Thursday, January 5
Thoughts on the Forthcoming Encyclical
Very little surprises me anymore, for better or worse. I'm used to the monumental weirdness of the modern world, today's top news stories easily outparodying yesterday's parodies of them. But his Eminence the Reverend Lord my Lord Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, utterly floored me, and in the best of ways, when he gave us a possible sneak peak of Papa Benedict's new encyclical, Deus Caritas Est:
In a kind of Lutheran fashion, [Anders Nygren in his book Eros and Agape] distinguished between agape, the love of God in us, which is good; and eros, which is our own erotic life and desire, which turns us away from God. He said that in English 'love' is ambiguous and you have to distinguish between these two. And you do.This is wild, and I mean that in the best sense of the word. While the core ideas are deeply embedded in Catholic marital and sacramental theology, they were often overlooked until John Paul II developed them in epic detail in his catecheses on the Theology of the Body early in his pontificate. That Benedict has chosen to take up the subject again is a pleasant and quite gigantic surprise.
What the Pope is going to do [in Deus Caritas Est] is to try to save eros. That is to say that our own human love, our desires, are good in themselves... The distinction between agape and eros is not a clean one. In fact, one influences the other and therefore both should be considered good. But we are sinful creatures, so they can be misused.
It comes as a surprise, to me, anyway, because I've not seen this theme developed in his pre-pontifical writings as greatly as in JP II's during his Krakow days, where he developed the ideas of the Theology of the Body in Love and Responsibility. Of course, Benedict has always been a bit of a polymath--the wide range of topics he comfortably discusses in his interviews with Peter Seewald spring to mind--and has a curious and understated way of quietly pulling things out of his hat (or camauro) that nobody expected, things which hint at a grander design hiding in the wings. So this surprise should come as no surprise.
This strategy has frustrated some, I know, who were expecting a whirlwind reform of the reform and a dozen other things in the first six months of his papacy. Doing anything that wildly imprudent would have been disastrous, though, as fun as it would have been as a wish-fulfilment fantasy. But Papa Benedict knows he's writing and speaking on a much bigger stage than he's used to and must be prudent, and he also realizes that by working quietly and gradually, one can accomplish great things--and often more quickly than people realize. The encyclical is the first big statement of this pontificate and Benedict has chosen its topic with great care. (It's interesting to note some Vaticanisti are expecting a major shakeup of the Curia around the same time the encyclical will be issued, which suggests Benedict's quiet strategy is about to bear significant fruit).
Why eros? Why now? It's self-evident in retrospect. The subject and time are fortuitous. JP II's groundbreaking Theology of the Body got lost in the shuffle during the '80s, as we all know, through no fault of his own. Like many other aspects of his pontificate, it was orthodox and radical--in the sense of radex or root, and getting to the root of the issue--and it was cutting-edge all at once. And it also bolstered the Church's age-old teachings on sexual morality, and so nobody wanted to hear about it.
Benedict's theology of eros and Logos will differ in angle and emphasis from JP II's work--in a good and non-contradictory sense, I mean--and the world he will reveal it to is a different one from the one JP II spoke to in the early '80s. For one thing, there's a likelyhood the message will be heard this time: orthodox Catholics are already starting to get familiar with the subject through JP II's works as discussed or popularized by follks like Christopher West and Janet Smith, and the world has developed a greater willingness to actually see what Benedict is saying when he gets up there at his papal audiences, perhaps because they're still trying to figure the man out. So the timing is fortuitous.
What can we expect from such an encyclical? Bear in mind, I'm no theologian, and these are the idle speculations of an amateur. Early commentary on the coming encyclical suggested it was
a 46-page spiritual meditation focusing in large part on "eros" (love) and "Logos" (the Word) and their relationship to the person of Christ. [...]In two articles written before his election and published in a recent issue of the magazine Communio, Pope Benedict wrote about the unity of the word and love, as personified in Christ. He highlighted the importance of the personal encounter with Christ, which stirs up love, and said love of God helps define the correct idea of human autonomy. He also wrote that Christ as "Logos made flesh" implied reconciliation between supernatural revelation and reason. (Source).This would hint at something a little less unusual than Cardinal George's commentary were it not for the very deliberate use of the term eros, rather than agape. As the encyclical is Deus est Caritas rather than, say, Deus est Amor, Benedict clearly wants to discuss both types of love, and show the links between them, within the proper rightly-ordered framework. I imagine he will pull in his interests in the problems of the European "Age of Enlightenment" (and what it wrought), as well as true and false defintions of reason.
JP II's thoughts on the subject were deeply mystical and pastoral, shaped by his inner life and his experiences as priest and bishop, and also interrelated to his own interests in modern philosophy. I imagine Benedict will touch on marriage in his encyclical--it would be difficult not to--but I also imagine, based on the apparent shortness of the text, he will cover it in addition to many other issues in broader depth and less detail than in JP II's mammoth cycle of talks. JP II's work was more focused on the inner life of the Trinity, and how marital love images God's being; it sounds like Benedict will be focusing instead on how eros fits into our relationship with Christ. I imagine he will also draw on his vast knowledge of Patristic theology (so rich with its exploration and definition of the person of Christ) and liturgy, and perhaps even make the point that liturgy is marital and marriage is liturgical, as the Byzantine priest Fr. Thomas Loya would put it.
The subject fits perfectly into Benedict's great love of liturgical spirituality. We live in an essentially disembodied and gnostic age. Despite our prurient fascination with other people's bodies, we really don't understand them, and are even a little bit prudish--witness the inevitable sniggering when schoolkids pass a naked statue in an art museum. The naked body has become solely associated with illicit lust, rather than God-given beauty. Couple this with our modern sense of Cartesian dualism--that we are only our consciousness, and the body really doesn't matter that much, hence I can do with it what I like--and you get a distrust of the physical, the corporeal, and a fashionable postmodern gnosticism. We treat our bodies with respect because they are the work of God, and God knows things are important--flesh, blood, water, wine, bread, incense, and the bones of the martyrs.
I can't get inside Pope Benedict's head, and these are just a few guesses on my own part. I may well be wrong; and if I am, I look forward to the next surprising and wonderful rabbit that our pontiff will pull from his mitre later this month.