Monday, February 06, 2006

12 Days Post-Encyclical: God Is Still Love

In the pages of Saturday's Guardian, there appears an op-ed from Catherine Pepinster, editor of The Tablet and, ergo, my boss.

Catherine raises an angle on Deus caritas est which hasn't been picked up widely elsewhere.... Some snips:
Few would have guessed last April, when Joseph Ratzinger, the notorious hardman and "enforcer" of the Catholic church was elected Pope Benedict, that the first teaching document of his pontificate would be a hymn to love. Last week when he published his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is love), all thoughts of Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, were banished.

Rather than a finger-wagging edict of disapproval, here was a lucid celebration of love, both human and divine. There was even a paean of praise for sexual love. When it comes to sex, the Catholic church is more likely to be associated with inducing guilt, but here the Pope instead confirmed erotic love as the most joyous form of love, and contested Nietzsche's claim that Christianity destroyed eros, with its loathing of the body....

Benedict also issues a warning, one that will surely resonate with women today. He writes that there is a danger sex can be reduced to a mere thing to be bought and sold and exploited. This commodification of sex serves to be a debasement of the body.

I was reminded of this when I spotted a young teenage girl on the London Underground wearing a T-shirt with the legend "crack whore". Perhaps this is a postmodern statement about contemporary culture. Or does it reveal that we have come so far in our debasement of ourselves that we think the selling of a body to feed an addiction is such a laugh that it's something with which we want to be identified?

This commodification of sex happens all around us, and is particularly apparent in the treatment of women and their bodies: the number of men using prostitutes is at an all-time high; the trafficking of women from poorer developing and eastern European countries to the west is one of the most dismal growth industries of our time; the female form continues to be exploited to sell goods; the sexiness of a woman remains a priority for onscreen TV work; tabloid papers continue to focus on women's sexual prowess in their promotion of particular celebrities; teenage girls and young women feel under continual pressure to dress in a highly sexual way and be sexual. Yet while women among themselves express grave disquiet about this, particularly its impact on their daughters, few public figures, other than the Pope, raise their voices in protest.

Nor is this the first time that Benedict has made a ringing endorsement of the woman's role in society and the need for the world to acknowledge her. Eighteen months ago, a Vatican document, for which he was responsible, endorsed the need for women to achieve positions of responsibility in the workplace, for social policies to be used to combat unjust discrimination and for women to have a right to a decent homelife and not endure a long-hours workplace culture.

Also, in Friday's NYTimes, the beloved Lorenzo Albacete offers his own high-quality take:
[T]he study of human love had never really been a central topic in [Ratzinger]'s personal academic work. In that sense, it was surprising that he would choose it as the subject of his first encyclical. I suspect, however, that behind his choice lies a concern that has characterized much of his theological work for the past 40 years or so: the role of religion — or, more precisely, fundamentalism — in the threats we face today.

The encyclical's release coincided with the publication in English of a book about the future of Western civilization by Marcello Pera, the president of the Italian Senate and an atheist, in which he argues, perhaps surprisingly, that European civilization is no longer able or willing to defend its commitment to freedom and the dignity of the individual because of the weakening of its Jewish and Christian roots. The book also contains a supportive response from Cardinal Ratzinger, who makes the point that the rejection of this heritage stems from a fear of the intolerance of religious fundamentalism. This is an argument he has advanced before, most notably in a debate with Paolo Flores d'Arcais, an Italian scholar, before an overflow crowd in Rome a few years ago.

I believe that interpreted against the background of these discussions, the encyclical offers an important view of where Benedict intends to situate the church in the cultural clashes threatening world peace today.

Benedict's conversations with nonbelievers have convinced him that their major concern about Christianity is not its "other-worldiness" but the very opposite. For them, what makes Christianity potentially dangerous as a source of conflict and intolerance in a pluralistic society is its insistence that faith is reasonable — that is, that it is the source of knowledge about this world and that, therefore, its teaching should apply to all, believers and nonbelievers alike....

Indeed, throughout history Christians have used this claim [that it is the "only path to full knowledge"] to justify their intolerance of other views, even turning to violence in order to affirm and defend their idea of what is true. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, reminded us that this unhappy tendency was not limited to the Christian faith, but seems inherent in religious belief. If a god offers absolute truth, then those who disagree with that god's teachings are enemies of the truth, and thus harmful to society. It makes no difference whether the intolerance comes from a Christian god, who punishes countries and cities with natural disasters, or a Muslim god, who encourages terrorists to kill the innocent.

Hence the pope's insistence on the importance of emphasizing that God is, above all, love, and that love and truth are inseparable. "In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred, this message is both timely and significant," he wrote. "For this reason I wish in my first encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us, and which we in turn must share with others."

For Benedict, God "loves with a personal love." In fact, human love (eros) and divine love for us (agape) are intertwined. "God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape." That is why God's passionate love can be described "using boldly erotic images." Faith reveals God's love to be a "turning of God against himself" that replaces the demands of justice with the demands of mercy.

Che bello.