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Pope Benedict XVI's Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est and its implications for Contemporary Spirituality

by Dr. Patricia Cooney-Hathaway

A few years ago, a Boston College philosophy professor, Kerry Cronin, added a requirement to her philosophy course: Ask someone out on a date. She created this assignment after learning how many of her seniors were about to graduate, never having had this experience. Many of her students were apprehensive—what if I’m turned down? They didn’t know what to do. Dr. Cronin gave them the following guidelines: The person who asks pays, the first date can cost no more than $10.00, and the date can last no longer than 90 minutes. No sex, no alcohol. One young woman reported that she asked a guy whom she had known for a while to join her for ice cream not far from campus. It was the first time, she said, that they actually had a real conversation.

In his book, Lost in Transition, the Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame, and his associates interviewed hundreds of young adults regarding their experience of the “hookup” culture. While some recounted having no regrets about being sexually active, many others described the hurt, confusion, and disillusionment that continues to affect them negatively today. One young woman admits, “I didn’t feel the liberation or freedom that supposedly comes from casual sex.” Another stated, “It sucked. It totally did not live up to what it was supposed to be—special.” Finally, a young woman describes her regret, “I just wished that it had been pounded more into my head when I was younger—wait.”

Besides waiting, what message does our Church give not only to young people, but to adults and clergy regarding sex, friendship, and love? Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est provides a witness, a testimony, and for some, a balm for those who have been hurt, disappointed, and disillusioned in their quest for love. 

The first part of the document focuses on the relationship between divine and human love. The second part focuses on the commandment to love one’s neighbor, especially the role of the laity in creating a just society. In order to do justice to the richness and length of the encyclical, this article will focus on the first part.

From the get-go, Pope Benedict wants to reassure his audience regarding the image of God that permeates this document. So begins God Is Love, an encyclical about the search for love and relationships. The title is taken from the first Epistle of John. Benedict states, “In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence…I wish my first encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we, in turn, must share with others.” (1) He emphasizes that we must come to believe in God’s love, for “being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (2)     

What is that direction? For too many Catholics, Christianity only provides a set of rules to be followed; it takes a negative approach to sexuality, characterizing it as the chief source of sin. Many might agree with Fredrick Nietzsche whom the pope quotes as maintaining that Christianity has poisoned  eros, that the church “with all her commandments and prohibitions, turns 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 a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?” (3)

Benedict responds by rightly acknowledging that the term “love” is one of the most frequently used and misused words in the modern age. He wants to bring clarity to this topic by uniting the ancient Greek distinctions between philia, the love of friendship, and eros, our drive toward communion, with the Christian contribution of agape, self-sacrificing love.

In response to the Enlightenment critique that Christianity destroyed eros, Benedict maintains that on the contrary, Christianity has not destroyed eros but rather has declared war on the cultural distortion of eros as lust—that is, “eros as a kind of intoxication that overpowers reason and strips eros of its dignity and dehumanizes it.” (3) The testimonies of the young adults who introduced this article speak to the hard reality that using another person for one’s own sexual pleasure dehumanizes both. Such experiences give credence to Pope Benedict’s insistence that eros must mature into agape:

In particular, “the pope emphasizes that this union finds a unique expression in marriage ‘where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness.’ (3) Yet, as we know only too well, marriage and family life are in crisis. The high divorce rate reminds us that the reasons why a man and woman marry often are not enough to see them through the long haul of fidelity and commitment. The marriages that last seem to be based on philia—a friendship which puts the well-being of the other first. Joined to philia is the union of eros and agape. Thus, the drive for communion that leads a married couple to the peak of sexual expression through sexual intercourse must be joined to agape’s expression of self-donation—the gift of oneself to the other. Without the integration of all three—philia, eros, and agape—marriages flounder and family life suffers.

Benedict wants us to recognize that all our relationships find their meaning in the connection between divine love and human love. He emphasizes that the Scriptures reveal to us that God is not only the absolute and ultimate source of being, but at the same time, God is a lover who loves with all the passion of eros united with the self-gift of agape.

The pope then goes on to emphasize the centerpiece of his encyclical— that the unity of philia, eros, and agape finds dramatic expression in Jesus. “The real novelty of the New Testament,” he states, “is the figure of Jesus Christ who gives flesh and blood to those concepts.” In Jesus, philia takes on new depth as witnessed in his friendship with his disciples. Eros joins with agape in dramatic form “when in Jesus, it is God himself who goes in search of the ‘stray sheep,’ a suffering and lost humanity.” (9) His description is worth quoting in full:

When Jesus speaks in the parables of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, of the woman who looks for the lost coin, of the father who goes to meet and embraces his prodigal son, these are no mere words: they constitute an explanation of his very being and activity, His death on the cross is the culmination of…God’s gift of himself in order to raise humanity up and save it. This is love in its most radical form…It is from there that our definition of love begins. In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move. (9) 

Benedict then reminds us that the Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ gift of himself to us. And that union with Christ is also union with all those to whom Jesus gives himself. He emphasizes that we can’t possess Jesus for ourselves alone. On the contrary, the letter of John which describes God as love “should ultimately be interpreted to mean that love of neighbor is the path that leads to the encounter with God, and that closing our eyes to the neighbor, also blinds us to God.” (12) By contemplating Jesus as the visible expression of the invisible God, we learn to see with the eyes of Christ, which then enables us to give to others much more than their outward necessities; rather we give them the look of love that they crave. (11)

Pope Benedict ends this first section of his encyclical by reminding us that the commandment to love is not something imposed from without but rather is a “freely bestowed experience of God’s love from within, a love which by its very nature must be shared with others.” Such love is divine because it comes from God and unites us to God and one another.

I began this article by asking the question: What message does our Church give not only to young adults but to all Christians about friendship and love? Pope Benedict’s message is that philia, eros, and agape need to come together in our everyday lives. Only in this way can we avoid the hurt and disappointment of searching for love in all the wrong places. Only in this way can its foundational message—God is love—be understood, fully experienced, and practiced. Throughout this document, Benedict reveals that Christianity is not just a set of rules but a relationship with the Divine that provides guidance for our spirituality and our ministry of evangelization.  

Dr. Patricia Cooney Hathaway is a Professor of Spirituality and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

by Dr. Patricia Cooney-Hathaway

Dr. Patricia Cooney-Hathaway

Dr. Patricia Cooney Hathaway is professor of spirituality and systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.