Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
March 20, 2006
Benedict guides with humility
Without a doubt, the key word describing the first 11 months of the pontificate of Benedict XVI is humility. The pope's self-effacing approach to his ministry is something few people were expecting. Perhaps the cardinals who elected him expected this humility – his collegial approach to discussions in the period between the death of John Paul II and the conclave appears to be one reason Cardinal Ratzinger was elected.
The crudely painted image of Ratzinger as the Taliban pope appears more and more to have been without foundation. Instead, he has gently shown the world there is a difference between truth and legalism, between justice and repression.
This is perhaps most clearly seen in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love). For this supposedly trademark encyclical, Benedict chose to pick up the remnants of a project begun under John Paul and weave them into his own message to the world. So determined is he not to impose his own personality on the papacy that he even submitted the encyclical to the Vatican's doctrinal consultors before releasing it.
All of this is a stark contrast to political leaders who are determined to put their own stamp on the world and leave a personal legacy.
The content of the encyclical emphasizes love over prohibitions and commandments. Benedict challenges a growing mentality that sees passionate eros as the highest expression of humanity. Holders of this view see the Church, as anti-human, repressive.
But Benedict observes that intoxicated and undisciplined eros is a degradation of the human person. It is selfish. The higher form of love is agape, which seeks the good of the other person. Agape, however, is not dispassionate. It incorporates the passion of eros but, through a renunciation of unrestrained eros, moves it to a higher level.
This is so important. If agape were stripped of passion then Christian renunciation would be the world-hating religiosity its modern opponents claim it to be.
God's love for his people is so strong that it turns his love against his justice. Time and time again in Scripture, the demands of justice are replaced by God's tender offer of a covenant to his people. The height of this process comes with Jesus' selfless offering on Calvary.
Love of neighbour leads us to love God. But it is impossible to love the person I do not like or even know unless I have had "an intimate encounter with God." It is only through a close relationship of God that one can see the image of God in another person.
That raises a question for intense religious devotion. If that devotion does not lead to a love of neighbour, the pope says, one's relationship with God will also grow dry. "The saints – consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta – constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbour from their encounter with the eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its realism and depth in their service to others" (n. 18).
Justice is good. But people always need love.
All of this comes from the first half of Deus Caritas Est, a gentle, erudite invitation to a full Christian way of life. There is no harshness here, no insistence that laws must be obeyed or else. But neither is there a compromise of the truth. It is Christianity at its best.
With this pope, humility means bowing before tradition and truth. Inside that framework, it also means openness to and treasuring of human experience. The Church of Benedict is not repressive. But it does call humanity to be raised to ever-higher levels through love.
- Glen Argan
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.