YOU’D expect a document written by a former Vatican doctrinal watchdog to deal with more pressing Church issues and not dwell on the basics of Christianity.

Pope Benedict XVI, known for 24 years as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II, released his first encyclical last Jan. 25 titled “God is Love” (Deus Caritas Est). The contemplative text presents human, romantic love in a broader context, with a link to altruistic love for God and the virtue of charity.

With the premise that the term ‘love’ is often misused, the encyclical primarily focuses on the understanding and practice of love in the Bible and Church traditions but also takes into account its present-day usage.

According to the document, love, with its multiplicity of meanings, is often seen as love between man and woman, known as eros or ‘wordly’ love, while agape or love grounded in and shaped by faith seems to fade in comparison.

Selfless love

Divided into two parts, unity of love in salvation history and practice of love by the Church as “community of love,” the much-awaited encyclical explores the modern conception of eros, viewed as selfish love, and the Christian perspective of selfless love.

According to the Pope, the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. “Nowadays, Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body. It is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed,” he writes. “Eros, reduced to pure ‘sex’, has become a commodity, a mere ‘thing’ to be bought and sold.”

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The Pope, however, clarifies the Church doesn’t reject eros since it can lead to a more mature love characterized by selfishness.

“Even if eros is at first mainly covetous, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love,” says the supreme Pontiff.

The encyclical presents God as a perfect embodiment of both kinds of love. His love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape. “God’s passionate love for his people— for humanity— is a forgiving love.”

In the second part of the encyclical, Pope stresses that the Church’s charitable works should be based on the experience of a personal encounter with Christ, whose love touched believers’ hearts and generates within them love for others.

Love of neighbor, grounded in the love of God, is not only a responsibility for every Christian but also for the entire ecclesial community at every level, from local Churches to the universal entity.

“As a community, the Church must practice love. Love thus needs to be organized if it is to be an ordered service to the community,” the Pope says. Kathleen T. Valle

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