I was happy to discover that Pope Benedict’s first encyclical is not a crackdown on dissident theologians, nor a stern reprimand to the secular world. Rather, it is an extended reflection on the nature of Christian love. It is addressed not only to the bishops of the world, but also to priests and deacons, men and women religious and all the lay faithful. It is written in a refreshingly clear style, very much accessible to those it addresses. All of this is welcome to this lay woman theologian, who has struggled through the lengthy, complex and sometimes turgid prose of Benedict’s predecessors. I anticipate using this encyclical in some of my classes, knowing that I will not have to spoon-feed it to my students, who will be able to understand what the pope is saying. It is well organized, theologically informed and even includes a few footnotes that refer to something other than previous papal writings. I read this encyclical with the hope of encountering the Gospel message of God’s passion, inclusivity, generosity and justice to the world today. Some of my hopes were met, and some were not. In what follows, I will offer a few of my personal reactions to this first letter of the new pope.
Although I have studied Latin, I relied on the English translation, but I checked it against the Latin in a few places. So while it was not surprising, it was certainly disappointing to see all instances of the Latin word homo -inis translated as man or mankind. This is both unfortunate and unnecessary. At least in English, concern for inclusive language has been alive for at least 35 years, yet exclusive language continues to prevail in Vatican documents. I suppose I should not be surprised, as the media have not understood this message either; but it is too bad that these grating references to man and mankind continue to dominate ecclesiastical language. What an example it would be if the Catholic Church could model linguistic justice!
In the first part of the encyclical, devoted to divine and human love, Benedict gives substantial space to discussing eros and agape. I appreciated the pope’s attention to philosophical and theological discussions, with his references to Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity and the theologian Anders Nygren’s work Agape and Eros (although not named specifically). Benedict acknowledges the ambiguous history of Christianity’s attitude toward the body and also, justifiably, criticizes contemporary attitudes toward the body and sexuality, by which eros is reduced to pure sex,’ [and] has become a commodity (No. 5). I agree that sex has become a recreational right among many today and that there is a real need for an alternative approach that values sexuality without commodifying it. But when Benedict moves on to discuss the Song of Songs and mutual love, he seems to proceed immediately to the idea that love becomes concern and care for the other...ready for sacrifice (No. 6). Something is missing here. While not denying the need for selflessness and sacrifice in love, I would like to have seen some attention paid to the utter delight in the other that is characteristic of both human and divine love. There is an extravagance, a joy, an over-the-top quality to the love of God for Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures and of Abba in Jesus’ parables that is lacking here. Perhaps a little more attention to this would help to get beyond the idea that Christianity is opposed to the body. Nevertheless, Benedict includes a connection with human experience and a concern for mutuality that is welcome.
Benedict emphasizes the newness of the biblical picture of God’s love and stresses the novelty of the idea of the image of God in humanity. Would it not have been more helpful, then, to describe the creation of woman as the man’s companion rather than as his helper, which Benedict does three times? I am no biblical specialist, but I have read and taught enough about women in the Bible to know how easily the creation narrative in Genesis 2 can be read as confirming the secondary status of women by the use of this term. True, Benedict concludes this section by noting the incompleteness of man without an other, but the impression remains: it is man who is created, and then God gives him a helper.
I very much appreciated Benedict’s discussion of God’s love expressed in Christ and his strong comments on the interrelationship of the Eucharist and ethics (No. 13-14). And while the unity of the love of God and neighbor may be a subject of intense theological debate among contemporary theologians, it is not a message that one can assume all Christians have taken to heart. In fact, I would very much like to hear some homilies on Benedict’s statement that faith, worship, and ethos are interwoven as a single reality which takes place in our encounter with God’s agape (No. 14).
In the second part of the encyclical, Pope Benedict turns to the practice of love by the church. Here he fleshes out the theological message of the first section, beginning with the early history of the church’s practice of service. I wish some mention had been made of the service performed by women in the early church, and not just early Christianity’s male deacons. Benedict helpfully notes the slowness of the church over time to realize that the issue of the just structuring of society needed to be approached in a new way (No. 27). My colleague Michael Schuck, an expert on papal encyclicals, observed that Benedict’s dance through the thicket of politics/state/church/society relations is extremely nuanced. I agree. Yet I found the discussion of love and justice to be somewhat disappointing.
Why? While it is true that the Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible (No. 28), there seemed to be more than a hint of a dualism between the spiritual and material care for society. It is true that Marxism cannot respond adequately to society’s needs, as Benedict repeatedly emphasizes. He also notes that some truth is found in objections to the church’s works of charity and its attitude toward the social order (No. 26). But in my reading, there seemed to be more of an either-or than a (perhaps more Catholic) both-and approach to the relationship of spirituality and practical work for justice. Benedict’s emphasis on the insufficiency of material care without the spiritual might have been a bit more nuanced so as to emphasize their integration. Benedict argues in No. 33, for example, that the church’s charitable workers must not be inspired by ideologies aimed at improving the world, but should rather be guided by the faith which works through love. But are these two so distinct? Cannot a desire to improve the world be fueled by a love for God and all of God’s creation? And when Benedict took pains to emphasize the insufficiency of practical activity (No. 34), I wondered whether such caution is really warranted. It seems to me that there is a great need in the world for love and practical activity to be more integrated, especially for the poor women of the world.
The nuptial mystery, a favorite motif of John Paul II, but given far less emphasis here, has often been raised up as the model of love, and Benedict does include this icon of the relationship between God and his people in Nos. 9 and 11. Indeed, Benedict comments that God chooses and loves Israel precisely with a view to healing the whole human race. God’s love is a love that does justice, but the biblical metaphors of the Father God and the sometimes adulterous Israel, even with all their erotic imagery, can perpetuate a patriarchalism, even a benevolent one, that fails to make just and equal treatment of women a priority.
Benedict concludes his encyclical with some reflections on the saints’ examples of charity, including Martin of Tours, the monastic movement, and on Mary, whose whole program of life [is] not setting herself at the center, but leaving space for God, who is encountered both in prayer and in service of neighbor (No. 41). Her quiet gestures, her delicacy, her humility (No. 41) model for both men and women the service of love central to the Christian message. I have no doubt that there are many in the church and in the world today who need to learn to be quiet, delicate and humbleand as the earliest feminist theologians wrote years ago, most of these are men in positions of power. But I suggest that we can also think of Mary as the first of the apostles, the model of the church who exemplifies quick thinking, observing and acting upon the practical needs of life, and remaining with the marginalized even when others lack the courage to do so.
Benedict’s first encyclical offers much food for thought for the world today. This is the work of a trained theologian and teacher who communicates clearly. My hope is that the discussion that follows any good lecture, to which my remarks are intended to contribute, will be a vigorous one that will enrich both teacher and students.