Benedict XVI and the divine love story

German journalist Peter Seewald once posed a question to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: why is the Catholic Church always saying “No?” Cardinal Ratzinger explained that the Church wasn’t fundamentally a matter of “No” but of “Yes” — God’s “Yes” to humanity, most dramatically revealed in the Incarnation, when God entered the human world in order to redeem it. If the Church has to say “No” sometimes, that “No” is in service to a higher “Yes.” The Church says “No” to call us to the dignity and glory that are ours through God’s redemptive action in Christ.

That “Yes” rings clearly throughout Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est [God Is Love]. The text is classic Joseph Ratzinger: a master theologian, weaving together materials from the Bible and two millennia of Christian reflection to teach the basic truths of Catholic faith. The subject matter is also classic Ratzinger. Those who bought the cartoon of “God’s Rottweiler” might have imagined a first encyclical entitled “No You Don’t.” The real Ratzinger, the real Benedict XVI, wrote something quite different: an encyclical of affirmation, an invitation to ponder more deeply and live more completely “the heart of the Christian faith” — the claim that God is love.

Press attention to the encyclical, such as it was, tended to focus on its second, programmatic part, which explores living the charity which the love of God should compel in each of us. The Pope makes some important points here, including a critique of the notion that charitable giving and charitable work are a distraction from our obligations to build just societies; Benedict neatly scuttles that piece of soft-Marxist flotsam with a few well-chosen sentences.

The theological meat of the encyclical is in its first part, however, and here, four ideas seemed particularly striking.

First, Pope Benedict teaches that God’s relationship to the world is best understood as a love story, not as a relationship of power that expresses itself in a contest of wills. The God who comes into history in search of man does so precisely to draw men and women into a communion of love – with each other and with the Triune God. As God’s love enters ever more deeply into our lives, the Pope writes, “self-abandonment to God increases and God becomes our joy.”

Second, the Pope suggests that the image of God in a culture will have a profound effect on that culture’s image of man. The fundamental orientation of a culture is not derived from its family patterns, its way of doing politics, or its method of allocating goods and services. Rather, cultures take their basic direction from what they worship: from the way in which a culture imagines the divine, thinks of the divine (if it imagines that the divine can be “thought”), and relates to the divine. To believe in and worship a God who is love “all the way through” (as Thomas More puts it in A Man for All Seasons) gives Christian cultures a distinctive view of the human enterprise in all its dimensions.

Which brings us to a third point Benedict makes, if briefly: warped ideas of God lead to warped ideas of the human, warped understandings of human relationships, and, ultimately, warped politics. When Pope Benedict speaks of “a world in which the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence,” it is not difficult to imagine at least one of the primary reference points. That the Pope has jihadist Islam in mind here is also suggested by his address to the diplomatic corps at the Vatican on January 9, when he spoke of a danger that had been “rightly” described as a “clash of civilizations.”

Finally, the Pope neatly links the two great commandments, reminding us that we can love our neighbor because we have been first loved by God. Love of neighbor is thus a response to the experience of love by which God has first graced us, rather than rote obedience to an order from an external authority.

A great teacher and an acute cultural analyst sits in the Chair of Peter.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.