It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since Pope Benedict’s XVI’s landmark encyclical God Is Love. I remember devouring it when it was released early in 2006. To me it seemed like the crowning glory of everything John Paul II had given us in this Theology of the Body. I immediately postponed the book I had been working on and devoted myself to writing The Love That Satisfies: Reflections on Eros and Agape in order to unpack the infinite treasures Pope Benedict was sharing with us.
Here’s a short review I wrote 10 years ago:
[tweetthis]Negativity toward the body and sex is, in all truth, foreign to authentic Christian belief and practice.[/tweetthis]
Pope Benedict divides the letter into two main parts. The first part, in which he explores the relationship between erotic and divine love – eros and agape in Greek – is more “speculative,” he says (in the sense that he is offering a prayerful meditation, not that he’s giving us half-baked theories). Based on these meditations, the second part of the letter offers a “more concrete” treatment of how the Church is called to exercise the commandment of love of neighbor and work for a just social order.
As Benedict insists, these two main parts are “profoundly interconnected.” There’s no place here for a false division between Church teaching on sexual ethics and social justice. If we want to work for social justice, we must first do justice to the fundamental social unit – the relationship of man and woman and the family that springs from their love.
Does the Catholic Church do justice to the love of man and woman? Benedict observes that Christianity is often criticized for being opposed to the body and sex. While he admits such tendencies have always existed and have crept into the Church, he also demonstrates that negativity toward the body and sex is, in all truth, foreign to authentic Christian belief and practice.
Christianity does not “blow the whistle” on erotic love. It seeks to rescue it from degradation, to “heal it and restore its true grandeur,” says Benedict. The “contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure ‘sex’, has become a commodity, a mere ‘thing’ to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man’s great ‘yes’ to the body.”
In order to restore erotic love’s true grandeur, we must experience the purification of eros by agape. As this happens – that is, as we allow erotic love to be informed and transformed by divine love – eros is able “to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns,” Benedict states.
What joy! Sexual love in God’s plan is so glorious that it is meant to provide a small foretaste of the eternal joys that await us in heaven. But beware the counterfeits. “An intoxicated and undisciplined eros,” as Benedict observes, “is not an ascent in ‘ecstasy’ towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man.”
Love is indeed “ecstasy,” he tells us. But not in a hedonistic sense. If ecstasy means “to go out of oneself,” then love is ecstasy as “an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.”
Pope Benedict’s encyclical makes a person proud to be Catholic. Does any other religion on the planet have such an ennobling view of the human person and of sexual love?
Of course, Benedict XVI didn’t come up with this. He’s just passing along in love what the Church has received from her Bridegroom. As Benedict himself states, “eros… seeks God and agape… passes on the gift received.”
Thank you, Pope Benedict, for passing on this gift!
Question: Why do you think people tend to separate eros and agape? Within the Church, people often want agape without eros, whereas outside the Church people often want eros without agape? Why is it so difficult to hold them together? Share your comments on Facebook and Twitter.