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Posted February 14, 2006

Commentary on Pope Benedict XVI’s First Encyclical

by Mark Stricherz

The greatest political thinkers have usually emerged in times of historical crisis. St. Augustine arose after the fall of the Roman Empire. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke made their names after the principle of the divine right of kings had lost all legitimacy. Karl Marx wrote after the old feudal order had dissolved into chaos. It's too early to say if Pope Benedict XVI will join that list, but he might well.

Pope Benedict's message in his first encylical letter, Deus Caritas Est, is simple almost to the point of parody. "God is love," he stresses repeatedly. Although the phrase comes from the First Letter of John, it can be found just as easily near an interstate highway, plastered on a large billboard or forming the words of a big neon sign. Nor is love as a topic accorded much intellectual prestige. Sociologists, economists, and journalists almost never broach the topic. Among political philosophers, only the ancients like Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine saw fit to write about it at length. Theologians necessarily address the subject, as do novelists and poets. Yet the best known among their ranks are more interested in the holy trinity of sex, race, and gender.

Into this intellectual void comes Benedict. Despite best being known as previously as the chief enforcer of Church orthodoxy, Benedict was really always a pastor-cum-intellectual. Last year, he held a symposium at the Vatican with Jurgen Habermas, one of the most influential political philosophers in the world. In the course of a fairly short encyclical, he summarizes much of Marx, Plato, and Nietzsche, while also making informed points about paganism, the outlook of the professional classes, Mary, and the saints.

What Benedict grasps is that above all the world needs love, which is to say God. "In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengence or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant," he allows in the first paragraph. Standing in God's way, he implies, are the many false idols of our age. Among those are the idol of the self (Nietzsche); the idol of material goods (Marx); the idol of the vengeful God (Wahhabism); the idol of total self-denial (asceticism); and the idol of proselytism.

According to each of those idols, man is not an end in himself but rather a means to an end. Benedict notes some horrible examples of such thinking. In the fertility cults of the ancient world, women worked as prostitutes in temples; in Marxist doctrine, charity was discouraged on the grounds that it propped up the unjust social order; and in the worldview of many professionals, love and care take a back seat to professional competence. The result of those ideologies, he points out, is that humans are stripped of their inherent dignity and worth.

What's needed in Benedict's view is a proper balance between agape and eros Agape is the renunciation and sacrificial side of love, while eros is the receiving and ascending side of it. When properly integrated into the self, they allow a person to love their neighbor and thus God. In fact, Benedict states that without God, "I cannot see another person as he or she truly is."

Christ was of course the supreme example of someone who integrated agape and eros. He loved us so much, as the Gospels never fail to mention, that He died for us on a Cross. (Benedict aptly calls this an act of "radical humility"). That's why taking Holy Communion in a state of grace is so important. In eating His bread, we show our love for others while also being loved ourselves.

Deus Carita Est is by no means a perfect document. It contains no eloquent phrase and parts of the writing are frankly clunky. The encylical can be read at one sitting, though not without a few necessary interruptions. None of those features has deterred the press, which surprisingly has praised Deus almost unanimously.

Even so, a good case can be made that praise for the encyclicial has actually been understated. Benedict writes at a time of upheaval in the world. In our country, we call it the culture wars, most of which is related to the 45 million unborn children aborted since 1973. In Europe and the Middle East, it's called a clash of civilizations. In Africa, it's the AIDS and mosquito pandemics. In Asia, it's threat of economies outstripping nature.

To be sure, Benedict is not so jejune as to argue that all the world needs is love. He makes a long and convincing case for Christian charity as the basis of a "true huanism." But perhaps he alone could have pointed out that love and charity are needed far more now than free markets, invasion of foreign lands, and all the other quack remedies of our age.