Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

And so, nine months into the pontificate, Benedict XVI has issued his first encyclical. (It is dated December 25, Christmas, although released on January 25, the Conversion of St. Paul.) The title is Deus Caritas Est —“God is Love”—and it is an extended commentary on that affirmation found in I John 4.

There will be a more thorough examination of the document in F IRST T HINGS , but upon first reading, several things stand out. The style is that of the Ratzinger whom we have known over the years: precise, almost crisp, and relentlessly Christocentric. This in sharp contrast to the encyclicals of John Paul the Great, which were personalistic and discursive (described by his critics as eccentric and wandering).

“Are all forms of love basically one?” Benedict’s answer is in the affirmative. Although Anders Nygren is not mentioned, the argument is clearly counter to his pitting of eros against agape , which had an enormous influence in the twentieth century. Nor is C.S. Lewis mentioned, but Benedict’s argument is at important points at odds with Lewis’ famous description of the “four loves.” All love is one because the Trinitarian God is one, and God is love.

As one would expect from Ratzinger-Benedict, the entire discussion is firmly rooted in the history of human reflection on the nature of love, with the accent on what is distinctive in the Christian intellectual tradition. He is especially eager to rebut Nietzsche’s insistence that the Christian view of eros drained the blood out of human passion and the quest for transcendence.

The last half of the relatively short encyclical is devoted to making the connections between love as expressed in kerygma (witness), leitourgia (worship), and diakonia (service)—the three dimensions of the Church’s life and mission. Here Benedict is at pains to challenge the separation, common also among many Christians, of charity and justice. The idea proposed by Marxists and others that justice must replace charity is fundamentally false, Benedict insists, and leads to the defeat of both charity and justice. The contention here is familiar from Ratzinger’s longstanding critique of Marxist-oriented liberation theology.

Then there is a very suggestive discussion of the relationship between Church and state in the pursuit of justice. This is extremely subtle and I will want to be giving it careful thought. An abiding concern of Benedict, one which he has addressed a number of times during these last months, is to establish a clear understanding of the authentically secular character of the state, leaving the Church free to do what she does in diakonia that is intimately related to her kerygma and leitourgia.

In striking distinction from John Paul’s fourteen encyclicals, there are few references to past papal pronouncements, and only passing reference to John Paul. It is an emphatically biblical reflection, with very judicious invocations of the early church fathers.

I write this before seeing any of the media reports. I expect they will find little that is “newsworthy.” “Pope Says God is Love” is not a zinger of a headline. But Deus Caritas Est is a weighty teaching document indeed and I look forward to giving it the careful study that it invites and deserves.

The fellow with a deliciously wicked pen over on Catholic World Report calls himself Diogenes, and he was much taken with my discussion of gays and the priesthood in the current issue of F IRST T HINGS . I had mentioned that Jesuit provincial Fr. Robert Scullin was distressed when one of his men, Fr. Thomas O’Brien, “outed” himself to the local newspaper and expatiated on the splendors of gay sex. In a letter to the province, Fr. Scullin assured his men that, despite the recent instruction from Rome, Jesuits would continue to accept gays in the priesthood. He sternly cautioned, however, that priests should consult directly with him before making public statements of a controversial nature.

Diogenes writes: “Yet Fr. Neuhaus is too tactful to point out that Fr. O’Brien is in a much stronger position than his superior. For O’Brien can retort with perfect justice to Fr. Scullin, ‘Excuse me. If prior, direct consultation with responsible ecclesiastics is called for, please show me the permission you received from the Papal Nuncio, or the Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, for your ‘welcome to gays’ letter. When I’m convinced you’re clearing your policy with the Holy See, then I’ll believe you’re more interested in apostolic obedience than damage control.’”

Diogenes makes a good point, although I expect he well knows that the provincial would be quite unfazed by such a response. It is the longstanding position of many Jesuits—and, it would seem, of most of those in positions of authority—that the Society of Jesus is something like a church unto itself. In public statements and in Jesuit publications, it has long been obvious that statements from the U.S. Jesuit Conference and from the father general in Rome receive ever so much more, and more respectful, attention than statements by the pope, never mind statements by curial offices in Rome.

How the leadership of the Society of Jesus went into what sometimes appears to be virtual schism from Rome is a story told, and for the most part approvingly told, by Peter McDonough in his book Men Astutely Trained: A History of the Jesuits in the American Century . Among their rapidly declining numbers, there are Jesuits, both old and young, who want to renew the Ignatian charism, including loyalty to the pope, which was once the distinctive mark of the society. But it seems they are in a distinct minority. It should be noted also that my F IRST T HINGS discussion of reactions to the instruction on gays and the priesthood is not limited to Jesuits by any means, although, admittedly, they have made themselves conspicuous.

In addition to which :

“The Miracle of Evolution” is Stephen Barr’s evaluation of why Intelligent Design proponents got so much right—and so much wrong. Also in the February issue is Richard John Neuhaus on gays and the priesthood, Avery Cardinal Dulles on Pope Benedict’s critical evaluation of Vatican II, David Klinghoffer on the self-defeating nature of a Jewish war on the “religious right,” and much more. To subscribe to F IRST T HINGS , click here .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles