January 25, 2005 saw the publication of Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love). An encyclical is a letter from the pope to the entire universal Church, and represents the highest form of papal teaching. The first encyclical from a new pope is usually seen as setting the agenda for the things he wants to do for the rest of his pontificate. The new letter takes as it’s theme love. The first part is more intellectual, and focuses in on what love means. The second is more concrete and discusses ways in which love is lived out in the life of the Church. This week we’ll deal with the first part, with a letter to follow on the second.
The Holy Father explains that throughout history love has been defined in three ways. Eros, meaning physical or romantic love, agape, meaning unconditional, self sacrificing love and philia meaning brotherly love. Christian teaching has focused more on agape and philia as the ideal way that disciples of Christ express their love for one another. Some have accused the Church of undervaluing or even trying to destroy eros by making it appear sinful. Pope Benedict argues quite the opposite, that physical love between husband and wife is essential. Conjugal relations represent an image of the divine life we will all share in eternity, as well as a participation in the creative action of God. The key is that eros must be purified of selfishness and lust. It can only do this when it is unified with agape which, by it’s nature, seeks the good of the other without worrying about itself.
Eros and agape separated from each other are incomplete. It is only together that they can fully express the reality of love. This does not mean all love must be expressed romantic terms. Christ gave himself totally on the cross for the life of the world (agape) but also had a deep, passionate love for the people he was sent to save (eros). It is only because Jesus loved us in this “human” way that he was able to give him self so completely to forgive our sins. The priest or religious is called to this same kind of passionate self giving while remaining chaste.
In the future we’ll delve a little deeper into the Pope’s message of love, as well as looking at the practical ways that we live this love as Christians. Until then I invite you to take a look at the Pope’s own words at the Vatican web site.