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.
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.
What the pope says about sex
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.
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"--eros, or "worldly" love, and agape, 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.