By: Christopher West
In his Encyclical entitled God is Love (promulgated Christmas day, but officially released January 25th 2006) Pope Benedict wants to proclaim to the world that the Church — despite all the supposed anti-sex sentiment — has a vision of erotic love far more glorious than anything Sigmund Freud, Hugh Hefner, Dr. Ruth, or Howard Stern could dream or imagine.
His words are tender, firm, clear, compassionate, and poetic. The text reads like the letter of a loving father to his children, presenting an invitation to men and women everywhere to open their hearts to the love that truly satisfies. So many of us have searched in vain for love in this pornified world. We’ve eaten out of a dumpster in attempts to satisfy our hunger. Without wagging a finger at anyone, Pope Benedict’s encyclical presents the banquet of love we’re made for.
Introducing the Two Loves
He divides the letter into two main parts. The first part, in which he explores the relationship between erotic and divine love — eros and agape in Greek — is more “speculative,” he says (in the sense that he is offering a prayerful meditation, not that he’s giving us half-baked theories). Based on these meditations, the second part of the letter offers a “more concrete” treatment of how the Church is called to exercise the commandment of love of neighbor and work for a just social order.
As Benedict insists, these two main parts are “profoundly interconnected.” There’s no place here for a false division between Church teaching on sexual ethics and social justice. If we want to work for social justice, we must first do justice to the fundamental social unit — the relationship of man and woman and the family that springs from their love. Does the Catholic Church do justice to the love of man and woman? Benedict observes that Christianity is often criticized for being opposed to the body and sex. While he admits such tendencies have always existed, the Pope demonstrates that negativity toward the body and sex is, in all truth, foreign to authentic Christian belief and practice.
Christianity does not “blow the whistle” on erotic love. It seeks to rescue it from degradation, to “heal it and restore its true grandeur,” says Benedict. The “contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure ‘sex’, has become a commodity, a mere ‘thing’ to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man’s great ‘yes’ to the body.”
Reclaiming Erotic Love Through Divine Love
In order to restore erotic love’s true grandeur, we must experience the purification of eros by agape. As this happens — that is, as we allow erotic love to be informed and transformed by divine love — eros is able “to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns,” Benedict states. What joy! Sexual love in God’s plan is so glorious that it is meant to provide a small foretaste of the eternal joys that await us in heaven. But beware the counterfeits. “An intoxicated and undisciplined eros,” as the Holy Father observes, “is not an ascent in ‘ecstasy’ towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man.”
Love is indeed “ecstasy,” the Pope tells us. But not in a hedonistic sense. If ecstasy means “to go out of oneself,” then love is ecstasy as “an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.”
Pope Benedict’s encyclical makes a person proud to be Catholic. Does any other religion on the planet have such an ennobling view of the human person and of sexual love? If we have any right to boast, we boast only in Christ, in his love for us and in what he has revealed to us about the meaning of being human. Benedict XVI didn’t come up with this. He’s just passing along in love what the Church has received from her Bridegroom. As Benedict himself states, “eros… seeks God and agape… passes on the gift received.”