This past Wednesday, Pope Benedict XVI presented his first encyclical letter to the world. A pontiff's first encyclical is considered to be the overture and the keynote for his papacy.
The main theme of the document, the highest form of papal writing, is love and charity. Just before his death, John Paul II (who authored 14 encyclicals during his nearly 27-year reign) was planning one on charity, but he never completed it.
Benedict's encyclical, entitled "Deus caritas est" (God is love) discusses the relationship between "eros," or erotic love, and "agape," (pronounced ah-gah-pay) the Greek word referring to unconditional, spiritual and selfless love as taught by Jesus.
"God is love," a phrase taken from the first letter of John in the New Testament, seems simple. Yet it is the starting point for what the Pope clearly hopes will be a deeper conversation with contemporary society that involves the nature of love and its relation to freedom, truth and Jesus.
Given Benedict's concern with moral relativism, we could have easily expected that his first major message would be "God is truth." Yet this German Pope chose to write on the place of God in human affairs and the nature of love - topics that go far beyond the borders of the Catholic Church.
The arena of human sexuality - eros - tends to be where the church's message is most controversial today. In the encyclical, the Pope argues that Catholicism is not hostile to human love, but guides it to a higher level. He warns that erotic love risks being degraded to mere sex or merchandise without a balancing component of spiritual or divine love.
Erotic love can be blended with and transformed into spiritual love, where two people really love each other and seek not their own joy or delights but above all the good of the other person.
Benedict also insists that the structures and rules of the church are not ends in themselves, but must be animated by a spirit of love. He argues that Christian social service is founded on something very different from the secular understanding of the word "charity." The church's charity is "not just an organization like other philanthropic organizations," he says, but expresses "the more profound act of the personal love God has created in our hearts."
In an unusual break with tradition, Benedict spoke at some length on his chosen topic and his motivation behind it, giving the public plenty of material to discuss well before last week's official launch.
At a Vatican congress on the theme of charity, Benedict said: "In an age in which ... we are witnessing the abuse of religion even unto the apotheosis of hatred, ... we have need of the living God who loved us even unto death. Thus, in this encyclical, the themes of God, Christ and love are fused together as a central guide to the Christian faith."
Love and charity
Many people might have expected a famous theologian like Pope Benedict to use his first encyclical to discuss a deeply theological question or a burning issue in moral theology. Instead, he turned to love and charity, showing himself to be a real shepherd who is aware of human feelings, desires, matters of the heart.
Love can indeed change the world when it seeks the good of others, because then it reflects God's love for all humanity. Love still makes the world go round. (Pope Benedict's first encyclical is available on the Vatican web site: Deus Caritas Est