"God is love", Benedict XVI's encyclical on the source of the Christian faith


In just over 26 years of pontificate, John Paul II published 14 encyclicals, Pope Benedict XVI wrote only three in eight years. If he contributed extensively to his predecessor's encyclical Veritatis Splendor and was unable to complete Lumen Fidei published by his successor, Francis, Benedict XVI insisted on theological virtues, especially on love in his encyclical Deus caritas is (God is love) . 

In his first interview book with the journalist Peter Seewald, "The Salt of the Earth" (Flammarion, 1997), the future Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, mentions the conflicts of precedence between the disciples of Christ and opposes to them the choice of the latter to wash their feet. "That's the priesthood," says the theologian for whom the Pauline virtues (relating to the apostle Paul, editor's note) of faith, hope and charity were important.

Without love, brotherhood is negative, like that of Cain and Abel, he explains to Seewald, specifying that "the brotherhood too must, so to speak, be saved and pass through the cross in order to find its right form. Her encyclical letter Deus caritas is deepens this question of the distinction between a purely human fraternity, however good it may be, and Christian charity which asks the believer to act in the world, but without activism which would amount either to doing only social work, or to not to be only a proselytizer.

Made public during the first winter month of 2006, the encyclical continues to express the warmth of divine and Christian love. This text has as its incipit a verse from the first epistle of John: “God is love: he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (1 John 4, 16). Here, it is not only a question of a theme relating to the Christian faith, unlike most encyclicals, but of the very origin of this faith: "God".

The Pope endeavors to bring love back to its Gospel expression, but also to the Old Testament by confronting it with Greek conceptions, with contemporary non-Christian experiences of charity. He also points to the lack of love in Marxist criticism which, if it rightly highlights the injustices in society, wrongly denounces charity for the benefit of the revolution.

The three non-exclusive forms of love

In this text presented in two main parts, Benedict XVI strives to “speak of the love with which God fills us and which we must communicate to others”. The pope thus intends to oppose this love to the idea of ​​a hateful God. It recalls the distinction between the three forms of love in the Greek lexicon – Eros, Philia (friendship) and agape – which he places in the biblical economy.

philia, he observes, is present in the relationship between Christ and his disciples. Eros, the love between man and woman, appears only twice in the Old Testament, while the New mentions agape “which in the Greek language was rather marginal”.

However, he explains, this setting aside of theEros in the second part of the Bible has nothing to do with the idea that “Christianity would have given it venom to drink” by presenting it as a vice, as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche asserts. On the contrary, Christianity does not deprive man of the most beautiful thing in bodily life, sexuality, but places it in a global plan of love that does not pervert it, unlike sacred prostitution in various civilizations. ancient times where these women were not treated as human beings but were "only instruments to stir up divine madness". One will think of the thousand prostitutes of the sanctuary of Aphrodite.

For Benedict XVI, "theEros drunk and undisciplined is not the ascent, 'ecstasy' towards the Divine, but the fall, the degradation of man”. However, concern for the soul should not exclude the body, for it is only when the two are understood as a unity that man becomes fully himself. It is in this holistic sense that man can truly love without selfishness. And it is in this perspective that the Bible uses images relating to engagement and marriage to speak of the bond between God and his people, in the books of Hosea or Ezekiel, he underlines, even speaking of " passion" for this people.

This love, says the pope, finds “its most radical form” in the sacrifice of Christ who “gives himself to uplift man and save him”. It is not a question of a new idea, but of an “action of God” which seeks out suffering and lost humanity.

Christian love commands Christian witness and not only social justice

This sacrifice that Catholics find in the Eucharist socially tests believers who are united in sacramental communion like all those who communicate:

“Communion draws me out of myself towards him and, at the same time, towards unity with all Christians. We become 'one body', fused together in one existence. Love for God and love for neighbor are now truly united. »

But if the Christian owes charity to his brother, he also owes it to his neighbor, and this neighbor is "the one who needs me" in this new perspective.

However, this concern for the other cannot become a purely social or political activism. Benedict XVI recalls the words of Saint Augustine: “You see the Trinity when you see charity”.

This Catholic charity - and more broadly Christian, as the Pope mentions, citing the work of "other Churches and Ecclesial Communities" - involves a triple task for the Catholic Church: the proclamation of the Gospel, the celebration of the Sacraments and the service of charity.

The encyclical also warns against reducing charity to “a kind of social assistance activity that could also be left to others”.

Indeed, the pope renowned for his criticism of liberation theology specifies “love - caritas – will always be necessary, even in the most just society”. Benedict XVI, concerned about the articulation between political justice and Christian love, notably recalled this distinction when he received Italian national civil protection volunteers : "the love of neighbor cannot be delegated: the State and politics, even with the necessary care for social protection (welfare), cannot replace it".

In this vein, the pope denounces Marxism which, if it identifies injustices, is content to propose political and social justice while disdaining charity, which it considers as a tool to maintain the domination of the richest, and prefers a tomorrow that sing to immediate charitable action.

If the Christian is encouraged to participate in politics to make society more just, he is also encouraged to take part in charitable services, because his help presents a particularity complementary to human generosity:

“Professional competence is one of the first fundamental necessities, but on its own, it cannot be enough. In reality, they are human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically correct care. They need humanity. They need attention from the heart. »

This is why, explains the encyclical, it is important that professional preparation be accompanied by the "encounter with God in Christ who arouses love in them" so that their love of neighbor "be a consequence flowing from their faith". .

Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger, died Saturday at age 95. His funeral took place this Thursday, January 5, Place Saint-Pierre in Rome.

Jean Sarpedon

Image credit: Shutterstock/vipflash »

In the section Culture >

Recent news >