Pope's encyclical didn't censure controversial views - Catholic Courier

Pope’s encyclical didn’t censure controversial views

Last April 19, the solemn announcement, Habemus papam (“We have a pope”), from the balcony of St. Peter’s basilica, informed the world that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, longtime head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had been elected.

The reactions of the crowd in St. Peter’s Square and throughout the global Catholic community ranged all the way from jubilation to despondency.

Many Catholics whom the media would describe as conservative to ultraconservative seemed ecstatic, perhaps because they saw in the new pope not only a continuation of the policies of John Paul II’s long pontificate, but also a toughening of the late pope’s doctrinal and disciplinary initiatives. In other words, they expected Benedict XVI to lay down the law even more forcefully than his predecessor had done, and to break some heads in the process.

Many Catholics on the other side of the ecclesiastical spectrum reacted very differently. For those of a more liberal and reformist orientation, the election of the Vatican’s chief enforcer of orthodoxy was a sign that the next several years would be more of the same, if not worse. Such Catholics could not disguise their disappointment and demoralization.

As I have indicated more than once in this weekly column and elsewhere, the early indications are that both groups were wrong. Pope Benedict XVI so far is not turning out to be a “hammer of heretics” (a term once applied to a number of saints and not-so-saintly figures in church history).

On Jan. 25, Pope Benedict XVI released his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), which contains not a single reference to, much less censure of, various controversial views that continue to circulate within the church — on sexual morality, liturgical practice, the ordination of women and more.

Neither is there any wholesale condemnation of modern society as if thoroughly permeated by a “culture of death.” This is not to suggest that the pope whitewashes the current worldwide scene. Far from it. But his criticisms are always put in a positive context, and the tone is consistently respectful rather than harshly judgmental.

Indeed, the very title and overarching theme of this encyclical sets that tone. He writes not of God the punisher, God the avenger, or God the severe and unyielding judge, but of the God who is, by definition, love itself and who looks upon the world and all of humanity as objects of this divine love and compassion.

He begins: “I wish in my first Encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others.”

In Part I, which he himself describes as “more speculative,” he presents an extensive and finely balanced theological essay on the meaning of love in ancient Greece, in the Bible, in church history and in philosophy. He links love of God with love of neighbor, and divine love with human love, as Jesus and the New Testament did so emphatically.

Part II is entitled, “The Practice of Love by the Church as a ‘Community of Love’.” He insists therein that love of neighbor, expressed in works of charity on behalf of those in need, is an abiding moral obligation of the whole church, and not only of its individual members. He says, in fact, that it is an essential part of the church’s mission, along with the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments. And its outreach must go beyond the church to embrace all of humankind.

But the pope does not stop there. Charity must also be linked with justice, an insight that has been carefully developed, he notes, ever since Pope Leo XIII’s historic encyclical, Rerum novarum, in 1891 and in the three major social encyclicals of John Paul II.

Although the church, he writes, cannot do the state’s work in making society more just, neither can the church “remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.” Its task is to identify problems that require society’s attention and to articulate the moral values that should inform its proposed solutions.

One hopes that, like Benedict XV, the new pope will also turn his attention soon to the obligations of communal love within the church itself.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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