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.