though final responsibility rests with the present pontiff. The Latin title of the encyclical is a quotation from the First Letter of St. John, 4:16, translated from the original Greek "ho theos agape estin." In most contemporary English translations the expression reads "God is love." The exposition pivots on the concepts of eros (possessive, often sexual, love), agape (unconditional, self-sacrificing love), logos (the word), and their relationship with the teachings of Jesus.

In view of the severe reputation attaching to the prepontifical Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, some were surprised that his first encyclical should focus on such a positive, apparently worldly theme, including a positive role for sexual expression. The emphasis is still on sex within marriage, and only within marriage. The novelty—a departure I think from Augustinian thinking—is that carnal sex can be approved in that situation, providing it serves as a bridge to spiritual love. In addition, there is a kind of cosmic dimension, as love, understood as agape, is supposed to inhere in Christ and in this way radiate throughout the world. While indications of mellowing are indeed welcoming, one should not be too carried away. There is no indication that the pope looks with any favor on sexual love conducted outside the marriage context, and then of course it must follow guidelines supplied by the Church.

The topic of love has been much discussed since the ancient Greeks (and even before), without much progress towards a final definition. Some would throw up their hands and say that this is a hopelessly confused concept. In Ulysses James Joyce hesitated, then decided not to utter the word. But too many sensitive individuals have seen it as richly interconnected and indeed central to human existence.

Clearly the pope thinks that love is more than a four-letter word.

Benedict’s encyclical is liberally sprinkled with scriptural references, but in fact depends crucially on two non-Catholic, heretical sources.The first stems from the Lutheran bishop of Lund, Anders Nygren (1890-1978). In his book known in English as Eros and Agape (Swedish original 1930), Nygren sought to ground in the New Testament a fundamental contrast between eros and agape. Eros is the more carnal, "biological" form of love, agape is its spiritual sublimation. While Benedict purloins Nygren’s two key terms, the opinion that eros is inherently good departs from Nygren’s view that agape is the only truly Christian kind of love, and that eros is an expression of the individual's selfish desires, turning us away from God.

In fact the New Testament does not use the contrast of eros and agape to state such a fundamental conceptual contrast. As Benedict concedes, the word eros occurs nowhere in the New Testament. Koine Greek had in fact replaced eros with agape--the meaning is essentially the same--as part of normal linguistic evolution, much in the way that in everyday English "to cry" has supplanted "to weep" (though the meaning of the latter is still recognized). By the same token one could evolve a sophisticated contrast between crying and weeping, but it is not inherent in the use of the words. Note that Dante managed perfectly well with "amore" alone. (Yes, as the song goes, "it's amore.")

Discarding Nygren's misleading philology, one may still argue that there is a difference between lust and spiritual love, however phrased. The former may enjoy some aura of toleration if it is recognized that it may lead to the latter. This formulation, however, takes us in an even more dangerous direction as it stems from Plato. And Plato famously believed that it was erotic attraction to b o y s that constituted the first step on this ladder of progression to beatitude.

This is the myth Plato ascribes to Aristophanes in the Symposium, to wit, that the primal ancestors of human beings were originally three types of double-beings, one male-male, the second female-female, and the third male-female. After the gods separated us, we eternally long to return to our mate, male (like ourselves in the first case), female (like ourselves in the second), and finally of the opposite sex (in the third case). Among other things this myth is (I believe) the origin of the expression "better half." A variant of it may have survived in the Genesis expression "they became one flesh." Plato's myth is almost certainly of Middle Eastern origin.

Theologically Ratzinger attached himself to a movement called "resourcement," with its center in France. Theologians like Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou sought to return to Origen and the other Greek patristic thinkers, and above all to St. Augustine. Part of this landscape was a shadowy figure known as Plato Christianus, a Christianized Plato.

Two other surprising sources may be briefly noted. In considering eros, Benedict refers to a line from Vergil's Eclogues, X, 69, "Omnia vincit amor, et nos cedamus amori" ("Love conquers all, let us also yield to love"). This is an odd borrowing, since the second poem in Vergil’s cycle extols the passionate homosexual love of the shepherd Corydon. The pontiff also notes (though without approval) the opinion of Friedrich Nietzsche that Christianity has poisoned eros, turning it into a vice.

As this brief analysis shows, the encyclical is a composite reflecting various sources. Perhaps this is true of most intellectual creations of this kind. Still, in the light of the text’s various sources, it is hard to see it as simply an unalloyed reflection of abiding truths as preserved in Scripture and maintained, without alteration, by Holy Church.


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