Two quite different types of reaction to the encyclical are bubbling to the surface today.
First, the one that suggests, either happily or not, that since this is all about Luv, and the specifics weren’t mentioned, it’s a sellout of sorts. Or at least a signal that the Panzer Papacy isn’t what we thought and really doesn’t care about all of that stuff as much as we thought.
Ours is a culture, it seems, so accustomed to position papers and talking points and legislation that we don’t know what to do when we’re presented with what amounts to foundational work, to a reminder of what is at the core of all of the "issues." Even Andrew Sulllivan who kindly links to this joint, but then says:
"I also, obviously, share Benedict’s wonder at conjugal love. I see no conflict between the love of two homosexual men or women for each other and the mystery of heterosexual love. One day, it would be wonderful to see this doctrine of love extend to all God’s creatures. … And yes, this does surprise me somewhat. It is not as extreme or as repressive as Benedict’s well-earned reputation. It is a sign, one hopes, of a papcy that can change and grow and concentrate on the central truths, not peripheral obsessions. For that, a great sigh of relief. And, even, yes, hope …"
What is odd is that there is no "growth" in that sense here. Benedict’s appealing to 3000 year old texts to weave his case: that eros is a dimension of divine love, evidenced by the paradigmatic Original Couple, created for each other for companionship and procreation, as well as in the revelation, through various insights of the prophets and Wisdom literature, that something about God’s love can be learned from the passionate seeking of the beloved, as well as the forgiveness of the same when betrayed. This is not new. This is ancient.
And the "well-earned" reputation for repression is getting so old. Sing that to the institutions of higher learning in the Jesuit tradition that have flourished, repression-free, for the past thirty years. Better yet, read some of this pope’s theology. As I mentioned, anyone familiar with Ratzinger will find no surprises in Benedict.
This encyclical is intriguing and important, for, even as I have joked, it takes the mantra of 60’s and 70’s Catholicism and turns it on its head. You’re right, it says. God IS love. But what does that mean? Does it mean create your own definition of love and live by that? Does it mean simply being kind to others?
No. It’s grounded in God’s intentional act of creation, it’s grounded in the self-giving that is dramatically, climactically and powerfully enfleshed in Jesus.
So no, love is not an ocassion for self-absorbed, self-centered pursuits of happiness. It means to love as Jesus did.
The second reaction, personified by Scott Appleby, a scholar from Notre Dame, in this Newsday article:
"This seems to be a return to a theology of church in which the church is primarily given the responsibility to form consciences and to provide charity – something no Catholic would disagree with – but which is not further responsible for prophecy or for actual social reform towards justice," said R. Scott Appleby, a professor of Catholic history at the University of Notre Dame. "That’s not how my generation of Catholics understood Vatican II."
…"This seems to be a return to a pre-Vatican II notion that separates the church from the world," Appleby said.
I think the Pope lays out the issue clearly. Immersion in the suffering of others is not separating from the world. Benedict calls for the Church to be a strong moral voice, a "clarifying" voice. But in the end, I’m guessing we’re talking about liberation theology, eh?
Contra David Gibson in the same article, I don’t think this should be greeted with a shrug, either. Is there nothing new? Well, I guess not, but why is that bad? The function of documents like this – in fact the teaching role of the Church at any given time or moment, is to give us living in the world today a better sense of how we are to live our faith, our relationship with Christ, in the present day. What seems to be going on here, if you read closely, is a very strong statement about the Church’s purpose in the world, and how that must be grounded in the love of Christ – something that, for examples, many branches of Catholic Charities in this country have forgotten, not to speak of Catholic hospitals that toe a fine line in their purported "non-profit" status.
I think the greater point here is focus. We can talk about structures all day, but are we doing so from our office near the Hill or our well-to do suburban church which supports a school that charges 10,000 tuition? And moving back to the Gospels – what does Jesus call us to? As I said in my previous post, feeding the poor and tending to the imprisoned might well involve some of what we traditionally call "justice" action, and it must. But the temptation for all of us is to get wrapped up in our programs and our own power to change the world, while we, in the process, ignore the need of the person down the street, which is, before anything else, the need that Jesus commands us attend to. It’s not instead. It’s before, it’s priority, it’s as we do everything else – meeting our brothers and sisters directly in the midst of their suffering.
Do we already know this? Probably. Do we know it? I’m not so sure.