Saturday, January 28, 2006

Benedict's First Encyclical: "God is Love."

If this essay interests you, then please read the short stories "The Soldier and the Ballerina" and "Pieta" at , together with anything by theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988).

Ian Fisher, "Benedict's First Encyclical Shuns Strictures of Orthodoxy," in The New York Times, January 26, 2006, at p. A8.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004).

Pope Benedict XVI has been described as the Antonin Scalia of the Vatican. Or is it Justice Scalia who is called the Pope (or Grand Inquisitor) of Washington, D.C.? Both men are said to be highly conservative, rigid and unbending in their "crusade" for the values of the far Right, and both are also said to be brilliant and learned thinkers. I believe that both like Opera, which may explain their fondness for elaborate costumes.

The new Pope's first Encyclical, which is a kind of letter or memo on a matter of faith or moral teaching, was eagerly anticipated, as a possible attack on the forces of nihilism and relativism. In fact, it is a thoughful and deeply felt discussion of the vital importance of love to the Catholic faith and mission of the Church under this new papacy.

I should offer a disclaimer right about now: I do not believe in the literal truth of any religious story. I do not call myself a member of any religious faith. I am pro-choice; for gay rights, including the right to marriage; I am a democratic socialist and civil libertarian. Best described as an atheist or agnostic, in the sense of not believing in any anthropomorphic conception of God, I am, nevertheless, a firm believer in the ethics of love, which is at the center of Christianity and other religious traditions, in my opinion. As Bertrand Russell said of George Santayana's view of religion, I believe that "there is no God, and that Mary is His mother."

This pronouncement by the Pope is not made ex cathedra, as compulsory instruction on a "matter of faith and morals" under a claim of "infallibility." Popes invoke the "infallibility" doctrine rarely, and only with regard to matters of faith and morals, concerning a teaching of the faith that must be settled. I believe the last time that happened was at the end of the nineteenth century, when the Church made the "sanctity" of Mary (meaning the virgin birth) official Church doctrine. This doctrine is interpreted as symbolic of the birth of the spiritual from the material flesh. Catholics and all others are free to have their own opinions on this new encyclical. And I do.

Those who were hoping for a knock down, drag out fight with the Leftists will be disappointed. Happily, there will be plenty of time to contend with the forces of darkness, which are conspiring at this very moment, to bring Western civilization to its knees by having us all learn our moral lessons not from the Church's Catechism, but from "The Simpsons" t.v. show.

Pope Benedict writes, surprisingly for a celibate priest, that sex "is indeed an ecstasy." I agree. More importantly, the Pope explains: "Not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodous out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus toward authentic self-discovery and indeed discovery of God."

It seems to me that all of Catholicism -- and maybe all ethical wisdom -- amounts to this single instruction. Allow yourself to love others, and you will be unable to hurt anyone, including yourself. You will then "save the world," by re-creating yourself and your world with and through love. The world of the person who loves is different from the world of a person who hates. An obvious source to cite at this point is the atheist and existentialist Jean Paul Sartre's essay on the Transcendence of the Ego.

I did not say that you should abandon anger at those who commit great evil, but that you should direct yourself towards the love and not the anger that you feel. Always insist on justice, but struggle not to hate the offender. It ain't easy, folks.

Because love is an "opening up" to the subjectivity of another, a sharing in another's life, in what is most central and true for another person (underline that last word), you will be exposing yourself to the agony of another soul by loving him or her. Pain and joy are the most central emotions in everyone. To get to the truth of another life is to reach the pain at the center of that person, which will be linked to his or her capacity for joy and love.

The symbol of the crucifix is paradoxical because it is an image of supreme love which is represented as excruciating agony and suffering. It is the suggestion that the two are one. And that "one" that they are (love and pain) is YOU. Hence, ultimate joy is absolute pain; real love can only be kept by being given away; and when love is given away -- when the self is bestowed upon another person or persons, in caring for a child or an afflicted lover suffering with AIDS, for example -- then it is the giver who is enriched.

In the film In America, the Christ-like figure is an African-American artist, who shouts of his love for what is "living in you." This character is suffering with AIDS and dying, even as he gives love to those around him, notably children. This is a profoundly Christian image of love in a form that comfortable American Christians, suburban fundamentalists, may not associate with their faith and its deepest ethical wisdom.

Your brothers and sisters are dying and starving in Darfur, Africa; your child is hungry in Latin America; the Christ to whom you pray is extending a hand to you as he sleeps on a subway train. Love is calling you to direct your feelings and service, to the extent that you can, in their direction.

The best analogy to the infinite mystery of love is the experience of astonishing artistic beauty. (See my essay on Schopenhauer's aesthetics.) Consider this passage from the writings of a Catholic theologian of genius, who is mostly unknown to non-Catholics in America:

In the experiences of extraordinary beauty -- whether in nature or in art -- we are able to grasp a phenomenon in its distinctiveness that otherwise remains veiled. What we encounter in such an experience is as overwhelming as a miracle, something we will never get over. And yet it possesses its intelligibility precisely as a miracle; it is something that binds and frees at the same time, since it gives itself unambiguously as the "self-manifesting freedom" (Schiller) of inner undemonstrable necessity. If Mozart's Jupiter symphony has a finale -- which is something that I cannot anticipate, derive or explain on the basis of anything within myself -- then it can only be the finale that it has; the symphony possesses its own necessity in this particular form, in which no note could be changed, unless it be by Mozart himself.

Love between any two human beings, together with the lives such love makes possible (for each of them), is like that symphony. It is something emerging, with its own "reason that is without reason" and fearful beauty, whose purpose or meaning is simply "to be." What if the same is true for you? What if the same is true for the universe? What if the purpose of all creation, or your purpose, is to "love, so as to be"? (St. Augustine, John of the Cross, Buber.)

The scientist who answers that nature has no purpose, may be asked: 1) How do you know that? 2) How is your life -- or the universe -- different, if we choose to accept what I have just said, as an aesthetic or ethical interpretation of reality? As they say in the laboratories, let us use this as a "working hypothesis." Pretend, in your freedom, that the universe is like a computer running an infinite program, which is called "love."

All human truth when it comes to ultimate religious wisdom becomes paradoxical, because it reaches the end of human knowledge or even of the human capacity to know. Regardless of the religious tradition that you investigate, you will find this fundamental wisdom to be essential. It is certainly part of Hebrew mysticism from the Bel Shem Tov to Martin Buber. Read the history of Hasidism. Much the same will be found in Islamic Sufism (see the poetry of Nizami), also in Hinduism (the generosity and bountifulness of Ganesha, who brings "good fortune" and protects writers, I was told) and Buddhism (loving compassion from the Buddha in you).

True wealth of spirit or the greatest capacity for love insists on giving itself away to the Other, only to discover that the giver is made more wealthy in the giving. Thus, the parable of loaves and fishes becomes understandable. A point not often explored in encyclicals is that our selfishness in the wealthiest societies produces a whithering of the human capacity for love. C.S. Lewis -- not a Catholic, though a Christian -- cautions:

Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the ... coffin of your selfishness.

Many Americans and wealthy Europeans find themselves trapped in a coffin made of their own selfishness. Dr. Phil will not help with this problem. Your IRA and two weeks in Las Vegas won't help either. Neither will political power or black robes.

The loss of a capacity for selfless love, is the loss of one's humanity. It is an affliction common among very powerful or materially successful persons, those who are good at calculating their own advantages, yet who fail to understand or to be capable of spiritual generosity. Try calculating the advantage of the other person, and making sure that it is fulfilled.

"Coffin-dwellers" are always safe, sometimes very comfortable and powerful, but they are no longer fully human. I have been in that condition. Such persons are always deeply unhappy men and women. You will find them sometimes in elite professions, holding positions of influence or scheduling an appointment to see their aroma therapists. They do not realize that they are in hell, which is only a state of alienation or incapacity to love their fellow human beings or even themselves. It is what Kierkegaard would describe as utter despair. New Jersey's Diana Lisa Riccioli?

I disagree with Benedict's limiting of the sanctity of sexual love to men and women, whose unions are recognized by the Church. Love, such as this document describes, exists or can exist among any two human beings and is always blessed, because it is what we are here to do. Atheist Gore Vidal writes: "Any act of love between two [adult] human beings is preferable to an act of violence." This statement by Mr. Vidal, though many Christians would be surprised to learn this, is a profound expression of Christian ethics, properly understood.

It is not just that love is good, but it is the Good. The logic of Church teaching on ethics, I think, leads to a respect for and celebration of homosexual love and eros, as a profoundly important and equal gift, for all mature persons who are naturally inclined to same-sex love. Pointing out the historical errors of the Church on this issue or any other is irrelevant to this point.

Reflective Christians should conclude that gay love ought to be sanctified by the Church, since it mirrors Christ's love that makes no distinctions among persons. It is that love also which will lead the Church, eventually, to recognize and respect the equal vocation for the priesthood of men and women, so that we may someday read the encyclical of a woman, who is also Pope. Women held such positions in the early years of Christianity. They should do so once more. Thomas Merton writes:

It is ... love that warms me in the sun and that sends the cold rain. It is God's love that feeds me in the bread I eat and God that feeds me also by hunger and fasting.

If the word "God" is a problem, or you are distracted by the funny outfits worn by priests, forget all that stuff and just think of love. Concentrate on the love that you feel right now and send it out to those you love, wherever they are, as a fragile hope. Maybe they will receive our gift of love today:

... love spreads the shade of the sycamore over my head and sends the water-boy along the the edge of the wheat field with a bucket from the spring, while the labourers are resting and the mules stand under a tree.

It is ... love that speaks to me in the birds and streams; but also behind the clamour of the city ... My food is the will of [love] who gave [Herself] to me through all things.

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