Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.

Benedict has done for magisterial documents what J.R.R. Tolkein did for literature: drawn on his immense erudition to express in clear and beautiful language the longings of the human heart.

Who would have thought that the first encyclical of the “Panzerkardinal” would have as a centerpiece the exaltation of the love of eros between a man and a woman? Here is the man who has been portrayed for decades as the great nay-sayer, the enforcer of doctrine, a successor to the Holy Inquisition.

But to those who have read his works, are familiar with his life, or have had the privilege of knowing him, the encyclical is no surprise. He has a penetrating intellect which always goes to the heart of the matter. He has a sense of the poetry of life and of revelation, which gives his writing clarity, depth and beauty. And he is someone who listens both to the living and those whose thoughts come to us through their books and works of art. Then from all that he’s seen and heard, he’s able to synthesize and organize and present an idea or position in a coherent way that always illuminates.

I see this as a foundational encyclical. And I hope he has a long enough papacy to build on this strong foundation. He has taken the very heart of Christian revelation as a starting point, the central truth of the Christian faith: God is love.

As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he would periodically issue statements that were responses to controversial issues. By the very nature of what he was doing, there was less willingness on the part of readers to listen with an open mind when the principles behind a decision were being elaborated. Here, he develops unpolemically the most fundamental of principles: the human love of eros as an image of divine love.

He develops the historical understanding of this love and its transformation in the light of Christian revelation in a way that is, at least on the surface, uncontroversial. However, the consequences of what he says clearly are controversial.

For example, he maintains that Christianity did not destroy eros (#4) but disciplined and purified it, restoring it to its true grandeur (#5). “It is part of love’s growth toward higher levels and inward purification that it now seeks to become definitive, and it does so in a twofold sense: both in the sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in the sense of being ‘forever'” (#6).

But this beautiful reflection implies a very controversial consequence: genuine eros leads to an exclusive and permanent relationship between a man and a woman. That is, it excludes homosexual unions, multiple wives, divorce and remarriage, and promiscuity.

Later he shows that in the Biblical vision “eros is…supremely ennobled, yet at the same time it is so purified as to become one with agape” (#10). The Biblical account shows that “eros is somehow rooted in man’s very nature…[It] directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive. Corresponding to the image of the monotheistic God is monogamous marriage” (#11).

In this encyclical, Benedict XVI both gets beneath and transcends the controversies. He establishes a genuine “common ground” and shows how its “inner logic” (a phrase which he uses often) leads to the same conclusions that the Catholic Church teaches as authoritative.

I found it interesting to look at his citations. Within the text, he quotes or alludes to Sacred Scripture frequently. But here is the exact sequence of the authors he cites in the endnotes: Nietzsche, Virgil, Descartes, Gregory the Great (two times), Aristotle, Pseudo-Dionysius the Aereopagite, Plato, Sallust, St. Augustine (two times), Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, Ambrose, Julian the Apostate. Only then does he cite a recent ecclesiastical document: the Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops, issued by the congregation for bishops in 2004.

He is speaking to bishops, priests, religious and the Catholic laity. But he is speaking to all of humanity and he is speaking from the deepest wellsprings of human culture. The document, like the man, is a distillation and expression of a universal wisdom.

The professor has become a Pope. You note in the document many enumerations of aspects or consequences of a particular thought. He will summarize at the end of a section what he considers he has achieved in the foregoing elaboration. He will speak of the “inner logic” of the subject he is treating. And he will show the coherence of all the elements in a higher synthesis (eros/agape; divine/human love; soul/body; love/service). That is to say, it is truly “catholic”.

I noted with particular interest that he has definitely taken stand in the debate on the so-called “inclusive” language. The document in its English translation is dominated by ordinary English usage: man, the generic masculine pronoun, mankind, brethren. But he does use “he or she”, “men and women”, where it is appropriate, though sparingly.