There may seem to be little new to say about love, or about the encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est, which is a pastoral catechesis on Christian love. In this essay I should like to focus on an aspect of the encyclical that may shed interesting sidelights on it. Benedict XVI, now every inch a Pope, is an erudite theologian, steeped in history, and also a man of literary culture. It is remarkable that in the part of the encyclical that most bears his imprint there are no references to recent Vatican documents (in contrast to the style of his predecessor) but many explicit and tacit references to secular literature and to classical Christian sources. It seems to me that a study of the intertextual effect these allusions produce may help us place Benedict’s teaching in perspective and even, possibly, solicit it in directions “where he would not wish to go” (cf. John 21:18).
WHAT IS INTERTEXTUALITY?
The term “intertextuality” stems from the Parisian avant-garde Tel Quel group of the late sixties. Launched by Julia Kristeva, it was taken up enthusiastically by Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. They understood it not merely as the use of sources and allusions, something as old as literature itself, but as the idea that no text makes sense on its own, that every text is related to others of necessity, or more sweepingly, that every text is related to all other texts. As Derrida put it: “One text reads another... Each ‘text’ is a machine with multiple reading heads for other texts” (in Deconstruction and Criticism, New York, 1979, p. 107). Sported as a revolutionary slogan, “intertextuality” undermined conventional ideas of the autonomous author, the self-contained text and the stability of meaning.
This revolutionary promise was only in part fulfilled. As developed in the deconstructive criticism of Derrida and his followers, intertextuality had a flattening effect, tending to put all texts on the same level. This thwarted the signifying power of individual texts and the reader’s capacity to respond to that power. In reaction to the Tel Quel thesis of generalized intertextuality, more conservative, literature-based critics confine the definition of intertextuality to just the devices whereby a text pointedly refers to a predecessor text. This errs on the side of narrowness.
Here I shall relate the encyclical to the texts quoted in it and to texts implicitly referred to, as well as to other relevant utterances of Benedict as Pope. The effect of these intertextual connections in the case of Christian allusions is to highlight certain strands in the tradition while passing over other less attractive possibilities; in the case of secular allusions it is to engage respectfully with a non-Christian sense of values while gently correcting it.
In the case of papal documents the issue of authorship is rarely simple. The second half of the text integrates some ultima verba of John Paul II, originally in Polish. Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes, President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, has been named as a “ghost writer” in the Pope’s service. All such documents are no doubt passed through the hands of various committees, and in the present case, remarkably, the Pope had his text vetted by no less a body than the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith! The delay between composition (summer 2005) and publication (January 25, 2006) left time for a complication of the text that may have made it blander, muting the individual voice of its primary author.
The voices of those who greeted the encyclical with various degrees of warmth, as well as those who were critical, can also be considered a significant intertext. The flood of commentary has focussed less on the content of the encyclical than on its significance in relation to Benedict’s former image as Prefect of the CDF and how, as Pope, he will meet the expectations of a polarized Church. It is often the church reception of a Vatican document rather than its actual letter that makes the story, as we saw in the case of the recent Instruction on seminarians (see JMJ 59.4; also, R. Gallagher and P. Hannon in The Furrow, February 2006). In addition, though the letter is formally addressed only to Roman Catholics (without the addition “to all people of good will” found in Populorum Progressio, for example), the reception in the secular media constitutes a major dimension of the encyclical as an event of communication.
It may be objected that intertextual criticism is a dicy area, making for ingenious eisegesis and allowing one to “spin” a document any way one chooses. Yet in the case of major church documents, as of scriptural texts, the entire reach of the tradition is explicitly and implicitly drawn on as a warrant for what is taught, and any original trait such texts may exhibit has the momentous impact of an intervention in the course of that tradition, an inflection that has the potential to alter its future development. To read such texts is to enter a sound-box in which echoes from as far back as Deuteronomy are made to reverberate in a contemporary context, often suggesting or producing new and unexpected significance.
SPEAKING FROM THE CENTRE
The encyclical may seem innocuous and uncontroversial, but perhaps its opening claim to speak from an uncontroverted “centre” (Mitte, translated as “heart” in the English version) of Christian truth is one that could be queried. A group of Benedict’s students edited a selection of his writings under the title Rediscovering the Centre: Basic Orientations (Vom Wiederauffinden der Mitte: Grundorientierungen, Herder, 1997), and this title could well name the programme of his pontificate.
The encyclical has been received as confirmation that in his new role Benedict, after his twenty-three years at the CDF, has resumed the professorial gentleness of earlier years, laced now with a fatherly pastoral warmth. Kleider machen Leute! The blandness not only of the encyclical but of the pontificate so far encourages a “Rorschach test” effect, Thus people project, sentimentally, a dialectical pattern on Benedict’s career, from the positive left-leaning Vatican II theologian, through the negative years at the CDF, into the final Goethean serenity of the Papacy.
The significance of the encyclical goes beyond the pontificate of Benedict XVI. In striking a note of reconciliation, the encyclical may promise an end to a period of faction-fighting within the Roman Catholic Church. Speaking on Australian radio, Charles E. Curran, a man steeped in that great theme of 1960's moral theology, the Primacy of Love, greeted an encyclical on love with appropriate generosity. He agreed that “we have a pope who’s talking from the centre again”; “he is trying to keep everybody together in the Church”. He is relieved that the text does not argue that “the Church is a small remnant fighting the world. You don’t see that at all in this encyclical,” which “bears out what I think the authority of papacy in the Church should be. Let’s face it, it’s a most difficult challenge. Because in the last analysis the role of the papacy is to be a role of unity. And how do you find unity in the midst of all the pluralism and diversity and complexity that exists in the world today? ‘In necessary things unity, in doubtful things freedom, in all things charity.’ And it seems to me this encyclical is a magnificent illustration of that approach.”
Hans Küng comments: “As Catholics we are happy that the first encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI isn’t a manifesto of cultural pessimism, or of restrictive sexual morality towards love.” In his unexpected and cordial encounter with the new Pope, Küng was happy to rediscover the congenial Tübingen colleague of the 1960’s. The encyclical takes me back to 1972-3 when I sat in the halls of the Gregorian University, listening to lectures by Ratzinger on the Eucharist, Lotz on Eros and Agape, Malatesta on I John, Tilliette on faith and knowledge in the German Romantics. These teachers calmly shared their Christian wisdom, with no noise of ideological conflict that I could pick up. Sadly, largely as a result of ideological pressures, the “Greg”, by all accounts, is no longer what it used to be. The extraordinary treatment meted out to of one of its best theologians, the late Jacques Dupuis, is hardly likely to reverse the decline. We can hope that a Pope-theologian will do something to restore the theological culture of Rome to its highest levels.
By its tone the encyclical conveys the message that the Church is more than an ideological battleground, and that what unites all parties lies deeper than what may divide them. Benedict is writing now from the upper reaches of orthodoxy, no longer obsessing about the fine print. The ideal of eros disciplined and purified, opening out onto philia and agape is one Catholics are hardly likely to disagree on, even if these categories and this neat way of arranging them are hardly the most persuasive method of speaking of love today. Such unity between the "orthodox" and the "dissidents" on fundamental matters could greatly relativize the oppositions that are acerbated when the two sides engage in mutual demonization.
Curran and Küng, in showing less concern for personal hurt than for the welfare of the Church, avoid making the great tactical error of providing the heresy-hunters with a simple target for demonization. Without Luther, the Church would not have become so rigid a fortress of orthodoxy in the sixteenth century; without the scarecrow of Modernism it would not have entered the theological fortress of the pre-conciliar decades. Curran’s warmth toward the encyclical is likely to be more resented by conservatives than a frank rejection of it would have been; he provided even more enthusiasm than they were able to muster, countering any perception there might be that the Pope was “their man.”
Interviewed along with Curran, Tablet correspondent Rocco Palmo, in what may be another wishful projection, talks of “the Nixon Goes to China papacy.” Without his orthodox reputation any changes Benedict may make would have been difficult for ecclesiastical conservatives to accept. “Going into the election, Joseph Ratzinger was their dream candidate. Well, now he’s the pope. And his program has not been what either the far left flank or the far right flank of the Church expected on Day One. So it’s been a great moment for Catholics to really stand back and think about the nature of the church, about the nature of Catholicism in terms of the Christian world.” He sees in the encyclical a “common ground initiative,” to use the language of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. “He wants to work with people from where they’re at, and not look at them for what they’re not… It’s really an approach that these days is more affiliated with the Catholic Left. Again, this is very counter-intuitive of this pope.”
Some conservatives, perhaps masking a sense of disappointment, hail the document as a step toward the crackdown they expect, a strategic setting out of the principles on which the Pope can now proceed to root out “contraception Catholics” and other undesirables. One conservative Catholic blogger celebrated the election of Benedict XVI by posting a shot from Apocalypse Now, with the caption, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like VICTORY!” Yet the Vatican can hardly be overjoyed by support from those who are quick to disagree with its views on capital punishment, torture and the Iraq War.
On the other end of the spectrum, the expectation that papal rigidity and one-sidedness would set off some kind of self-deconstruction of the Vatican outlook also seems doomed to disappointment. A centrist consolidation is perhaps best challenged by arguments for an enlargement of that centre, in a Catholicism making room for a greater variety of tolerated opinions and innovative practices. The encyclical does set out basic principles, on which a sexual ethics can be defended as necessary to protect our capacity to love. Moral theologians generally share that concern and those principles. The more the values at stake are clarified, the more it should be possible for dialogue and consensus to prevail over needlessly acerbated quarrels. In placing the central emphasis not on a biologistic interpretation of natural law but on the dynamic of love, Benedict may have shifted the basis of discussion in a more helpful direction.
ORTHODOXY AND DOUBT
The consolidation of the centre fends off extremism on the right, but it also curbs adventurous innovation on the left. Few would now write in the style of the 1968 theologian par excellence, Michel de Certeau (see J. Moingt’s sketch in JMJ 58.2). In fact some scholars opine that his heterodoxy is self-evident, others that he had ceased to be a Christian. The ease with which such judgements are proferred shows how far Catholicism and the Christian world as a whole has swung back to the centre. Here is a sample of de Certeau’s writing from 1973:
“Paradoxically, the importance taken by religions in Western discourse is the measure of their progressive effacement from actual social life. The more one talks about them, the less one lives by them. Religious languages are still close enough to our society to furnish it still with a useful lexicon of signs, but distant enough to express henceforth something quite other than the faith whence they derive… The remains of vanishing church institutions designate the new questions of contemporary culture. Little by little they become fables of another history than that of which they speak. They have this role because of a theoretical vacuum… The fact that it is so often impossible to address ethical and philosophical questions in contemporary thought except by evoking them with religious metaphors points to a pressing task: a fundamental reflection proportioned to the actual organization of contemporary societies.” (La faiblesse de croire, Seuil, 1987, p. 255)
Benedict’s idea of theology is very far from this call for a reinvention of Christianity on its ruins. A dance with all the currents of postmodernity is not what he desires, but rather a clarification of the tradition of faith over against relativizing and destabilizing influences. He does not believe that the classical terms of Christian discourse are that far from contemporary social reality, or that they are picked up in a folklorized way by the thousands who listen to his sermons and addresses. Indeed it would be hard for the simple faithful to bear the rather disconsolate landscape of de Certeau’s theology. The vast majority of Catholics are happy to have their historical identity securely restored, and not to be bothered by innovative theological questions or dialogues. The very uncontroversiality of the encyclical bolsters this effect, assuring a display of Catholic unity in belief that carries its own momentum.
Speaking to the CDF on February 10, 2006, Benedict again stressed that “Jesus Christ is the Truth made Flesh… All other truths are fragments of the Truth that He is and that leads back to Him… Without knowledge of the truth freedom is distorted and isolated, and is reduced to sterile will.” Referring to “the centrality of the Catholic faith, in its authentic expression,” he warned: “when the perception of this centrality diminishes, the fabric of ecclesial life also loses its original vivacity and is damaged, decaying into a form of sterile activism or deteriorating into mere worldly political cunning.” Constant insistence on the centrality of the centre could become a very stifling kind of rhetoric, breeding leaden conformism.
The centre is by no means a harmless place. It continues to require repression of thinkers who are perceived as left-of-centre, such as our esteemed colleague Juan Masia Clavel (see his essays in JMJ 56.1, 4; 57.1, 3), who according to El Pais (Jan. 29, 2006) has had his career at the Universidad Comillas terminated two months short of official retirement, due to pressure from Cardinal Trujillo of the Pontifical Council for the Family and Cardinal Rouco of Madrid. This also means that Masia will not be able to offer his post-retirement services to the University, another contribution to the vast brain drain afflicting Catholic theology. The reason for the dismissal is his “taking of positions, spoken and written, on certain themes of bioethics,” without further clarification. The following remarks from a 2004 article, reprinted in Tertulias de Bioetica (Conversations on Bioethics, Santander: Sal Terrae, 2006; Imprimatur withdrawn), are cited by El Pais: “Coming from the Japanese world, I am surprised by the misunderstandings on ethics and on Church and Society in our country. For example, the case – half comic, half anachronistic – of the debate on condoms; one hardly knows whether to laugh or to weep. Need they be a problem, when used not only to prevent infections, but as a common contraceptive preventing an unwanted pregnancy or an abortion? Serious moral theology has long overcome this false problem. Even if a Roman dicastery says the contrary, or the assessors of an episcopal conference, or those who redact a speech for the Pope, one can dissent in the Church from fidelity to that same Church. The question is not one of faith or morals or sin, but one of common sense, responsibility and good humour.”
Another sign of this centralism is the imposition of tighter control on the interreligious events organized by the Franciscans at Assisi, which seem likely to be discontinued. The centre can hold, and hold tight. Hans Küng suggests that the Pope can avoid performative contradiction only by working to make church structures more reflective of gospel justice and charity. Questions also remain as to whether the CDF model of orthodoxy is the one that best matches today the claims of Christian truth.
Papal history offers another intertext for the encyclical. Everything Benedict says is studied for signs of discontinuity with his predecessor. Others find a resemblance to the Paul VI. But the traditionalism of Benedict’s conception of papacy awakens older associations, even with Renaissance paintings of Popes wearing the chamauro as we now learn the Santaesque headgear he wore in December is called. After the activism of John Paul II the placid pace of Benedict is relaxing. We anticipate a peaceful, settled pontificate, without startling departures to left or right.
The idea that elderly popes are necessarily gentle is not supported by the historical record, as Hubert Jedin recounts in Kirche des Glaubens, Kirche der Geschichte (Freiburg, 1966, I, 293-304). John XXII reigned from seventy-two to ninety years of age (1316-1334), with amazing energy and irresistible authority, and with the tenacious stubbornness of the elderly; Paul III reigned from sixty-six to eighty-one (1534-1549) and became the principal papal architect of the Counter-Reformation by courageously convoking and preparing the Council of Trent; Leo XIII reigned from sixty-eight to ninety-three (1878-1903) and gave a modern face to the Papacy in his strong encyclicals; John XXIII reigned from seventy-six to eighty-one (1958-1963) and, again through bravely summoning a Council, radically changed the face of the Church. Whether Benedict will show the preternatural energy or prophetic daring of these predecessors remains to be seen. So far, the strongest note struck by his pontificate has been one of quiet consolidation.
Libération reports that Italian Vaticanists are disappointed with the document, which they see as confirming a certain ineptitude of the new pontificate. The text is an anodyne homily, not a charter, not one of those encyclicals that will be referred back to for decades to come. It may be that, without instincts for practical engagement with the machinery of church governance, the Pope has settled into a caretaker role, above the fray. But is there a fray? The Catholic Church seems to be in a state of low vitality, needing inspiring leadership and a new vision, which the recycling of rather old-fashioned theological thoughts cannot provide.
This, too, may be wishful Schadenfreude. The Pope’s style may betoken a romantic loyalty to historical Europe, but he sees himself not as a stage play character but as a teacher, and he has drawn multitudes who are happy to learn from him. Alberto Melloni comments: “The pope wants to get to the essentials. He wants to be listened to. It’s clarity he’s after, not stardom” (The Japan Times, Feb. 1, 2006). A teaching Pope, even if he does nothing else than teach, fulfils the major function of the Papacy, especially if his teaching is characterized by crystalline clarity.
Much has been made of the fact that the first non-scriptural quotation in the encyclical comes from Nietzsche: “The tendency to avoid the word eros, together with the new vision of love expressed through the word agape, clearly point to something new and distinct about the Christian understanding of love. In the critique of Christianity which began with the Enlightenment and grew progressively more radical, this new element was seen as something thoroughly negative. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, Christianity had poisoned eros, which for its part, while not completely succumbing, gradually degenerated into vice (Beyond Good and Evil, 4.168). Here the German philosopher was expressing a widely-held perception: doesn't the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn't she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator's gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?” (par. 3). When writing the encyclical in a mountain setting last summer, Benedict must have thought of his compatriot Nietzsche, the Alpine philosopher par excellence. The Pope chides Nietzsche gently. Perhaps we can see here a gesture of reconciliation, of recognition, a willingness to take on board what is true in the Nietszchean critique.
The modern humor of “blow the whistle” is an invention of the English translator; the German refers to putting up warning signs (Verbotstafeln). Here we note another intertextual layer, in the interplay between the different versions of the encyclical: the official Latin text was composed on the basis of an Italian translation from the German original, and the Vatican website also offers the text in English, French and Spanish. The Nietzschean aphorism reads: “Christendom gave Eros poison to drink: -- he did not, to be sure, die thereof, but degenerated, to vice”. (Das Christentum gab dem Eros Gift zu trinken: -- er starb zwar nicht daran, aber entartete, zum Laster.) “Completely succumbing” and “gradually” are neither in Nietzsche nor in the German text of the encyclical, which resumes Nietzsche’s own words, casting the verbs in the subjunctive, to indicate that they express an opinion: “Das Christentum — meinte Friedrich Nietzsche — habe dem Eros Gift zu trinken gegeben; er sei zwar nicht daran gestorben, aber zum Laster entartet.” Had the statement been reproduced directly it might have clashed too violently with the context.
Does the papal comment quite catch the point of the aphorism? If we historicize what Nietzsche is saying, we might think of how prostitutes and prostitution were stigmatized in the nineteenth century. Also the poisoning of eros was far more severe in the past than it is now, when Christianity has been greatly liberalized by the impact of Freudianism, modern literature and the “sexual revolution”, so that we no longer even remember the morose Augustinian outlook of fifty years ago, which inhibited any natural acceptance of sex, even within marriage. The poisoning of eros had less to do with curbing sexual behavior than with mixing into sexual desire a constant consciousness of guilt, in a manner likely to induce neurosis. Many pastors today are ready to see in this a tradition of spiritual abuse for which they are ready to offer apologies.
Nietzsche’s comment has a sociological and cultural character, and deplores the lost innocence of the Greco-Roman world, in which the sense of sin (expressed by Seneca for example) was not focussed excessively on sex, and in which sex, even when expressed in sordid or disordered ways, brought at most ridicule and shame, but not the acute characterization as “vice” that it acquired in Christendom. In short, the Christian method of exterminating sexual disorders misfired, creating a worse situation than existed previously. When the Christian missions brought these methods to Asia and Latin America, setting up the Inquisition in Peru, Chile, Goa and Manila – with sexual transgressors among its victims – , did they succeed again only in casting a pall of corrosive guilt over people’s sexual lives, undermining the natural values and regulatory mechanisms of the local cultures?
To link Nietzsche’s comment to Enlightenment critiques of Christianity may miss the fact that it also has Christian antecedents in muted murmuring against repression throughout the centuries of Christendom. It would be interesting to have full history of this pagan resistance. The quite orthodox Chaucer allows the Wife of Bath to give it voice: “Alas, alas, that ever love was sin!” A sixteenth century Benedictine poet, Barthélemy de Loches, asks: “Why did you create women and forbid intercourse with them beyond the bond of two and the yoke of matrimony? You are more generous to the beasts, whom you bind by no law,” only to dismiss this as a self-refuting sophistry (L. Febvre, Amour sacré, amour profane, Gallimard, 1996, p. 204). Fifteenth-century Papal Rome was a riot of courtesans, concubines and common-law wives. The peasantry even of intensely Catholic countries took clerical instruction with a grain of salt, as in the ribald eighteenth-century Gaelic poem, The Midnight Court. The German peasantry, too, were the despair of their Lutheran pastors on that score. In general, the rebellion against strict sexual ethics can hardly be seen as coming from external secular agencies, but has always been brewing within Christianity itself.
Nietzsche may be the anti-Christian thinker who has implanted himself most insidiously in Christian consciousness, but his predecessor Ludwig Feuerbach had a far more intimate acquaintance with the discourse of theology, which he was able to analyze with a serene common sense not to be found in the over-strained utterance of Nietzsche or his theological friend Franz Overbeck. Feuerbach’s monograph on Pierre Bayle begins with a swashbuckling attack on Christian dualism of flesh and spirit that anticipates Nietzsche: “Christendom – to be well distinguished from the teaching of Christ – associated to the inevitable evils other evils that in themselves are superfluous, to the necessary and immanent battles other transcendent and soul-destroying battles, to bodily pains spiritual pains, to natural contraries unnatural contraries – the cleavage of God and world, heaven and earth, grace and nature, faith and reason”. The Pope wants to overcome any dualism of Eros and Agape and warmly celebrates physical love (within marriage) with no trace of the Augustinian notion that something sinful always attaches to it and no insistence on the superiority of virginity to marriage. He is showing that Christian love, properly understood, is a form of being true to the earth, nature and reason, as well as a gift of heaven, grace and faith. He concedes to Feuerbach and Nietzsche that anti-body tendencies always existed in Christianity, and he takes up Nietzschean-sounding language about “Man’s great ‘yes’ to the body” (par. 5). Curran comments: “In the traditional understanding of eros and agape, eros was the human way of loving, and agape was the divine way of loving. I was fearful that he might have downplayed eros a bit. But he didn’t – he even puts it in God, something that had not been done in the past by many people in this area.”
We who trade in literature may feel that the encyclical does not do justice to the variety of human love and desire. Composed in German, the text does not draw on the rich heritage of German poetry since Goethe, perhaps the foremost repertoire of love-language in the modern world. The Pope reaches further back, to an ancient sacral experience, that he seems to discern as well in the “neo-pagan” culture of today: “The Greeks – not unlike other cultures – considered eros principally as a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a ‘divine madness’ which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness. All other powers in heaven and on earth thus appear secondary: ‘Omnia vincit amor’ says Virgil in the Bucolics – love conquers all – and he adds: ‘et nos cedamus amori’ – let us, too, yield to love. In the religions, this attitude found expression in fertility cults” (par. 4). There is a tendency here to amalgamate quite different things under a global notion of a “counterfeit divinization of eros.”
In any case, “an intoxicated and undisciplined eros, then, is not an ascent in ‘ecstasy’ towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man” (par. 4). “Eros tends to rise ‘in ecstasy’ towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing” (par. 5). I wonder how relevant this sacral tradition is to contemporary experience of desire and love. The hedonistic frenzy of the modern world could be seen religiously as a sort of idolatry, but to most people the idea of eros as a divine force will seem recondite. Moreover, the conception of ascending eros is a Platonic construct, bound to a certain history and culture, and it puzzles even scholars today; it is hardly the most intelligible language in which to explain to contemporary people the significance of their love-lives. The Pope may be attempting to make the old words eros, philia and agape do too much work. A third aspect that seems somewhat ill-adjusted to contemporary awareness is his language of body and soul: “Man is a being made up of body and soul. Man is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united; the challenge of eros can be said to be truly overcome when this unification is achieved” (par. 5). The lame professorial joke about Descartes and Gassendi, representing the opposed sides of soul-body dualism, hardly rejoins contemporary sensibility. The Church’s doctrine that each individual soul is immediately created by God at the moment of conception perhaps blocks access to more “integrated” ways of connecting the flesh and the spirit.
Curran comments: “The two central arguments are truly astonishing: that God loves us with eros – that the Bible is a love story: ‘The universal principle of creation – the logos, primordial reason – is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love.’ And that in the final wash-up (this is the second argument) because God’s love is a forgiving love, God’s love triumphs over God’s justice. What a blessed relief!” Yet the insistence on love can itself distort the Gospel if it is played off against the justice of the Kingdom, but also if it dilutes the drama of salvation by faith. Protestants instinctively fear that to say we are saved by love can easily turn into a doctrine that we are saved by our own virtue rather than by the gratuitous acceptance of God.
In a comment on his encyclical, the Pope said: “The cosmic excursion in which Dante wants to involve the reader in his Divine Comedy ends before the everlasting light that is God himself, before that light which at the same time is the love “which moves the sun and the other stars” … God, infinite light, whose incommensurable mystery had been intuited by the Greek philosopher, this God has a human face and – we can add – a human heart… God’s eros is not only a primordial cosmic force, it is love that has created man and that bends before him, as the Good Samaritan bent before the wounded man.” The encyclical states: “God’s eros for man is also totally agape. This is not only because it is bestowed in a completely gratuitous manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is love which forgives... It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice.” None of this is new to Catholic reared on devotion to the Sacred Heart. The dialectic of love versus justice may be an echo of Luther’s dialectic of the alien work of God – to condemn – and the proper work of God – to forgive.
Perhaps the most substantial theological discussion of love in recent times in that of the Swedish Lutheran Bishop Anders Nygren in the 1930s, translated into English as Agape and Eros (London, 1953). Building on Luther’s and Melanchthon’s suspicion of the Platonic element in Christianity, Nygren opposes biblical Agape to Platonic Eros. The Platonic philosopher, Proclus, seems already to confuse the two: “There is a plain departure from the old scale of values. The higher has begun to interest itself in what is lower and to approach it with a view to helping and saving it… Eros has changed its direction. It is no longer merely an ascending love, but also and primarily a love that descends” (pp. 569-70). The projection of eros onto God by Pseudo-Dionysius is particularly deplored: “the fundamental Neoplatonism is but scantily covered with an exceedingly thin Christian veneer” (p. 576). “The fundamental idea in Pseudo-Dionysius’ thought is that adopted from Proclus, of a unitary force of Eros permeating the whole universe and holding all things together. Eros is not limited to a particular sphere, but is found at all levels, from the highest to the lowest. It is found in the Deity Himself” (p. 578). Nygren abhors Pseudo-Dionysius’s identification of eros and agape in God; Benedict celebrates it. Nygren also sees the synthesis of the two loves in Augustinian caritas as an impure and instable hybrid. “The problem involved in Mediaeval Caritas theory is obscured if the Caritas of Augustine and Dante is taken to be a simple interpretation of the New Testament idea of love” (p. 620). Again the Pope’s unproblematic appeal to Dante is at the antipodes to this.
The Pope is clearly thinking of Nygren when he says that “these distinctions have often been radicalized to the point of establishing a clear antithesis between them: descending, oblative love – agape – would be typically Christian, while on the other hand ascending, possessive or covetous love – eros – would be typical of non-Christian, and particularly Greek culture. Were this antithesis to be taken to extremes, the essence of Christianity would be detached from the vital relations fundamental to human existence, and would become a world apart, admirable perhaps, but decisively cut off from the complex fabric of human life. Yet eros and agape – ascending love and descending love – can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized” (par. 7).
The stark opposition of Agape and Eros was resisted even within Lutheranism, notably by Paul Tillich. In the Catholic world the synthesis of Agape and Eros was defended by M. C. D’Arcy in The Mind and Heart of Love (London, 1962). Jean-Luc Marion, like the Pope, seeks “to comprehend love in its concept” (Le phénomène érotique, Paris, 2003, p. 9) – something a poet or a novelist is unable to do. He offers phenomenological explorations that seek to give concrete verification to the Catholic unity between eros and agape, first tracing the infernal course of self-centred desire and at the end opening up the celestial prospects of human love as it opens onto divine. Serious thinking about love, Marion claims, is marked by “the effort to keep undivided as long as possible the unique tunic of love” (p. 15). He even tends to erase the distinction between eros and agape altogether: “Univocal, love can be spoken of only in one way (Univoque l’amour ne se dit qu’en un sens unique)” (ib.). It would be interesting to know if Marion’s difficult essay was among the works consulted by Benedict in composing the encyclical, as might be suggested by the sketches of a phenomenology of ecstasy that it proposes.
THE SONG OF SONGS
“Eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfil its deepest purpose” (par. 11). This is at the antipodes to Denis de Rougemont’s idea (Love in the Western World, Princeton UP, 1983) that erotic love, as developed from the Courtly Love of the Troubadours to the ecstasies of Wagner’s Tristan, is a kind of Manichean death-cult irreconcilably opposed to the values of marriage. The Pope finds the best antidote to such a morose view in the Song of Songs, which integrates into married love all the intensity of eros.
He reveals a modern attitude to the interpretation of Scripture when he writes: “According to the interpretation generally held today, the poems contained in this book were originally love-songs, perhaps intended for a Jewish wedding feast and meant to exalt conjugal love” (par. 6). This ties up with current exegesis of the Song, for instance Marvin Pope’s in the Anchor Bible series. It pulls the mat from under those who glorify the tradition of allegorical exegesis, and it spells a clear break with the many fundamentalist literalists (often converts to Catholicism) who ignore the critical study of Scripture as recommended in the documents of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (notably, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, 1994).
While Benedict celebrates erotic love, as the biblical text does, with not the faintest shadow of Augustinian suspicion, the idea that erotic love itself is a pathway to God is not one that has been frankly accepted in the Song of Songs commentatorial tradition. For Origen, the “carnal love coming from Satan” is opposed to “love of the spirit having its origin in God” (Patr. Gr. 23.1121). Benedict is drawing perhaps on a remark in a 1944 letter from prison of his saintly compatriot Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “I would in fact like to read it as an earthly love-song. That is perhaps the best ‘Christological’ exegesis.” Bonhoeffer held to a Chalcedonian unity in polyphonic distinction of the earthly, secular, human sphere and the divine “cantus firmus.” That is very close to the spirit of the Antiochene Fathers such as Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret. Indeed, it runs the risk of falling foul of ancient anathemas, for Theodore’s secular exegesis of the Song was condemned at Chalcedon.
Benedict does justify the reception of the originally earthly love-songs as referring to God’s covenantal love for Israel or to Christ’s love for the Church. He even seeks an indication of the interplay of eros and agape in the two words used for love in the Hebrew text, though in reality they are used alternately and interchangeably: “dodim, a plural form suggesting a love that is still insecure, indeterminate and searching. This comes to be replaced by the word ahabà, which the Greek version of the Old Testament translates with the similar-sounding agape, which, as we have seen, becomes the typical expression for the biblical notion of love. By contrast with an indeterminate, “searching” love, this word expresses the experience of a love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other” (par. 6).
This leads to a rather strained account of how the Song of Songs became a mystical text: “God is the absolute and ultimate source of all being; but this universal principle of creation – the Logos, primordial reason – is at the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love. Eros is thus supremely ennobled, yet at the same time it is so purified as to become one with agape. We can thus see how the reception of the Song of Songs in the canon of sacred Scripture was soon explained by the idea that these love songs ultimately describe God's relation to man and man's relation to God.” This “union with God” is contrasted with “a sinking in the nameless ocean of the Divine” (par. 10).
Heavy stress on the centrality of truth can inhibit freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and academic freedom. Heavy stress on the right way of loving can inhibit the freedom of the emotional life, creating a prudent regulation of anaemic sentiments, instead of the passions that are so fully on display in the Gospels: thirst for justice, prophetic anger, compassion, tenderness. In the context of a globalizing, comprehensive, centrist mapping of the economy of Christian love, Benedict offers many signs of encouragement to the life of feeling, by letting the Song of Songs speak in its own uninhibited style without nervous theological interpretation. He attempts to speak from the heart as well as the head, and to show the harmony of both in Christian love. Is he a blind man speaking of colours, or does he really touch the springs of human love and desire, as many of his readers feel he does, or are we again faced with a Rorschach test?
VIRGIL AND PLATO
Blogger Andrew Sullivan notes another dimension of the encyclical’s intertext:
“The Symposium, the source of Benedict's description of eros, treats same-sex love interchangeably with opposite-sex love. Benedict must know this. He’s a deeply learned man. Why rest his own treatment on sources that clearly embrace gay love? Beats me. He even cites Virgil’s Eclogues, a deeply homoerotic work. Part of me thinks that Benedict’s anti-gay posture is just orthodoxy, made more reactionary by the social revolution of our time. And then I wonder if he doesn’t have an esoteric meaning as well. Nothing in this encyclical couldn’t apply to same-sex eros.”
It was from the Eclogues that André Gide drew the title of his once scandalous Corydon (1923). Another reference to a homoerotic classic occurs in Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2002 message to Communione e Liberazione:
“Certainly, the consciousness that beauty has something to do with pain was also present in the Greek world. For example, let us take Plato’s Phaedrus. Plato contemplates the encounter with beauty as the salutary emotional shock that makes man leave his shell and sparks his “enthusiasm” by attracting him to what is other than himself. Man, says Plato, has lost the original perfection that was conceived for him. He is now perennially searching for the healing primitive form. Nostalgia and longing impel him to pursue the quest; beauty prevents him from being content with just daily life. It causes him to suffer. In a Platonic sense, we could say that the arrow of nostalgia pierces man, wounds him and in this way gives him wings, lifts him upwards toward the transcendent.”
Eros for the Greeks, as for us, was primarily male-female desire, but the philosophy of Eros as opening us to the transcendent was developed in a homoerotic milieu, in response to the sublimity of male beauty. This historical origin leaves an indelible mark on the discourse, as suggested by the naturalness with which Benedict reaches for quotations from Plato and Virgil, who are also the two classical authors that have left the deepest mark on Christian tradition. History has made it impossible to celebrate Eros without in the same breath celebrating homoerotic ardor. The literature of the philosophy of Eros (not to be confused with the literature of erotic love, which is as old as literature itself) first becomes primarily heterosexual in the Song of Songs commentaries in the line of Origen.
Some expected the Pope to confine Eros to heterosexuals, leaving homosexuals to specialize in Agape, or at best Philia. But while the text highlights male-female love as normative, it does not formulate any such exclusion. Indeed, Richard J. Neuhaus has been muttering about an alleged “truce of 2005” on homosexuality which he sees as just as fatal an error as Paul VI’s alleged “truce of 1968” on contraception (see http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/article.php?id_article=1509 for a severe critique of Neuhaus’s bullying discourse).
If gay-friendly notes, intended to offer reassurance to potentially alienated members of the flock, are inscribed on the margins of papal discourse, how is this compatible with the very negative tenor of the 1986 document from the same pen? The same question has often been asked about the contrast between Plato’s Laws and his Phaedrus. The clash is softened by the now widely accepted reinterpretation of the Church’s teaching, according to which it is not homosexual affectivity that is considered “objectively disordered,” but merely the positive inclination to acts judged objectively immoral. One could even promote a chaste enthusiasm for beauty as an antidote to lust and as actually stilling sensual passion. Eros in its core is holy, opening us to God, and betrays itself if it becomes an impure passion. All of this is in the best Platonic tradition, though whether it rejoins the realities of ordinary life may remain dubious.
JULIAN THE APOSTATE
It is surprising to find a Pope speak so warmly and sympathetically of the Emperor Julian: “Julian witnessed the assassination of his father, brother and other family members by the guards of the imperial palace; rightly or wrongly, he blamed this brutal act on the Emperor Constantius, who passed himself off as an outstanding Christian. The Christian faith was thus definitively discredited in his eyes. Upon becoming emperor, Julian decided to restore paganism, the ancient Roman religion, while reforming it in the hope of making it the driving force behind the empire. In this project he was amply inspired by Christianity. He established a hierarchy of metropolitans and priests who were to foster love of God and neighbour. In one of his letters, he wrote that the sole aspect of Christianity which had impressed him was the Church’s charitable activity” (par. 24). This passage is in stark contrast to the invective traditionally poured on Julian’s head. Some older apologists claimed that Christians protected Julian from the brutality of Constantius, so that his apostasy incurred the odium of ingratitude as well. Sympathy for Julian was a speciality of critics of Christianity such as Edward Gibbon or Algernon Swinburne. Gibbon deplores Christian unfairness to his hero: “The triumph of the party which he deserted and opposed has fixed a stain of infamy on the name of Julian; and the unsuccessful apostate has been overwhelmed with a torrent of pious invectives, of which the signal was given by the sonorous trumpet of Gregory Nazianzen” (Decline and Fall, ch. 23).
To recognize a sense for charity in the most famous ancient enemy of Christianity indicates an ecumenical flexibility also seen in the Pope’s warm support for Hans Küng's Global Ethic. Benedict always has the last word in his discussions with those he censures, yet on the way to the last word he allows their views to be expressed and empathizes with what is true and valuable in them. Such capacious, inclusive vision would no doubt be seen by him as the best antidote to the relativism he deplores.
The second half of the encyclical focusses on love of neighbour: “Only my readiness to encounter my neighbour and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well.” “No longer is it a question, then, of a ‘commandment’ imposed from without and calling for the impossible, but rather of a freely-bestowed experience of love from within” (par. 18).
The Church’s role in regard to social justice is described in a rather stilted way, as that of purifying reason by the light of faith. “The State must inevitably face the question of how justice can be achieved here and now. But this presupposes an even more radical question: what is justice? The problem is one of practical reason; but if reason is to be exercised properly, it must undergo constant purification, since it can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests” (par. 28). Here we need to recall the intertext constituted by the history of the relations between faith and reason, particularly in the Enlightenment. That history shows that it has often been reason that served to purify faith, and to awaken the Church to a sense of its social responsibilities.
“Faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly. This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place” (par. 28). “The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper.”
The encyclical insists on the relevance of the message that “God is love” for a world in which religion is often dragooned into the service of hate. But in one respect it must be asked whether the encyclical enacts that concrete consultation of “the signs of the times” urged by Vatican II. The text refers to this idea, to be sure: “Concern for our neighbour transcends the confines of national communities and has increasingly broadened its horizon to the whole world. The Second Vatican Council rightly observed that ‘among the signs of our times, one particularly worthy of note is a growing, inescapable sense of solidarity between all peoples.’” But amid the rather stale polemic against Marxism, there is very little in the way of concrete commentary on the present ills of global society. Recall that for Vatican II such commentary would not a mere topical allusion, an icing on the cake, but an essential context of effective preaching of the Good News. Benedict refers to Populorum Progressio, but gives no indication that he will take up the left-leaning spirit of that prophetic document.
Questions may be asked about the way Mother Teresa is held up as a model of church action in the world. Charity alone, without political alertness and a concrete programme of social change, can end up in collusion with structures of injustice and inequality. Surely there is an unnecessary dichotomy in the following statement: “With regard to the personnel who carry out the Church's charitable activity on the practical level, the essential has already been said: they must not be inspired by ideologies aimed at improving the world, but should rather be guided by the faith which works through love (cf. Gal 5:6)” (par. 33). But what if these ideologies are inseparable from perception of injustice and thirst for justice?
“It is very important that the Church's charitable activity maintains all of its splendor and does not become just another form of social assistance” (par. 31). Is this a real danger? “Christian charitable activity must be independent of parties and ideologies… The modern age, particularly from the nineteenth century on, has been dominated by various versions of a philosophy of progress whose most radical form is Marxism.” The opposition of Christianity and the modern ideal of progress is a disturbing note. As a faith oriented to the future, to the coming of God’s Kingdom into the world, Christianity cannot disassociate itself from the Enlightenment ideal of progress and from efforts to change the world for the better. Cardinal Martini called on the Church to preserve what was valid in Marxism. Benedict adverts only to its worst perversions: “People of the present are sacrificed to the moloch of the future – a future whose effective realization is at best doubtful” (par. 31).
I think we would be well advised to heed the following comments of Irish moral theologian Paul Surlis. He notes that the encyclical “seems directed towards a re-privatizing of Catholic faith and a shift of focus in Catholic Social Teaching away from ‘action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world,’ which the Synod of Bishops described as a ‘constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation’ (Justice in the World, 1971). Benedict’s emphasis on charity and his rejection of involvement by believers in efforts for systemic change as Marxist are of a piece with his hostility to liberation theology when he and Pope John Paul II helped undermine social justice struggles in Latin America in the 1980’s. Benedict’s position falsifies also the dangerous social message of Jesus for which he was tortured and politically assassinated.”
Writing from Zambia, Peter Henriot SJ has a different take, finding that the encyclical “pushes forward the more radical aspects of the Church’s social teaching,” confirming that “an integrated social activism is essential to the mission of the Church. For charity that attends only to alleviating suffering without attempting to do away with it is only partial love art best and destructive love at worst – something open to the Marxist critique that Benedict soundly rejects.” “Benedict’s view is in continuity with the major emphasis of that great social teaching document from the 1971 Synod of Bishops, Justice in the World: ‘Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world’ is constitutive (that is, central, essential, necessary, indispensable) to the preaching of the Good News.” Henriot suggests that a revised version of the encyclical might quote the Synod on the inseparability of love and justice: “Love implies an absolute demand for justice… Justice attains its inner fullness only in love.” Which of these readings is the “correct” one is a question that is rendered otiose by the boredom-factor coming into play in these passages of the encyclical. No doubt the Rorschach effect will allow both readings.
A little noticed “intertext” of the encyclical is its reference to the question of theodicy brought to the forefront of people’s minds by the tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004. The Pope offers a surprisingly low-key interpretation of the role of prayer: “The Christian who prays does not claim to be able to change God’s plans or correct what he has foreseen. Rather, he seeks an encounter with the Father of Jesus Christ, asking God to be present with the consolation of the Spirit to him and his work” (par. 37). This statement seems to mark a cool theological distance from popular piety, which storms heaven with petitionary prayer. Between a deus otiosus indifferent to the sufferings of mortals and a cruel God who wills them, the Pope presents a God who is trustworthy even when incomprehensible: “An authentically religious attitude prevents man from presuming to judge God, accusing him of allowing poverty and failing to have compassion for his creatures… It is Saint Augustine who gives us faith's answer to our sufferings: ‘Si comprehendis, non est Deus’ – ‘if you understand him, he is not God…’ Even in their bewilderment and failure to understand the world around them, Christians…remain unshakably certain that God is our Father and loves us” (par. 38). Remarkable in this is an almost Calvinist sense of the sovereignty of God, a rather violent application of a classical dictum of apophatic theology to the problem of suffering, and a dramatic portrait of the believer holding on in blind trust when God is silent and the world baffling.
As a document that is likely to be much used in preaching, spiritual reading and discussion groups, Deus Caritas Est is blessedly free from “controversial” notes that could foment yet more quarrelling among Catholics. Let us remember however, as Peter Steinfels points out, that its basic message concerns the most fundamental controversy of all: Is the universe the work of blind, potentially malevolent forces, or of divine love? “To make love loved,” to assure people that their love for one another links them to the divine and is an image of the divine love, is a teaching gesture that draws on the core experience of twentieth century Catholicism and gives an encouraging direction for the years ahead. The document does not come closely enough to grips with the signs of the times, either in terms of the political and social agonies or in terms of the contemporary culture of love. For this the voice of the Pope will need to be supplemented by the countless other voices of the Church, in a spirit of serene and loving discussion.
UPDATE The above essay is probably unduly mild in its criticisms. I fear that the centrist orthodoxy will be more oppressive than I intimated, and I think we may well fear the influence of one who speaks of same-sex attraction as an "anomaly" and joins forces with Islamicist regimes in resisting UN efforts to protect the civil rights of gay people at a time when Iran is hanging gay teenagers.
Joseph S. O'Leary