Here is a superb piece from one of the greatest theologians of the world on the work of another. John Milbank writes an extensive essay on Pope Benedict’s vision of love and politics. I would argue that he and (to a lesser extent) Benedict are more negative than they should be about capitalism and liberal democracy. That aside, the essay is well worth reading because it draws out the critical ideas of Deus Caritas Est and Caritas in Veritate, illuminating their complexity without compromising their clarity. The key paragraphs are below:
So agape is also eros. But for Benedict the inverse equally applies. In pagan religion eros was ecstasy, in the sense of mere self-intoxication which often involved the gross exploitation of women. By contrast, in the Hebraic Song of Songs the physically erotic is poetically intensified precisely because the erotic is now linked to preference for a single one, to fidelity and to commitment unto sacrificial death. Romance, one might say, is born here and not with the Greeks.
Nor – and here Benedict is particularly acute – does this represent any abandonment of ecstasy: rather the truly ecstatic is discovered in terms of a self-abandoning movement towards the other that is also a paradoxical self-realisation. Far from this being a banning of pleasure, it is rather the first discovery of real pleasure – including in a physical sense.
To put it bluntly: in his first encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI boldly declared that not only is the Catholic Church not opposed to sexual love, to the contrary it alone truly understands it and fully promotes it. In an epoch-making fashion, a Pope declared that the literal sense of the Song of Songs - in other words, its first intended meaning – is indeed what the naive reader would take it to be. The mystical meaning arises now only through a proper acceptance of the worth of this literal meaning; while, at the same time, the depth of the latter is lost if it is not read also allegorically – that is, as pointing to the mystical marriage between Christ and the Church.
. . . .
The ecclesial society of love exceeds the secular society of justice in part because it involves infinite concern for others beyond what is merely due to them – or rather, this is what is due to them, for perfect justice is charity. But it also exceeds just society in terms of a kind of extended eros: the true giver of charity, says Benedict, also receives love from the one he cares for. The personal bond that then emerges cannot be planned for, nor commanded: it rather arises by divine gift, by grace.
It is for this theological reason – and not for politically conservative ones – that Benedict has stridently opposed all secular “plans” for the improvement of the world. Of course, he has said, we should be trying to improve the world. However, this should never involve the sacrifice of present people to the future, not only because this would be wrong, but also because of the perfected harmonisation of people in truth and love - to which he devoted his last encyclical, Caritas in Veritate - cannot be planned, precisely because it is composed of a myriad of “erotic” as well as agapeic events. A truly radical politics would therefore involve longing for such a future, as well as the determination to work towards such a future through many particularities. But to suppose one already possesses the blueprint for such a future would be, as Benedict says, to suppress the most specifically personal dimension of human life.