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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Writing about sacramental communion, when Catholics receive what the church teaches is Jesus' flesh and blood, Benedict rejects the notion of the church as an ideological battlefield: "Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself," the Pope writes.

Speaking in the first person but stressing the collective, he continues that "I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. ...Love of God and love of neighbor are now truly united."

While the first half of the letter deals with Benedict's emphasis on love's "dimensions"--


, or "worldly" love, and


, or "love grounded in and shaped by faith"--its second half focuses on the church's charitable mission, both wide and small.

In the United States and much of the world, the church's institutional resources invested in relief, humanitarian and social service efforts are often the most comprehensive of their kind. But the pope challenged Catholics to extend charity beyond the tangible. "Seeing with the eyes of Christ," he writes, "[we] can give to others much more than their outward necessities; [we] can give them the look of love which they crave."

The pope reaffirms that church charities must be a witness for Christ in the world. He cites the story of the Byzantine emperor Julian, whose father was murdered when he was six. "[R]ightly or wrongly," Benedict wrote, "he blamed this brutal act on the Emperor Constantius, who passed himself off as an outstanding Christian. The Christian faith was thus definitively discredited in his eyes. Upon becoming emperor, Julian decided to restore paganism... [H]e wrote that the sole aspect of Christianity which had impressed him was the Church's charitable activity... In this way, then, the Emperor confirmed that charity was a decisive feature of the Christian community, the Church." Elsewhere, the encyclical praises St. Lawrence, the early Christian martyr who was, according to legend, roasted to death for his charity.

So why has the man who is, arguably, the most intellectually gifted pontiff in memory begun his pontificate on a counterintuitive note? Perhaps because he knows the intellect is not the source of Christian life. "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea," the new pope writes, "but the encounter with an event, a person"--Jesus--"which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction."

In highlighting his church's commitment to become ever more a "community of love," Benedict has put those who would prefer to boast of their own superiority or cast others away on notice. The Vatican isn't always seen as a place which exudes kindness. But the message of

Deus caritas est

rings clear: to give voice to the "lofty idea" of faith without giving heart to Christianity's essential "encounter" with God's love isn't just futile--it's to miss the whole point.

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