The Surprising Message Behind 'God Is Love'

Benedict XVI's first encyclical sets the tone for his pontificate--and may raise eyebrows among liberal and conservatives alike

Joseph Ratzinger was never going to be the pope of conventional wisdom.



His April election as Pope Benedict XVI was greeted with shock, suspicion, and (occasionally) downright revulsion among both Catholics and non-Catholics. Many observers were puzzled at the choice of Ratzinger, who for years was Catholicism's "bad cop" in defending controversial church teachings. Critics doubted that a fractious global flock could hold under the leadership of a man who had been widely known as "Cardinal `No'" and compared to the

Panzer,

the ruthless German army tank.

But the reserved successor to John Paul II is a man of many surprises. The former doctrinal enforcer has just released his first major papal document--and instead of being a harsh condemnation, the encyclical is an uplifting treatise on love's place at the center of Christian--and Catholic--life.

Encyclicals are the most important form of communication a pope has at his disposal. Over the last century, the first encyclical of a new pontificate has set the tone for everything that follows, explaining how a pope views his office and its role in the life of his billion-member flock.

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Deus caritas est

(God is love), a 42-paragraph message that ambitiously tackles topics from the "boldly erotic images" used in the Old Testament to describe "God's passion for his people" to the "essential task" of "building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due," poses a challenge to both sides of the Catholic divide. While conservative Catholics will agree that the concept of human love,

eros

"reduced to pure 'sex,' has become a commodity, a mere 'thing' to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity," the absence of the divisive doctrinal questions of sexuality, contraception, and abortion from the document might further add to the suspicion, already aired in some quarters, that their man has "gone soft." It is not what they would have expected--or, perhaps, wished. At the same time, the encyclical has already earned the resounding praise of the controversial Swiss theologian Fr. Hans Kung, Benedict's onetime academic mentor.

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