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Voices Online Edition -- Vol. XXI No. 2
Pentecost 2006

Pope Benedict and His Meditation on Human Love

by Mary Ellen Bork

Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Deus Caritas Est appeared in its entirety in the Easter 2006 issue of Voices. Mary Ellen Bork comments on the first section of this encyclical. — Editor

In his first encyclical on love and justice, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI speaks to the Church as its first pastor about the heart of the Gospel message: God’s love for us and our need to abide in that love so as to fully experience human love.

The first section is a meditation on love, especially in marriage, and the need for love to be purified of the effects of selfishness. The second section treats the Church’s charitable outreach as a worldwide institution building a community of love. Many of his statements on love add further clarity to the theology of the body as taught by his beloved predecessor, Pope John Paul II, and are worth much re-reading and mulling. Father Richard Neuhaus wrote in January that “Benedict’s every statement invites close parsing”.*

The language of theology of the body is helpful because it speaks to our personal experience and serves to add the personal dimension to the discussion of the moral aspects of love. One of the questions Pope Benedict poses is whether there is one experience of love or several experiences that we call by different names. Just like John Paul II, he is not afraid to look at all experiences of love and believes that reflecting on them will lead us to the truth. Benedict makes clear that love is complex and multi-faceted. We all experience the pull of eros, the desire for communion with another that is searching and restless. We see it in the engaged couple eager for marriage and in thirty-something women anxious to find husbands and have children. Eros can also degenerate into lust and domination of another and a hedonistic desire for physical pleasure. Treating another person as an object of pleasure is not love but a dehumanization of the other, robbing them of their dignity. Without the acknowledgement of the other as person and without acknowledgement of God, by whom that person was created, there can be only a dim reflection of love. So the experience of true human love has to be more than just eros, the restless desire for communion.

The love between a man and a woman “where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness” seems to be the highest expression of love.(§2) When we take a closer look at spousal love we can distinguish between eros, the experience of being overtaken by love, something the Greeks called a “divine madness” that overtakes reason, and agape, the self-giving love revealed by God.

Among the pagans eros was a kind of religion because it was contact with the divine and brought ecstatic happiness. It is interesting that the Old Testament uses the word eros only twice, because the prophets and psalmists saw this form of eros as a perversion of religiosity. The New Testament does not use the word at all.(§3) Eros, it was thought, led to fertility cults and sacred prostitution. The prostitutes were used as a means to “divine madness.” As the pope says “far from being goddesses they were human beings being exploited”.(§4) Benedict says “eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns”.(§4)

Many people today think that eros is just fine as it is. These same people are ignoring evidence to the contrary, undisciplined eros has created chaos. Look at the divorce statistics, the movement to re-define marriage, the increase in sex scenes on TV programs, and the terrible tragedy of human trafficking that use women and children as sexual objects. The truth about human love is that eros must be integrated with agape, “love grounded and shaped by faith”, for a person be truly free and able to give himself to another person.(§7) Without this integration people use their bodies as objects and treat others as serving personal goals and not as individual subjects with their own dignity. Eros, when healed by purification and renunciation, can be fully and beautifully human.

In the light of faith, the hidden dimensions of love become clearer. When love finds the one who is beloved then the desire is to turn toward the other and love and care for that person forever. “No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice”.(§6) Love draws us to be less self-centered and more able to make a gift of ourselves to another.

Pope John Paul II said love can only flourish where there is self-mastery, a lifetime task of letting our choices gradually be guided by higher moral and spiritual values. Pope Benedict says “love is indeed ‘ecstasy’ not in the sense of a moment of intoxication but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God: ‘Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it’ (Lk: 17:33, as Jesus says throughout the Gospels (cf. Mt 10:39; 16:25; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; Jn 12:25)”.(§6)

The pope concludes that not all love is a full, human and holy experience. Without purification it cannot reach the grandeur of which it is capable in marriage, friendships, or other relationships. Saint Peter in his first letter said, “By obedience to the truth you have purified yourselves for a genuine love of your brothers; therefore, love one another constantly from the heart”. Benedict demonstrates that the Church is not against sex or the expression of sex in marriage. It is in favor of real love that must uphold and revere the dignity of the human person. The marriage of two persons who are growing in self-mastery and self-giving love will find their marital love enriched.

Because love is an experience of giving and receiving, eros, the searching, restless love and agape, the self-giving love, can never be separated. One cannot live simply an experience of eros and be happy. Eros without agape “is impoverished and even loses its own nature”.(§7) It becomes a search for selfish pleasure. The life of love is one of continual reciprocity. As Benedict states, “Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift”.(§7) Then the pope adds this sentence that brings us directly to Christ. “Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34)”.(§7) Both John Paul II and Benedict are witnesses to the power of Christ’s love to transform the heart. We, too, can become a source of love by returning to Christ, who gave Himself completely for sinful man. Christ is the one who redeems and heals our sinfulness in this and all areas of life.

A dramatic headline in the New York Times would be “God says you can’t get along without Me”. The next day letters to the editor would appear under the heading “critics say they can”. The critics are wrong. Pope Benedict is focusing on essential truths in a language all people can understand. He has shown that Biblical faith is the only way to a fullness of love.

* Father Richard Neuhaus, First Things, January 2006, Number 159, p. 67.

Mary Ellen Bork is married to Judge Robert Bork and lives in McLean, Virginia. She is a member of the Voices editorial board and is a board member of the John Carroll Society and Women Affirming Life.

“Fundamentally, ‘love’ is a single reality, but with different dimensions; at different times, one or other dimension may emerge more clearly. Yet when the two dimensions are totally cut off from one another, the result is a caricature or at least an impoverished form of love. And we have also seen ... that biblical faith does not set up a parallel universe, or one opposed to that primordial human phenomenon which is love, but rather accepts the whole man; it intervenes in his search for love in order to purify it and to reveal new dimensions of it. This newness of biblical faith is shown chiefly in two elements which deserve to be highlighted: the image of God and the image of man.”

— Pope Benedict XVI
Deus Caritas Est §8

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