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

BY: Rocco Palmo

 

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When word crept out from the Vatican in mid-November that Benedict's first letter would skip policy and instead tackle a basic concept of Christianity, Roman gossip opined that the message would not be the road map that John Paul's 1979

Redemptor hominis

(The Redeemer of Man)--which articulated the late pontiff's belief in Christianity as real liberation, particularly against the scourge of Communism--was for his 27-year reign. That the new pope was seemingly overturning a tradition held dear by popes past, in creating a document which was not so much grand plan as pastoral reflection, caused more than a little puzzlement in Vatican circles.

Score another setback for conventional wisdom.

By using his pulpit to proclaim the simple necessity of love "in a world where," as Benedict put it in the document's introduction, "the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence," the pope is speaking to a world in which war is too often the defining characteristic of relations between peoples of faith.

But even more powerfully, Benedict is re-emphasizing the virtue often lacking in the life, work, and daily conversation of the Catholic church. While it covers the necessity of love at all levels of the wider world,

Deus caritas est

also expresses the pope's thinly-veiled wish for the unity of his divided flock.

In its passages about sex, love and marriage, the encyclical takes to task the liberalized mores of the West. The mutually self-giving love between man and woman is described as "the one in particular [that] stands out [from all other love]... where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness." "Monogamous marriage" is placed on a par with "the image of a monotheistic God." The pope notes that "marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa."

But this encyclical's call to love, even when it is inconvenient or uneasy, should give pause to the church's lay activists at the extremes. Particularly in the United States, the fringes of the Catholic community have viewed those who disagree with them as virtually excommunicated.

The church isn't an ideological battlefield
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